Friday, February 3, 2017

A shot in the dark

Red-eye birding.
3.00 am. The alarm goads me awake, and I shuffle up to the window to do an aerial survey of the frigid world outside. A thick duvet of mist is trying to envelop the earth in a warm embrace, but a cruel breeze lances in through the chink I have dared to open.
Layers of clothes are donned for the pre-dawn swoop, and we tiptoe out of the hotel, whose entire staff has vanished into Slumberland.
We press on into the deep recesses of a tea garden, but ironically, there is no way to get a much-desired cup of tea.
A sharp double-whistle from Debo gets an identical response from the depths of a bamboo ravine. We slither down a slope, made even more challenging by a carpet of dried bamboo leaves.
A tiny black blob weaves through the thick undergrowth, choosing the inkiest corners of the dark habitat. The telephoto lens rocks back and forth in agony, unable to lock on. Just as the blob prepares to leave the frame for eternity, the focus locks for a moment, capturing this Stygian sensation....
Blue-naped Pitta, Kaziranga, January 23, 2017.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Mountain Hawk Eagle

This one's a really fierce bird from the hills - a Mountain Hawk Eagle, soaring above the Shivaliks bordering Corbett Tiger Reserve. In March 2013, we were headed towards Kanda, the highest point within Corbett. Unfortunately, one of the bridges over the Ramganga had been washed away that year, and hadn't been rebuilt. Our diverted route would be nearly 100 kilometres longer - we groaned at this prospect, but were determined to not miss out on Kanda. We gritted our teeth (since both of us are dentists), and took the long, dusty detour. What a spectacular journey it was! We climbed into high mountain country, sheltering pine forests...and this Mountain Hawk Eagle swooped down onto the road to nab something. He didn't catch anything, but we managed to catch a few good shots as he circled away. Anybody for the road not taken?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

TOP-SLIP: Of horny bulls and other genial souls......

