Sunday, April 7, 2013

Tal Chhapar - Rapturous Raptor Realm

Steppe Eagle taking off at Jor Beed
Eagles in motion
Raptor heaven! Tucked away on the fringes of the mighty Thar Desert in Rajasthan is one of the most spectacular raptor refuges on this planet - a tiny oasis called Tal Chhapar. This grassland is home (or transit lounge, winter refuge, refueling point - call it what you will) to a bewildering number of birds of prey - large and small. With luck (and some patience) you can come back with spectacular sightings of at least 10 and sometimes even 20 different species. For a raptor fiend like me, it was like driving into paradise. For the mammal lovers you have loads of blackbuck plus foxes (desert and Indian) Desert Gerbils, and the rare desert cat. 

This winter, in the space of 2 months, I made two trips, shepherded both times by the eagle-eyed (pun intended) Hari. And both times Chhapar (and the mind-numbing Jor Beed near Bikaner) threw up a sighting feast and that, along with a lovely forest guest house, the legendary Mr Surat Singh Poonia (Chief of the Park - more on him later) and Vandana & Sharad Sridhar (more on them too) have helped make this superb place a permanent destination on my wildlife calendar.

Stoliczka's Bushchat
On our first trip (with my brother, Sridhar and Vishal, a close friend) we only spent 2 days. As soon as we entered on the first morning, we saw a female kestrel on an electric pole, a lagger falcon perched on a wire fence and a regal imperial eagle. Post lunch, we set out to find the beautiful Stolizcka's bushchat, seeing some sandpipers and pied avocets in the salt pans on the way. We returned to the grasslands towards evening, to see desert wheaters and a beautiful male kestrel give us a close sighting on the ground. But we spent the better part of the evening searching for the solitary White Tailed Eagle, easily the biggest attraction in the park. While we were driving all over the grasslands, he was sighted very close by a tourist Innova (and the people had a full frame picture on their iPhones!) When we finally saw him, he was across the road from the grassland, perched on a tree in the open. As we slowly drove towards him, we saw a man carrying firewood walk right under his tree, much to my frustration. Obviously, that spooked the eagle and he flew off. Though I spent an hour running around and hiding behind dunes, I could never ever get close enough to get a good picture. But hey, at least we saw him!  And ended what was a superb first day, but the second would be just crazy.


Egyptian Vulture
Sharad had organized for us to go to the Jor Beed carcass dump near Bikaner (about 130 kms from Chhapar) and when I'd asked him what we'd see there, he casually mentioned "Around 1000 Steppe Eagles, at least 2000 Egyptian Vultures and a few hundred Tawny Eagles and maybe Imperials, Eurasian and Himalayan Griffons and Cinerous Vultures for sure and maybe even some Greater Spotted Eagles) And I thought he was joking. But when we got there, it was like a mind-bending, never ending buffet!! There were several raptors on every branch of every tree and scores more on the ground near the carcasses. So I OD'd on what was in front of me, taking picture after picture in pose after pose! And boy did I get my money's worth. Problem was, by the end of it, I had no idea what I had shot and which species I had covered. It was only when we looked at the pictures back at base did I realize that I'd missed the Cinerous, Imperial and Spotted Eagles completely. Most of my pictures were Steppes (awesome Steppes though) in different poses. Gentle reminder to self - review buffet items properly before commencing gluttony!

We headed back to Chhapar and that afternoon, Mr. Poonia very kindly accompanied us, especially to try and find the rare spotted creeper. We took a quick round of the grassland first and saw a hen harrier in flight and a glimpse of a sparrowhawk, but nothing worth photographing. Heading to the creepers, Mr. Poonia spent more than an hour hunting for them, but they were not forthcoming with an appearance even for him. it was made up to an extent by a beautiful little minivet. And with that, we headed out of Chhapar with me promising to come back for more. Soon.

And that happened in six weeks as I headed back with my friend Dr. Nissim Kanekar (who joined a day later) This time I promised myself that I would be more composed, especially at Jor Beed. And as luck would have it, Sharad was there with his wife Vandana and their lovely little daughter, Vanya (whose birding knowledge would put many a birder to shame and she's all of 4!)  On Mr. Poonia's advice, I headed first to a desert fox den to try and get sightings of her pups. And as Hari and I waited for more than hour for the pups to emerge, our hopes were dashed by a herd of cattle who wandered all over that area, ending any hopes of the pups emerging. So, with empty hearts we headed back to fill our stomachs.

