Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Nalsarovar (Jan 2021) - Loose the Goose, Love the Dove

Nalsarovar, near Ahmedabad is a place very close to my heart. Not just because it's a super birding spot, but it also is home to some of the most wonderful people - chief among them being the awesome Latif bhai. Latif and his band of fellow naturalist-guides conjure up some incredible rarities and with unfailing regularity. There's hardly a month that goes by without them coming up with some crazy species or another. And we had ended a super Gujarat trip in Nalsarovar late in December,  got back home and just about caught our breath when he called to say they'd found a Red-breasted Goose! I hadn't even heard of this bird to be honest, much less expect to see it in India. But the first reaction was to not twitch. So we sat back and waited for a few weeks.

And then he called to say the Namaqua Dove was back. Now Goose by itself was maybe too much, but throw in another rarity plus the possibility of some other special species and the odds (temptation?) were at a different level. And so, Sriram and I harnessed the steed once again and drove out one Friday afternoon. We reached our resort a little after midnight, this was a new place with decent rooms, but other challenges as we would soon find out. After a few hours sleep, we woke up to Latif calling to ask us to come over to the usual meeting point - the tea shop near the entry to Nalsarovar Lake. But as we got into the car, we were enveloped in super-dense fog! It made the 7kms to the tea shop a 20 min ordeal. And over a cup of tea we waited for the fog to lift so we could search for our friend, the Goose. 

The fog, it hung about like an unwanted guest at a wedding, always around and impossible to shake off. It lifted a little and Latif took us to this place to see a pair of Red-necked Falcons from the terrace of an under-construction building. We saw the falcons all right, but the light (and hence the photos) were really poor. So we had no other option but to wait till the fog lifted. Which it did around 10 a.m. and we headed straight to a nearby dam where they'd seen the Goose a couple of days earlier. We searched the whole morning but within the flocks of Bar-headed and Greylag Geese, there were some Greater White-fronted but no Red-breasted Goose. But just after noon, we got some news. Another photographer had found the Goose, but within the far reaches of Nalsarovar Lake. And we all quickly headed there, having forsaken breakfast and now lunch!

We hurriedly got into the rowboats and rowed all around, for nearly three hours before we ran into another set of birders who'd just arrived. Apparently, they'd caught a glimpse of the Goose flying away just a few minutes earlier, from the only island that we had not yet checked. That's wildlife, and we shrugged it off as the luck of the draw. But later we learnt that the Goose had been originally spotted and photographed much earlier that morning by the original party and it had been on that island for more than 4-5 hours while we had been searching for it in the fields and dam. This group had not only withheld the information from the rest of the bunch for hours, they'd even misled Latif on their own location; saying they were searching for the bird in the fields while they were photographing it within the lake. It was shocking for all of us; birding is a very community-driven passion and most birders will go to great lengths to help one another. Just not cricket, we all thought!

We headed back to our hotel for our first meal of the day- dinner! At Khodiyar dhaba, over a lovely thali, we continued our bonding with fellow boat passengers Sriram (another one) Sushma, Pramod and Pranav - awesome birders, lovely people and much fun to be around with. What we missed out on the bird, we more than made up with some fantastic new friends. Latif and his brother Kamruddin were clearly upset still, with the photographer who'd withheld the information but more so with his guide, who was one of them. They took it very personally, and we had to really calm them down. We still had another day to find the Goose (and the Namaqua, who we'd missed because we spent the whole afternoon on the boat) And so we set out at first light the next day (mercifully no fog that morning)

We spent a few hours combing the entire area but no Goose. Instead, we got some lovely sightings of the Common Ringed Plover, Common Starlings, Pacific Golden Plovers and Dalmatian Pelicans. Not to mention an insanely beautiful sunrise from the boat! All in all, no Goose but a beautiful morning nevertheless. We headed back out, had a nice meal (at Khodiyar, where else?) and went looking for the Namaqua in the thorn forest. Along with at least 30 other people, some of whom were coming often for that bird. Latif said the bird usually comes to feed around 4 p.m. and we waited in the shade. But our friend was seemingly hungrier so he arrived at 3:30 itself. And then the entire throng was treated to a lovely little ritual. Which went somewhat like this.

The Dove flew straight into a large thorn bush while his assembled admirers waited about 50 metres away. he then hopped to the ground and started feeding in the shade around the bush. At that time, the paparazzi slowing crawled, wriggled, waddled (call it what you will) in a stealthy phalanx of camera equipment, till we all lay face down on the mud path about 15 metres away from the bush. Our friend hopped onto the road, we got a few photos, he hopped back onto the bush and we all backed off to our original positions. Only to repeat the whole process in fifteen minutes. The guides, led by Latif and Kamruddin, took great pains to keep the throng at respectful distance to ensure the bird was not disturbed. And so, at the second attempt, we all got some decent photos. And Sriram, our three new friends and me backed off, happy with our stash! We'd seen one of the rarest birds to arrive on Indian shores in recent years and a sighter of this stunning bird made me really happy.

And so, with a 580km drive to complete, we bid adieu to Latif and our new friends wished them luck (for they were staying another day) and drove back peacefully home, reassured in the confidence that it was only a matter of time before Latif conjured up something spectacular. 

This time, we missed out on one rarity but got the other. And made some great new friends in the process. Not so bad, is it now?

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. 
However, a lot of the birding happens outside the waterbody itself. 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 Ahmedabad for the drive to Nalsarovar.


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

Where to stay
There are a few places to stay in Nalsarovar and a couple of new ones coming up. Latif can help you with your stay arrangements.

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. For a meal Khodiyar is an excellent dhaba with some delicious local food, which has now become a default on every trip.

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.