Category “New records”

North American sandpiper in Kerala

Saturday, 26 November, 2011

By Dr Jayan Thomas

Dr Jayan Thomas is an ophthalmologist by profession; but early in the morning and on Sundays, he is an inquisitive birdwatcher and photographer. Watching a Blue-tailed Bee-eater catch its prey and smash it against a wire before swallowing the bee sparked his curiosity about birds and their behaviour. He lives in Cannanore, Kerala, near the ocean and is President of the Cannanore Ophthalmological Society.

It was Sunday the 30th of October 2011, and myself and Mr. PC Rajeevan had decided to go to a place called Ezhome about 23 Km from Cannanore (Kannur), on the coast of northern Kerala. I woke up at 5 AM and started my journey to Ezhome by 5.30 AM. Rajeevan was at Ezhome waiting for me and after a cup of hot roadside café tea we were on to a slow birding walk, with binos, camera and an umbrella, as it was drizzling. The first bird to be seen was a Purple Heron, then a Blue-tailed Bee-eater and so on. After 2 hours of birding we counted about 40 species and were about to call it a day, when we decided instead to first go to Madaipara, since it is close to Ezhome. We reached Madaipara just before noon, and so bird activity was very low. Suddenly Mr. Rajeevan spotted a group of birds across the road and we went to check them out. There were about 200 Lesser Sand Plovers feeding on a burned patch of grass, and some bathing in rock pools. Among these Lesser Sand Plovers was a smaller and slimmer bird with yellow legs and pearly edged wings. What could this be? We were intrigued.

With caution we approached the bird and found to our surprise that it was quite unusual. Since the bird was feeding and walking around we had ample time to take some decent photos. During flight the upper parts appeared uniform, with no prominent wing pattern. Driving back home we discussed the possibilities of a new species being sighted in Kerala.

We whittled down our “differential diagnosis” of the bird to three species:
1. Buff-breasted Sandpiper.
2. Long-toed Stint
3. Reeve (Female Ruff)

Long-toed Stint is almost similar to this new bird, but the stint has prominent facial markings. Reeve was a possibility, but this new bird did not have a post-ocular stripe. A post-ocular stripe is essential for the bird to have been a Reeve. Moreover this bird was substantially smaller in size than a Reeve. (For a visual estimate of size see the photos below, which have this bird together with Lesser Sand Plovers.)

Now the only other possibility was the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a New World bird. Yes, this bird looked like the Buff-breasted Sandpiper in size and all other features. This bird was about 19 cm with a plain face, an eye-ring , streaked crown and yellow legs. The picture of the bird was sent all around the world by MigrantWatch and others. We are thankful to Praveen J., Sashikumar, Aasheesh Pittie, Bill Harvey, Rex De-Silva and Krys Kazmierczak for having identified the bird as the Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Tryngites subruficollis) breeds in the Arctic tundra of North America and is a long distance migrant to South America, mainly Argentina. The Canadian wildlife service estimates that there are only about 15,000 birds in the world and hence it is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. This bird which came to Madaipara could have been lost: instead of going to Argentina, this bird might have been wind-blown from the Great Plains Flyway of North America and landed up in India. Our sighting appears to be only the third of this species from South Asia.

Madaipara is a laterite flat hillock near the Ezhimala Naval Academy. On one side of Madaipara is the Arabian sea and the other side a mountain range of seven small hills (Ezhimala in Malayalam means seven hills). Sandwiched between the sea and the seven hills is a long meandering river. Madaipara is basically a flat land with few trees and shrubs and a lot of weeds. The vegetation is sometimes set on fire, and these spots are ideal for birds which come in search of insects. There are occasional rock puddles too on the hillock up to Spring. The Buff-breasted Sandpiper was seen here for 4 days. Of these, I sighted it on two different days and my birding pal Rajeevan sighted it on all 4 days.

