Thursday, January 25, 2018

Nalsarovar - Lifer Pit Stop (Dec 2017)

Gujarat is associated with a number of things, mostly related to commerce, mouthwatering food or the Asiatic Lion (for the wildlife aware). For the tipplers, the absence of licensed alcohol is presumably top of mind (or at the tip of their tongues). But it is not as well known for the birding paradise that it undoubtedly is. A variety of habitats make for some staggering species counts.

Enough of preamble. Net, it was a place I've been wanting to put on the trip list for a while. So with birder friends Jaysingh Morey and Manjunath Desai, a quick trip was rustled up, focusing mainly on the Greater Rann of Kutch and Jamnagar. However, a free afternoon waiting for Jay to arrive was put to full use by Manjunath and me as we trotted off to spend a few hours in Nalsarovar.

This vast waterbody, 60-odd kms from Ahmedabad makes for a very interesting habitat, especially in winter where it welcomes many migrant species. Our limited time was to be focused on one species - Collared Pratincole. This rarity only visits a few places across the country and Nalsarovar is one of them. We enlisted the help of Latif, one of the best guides in the area. A non-punctual train meant a consequent delay in reaching the park and we found Latif near the entrance, fretting for us. A quick stop to get entry tickets and we got into one of the little row-boats that traverse this vast wetland. Latif unerringly led us straight to the 'Pratincole spot' about 15 minutes away. Almost immediately we saw a couple of birds on an island in the water. It's always difficult to tell between Collared and Oriental Pratincoles, but he assured us that these were Collared and the overlap between the primary wingtips and tail is probably the most reliable differentiator. Over the next couple of hours, we would see more than 50 individuals, making Nalsarovar one of the finest places to view these lovely little birds.

Collared Pratincole
Now that we'd had a sighter through the binocs, it was time for a closer photograph. And we tracked these skittish birds slowly and from a respectful distance till they settled down on a larger stretch of land. Latif brought the boat to shore and we got off and slowly approached a targeted individual, on all fours at first and then on a proper stomach crawl, not easy with a heavy 500mm lens! We didn't manage to get close enough to the first two, but a couple of other birds allowed us to get reasonably close for decent photos. And as we withdrew, post a reasonably well-done job, Latif pointed out another much-wanted fella on the list- White Tailed Lapwing. There were two individuals in the water on the far side of the land. We could approach them, but the land in between was strewn with roosting Pratincoles, much like a minefield. So we decided to abandon the chase, to avoid running the risk of disturbing the Pratincoles. Resigned to watching the Lapwings from afar, we walked back to try elsewhere.

Latif noticed another place on the island where a number of waders seemed to be enjoying a late afternoon get-together. A reasonably high embankment en route provided cover to get closer without being spotted; close enough to see more Pratincoles and a couple of Lapwings in the assembled throng. Once again, the Lapwings were at the far end of the crowd and once again impossible to approach. With our second sigh of the afternoon, we headed back to the boat.

White Tailed Lapwing
But in wildlife, there is almost always a twist, and sometimes in your favour. As we walked back, a Lapwing flew overhead and settled in the water on the other side of the embankment, this time closer to us. We both crept slowly towards the water, hiding behind the embankment. And as we lifted our heads above the crest, we saw the Lapwing alone in the water and not too far away. No doubt prodded by the Guardian deity of the Lapwings, it proceeded to pose for us as we clicked away from behind the embankment. We didn't try and get closer, respecting the distance between us and also providing a great many thanks to this beautiful bird for giving us such a special audience.

It was almost dusk and we rowed back to base, completely sated with the afternoon's work. We'd not only got our main target, but a surprising bounty as well. And while I haven't dwelt on the other species, it begs mention that we recorded 33 species of birds within 3 hours of birding in Nalsarovar. And given that most of our time was spent following two species, that number makes for a remarkable catch. With a promise to Latif to return for Water Pipits and Red-necked Falcons, we headed back to the airport to fetch Jaysingh and head to Bhuj for the next leg of our adventure.

Paddyfield Pipit
A remarkable piece of wetland paradise, Nalsarovar should definitely be on any birdwatchers, must-do list.

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. 

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.

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

The Parking lot has a small snack bar which has chips and biscuits. The village nearby has some snack stalls along the highway, which may or many not be everyone's cup of tea. So you might want to carry some food from Ahmedabad if you're the fussy type.

Other tips
The boats are small and not very comfortable, so those with back problems, please be careful.
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.

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