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?