Our 2009 North West India trip was largely inspired by the travels of our good friends Rob Hutchinson and James Eaton (www.birdtourasia.com), who had followed a similar route the previous winter. The main constraint of our trip was the two-week window of travel time available, which meant that we could not follow Rob and James’ full circuit; this is where the logistical planning became interesting, in deciding which of the mouth-watering selection of birds and mammals we could afford to omit.
After much deliberation it was concluded that North West Rajasthan would have to be axed, in order to include time for a flight down to Nagpur and a shot at the mythical Forest Owlet in Melghat Tiger Reserve. This move would, however, put huge pressure on the need to connect with both Great Indian Bustard and Stoliczka’s Bushchat in Gujarat where we knew that both birds were far from guaranteed.
Our circuit therefore consisted of Mount Abu (Green Avadavat), Little Rann of Kutch (Onager, Stoliczka’s Bushchat, McQueen’s Bustard, Dalmatian Pelican), Valavadar (Indian Wolf, Blackbuck, Striped Hyena), Gir (Asiatic Lion, Mottled Wood Owl), Greater Rann of Kutch (Great Indian Bustard, Stoliczka’s Bushchat, Grey Hypocolius, White-naped Tit, Sykes’s Nightjar, Red-tailed Wheatear, Sykes’s Lark and White-bellied Minivet) and Melghat (Forest Owlet).
As it transpired this itinerary worked absolutely perfectly, with all target birds and mammals appearing on cue. It should, however, be noted that the continued existence of a viable population of Great Indian Bustard in the Greater Rann of Kutch area must surely be considered as precariously balanced; if this species is a major target then perhaps the inclusion of the Desert National Park should be considered as we took two full days to locate this elusive bird. Conversely, the fact that we found three Stoliczka’s Bushchats in Gujarat may suggest that this unobtrusive species has a more regular wintering presence in the area than literature would indicate.
As a number of the key birds (Sykes’s Nightjar, Red-tailed Wheatear, Grey Hypocolius, Dalmatian Pelican) are winter visitors to the region, a trip between December and March is essential.
As stated above, my thanks go to our friends at Birdtour Asia for the inspiration and assistance in planning this trip. All ground arrangements were made through Asian Adventures (http://www.asianadventures.net/), who proved to be well organised, totally reliable and extremely efficient in their operation. Mention must also be given to Jugal Tiwari, whose Centre for Desert and Ocean (http://www.cedobirding.com/) operation in the Greater Rann of Kutch area certainly aided the success of our travels.
Friday 4th / Saturday 5th December
After being whisked through the silky-smooth Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 experience, Andy Deighton, Jonathan Newman, Barry Wright and I snooze through the eight-hour overnight BA flight to Delhi, arriving at around 02.00 local time. Our Asian Adventures ground agent greets us at the airport and we are rapidly conveyed to the Sunstar Hotel, where the planned sleep is cut to a quick shower and reshuffle of our birding kit.
Over scrambled eggs on toast we are united with Martin Kennewell, Volkert van der Willigen and Hemme Batjes, who have travelled from Singapore and Holland respectively, with enough time to secure a few hours sleep. Our pre-dawn drive to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary reveals that much has changed in India’s capital since MK and I were last here, some 16 years previously. The infrastructure has advanced immeasurably and we enjoy a rapid journey on fast multi-lane highways, with little evidence of the sprawling shanty towns which seemed to predominate large portions of the city during our last visit.
Okhla Bird Sanctuary is a superb area in which to reacquaint oneself with many of the Subcontinent’s lowland bird species. Mist hangs over the Phragmites beds, as an orange sun rises through the smoke and mist that are an omnipresent feature above the city. We spend a solid six hours in the scrubby woodland, marshes, reedbeds and dry fields which make up the Sanctuary, notching up an excellent list of birds. The stars of the show are White-tailed Stonechat and Striated Babbler, two riverine species with very limited ranges, but Red-naped Ibis, White-tailed Lapwing, Striated Grassbird, Oriental Skylark, Orange-headed Ground-Thrush, Common Hawk-Cuckoo and personata White Wagtail are all worthy of mention.