Four. Four hairs poked out of his right nostril, but I was not going to chide him for his disregard for personal coiffure. I was more focused on leaping forward to escape the tip of his horn from perforating me. Yes, the perils of birding on foot can easily classify it as an extreme sport, the truth of which was being unravelled to me by the huge Indian Gaur bull in the Karian Shola rainforest of Anaimalai.
Mr. Bos gaurus was watching us go down a slope towards a fig tree purported to be laden with Great Hornbills one wintry evening in January 2010, and decided to charge us for this transgression. My nimble footwork ensured that I am writing this report, and as the thundering hooves plunged down the hillock, I remember our guide Kethan emerging from the depths of a thorny bush into which he had wisely retreated, and congratulating me on my good luck.
“Last week, one of the tribals got squashed against a tree by a charging Gaur, saar!”, he added breezily, providing succour to my trembling innards. My wife Sarita, who was a few yards behind us, had a bird’s-eye view of the entire gory proceedings, and proceeded to inspect me for blood and gaur. Once she was satisfied that there was no damage to my vital installations, and that I could still use a fig leaf, we proceeded to the aforementioned Ficus.
Nilgiri Langurs
The Karian Shola is a amazing evergreen forest, deep, dark, untouched. Barely a couple of kilometres away from the Topslip camp, it makes for an easy walk through the moist forest floor. A White-eye Buzzard gave us the glad eye before we slipped under the canopy, and a group of Nilgiri Langurs were convinced that we were trying to ape their ways. The weather outside was nippy, but in here, the air turned muggy and musky. A sweet medicinal scent wafted through, and we soon broke into a sweat keeping up with Kethan. We reached a scenic clearing, with a gentle stream flowing past, and a small watchtower generally keeping an eye on things.
Flamethroated Bulbul
We were immediately rewarded by a Flame-throated Bulbul cozying up his to his old flame. A Crimson-fronted Barbet looked rather red-faced at the proceedings, and a pair of Malabar Grey Hornbills cackled derisively like judges in one of the innumerable Laughter Challenge shows. A Greater Flameback provided the drumrolls, but Kethan promised us that the best of the endemics was yet to come.
He swung us off the track into a thicket, pointed to a couple of dry leaves swaying in the breeze, and announced, “Frogmouth”. Sarita and I craned our necks, squinted into the foliage, and looked at each other – was Kethan puling a fast one here? I even put on my reading glasses, but to no avail. Kethan took a deep breath and sighed – the sigh he uses when he feels he’s dealing with particularly moronic guests, and pointed to the two leaves. I looked at them through my binoculars, and the leaves morphed into an avian form I had never seen before – a pair of Srilankan Frogmouths
Srilankan Frogmouth
I set up my camera stealthily (unnecessary, said Kethan), and clicked away as Sarita discovered these brilliantly camouflaged birds which were barely three yards away (maybe I should’ve used my reading glasses right in the beginning). Rare, endangered, inscrutable – the very qualities they share with the Karian Shola, I observed.
I was up at 6 am the next morning, but Topslip was in dream sequence mode – misty and mysterious, with no movement of bird, man or beast, just the distant calls of a Common Hawk Cuckoo and a Malabar Whistling Thrush permeating through the blanket. A bare bulb burning outside our room had attracted all the local moths, and I gasped when I saw ‘Ikraan’ – a name borrowed from the movie ‘Avatar’, where a colourful Archaeopteryx-like flyer was so named. I quickly pulled Sarita out of bed to witness this spectacular creature, which I later learnt is called the Sonthonnaxia maenas, a rare moth from the Moon Moth family.
 An Atlas Moth snuggled nearby, carrying his own burden of being India’s largest moth, while scores of smaller moths sought solace from the bulb. A Malabar Whistling Thrush soon landed up to feast on the moth buffet (reminded me of the dialogue from Sholay – “ Moth tere sar pe mandraa rahi hai, kaalia!”). 
Malabar Whistling Thrush
Seeing Sarita, he launched into an impromptu serenade (the little rascal), but left his wolf whistle for later. He made repeated forays till he had consumed the moth-er of all breakfasts, and faded away into the mist. A Grey Junglefowl announced that it was 9 am, and we proceeded for our breakfast.
Kethan suggested that we go downhill towards Ambuli, where the mist would lift soon, and we fell in line. The mist did start thinning out, and the bird activity picked up. A White-cheeked Barbet initiated the rabble-rousing, and a pair of Whitebellied Treepies tooted their approval. 
Whitecheeked Barbet
Paradise Flycatcher
A male Paradise Flycatcher looked for heaven, not knowing it was firmly stuck to his backside. An Asian Fairy Bluebird waved her wand, and a pair of Blackheaded Bulbuls made their appearance. We startled a group of Sambhar deer basking on a rock, and we had unknowingly rocked their boat. A couple of Yellow-browed Bulbuls raised their brows in censure, though we couldn’t quite understand the Darkfronted Babblers as they were babbling. A large clearing beckoned, and we decided to explore its potential.
Malabar Parakeet
A few Malabar Parakeets foraged in a bush, occasionally screeching their disapproval at our unpalatable presence. A Pompadour’s Green Pigeon preened herself pompously, while a Malabar Woodshrike came to check if we had updated his new name in our birdlist. A Crested Tree Swift looked crestfallen, until he swiftly spied his mate hiding in a leafy branch. A female Orange Minivet looked for the apple of her eye, who seemed to have gone off after Scarlett. Several unidentifiable avians darted from one bush to the other, reminding me of the ‘here a chick, there a chick, everywhere a chick-chick’ part of the Ol’ McDonald verse. A flock of Blackthroated Munias landed on a shrub, but most seemed to be juveniles, not showing their true colours. We trudged back to boot camp behind Sergeant Kethan, and encountered the Draco, or gliding lizard right next to our digs. Two males were battling it out for the lone female, flashing their yellow throat appendage, and one eventually emerged with flying colours, and proceeded to take his maiden flight with the winsome lass. A Bronzeback Tree Snake impersonating a branch took a laidback view of his reptilian cousins’ dalliances, and forgave them as they were just working on the family tree.
A sounder of the local Wild Boar grunted their goodbyes as we pulled out of Topslip, and onto Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, a long journey of 3 kilometres.

