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?


Sunday, February 8, 2009

This Rann is for the birds

Day 1- 21st Jan 2009
The first lesson I learnt in Kutch is that a good pair of tits is very hard to come by, and you could spend the better part of an evening looking high and (occasionally) low for them! Adesh had promised to show us the endemic Whitenaped Tits, but the birds were playing their cards very close to their chests.
Our local guide Mohammedbhai, however, regarded them as his bosom buddies, and assured us of a sighting. We were ambling along the scrubland at Phot Mahadev on the evening of the 21st of January, the day Adesh’s Nature India kicked off its Kutch tour.
The first flush yielded
Greynecked Buntings, and we developed eye-rings similar to theirs while peering through the spotting scope. A pair of Marshall’s Ioras conferred atop an Acacia, and having marshalled their thoughts, flitted away. A pair of Mallards played ducks and drakes as they circumambulated us in the skies overhead, and having eyed a couple of quacks in our group, faded into the background (we doctors are immune to these barbs – in fact, it’s just like water off a duck’s back). Neil, our dermatologist-cum-herpetologist narrowly missed squashing a bird, which took off with a whirring of wings. When the poor bird alighted at a safe distance, it revealed itself to be a Painted Sandgrouse which had escaped by the skin of its teeth.

A few Indian Robins foraged around for an Uthappa, but the Whitenaped Tits refused to play ball. A procession of long faces descended from a vantage point, and was heading back to the vehicles when Mohammedbhai suddenly experienced ‘tit-elation’: he had heard the unmistakable call of the W. Tits, and we rushed in a stampede behind him. In a small clearing ringed by thorny acacias, a tiny black-and-white bird emerged to lend colour to our cheeks. A Whitenaped Tit peeped out through the cleavage of the acacia trunk, and set our pulses racing. We followed its antics till the light faded, and wound our way back. A blind snake was encountered on the road, and was seen asking Neil for directions. Adesh had arranged for other light ‘snakes’ for us, which manifested as a large fruit platter awaiting us on our vehicle’s bonnet.
Day 2 22nd Jan 2009
It was pitch dark as we left the hotel, with just a trace of light in the eastern skies. We were heading for Fulay village, the favourite feeding grounds of another winter visitor, the Grey Hypocolius. The village afforded good clumps of Meswak, a big hit with the hypocolius. Our quest for this elusive bird was interrupted by the appearance of a buzzard, and the big daddy in the group pronounced it to be a Longlegged. Its legs did seem to be a foot long, and we ourselves had to tiptoe past to prevent it from flying away.
White eared Bulbuls dominated the proceedings, and Common Babblers seemed, well, quite common. A wall of thorny bushes impeded our path, but Mohammedbhai spotted some movement through the chinks. ‘Hypocolius!’ quoth he, and we braved our way forwards, ignoring the Prosopis bushes which had become a thorn in our side. A pair of darkish birds darted in and out of the treetops, and a quick look through the binoculars revealed a large bulbul-like bird with a long tail. The male had an intriguing black mask, while the female felt no need to observe purdah. Adesh explained that these birds visit from the Middle-East, showing that any gulf can be bridged by determined migrants(as a Keralite, this reverse migration seemed hilarious to me, as I am more used to seeing large swathes of the Mallu populace headed for the ‘Gelf’!)
We spotted the Hypocolius pair which made intermittent appearances for over an hour, while the Whitecheeked Bulbuls rendered the long commercial breaks. A pair of Common Stonechats could be seen chatting (both obviously female – the males were probably stoned), perhaps about their travel plans to Siberia. As our group migrated back towards the village, my wife Sarita and I lost sight of them, busy as we were in tailing a Sirkeer Malkoha (which was already endowed with a rather long tail). A pair of Green Bee-eaters offered to show us the way, but we let them be. My unerring sense of navigation would have taken us well past the Pakistan border, and I prudently chose to follow Sarita’s instructions to be soon reunited with the group.
