Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Jamnagar - Birding or Nothing! (December 2017)

The western coast of India welcomes scores of migratory waders every winter, as they make their way to several welcoming feeding grounds along the coastline. Of all these places, arguably the most significant is the port town of Jamnagar in Gujarat. Over the years, Jamnagar birding has built a legend around it and justifiably so. And this legend demanded that a visit be paid and a trip was planned, dovetailed with the GRK plan. Owing to a family emergency, this leg of the trip was in serious peril, but I made it, albeit a 2 day trip instead of the originally planned four.

We were looked after by the supremely organized Yashodhan 'Bittu' Bhatia and the effervescent Chirag 'Chiku' Solanki. They run with the motto of 'Birding or Nothing' which I have shamelessly borrowed for the title of this post. Chikubhai would be our guide and mentor, giving us IDing lessons for waders, especially for the notoriously hard to ID terns. All this was thanks to Arpit Deomurari, a Jamnagar and shorebird legend who now works for the WWF in Delhi. And he in turn was introduced to me by Ramki Sreenivasan (check out his work at www.wildventures.com), one more in the legion of reasons to be grateful to him for.

My first trip was to the area of Narara Marine National Park, known for its shore birds as well as for some unusual visitors in the adjoining salt pans. And as we stepped on to the barnacle strewn Narara shore, one of the first things we saw in the distance was a flock of Crab Plovers. Too far to photograph, this is where Jaysingh's spotting scope really paid for itself. Our first sighting of this spectacular pied bird wasn't the greatest, but it was a superb start. We busied ourselves with Oystercatchers, Curlews, Whimbrels, Sand Plovers, Great Knots and Dunlins. Only the last of these gave us decent pictures by the time we headed out into the salt pans. The targets in these vast water bodies were more exotic - Black Necked Grebes and Red Necked Phalaropes.

Sand Lark
Chiku's eagle eyes spotted two small birds next to a flock of Flamingos. He confirmed via his binoculars that they were indeed the Phalaropes we were looking for. Too far for quality photography and also against the light, we contented ourselves with observing them through Jay's scope. They seemed settled so we took the chance to walk around the other side of the salt pan to see if we could get them closer and in the light. It was a good 20 minute walk, but we did see them in better light and slightly closer and we also saw a flock of Black-necked Grebes, once again through the scope. Happy with that, we drove back and almost at once, a very accommodating Sand Lark came and sat next to our jeep. Further down the salt pans and we saw a whole host of other waders.  48 species in all with 4 Lifers in one morning. Plus a fantastic tutorial from Chiku on identifying terns. Life was good!

Great Thicknee
It would get even better after a fantastic thali lunch. And that afternoon we headed to the wetlands near Gandhinagar Railway station to search for Common Ringed Plovers, another super rarity. We found Snipes, Great Thicknees and Little Ringed Plover, but the uncommon Common Ringed variety escaped even Chiku's eagle eyes. We searched for this bird in a couple of other places, but with no joy. Bittu bhai took us for a sumptuous dinner at an 'all-egg' eatery to finish off a superb day.

The next morning was dedicated to one of my favourite birds of all time - The Crab Plover. More on that later, since we first headed back to Gandhinagar to spend an hour looking for the Common Ringed Plover. Once again, all we saw was Little Ringed Plovers in a flock and that's all we felt we were going to get. Then Chiku started looking at every single bird through the scope. And then he jumped up in excitement, one of the plovers was different. He checked again to make sure, and then announced his find, much to our excitement. He then pointed out the bird to us and thanking our stars for Chiku and the scope we celebrated this fantastic find! It's one of those birds that's on every serious birder's wishlist and we were thrilled to find it. But there was more work to be done. It was time for Operation Crab Plover.

