Monday, March 29, 2021

Gujarat (Dec 2020) - Rekindling the drive for Birding

December 2020 brought with a little more than good weather. It also brought some hope and rekindled the desire to travel, albeit with some trepidation. After much thought Sriram, Vishnu and I decided to do a birding road trip to Gujarat - Nalsarovar, Great Rann of Kutch and the Little Rann were all on the menu. It was exciting on two counts - a birding trip plus the prospect of a long drive, something I have not done in a while. And so, one December evening, we set out, with a loaded car and lots of hope. Our first destination would be a pit-stop at Nalsarovar before heading to the Great Rann.

Mumbai- Ahmedabad - Nalsarovar (580kms)
We drove through the night, a pleasant enough drive (except for trucks driving in the wrong lane) and just when we thought we were home, Google maps took us on a slight detour through Ahmedabad. What's wrong with that, you might ask? Normally nothing, but at this time Ahmedabad was on a 11p.m. - 6 a.m. COVID-19 induced curfew. And we ran into a check-post. And the policemen diligently first did a check for alcohol (Gujarat is a dry state) and then, not finding any, gave us a talking to (and a fine) for breaking the curfew. We apologised and said we had no intention of entering Ahmedabad if it wasn't for a map detour. They kindly let us go, with the right directions this time, and we reached Nalsarovar early that morning. I was looking forward to meeting the super-nice Latif bhai; and doing a bit of birding with him after a year almost.

Latif arrived at our hotel at daybreak and immediately took us to some fields about 30kms away. The target - Sociable Lapwings. These rare birds, who otherwise arrive in winter in stray numbers, have taken a shine to the Nalsarovar area. Last year, Latif found more than 300 birds there (a staggering number if you realise that their total estimated global numbers are around 11-15,000) This time, there were more than 50 birds when we got there and a pleasant morning was spent photographing some of these wonderful birds. That plus a few other species for Vishnu and Sriram and were on our way to the Great Rann of Kutch. To arrive there at Bharat Kapdi's lovely Epicenter Homestay in time for a late lunch and an afternoon birding session. Or so we thought.

Nalsarovar- Lodai (300 kms)
Gujarat is known and lauded (justifiably most times) for its excellent roads. We were chugging along at a decent rate, looking forward to our afternoon birding and a gigantic crater appeared without warning in the middle of the road; both right side wheels crunched straight in. The car emerged with a shredded right front tyre and an air bubble in the back one. The bigger worry - the wheel wasn't coming off, despite all our efforts. We were in the middle of a highway, with only trucks for company, the mobile network was poor and Kia service, while very responsive, didn't have anyone within access for miles. We were scratching our heads for nearly 2 hours, wondering what to do, when a couple of highway patrol guys pulled up. Our guardian angels! One of them walked up, gave the wheel an almighty kick and it came loose. Hallelujah! Problem solved, we quickly put on the spare and drove to Bhuj to buy replacements. It meant the end of birding plans for that afternoon but hey, we were back in business!

We reached Bharat late in the evening and the wonderful guy that he is, promptly took us around to see Nightjars. And he found us an Indian and a Sykes' Nightjar within a couple of hundred metres from his place. That, plus a sumptuous dinner made the day slightly more bearable. The next morning, we finally kick started our Rann safari with a super morning drive in the Eastern Banni grasslands. We started with a lovely male Pallid Harrier, scouted the resident Stoliczka's Bushchat and then hit pay dirt with a small flock of Spotted Sandgrouse. These beautiful birds are not very common and Bharat hadn't seen them for a few weeks. They were just waking up when we came across them, and we spent a very pleasant few minutes watching and photographing them. A couple of MacQueen's Bustards flew past and landed in the distance, but we only got to view them through our binoculars.

Greater Hoopoe Lark
We searched and searched for one more key target - the Greater Hoopoe Lark, a very important bird for me. We had a couple of false alarms with Crested Larks with seemingly large bills but the Hoopoes seemed elusive. Bharat scanned every square inch of their favourite areas with no avail. But give up, he did not. While we had breakfast, he wolfed down a couple of bites and continued to search through his glasses. And then, to much joy (ours) he proclaimed - Hoopoe Lark! We played a bit of hide and seek with a couple of birds, who let us get close enough for passable photos. And a major lifer was found! We finished the morning in high spirits and then it was time for us to leave Bharat and head towards Jugal Tiwari's place.

Jugal bhai is a local legend. His CEDO Foundation does a ton of good work in the Rann and around and he is a birding master of the area. It was a privilege to reacquaint with him and go birding again in his company. We spent a lovely afternoon in Banni, picking up Red Collared Doves, Painted Sandgrouse, Spoonbills, a majestic Imperial Eagle and a lovely Rann sunset. We were looking for White Stork (lifer for me) which were seen in a local pond but they didn't make an appearance. The next day we went looking for some local endemics in the Kot Mahadev thorn forests, this time with Vaibhav Mishra, Jugal bhai's brother-in-law and a master birder himself. We photographed the local White-naped Tit and Marshall's Iora and an Orphean Warbler made an appearance but refused a photo-op. And that wrapped up a lovely morning.

