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| Last Updated:02/04/2018

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On a wing and a Prayer

 As the boatman navigates slowly through the rippling waters of the Mahanadi river, a flock of majestic birds, their black caps and yellow-tipped Orange Bills shining in the morning light, emerge from a sandy island. The birds fly off to the far side of a large sand bar off Sana Mundali village, 30 km from Bhubaneswar.

“The spotted ones with darkened bills are juveniles. Looks like the whole community is here,” says 52-year-old Sumant Rajguru from a boat trailing us as the attention of his fellow birdwatchers Panchami Manoo Ukil and Avinash Khemka is fixated on the birds. The trio are the first birdwatchers and photographers to document breeding and nesting of Indian Skimmers in Odisha, an endangered species whose number has dwindled to less than 7,000.

Designated ‘vulnerable’ by International Union for Conservation of Nature, Indian Skimmers are struggling for survival in the face of increasing sand mining, pollution and habitat degradation in National Chambal Sanctuary, their last habitat in India. This has made the trio’s endeavour crucial as the birds are one of the least-studied species.

They are flooded with queries and proposals from bird conservation groups after the Odisha Forest and Environment Department showcased their work recently. The Indian Birds Journal will soon publish a scientific paper on their work.

“A group from Bangladesh, where these birds may be nesting, have asked us for information as they track Indian Skimmers through ringing,” says 49-year-old Ukil, a freelance writer. She and 43-year-old Khemka—who owns biscuit factories and started birdwatching as a hobby in 2012—founded The Bhubaneswar Bird Walks (TBBW) to popularise community bird watching.

Historically, Indian Skimmers are recorded in the Mahanadi Delta, Bhitarkanika National Park, Dhamra, Nalabana, Hirakud, and Satkosia Tiger Reserve, all in Odisha. Last year, birdwatchers in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack sighted them in Mundali between May and July, but no one had a clue that the birds would choose a sandbar off Sana Mundali as their nesting ground.

In 2015, Rajguru saw 600 Indian Skimmers and their gregarious behaviour while visiting Mundali’s sandbars. He sighted species such as Little Pratincoles, River Terns, Little Terns, River Lapwings, Great Thick-knees, Black-bellied Terns and Indian Skimmers on a sandbar. Later, he and Ukil realised that the Skimmers’ number was growing. They saw the birds in courtship, mating and breeding, which they photographed and videographed.

“I used to place my camera at a distance and under a camouflage of sand so that the birds did not find it intrusive. One of them found it and kept scratching my lens. The marks left are like a memento,” says Rajguru, who uses a Canon 7D Mark2 body with 300 mm f4 and 10-18 mm lens. Ukil has a Canon 5D Mark3 body with 500 mm f4 and 10-18 mm lens, while Khemka uses a Nikon D4 S body with 600 mm f4 and 10-24 mm lens.

When the birds were ready to nest, the three asked Odisha’s chief wildlife warden to arrange to protect the sandbar, which had 181 eggs, from intruders. By May-end, over 100 juvenile Indian Skimmers were sighted in flocks. Experts from Bombay Natural History Society were taken aboard to ring some Skimmers to study of their movements and migration pattern.

The three hope their documentation process will help build scientific knowledge about Indian Skimmers and help in their conservation. Ukil wants to involve locals to protect the endangered birds and “turn Odisha into a permanent nesting ground for this endangered species”.