Sunday, January 28, 2018

Great Rann of Kutch - The Western Sentinel (December 2017)

Kutch. India's largest district. Home to the Great Rann of Kutch, 10,000+ sq. km. of salt marshes, scrub desert and grasslands. Searing summers and flooded monsoons. Not quite the most welcoming of places, right? Wrong. The desolate beauty, the wonderful people, the spectacular food and the bounty of birds make it one of the most special places in the country, especially during winter and the fag end of the monsoon (only for birders) I'd been to its 'Little' cousin a couple of times, but a trip to this place was always on the wish-list. And thanks to Manjunath and Jaysingh, friends and intrepid birders, a trip bore fruit.

We drove overnight from Ahmedabad en route to Bhuj, on excellent roads and reasonably sparse traffic. Our destination was the CEDO Birding Homestay near Nakhatrana, about an hour from Bhuj. Arriving there in time for the morning birding trip, we met our host Jugal Tiwari who runs CEDO (Centre for Desert and Ocean) He has been at the forefront of conservation in the Great Rann and there is nothing that he does not know about this place. To travel with a legend like him was a privilege in itself and a magical first morning only reinforced that. Driving towards the famous Banni Grasslands, Jugal bhai gave us a lot of insight into the terrain, the birds and also on the conservation challenges in the area. If you think a semi-barren area would escape the clutches of humans, think again. Human pressures have almost driven out the magnificent Great Indian Bustard to extinction across India and the Rann is another case for that. The tragic tale of the Bustard apart, there is still a lot of avian diversity for birdwatchers to enjoy, so a trip is well worth it.

Day 1
Red-tailed Wheatear
Arriving at Banni, the targets were clear. Red Tailed Wheatears first up, followed by a search for the Sociable Lapwing and all the other 'regulars'.  And straight up, he took us to a little hillock where, enjoying an early morning bask, was the Red-tailed Wheatear. Its Variable cousin also made its presence felt, no doubt a tad envious of its attention grabbing sibling. The first two gorgeous little birds done, we headed forth towards the spot where Jugal bhai had seen a lone Sociable Lapwing. En route though, we got flocks of 3 different Lark species - Bimaculated, Greater Short-toed and Crested. Isabelline & Destert Wheatears Wheatears, Desert Whitethroat, Montagu's Harrier and a Greater Spotted Eagle also gave us decent images as we entered the Sociable Lapwing's zone. We searched high and low for this beauty but luck was not on our side. A Steppe Grey Shrike more than made up for that as did a sumptuous breakfast of Thepla, Sandwiches and the most heavenly home made chutney. Indeed an awesome morning!

Bimaculated Lark

A lovely home-made lunch and we were ready for the afternoon. And as we headed down a tar road, Jugal bhai said we should get Painted Sandgrouse here. And to our immense joy, we saw no less than 6 pairs within the next kilometre and all just next to the road. What an amazing start to the afternoon! That was followed by a Variable Wheatear, Grey-necked Bunting and some Harriers as we got into the Banni grassland. We waited by a fox den for a mother and her two pups but they seems to have vacated the premises. The sun was almost setting when I spotted a Quail walking into the grass. I thought it was a Barred Button Quail but Jugal bhai exclaimed "Common Quail", providing me with a special lifer, my first of the afternoon.
Common Quail

A spectacular sunset seem to end all action and we headed back home, but Jugal bhai was on full alert. And we soon saw why. In the light from our headlights, we saw something cross the road. Something with green eyes; Desert cat! We slowly neared where it crossed and he turned on a spot light briefly. And there is was, sitting in a gap in the bush. It had its back to us, and then headed deeper into the bush where it stood once again and looked back at us. Manjunath had gotten off the jeep and moved closer, so he was in perfect position to to get some stunning shots of this beauty. He moved on and so did we. But it turns out we were not done yet. Another Desert Cat appeared in the ditch next to the road. He walked up and started at us and our eyes met for a second. Unfortunately the lens was slow to get there and he didn't have the patience. But what a moment that was! Lots to celebrate as an incredible first day drew to a close.

Day 2
Today we were to first try for the Grey Hypocolius, a signature bird of GRK, and then spend the rest of the day in the Eastern part of Banni, where would accompany a group led by Bharat Kapdi, another local expert who runs Epicentre Home Stays. Bharat was inspired to start Epicentre by Jugal bhai and the two of them share wonderful mutual respect and camaraderie. On to the Hypocolius, a much sought after species by every visitor here. Every morning, they come to feed on a clump of Salvadora Persica trees, lined on both sides of a reasonably busy highway. And today, there were three jeeps to welcome them to their breakfast, ours and two from Bharat's. And while we waited for them to arrive, we were kept entertained by another of the local beauties - Marshall's Iora. These lovely little birds kept feeding and singing in turns and that made the wait really pleasant. Until we realised that the Hypocolius were overdue and there was no sign of them. Jugal bhai kept the spirits up as we drove up and down the stretch but he too was beginning to worry.

And then, a flock of 10-12 long-tailed birds flew above our heads and he exclaimed 'Hypocolius!', with both joy and no little relief. We waited till the birds circles and descended into the trees before we slowly approached. For the next hour or so these beautiful winter visitors gave us all a memorable sighting as they played hide-and-seek in the leaves. These unique birds (with a hooded male and the plainer but no less beautiful female) are 'lateral migrants', they visit GRK and select surroundings from their colder homes around the Persian Gulf. And after a successful morning, it was time to head towards Bharat's homestay.

