Friday, April 3, 2020

Desert National Park (Feb 2020) - Desert. Not Deserted.

The might Thar desert in Northwestern India, is a force of nature, covering about 170,000 square kilometres. The word desert immediately conjures up images of barren and desolate terrain with scarcely any life forms. Desolate it might be, but this desert plays host to an incredible array of wildlife; bird, reptile or mammal (beyond the stereotypical-but-uncommon-in-the-wild ship of the desert) Most critically, this is the last refuge for the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard; fewer than 200 hold out within and around the 3000 square kilometre Desert National Park, somehow withstanding mankind's assault on their breeding grounds. To think this bird was in the running to be our national bird less than 60 years ago!

The challenge is compounded by the the Bustard's notoriously fussy breeding habits, unlike, say the tiger, who is a reasonably prolific reproducer, given the opportunity. Every Bustard egg and chick are priceless and all our hopes are pinned on the Forest Department's efforts to revitalise the population. More power to them!

The Bustard was of course a priority, but there were several other avian denizens that were on the wish-list here (resident and visitor) and a last minute plan somehow fell into place this February with Jay, Sriram and yours truly being led by the fantastic Musa Khan, expert on all matters avian (and otherwise) in that area. Arriving at Jaisalmer, I reflected on my last trip there a full 18 years ago, where I was pure tourist and zero birder. This time it would be just the reverse. And things just came full circle.

Arriving at Camp Banjara (our abode for the next couple of days) we quickly had a simple yet sumptuous lunch and headed out with Musa in an open gypsy. Ah, the joys of viewing (and photographing) wildlife in an open vehicle! First in focus was the Bustard (godawan in the local language) of course but before that, a lovely Black-crowned Sparrow-lark and then a false alarm. A flock of Sandgrouse settled in front of our vehicle and, noticing black on their bellies, we proclaimed them to be the rare Black-bellied species, justifiably we all thought. Musa put paid to that dream by gently point out that the more common Chestnut-bellied species also sport black bellies. Just when you thought you'd figured out birds! 

A short while later, our luck finally turned. In the middle of a lush, green, field, Musa spotted some activity. At first we could only see the neck and the head, but it was a Bustard all right. And to his right, there was another. And another. And we'd set eyes on 2% of the total global population! We waited patiently and two of them came reasonably close and gave us acceptable photos. And then we left them in peace and headed onwards, in search of more lifers. And we got a couple of Desert Larks foraging next to the road. Add in an Isabelline Shrike and another Black-crowned Sparrow Lark in good light and our first session ended very well indeed.

Common Buzzard
We had a full next day to find the rest of our targets; the only fly in the ointment was Netsi pond drying up, meaning our chances of getting Water & Buff-bellied Pipits and the much-coveted Greater Hoopoe Lark were all but over. But there was enough and more elsewhere and we set out with a lot of hope. And the desert didn't disappoint, throwing up great photo opps for Long-legged & Common Buzzards and then a beautiful Tawny Eagle who allowed us to get really close. Then we got two different vulture species (Cinereous and Griffon) having a bit of tete-a-tete. Vultures usually are not associated with good looks, but the Cinereous is an absolutely handsome bird. Don't believe me, just look at the fella on the right in the photo below...

Red-tailed Wheatear
The extended morning session continued with lovely sightings of Red-tailed Wheatears, more Desert Larks and an Asian Desert Warbler who just wanted to be photographed. But the icing on the proverbial dessert was laid on when we headed back to camp; we were feeling a bit low because the Trumpeter Finches kept eluding us, and then Musa saw something flying above the jeep and he said "Finch". And given that the only Finches in the area are of the Trumpeter variety, that word meant a lot to us. And the finches obliged by perching on a rocky outcrop for a couple of minutes. The mid-day light was harsh so the photos were mere records, but we were elated to just see this magnificent little bird. And lunch definitely tasted far better after that!