Mid afternoon we return to the Sunstar Hotel where we dine on the rooftop terrace, in the high rise realm of masses of wheeling Black Kites. The fine food gives us a taste of the culinary extravaganza in store in the next two weeks, and Iqbal Ahmed of Asian Adventures joins us to iron out any uncertainties about forthcoming arrangements.
Darkness has fallen before we brave Delhi’s rush-hour traffic to reach the train station and await the arrival of our 20.00 overnight sleeper train to Abu Road. The station is a surprisingly clean and tranquil place compared with memories of train travel on our previous visit and the diesel railway engine chugs in bang on time, towing a snaking row of battered carriages. Our First Class sleeping quarters consist of four wide, comfortable bunks per air-conditioned compartment and we even have a tasty hot supper delivered by uniformed staff. Some aspects of Indian train travel do remain the same, however, and despite the fact that the toilet cubicle now has the luxury of a ceramic loo complete with seat, the rails can still be seen whizzing past, a metre below one’s perch!
Sunday 6th December
The actual route of the train is Delhi to Ahmadabad, meaning that we need our wits about us to avoid missing the 06.30 Abu Road drop-off. In reality we have no need to worry, as a welcome flask of tea and some biscuits are delivered by the attentive railway company staff well in advance of our stop.
At Abu Road we are greeted by Ganesh, our guide for the Gujarat section of the trip. The young Nepalese birder more than proves his worth in the next ten days, adding greatly to the success and ease of our travels. Also at our disposal is a clean and spacious minibus, controlled by the unflappable hands of Ragu, one of the safest and most reliable drivers we have ever come across.
Beyond the small town of Abu Road the road soon starts to wind up into the hills, as the sun rises above the dry plains below. We make stops at various points to walk the road through the dry forest and amongst rocky outcrops and bamboo stands, where we find an excellent selection of bird species plus numerous Hanuman Langurs. Several White-eyed Buzzards perched in bare treetops are early highlights, followed by parties of Tawny-bellied Babblers foraging in low foliage. A group of Indian Scimitar Babblers are a great bonus, but the biggest surprise comes in the form of a stunning male Blue-capped Rock-Thrush perching boldly on a telephone wire.
As we move higher, so the vegetation becomes progressively taller, greener and more lush, while at increased altitude the temperature remains pleasantly cool. Raptors are a feature of the spectacular higher peaks, with Indian Vulture and Indian Spotted Eagle soaring alongside the numerous Steppe Eagles. Several Sulphur-bellied Warblers feed actively on the rocks as we reach a more cultivated zone, before the stars of the show materialise in the form of a small group of Green Avadavats, the primary reason for our journey to this somewhat remote site.
With the bird-finding pressure relieved we head further uphill to check into the Rising Sun Retreat, where a fine meal is soon set before us. After a brief siesta we set off with recharged batteries, passing through Mount Abu town and into the seemingly unexciting eucalypt-dominated woodland beyond. Surprisingly Red Spurfowl is one of the first birds seen here, plus Spot-breasted Fantail and Yellow-eyed Babbler.
Next we move on to the rural hamlet of Peace Park, where we spread out to search an area of short grass and lantana bushes, the favoured habitat of the local Green Avadavats. Soon we are enjoying close-up views of these beautiful little stripe-flanked finches, with bright green upperparts, sulphur-yellow vents and tapering blood-red bills. Although up to thirty birds are noted here, this species has suffered huge declines throughout its Subcontinent range due to its good looks and subsequent demand as a cage-bird; Mount Abu remains one of its very few strongholds.
The remainder of the evening is spent wandering amongst the spectacular hillsides, terraced fields and temples which surround Peace Park, with the shadows growing ever longer. The bird list includes Crested Bunting, Bay-backed Shrike and large flocks of Chestnut-shouldered Petronias, with a hunting party of Indian Grey Mongoose adding mammalian interest. On the way back to the hotel we call in at the stinking town tip, where the scavenging children who were present earlier are now replaced by Hanuman Langurs and Steppe Eagles, which vie with the resident cows for the tastiest morsels.