Velvetfronted Nuthatch
Literally down the road from Anaimalai lies the small sanctuary of Parambikulam, falling in Kerala state, and like true Mallus, we contemplated kissing the ground after crossing the Anapadi checkpost (the elephant-dung strewn around made us wisely refrain). Three large dams create their backwaters which dominate the Parambikulam landscape, and we were to stay at Thunakadavu overlooking the water. Upon learning of our interest in birds, the helpful staff at the orientation centre suggested that we stay put at the Anapaadi Tented Camp, as it is apparently a known haven for birds, and is close to the local birding hotspots. We looked around, and as if on cue, an Orange Minivet, a Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and a Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker emerged from the woodwork to lend credence to the claim. Quelling our suspicion that these were from the Anapadi Marketing Dept., we checked into our modest tent.
Lunch was divine, given the liberal use of coconut in the curries (O Kerala!), and we were bundled into the camp bus for the evening’s outing. We passed a few ‘wayals’ or swampy meadows, where herds of Gaur boldly foraged – after the previous day’s tete-a-tete with the gaur bull, I refrained from looking them in the eye, and we moved on. Our first halt was at the Kannimara teak tree, a colossus amongst the teak trees dominating the area. Local tourists swarmed around, displaying their simian best, and we gestured to our driver to deliver us unto more peaceful climes.
The Thunakadavu reservoir was impressive, and a Darter stood frozen in the water. Rufous Babblers called from the labyrinth of a bamboo brake, but refused to reveal themselves. Greyheaded Fishing Eagles were promised, but were evidently casting their net elsewhere. We moved onwards up the hilly terrain to the Parambikulam reservoir, a gleaming sheet of water encased by impenetrable forest. We were bundled into indigenous bamboo rafts for a scenic boat ride, and we floated down the serene backwaters. A pair of Whitebrowed Wagtails cavorted on a floating log, and a flock of Litle Egrets did an elegant fly past. A small island passed by, one of its trees laden with Malabar Whiteheaded Mynas discussing their newfound freedom from the Chestnut-tailed Starlings. The boatman pointed out to a distant island called Veettikunnu emerging like an emerald isle from the blue waters – the Forest Dept. lets out one room on the island for adventurous guests wishing to emulate Robinson Crusoe, and provides Men Fridays too!
Parambikulam reservoir
The aroma of freshly brewed coffee propelled us into one of the stalls lining the road back at the Parambikulam settlement, and we indulged ourselves as the elderly lady manning the stall plied us with wildlife stories to accompany the brew. Elephants mill around the town square at night as if it were a social networking site, she claimed, but they had thankfully spared her stall till date. A Wild Boar sow with her ‘boarlets’ in tow chased off a terrified dog hovering around the stall to remind us that this was indeed a wild area, once the thin veneer of civilisation was off. Speaking of wild stuff, we were obliged to witness a tribal dance as part of the day’s programme – the all-woman cast put up a spirited show in spite of the desultory male percussionists.
Spotlights were employed on the drive back, and we saw several herds of Gaur enjoying a high-speed browsing experience. A Common Palm Civet trudged along the road in no haste, looking for some finger foods to start the evening with (who knows what we saw, it may have even been the near-extinct Malabar Civet – all cats and civets look the same in the dark, to borrow an old saw). An Oriental Scops Owl surveyed his prey base from a strategic perch, and we exchanged a friendly Ook....krook krook with him. A nightjar flew across, probably finding the headlights too jarring, and refused to reveal his ID. Blacknaped Hares leapt around, trying to keep pace with the tortoises, while unidentified rodents joined the rat race.
Flying Squirrel ;-)
Speaking of which, a sudden halt brought a little seen creature to light – a Chevrotain, or Mouse Deer, which hobbled away with a strange lope into the darkness. Our driver alerted us to watch out for leopards, but none could be spotted (though they are all spotted, but not always spotted). We passed one herd of Elephants before arriving at camp, and much like the aforementioned herd, trooped into the restaurant for dinner. We eschewed the post-dinner brandy-and-cigars routine for some Flying Squirrel spotting in the camp, but went to bed with a justifiable pain-in-the-neck for our futile efforts.
Black baza
