Their call is the sound of the rainy season
A time when the cloud envelops the sky and rain pours down, a delightful moment indeed for most. But before the downpour, there is a call in the heavens, a sound that echoes the coming of the wet season, a sound that is reminiscent of good times ahead. It comes every year but only a few are conscious enough to notice it. It is the Red-wattled lapwing!
Introduction – Distribution and Behaviour of Red-Wattled Lapwing
Being native to West and South Asia, Red-wattled lapwing bird is distributed across a wide area stretching from Turkey, central Asia to southeast Asia (Arvind, 2015). It is distinguishable from other birds due to its long yellow legs and red beak. But most importantly, Red-wattled lapwing’s loud alarm-like calls are what makes it distinctive from other birds. During my childhood, I remember the alarm clock ringing in the morning for school but if there was a power break-down due to the monsoon then you were also able to hear “nature’s clock” as well (pun intended).
Moving on, the nesting behaviour of Red-wattled lapwing is from March or April to June, some ornithologists extend it to August. Their breeding season coincides largely with the Indian monsoon season (Sujit et.al, 2011).
The next bit may sound like a description from a child’s anime shows like Pokemon or Digimon but it is actually not. As a flying ground bird, lapwing lay their eggs in a ground scrape usually near a wetland, shallow/stagnant natural water or ponds. Therefore, the rainy season provides a great opportunity to build a nest and breed (Sujit et.al, 2011).
Red-Wattled Lapwing and Pakistan
Interestingly, out of the four sub-species two are found in Pakistan, is Aigneri and Indicus (Gill et.al, 2019). In Urdu, it is pronounced as Titeeri whereas in Sindhi it is called Tateehar. It is worth mentioning that there is a literature and history biasness towards Pakistan by a few western academics, researchers, and historians so at times the audience might come across content that suggests that the nominated species is primarily the habitat of India but in reality, it is also found in Pakistan. A better term would be the Indian sub-continent.
Despite being a resident in the Indian sub-continent, an ambiguity exists leading to the argument whether the Red-wattled Lapwing is a migratory or non-migratory bird. In light of research by Ali & Ripley (1980) and our own observation over the years, we have discovered that the bird does tend to migrate from semi-arid and dry areas notably Balochistan and Karachi in the winter season to moist areas in northern Pakistan. Generally, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab province of Pakistan gets frequent spell of rains throughout the year due to western disturbance (an extratropical storm that originates near the Mediterranean sea or the Middle East and travels as far as India and China. The term ‘western disturbance’ is popular in South Asia). And once the summer and monsoon approach, the bird spreads to the south of the country.
Building blocks for our Research
Let’s leave weather prediction on the birds because they are doing it far better than humankind!
Having been inspired by Netflix documentary series ‘Connected’, we were astonished to see how a small bird called Veery thrush (above image) was able to predict the North Atlantic Hurricane season better than high-tech computers and meteorologists.
According to the research by Delaware State University, the bird migrates from Brazil to the east coast of the United States in the spring season to mate and lay eggs, and returns back to the South American country in Autumn just before the annual tropical activity. But at times, Veery thrush may cut-short its stay and migrate back to the southern Amazon basin. When researchers surveilled the bird’s unusual behaviour, they were baffled to spot that the bird’s actions were directly linked with the hurricane season. Veery thrush will arrive early and extend their stay in the United States which signals a late hurricane season but if they leave early, it means an early and intense storm period (Davitt, 2020).
As per the documentary, meteorologists declared the 2018 Hurricane season as a ‘below average season’ but researchers at the University were certain that it would be an ‘above-average season since the bird had left early. It was indeed a showdown between leading weather pundits and a small tiny bird, a clash between science and nature. And not-so-surprisingly given the evidence and data by researchers at the University, Veery thrush emerged as a better “meteorologist”!
The findings in a way would leave many to lift their eyebrows in astonishment just like the host in the documentary and rightly so because the University put their findings against the predictions of highly expensive and advanced computer models but in the past countless theories have emerged where people have claimed that animals were capable to foresee natural phenomena before they actually happen. We, at Pakistan Weather Portal (PWP), did cover this subject back in 2011. (Below picture is from July 2020)
Time to have our own ‘Netflix’ moment
As reported in PWP’s article on June 4, the monsoon season in 2021 was largely expected to be normal due to neutral ENSO conditions in the Pacific Ocean. On a smaller scale, it can behave erratically owing to the temperature fluctuation in the North Indian ocean which could lead to frequent heavy downpours in isolated areas. Hence, when we have posted a question on June 15 specifically about Karachi in the comments section. We stated, “…the sea and atmospheric conditions are neutral this year but we are observing that the Indian west coast trough is extending towards the Sindh coast hence possibly normal to few above normal events cannot be ruled out.”
