Posts tagged with “Himalayas”

Misfit Migrant: the Spot-winged Starling

Saturday, 11 August, 2012

By Raman Kumar

While the details of bird migration are still somewhat mysterious, the broad patterns are reasonably well-understood; for example the direction of migration. The main reason why most migratory birds follow a north–south path is simple: they follow the seasonal patterns in availability of food and breeding resources. Most migratory birds follow this general pattern: (1) breed at higher latitudes during spring-summer; (2) when days start to get shorter and conditions harsher, fly to kinder regions in the tropics.

But there are some species of birds that scoff at these conventions; instead of migrating along a north–south trajectory, these birds move east–west. Among the more celebrated of such “misfits” is the Pied Cuckoo which shuttles east–west between northeast Africa to north and central India. However, there is a lesser-known bird that shows this kind of unconventional migration – the Spot-winged Starling (Saroglossa spiloptera).

This starling, formerly known as Spottedwinged Stare, is unfamiliar to birders from peninsular India because its distribution is limited to the sub-Himalayan and Himalayan region. Unlike mynas and most other starlings the Spot-winged Starling is sexually dimorphic: the male is a dark brownish-and-chestnut and the female is markedly paler. Both sexes sport a prominent white wing patch, giving the bird its name.

In the Western Himalaya the Spot-winged Starling appears in late spring, feeding at fruiting and flowering trees. Small groups are often seen guzzling nectar from the blossoms of trees such as the Indian Silk Cotton. The Spot-winged Starling usually chooses open forests at elevations near 1000 m in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand for breeding. Birdwatchers have seen Spot-winged Starlings at roughly the same spot in successive years, suggesting that they may remain faithful to the same place year after year, but this remains to be verified.

Sightings become rarer in June and by July the bird virtually vacates its breeding quarters. This is the period when the Starlings are believed to make their eastward passage through Nepal and Sikkim. After this hopping flight of thousands of kilometres they set up their winter home in sub-Himalayan Assam at about 300 m elevation.

Why do they make this unusual journey? Why don’t they winter in the terai closer to their breeding grounds? Do they breed in areas in Central Himalayas? In their 1983 epic Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley have described the distribution of the Spot-winged Starling as “equivocal and imperfectly known”. Ornithologists haven’t added anything much beyond this and the status of this starling remains shrouded in mystery.

Have you seen this species? Where? Do add your sightings to the MigrantWatch database so that collectively we can better understand the migration of this odd species.

Here is the data page for Spot-winged Starling. At the time of writing, there were no records of this species in the database.