Shanmugam is a fresh-faced young tribal boy, and one of the best bird spotters in Parambikulam. He cheerily roused us at dawn with coffee, and promised a rewarding session of birding on foot. He informed us that the major portion of the Karianshola evergreen forest lay in Parambikulam, and we didn’t need any persuasion to head there. Whitebellied Treepies welcomed us with raucous calls, and an Asian Fairy Bluebird pair engrossed us with a tale. A steep climb through scrubland, and we were at a well wooded area bordering the Shola. A pair of Oriental Honey Buzzards buzzed around, but Shanmugam’s attention was transfixed to a small black form settling into a high branch – “Baza!”, he shrieked, and we followed his gaze to see one of India’s most endearing raptors, the Black Baza. With a long, jaunty crest, a smiling face and a white-and-orange striped T-shirt , this must be a bird which kills softly, and we hopped about in excitement (no wonder my pictures are fuzzy). Shanmugam himself had not seen this bird here in the last few years, and he joined in our jig, so that we resembled last evening’s dance troupe.
The sighting boded well for the morning, and we pushed into Karianshola. Two massive trees stood as sentinels at the mouth of the Karianshola, and we entered with due reverence. One of these was a Bischofia javanica, much favoured by tigers to sharpen their claws, but no gouge marks adorned this one. Shanmugam mentioned that it was years since anyone encountered a tiger here, and we bravely marched ahead. The light dipped, and the forest was strangely silent. A Forest Wagtail made a quick recce to check us out, but was gone in a flash. A couple of Unidentifiable Flycatchers abandoned their roadside perches and sought to swat flies elsewhere. A sharp call to our left followed by persistent drumming announced the arrival of a Whitebellied Woodpecker. We left the track and descended through a tangle of branches to locate the origin of the sound, and there he was – a brilliant male, playing a soft drumbeat and pulling in his white belly to impress his girl. She was evidently not around, and he didn’t need to court us, so he let his belly sag and flew off.
Gladeye Bushbrown
Common Indian Toad
Shanmugam was quite keen on showing us some butterflies, and he zeroed in on a Glad-eye Bushbrown, almost invisible except for a large eye-spot glaring at us. An Evening Brown fluttered past, assuming that it was dusk, as the light had really fallen. Glassy Blue Tigers sought their glass of nectar, and a Blue Mormon enticed us to join the cult. A Southern Birdwing winged it out in a sou’- sou’-westerly path while we admired its wingspan, the largest in the country. We stumbled upon a toad, and before we could ask, “Wart’s this?”, our guide pronounced it to be a Common Indian Toad. Seeing that I had to use the flash for photographing him, Shanmugam suggested that we head back towards daylight. Frenetic activity at a clearing (aah, light!) boiled down to a Malabar Grey Hornbill and a Whitebellied Treepie participating in a mellifluous duet. A pair of Malabar Parakeets found the vocals rather grating, and fled the stage (they could have done with some introspection, I thought). A thick bush yielded the tantalizing calls of Rufous Babblers, but the birds chose to operate like undercover agents in spite of our best attempts to espy them.
Greater Rackettailed Drongo
We emerged into brilliant sunshine back on the road, and headed back to camp. A Mugger, or marsh crocodile shed tears for our luck with the light, and slipped into the waters of a small check dam. An Indian Pond Terrapin basking on the edge thought it prudent to follow the mugger into the murky water rather than face our scrutiny (known devil, etc., etc.......). Shanmugam suggested a brief exploratory walk along a water tunnel transporting irrigation water from the Thunakadavu reservoir. Greater Rackettailed Drongos were creating their usual rackets, fighting with their Bronzed cousins. A pair of Blackhooded Orioles chased each other through the canopy, and an elderly Malabar Woodshrike followed their dalliance with a reprimanding look. A Greybreasted Prinia called in titillating fashion, but refused to make a clean breast of herself from among the reeds. Shanmugam promised to show us some interesting Tits in the vicinity of camp, and we pressed on.
The camp precincts yielded a heart-stopping moment in a Heartspotted Woodpecker doing his morning cardio, and all able hands were called upon to assist in tracing his ECG-like flight path. A tiny black-and-white bird up in the canopy challenged our birdbrains, and we realised that it was a tit like no other – a Whitenaped Tit, which is generally found in the Acacia forests of Gujarat – reflecting, perhaps, the Gujaratis’ penchant for travel! Shanmugan mentioned that they were perplexed too, and have been seeing this visitor since the last few weeks: I consoled him by saying that if the Gujaratis have discovered this place, more of their ilk will follow, and obviously, the more tits the merrier!
Malabar Giant Squirrel
A Malabar Giant Squirrel high up on his perch of a Dalbergia latifolia waved us a cheery farewell, and we returned his greeting with a satiated burp from a superlative lunch. The Parambikulam staff had lined up a couple of Jungle Babblers, one Scarlet Minivet, and an Ashy Drongo to sound the farewell note, and accompanied by the drumrolls of the resident Blackrumped Flameback, we pulled out of Anapaadi towards our next bird haven – the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary at Thattekad, a few kilometres away as the Large-billed Crow flies, but a good six hours away as our weary wheels would carry us....