What led us to give this response was because there was evidence that a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (55%) could develop in July and August which would strengthen the Indian west coast trough and the result would be an increased rain activity in Karachi. However, in July and August 2021, we detected that the western part of the Indian Ocean had started cooling off leading to the development of negative Indian Ocean Dipole hence the monsoon season stalled in August leading to little to no precipitation in the southern half of Pakistan. Which compelled PWP to forecast withdrawal of the monsoon season by the end of August or early September. It was our shortcoming that we did not focus on the temperature of the Bay of Bengal and the approaching Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) wave.
After taking those determinants into account by the end of August, we speculated a change due to an active MJO phase and the impact it had on the sea temperatures of the Bay of Bengal. Both of these factors caused a revival of the monsoon season in September and October, making it one of the longest monsoon seasons.
Before the audience wanders here and there, let’s come back to the Red-wattled lapwing because the article is about the bird!
Observing the Behaviour of Red-Wattled lapwing
We were eager to make Red-wattled lapwing the “Veery thrush of Karachi”. In line with studies of this nature, data is significant. PWP’s data is mainly derived from our examination of the bird in the past and Karachi’s monsoon pattern in 2010, 2017 and 2019, 2020. In all of these years, above-normal monsoon rains were recorded this led to our hypothesis and research question.
By following the principles of ethology, we as a team of two had to observe the bird since January 2021. I eventually had to carry a 7-month study, it was tiring but exciting because it requires making a catalog of the date and the area. Due to COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing, we communicated via WhatsApp to discuss the whereabouts of the bird. The location shortlisted was South of Karachi because the last point where the bird will arrive from upper Pakistan, India or central Asian states would be the southern parts of the city. We formalized two research questions;
- Does the early arrival of Red-wattled Lapwing indicate an early summer rainy season in Karachi?
- Does the extended stay of the bird indicate a prolonged monsoon season?
While discussing on WhatsApp, we found the bird in Karachi’s DHA (South) on February 13. We uploaded a stock image of Lapwing bird for our own record so that it is convenient for us to search the chat.
- It had arrived in February well before its nesting period in March and April. It highlighted that by February 13, Karachi’s 2020-2021 winter had surely come to an end and there was no chance of any cold wave. In the past, winters have extended till the end of February.
By now the ground was set to implement our observation and hypothesis on summer rains. Therefore;
1) Does the early arrival of Red-wattled Lapwing indicate an early summer rainy season in Karachi?
Yes, if the Red-walled Lapwing comes early in the year, then Karachi can expect summer rains ahead of its normal schedule. The standard timeframe for the city’s annual rains is from July till August. It is common to witness May and June pass without any sort of rain. However, this year like most of the years mentioned above, Karachi did witness sporadic summer showers quite early. In the month of May, a strong dust storm followed by showers due to Cyclone Tauktae and an isolated heavy pre-monsoon downpour in the northern end of the city around mid of June.
Thus, the first part of the question is a definite yes!
2) Does the extended stay of the bird indicate a prolonged monsoon season?
Given that we are unable to track the bird in the month of August and September, we can’t answer whether there is a relationship between the bird’s extended stay and a prolonged monsoon season for the time being. However, it is worth noting that the month of September did witness above-normal rain in Karachi while near normal in October;
- Only 0.08 mm rain was recorded in the month of August. Normal average rain is 60.9 mm. (August’s stat is only from Karachi Airport therefore not reliable as accumulate rain figure is needed )
- Average rain of around 18 mm was recorded in September, the normal average is 11 mm. Making it the wettest September in recent memory. (As per PWP stats)
- CycloneShaheen-Gulab broke Cyclone Onil record for the wettest October in Karachi. Cyclone Onil caused 39.3 mm in 48 hours while 26.5 mm on 3rd Oct, 2004 in 24 hours (record reported in their catalog by PMD). Shaheen-Gulab caused 62 mm in 48 hours while 39 mm on Oct 1 in 24 hours. The monthly average rain was 2.3 mm, very near the normal average of 2.6 mm. Thus, a near-normal October.
PWP’s hypothesis has been proved correct that the early arrival of Red-wattled Lapwing bird indicates an early rainy for Karachi. On the other hand, the second research question still requires exploration to reach a logical conclusion. Which is a limitation of our study.
To conclude, unique characteristics of the bird and its relationship with the monsoon has led me and Pakistan Weather Portal (PWP) to conduct 1st of a kind study in Pakistan. Nevertheless, this could be beneficial to bird watchers, researchers and the growing weather community!
- Arvind (2015): The Red-wattled Lapwing Pictures and Detail (A Bird with Lady like Walk) (arvindkatoch.com)
- Davitt, J. (2020): Hurricane Forecasting Is for the Birds (spectrumlocalnews.com)
- Sujit, N., Madhukar, F. and Kamlakar, F., (2011). Nesting ecology of red-wattled lapwing in agricultural landscape. Life Science Bulletin, 8(1), pp.97-100.
- Gill, F., Donsker, D., eds. (2019). “Grebes, flamingos, buttonquail, plovers, painted-snipes, jacanas, plains-wanderer, seedsnipes”. World Bird List Version 9.2. International Ornithologists’ Union. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
- Ali, S. and Ripley, S, D. (1980). Handbook of the birds of India and Pakistan. 2 (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 212–215.