Cream Coloured Courser
The Trumpeter was the focus bird for the afternoon, and we headed to a waterhole which they frequent. Only to find it completely occupied by a herd of cattle. This bovine invasion was a serious spanner in our works; with so many large animals around, there was no way the finches would come to drink. Musa coaxed them cows to exit and no sooner had they stepped away than a couple of finches and a flock of larks came up to drink. We were just lining up a couple of good photos when a non-cooperative member of the cattle union decided to pay a visit. And said birds hastily legged it. And we had no option but to drive on and look in other places. Those other places threw up a spectacular feast, making the afternoon probably the most rewarding few hours I've spent in a long time. We started off searching for Cream-coloured Coursers, only for them to elude Musa's eagle eye. Until Jay spotted a bird right next to our jeep. And it led us to a whole flock, not more than 100 metres away. And we got some good photos of this beautiful bird. Our appetites whetted, we drove on for more.
Laggar Falcon
A cluster of jeeps indicated more good fortune. On a branch of a dead tree sat a beautiful Laggar Falcon. Eager to impress us, he flew down to perch on a mound and pose for his portfolio photos in beautiful light. And as he flew off, we caught another lifer in the background; a bunch of Punjab Ravens clustered around something. We approached them slowly and realised that they were ambushing a Spiny-tailed Lizard. The poor reptile probably stayed too far from his burrow and the Ravens immediately took their chance. It was cruel to watch, but then this is nature and we had no right to interfere with it. We left the lizard and Ravens to their fate and moved further on. And the evening would throw up another mini-lifer before we shut shop. A Variable Wheatear of the Capistrata race popped on a fence near us, leading us to fantasise about it being a super-rare Finsch's Wheatear. Alas it was still a Variable, but a beautiful bird nonetheless.

We didn't have too much time on the last morning so we were at a loose end on what to do. Musa suggested we visit a nearby waterhole and take a chance with the Trumpeters. Meanwhile, we got a lifer at the camp itself; a Plain Leaf Warbler busily flitted from bush to tree in an early morning frenzy of activity. Though photography was not really possible, we got some records of this little bird, one more to the list. And then we drove to the waterhole, only to find it completely dry. He suggested (with less conviction) another waterhole by the main road and that's where we found ourselves a short while later, with only pigeons for company.

Trumpeter Finch
A few minutes later, I saw a couple of birds land on a rocky outcrop a little ahead of us. And I pointed them out to Musa, who uttered the magic word "Trumpeter". And this time, there were no cows to keep them away from their portfolio shoot. We waited for the birds to come closer and one of them came to a lovely perch not too far from us and gave us some good photos in beautiful morning light. I'm absolutely in love with these gorgeous little birds, and they were kind enough to give me some photographic mementos that I can preserve and treasure. Job done, we headed back for breakfast and then onwards to Jodhpur for our flights.

Spectacular though this trip was, there's still unfinished business in the Desert. The Hoopoe Lark continues to elude, and that, along with the Black-bellied Sandgrouse, beckons. Here's to next time.

Desert National Park Trip Guide

Getting there
The Desert National Park, located in Western Rajasthan is accessed by the historical city of Jaisalmer, a tourist hotspot in itself. Jaisalmer is connected via air from Mumbai, Delhi and Jaipur. The other airport to access Jaisalmer is Jodhpur (280 kms, 5 hours) where we took our return flight from.
The other option is the train, with trains from Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur and Jodhpur.

Being a tourist hotspot, Jaisalmer and the area around Sam have several stay options, ranging from the comfortable to the super-luxury. We stayed about 25 kms from Sam, at the comfortable Camp Banjara; decent rooms and good, simple vegetarian food.

Musa Khan is one of the best there is. His knowledge of the area and birds is nothing short of astonishing, especially given he's only been doing this for a few years. He's got an open Gypsy as well, making photography even more rewarding. You can reach him on +91 9929663413

Bird List
  1. Great Indian Bustard
  2. Black-crowned Sparrow Lark
  3. Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse
  4. Collared Dove
  5. Laughing Dove
  6. Asian Desert Warbler
  7. Lesser Whitethroat
  8. Isabelline Shrike
  9. Desert Wheatear
  10. Variable Wheatear (Picata, Capistrata and Opistholeuca sub-species)
  11. Isabelline Wheatear
  12. Great Grey Shrike
  13. Greater Short-toed Lark
  14. Desert Lark
  15. Lesser Short-toed Lark
  16. Egyptian Vulture
  17. Common Buzzard
  18. Common Kestrel
  19. Red-vented Bulbul
  20. White-eared Bulbul
  21. House Crow
  22. Common House Sparrow
  23. Green Bee-eater
  24. Long-legged Buzzard
  25. Common Buzzard
  26. Tawny Eagle
  27. Steppe Eagle
  28. Cinereous Vulture
  29. Griffon Vulture
  30. Red-tailed Wheatear
  31. Trumpeter Finch
  32. Tawny Pipit
  33. Black Drongo
  34. Indian Silverbill
  35. Desert Whitethroat
  36. Cream Coloured Courser
  37. Laggar Falcon
  38. Punjab Raven
  39. Plain Leaf Warbler
  40. Spotted Redshank

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