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Whistler on the roof...

Hi folks,

He believed in starting early as, to borrow an old saw, the early riser gets the worm (but hey, the early worm gets eaten!).
 The whistling by our window began at four in the morning. Initially, I thought it was a dream - well, it couldn't be my husband Subbu who had suddenly decided to serenade me all over again after 17 years. In the fourth decade of my life, I’m hardly entitled to catcalls and whistles from road side Romeos, I guess...
The rather mellifluous intruder persisted with his vast repertoire of whistles through the misty morning at the beautiful Topslip tree house, in the Anamalai Wildlife Sanctuary. The mysterious mist refused to leave us, but through the haze, I caught a quick glimpse of the imp - a brilliant blue bird with iridescence on his forehead and on the wings. He fixed me with one eye, while the other was firmly focused on a stunning Indonesian Moon Moth perched on our window sill (whom we promptly nicknamed Ikraan, after the dazzling ‘bird’ in the movie Avatar).
As I neared the window he flew onto the neighbouring tree house. A furtive glance at me, and he decided I was worth another whistle. Hey, it is true life begins at forty, and I was being serenaded by the Malabar Whistling Thrush (MWT)!
I decided to play along ... Well, a li’l flirtation was not one of the deadly sins, I hoped! I hid behind the curtains and promptly saw the MWT's curiosity get the better of him. He came back to our window and wooed me again. A softer and long drawn whistle, almost set to a Hindi film song, or was it just my imagination..?
Nothing better than a strange admirer to arouse jealousy in a harried husband! Subbu’s quicksilver action would have done a Commando proud, as he lunged to shoot the poor bird. Ever ready with his SLR, he snapped away, clicking some fabulous shots of this wonderful bird.....

As we walked through the early morning mist towards the decrepit canteen for breakfast, we were unsure if we should have left Ikraan so close to its nemesis, the MWT. On our return, sadly, we discovered that my dawn paramour had devoured the beautiful 'Ikraan', leaving behind only its tail.
I have kept the marvellous tail as a bookmark in my bird guide featuring the MWT, as a grim reminder that life can be beautiful and heart-rending on the same page!!! 

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Hibernation ends!

Like all self-respecting beasts, Green-indians were enjoying a well deserved hibernation from the harsh climes of the blogosphere. We're now back with that mad look in the eye (we're dentists, after all!), and with a bagful of wildlife images from the pristine wildernesses of our country. One of the earliest Chinese imports was a saying which went, "one picture is worth ten thousand words", and we've decided to happily sacrifice our zeal for churning out text at the altar of laziness. What will follow on a regular basis (promises, promises...) is blatant exhibitionism....oops, sorry, an exhibition of images we've liked from our sojourns.
We begin the series with a dazzling beauty from the dark world of moths - an unexpected guest to our lodgings at Topslip, Anaimalai.

It was a dark, misty January morning outside our treetop hut at Topslip, Anaimalai, Tamil Nadu, and the dense fog threatened to disrupt our quest for wildlife. We peeped desultorily out of the window, and one of the most breathtaking sights greeted us: a moth of unparalleled beauty, with iridiscent colours and streamers which prompted us to nickname him "Ikraan" after the eponymous creature from James Cameron's Avatar.
Experts in the field helped us identify him as Sonthannaxia maenas, a relative of the Indonesian Moon Moth, but would you mind if we continue calling him Ikraan?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A chat by any other name..............

