Seabirds

Wings over waves

Print edition : April 28, 2017

Red-billed tropicbird roosting.

A flock of terns in Bangaram, a famous tourist destination in Lakshadweep.

A view of Agati island and the runway.

The adult red-billed tropicbird can be identified by a combination of white central tail feathers and a red or orange-red bill. A.O. Hume, the father of India ornithology, observed that "their flight is very like that of terns, though stronger and more steady; they work backwards and forwards fishing with their long sharp bills pointed straight downwards".

The adult red-billed tropicbird can be identified by a combination of white central tail feathers and a red or orange-red bill. A.O. Hume, the father of India ornithology, observed that "their flight is very like that of terns, though stronger and more steady; they work backwards and forwards fishing with their long sharp bills pointed straight downwards".

The adult red-billed tropicbird can be identified by a combination of white central tail feathers and a red or orange-red bill. A.O. Hume, the father of India ornithology, observed that "their flight is very like that of terns, though stronger and more steady; they work backwards and forwards fishing with their long sharp bills pointed straight downwards".

The adult red-billed tropicbird can be identified by a combination of white central tail feathers and a red or orange-red bill. A.O. Hume, the father of India ornithology, observed that "their flight is very like that of terns, though stronger and more steady; they work backwards and forwards fishing with their long sharp bills pointed straight downwards".

The adult red-billed tropicbird can be identified by a combination of white central tail feathers and a red or orange-red bill. A.O. Hume, the father of India ornithology, observed that "their flight is very like that of terns, though stronger and more steady; they work backwards and forwards fishing with their long sharp bills pointed straight downwards".

The adult red-billed tropicbird can be identified by a combination of white central tail feathers and a red or orange-red bill. A.O. Hume, the father of India ornithology, observed that "their flight is very like that of terns, though stronger and more steady; they work backwards and forwards fishing with their long sharp bills pointed straight downwards".

The graceful tropicbird in Perumal Par.

The tiny Perumal Par island, which is the breeding ground of many seabird species.

Pacific golden plover (Pluvialis fulva).

Common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos).

The bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica).

The brown noddy (Anous stolidus).

The common greenshank (Tringa nebularia).

The lesser crested tern (Sterna bengalensis).

Saunders tern (Sternula saundersi) in Bangaram.

The grey plover (Pluvialis squatorola).

The ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres interpres).

Flying fish. Its flight provides an amazing spectacle. The seabirds feed almost entirely on flying fishes and squids.

Butterfly fish. The tropical marine fish is found mostly in ocean reefs.

Sooty tern (Sterna fuscata). A study found that the sooty tern and several other birds were threatened because of oceanic and environmental fluctuations.

The whimbrel (numenius phaeopus).

The local people performing a folk dance in the lagoon beach.

Bangaram is considered the jewel of Lakshadweep.

Fishermen setting sail from the shores of Bangaram.

K.I. Bijoy, wildlife photographer.

WHILE ornithologists the world over have done authentic studies on the ecosystem and behaviour pattern, including the breeding biology, of oceanic birds, pelagic bird-watching and surveys to monitor the status of seabirds are minimal in India. There is no knowledge of existence of seabird colonies in the Indian Ocean because the cliffs and mountainous areas in this region are inaccessible. Although seabird colonies fall under the category of marine protected areas they are not given legal protection. So any off-shore sighting or photographic recording of birds that wander in the open seas is considered an immense contribution to the limited data available on them.

Breeding colonies of pelagic birds are rare in the subcontinent, but some of the 36 scattered and remote islands of Lakshadweep in the Arabian Sea are nesting grounds of seabirds. The birdlife of the archipelago has remained unexplored mainly because many of its islands are inaccessible. It was by sheer chance that K.I. Bijoy, a wildlife photographer from Kochi, Kerala, came “breathtakingly close” to a graceful white bird with a thick red-orange bill and streaks of black around its eyes and in its flight feathers while he was passing by Perumal Par, a tiny ribbon-shaped island in Lakshadweep in 2012. He could not identify the bird. Back in Kochi, ornithologists identified it as the rare red-billed tropicbird ( Phaethon aethereus), which was previously called the short-tailed tropicbird and boatswain.

Not much was known about the bird in mainland India, and the bird had not been photographed in the Arabian Sea. So Bijoy decided to go back to Perumal Par in January 2015 to study and photograph the bird more closely. He was able to get hundreds of frames of the bird. He posted a few pictures on his Facebook page and was immediately flooded with queries.

Bijoy’s photographs of the red-billed tropicbird had a global impact after they were published on the website of Oriental Bird Images, a database of the Oriental Bird Club, for they were the first close-up photographs of the bird appearing internationally from the Indian side. (The pictures of the bird accompanying this article are being carried perhaps for the first time in any Indian publication.) Evaluated as a “Least Concern” species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red Data List, the red-billed tropicbird ranges across the tropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian and eastern Pacific Oceans, the Red Sea, and the Caribbean and Arabian Gulf.

