What’s in a name? Much, if one were to go by the lament of the Great Indian Bustard. The poor bird lost out on the competition for the national bird by a vowel’s breadth, even though the winner had a ‘pee’ and a ‘cock’ working against him – some fowl play, perhaps!
Adesh wrote in that it was raining bustards and larks in Nannaj, and we jumped onto the bandwagon (viz. the Siddheshwar Express) which deposits you in the squalid town of Solapur. The town seems oblivious to the presence of one of the most endangered birds in the world in its neighbourhood, and the local celebrity is the ‘Shenga-poli’, a sweet peanut –roti.
A convoy of three jeeps led us from our digs towards the Jawaharlal Nehru Maaldokh Pakshi Abhayaranya, (a.k.a The GIB Sanctuary) at Nannaj. Enroute, a couple of Grey Francolins invoked a former cricket superstar (to the uninitiated, their strident calls of ‘Kapil dev…kapil dev…’), unaware of the equations having changed in favour of the Ishants and the Pathans. A small herd of Blackbuck saw us being herded out of our jeeps, but any notions of approaching them were precluded by the presence of one and a half Bishnois in our pack. Smoked Salman, anyone?
The persistent “quick-quick” calls were traced to a Rain Quail strategically perched on a rock. Nannaj is in a rain-shadow – while Mumbai was being drenched, it was bright and sunny at Nannaj, and thankfully so, as we would certainly have quailed in the presence of rain (while still on the subject, Yogesh to please note – we really had a fine glimpse of the Rain Quail when you were skulking amidst the reeds at Hipparga!)
Barring a few, most of us had a glimpse of a pair of Barred Buttonquail, while a Sykes’ Lark kept us and his mate entertained with his display flight. Closer to the sanctuary gates, a Shikra kept vigil on his shikar (anagrams, anyone?), but a more vigilant Adesh had zeroed in on something more spectacular – the first glimpse of the Great Indian Bustard!
Beyond a low stone wall outlining the sanctuary area, a small white speck bobbed in the grass, and the spotting scope revealed it to be the holy grail of grassland birds – a magnificent male Bustard, eyes heavenwards, perhaps praying for a mate who has become very hard to come by. Considering their fragile numbers, forget us seeing the Bustards, it’s probably been a while since one Bustard saw another!
We trooped into the sanctuary, and headed towards a roundhouse which offered a great view of the undulating grassland. On the 70 mm panorama, the melodrama played out – not one, not two, but six Bustards starred in the cinemascope thriller.
The dashing megastar, an alpha male, strutted his stuff, and it is only a female Bustard which would find his display sexy – an enormous pouch dangling like an embarrassing hydrocele, and a cocked-up tail resembling a large excrescence piggybacking on the bird. Beauty, truly, is in the eye of the beholder! We struggled to locate the females, who maintained a low profile, and blended superbly into the duns and the browns of the grassland. And prudently so, as a Lone Wolf appeared over the horizon, scanning the scenery for a mid-morning snack (a caramel bustard, perhaps?).
Several junior artistes played bit roles – a Southern Grey Shrike, having starred in many steamy blockbusters down south, adorned the sidelines. A Scaly-breasted Munia explored medical options (wouldn’t you, if you had a scaly breast?), and a flock of Large Grey Babblers derided the Munia’s decision with a clamorous chorus. Having said that, we were no quieter than the babblers, and the Bustards soon took a bow. Mr. Bhagwat Mhaske, a dedicated officer from the Forest Department, fielded some queries about Nannaj, and revealed that the Bustards’ diet comprises lizards, insects and small snakes. Some rumbling calls were identified as emanating from hungry stomachs, and we proceeded to ‘Nisarg’, a local specialty restaurant. Enroute, our lunch was delayed, and thankfully so, as a band of Indian Coursers performed a ‘rasta roko’, and we spent much time following their course along the scrub patch.
Aptly, a multi-course meal awaited us, and the sumptuous lunch meeting was presided over by the Chief-guest, the ‘Shenga-poli’, and ably supported by the ‘Dhapates’ and the ‘Khava-polis’, while the ‘Thecha’ was awarded the ‘Best actor in a Villanous role’. We exited as soon as our abdominal pouches started resembling those of the Bustards’, and wended our way to Kegaon.
