Thursday, May 9, 2019

BNHS Goregaon (May 2019) - Avian Adversaries Vanquished


The Indian Scimitar Babbler and Rufous Woodpecker. Two absolutely beautiful members of the avian clan. Who provide many quality sightings and photographs to many people. Except yours truly. Both of these species, especially the former (and his other Scimitarian cousins), have given me acute pain and nothing else in the recent past. A glimpse here and a sighting there have given the birder reasonable joy, but the photographer has only endured torment at his inability to get even a half decent photo. Which is why when word went around that the beautiful CEC Campus of the venerable BNHS was playing host to these two fellows, a trip (or three) was duly planned. The first two trips went through without me, but I finally made it with Sriram one Sunday afternoon.

The Conservation Education Centre (CEC) of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) stands in the middle of Film City, bordering the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. This area is wilderness interspersed with large shooting floors for films and television serials, so one can get a rather motley bunch of sightings here, from leopards to leotards, kingfishers with and without wings and barking deer to men barking orders on megaphones! The CEC itself is nestled in a nice wooded area and they have a waterhole right next to their office building. It is this waterhole that attracts all the birds (and more than a few mammals and reptiles) in the scorching heat of summer. To get access to the waterhole, you have to set yourself up in the CEC's kitchen and peer through the two small windows that look into the waterhole. And so, this Sunday saw Sriram and me occupy these coveted window-seats with our cameras in tow.

White-browed Bulbul
No sooner had we settled in than 3 bulbul species turned up for a visit. The Red-vented and Red-whiskered are pretty common all over, but the speciality was a White-browed Bulbul. While not rare, this bird is more heard than seen in forest and scrub, so to get it in the open while it drank and had a little bath was really special. A refreshing mid-afternoon dip, and it made off to pursue more productive business, no doubt. Oriental Magpie Robins, a Jungle Crow and Common Mynas all flitted in and out of the area, just about keeping us honest and not dropping off to sleep in the sultry heat of the afternoon. But the little fella who really got our attention was a beautiful Tickell's Blue Flycatcher. This gorgeous bird perched on the branch closest to the kitchen window, turned this way and that, flicked his little tail to and fro and generally posed grandly for his portfolio. This little flycatcher is often not given as much attention as it is due, probably because it is quite commonly seen. That doesn't take away from the fact that it is an absolutely spectacular looking representative of his species. And we got our fill of this beauty.

Tickell's Blue Flycatcher
He was followed by a Black-naped Monarch, another beautiful bird. He may be called a Monarch, but this particular specimen was anything but imperiously regal. He nervously checked out the waterhole and zipped in and out a couple of times before hastily legging it. Probably the better half had given him a talking-to for spending too much time hanging with the guys over a drink on previous weekends. Even a Monarch has to answer to someone else! After that there was a bit of a lull in proceedings; the stifling heat of the afternoon casting a lethargic spell on birds and humans alike. But things picked up as the sun began to make its way down. In a couple of minutes the stupor was dispelled because the action had well and truly begun.

Rufous Woodpecker
It all started with Sriram spotting a largish brown colour bird and whispering 'Rufous Woodpecker'. That was enough to get the juices flowing. The bird duly arrived and sat on a perch not very far from us. But in reasonably poor light. We pushed our cameras to their limits even as we experimented with a combination of settings to get this frame right. But the bird proceeded to spare our blushes by coming into the open and perching at the edge of the water as it drank its fill. It was followed by its significant other as both birds came out in the open for a drink. The White-browed Bulbul came back for another sortie and two Puff-throated Babblers came out for their afternoon bath and drink.But of the Scimitar there was no sign. And then I heard him...

Indian Scimitar Babbler
The Scimitar Babbler called from the bushes some distance away. And from whatever I have learnt from my birding gurus, this bird usually calls when on the move. The game was indeed afoot, Watson! We waited patiently, amusing ourselves with more photos of the Tickell's Blue and also of a couple of White-browed Fantails that made an appearance. And then I saw him, emerging from a dry thicket. Finally, he was within range. But he still didn't come into the open initially. He kept flitting this way and that in the foliage, with me wondering if he was every going to come in the open. And then he did. To a tree closer to us. And I had my photos, a reasonable effort given the lighting, but photos nevertheless. My struggle had finally ended. A stubborn adversary had finally been conquered. After that initial excitement, I settled down to watch this magnificent bird right in front of me; it drank water, tiptoed across little stones on the waters edge, disappeared into the thicket and then reappeared. Many times over. And then the Rufous Woodie came back to join the fun. I was in heaven twice over.

