A mascot for inter-tidal and buffer zones

Showing up in steadily increasing numbers at the estuarine systems on Chennai’s coast, plovers signal the growing intensity of the wintering season. For eyes that can see, they are also carrying the banner of a conservation message 

September 24, 2022 09:53 pm | Updated 09:53 pm IST

A lesser sand plover at Muttukadu

A lesser sand plover at Muttukadu

Plovers’ movements have the repetitiveness of programmed toys. Together with their nano dimensions, their walk-pause-walk iteration marked by staccato movements makes them hugely watchable. Experienced birders would tell two related plovers apart — say, the lesser and greater sand plovers — from the ground covered between every two pauses. Though fleeting, the pause is packed with deliberation, comparable to that of an armed soldier sussing out enemy territory with a knitted brow.

In a conversation, ornithologist V Shantaram underlined what gave plovers a distinct edge over another nano-sized waders, the stints.

“There is a marked difference in the feeding behaviours of stints and plovers. While stints (in these parts, the little stint and temminck’s stint would be a prominent presence during the wintering season) would be moving about all the time in the shallows, plovers would walk, and very briefly stand rooted to the ground, look for their prey and strike. The plovers also use one foot noticeably, tapping it on the ground to draw out the prey.”

Close to noon on a muggy day last week at the Muttukadu estuarine system, watching a mixed party of plovers do this iteration, switching between land and water, brought an obvious facet about these birds came into relief.

The ease with which plovers move between land and water on sections affected by tidal movements makes these birds mascots for inter-tidal and buffer zones, whose ecological significance is often lost on the under-performing stewards of earth, homo sapiens.

In mudflats, based on the tidal movements, Plovers would occupy high ground (when the water levels are high), and would go foraging when the tidal zone resembles a receding hairline as the tide drops, and the movement of water would have disturbed worms and small crabs out of the muddy earth. This process can be watched at Pulicat, Adyar estuary and a section of Kundrukadu, which is part of the Muttukadu backwaters and estuarine system.

Field notes for the season
Birding has shades of competitive exams. One can safely take a punt certain posers will keeping flying in year after year, with just a couple of different feathers stuck in for that sense of novelty.
Without repeating those questions, here are answers, also repeated but as relevant and unchanging as ever. They come from ornithologist V Shantaram .1. “Your first howdy with a winter visitor is more likely to be at a habitat along the coast than one inland. Generally, in coastal areas, migratory birds show up earlier around the coast than they do, inland. They probably come along the coastline.”
2. “Some of the migrants that are non-breeding, especially the juveniles, tend to stay back. If you see a migrant hopping around in place well outside its wintering time-frame, it may be one such bird. Patch birding is the best way to spot and study the occurrence of overstaying migrants.”

That noon, the congregation consisted largely of the purely migratory lesser sand plovers — some providing the faintest of glimpses into their breeding fatigues and the majority had clearly eased into their drab wintering workaday overalls — and a scattering of Kentish plovers.

The sizeable flock of lesser sand plovers is a sign that the waves of migration are slowly intensifying in terms of numbers.

The noticeable presence of Kentish plovers — as also the little-ringed plovers — may suggest the migratory population is pouring in, bumping up their numbers. The sub-species of Kentish plover — Charadrius alexandrinus seebohmi, known as “Kentish Plover - Indian” — and the sub-species of the little-ringed plover — Charadrius dubius jerdoni — are residents. With winter-migratory and resident populations to boast of, these two plovers have the privilege of being the guest and also playing host to their ilk.

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