A largely pelagic bird wandering the seas for months and visiting remote oceanic islands during the breeding season, it is usually solitary but roosts in groups.

The journey to Perumal Par

Perumal Par, roughly measuring 1.2 hectares, is 30 kilometres from Agati island and 400 km from coastal Kochi. Lakshadweep is on the global tourist map for its unparalleled scenic beauty, blue lagoons, coral atolls and barrier reefs where dolphins play, whales occasionally surface, flying fishes provide an amazing spectacle and sea turtles surface at frequent intervals. Its birdlife, although studied at various points of time by British naturalists and Indian zoologists and environmentalists, has remained unexplored.

In 2015, Bijoy travelled to Perumal Par in a tiny fishing boat fitted with a toy-like engine. After the boat was anchored among corals, he crawled on the sandy shores with his heavy camera to move up close to the roosting red-billed tropicbird. This time the birds were in plenty, but a species of tern dominated the spot. The tropicbirds did not mingle with the restless terns although they occasionally indulged in acrobatics, with a fine display of wingspan. Again, Bijoy found the tropicbirds unruffled by and unmindful of his presence or that of the boatmen who were strolling quietly nearby. Bijoy’s observation of the tropicbird in Perumal Par is confined to that area. He said he had not seen the red-billed tropicbird in any other part of India. In Perumal Par, he observed that the bird would sometimes dart up and return to the same spot after some time. Bijoy noticed that the bird hovered over the ocean surface and plunged headlong to catch a fish or a squid, its main diet. It flew gracefully, flapping and circling alternatively, with long glides, its white plumage and its streaming tail imparting it an angelic look. The other tropicbird species are the red-tailed tropicbird ( P. rubricauda) and the white-tailed tropicbird ( P. lepturus).

Bijoy said the journey to Perumal Par was an unforgettable experience as squally winds tossed the boat making one seasick. The waves would rise high whenever bulk carriers or oil tankers passed by. The fishermen were never at sea. What befuddled them was the interest Bijoy showed in the birds. They were used to the birds following the boat when it was filled with the day’s catch to snatch the fish but knew nothing more about them.

Abdul Kadir Koya, a native of Agati who works in Kochi, said: “People struggle in the island to eke out a living by fishing, which is their only means of livelihood. In rainy season, fishing boats are grounded. For people grappling with problems of livelihood, where is the time to enjoy nature?”

He remembers scouting for bird eggs during his schooldays to make omelettes. “Sea turtles were caught and killed and their flesh was separated and squeezed to extract an oil-like substance, which was used to paint the hull of boats as it could prevent marine microorganisms from damaging the wood. Now, modern marine paints are used. People are slowly spreading the message of nature conservation. They don’t catch and kill dolphins anymore,” he said.

Abdul Rehim, Assistant Conservator of Forests of Lakshadweep, said an effective survey of birds of the territory had not happened yet but “we are getting tuned to nature conservation”. He said the red-billed tropicbird was unmistakably located in Lakshadweep, but its distribution was not known. “We are yet to launch a detailed and meaningful study of the ecology and behaviour of seabirds. The remoteness of the islands and the lack of experienced personnel are the main impediments to conduct a study. While many species breed in Pitti island, it is yet to be discovered whether the red-billed tropicbird also breeds there,” he said.

Seabird surveys

D.N. Kurup and Prof. V.J. Zakaria were engaged in seabird surveys in Lakshadweep from 1985 to 1988. They found 101 species of birds, including the red-billed tropicbird, in the Arabian Sea and the Lakshadweep islands. They found the bird population greater in uninhabited islands and identified Pitti as a vast breeding ground for birds although the exact species on the island was not known because of its inaccessibility. Their survey also noted that in 1876, A.O. Hume (1829-1912), the father of Indian ornithology, discovered the nests of the sooty tern ( Sterna fuscata) and the brown noddy ( Anous stolidus) in the Cherbaniani reef. They observed that flying fishes were often seen, which were caught by different species of terns hovering over the water. Quarrying of coral boulders caused environmental degradation. The Central government has now ensured that the native people do not indulge in any activity that would wreak havoc on the ecology and environment of the islands.