And then it was time to leave. If someone would have told me that there would come a time when I would exit a birding trip leaving two of my dream species who were  right in front of me, I would have asked them to get their head examined. But that is exactly how it panned out as Sriram and I took our leave and wrapped up this most remarkable of birding trips.

BNHS CEC Trip Guide

The BNHS' CEC is located within Film City, within the northwestern suburb of Goregaon in Mumbai. It's a beautiful little place with a butterfly garden as well and plays host to a remarkable number of animal, bird and reptile species. The waterhole behind the kitchen is the place to be in the summer.

How to get there
The easiest way is to drive straight into Film City and make your way (thanks to pretty good signage) to the BNHS gate (Gate No.1) There, if the gate is padlocked, you need to call the number given on the board and someone will come up and open the gate for you. Free for BNHS members, non-members have to pay a fee of Rs. 150.

Food
You are virtually in the middle of nowhere and if you are at the centre on a holiday, there is no one except a caretaker. So you'd be better off carrying some food and water if you plan to spend a significant amount of time there.

Other tips
Carry a bean bag to rest your camera on the window-sill, especially if you have a big lens.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Saswad (November 2018) - Wolf at last!

The wolf is one of the most misunderstood of animals. This beautiful canid has always operated on the shadowy periphery of human consciousness, almost always for the wrong reasons. Part of the legend is because it is rarely seen, even though it operates close to human habitation for the most part. The vast grasslands and scrublands that make (made?) up its home have all been pockmarked by humans and cultivation, and while that leaves less territory for the wolf to roam in, it provides the animal with additional sources of nourishment. One such area is found in the scrublands south of Pune, one of the best places in the country to spot this elusive animal.

While Saswad offers many avian delights, the wolf is always a welcome addition on any menu, though by no means a certainty. In over two years and more than two dozen trips, I'd seen wolves only twice. So any sighting is seriously prized for all of us. And late November, Sriram, Pravin and I headed to Pune to join our resident expert friend Vishal to find some winter migrants, especially some buntings. As is our practice, we always start the day with a look out for wolves in some areas where they've been seen in the recent weeks. And this time too, we spent a half hour at day-break driving around and trying to spot them. No luck initially and so we turned our attention to our feathered targets. And at once we spotted some beautiful Indian Coursers and set out to photograph them. And then Vishal said, "Wolf"!

The Coursers were temporarily forgotten as we saw a beautiful female wolf walk in from the right of the road. Bathed in beautiful morning light, she was a real sight to behold. We stood at a respectable distance, giving her the space to choose her approach to the road, since she obviously wanted to cross. She would walk a few steps and then wait and watch, almost like she was posing for pictures. And it was she who made all the moves, all we did was take photos. And then we saw the other one! To the left of the road, having already crossed, stood her mate. A handsome, strapping male, he waited for his lady love, exhibiting no sign of impatience at her need to get her photographs taken.


He wasn't as willing a model when we turned our attentions to him and he seemed relieved when his mate finally joined him. The two of them then turned around to give us one memorable frame. It was a sensational sighting - two beautiful wolves in their prime, probably on their way to form their own pack. We soaked in this most remarkable of sightings, having got far more than we bargained for. That feeling that is impossible to describe, a deep rooted sense of joy combined with immense gratitude to the world for giving us such a sighting. For Pravin, it was his first wolf sighting and a magical one at that. I'm sure he's never going to forget that one!

There was still some birding to be done and we decided to use Pravin's remarkable luck and see if he could also get the Striolated Bunting. We searched at the usual spots but there seemed to be lots of human activity in the area (read road repairs) and we reluctantly gave up and prepared to head out. But the gods were in a very 'giving' mood that morning as a beautiful Long-billed Pipit perched up close and pretty personal to our vehicle, giving us some decent images. Not to be outdone, an Isabelline Wheatear also arrived for a photo session. Finally, a few Greater Short-toed Larks capped a truly incredible morning.