A narrow canyon with precipitous walls greeted us, and Adesh explained that this was prime Eurasian Eagle Owl country. He exhorted us to scan the cliffs to locate the birds, which we did – i.e. we scanned, but no owls leapt into our field of vision. A pair of raptors circling overhead was put down to a Bonelli’s Eagle, and a Short-toed Snake Eagle. Since there was no snake in its talons, I was left to identify the latter by its short toes!
We returned owl-less from our foray, and were almost back at the road when Adesh gave out a screech – perched on a slender Neem branch, swaying in the light breeze, and caring two hoots for our presence, was a Eurasian Eagle Owl catching his siesta. A mad scramble at the restraining walls of the canyon caused much consternation to the owl, who opened one eye to investigate. Having judged that we were not prey, he prayed that we would leave him to enjoy his slumber. Adesh promised more Bubo bubo on the other side of the road, and we hastened thither. Two juvenile shikras indulged in some sibling rivalry, and had got to the stage of mutual destruction when our arrival stalled the mayhem, and they departed with noisy protests.
The grassland was greener on the other side, and this was borne out by the fact that the canyon across the road was far more picturesque than the first one. Adesh declared that since we had seen the EEO, and knew its habits and habitat, we should be able to spot one much more easily. Binoculars were pressed into service, and all the nooks and crannies were explored. Total Owl count: NIL. A sudden exclamation from the north-north-east corner yielded information on Spotted Owlets, which had hitherto lain, well, unspotted. Three Owlets clung to the cliff face, and one wise guy darted into his pigeonhole (?) when he found us staring.
While we lavished out attentions on the owlets, the Eagle-eyed Shivkar had quietly spotted the big daddy, and had trained his scope on it – we fell in line for the ‘darshan’, and the field of view afforded a glimpse of an EEO crouching under a Neem clump. It was far enough to be labeled as being in ‘Pandharpur’, Adesh’s euphemism for distant birds (a Vithal statistic, no doubt).
We continued our leisurely saunter along the path edging the canyon, and were rewarded with a pair of Little Minivets – this species chose to flaunt its specie amidst the dull-coloured habitat, in the manner of the nouveau-riche showing off their bling. One Swallow, which obviously did not make a summer, identified itself as a Red-rumped ( the earthy aphorism of ‘khud ka laal karna’ springs to mind), and a Wire-tailed one followed suit. The latter, evidently, was a more tech-savvy customer, as he had chosen to go wire-free!
A sloping path led to the base of the canyon, and I tiptoed down this to approach the aforementioned Neem clump purported to contain the Eurasian Eagle Owl. I must have made about 120 decibels of din, with my tripod clanging and keys jangling, which resulted in the Owl getting flushed out to escape the noise pollution. I admired its huge wingspan, and its silent flight, and its demeanour suitably chastened my thoughtless intrusion.
As dusk fell, we exited the canyon, where the disgruntled owl was again seen at the mouth of the canyon, and seen mouthing expletives directed at me.
The next morning saw us setting off to explore another facet of Nannaj, i.e. the rolling plains on the opposite side of the road. Near the sanctuary, a Fox was hounding a Blackbuck herd, and upon our approach, decided to pass the buck. Adesh suggested a short village walk through Nannaj village, which rewarded us with Grey Hornbills, Indian Silverbills, Prinias, Bayas, and lots of human droppings. A Tailorbird nest was spotted by Julius, and the female seemed to be getting hemmed in and needled by our presence.
Crossing the road from the sanctuary, a vast expanse of grassland and scrub stretched for miles, and seemed devoid of any fauna. To defy our perception, a flock of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse circled overhead, and soon disappeared into the distance. We also heard a Muttered Grouse about not being able to see the GIBs. Indian Coursers were seen as a matter of course, and the nest of an Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark was located. Adesh’s strong advice to stay clear of it (i.e. Laakh mana karne par) was heeded, and we circumvented it.
A post-lunch excursion brought us to a wetland called Hipparga, which yielded Grey & Purple Herons, Whiskered Terns, Ibises and Painted Storks, all of which were in ‘Pandharpur’. A quick mental calculation put the overall bird tally at around 85, and we realized our incredible luck for having spotted no less than seven Great Indian Bustards. With the impending denotification of parts of the sanctuary, these prized birds will face more pressure from human activities. We can only hope and pray for their wellbeing, as the human juggernaut rolls on.