Migrant Watch Society

Get ready to see the Grey Plover putting on its breeding finery on the Indian coast

A Grey Plover at Pulicat on May 17, 2018. At the fag end of a complete migratory season, an adult Grey Plover will develop breeding plumage, before heading to its breeding grounds.   | Photo Credit: Rama Neelamegam

While chirping with its Arctic neighbours — the Saamis, Nenets and Inuits — about climate change, the Grey Plover utilises the handle @blackbelliedplover.

In its migratory range, it is @greyplover, wearing drab overalls — grey upperparts and white underparts with the chest speckled-grey.

In early-September and end-of-March-to-early-May though, the adults among these birds would be draped (somewhere between partly and fully) in their breeding finery, despite being in the wintering grounds. The adult male’s cheek, neck, breast and belly would be the shade of a just-laid bituminous road. Hence Black-bellied Plover. The adult female would bear the shade of the same road after it had been subjected to a year of tyre-scuffing.

A Grey Plover at Pulicat on September 9, 2020. When they arrive in their wintering grounds in early September, adult Grey Plovers might not have completely moulted out of their breeding plumage.

A Grey Plover at Pulicat on September 9, 2020. When they arrive in their wintering grounds in early September, adult Grey Plovers might not have completely moulted out of their breeding plumage.   | Photo Credit: Umesh Mani

During these times, birders in its migratory range, which includes Indian coastlines, including the Chennai coast, would hope to say their “howdy’s” to the bird of the mudflats.

Contrasting sharply with most other plovers, this species does not display much of a flocking behaviour.

The Grey Plover has its favourite sunbathing spots, the closest being Pulicat; even there, the species can come across as being thin on the ground, because it is not gregarious.

A Grey Plover in non-breeding, winter plumage at Pulicat on October 11, 2017.

A Grey Plover in non-breeding, winter plumage at Pulicat on October 11, 2017.   | Photo Credit: Rama Neelamegam

On the eastern coastline, based on eBird records, mudflats at Adyar Estuary, Kelambakkam backwaters, Muttukadu backwaters, Mudhaliarkuppam backwaters, Nemmeli salt-pan area, Muttukadu backwaters and Odiyur may be quickly accessible spots where one could look for this species. A visit to Pulicat and Point Calimere may however be more conducive for a study of the species.

A member of Madras Naturalists Society, Umesh Mani weighs in:

“Grey Plovers do not come in large numbers; in contrast, Pacific Golden Plovers do. The last season, the regular flocks of Pacific Golden Plovers I saw at mudflats in Pulicat were in numbers of 50, 70 and 100, and the largest was something like 2,000 individuals. In comparison, the largest flock of Black-bellied Plovers I saw was 15 to 20 in a trip; and the regular flocks would be two or three individuals at a time.”

It seems to be a leitmotif, repeated at most other coastal mudflat ecosystems. To give an example, birder Rama Neelamegan reports a sighting from Kelambakkam Backwaters that showed an almost similarly lopsided ratio, the scales heavily tipped in the favour of Pacific Golden Plover.

The point is: Among the plovers, the Grey Plover is an outlier when it comes to gregariousness.

Umesh illustrates it: “The sand plovers and ringed plovers are in groups, typically in mixed flocks. In contrast, the Grey Plovers are usually by themselves, unless they are roosting or getting together for reverse migration.”

Over to Point Calimere with its BHNS Regional Migration Study Centre.

“The Grey Plover is one of the uncommon birds, and every year we would ring 5 to 6 of them, with the upper limit at 10. When major projects were on, bird-ringing would happen round the year. With none under way now, ringing is restricted to a part of the bird migration season,” explains S. Balachandran, deputy director at the Centre.

There is a fascinating Grey Plover-ringing episode from 1989 that Balachandran has regaled generations of bird-enthusiasts with.

The memory is sufficiently fresh from the mudflats of Point Calimere for Blachandran to not call it up again:

“In January 1989, we made a recovery of a Grey Plover, one that had been ringed in Kazakhstan three to four months back in September while it had made a pitstop there en route to its wintering grounds. When we recaptured this bird at Point Calimere in the first month of 1989, the Centre had a guest: Soviet bird scientist Prof. Gavrilov. Studying the details of the ring, Gavrilov was beside himself with excitement. The bird was from the erstwhile Soviet Union (which Kazakhstan was a part of) and wonder of wonders, he had ringed the bird himself. It was as if he was chasing the bird all the way to its wintering grounds.”

Balachandran points out that the overall sense one gets about the Grey Plover is that it has dwindled, something that could be said of all bird species dependent on mudflat ecosystems.

“It is a global phenomenon; everywhere, coastal mudflats are dwindling. Stopover sites, during migratory birds’ southward passage or northward passage, are also shrinking. These issues are not restricted to India, but are global,” says Balachandran. “The Grey Plover is a largely a specialist bird, depending heavily on mudflats with their molluscs and crustaceans. Sometimes, they may opportunistically land in freshwater wetlands, but cannot get by on them. The Grey Plover is hugely coastal, found in coastal islands.”

So clearly, there is no alternative to protecting coastal ecosystems for the sake of such species.

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