The wolf is fighting a losing battle to stay alive. Parts of its stomping grounds have been classified as wasteland and hence not priority for conservation. The remaining parts have been overrun with human settlements for a while now, but it found a way to survive. But with these 'wastelands' firmly in the eye-pieces of mega-infra, the death knell seems to be well on its way. Here's hoping against hope that we leave a little piece of our planet for these beautiful animals to survive, if not enough to help them flourish. Fingers crossed...


Saswad Trip Guide
The Saswad birding area is a vast area around Saswad and the temple town of Jejuri. Saswad is about 35kms (about an hour in the morning) south east of Pune and about 185kms (4 hours) from Mumbai

How to get there
Pune is the nearest major rail and air head, with excellent connectivity across the country. While Saswad and Jejuri are covered by a bus service, you need to have your own vehicle to be able to drive through the area and search for birds.

Where to stay
Pune is the best place to stay, though there is accommodation around Saswad. Varshavan resort is located very close to some of the birding spots and it has a good reputation, though amongst corporate and leisure travellers.

We usually do a day trip from Mumbai and drive back after the morning birdwatching session. 

Guides
Unfortunately, there are no guides in Saswad. There are however, many knowledgeable wildlifers and birders from Pune who know the area well.  You could hook up with some of them from any of the wildlife forums on Social Media.

Food
Saswad and Jejuri have quite a few small restaurants on the highway where you can pick up a snack or a meal. We usually stop at the Waghapur crossroads where you can get delicious misal-pao and batata vadas.

Other tips
There's very little shade in the area, so please carry caps. Also carry water and some snacks, especially if you're planning to trek away from the road.


Monday, March 11, 2019

Mumbai-Pune-Nashik (January 2019) - The Itch to Twitch

'Twitching' - The phenomenon to describe bird watchers traveling long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked off, or counted on  a list. Apparently named after the nervous behaviour of Howard Medhurst, a British birdwatcher in the 1950s.  These days, it has become a word in the birder lexicon that almost everyone indulges in but no one really likes to acknowledge. In some ways, we are all part-time twitchers. And when the rare birds present themselves in the proverbial backyard, is it really possible to not indulge in the odd twitch (or six)?

Twitch 1 - The Great Bittern
January 2019 dawned with the news of this super rare migrant being sighted within Mumbai city limits! And a quick trip was planned the following weekend to the Tarzon Lake in Kandivali. It turned out that half the birdwatching population of the city had the same idea! And we all spent a good hour looking in vain for this bird that had otherwise perched in the open the previous weekend. Even sightings of the otherwise elusive Black and Yellow Bitterns provided scant comfort to the throng. And then came the good news - someone had finally spotted the Bittern, in a different set of reeds this time. They very kindly set up their spotting scope and allowed us all to take a peek at this super-rarity for our parts. The bird was too deep within the reeds to get any photos for us, but just watching it was good enough. We came back the following weekend to get some decent photos, still within the reeds. For me, this was enough!

Twitch 2 - The Water Rail
A new adversary for me. This bird first made an appearance last season in Dombivali, then in Navi Mumbai and didn't give me even a sighter after five visits. This time it materialised in another wetland in Northern Mumbai, the rather spectacularly named Godzilla Lake. And here, it gave an audience to practically every visitor who took the time to come and see it, and I dare say to some of those who didn't even care to see it. "At last", I thought, "this particular representative of the species was not like its other cousins. It would give me a sighting all right" Except it didn't. Apart from one instance where an overzealous uncle drove it away, this bird too proved it was cut from the same cloth as the others. And then another sighting happened, this time near Nashik. Sriram and the others went on a weekend when I was away and shot it to their hearts' content. And assured me that I would break my luck at last. But when I went the following week, not a bloody peep out of this. The entire Water Rail race seems to have turned against me, joining the storied ranks of the Scimitar Babblers. And so, for record purposes, I have used the only half decent image I have! 