Our next halt was for another special bird, the Rufous-tailed Wheatear. A small, rocky hillock loomed out of the flat plains, and was deemed the perfect place for a ‘pee and tea’ break. A solitary wheatear patrolled the slopes, and in true wheatear fashion, seemed to have a favoured perch – on the rocks, much like the single malts I adore (Kutch is very dry, and so is Gujarat, so I must desist from such thoughts). Mohammedhai informed us of the presence nearby of a fossil-strewn patch, and we took the small detour. For over an hour, we combed the zone like carefree beach bums, picking up bits and pieces of fossilized molluscs and gastropods which inhabited this nook eons ago. Sarita felt that she was already married to a fossil, and that these specimens seemed fairly modern in comparison. It was decided that no samples would be collected, though it seemed that most of the larger fossil specimens would have been carted away by collectors over the years.
We moved on to the Banni region, a huge expanse of dry scrub interspersed with grass. The sun was blazing by now, and the terrain seemed devoid of life. We encountered a few groups of Common Cranes which lifted our spirits. A large raptor nest was sighted, and a shy fledgling peeped out over the edge. “Tawny Eagle”, said Adesh, and we decided to keep a safe distance from the nest to avoid spooking the baby. Some in the group wished to go closer to tickle the tot’s toes, but for their souls we can only ‘prey’!
Hodko is a small village nestling amidst the Banni grasslands, and a local initiative has helped recreate a traditional village setting, the Hodko resort. Mud-plastered walls inset with mirrors (the famed ‘lippan” of Kutch), authentic round grass-thatched dwellings (the Bhongas), and great ethnic food give the visitor an original slice of the region’s attractions. Our focus, as ever, was on the birds, and over lunch and a well-deserved break for lazing, we did catch a glimpse of the Variable Wheatear, which, it seems, is invariably found foraging atop the Bhongas. The White-eared Bulbuls were extremely bold, and we could view them close enough to see the wax in their ears.
It was still very hot and sunny as we made our way back, and bird sightings were conspicuous by their absence. We did chance upon a large herd of poor One-hump-in-a-lifetime Camels for dessert, and their herders thought we must have gone crazy in the heat to be out there in the desert. As the sun dropped lower, our eyes started focusing again, and we chanced upon a pair of Steppe Eagles, which stepped away rather quickly. Another pair materialized soon, who were probably Russian roulette enthusiasts, as they hung on till our vehicles were almost upon them.
The long drive carried on through dusk, and we kept our ears and minds open to Short-eared Owl sightings, but alas! - no hoots of joy were ordained for us. A Desert Cat crossed our paths (could have been unlucky for him if he hadn’t been quick), and apart from some suspicious eyeshine (spiders) and some dreams of moonshine, nothing exciting lay in store for the rest of the evening.

Day 3 23rd Jan 2009

The route to the Naliya grasslands turned out to be more productive than the final destination. A Short-toed Snake Eagle perched atop a distant tree greeted us in the golden morning light. A small village adjoining the road seemed to have found favour with several Peafowl, with one cock proudly upright on a treetop (A Chief Erection Commissioner, perhaps?). A Rufous-tailed Shrike climbed up a Euphorbia to get a closer look at this blatant exhibitionism, and a group of Yellow-eyed Babblers took a rather jaundiced view of these indiscretions.
Up ahead, a small clearing near an intersection provided a large number of species to swell our species count – Indian Bushlarks singing the top 10, Grey Francolins which refused to dye, cocky Prinias with tails cocked, a Southern Grey Shrike coping with the rigours of learning Gujarati, and lesser numbers of Greater Short-toed Larks . I moved away from the group towards a small track leading away to the left to answer a different call, and came back having only flushed some larks. In the meantime, a whoop of joy had been heard, and was traced to the sighting of a Eurasian Wryneck. By the time I could reach the aforementioned spot, the bird had flown off (with a wry grin, I suppose), and I developed torticollis searching for it.