Common Kestrel
Post breakfast, I headed back in with Vandana and Vanya and she first met her 'friend' - Menaka the blackbuck, an orphaned female who was brought up by the forest guards. We then saw two beautiful kestrels, one very close to the road. And a very good sighting of a spiny tailed lizard sunning himself outside his little hole. And that was only the beginning. Sharad and I went back around mid-day and right next to a waterhole we saw a steppe (or was it a tawny?) We saw something poking its head from the rim of the waterhole and to our surprise it was a lagger falcon watching us with great interest. She came out in the open, posed for us and flew off.  Later that evening, a beautiful Marsh Harrier and a Montagu's Harrier both very kindly sat in the open and posed for me. Towards dusk, I headed to a mound where a desert cat had her den and waited there for almost an hour, but no juice. The first of many such fruitless vigils over the next couple of days.


Marsh Harrier
Nissim joined the next morning and we immediately struck gold with a laggar on a stump right next to the road. Next up was a beautiful black francolin - with absolutely spectacular patterns. The rest of the morning we devoted to watching blackbuck and it was wonderful watching these incredibly elegant creatures - we saw some strut and pose, couple of males sparring and herds sprint and jump past at blinding speeds. But the most incredible moment was that of a mother with her little calf, how she tenderly shepherded, nursed and tended the little one. One of those moments when we 'superior' human beings realize that a mother love has the same intensity and tenderness, irrespective of species. On our way back to the guest house, I went eye to eye with a spiny tailed and got a glimpse (and sketchy pictures) of an interesting little bird. When I showed them to Sharad, he exclaimed 'Eversmann's Redstart- a lifer for me' and was half ready to rush back in, though he was feeling really unwell and had just returned from a saline drip at the local hospital!


Blackbuck and calf
Blackbuck on the sprint
But we really hit pay dirt that afternoon - we stopped first up to admire a beautiful (and surprisingly large) turtle near a smallish pond - 'Bhainslao' (or Buffalo Pond). That's when a bird came and sat right in the water over on the far side. At first we thought it was a Shikra, but it turned out to be a sparrow hawk (my first quality sighting) and this beautiful little raptor gave us some super poses. Sated, we moved on and saw a beautiful Steppe flying overhead, more blackbuck and then decided it was time to take a shot at the Spotted Creeper. One our way there we saw a couple of Steppes and Tawnies, a grey backed shrike and a black redstart. And then Nissim saw the creeper on the trunk of a nearby tree - and for the next hour or so, the bird led us a merry dance. He hopped from tree to tree and up and down the trunk, never stopping beyond a nano-second, even to stick his beak into the bark and pick up an insect or two. With a heavy 500mm lens and shooting handheld, my hands were at breaking point by the end of the hour! But we did manage to get some decent pictures of this elusive little bird.


Spotted creeper with a snack
Shikra
Laggar Falcon
We ended the day with a sighting of all three harriers - Montagu's Pallid and Marsh, a couple of kestrels  and a lagger falcon. But the highlight was another breathtaking performance by another sparrow hawk at a different waterhole. He posed and preened and spread his wings, waltzed in the water and what not. Absolutely spectacular little fella!


Bar Headed Geese
We decided to go searching for bar-headed geese the next morning and Hari drove us to a village pond about 25 kms away because that's where he saw them a week ago. When we got there, the pond was empty save for a couple of black winged stilts prancing around like little ballerinas. Disappointed, we came back to Chhapar when Hari suggested that we check out the lake next to the grassland for storks or ibises. I got cut crossing a barbed wire fence trying to climb up and reach the lake wall  (and got a tetanus shot at the local chemist for my troubles) When we peered over, to our amazement (and immense joy) we saw not ibises, but a large flock of bar headed geese. We'd driven 50kms looking for them (and not finding them) while they were barely 100 metres from the Sanctuary! After having our fill of the geese, we drove on to see a large flock of beautiful demoiselle cranes. These graceful birds really make you want to stay and keep watching, only until they're silent though. Their 'skwak, skwak' sounds are as jarring as their beauty is captivating. Says something about nature that some of the largest, most elegant birds have harsh and jarring sounds, the peacock would be a prime example.

That afternoon yielded one more sparrow hawk sighting and this was unique because he allowed us to get close to him on foot. He was in the open, standing in the water and we went quietly; took one step at a time then stood still. It took us 10 mins to cover 25 metres and he didn't see us as a threat. And just when I was 3 steps away from a full frame view, Hari (who was over on the other side of the pond) decided to rev the engine. Consequently, said subject bolted post haste and disappeared into the inner branches of a dense tree. End of that sighting.