Twitch 3 - The Little Crake
A sleepy dam on the outskirts of Pune suddenly woke up into many birders' must-do destinations because of the Little Crake, a rare winter visitor to our parts. A remote outpost for quiet family picnics and quieter pre-nuptial photoshoots suddenly turned into a buzzing Kumbh Mela of sorts for birders as cameras and lenses of every make and size jousted for space to capture this little beauty. Pravin, Sriram and I headed out in the wee hours one Sunday morning to get this one. We hit Kasarsai just after daybreak, joined the assembled gentry in viewing and photographing this little visitor and then were ready to head back home. Till Pravin pointed to some birds on a wire and I asked if some of those could be Streak-throated Swallows (a lifer for me) He answered with an emphatic 'Definitely possible' and we headed to find out. And amidst their Red-rumped and Wire-tailed cousins, a few Streak-throated Swallows sat basking in the early morning sun. And made it a completely fulfilling morning for me. Birding done, rarity and more common lifer both ticked off and back home by 11:30 am! Try and beat that, ya twitchers!

Twitch 4 - The Moustached Warbler
Nandur-Madhyameshwar Sanctuary near Nashik has been on the fringes for a while with many birder friends recommending it. But the real 'reasons' to visit popped up early this year. First, a White-tailed Eagle, a European visitor otherwise seen only in Northern or Eastern India and then the Moustached Warbler, a first record for our state. I was keen on the latter, having seen the Eagle on two separate occasions. And while I missed going with Sriram, Pravin and the indefatigable Ramesh Ganeshan, I found good company the following weekend in the form of Manjunath. We went in, found the warbler, thanks to the omnipresent and ever-helpful Ronit Dutta and managed to get a few good frames of this beauty. 

The aforementioned Water Rail refused to make an appearance, but a very co-operative Spotted Crake more than made up for it. We spent quality time with this beautiful bird and when a Brown Crake also added to proceedings, it made for a very productive twitch indeed. The possibility of a Slaty-legged Crake makes Nandur very interesting indeed and a couple of future trips have been pencilled into the birding calendar.

Four super birds, all around big, buzzing cities. Goes to show that all that these birds (and indeed nature) need to live peacefully is a little, undisturbed habitat and understanding human beings. Here's hoping (against hope) for both of these!

Mumbai-Pune-Nashik Trip Guide

Tarzon Lake is a well-hidden wetland tucked away in the Charkop area of Kandivali, one of Mumbai's North-western suburbs. It can be accessed by public transport, barely 5kms from Kandivali Railway Station on the Western Railway, connecting with buses that go to Charkop. 
Find it on Google Maps here - https://goo.gl/maps/Zpk1UV7ayr62

Godzilla Lake is nothing like the monster the name seems to suggest. Despite being hemmed in by habitation on all sides, this medium-sized waterbody supports a staggering variety of birdlife. It is 4.5 kms from Malad, another of the stations on the Western Railway.
Find it on Google Maps here - https://goo.gl/maps/QEAtWBLpyQp

Kasarsai Dam is on the outskirts of Pune city, about 12 kms from the IT hub of Hinjewadi. You'll need your own transport to get to this place. 
Find it on Google Maps here - https://goo.gl/maps/1xSzEXMEpDL2

Nandur Madhyameshwar Bird Sanctuary is located about 35 kms from Nashik (about 215kms from Mumbai), on the Nashik Aurangabad Highway. It's a beautiful birding destination and well worth a visit. Again, you'll have to arrange your own transportation.
Find it on Google Maps here - https://goo.gl/maps/1apEdTPRPdD2

Common Coot 
Streak-throated Swallow

Brown Crake

Red Avadavat

Spotted Crake

Baillon's Crake

Black Bittern


Sunday, March 3, 2019

Nalsarovar (December 2018) - 'Sociably yours'

Every birder has species on his or her target list that border on the mythical. It is a purely personal preference and the species depends entirely on that person's priorities as well as luck with that particular bird in question. For me, one of those species was the Sociable Lapwing - a bird in the Critically Endangered section of  the IUCN list of bird species. It almost always makes an appearance in India, usually in winter, and many people I know have been blessed with a sighting. But it's usually a chance encounter or serendipitous timing with a solitary specimen. In the last few years, I've tried a few times, but never ever managed even a glimpse of this enigma of a bird.