During our Greater Rann of Kutch trip in Jan 2009, we had finally diagnosed a bird in the Naliya grassland as a Common Stonechat. Adesh Shivkar called us up last week with the results of his research - the bird we had seen was a Stoliczka's Bushchat, and we can now add one more to our tally for the GRK trip (not to mention a lifer for us!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

JAMNAGAR – Birds on a platter

The naval sentry stiffened to attention as a clutch of shadowy men clad in fatigues slipped out of their convoy of vehicles. They headed purposefully towards the perimeter wall, scanning the top of the wall with powerful binoculars. Prudence dictated that he shouldn’t engage the enemy when he was obviously outnumbered, and he held his fire, focusing instead on the operational manual which the suspects were referring. The title of the manual swung sharply into focus in his field glasses, and it dawned upon him that these were fundamentalists of a different league – the Grimmetts they were referring to indicated that they were elite commandos from Nature India whose leader Adesh Shivkar was much hunted in birding circles!
Ports of call
We were actually gawking at a group of Grey Francolins which were gambolling at the top of the compound wall of the INS Valsura, a naval establishment on the outskirts of Jamnagar, our first halt on Adesh’s Nature India trip. Being a grey area, the sentry shooed us away, but the sighting epitomised what was to follow in the next two days – birds, birds and more birds in the most unlikely places, in complete disregard to their habitat preferences. Flamingos in a village pond, Pochards in a city tank and Ruffs on the road (but sadly, in true Gujarati style, no chicken on the plate!)
Enroute to the port of Rozibunder (perhaps named so for the thousands of Rosy Starlings monkeying around), a Western Reef Egret in a dark mood posed like an eastern mystic. A Great Thick-knee had us going weak kneed, even as a Grey Heron knelt to bag a fish. The road was lined on both sides by shallow salt pans, and a walk along one of the bunds yielded good views of flamingos, gulls and sandpipers. A lone Dalmatian Pelican was spotted (aren’t all Dalmatians spotted?), and Adesh highlighted his punk hairstyle (the pelican’s, not Adesh’s!) to help differentiate it from the Great White Pelican. A strident call (later identified as belonging to Dr Vaibhav) led us to a spotting scope set up to feature a Red-necked Phalarope. The sun was beating down, and we ourselves were pretty red-necked by the time we hit the road again towards the port.
Rozibunder offered us good sighting s of large decaying ships looking like beached whales, and some wailing in the distance was attributed to a Eurasian Curlew, whose criticism of our intrusion was rather thinly veiled. Crab Plovers were sighted in the distance, but we were promised swarms of them at Narara beach scheduled for the next day. A juvenile Redshank impersonated a yet-undiscovered wader (Tringa subramaniamensis?) before he was unmasked and classified as a delinquent. A Sand Lark posed for a lark, saying it's the dune thing. Mandar, Adesh’s co-conspirator, suggested that we move on to another waterbody at Dhichda before the light faded, and we ditched Roziport for what promised to be a rosier wetland.
Sunset, Sundowners and Sunrise
A tiny pond on our right was well concealed from view by about a thousand godwits and ruffs in a Miltonesque ‘they also serve those who stand and wait’ approach. They felt their interests would be best served by fleeing in a hurry at the approach of St. Avinash The Snapper and his apostles. Dhichda itself comprised large shallow waterbodies lining the road, with several small islands providing a foothold for spoonbills and terns. Great White Pelicans painted a rosy picture as they waited for clearance to land, and the harsh cries of Common Cranes rent the air as they circled in search of rented accommodation. A huge orange orb hurtled towards the horizon in the west, but the orbital features of a Common Ringed Plover wandered into our orbit. We tried to absorb the characteristics of this rather uncommon visitor in the fading light till it dissolved into the gloom. A Lesser Pied Kingfisher slapped on his night-vision gear and hovered around, but we decided to not follow suit and took off for our presidential suites.
Aperitifs were sought before dinner, but prevailing conditions being rather dry, we had to cry into our glasses of buttermilk. Whispered voices offered to procure a nip of moonshine, but the fear of not seeing another sunrise allowed prudence to prevail. And it was a glorious sunrise at the Khijadia Bird Sanctuary on a nippy morning, with an opening flypast by Demoiselle Cranes. The mademoiselles glided past on gilded wings, with the golden glow of the sun catching their highlights. Croaks and squawks filled the air, and our gleeful chortling added to the din. An observation tower was observed, and a tahr would have viewed the rickety stairs with consternation. We clambered up with ease (having tarred the reputation of abovementioned tahr), and spotting scopes were set up. Expansive waterbodies stretched as far as we could see on all sides, with the odd island peeping shyly out of the bog. Adesh informed us that this was a unique wetland, with dykes barricading seawater from freshwater, so that ducks and drakes hobnob with petrels and boobies (for the record, no, we didn’t see petrels, and shame on you, no boobies too, thank you).
