IBISBILL Ibidorhynchidae The Ibisbill is a strange and unique wader of wide high-altitude Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau valleys with flat stony rivers. Its range extends across central Asia from Kazakhstan to nw. China and south to nw. India. Although Sibley & Monroe (1980) considered it just a very odd avocet (within their tribe Recurvirostrini based mostly on DNA evidence), most taxonomists elevate it to its own monotypic family. Hayman et al. (1986) noted that it is "unique in both appearance and habits but may be distantly related both to oystercatchers and to stilts and avocets." Its young and its territorial behavior are similar to oystercatchers. Knystautas (1996), summarizing evidence and arguments both pro and con on its elevation to family status, concluded that "there is probably sufficient reason to justify classifying the Ibisbill in a family of its own, perhaps forming some sort of link between Haematopodidae [Oystercatchers] and Recurvirostridae [Avocets & Stilts]. However, the debate will undoubtedly continue."

Whatever the taxonomic rank, Ibisbill is often considered among the "most-wanted" birds in the world. The late Arnold Small is quoted as saying it was the rarest bird he'd ever seen and it is often considered the "bird of the trip" by those fortunate enough to visit higher elevations in central Asia. Ibisbills breed at quite high elevation which adds to their allure. They nest on riverine shingle-banks and islets between 1700-4400m (5,500-14,000 ft.) elevation during late March-early June. While primarily resident some Himalayan birds descend to lower elevations in winter. There are locales in both northwestern and northeastern India where they can be sought in winter. I had been worried that our March 2001 trip to nw. India would be too late in the season but to maximize our chances we headed for the Kosi River at Ramnagar, near Corbett Nat'l Park, first. There a rocky river winds through a wide valley at perhaps 400m (1300 ft.) elevation -- a winter habitat looking very much like that which the Ibisbill prefers in summer. Later we learned from local guide Karan Pradhan that there had been 17 Ibisbills that winter along a ten-mile stretch of the Kosi River above Ramnagar; we felt very fortunate to locate a single bird on 12 & 13 March (top photo) at the locale shown below (the Ibisbill is actually just-visible along the right edge of the diagonal streambed):

Compare this wintering habitat (above) with its breeding habitat in Bhutan (right; Ibisbill in a Bhutan river photographed by Bill Rydell). Although the Ibisbill has a reasonably large range in central Asia, numbers are small and birds occur only locally as it is very specialized in its requirements. Food consists of aquatic invertebrates and the occasional small fish; it forages by probing among stones and boulders in the riverbed, sometimes wading deeply, but also by raking its bill through gravelly margins. Unlike other river specialists of this zone (such as Brown Dipper Cinclus pallasii or White-capped Redstart Chaimarrornis leucocephalus) which are adapted to both swiftly-flowing streams and more sluggish rivers, the Ibisbill requires stretches of slow-moving water for its deliberate probing.

The Ibisbill wears the same dapper plumage throughout the year. Freshly molted birds have white-tipped feathers in the black face but these wear off as the breeding season approaches. Our March bird was essentially black-faced (top photo). Incidentally, this is a particularly memorable photo for me because while I was trying to stalk the bird on its side stream (shown in the center photo) I was very gingerly wading the broader and faster-flowing main stream of the Kosi River when the Ibisbill was flushed by kids playing on the far side. The bird flew by me while I froze (both figuratively and literally in that ice-cold river) and landed nearby for the photographic opportunity. My shoes and socks dried rapidly but the memories will last a lifetime.

Photos: The top Ibisbill Ibidorhyncha struthersii was photographed on the Kosi River at Ramnagar, Uttar Pradesh, India, on 13 March 2001; the habitat shot was taken there as well. Bill Rydell photographed his Ibisbill in Bhutan in summer 2000. Photo © 2001 Don Roberson, except the one attributed to Bill Rydell who holds that copyright (used with permission); all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note

Family book: rating IIII [out of 5 possible]
Hayman, Peter, John Marchant & Tony Prater. 1986. Shorebirds: An Identification Guide to the Waders  of the World. Croom Helm, London.

This book covers all the Charadriformes -- not just ibisbill -- and so includes shorebirds (waders), stilts, avocets, jaçanas, thick-knees, plovers, and pratincoles. It is not a "family book" per se since its focus is on identification problems but it does include sections on "habits" and migratory or seasonal "movements." Breeding biology and similar topics are not covered here. However, the quality of the identification text more than makes up for this "defect" and adding broader topics would have made for a very fat book. John Marchant gets special credit for the text -- an upgrade from his 1977 guide (with Prater & Vuorinen) -- which surveys the literature well and is based on much original research. The book does rely on Hayman's paintings for illustrations and while they are generally good, I think that photos are a necessary requirement when dealing with the subtleties of shorebird identification. So use this book as an introduction to these families -- and the identification problems that exist -- but rely on other texts for state-of-the-art details.
Because Hayman et al. (1986) is really aimed at field identification issues, the family is best summarized in the excellent text by Knystautas (1996) in the Handbook of the Birds of the World; it also contains an outstanding set of color photographs.

Other literature cited:

Knystautas, A. J. 1996. Family Ibidorhynchidae (Ibisbill). Pp. 326-331 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

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