Saturday, 4 May 2013

Red-wattled Lapwings

The Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus) is a largish lapwing large plover in the family Charadriidae.   The wings and back are light brown with a purple sheen, but the head and chest and front part of the neck are black. A white patch runs between these two colors. The tail is tipped black and there is a red, fleshy wattle in front of each eye (looking like trendy red plastic eye-glass frames worn backwards), black-tipped red bill and the long legs are yellow. Males and females are similar in plumage but have a slightly longer wing and carpal spur. 

They usually keep in pairs or trios in well-watered open country, ploughed fields, grazing land and margins. They are relatively common in areas around Malaysia and in Penang where I am more familiar. In my ‘studio’ where I have followed two species of Bee-eaters and the White-throated kingfishers nesting…a population of 12-15 of these Lapwings seems to have a permanent residence. They have been observed elsewhere to feed at night and particularly around a full moon but in my domain seem to graze in the grassy margins. The main characteristic of this species is that they have a slightly raucous call and are ceaselessly vigilant. The call has been described as did-he-do-it or pity-to-do-it, which has lead to colloquial names like the did-he-do-it bird. There may be regional or sub-species variations with the alarm calls but to me it sounds like pot-atoooo. They would make good watch ‘dogs’ because of their vigilance and their name in Tamil aal-kaati….means ‘human indicator’. Here is the call;

The species breeds form West Asia, eastwards across South Asia with another sub-species in South-east Asia.

Indeed the Red-wattled Lapwings have a right to be vigilant. In the observed domain itinerant cows occasionally graze the grass. Wild boar, up to nine mebers of a family have been seen furtively sneaking across the grass, Red-jungle fowl strut and crow, White-breasted Waterhen frequent the same territory, coucals scavenge amongst the trees and on the track periphery, Brahminy kites and Crested Serpent Eagles frequently scan the territory. Paddyfield Pipits share the same turf with their purposeful and inquisitive way. There is also harassment by ubiquitous groups of feral dogs.

The breeding season in Mainly March to August. Following a courtship display and mating eggs are laid in a shallow scrape sometimes fringed with pebbles or animal droppings. About 3-4 black-blotched eggs with a pyriform shape are found in these scrapes. As the Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters finished their annual nesting I observed 4 clutches of eggs being incubated by nervous adults. The adult assigned the egg-sitting duties appeared to sit on the eggs less than 50% of the time.....whenever any threat was perceived it left the eggs to divert attention away from the area. The partner was always nearby, usually on a small look-out ridge to maintain a vigilant look-out. 

I have followed nesting behavior in my ‘domain’ for two seasons and I find it curious that the eggs are laid in conspicuous places but the chicks when hatched are sequestered rather cautiously. Although the eggs are well camouflaged in their micro-environment the rather open nests beg questions. In India nests have been recorded on the stones between railway track with the adult leaving the nest each time a train passed. Egg mortality is recorded as being high at around 43% whereas chick mortality is relatively low, which corresponds with my observations. In 2012 one set of eggs was literally inches from a motor-cross track and another one was in a direct line from the White-throated kingfishes favorite perching tree to their nest cavity (both sets of eggs indicated with arrows, below). Kingfishers and Lapwings were observed to partake in numerous dogfights.

Both the male and the female incubate the eggs and divert predators using distraction displays or flash their wings to deter herbivores from their nests.
The four pairs nesting at the same time (March/April 2013)  they seemed to have well-define territories. They cooperate when warning of outside intruders but also seem to have a number of border disputes with their neighbors with aerial buzzing attacks accompanied by warning alarm calls.

The collective mood of the Lapwings changed when the chicks hatched. It was difficult to define but you knew from the behavior or variation in alarm calls that a new phase had occurred. While concentrating on other species I had not seen the chicks in 2012 after they hatched. When I arrived at the site around 7am in mid-March I noted that one of the eggs of three had hatched. When I left four hours later a second chick had hatched. The first hatchling could be seen with the parent (little black and white shape by the feet) as I observed from a respectable distance. The parent flew off with the used eggshell and deposited it elsewhere.

The open spaces in which they nested is fringed with trees and bushes and it appeared the chicks were sequestered in this vegetation while the parents formed a guard line to protest their foraging offspring when they emerged into the adjacent grassy area. As they chicks got bigger they foraged further out into open spaces.

In early May the inter-Monsoon period often produces colorful sunrises that can also illuminate some impressive cloud-heads. The Kingfishers newly fledged chicks are hunting for themselves, the Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters have raised their broods and departed and only the Blue-throated Bee-eaters who perched in the early morning peripheral trees were still to hatch their chicks.


  1. Another great effort, Graeme. I didn't even know that wild boars still occur in that vicinity.

  2. Superb photos and well-researched and interestingly-written 'story' Graeme. Some day I hope you will compile all these and publish them in a book!