This is our last night in Rajasthan, and as Gujarat is a ‘dry’ state we need to stock up on beer. This is done in Mount Abu town, at a shop beside a bizarre 10m high replica of the Eiffel Tower! Back at our hotel another superb meal is consumed outdoors, buffet style in the surprisingly chilly evening air.
Monday 7th December
As there are still some of our number without Red Spurfowl on their lists we see the sun rise back at the eucalypt site, where our quarry duly performs. After grabbing a quick coffee at the Rising Sun we set off back down the mountain, walking for long stretches of the winding road in the cool morning air. Things aren’t so exciting as on the previous day, but a first summer male Ultramarine Flycatcher and a roadside Indian Bush Rat make our efforts worthwhile.
After passing back through Abu Road we are soon on a wide dual carriageway where we eat up the miles, occasionally passing rather out-of-context camel carts in the slow lane! In the bustling town of Patan we stop for a drink and a snack, where dozens of Bank Mynas hop around our feet and we get some close-up views of painted camels, whose owners have decorated their beasts of burden with intricate swirls and blotches.
Mid-afternoon we spend an hour at the stunning Modhera Sun Temple, which dates back to 1026 AD and is dedicated to Lord Surya, the Hindu Sun God. The breathtaking architecture is worthy of a visit alone, but even more exciting to us are the dozens of Greater Mouse-tailed Bats and Egyptian Tomb Bats which hang from the low internal ceilings.
For the remainder of the day we travel through a mosaic of ploughed fields, cotton bush grids and yellowing stubble, bordered by high acacia hedges. Several more birding stops in these flat agricultural lands between Modhera and the Little Rann produce the first of many Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, large flocks of Rosy Starlings, Sarus Cranes, Red-naped Ibis, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and our first Jungle Cat.
Soon after dark we reach the luxurious Rann Riders Lodge, where we are greeted with glasses of cold fruit juice before being shown to our newly refurbished rustic chalets with huge en suite bathrooms. A magnificent evening meal is consumed in the large open-walled dining room, before we climb aboard two of the Lodge jeeps for what can only be described as a very disappointing night drive. The promised Sykes’s Nightjars fail to materialise and we have to make do with a couple of Indian Hares and a family of Wild Boar devouring a festering cow carcase.
Tuesday 8th December
Breakfast is taken before first light and we board an open-backed 4WD truck for the half-hour drive west to the Little Rann. It is distinctly chilly at the start of day, as we wind our way down narrow roads passing acacia scrub, villages and reservoirs. Eventually the horizon opens up onto the huge dusty bowl of brown earth and salt pans which is the Little Rann of Kutch.
Initially we search the acacia scrub at the margins of the depression, finding a couple of excellent McQueen’s Bustards without too much difficulty. A small group of Onager shimmer in the distant haze, but we are told that much better views are sure to follow and we head off onto lifeless brown wastes to search for Hoopoe Lark. Considering these large larks have nowhere to hide it takes an age to locate one of the curve-billed brutes, though the Common Cranes on the return leg of the trip are much more obliging. Other highlights of the morning include Asian Desert Warbler, Variable and Desert Wheatears in considerable numbers and a couple of Red Foxes.
Back at Rann Riders we devour another scrumptious meal before taking the road to the south, for a long drive through agricultural land to the Tundi Wetlands, close to Bajana. Here one of the last remaining seasonal lakes has conjured a spectacular gathering of waterbirds. A dozen Dalmatian Pelicans are picked out amongst the two-hundred Great Whites, while hundreds of Greater and Lesser Flamingos wade back and forth through the shallows. Northern Pintail numbers must reach four figures, outnumbering all other dabbling duck species, several Pallas’s Gulls loaf on sandy spits and a Greater Spotted eagle soars overhead.