Streaked Weaver
First stop before that was to try for Black Crowned Sparrow Lark, another rarity and scarce in GRK as well. Bharat had found a few birds at a particular spot and that's where we headed after brekkies. On the way, Jugal bhai found me another lifer - Streaked Weaver, at a roadside pond. And then the entire group joined to find the Larks, led by Bharat and Jugal bhai. First up though, an unexpected lifer - Graceful Prinia which Jugal bhai found. Didn't get quality photos but managed to observe this bird through the binocs. And as we walked here and there searching for the Larks, we could only manage the Ashy Crowned variety. Until we saw one female bird that looked different. And as I lined up my ID shot, one of the gentlemen from the other group, very kindly walked across my field of vision to try and take a shot himself. He didn't manage that, but succeeded in driving off the bird. Luckily someone else got a shot and the bird was ID'ed as the Black Crowned Sparrow Lark. Mixed emotions for me - happy to have seen the bird but annoyed as well for missing out. Turns out that the same gent would get in the way more times that day.

As we headed back to the jeeps, we saw a Variable Wheatear perched at eye-level some distance ahead. So I took a circuitous route to avoid disturbing the bird and was almost at shooting distance when 'guess-who' took a more direct route and the rest you probably would have guessed. No option but to move on. But my respect for the Wheatear community rose several notches as we found a beautiful Variable Wheatear perched on a shrub right next to the road. We stopped the jeep and he posed for us for a couple of minutes. Mollified somewhat, we drove up a small hillock up to a beautiful old temple dedicated to the Sun God. Our target lay behind the temple as we clambered down to a little check-dam. We were searching for Striolated Buntings and as if waiting for us, one came into our vision halfway up the hillock in front of us. And then it came down and sat on a rock at eye level. Since it was a lifer for Manjunath, he slowly went forward and was joined there by 'guess-who'. Once he was done with his photos, I moved forward to take his place. The bird was completely unconcerned till then. Until 'Mr. Guess-who' decided he wanted to click the bird's nose hair and noisily moved forward. And that bird, obviously objecting to his privacy being so clumsily violated, hastily bid adieu. 'Guess-who' 3-0 Srikanth.

Cream Coloured Courser
We headed to Bharat's Epicentre Homestay for lunch. After another home cooked meal and a little rest, it was time to head to Banni East. The targets here were mouthwatering: Stoliczska's Bushchat, Greater Hoopoe Lark, Cream Coloured Courser and the magnificent MacQueen's Bustard. The Spotted Sandgrouse, seen here in large numbers up to a week earlier, had suddenly disappeared much to our dismay. But the other members of the Rann rallied to put up a magnificent show - The Bushchat did one of its puff-and-roll routines, the cream coloured coursers were in attendance and we saw no less than 5 MacQueens, though all distant and in flight. The Hoopoe Lark eluded us and so did a Desert Cat that we searched for, all the way till sunset.

Now, in GRK, sunset doesn't mean end of the day's play. It was Nightjar time. So as we drove back towards Epicentre, we moved slowly along since Nightjar usually perch on or around the road itself. Near the homestay, we saw one perched right on the road. We all got off slowly and made our way one step at a time. Bharat threw a spotlight for a few seconds and IDed it as a Sykes' Nightjar. He would keep turning on the light for a few seconds at a time to help us get photos. The only thing he asked was to not walk across the road and cut the car headlights. Which we all carefully obeyed. Well, not all. Just as I was about to take my photo, 'Mr. Guess-who' walked across the road to get a better photo and the bird, disturbed by this, took to flight. 4-0 and I threw in the towel, it was no contest! An Indian Nightjar a few metres away did provide consolation but the battle was lost.

Day 3
White-naped Tit
This would be my last morning of the trip, some bad news in the family meant that I was flying back that afternoon. We went to Kot Mahadev for the last of the endemics- the White-naped Tit. Reaching there shortly after sunrise, we heard the bird almost immediately and then waited for the light to get some decent photos. The area was abuzz with activity and we got a lot of birds at that spot. Marshall's Iora, Bay-backed and Long-tailed Shrikes and a beautiful flock of Small Minivets. For me, the icing was a decent picture of a Black-headed Bunting. After that, Jugal bhai took us on a walk through one of the last remaining thorn forests. It was a wonderful experience, taking in all the wisdom that he so readily shared. His worry for the area also came through and the tall spindles of 'eco-friendly' wind power structures are a stark reminder that man will never leave nature alone.
For me, it was time to pack it in and head back home. Jay and Manju would continue for another day. Halfway to Bhuj airport and I got a call from an excited Jay, saying that Manju had spotted a Blue Throated Blue Flycatcher at the CEDO Birding campus. It was first record for Kutch and a fantastic sighting.

And that was the wonderful Great Rann of Kutch. A second trip beckons soon and we have already got Jugal bhai booked for that encore!

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

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
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.

Crested Lark

Desert Wheatear

Greater Spotted Eagle

Indian Robin

Isabelline Wheatear

Desert Wheatear Female

Montagu's Harrier

Steppe Grey Shrike

Small Minivet

Variable Wheatear

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