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.



Rama Bhave said...


Great pictures from the Rann! must have been a lovely plc to visit.

which camera do you use?


Sai said...

Fantastic work done by u my friend. The write up is real good...with full detailed info enjoyed every bit of it my friend. Would like to have the cell no or contact of guide mohammedbhai if u do not mind. keep up the good work! God bless.

My Email :

Vamsee said...

This is one of the funniest birding trip report I ever read. I was either laughing my heads out or smiling the entire time I read the report. Plus, I
read it twice, so had double the fun!!

Loved the word play and subtle humor in the writeup.

Sanjay said...

Fantastic trip account, with some lovely photographs!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful writeup. Very nice pictures. A treat to read.

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

I had heard of birds like Painted sandgrouse only in books and thought, "wow, do birds like that actually exist?" Thanks for showing them to me, finally! :-) You do have amazing experiences!! Do keep travelling, so that we'll be privelaged to read more such accounts of birding! Wow, even though you people are denstists, I must say you have an amazing skill for photography!! Extremely well captured photographs, and as always, pleasure to read your blog!! Will keep coming back! (PS: I came by this wonderful blog which also deals with birding, esp in south india. It's called Madras Ramblings Do take a look in your free time and enjoy your holidays!!
Forever your fan! :)

AB Apana said...

Great blog, with great pics. Keep posting!


flowergirl said...

I have to agree with Vamsee! Such an enjoyable read! We were to go to Kutch last year, but the Gods plotted against it, so this report gave me a lot of vicarious pleasure!

If (or maybe I should say when) I do go there, your report will keep a smile on my face as I come across these suspects!

Jayanthi said...

Wow, what sparkling humour, Dr.! Great report! Loved every bit (or should i say 'tit' of it :)

Xorkes said...

Hey nice blog! Well written and lovely pics too.. Which cam? ;-)
on the other side, hmmm.. U mentioned bout doing somethin for street dogs in your profile. Heard bout WSDwelfare(for stray dogs) they r doing a good job.
Nice to c dentists being so passionate bout wildlife. Keep it up :-)

green indians said...

hi guys
thanks for your appreciation of the katchch trip report. i use a Nikon D200 Camera and a Sigma 170-500mm zoom lens.
we dont have Mohammedbhai's contact details but adesh shivkar( try n get it for you.
as far as stray dogs are concerned i always manage to get into dogfights with people over their welfare. i am aware of WSD but i am in chembur and IDA and its hospital are more accessible to me.(sarita)
subbu n sari

love said...

lovely blog...nice to know about you both..wonderful pics..kutch needs more artcles like this..
you are always welcome at KERC

Bhavesh Thakkar

vivek said...

Really Nice images and write up.
please mail me more details like where to go in Kutch for birding. which season is good. and min days required to see it well.

Thankd again for posting good trip report.


Anonymous said...

I never comment on blogs, but this one is awesome! Thanks.