It was January 21, 2017, 6:30 in the morning, and birdwatcher Ronit Datta was expecting an ordinary boat ride. He was at Thane Creek, trying to spot some common shelducks, a pretty white bird with a black head. After the group he was travelling with had seen their fill of the ducks, they started to turn the boat around. On his way back, however, Datta spotted something a little out of the ordinary. Standing erect on a mudslab was smallish bird with a long bill, greenish at the base, with a white lower back and yellow-green legs.
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Datta immediately realised it was a type of dowitcher, and started telling people excitedly what he’d seen. No one quite knew what he was talking about, never having heard of this rather rare bird, except for the photographers Satyajeet Shinde and Sivaramakrishnan Sivasubramanian. They quickly snapped shots of the solitary bird. Once the boat reached the shore, the trio looked through a field guide, and later sent their photos to a few bird experts. The verdict: the bird was a Long-billed Dowitcher. This would be the first record of its sighting in Maharashtra.
The Long-billed Dowitcher is a vagrant bird that belongs to the Scolopaidae family. Its genus name, Limnodromus, comes from the ancient Greek word limne, meaning marsh, and dromos, which means racer. They nest on the ground, usually near water bodies. Thane Creek was probably an ideal habitat for it, according to Omkar Dilip Adhikari, an avid birdwatcher who leads Thane Creek birdtrails. It forages in shallow water or wet mud for insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and marine worms, jabbing its head up and down like a sewing machine. From time to time, it enjoys some plant material too.
“This Dowitcher species is a migrant from US, though its breeding area is in the far north of North America and in eastern Siberia,” says Datta. “It winters in areas as south as Central America. That means that this particular Long-billed Dowitcher of Thane Creek was a vagrant, or a bird that has strayed far outside its expected breeding, migrating, or wintering range.”
Bird vagrancy is a relatively new area of research. Some birds become vagrants because they have been blown off-course. Others simply have a faulty navigation system and become confused about the direction they are supposed to travel in. It seems that this Long-billed Dowitcher belongs to the latter category; it is not unusual to find this sort of behavior in passerines, such as the sparrow, or shore birds, like the dowitcher.
But whenever a bird wings its way into new territory, it’s sure to excite hordes of birdwatchers. This weekend, the boats on Bilipadhikari’s birding trails at Thane Creek are bound to be packed with enthusiasts; they will be hoping to spot some more disoriented dowichers sitting calmly on mudflats, ignorant of the spectacle they’re creating.