Early in December, Latif (one of Nalsarovar's finest bird guides) posted a video that set India's birding world on fire. I exaggerate a bit, but it was definitely a small blaze at the very least. It featured around 25 Sociable Lapwings feeding peacefully in a field near Nalsarovar. I got on the phone with him instantly and was astonished at his what he said. The 25 were only a small part of the entire mega-flock - he'd seen (according to his estimate) close to 200 Sociable Lapwings, which would make it one of the largest congregations recorded in India. I immediately agreed to make a weekend visit there if the birds still stayed on till then. On the Friday he confirmed that the birds were still around, so Sriram and I made our way to Ahmedabad early on Saturday, a true red-eye special.

Sociable Lapwing
We were picked up at the airport by the rock-star like, long haired Kisan bhai. Latif had briefed him on where to bring us and we zeroed in on that spot, breaking only for a jalebi-dhokla breakfast on the highway. Latif met us at a spot where a few cars were already parked, the Lapwings were getting some serious attention from birders in the area and also beyond (like us for example!) And he walked us to some dried fields where some birders were already lying prone on the ground with their cameras firing on full burst mode. I first saw the 40 or so birds through my binoculars, I wanted to savour my first sighting of this most special of birds before I got into the photography buzz. I would have been happy with one Sociable Lapwing sighting in life, and here I was with more than 40 right in front of me. I was in dreamland!

The eyes satiated, Sriram and I added two more bodies to the prone assembly as we all slowly crawled forward to get closer to the birds. We would stop every few feet to make sure the birds didn't get disturbed and loose off a few frames. Repeating this sequence a few times got us to within a respectable distance of the (peacefully feeding) birds. And then a stray dog came bounding in and the whole flock took to air and settled in a field further away. And I clambered to my feet, with an overwhelming sense of fulfilment. But we wanted more...

So we carefully made our way to the field where the birds had landed, crawled the last few metres and carefully peered over the bund that separated the fields. The birds were there, bathed in beautiful light and barely a few feet ahead of us. And ever so slowly, I lifted the camera into position and was just about to click my first image when, much to my bewilderment and dismay, the whole flock took off without warning. I looked back and one of the assembled throng had followed me and she walked upright and the birds had spotted her. She gave us one guilty look and hastily legged it before she caught the daggers that our eyes were on the verge of shooting.Latif was mildly sympathetic and he assured us one more try as we drove to a third field with more Sociables settled in. This time, we had no other human interruptions and we were on elbows and knees again as we attempted some reasonably close shots. We not only got the photos, but also the souvenirs that hard, dry fields can bestow upon those foolish enough to crawl across them. The eyes were ecstatic but the elbows and knees were in tears!

Bronze-winged Jacana
Sociable Lapwings done, it was time for some other specialities of the area - Short-eared Owls, Red-necked falcons were two on my list. First up though, a roadside pond threw up two beautiful Bronze-winged Jacanas. Then another pond threw up a whole flock of Great White Pelicans, feeding frantically in the water. For Sriram, the piece de resistance of this spell was the sighting of two beautiful Sarus Cranes, as they gracefully waltzed through a field like ballerinas. It was his first sighting of this beautiful bird, and certainly one that made his day. Pelicans and Cranes done, it was time to indulge our stomachs as well, but the route to the dhaba held one more surprise. Latif brought us under a tree on the roadside and showed us Spotted Owlets - 4 on one tree! There were two siblings that obviously liked each other's company while the other two preferred to keep their own company. We could have stayed and watched this family drama unfold, but the grumbling in our stomachs could no longer be ignored. And after a splendid local repast, we were ready for the afternoon session.

Short-eared Owl
The two targets were Short-eared Owl and Red-necked Falcon with chances for a Laggar Falcon as well. On the way, a Desert Wheatear and Long-billed pipit proved to be superb appetisers as we neared the area for the Owl and Falcon. Latif had seen 7 Owls in this area but that day there was not a single one immediately visible. Probably gone visiting relatives? One finally made an appearance and he gave us some pictures before winging it to join his brethren. The Red-necked Falcon also gave us a tremendous workout and no great pictures before disappearing into the trees near a large open meadow. Latif had seen Laggar there and he asked if we wanted to see it. I was keen on the Red-necked so declined the offer but Sriram went with him and they got a couple of Falcons up on some power pylons. Later, when Latif reported sightings of the Saker Falcon in that area, I asked Sriram to check his Laggar images just in case, and he was rewarded with a photo of the elusive Saker Falcon! Another special day in Nalsarovar with a much wanted bird under my belt and a few more for Sriram. Latif and his fellow guides are excellent spotters and really hardworking. That's what makes a special place even more so. 