That afternoon, we headed back to find another rarity - they Grey Hypocolius. This migratory bird, once seen in good numbers in winter, has seen a decline in numbers due to its favourite feeding trees being cut down. After much searching and some inspired spotting by Vaibhav, we managed to see three individuals, earning Sriram and Vishnu a coveted lifer. And we came back to Banni the next morning to get some Long-legged Buzzards, Montagu's Harrier and another Imperial Eagle. And then, we hit the same pond looking for White Storks and found them! There were three of them on the far side of the pond and we gingerly made our way around. We got some decent sighters and a couple of flight shots before we wrapped up a super trip to the Great Rann of Kutch. It was time to visit its Little sibling.

Nakhatrana to Patdi (308 kms)
We cut short our GRK trip by one day to ensure we drove back by daylight. The tyre episode had scarred us more than a little and we wanted to make the return journey in daylight. We had an uneventful drive to Patdi, our base to visit the Little Rann of Kutch. The next morning we were joined by Latif and Rahul, the local expert and we set out to find the male Merlin who'd been the toast of social media for a few weeks. And if not him, then the local Peregrine Falcon or Short Eared Owl for sure. And, unbelievably, we drew a total blank. Apart from a herd of Wild Asses, we got nothing! With a shrug we moved back to the hotel for lunch, to give it another try in the afternoon.  And after an hour of nothingness, we finally found the Merlin. And boy did he put on a show!

He first perched kindly for a portfolio picture. And then he got to work. From a vantage point, he scanned the area for prey and then he was off like a shot, chasing a Short-toed Lark. He missed. He sat again, looked around and was off again. Another miss! A third time, with more purpose; he went after the Lark like he meant business. And this time he brought it down. And settled down for his hard won meal. And in the process, we got some decent frames. We let him go after that and sat back to enjoy the sunset. And saw a herd of Wild Asses frolic about in the late winter sun. And then we were off to Nalsarovar.

Patdi to Nalsarovar (80kms)
The targets at Nalsarovar were the Greater White-fronted Geese and the Barbary Falcon. We saw the geese from within a flock of a few thousand Greylag geese. How Latif and his fellow guides find these birds is truly incredible. We then drove around, got some lovely Bar-headed Geese, Greater and Indian Spotted Eagles, Red-headed Buntings and those pretty little Parkini Sparrows. A Greater Spotted Eagle and Short-eared Owl also added to the collection. But the highlight of the day was a wonderful lunch with Latif and his family. Cooked by his mother and wife, it was one incredible meal. And after that, the afternoon session felt even better, though we didn't see any of our targets.

And with that we closed an epic trip across Gujarat. Good friends, great birding, fantastic people and amazing food. Does it get any better?

It did!! Amur falcons next on the menu!

Trip Guide

Gujarat is a fantastic birding destination, with so many different species and habitats. I'll go over each one in turn

Nalsarovar Lake

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 Ahmedabad for the drive to Nalsarovar.

Where to stay
There are a few resorts now in Nalsarovar. Your guide can help you choose one.


Look no further than Latif, a fantastic guide and lovely human being. He and his family pretty much cover off the guiding in that area. You can reach him on +91 91065 21394

There aren't too many snacky places to eat so you're better off carrying stuff to munch. But for meals, the Khodiyar dhaba is unbeatable. Simple, tasty vegetarian thali... just thinking about the food makes the mouth water

Great Rann of Kutch

How to get there
Bhuj is the nearest airport and rail head. (Also connected by decent (see the post above!) roads to Ahmedabad (330kms)

Naturalists and Stay

GRK, as its called, has two amazing naturalists and they both have lovely places to stay in.

Jugal Tiwari is the legend, the veteran of the place. His CEDO homestay is very comfortable with the most amazing food. And what he doesn't know about the Rann is probably not worth knowing. You can reach him on

Bharat Kapdi is the recent entrant and an amazing birder. He was inspired by Jugal bhai and considers him a mentor. He finds the most incredible species! And his Epicenter Homestay is a lovely place set in a superb location. And the food, needless to say, is awesome! You can reach him on +919925313696

Little Rann of Kutch

How to get there
LRK is less than 80kms from Ahmedabad, the closest metro, airport and major rail head. The closest railway station is Viramgam (23kms away)

Latif also does LRK trips and he usually teams up with local expert Rahul (+91 8200892538)

We stayed in Vishal Guest house in Patdi. Largely clean and comfortable, nothing to complain about.

There are a few restaurants around Vishal Guest House, including HonesT, one of Gujarat's leading fast food chains. It's decent, reliable food and you can't go wrong picking it.