A rare winter visitor sighted at Ponnani

Mew gulls fly to warmer tropics to escape the harsh winter in their native lands

December 02, 2017 11:47 pm | Updated 11:48 pm IST - KOCHI

A mew gull

A mew gull

A rare winter visitor to India, the Mew gull, is confirmed to have been sighted near the Ponnani estuary, where the Bharathapuzha river meets the Arabian sea. This is the first record of the bird in Kerala, as well as its first sighting south of Goa.

“The bird, along with other species of gulls, was on the ground near a set of fish-drying huts around 50 metres inland from the coast,” said birdwatcher and photography enthusiast Arun Bhaskaran, who sighted and photographed the Mew gull Larus canus on February 2 this year.

However, he reported it on the public bird forum E-bird as a different species: the Black-headed gull. Gull species, which belong to the bird family Laridae, are extremely difficult to identify: many look alike and can be told apart only by a very trained eye.

Or in this case, a photograph. It was Portuguese birdwatcher Pedro Fernandes – after seeing Bhaskaran’s photograph on E-bird – who alerted birdwatchers to the fact that the bird is Mew gull.

Ten Indian birdwatchers reviewed and verified this, coming to the same consensus early last week. Mew gulls, native to northern Europe, northern Asia and north western America, are winter migrants, flying to the warmer tropics to escape the harsh winter in their native lands.

Though India sees many winter migrants fly in between the months of September and March, there are very few records of Mew gulls in India. Of the less than 10 records of the species in the country – from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa – only two are accompanied with photographs. “It was only because I uploaded the photograph on a public birdwatching forum such as E-bird that the bird could be correctly identified as Mew gull,” said Mr. Bhaskaran, a clerk at the Ponnani Government Hospital.

This should serve as an encouragement for photographers to upload their images on such public fora, said Nameer P.O., professor, Kerala Agricultural University’s College of Forestry.

“Birdwatching has now become very gadget-oriented, and photographers’ data – their photographs – can come in useful for not just birdwatching communities, but science too, especially when they participate in such citizen science-based initiatives,” he said. E-bird is a citizen science programme which accepts bird sighting information from non-scientists to study the distribution, abundances, and population trends of birds across the world. As many as 8,000 users across India list their bird sightings on E-bird.

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