We left for home, having seen more than 100 Sociable Lapwings that morning. Given that IUCN estimates the global population at around 12,000 we had seen 1% of the global population in one spot, at one time! Can it get better than that? I'm sure Latif will find a way. Until next time then...

Nalsarovar Lake Trip Guide


Nalsarovar Lake is a 120 sq. km. lake that sits between Central Gujarat and Saurashtra. Declared a Ramsar site in 2012, it is one of the finest wetland habitats in Western India and home to thousands of migratory birds in the winter. In addition to the wetlands, there is a lot of birding in the surrounding fields and ponds and a superb guide like Latif knows all the spots.

How to get there
Ahmedabad (approx. 65 kms, 1 1/2 hours) is the closest metro, airport and large rail-head. Sanand (now a virtual satellite of Ahmedabad) is the closest town. Cars can easily be hired at Ahemdabad for the drive to Nalsarovar.

Where to stay
Again, your best option would be to stay in Ahmedabad and maybe make a day trip to Nalsarovar. As Gujarat's commercial hub, the city has a superb variety of accommodation to suit every budget.

Guides
Nalsarovar Guides pop up on Facebook like moths around a flame, so it is always good to do a quick background check before finalising with one. We went with Latif, who comes highly recommended in the birding circuit and we were extremely happy with him. You can reach him on +91 91065 21394

Food
At the wetland, the Parking lot has a small snack bar which has chips and biscuits. The village nearby has some snack stalls along the highway. Latif took us to an excellent dhaba with some delicious local food, albeit a bit far away from the main wetland.

Other tips
Nalsarovar can also be combined with a trip to the Little Rann of Kutch, barely 70kms away. The road from Ahmedabad is common up to Sanand, so those going to the Rann can easily make a day stop on the way.

Desert Wheatear

Great White Pelican

Sarus Crane


Monday, February 25, 2019

Great Rann of Kutch (October 2018) - The Rites of Passage

The Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat is one of the great paradoxes of the natural world; thousands of kilometres of desolateness somehow which play host to an incredible array of natural life, a great many of whom call it their permanent address. Like many other parts of the country, the Rann too has its share of winter migrants. But what makes it unique are the ones that who enjoy its hospitality for a brief while before moving on to their final wintering destinations. Meet the passage migrants; in other words the birds that liven up an otherwise boring monsoon for Indian bird watchers.

The passage migrants were always on the menu and a grand trip was planned with a number of friends for the end of September. Unfortunately, some issue or another ruled out most of the regular gang and left only Manjunath and me to hold fort. Once again, we had the legend of the Rann, Jugal Tiwari leading us and having access to his wealth of information about the place and its habitat is a privilege in itself. We arrived one Saturday morning and a quick breakfast later, we headed out to look for some passage beauties - the target for the first morning would be Spotted Flycatchers, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robins, the two Shrikes and Common Whitethroats, all in and around the thorn forests of Kot Mahadev.

Spotted Flycatcher
The Spotted Flycatcher was the first migrant we saw, sitting on a wire fence next to some fields. It was far away and against the light, but a sighting nevertheless. We carried on for the others, but none of them were kind enough to grace us with their presence. Kutch had had a poor monsoon in 2018 and almost drought like situations prevailed, leading to a significant drop in the number of visiting birds. Which meant that the ones who came in were spread out and hence not as easy to see. And since were were visiting towards the end of the season, the visitors were also itching to leave. All this meant that the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, Red-tailed Shrikes and Whitethroat were not in attendance that morning. Another Spotted Flycatcher in good light made up for his fellow travelers, so that mitigated things a bit. A shrike on a wire by the roadside proved to be a juvenile Red-backed Shrike so that added to the count too.