Driving on to reach the margins of the Little Rann we soon catch up with a highly photogenic group of Onager. Variously known as Indian Wild Ass or Khur, these extremely handsome Equids are now confined to this final stronghold in the Subcontinent. Their pale creamy underparts contrast with sandy-red upperparts, sharply demarcated in a wavy line along flanks and haunches. A short, bristled black mane and matching back-stripe, ear and tail tips make for one stunning creature when viewed in the warm evening light.
An unexpected sighting are a group of female Blackbuck, before a pair of adult Imperial Eagles and Red-necked Falcon complete the day-time viewing, and we set off back in the dark with spotlights scanning the open fields. Eventually a much-anticipated Sykes’s Nightjar is caught in the beam, though two separate Desert Cats are much more obliging and each remains in our high power illumination for us to enjoy every subtle detail of this large, pale Felis.
Wednesday 9th December
We make a pre-dawn start to get to Nya Talwi, another rapidly-shrinking seasonal lake where we stand on the sun-cracked mud margins to savour another stunning waterbird spectacle. Fifty curly-crowned Dalmatian Pelicans rest with two-hundred-and-fifty of their Great White cousins, while hundreds of both flamingo species sieve the briny waters.
We have had our fill of pelicans and are leaving the site when AD calls a halt to the bus. Binoculars are trained onto the top of an adjacent bush and we are overjoyed to come face-to-face with a Stoliczka’s Bushchat, one of our primary target birds in Gujarat. The somewhat subtly plumaged bird is identified as a winter-plumaged male, showing a prominent white supercilium plus distinctively contrasting black alula and white primary coverts on the folded wing. As we study this charismatic bird we find that he spends the majority of the time on the ground, where he adopts an incredible feeding posture of puffing out body feathers whilst rolling the whole of his lower body from side-to-side in a manner we have never seen in any other species.
Equally as enthralling is the history of the bird’s discoverer, Ferdinand Stoliczka. The Czech geologist was born in 1838, joining the British Geological Survey of India in 1862 where he studied the geology and zoology of the Subcontinent and Himalayas, publishing numerous papers on many related subjects. In 1871 he first visited Kutch, where he described Cheetahs and what is now known as Stoliczka’s Bushchat. An adventurer to the very end, he died of altitude sickness in 1874 whilst surveying the geology of Karakoram Pass in Ladakh.
En route back to Rann Riders we make a detour to some newly harvested arable fields and are instantly confronted by a pair of Cream-coloured Coursers and a single Indian Courser; it’s hard to decide which is more impressive! It’s been quite a morning, and all is rounded off by a magnificent breakfast before we depart for the drive to Valavadar at 10.30.
Much of the route south is on minor roads, where we pass through a beautiful green landscape of small irrigated fields tended by ladies in brightly coloured saris. At times the journey becomes something of an obstacle course, as we negotiate herds of goats, wandering cattle and pedestrians whose heads are piled high with produce, though pride of place goes to a paint-decorated working Asian Elephant which takes up most of the narrow road! Rural Gujarat is a fascinating and wonderfully unspoilt setting, where signs of the 21st Century are thankfully few.
After a few wrong turns we hit some more direct highways as we near our destination. Agricultural fields give way to grassland on either side of the raised carriageway, with sparse acacias dotting the dry brown plain. We arrive at the Blackbuck National Park just after 15.00, and within a few minutes of vacating the minibus three Indian Wolves run across the road 100m away, much to the consternation of a couple on a passing motorcycle!
We alternately walk and drive the gravel roads of the reserve until dusk, passing dozens of elegant Blackbuck and hefty Nilgai which punctuate the grassy expanses all around. Three more Indian Wolves pass quickly through the grassland and the most obliging Jungle Cat to date sits at the roadside for some time in the daylight. As the famous harrier roost begins to build in number, the finale at this fine reserve comes in the form of a magnificent male Striped Hyena which is engaged in a hackle-raising stand-off with a Wild Boar which approaches his den too closely.
Excitement over, we drive back to nearby Bhavnagar where the Hotel Narayani Heritage is our home for the night. The rooms are good, but the restaurant co-ordination is a total shambles and our tip is correspondingly meagre.
