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.

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

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

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