European Roller
Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse
That afternoon we set out in a different direction but for the same birds. And we were immediately rewarded with close up sightings of a beautiful European Roller. And that was followed by a flock of stunning Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse. These beauties were feeding in the scrub next to a village and were reasonably unconcerned by our jeep. Then Jugal bhai took us to a place that turned out to be the highlight of the afternoon. We reached this beautiful rock formation called (variously) Kissing Rock or Nandi Rock, ostensibly to watch the sunset. But he had an incredible surprise up his sleeve that nestled within the rock formation. Parking our vehicle at a distance, he led us to the rock itself and then flashed his torch briefly into its dark depths. And within that cavity were thousands of Mouse-tailed Bats! Every square inch of space was taken up by these animals. It was an unbelievable sight. One of them was nominated by their leaders to come out in the open and give us some pictures. And then we stepped back to the car, but not after getting another lifer - House Swifts who flitted above the rock.

Mouse-tailed Bats
Pale Hedgehog
And as we sipped tea and munched gathias, we had the treat of the day; just after sunset the entire bat colony exited, presumably to go out and feed. It was a spectacular sight, an almost never ending stream! As we headed back, we kept our eyes peeled on the area around the road since the Rann in the dark is something else altogether; the other denizens of the night  join the bats for their daily activities. But what we saw was not around the road, it was on the road. A prickly little ball lay at the edge of the road, it was a Pale Hedgehog! We took care to not flash the torch on it too much, as it thrust its little head out from the sanctuary of its little ball. A couple of photos and then Vaibhav (Jugal bhai's brother in law, another ace birder) picked it up and gently put it down away from the road. And that was actually that as we retired for some sumptuous home cooked food and an early turn in.

Eurasian Wryneck
The second day began with a 90 kilometre drive to Eastern Banni, where we would look for the other passage migrants, as well as a couple of other specialities, including the spectacular Spotted Sandgrouse. That part of the Rann is now marshalled by Bharat Kapdi with his Epicenter Homestays. Jugal bhai and Bharat share a very close and collaborative relationship and we would be hosted by Bharat for the morning's birding and lunch. En route, we encountered another Spotted Flycatcher sitting in beautiful morning light and, needless to say, we spent a fair amount of time with this beautiful little bird before hurrying on. En route, Jugal bhai kept his eyes peeled for the Shrikes and Scrub Robin but they didn't deign to appear immediately. But two very welcome sightings popped up in the form of a Eurasian Wryneck and a European Roller, both in reasonably good light. Driving further on, we got a juvenile Red-backed Shrike and then I spotted another Shrike sitting on a post. Turned out to be a Red-tailed Shrike and a beautiful specimen at that. We had our fill and drove swiftly onwards to Bharat's place.


Red-tailed Shrike
European Nightjar
The next item on the menu would be another special bird - The European Nightjar. Bharat had spotted the day roosts for two birds in a forest near his place and he drove us there. We walked the last hundred metres or so till he stopped and gently whispered "Nightjar". It took me a few seconds to see what he was alluding to, such was the bird's incredible camouflage. We took a few pictures from a distance and Bharat was very careful not to let anyone go closer and potentially disturb the bird's day roost. A few minutes with this most special of lifers and we were done! Back to Epicenter for a wonderful home-styled lunch. Just like Jugal Bhai, Bharat also sources his meals from a family in a nearby village, thus making them directly vested in the birding and tourism business.

Rufous-fronted Prinia
We were looking to rest a bit after lunch, but a very friendly Rufous-fronted Prinia quickly put paid to that plan. He flitted about on the margins of the property and gave us a few decent pictures along with a White-eared Bulbul. And then it was time to hit Eastern Banni, with a prized target being the enigmatic Spotted Sandgrouse. Bharat had seen a flock around a couple of waterholes in the area so we drove up and down between these places, but the only co-operative birds that afternoon were some beautiful Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and a flock of Greater Short-toed Larks. And then it was time to call it a day.