Kunal Joshi, our local expert, advised us to keep a watch for the Great Crested Grebes, which have been found to breed here. Sure enough, we saw a pair of them (not trying to breed, thankfully, as there were kids around), and they ventured fairly close to the shore so that we would not be crestfallen. Greater Flamingos and Blacktailed Godwits stood tall in the background, while Eurasian Wigeons and Common Coots ducked into the foreground. A Marsh Harrier flying low over our group noticed Adesh’s hands trembling as he zeroed the scope in on a suspect – “Golden Eye!” he exclaimed, as we fell over ourselves to sneak a preview. A black-and-white duck swam into focus as I tried to eye this elusive bird which was rarer than gold. Other eyes, more trained, strained to identify the errant avian. Some sombre nodding and rueful glances indicated that all was not well with the diagnosis, and the misleading floater was downgraded to a Semi-albino Coot.
Of blue bulls and bulbuls
My instincts were now honed to lookout for impersonators, and my expert eyes quickly spotted two large life-forms wading through the marsh. A quick flip through my Krys failed to locate anything similar till one of them swam up to an island. Voila! A huge male Nilgai detached himself from the water and waited for his crony to catch up, and the pair tried their best at being birds of a feather. I thought I should chide Adesh on this unscheduled introduction of mammals on a birding trip, but who would take a bull by its horns?
Speaking of which, a pair of (horny?)White-eared Bulbuls cavorted in a thorny bush, and a Clamorous Reed Warbler clicked her tongue in disapproval. A young Blue-cheeked Bee-eater cheekily imitated a Blue-tailed, for which an Isabelline Shrike had a tongue-in-cheek comment to make. A pair of Cormorants had a jingoistic dialogue on their nationality – one of them turned out more Indian, the other just a Little. A small flock of Rumbling-bellied Birders was spotted near the food baskets, and breakfast was announced.
The Ranjitsagar Dam gave us a close-up view of the freshwater v/s marine divide. On the salty right, Eurasian Curlews fretted about the huge bills they had received, while the Left parties were brought up by Purple Herons and ditto Swamphens preferring a fresh approach. Darters, well, darted in both directions, and a harried male Marsh Harrier flew low to avoid his mate’s radar. Further ahead, a large bund on the left was fashioned into a birding trail, which was announced to us by a female Paradise Flycatcher. A female Black-naped Monarch sat around swatting flies, which brought up the question – where were the males, and what were they doing with their flies?
Time flies, and the midmorning sun was getting fierce. A diverse group of birds kept their distance, and the spotting scope revealed Comb-ducks, Spotbilled Ducks, Painted Storks and Blackwinged Stilts. An Unknown Snipe was observed, and a solitary Whitetailed Lapwing fell into our laps while snooping around. By now, we had lapped up all that was on offer (dam it!), and a brilliant suggestion was mooted – lunch!
A bird in hand
The Brahmaniya turned out to be a small dining hole (pardon my Gujarati accent), but the food dished out was delicious, barring an Oily Okra which resembled the Exxon-Valdez spill. The waiter looked disapprovingly at me at my request for oil-less chapattis, but dismissed me as just another migrant, perhaps even a vagrant. Some more buttermilk (sob!), and we were off to Narara beach.
Being nearly 50 kilometres off Jamnagar, the drive afforded an opportunity to sleep off the five-course meal. The result: most of the birders were caught napping by a group of five coursers, and for those who rued the absence of dessert, these were unfortunately not Desert, but Indian Coursers. They were traversing a dry field to our right, and we tried to keep on course, but as is par for the course, they outran us by a fair bit and vanished into the heat haze. A Variable Wheatear arrived to insert variety into the proceedings, while a Bay-backed Shrike wondered what the baying was all about. Closer to Narara, the fallow fields lining the road gave way to salt pans. Dr Vaibhav’s scope panned the landscape, and rested on a solitary Red-necked Phalarope pickling herself in the brine. Keeping a respectful distance were a group of Black-necked Grebes who seemed rather averse to our peeping down their necklines. Further down the road, a dead bird lay by the wayside, evidently a Sand Plover. A closer examination revealed it to be a Lesser Sand Plover, and we concluded that a bird in hand is worth two in the book.
Narara beach was in super low tide mode, the rocky beach stretching till what looked like Dubai, but it turned out to be the Gulf of Kutch. A lone Painted Stork seemed to have lost her baby-delivering job, and was moping around looking for comfort food. Adesh had promised huge congregations of Crab Plovers, and in the distance, we caught a glimpse of nearly two-hundred Crab Lovers – i.e. a bunch of school kids out on a science field visit! That put paid to our hopes of good sightings, but a few waders kept us going. Sand Plovers and Kentish Plovers made up for their crabby cousins’ absence, while Dr Vaibhav unravelled some Great Knots for us. A Terek Sandpiper sought tips on coping with rising bills, and a Curlew Sandpiper was seen advising him on how to keep it down. It was now time to test the waters, and we slipped into amphibious mode.