Further on, a small group of Common Cranes foraged languidly amidst a ploughed-up field, seeking non-vegetarian delights in a vegetable patch . A staccato call sounding like a discharged cartridge from yonder was put down to a Black Partridge, and the spotting scope revealed a resplendent male calling with (gay?) abandon. Some errant participants who had wandered away towards the Rajasthan border had to be lured back into the jeeps with the promise of hot food, and we headed off for a small pond for some bird-and -breakfast.
This pond turned out to be quite a surprise – Northern Pintails, Common Teals, Gadwalls, Garganeys, Spotbills – we had to duck for cover under this barrage! A Greater Spotted Eagle took in the gist of the proceedings from his vantage point atop a tree, trying to spot his lunch. A Bluethroat did wonders to banish our blues, and a pair of White Wagtails spelt it out in black and white to us. The pond was surrounded by an interesting patch of scrub, which yielded a pair of Little Minivets, and a Bay-backed shrike wondering if he could impale the pesky pair. Over breakfast, it was decided to explore another larger waterbody slightly off our route.
This seemed like the backwater of a dam, and we were on a small hillock overlooking the water. The first treat was a flock of Chestnutbellied Sandgrouse landing at the water’s edge to indulge in a communal drinking spree. Several ducks patrolled the waters, and Glossy Ibises were seen keeping their bills down to keep expenses under control. A Spotted Eagle soared overhead, and lo! Another large raptor, distinctly larger than the Spotted Eagle loomed over it.
Quick cries of “Imperial Eagle” rent the air, and its markings were clearly appreciated. We abdicated to let him tend to his empire, and proceeded to Tera village, where the Kutch Ecological Research Centre is situated. We drove through narrow roads generous enough to accommodate a bicycle, plastering the poor villagers to the wall, and driving some of them up it.
The KERC is a branch of the Corbett Foundation, and apart from some developing and managing some wonderful Community Health and Social Welfare projects, they are very active in Wildlife Conservation – in fact, they were instrumental in getting the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary established in Naliya. The Foundation’s Director, Mr Agnihotri and Dy. Director Mr Bhavesh Thakkar explained the scope of their activities over a simple lunch, and wished us luck in finding the bustards.
It was scorching outside, and we had a fat chance of spotting the bustards, though some in the group felt that our chances were quite slim. We sped over dusty roads, raising a haze which could probably add to global warming. What can one see from a vehicle travelling at seventy kmph, through the dust haze, and a post-prandial stupor?
Mohammedbhai’s answer – a Great Indian Bustard!
He called for an emergency stop, and with copious screeching of tyres and squealing of brakes, we ground to a halt. A lone ‘gaando-baaval’ tree stood in a barren field, and Mr. M felt that the GIB was lurking behind it. We filed onto the field, and a closer look revealed a shadowy form crouching behind the bush. The wary bird had sensed our approach, and even as we lined our binouculars on him, he proceeded to take off like a heavy cargo plane, and was soon airborne. Our gasps of admiration subsided as he shot an irate glance at us for interrupting his siesta, and filed a flight path for the Lala Bustard Sanctuary nearby.
Overcast skies, salt-laden trucks and a bold Grey Heron welcomed us to Jakhau Port for the evening programme. The road was lined by salt pans on both sides, with the Lesser Flamingoes, Dalmatian Pelicans and Darters monopolising the ‘Gazer’s’ Strip, while the West Bank was dominated by Western Reef Egrets and Large Egrets. Terns and Gulls flew overhead, and Adesh gave us the lowdown on IDing them – how to separate the Slenderbilled Gulls from the Gullbilled Terns, and such other simple stuff! As for me, I was left with the humbling knowledge that gulls will be gulls, and that one good tern deserves another. As if in concert with this thought, a bevy of local beauties (the Slenderwaisted Girls) walked past, amused at our unconventional preoccupations.A Painted Stork and a Eurasian Curlew later, we headed back when a Border Security Patrol flagged us down. Some of the group looked suspiciously like migrants from across the border, and we had to flash our IDs to convince him that we were Resident Migrants. Thankfully, he did not insist on evidence of breeding, and we were let off with a cheery wave.
