“Unique” is an overused word these days, but, as a descriptor for the Ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersii), it is surely appropriate. It is a bird related to the waders, and in the same order as sandpipers and plovers, but still sufficiently distinctive to merit its very own family Ibidorhynchidae. The species is named in honour of Dr Struthers of Glasgow who collected specimens of the bird from the Himalayas in the 19th century.
It is a strikingly unmistakable wader; grey with a white belly, red legs and long down-curved brown to crimson bill, and a black face and black breast band.
It occurs on the stony shingle riverbanks of the high plateau of central Asia and the Himalayas, all the way from Kazakhstan to China, at an elevation of 1500 to 4400 metres (5000 and 14400 feet) above sea level. It occupies the same habitat in winter, but at lower altitudes, being an altitudinal migrant. The river valleys frequented by the Ibisbill tend to have very little vegetation and gentle slopes to ensure a slow flow of water. It must live near slow-flowing water in order to feed, limiting its habitat despite having a very large range.
They are generally not shy of humans. They are good swimmers and prefer crossing rivers by swimming instead of flying. Ibisbills are vocal birds and produce a ringing ‘klew klew’ call.
The Ibisbill is a monogamous breeder. The nest is located on a riverbank, river island or surrounding peninsula and is little more than a scrape on the ground, sometimes lined with small pebbles. Eggs are laid in the end of April and the beginning of May. The clutch size varies from two to four eggs. They behave similar to lapwings around the nest site, defending it quite vocally. Both parents share incubation duties.
It feeds on land and water invertebrates including mayfly larvae, stoneflies, beetles and crustaceans. It forages by pecking, probing and raking, usually while wading in water roughly reaching up its belly. It will also eat fish and insects such as grasshoppers.
Due to their striking appearance, distinctive taxonomy, solitary nature, the high elevations and special habitats where they live as well as their relative rarity, they are highly sought after by birders who often consider this species to be a “most wanted” bird.
Join us on a Nature Travel Birding trip to India for a chance to see this unique bird.