Finding a rare bird like this is one of the dreams of the serious birder. Locating and identifying a species that is least expected is a great challenge and great thrill. You have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself for this. Reporting a rare bird carries a lot of responsibility. It becomes part of science. If you believe that you have seen a rare bird, study it carefully, take photos, video if possible and note the circumstances of the sighting. Then as soon as possible alert other birders.

You can see Dr Jayan Thomas’s MigrantWatch sightings and photos here.

More about the Buff-breasted Sandpiper from Wikipedia and from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The not-so-black bulbul

Friday, 10 July, 2009

By Umesh Srinivasan

The trails of Namdapha National Park are treacherous, but they almost always seem to lead to wonderful new discoveries. How can one convey the excitement of a journey like this? The bamboo bridges you cross are rickety and fragile, held together only by cane; and the water you hope you will never fall into is freezing cold. Returning after days of tiring foot-slogging in the temperate forests and rhododendrons high up in the hills, we reached the village of Hazulu, where we were staying at the home of a friend. Along with a few others, I was on a Rufford Foundation funded bird survey for the Nature Conservation Foundation in the high altitudes of the hills to the east of Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh, near India’s border with Myanmar. And it was in Hazulu that I saw the bird.


Black Bulbuls (Hypsipetes leucocephalus) are one of the commonest and most conspicuous bird species in the Himalaya and the Western Ghats. Birders who have spent time in these areas will be familiar with huge, raucous flocks of these birds flying over the forest canopy and feeding in fruiting trees. With smoky-black heads and bodies, and thin, coral-red bills, these birds are impressively attired, but balance their visual appeal with a range of loud and piercing cries, which some might call ‘cheery’, but are often more capable of inspiring irritation than joy.

India has three subspecies (or races) of Black Bulbuls. None of these races are strictly migratory, but flocks seem to move long distances in search of food, and changes in weather will often result in the almost magical appearance or disappearance of Black Bulbuls. In BR Hills (southern Karnataka), areas silent one day will become cacophonous the next, ringing with the squeals and cries of vast numbers of Black Bulbuls. It is like watching a session of the Lok Sabha in progress.

Asia has ten Black Bulbul races, from Afghanistan in the west to Vietnam in the east1. Three of these races have white heads (now you know why they’re called leucocephalus!), and breed in south China, migrating in winter to parts of Myanmar, Thailand and to other countries in Southeast Asia. These birds are certainly more handsome than their drabber Indian cousins, with bright white heads contrasting strongly with black bodies and red bills. The Indian subcontinent has only once seen these birds, in March 1995 in Bangladesh2.

blackbulbul2_edSo imagine our surprise when we found these birds in Arunachal Pradesh! The friend who was hosting us told us first that there were strange black bulbuls with pure white heads around, we were incredulous and a bit dismissive. Juveniles, we said, whose pale grayish upperparts had been exaggerated into white. But the next morning brought a shock. In the persimmon orchards near the village were huge flocks of the ‘normal’ Black Bulbuls – and mixed with them in small numbers were birds with snow-white heads! They were spectacular. Even more so because they mixed freely with the all-black Black Bulbuls, and stood out in an otherwise drab flock. We found these birds once again at another village, again in a persimmon orchard, with other Black Bulbuls.

The resident Lisu people in the area say that these birds have been visiting the area for the past two winters, and have not been seen before. They should know, because Black Bulbuls frequently raid orchards in the area, and the local people know them well as a pest. In the Lisu language, they are known as Chamtakye. What makes these records really interesting is that these birds have been visiting the area for only the last two years. Global warming and changing climate has the potential to change the routes and timings of bird migration, and one could speculate that these sightings are the result of recent climate change in the area.

1. Del-Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. & J. Sargatal (2005) Handbook of the birds of the world. Vol. 10 (Cuckoo-shrikes to Thrushes). Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 896 pp.
2. Thompson, P.M. & D.L. Johnson (2003) Further notable records from Bangladesh. Forktail, 19: 85-102.

A more detailed article about these sightings is published in Indian Birds journal. A pdf version can be downloaded here.