Chhari Dhand is a huge, brackish waterbody famed for the congregation of thousands of flamingos, and the early morning light revealed a sea of pink feeding in the slime. Sandpipers, Plovers and Greenshanks rendered the side orders, and one wader had both Adesh and Dr. Vaibhav flummoxed (after much consultation, it was eventually identified as a Greenshank in non-breeding plumage). Adesh remarked that owing to poor rainfall, the water had receded quite a bit, and consequently the bird numbers were not as high as expected. A lone Wolf was seen on the horizon, though some felt it was a Jackal – we let it pass, as none of us was dogged enough to hold on to our conviction. The scrubland around Chhari Dhand did produce a Common Kestrel, a couple of Steppe Eagles and a Marsh harrier which held us rapt.
Fulay village was a brief stopover, not for the Hypocolius this time, but for some local craft. A wizened artisan displayed his wood lacquering skills while the colourfully dressed kids gave us some brilliant photo-ops, and for once we were clicking juveniles whom we could identify!
A stony hillock surrounding a small pond formed the perfect foil for Neil’s late morning reptile hunt: a Brooke’s Gecko and a couple of Fat-tailed Scorpions appeared as he left no stone unturned in his quest. A Skink slunk away, and the die-hard birders suggested we do likewise. A Rufousfronted Prinia advised that we head back to our hotel, and we concurred.
Damn the evening session, said Adesh, and we quickly proceeded to a large dam nearby. He suggested that we split up into two groups to explore the area (reminded me of the jailor in Sholay saying “Aadhe yahaan se........etc.”), and one group proceeded to the water’s edge. The wiser ones (i.e. our group) checked out the scrubland around, and followed the telltale signs of a Eurasian Eagle Owl’s presence, but ended up owl-less. Grey-necked Buntings, Peafowl, a pair of Little Minivets and a White-browed Wagtail offered their commiserations, but a couple of Rose-ringed Parakeets subtly reminded us using the Marathi phrase “Popat zhala!” Our only consolation was that the second group also seemed to have had their fair share of ‘popat’, but were rather tight-lipped when invited to discuss it!
Day 5 – 25th Jan 2008
The last day of the trip, and everybody was in the mood to chat – to be precise, as Thomson and Thompson of Tintin fame would put it, the Stoliczka’s Bushchat. We set off for the Naliya grasslands again, this time without any scheduled breaks enroute. A small waterbody did, however, detain us for a moment, as a motley assortment including a Painted Stork, a Black-crowned Night Heron, a Eurasian Spoonbill and some Egrets had decided to enjoy a spot of fishing. They fled at our approach, thinking that we were out phishing for their vital info.
Our entry into the Naliya grasslands was marked by a pair of Black Francolins, whose trail led us to some Chestnutbellied Sandgrouses resting on the ground. Adesh cautioned us to be on the lookout for what looked like female Common Stonechats, as that’s what the Stoliczka’s Bushchat resembles. Soon, a suspect flitted by, and like our investigating agencies, we had convinced ourselves that this was the real McCoy, and had slapped the charges on the unsuspecting soul. After viewing the purported culprit from several angles, and after much thumbing of the Grimmetts and fingering of the Pamela Andersons (not the Baywatch babe, naughty!), it was concluded that the poor girl was indeed a Common Stonechat, and some sanity returned.
Naliya’s larks and pipits couldn’t engage us for long, and we moved on to the Kunathia grasslands, where the grass was anecdotally greener. A dozen Yellowwattled Lapwings socialising in a rocky patch greeted our arrival with stony stares. Well-fed Spinytained Lizards retreated into their lairs upon seeing Neil, whose tales of reptile-grabbing had reached the saurian world. We encountered birds to the right and birds to the left, posing for the camera – Variable Wheaters, Stonechats, Common Babblers, Crested Larks, all turning up in strength to see us off. A Jungle Cat and a Common Mongoose represented the mammalian farewell party, and all that was missing was a Swan song.
An alert Nightjar would have observed a tired but happy group of birders leaving Bhuj by the night train, and it is rumoured that the engine’s hoot was echoed by a Shorteared Owl sitting near the signal post.