The Pune Ecological Society, with the help of the Indian Coast Guard, conducted a vast seabird survey in Lakshadweep in 2006. The team, led by Dr Satish Pande, a medical doctor and ornithologist, was able to reach all the islands and reefs in Coast Guard ships and count various flocks of birds and the eggs approximately. Its report recommended environmental awareness programmes and conservation of the main breeding grounds on the Bangaram, Pitti, Suheli and Belapani reefs. It also identified roosting areas and recommended according legal status to them. An important achievement of the team was the photographic record of the red-billed tropicbird in Cherbaniani. The study found that at least 40 species of birds, including the sooty tern, the bar-tailed godwit ( Limosa lapponica), the green sandpiper ( Tringa ochropus), the oriental white eye ( Zosterops palpebrosus), the wedge-tailed shearwater ( Ardenna pacifica) and Wilson’s storm petrel ( Oceanites oceanicus) were threatened because of oceanic and environmental fluctuations. Although this is the latest study done in Lakshadweep, observations about seabirds of the islands and the Arabian Sea were recorded in the 19th century by Hume. The ornithologists Salim Ali and Dhillon Ripley have also observed seabirds of Lakshadwee. In his monumental work, Hand b ook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, Salim Ali has recorded the red-billed tropicbird.

Hume collected a specimen of Phaeton a etherus from Lakshadweep in 1896. He has given a detailed description of the bird’s plumage and the results of the measurements after the specimens “were carefully measured in flesh” in Stray Feathers: A Journal of Ornithology for India and its Dependencies . Hume writes: “Running down the coast towards Kurrachee. Off the Omara headland, and about six miles of the shore, we saw numbers of tropic birds. A gun being fired at a shearwater that crossed our bows, some eighty yards ahead, the “Bo’suns’” (boatswains, the naval equivalent for Phaeton), which hitherto had never come within 200 yards, or taken the smallest notice of us, gathered round the vessel, and though keeping about sixty yards distant, kept flying round and round and over us, in the most inquisitive manner…. Their flight is very like that of terns, though stronger and more steady; they work backwards and forwards fishing with their long sharp bills pointed straight downwards, just like so many Caspian terns, and they drop down into the water just like these, or like C. r udis [ Ceryle rudis, or the pied kingfisher], the glossy black and satin white plumage of which is much like theirs.”

C.A. Gibson Hill (1911-1963), wrote detailed notes about tropical birds in the Indian Ocean and the tropicbird in general. His field notes were published in the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) Journal in 1950. A British medical doctor working in Singapore, Gibson was a keen naturalist and ornithologist. He was the curator of the Raffles Museum in Singapore. In his article, “Tropic-birds occurring in the Indian Ocean and Adjacent Seas”, which appeared in BNHS Journal, Gibson writes: “The tropic-birds form a small but interesting group of tropical seabirds. In general appearance and manner of their flight they are not unlike large, heavily-built terns. They differ most markedly in the shape of the tail.... When fully developed these feathers are about as long as, or slightly longer than, the head and body of the bird together. When it is in the air they trail conspicuously but gracefully behind it, and provide a field character by which a normal adult of the group can always be recognised.

“The tropic-birds have short, weak legs, and can neither walk nor stand properly. They always rest with their bellies on the ground.... The feet are webbed and they swim well. Their bodies are compact, the neck short and the bill stout and pointed…. As the name suggests, these birds are normally confined to the warmer seas and oceans. They are not very plentiful, but they are found on a number of small, isolated islands in or near the tropical zone all round the year....

“The tropic-birds differ from the majority of the more conspicuous tropical seabirds in that some individuals at least normally leave the nesting ground outside the breeding season and range widely over the open sea.... In the Indian Ocean, they are most likely to be encountered in the north-west corner, from about the region of the Maldives, Laccadives and Seychelles up towards the Arabian Sea. The tropic-birds feed almost entirely on flying fish and squids. These are taken from near the surface of the sea by diving from the air. They usually drop down, with half-folded wings, from a height of about 20-60 feet. In the Indian Ocean, the adult can always be identified by the combination of white centre tail feathers and a red or orange-red bill.”

His article is considered a monumental document as it is based on the field notes of birders and naturalists and accounts of British Army officers who had travelled by sea. He has recorded that the bird has been sighted in the Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the African coasts. He found that the red-billed tropicbird had a restricted breeding range in the Indian Ocean. It preferred isolated islands. Gibson has quoted a naturalist named Betts who located the red-billed bird in Lakshadweep in 1939.

Seabirds are sometimes blown by storms and other wind events. They are susceptible to displacement over wide areas. More studies are going on now, which could give some indications of changes in ocean environment and climatic changes. El Nino had an impact on seabirds. Levels of marine pollution can be assessed by bird studies.

There have also been accounts of stranded or wind-blown birds off the Kerala coast at different intervals. Wind-blown red-billed tropicbird has been recorded in Kollam (June 1982), Kozhikode (November 2003) and Kannur (March 2007), according to Dr Rajah Jayapal, Principal Scientist and Ornithologist, SACON, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Mohammed Jaffer Palot, a senior scientist in the Zoological Survey of India, Kozhikode, said on June 18, 2010, that a white-tailed tropicbird was spotted in Palavayal, Kannur. It was exhausted. Birders administered glucose water and the bird recuperated after 10 days. It was then released into the sea.

G . Shaheed is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhoomi in Kochi. K .I . Bijoy is a wild life photographer and an official working in the Kochi Refinery of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited.

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