Desert Fox with pup
Desert Fox polishing off a bird kill
But the highlight of the afternoon (and probably of the whole trip) was yet to come. With the grasslands empty I suggested we head to the salt pans to try and see pied avocets and sandpipers. And once we were done with them, we decided to check out the fox den. And as we turned a corner, we  a desert fox peering out of her den. She came out, her mate joined her and we saw the most incredibly affectionate sequence between the two. They nuzzled, she gently bit his ears and then the pups joined in and made for a fantastic family get together. We realized soon that the mother was going hunting for food, so we tailed her for a couple of mins, realized we might inadvertently get in her way and quietly made our exit. I was still tingling when we got back to the guest house!


Cinerous Vulture
After a superb a la carte offering at Chhapar, it was time to dive into the buffet at Jor Beed the next morning, our final safari before catching our train from Bikaner. I was determined to make it count this time. And while we were all warned that a lot of the migrants had left, there would still be enough (I hoped) to make it worth our while. I particularly wanted to see the Cinerous vulture, a large and distinguished-looking species, which I missed in the mindless gluttony of the last time.  

And so, we went in, looking for the less common species, sifting through the sea of steppes and egyptian vultures for Imperials, Spotteds, Griffons and the Cinerous. Hari was a bit skeptical about the Cinerous and repeatedly said they'd gone, when, at a distance I saw one perched on the ground. We got a few long distance pictures and then he flew off to the other side of the nearby railway line. Just as we were rueing that guy, we saw another bloke, and he obliged with better pictures, including some decent flying shots as well. Mission accomplished, we hit the carcass dump with renewed vigor and that threw up Eurasian Griffons, Black Eyed Kites and Black Ibises. We then got down to finding angles for some interesting Steppe and Tawny pictures when I saw something which didn't look like either. Turned out to be a regal Imperial eagle and it very kindly posed, preened and gave us some decent flying pictures too. Which made for a much more satisfying trip to the buffet. Selective and focused gluttony always pays off.


Imperial Eagle
And that was Chhapar (and Jor Beed) Raptor destination extraordinaire. I can't wait for next winter, to go back in and get some new species with the red necked falcon and hen harrier at the top of my list. And the white tailed eagle, if he were to lose his way and come back here (which I pray he does)

Till winter then.



Tal Chhapar Trip Guide

Getting there

Chhapar is in Rajasthan's Churu district, approximately 210 kms north-west of Jaipur (the nearest big city). The roads are good so it should be a 3 1/2 - 4 hour drive.

The best way to get there is by train, a very convenient overnight option from Delhi's Sarai Rohilla Station (via Gurgaon if that works better) The daily Bikaner train gets to Ratangarh (45 kms away) and there's a twice a week service that goes to Sujangarh (14 kms away)

You can get a pick up from either station

When to go and how long for

Winter is the best time for birds. October/November through February are best, where you can get either the migrants come in early winter or the return migrants in February. 

The best time for mammals (cats/foxes) would be March, when their young are old enough to be brought out.

3-4 days should give you a fair chance to see most of what's on offer. Budget half a day for Jor Beed though.

Stay

The Tal Chhapar Guest House is a forest guest house like no other. It is beautifully designed with large, comfortable rooms, all the mod-cons and very good home style food. 

It's also unique in the sense that it is probably the only FRH run by wildlifers - Sharad Sridhar and his wife Vandana. Sharad himself is a birder par excellence and a major influence in the regeneration of this amazing place. 

To book, you can write to them at talchapar@gmail.com or visit the website www.talchapar.com

Safaris

There are no organized safaris and no timing restrictions - you can spend as much time in the park as you like between sunrise and sunset. You can take your own vehicle into the park and there are no real guides. But it would be a good idea to hire Hari's Bolero. Not only is he a very good driver, but an excellent spotter too. He also knows his way around, where to find the foxes, creepers, Jor Beed etc. The Guest House folk will book the vehicle as well.

The excursion to Jor Beed can also be arranged at an extra cost and it is well worth a visit.

Local Celebrities

Surat Singh Poonia
It will not be an exaggeration to call Pooniaji (as he's known in Chhapar) as the father of Tal Chhapar. Over the last 5 or so years, he has transformed a degraded, cattle invaded patch of scrub into a thriving grassland haven. Along with that, the number of avian species that he has discovered and followed here is nothing short of spectacular. He is a humble, unassuming and extremely helpful person, always willing to accompany enthusiasts into the park. It is incredible what he has accomplished in Chhapar and that too in virtually no time.  May his tribe increase!

Sharad Sridhar
A chance visit to Chhapar (he was in the area on work) on the day Mr. Poonia took charge gave Sharad a new mission (so to speak) An ace birder, he has worked shoulder to shoulder with Pooniaji to help develop Chhapar into the place it is today. And when the forest guest house was built, he (with his wife Vandana) took over the responsibility of managing it completely. A fountain of information on all things Chhapar and its denizens. 


Kestrel at sunset