On the rocks
We found ourselves wading in ankle-deep water (the homo-calidrids?), and Kunal proceeded to do a Ruddy Turnstone on us –a beautiful world lay revealed as he upturned the drab rocks. Bright red patches of live coral gleamed in the sun, while tiny crabs scurried for cover. Starfish clung on like limpets (?), and Sea Cucumbers played dead to escape landing up in a salad (or a soup, for that matter). Sponges were soaking it up in style, and unidentifiable arachnids tried logging on to the web. A brain coral teetered on a small boulder, and Kunal declared it brain-dead, as the resident polyps had long since departed. Adesh hunted for brittle stars, but they were acting tough, although he left no stone unturned in his quest. A frond of kelp made me yelp, and it turned out to be a Pufferfish. He quickly slunk away in a puff of dust, mistaking me to be a fugu enthusiast. The odd anemone tried to spread its tentacles, while for sheer numbers, there was no beating the billions of blue blistering barnacles immortalised by the inimitable Capt. Haddock. We had a whole new world at our feet, but as is Mother Nature’s wont (and her will), it was a humbling experience.
The sun was setting on yet another glorious day, when we realised that we had waded out a fair bit. Time and tide wait for no man, woman or beast, and we headed back to shore so that the sea didn’t end up having us on the rocks (oh, my kingdom for a malt!).
Photo-shoot, forsooth!
Dhichda at dawn was the last morning’s programme, and it was as though Adesh & Co. had prearranged a modelling shoot. Most Hindi movies now have a song sequence wherein the entire gamut of Bollywood stars makes a “special appearance”, gyrates and thrusts for ten seconds, and melts into oblivion. We witnessed pretty much the same, with a Gadwall pair in the opening gambit. Common Teals flashed their green eyepatches, Northern Shovellers arrived when push came to shove, and Northern Pintails brought up the tail. A Blackheaded Ibis observed the parade while tending to his whiteheads, and Western Reef Egrets played a double role – the virtuous light-phased twin, and the dark villain. Spoonbills forked in their breakfast, while Lesser Flamingos pranced shamelessly in the pink. A Temminck’s Stint tried to do a little stint, but nature intervened with a PG rating. A Ruff tried to do some smooth talking, to which a Blacktailed Godwit prayed that may God be with him. We were developing some serious finger fatigue snapping up these moments, and Kunal recommended that we leave for Lakhota Lake before the sun got up too high.
What can one see in a large tank in the centre of Jamnagar town, with a 24/7 temple, urine-soaked retaining walls, and “gathiya”-gobbling crowds thronging the causeway? Well, one can see Spotbill Ducks, Common Coots, Brown and Blackheaded Gulls, Terns, Eurasian Wigeons, and Pochards – yes, both Common and Tufted! This was truly the effortless birding that the Nature India flyer had promised, and we had to raise a finger only to release the shutter! A low-flying Gull-billed Tern whispered to me that it was time for me to fly off, as I had a late morning flight back to my roost. As I walked up the steps to the aircraft, a flight of ducks overhead caught my attention. Was it just the sunlight glinting off an eye, or did I see a Common Goldeneye?