In March 2016, a large waterbody on the outskirts of Pune became an unlikely attraction, attracting hundreds of people, many of whom flew in from various parts of the country to just visit it.
All these people were birders and they were there for the Red Phalarope, a vagrant to India recorded only five times prior to the 2016 sighting.
For five days the bird, which migrates in winter to Africa (the west coast and South Africa) and South America from Russia, Alaska and Greenland, was seen and photographed extensively by birders, after which it left. This is one of the many parts of watching waders — knowing where rare waders are (the rare bird telegraph is quite efficient in India), being there at the right time, and identifying them correctly. The Pune bird was initially misidentified as a Red-necked Phalarope.
India is blessed with an excellent diversity of waders. This is due to many factors. One is its long coastline, with a variety of microhabitats, such as intertidal mudflats, mangroves, sandy beaches, salt pans, rocky shores and coral reefs, which create different niches and attract a lot of waders, especially in the winter months.
During the winters, the waders that frequent the coast include Crab Plovers, Oystercatchers, Curlews, Whimbrels, Bar-tailed Godwits, Sanderlings, Sand Plovers, Phalaropes and various kinds of Sandpipers. Despite the great diversity of waders on India’s coasts, it does not stop there. Inland, there are marshes, lakes, seasonally flooded fields, village ponds, dry grasslands, fast flowing rivers and deserts which are home to different waders adapted to those respective habitats. For example, near fast-flowing rivers in the North-East in winter, you can find Ibisbills feeding amongst the rocks. And from late October to March, on the outskirts of Delhi just after the rains, waders ranging from Wood, Green, and Marsh Sandpipers and Little and Temminck’s Stints can be found feeding in the flooded fields.
Then there’s the weather. Winter in India, especially along the coasts and the peninsula, and even in and around Delhi, is not so extreme as it is in the far northern latitudes. And there’s no telling what flies in. For instance, in October, on a brief visit to Goa, I was hunting for the Collared Kingfisher in a mangrove patch when, in a flock of Pacific Golden and Grey Plovers I found a vagrant, the Grey-tailed Tattler, a bird which I had seen before in Waigeo, an island in Indonesia (exactly four years previously to the day in one of those coincidences).
However, despite this enormous diversity, there is no field guide exclusively devoted to waders and their identification (the only field guides containing waders are themselves part of a larger series of books about the birds of the Indian Subcontinent, and do not discuss identification features in much detail). This is problematic because many waders show massive plumage changes from the breeding to the non breeding season. In the non breeding season, the waders look almost identical, especially to the untrained eye, as most of them are a drab mix of grey and brown. Even subtle identification features, such as the wing tip-tail tip ratio and the length of the tarsus can be difficult to see in the field as the bird is constantly feeding when it is being looked at through the scope or through the binoculars.
Harkirat Singh Sangha’s book Waders of the Indian Subcontinent changes that.
The book, a labour of love clearly, offers a detailed description of the many kinds of waders present in India, both resident and migratory. It has colour plates and high quality photographs, of both breeding and non-breeding birds making the identification process a lot simpler. It also contains descriptions of distributions, racial variation between subspecies, feeding habits, recent records of vagrants, conservation status, vocalisations and habitats, many of which are not present in many field guides.
Sangha has ensured the use of photographs of similar looking species in non-breeding plumage — for example, the Great and the Red Knots — to eliminate confusion, and also added a post script for most species on those they are often confused with. Indeed, the entire book is interspersed with such nuggets, usually found in the best field notes but sadly lacking in many guides.
Waders of the Indian Subcontinent also contains plates (illustrations) of waders in flight, highlighting the identification features to look for. Given that some species are distinguished by the tarsi (Red-necked and non-breeding Little Stints that otherwise look similar, for instance) or tail projections (Swinhoe’s and Pintail Snipes at rest), this is important when one is observing waders in the field.
Many of these features are, again, not discussed in great detail in most conventional field guides.
The plates, the photographs, the size (over 500 pages) and the format (hardbound) do make this an expensive book ( ₹3,500), but the breadth of coverage, the production quality, and the fact that it fills an important gap in field guides make it a treasure trove for birders.
Maitreya Sukumar, a first year student at Ashoka University, has been birding for 15 years. He was named Sanctuary Asia’s Young Naturalist of the Year in 2018.