Balachadi beach is not on any tourist map, not even for locals. But this low profile stretch of sand is home to one of the finest congregations of waders in the region. And amidst the Sand Plovers, Oystercatchers, Knots, Shanks, Whimbrels and Curlews sits the stunning Crab Plover. Chiku had promised us good pictures of this bird after the distant sighting at Narara and he masterminded this operation with precision. From our entry into the beach (we took a longer route so as to be out of the birds' range of vision) right down to how we approach and where we position ourselves, everything was spelt out clearly. The tide was rising and his approach was to wait for the birds to come to us. As soon as we entered the beach, we saw a large flock at the edge of the water a fair distance away. We sat and watched these magnificent birds through the scope. And waited for the tide to rise.

Just as the birds got to within 'crawling' range of the birds, they suddenly flew off! Panic stricken we turned to Chiku and got a reassuring look in return. He said they would return and they did, a few hundred metres away. They joined another large flock, making it one super flock of nearly 300-400 individuals. Chiku and Jay sat in the shade with the scope as Manju and I headed closer for a photo-shoot. We took cover behind a large dune which allowed us to get within reasonable distance without being observed. Then we crawled towards them upto a point and waited for the tide to bring them closer. And then for the next forty minutes, we had some of the most breathtaking sightings of these stunning birds, too close to believe! After a point we were done with photography and we only stayed down to not spook the birds. It was only when they flew off to another little patch of sand that we got up, dusted ourselves and walked back, shaking our heads in disbelief at the morning we'd just had.

Great Crested Grebe
My last afternoon in Jamnagar began spectacularly. With lunch. At a small highway dhaba we had the most incredible 'vaghareli rotli' - it's leftover rotis tossed together in a spicy daal. It set the tone perfectly for a visit to the famous Khijadiya bird sanctuary. The main target here was the beautiful Great Crested Grebe, with Orphean Warbler as a bonus. Khijadiya has one main tar road and several walking paths branching off from it and we walked down the first one and scanned both the trees above us as well as the waterbody for either of these birds. We didn't have any luck with either so we got back into the car and drove on. And almost at once, we saw a Grebe in a channel on our left. And over the next hour we would see another ten of these beautiful birds, including a nesting female and a male shepherding his two juvenile children. And to top the evening, an Orphean Warbler gave us a fleeting audience high up in the canopy of one of the trees.

A fitting end to an awesome couple of days in Jamnagar. It was all that it promised and much much more, thanks mainly to Bittu bhai and Chiku. Au revoir it is and not goodbye!

Jamnagar Trip Guide

Jamnagar sits on the Arabian sea, in Western Gujarat's Saurashtra region. The region has a mix of fresh and salt water habitats giving it a spectacular array of birds, including some really special winter migrants. It's well worth a visit in winter and then in March/April when the waders are in their breeding plumage.

How to get there
Air: Jamnagar itself has an airport, but with limited (and expensive) connectivity. Rajkot (90kms, 1 1/2 hours away) is a better option. Ahmedabad (305 kms) is the closest Metro.

Rail: Jamnagar is well connected to Ahmedabad (overnight) and Mumbai. There are also trains that head from there or Porbandar to Delhi.

Stay and Guide
Yashodhan 'Bittu' Bhatia is a passionate birder/photographer himself and he enjoys hosting keen birders from around the country. He knows the area like the back of his hand and his experiences are always worth listening to. And he's a foodie himself, so you'll have a superb time with him. You can reach him on birdingornothing@gmail.com

We stayed at the Hotel President, in the centre of the city. Nice comfortable rooms and good service make it the perfect destination for a birder.

You can get any kind of food you like. The Highway Dhabas and the Egg-speciality restaurant were my personal favourites. Please do try the jalebis for breakfast!

Other tips
Shooting waders might require you to crawl on all fours to approach the birds. Make sure you wear full sleeves and also a proper trouser, else knees and elbows can get badly scraped.

Shores have little shade, so headgear is important.

If you have a heavy lens, then a beanbag of some sort will be important when shooting waders. Better if it is waterproof. I make one with an old sheet wrapped in a large plastic bag and securely taped up. It's light, waterproof and provides enough height to rest a large lens and shoot comfortably.

Crab Plovers - Adult Feeding Juvenile

Crab Plover

Great Crested Grebe

Lesser Crested Terns

Yellow Crowned Woodpecker

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