Book Reviews: Birds of the Shore

Waders of the Indian subcontinent

By Harkirat Singh Sangha

By Ananda Banerjee

The migration of birds symbolizes a fight for life; it’s about undertaking extraordinary journeys. Their flight from one end of the earth to the other, and back – crossing hemispheres between their breeding and wintering grounds – is awe-inspiring and, at times, unbelievable. This is the story of a promise of return, flying thousands of miles in danger. Waders or shorebirds are among the elite when it comes to long-distance migration, making some of the longest solo flights on record. For incredible migrants like bar-tailed godwits, over 7,000 miles nonstop is a regular affair. Godwits, sandpipers, snipes, stints and plovers are some of the most accomplished pilots in the avian kingdom that visit us every year. The diversity of waders is staggering; numbering in the hundreds of thousands, they winter (arriving in autumn) on our coastal beaches, mudflats and shallow inland lakes, before returning in the spring to distant breeding grounds in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Tibet and Siberia (Russia ).

Harkirat Singh Sangha’s “Waders of the Indian Subcontinent” is a celebration of these incredible migrants and covers the waders or shorebirds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The book covers all 83 species of waders, in detail, recorded in India and neighboring countries, including residents, migrants and a few vagrants.
Sangha goes into great detail, bringing us the most comprehensive account yet of this complex group of birds whose plumage changes with season (breeding or non-breeding) and age (juvenile, adult, adult-breeding). Often referred to as dull gray or brown waders, they feature a variety of molts, beaks, legs, tails, and rumps. The author draws on his extensive field experiences to describe key identifying features, status, range, habitat, and voice with distribution maps for all species. The variation in plumage can be confusing to the observer, even to the best birders in the field. Sangha tries hard to elucidate the problem, but a well-designed separate section might have been a better way to illustrate it for new birders.

The book is not only about identifying waders, but also about knowing their migration routes, known as “flyways”. Sangha writes that “each species of wading bird migrates in a different way and uses a different set of breeding, migration, resting and wintering sites. Therefore, a single flyway is composed of many overlapping migration systems of individual wader populations and species, each with different habitat preferences and migration strategies. There are five flyways in Europe and Asia and three in the Americas.
In addition to describing the migration routes and various habitats of waders, the book also highlights several threats to wader populations during the Anthropocene. Climate change and human activities are altering much of the traditional habitats of wading birds, leading to massive population declines. Today, the greatest threat to wading birds in the Indian subcontinent is habitat loss and degradation. Most of the country’s wetlands and lakes have shrunk or disappeared due to encroachment. “If wader hunting is stopped, most species will likely recover until the population is reduced below a certain threshold. Polluted rivers and wetlands can be cleaned allowing biota to recover. However, many threats are irreversible: for example, once an intertidal flat, the “no man’s land” between sea and shore, has been reclaimed or a wetland has been drained, it usually disappears forever. “, writes Sangha.

Population declines of species such as ruffe, eastern curlew, spoon-billed sandpiper, Asian sandpiper and black-tailed godwit are of great concern to birdwatchers and wildlife conservationists. The decline of migratory and resident wader species has been observed in many places on the subcontinent. For example, at Point Calimere (Tamil Nadu), the decline is very visible not only to bird watchers but also to the average nature enthusiast. The disappearance of wader “swarms” is a visible indicator of decline. In the 1980s, more than 5,00,000 wading birds wintered at Point Calimere, but that had dropped to 1,00,000 by 2008, according to records kept by the Bombay Natural History Society. Banding and census data from Point Calimere indicate that there has been a 70% decline in some wader species since the 1980s. Observations of other notable important bird habitats in the country also clearly indicate an overall population decline.

Conceived in 2004, the book was worth the wait as Sangha is a detail-oriented scholar. It is a powerful addition to the rich ornithology of mega-diverse India.

The Call of the Sarus Crane
By Seema Mullick & Anavi Mullick

India has a resident crane. It is called the Sarus. This charming children’s book follows a pair of Sarus cranes through their journeys of courtship, nesting and parenthood in Dhanauri Kalan, a wetland in Uttar Pradesh not far from the nation’s capital. The Sarus, also the largest flying bird in the world, brought together three generations; a grandfather, his daughter and his granddaughter on this creative journey. With stunning photographs and engaging verses, the book will help children connect to their immediate natural surroundings.

A sampler:

“A pair of cranes separated from the rest,
looking for a place to build a nest.
A place neither too dry nor too humid,
shallow water is their best bet.
A loud call to tell the other pairs,
that now this place is theirs.
Together for life, the Sarus couple,
A strong bond that they share.

Alycia R. Lindley