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