Update of the red list: a ray of hope for the Indian skimmer

This January, researchers in Bangladesh discovered Indian skimmers during a survey in Nijhum Dwip National Park. Three of the birds had ribbons marked by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS, BirdLife in India). This confirmed what many had long suspected – that Indian skimmers move between India and Bangladesh and therefore the conservation of this globally threatened, tern-like bird needs to be coordinated at the flyway level.

The Indian skimmer Rynchops albicollis is a black and white bird with a bright orange beak: an unmissable lower jaw that is longer than the upper part of the beak. This is a tool for the bird to scan the surface of the water and pick up small water prey along the way. It nests on the ground, specifically on sandbars in rivers. It is a bird to remember as soon as you see it. Nevertheless, the breeding grounds are shrinking from under the feet of the Indian skimmer.

Indian Skimmer, Copyright Aidan G Kelly, from the Surfbirds Galleries

The species is exposed to a variety of threats. Sand mining, which is largely illegal, is decimating the skimmer habitat in India. Illegal sand mining has devastated not only rivers but also law and order. Forestry ministry workers were killed when sand mining trucks accelerated. Another threat is irrigation projects and dams, which can reduce water to levels that encourage other species to damage skimmer nests or flood nesting sites altogether. Known as India’s cleanest river, the Chambal River suffers from a shortage of ecological flow due to hydropower projects. When the water level is very low, predators such as free-range dogs can easily attack skimmer eggs and chicks.

In Bangladesh, the bird has invaded through agriculture, ranching, and direct human presence. Formerly found in Pakistan, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the bird now appears to be mostly restricted to India and Bangladesh. The results of the first Indian skimmer census, conducted on January 19-20, 2021 by BNHS and Bird Count India, found 1,609 birds from 45 locations. 1,159 birds were counted in India and another 450 birds in Bangladesh.

“In India, the fact that water is a controversial resource has really affected the species,” says Parveen Shaikh, a BNHS research fellow. “The habitats in the Ganga Basin are badly affected – there are hardly any good breeding grounds for the Indian skimmer.”

BNHS worked on nest protection for the species in the Chambal Conservation Area in Madhya Pradesh. Using a mosaic of sticks and fences and community members as nest protection is to ensure that the bird can nest and recruit successfully. The number of skimmers shows us the most important common areas for the bird in India today: Phaphamau (on the Ganga River in Uttar Pradesh), Tikarpara, Satkosia and Badmul (above the Mahanadi River in Odisha), Rozi Port, Jamnagar and Dhinchada in Gujarat, Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, in the National Chambal Sanctuary over Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh as well as in the Nijhum Dweep National Park in Bangladesh.

Rescuing Indian skimmers will preserve river ecosystems that support many other sympatric species, such as the black-bellied tern Sterna acuticauda (endangered). Current breeding records are from the Pong Dam, the Chambal River, the Son River, the Ganges River, the Tawa Reservoir near the Satpura Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, and the Mahanadi River.

“Anthropogenic activities in river ecosystems and the loss of the entire habitat lead to a population decline of many river breeding birds,” says the nature conservation biologist Sayam U Chowdhary, who works in Bangladesh. “The dwindling Indian skimmer numbers across the Indian subcontinent are a strong example of what is happening to other river-dependent species.”

According to the information provided by the Convention on Migratory Species via the Central Asian Airway, which includes India and Bangladesh, the Airway Action Plan should include the Indian skimmer among the “major concern” species. That urgency is reflected in the recent capture of the Indian skimmer at Endangered, and there is an urgent need to protect the last remaining habitats for it. To this end, a concerted action plan under the CMS and measures at the country level would go a long way.

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