Indian Starred Tortoise
The next day was devoted to finding some of the other passage migrants that had eluded us thus far, including the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin and Common Whitethroat. We headed to the thorn forests around Kot Mahadev to look for them. And while the resident White-naped Tit, Marshall's Iora and Small Minivets turned up to give us a good time, the 'passengers' were missing in action, maybe they'd already left.  Jugal bhai, being as conscientious as he is, refused to give up and we kept looking and finally hit pay dirt. Not with the aforementioned birds, but with a beautiful Indian Star Tortoise. This gorgeous little animal was probably on his morning constitutional when we encountered him. We were careful to give him a wide berth as he continued to gently saunter along, giving us some good pictures in the bargain. The wild is always full of surprises and it is always a blessing to be at the receiving end of such good fortune.

Following up the spectacular morning, we went looking for the 'passagers' in other places. En route, Manju missed out on a Grey-necked Bunting, an Orphean Warbler flitted very close to us without giving us a photo and other birds duly turned up, including a stunning Barred Buttonquail. However, the fellows we were seeking probably had other plans that evening and decided to stay away from our party. A memorable sunset in a field of volcanic rocks brought the curtains down on yet another special day. The next morning would be our final foray before we took our flights.

Spotted Sandgrouse
Jugal bhai had decided that we would try for the Spotted Sandgrouse again that morning. It meant a 90km trip again, but he was determined that we should try and see this little stunner. And we were completely game, floored by his desire to make an already special trip even more so. On the way back to Eastern Banni, we saw a Desert Cat in a gully next to the road, but he didn't pose for a photoshoot. Our focus was single-minded that morning. Spotted Sandgrouse first and then try for the other 'passengers'. With that we entered Banni, accompanied by another jeep from our place. We headed off to the waterholes and passed the first two without any action. And then we saw them. At first 5-6 birds came into our field of vision. And as we headed closer, we saw no fewer than a hundred birds. Spotted Sandgrouse in all their glory. Even after so many encounters, Jugal bhai still cherishes every sighting he has of this wonderful bird.

MacQueen's Bustard
We clicked away to our hearts content as the birds continued to feed undisturbed. And as the other jeep approached, we motioned them to come to us so they could also enjoy the sighting. And they brought some even more special news - they'd seen a MacQueen's Bustard a few kilometers behind. A good sighting of this bird is a real trophy and, Sandgrouse done, Jugal bhai suggested we try for the MacQueens. We reached the spot where the others had seen it and drove forward slowly, scanning the area around. And then, as if just for us, a bird rose from a small depression in the ground and started walking. It was the MacQueens! It almost did a catwalk for us, strutting about in its characteristic style before disappearing behind a mound into some well-earned privacy. And we were beside ourselves with excitement; Spotted Sandgrouse AND MacQueen's Bustard. What more could one want? We made one more attempt for the passengers and got a Black-crowned Sparrow-lark in the bargain and then it was time to bid adieu.

Or Au Revoir to be precise. For the Rann is a place that draws you in and keeps you coming back for more. And with people like Jugal bhai to keep learning from, there is always something new to come back to.

Great Rann of Kutch Trip Guide

The Great Rann of Kutch is truly great in every sense; size, landscape, people and birds. For an avid birder, this is an unmissable pilgrimage. For a casual tourist too, the milk-white sand desert draw in many score visitors, especially during the annual Rann festival every winter.

How to get there
Our base was in Nakhatrana village with Bhuj (approx. 60 kms, 1 hour) as the closest airport and rail-head. Bhuj is connected via flight with Mumbai and via rail with several cities with Ahmedabad being the closest metro (350 kms away)

Stay and Guide
CEDO Birding Homestay at Moti Virani (near Nakhatrana) is where we stayed. Run by Jugal Tiwari (and assisted by his son Shivam) it is exactly what a birder needs. Nice clean rooms, lovely home-made food (sourced from a home in the neighbouring village) and the expertise of Jugal bhai in the field. Net, an unbeatable combination. You can get more information at www.cedobirding.com

Epicenter Homestay, near Lodai village is run by Bharat Kapdi. A recent entrant to this field, Bharat has proven to be an ace spotter and Epicentre is a lovely property too. More at www.epicenterhomestay.com

Food
Home cooked and superb vegetarian fare will keep your taste buds tickled throughout your stay.

Other tips

The Rann is extremely dusty so if you're allergic to dust, then do take adequate cover. For yourself and your cameras.
Headgear is essential and so is some warm clothing in winter.


Mouse-tailed Bat


White-eared Bulbul

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Rufous-fronted Prinia