The strange case of the Indian skimmer

It is an endangered species, but there is a stronger reason to have one’s eyes peeled for this bird on the Chennai coast and a few lakes inland this winter

November 12, 2022 10:49 pm | Updated 10:49 pm IST

An immature Indian skimmer in Pulicat

An immature Indian skimmer in Pulicat | Photo Credit: Gnanaskandan Kesavabharathi

The documented sightings of the Indian skimmer come with the air of a knotty Canon-Doyle mystery. During winter, around the Chennai coast, the bird is neglectful of a duty. At that time of the year, it seems “programmed” to spread out and adorn coastal areas and also a few lakes inland, in impressively-sized flocks, and raise eyebrows with its lower mandible which outstrips the upper by a parsec.

It follows this script in most sections of the Indian coast where it is known to put in an appearance, but on the Chennai coast, it refuses to read it, let alone act on it.

Based on data available with eBird, eBird reviewer Gnanaskandan Kesavabharathi notes except for a sighting in Pulicat this August (when the Indian skimmer was seen in a clutch of two), the bird has always showed up alone.

Besides, a majority of the Indian skimmer sightings in and around Chennai have happened outside the winter window.

Gnanaskandan juxtaposes the situation in a place not vastly distant from Chennai with the one from the city, to underline the oddity of what is being experienced out here.

The eBird reviewer notes that at the Coringa wildlife sanctuary (near Kakinada) known for its dense knots of mangroves, the Indian skimmer is seen in huge flocks during winter: Flocks of a hundred and more are hardly a turn-up for the books. It seems all the more impressive if the endangered status of the bird is factored in.

Coastal and inland records
Gnanaskandan Kesavabharathi, eBird reviewer, notes eBird records of the Indian skimmer on the Indian coast have almost been restricted to Pulicat. In the south, there is a record from Odiyur lake (Mudaliyarkuppam backwaters). These two are estuarine environments, and right up the Indian skimmer’s alley — mandibles may be more like it. Inland eBird records of the Indian skimmer are restricted to the south, coming largely from the Thiruporur belt: Sightings at Illalur lake, Kattur lake and Siruthavur lake have been documented. There are also records from Pallikaranai marsh. 

Gnanaskandan shares another facet of the mystery: Over the years, except for a couple of records on eBird — once in Odiyur lake (Mudaliyar Kuppam backwaters) long ago, and then at the inland Illalur lake in the Thiruporur belt, when a lone adult Indian skimmer was sighted — sightings of the Indian skimmer in and around Chennai, particularly Pulicat, have always involved a lone immature bird, and sometimes a juvenile.

The eBird reviewer reveals how two records from Pulicat, one in late July and the other in early August this year, stirred up a debate about the identity of these birds.

Were they the same birds showing up at different times?

Gnanaskandan elaborates he took the images from both records to illustrate they were two individuals, one an immature bird and the other, a juvenile.

On why the Indian skimmer is rarely sighted in its known hangouts on the Chennai coast during winter, Gnanskandan offers an answer that suggests a form of solipsism could be at play.

“During November and early December, birding hits a low ebb due to the rains. There could be fewer pairs of eyes to catch the Indian skimmer, but this fact could be swept under the carpet while making a conclusion about the bird’s occurrence in and around Chennai.”

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