Thursday 10th December
An early breakfast has us on the road by 06.00, on a journey through another rural landscape on winding and often potholed roads. Again the outlook is one of great rural beauty, where fields are tended by hand and not machine. There is always something to catch the eye, be it an over-laden motor rickshaw, lurching camel cart or a gathering of white-robed villagers at the roadside.
At 08.45 Ganesh calls a halt to our travel close to the village of Jashapara, where low rocky hills rise above the agricultural land. The area of dry thorny scrub is known as Timba Forest and proves to be a superb birding location over the next 2 ½ hours. A pair of Marshall’s Iora cause the first shout, as we fan out to search the dry acacias. Several Chinkara antelopes are flushed, Indian Bushlark and Eastern Orphean Warbler are added to the list, but we save the best until last. Inevitably the loudest shouts and fastest sprints are generated by the finding of a pair of wonderful White-bellied Minivets which work through the thorn bushes in a highly photogenic manner.
The remainder of the long drive to Gir is completed on deteriorating roads and via a picnic lunch. When we eventually enter the Gir Forest National Park the road becomes a rough track through the dry teak trees, leading to Sasan Gir village and the Gir Birding Lodge beyond. This establishment, where we are booked for the next two nights, is owned by Asian Adventures and offers very comfortable chalet style accommodation, with a White-eyed Buzzard being seen from our veranda soon after arrival.
At 15.30 we commence our evening game drive in two open-backed jeeps, paying our entrance fee and setting off on the miles of winding dirt roads which crisscross the Park. The dusty tracks take us through forested gullies and occasionally more open dry grasslands, often with spectacular views over rows of distant hills.
Our guide delights in pointing out rather obvious Cheetal, Nilgai and Wild Boar, plus various common birds, and we are rapidly losing interest in his revelations when a call ‘Mottled Wood Owl’ instantly focuses the attention! Reversing back, we are confronted with a huge and exquisitely marked Strix, in full view, looking down from his roadside roosting perch. Certainly one of the more impressive owls there is, his uniformly-barred pale breast breaks into an elaborate pattern of black, orange-brown and white speckling, surrounding a mottled grey facial disc and lavish pink lids to deep brown eyes.
We are in the process of photographing this beauty from every angle when our guides inform us that a mobile phone call has announced the presence of Asiatic Lions just around the next bend! Reaching the spot in record time we discover two lionesses very close to the road in fantastic evening light. We settle down to savour these incredibly rare predators, which number less than four hundred individuals. Panthera leo persica once ranged from the Mediterranean through much of Central India, but hunting and habitat destruction has driven them to this 1,400km2 sanctuary where they currently thrive under intense protection funded by considerable tourist revenue.
After this frantic introduction the remainder of the drive is much more mundane, with Crested Hawk-Eagle, Ruddy Mongoose and a sprinkling of Sambar the main highlights. Back at Gir Birding Lodge we are presented with what can only be described as the worst meal of the whole trip, as our hosts apparently try to meet the requirements of our western palates and serve up, amongst other delights, spaghetti and cold chips!
Friday 11th December
06.00 breakfast. 06.30 waiting for jeep. 07.00 jeep arrives! Different day, different route, but other than the lack of Lions and owls pretty much the same fare. Our drivers seems a little bored and drive rather wildly around the dirt tracks, depositing a thin layer of dust on the occupants of the jeeps. To crown the morning, one of the jeeps breaks down on the way out.
The previous evening we had touched upon an early departure and the mornings drive seals a unanimous decision; we’re going to hit the Greater Rann of Kutch a day ahead of schedule as this is where our big targets now lie. Ganesh and Asian Adventures show great flexibility in making the necessary arrangements at the drop of a hat and by 11.00 we are on the way to Bhuj.
The drive north is a full ten hours in duration, with just a few brief stops. The journey is a contrasting mixture of rough winding roads, bustling towns and brand new dual carriageways. Some of the latter are so new that the local population has yet to master their use, i.e. we are continually confronted by oncoming traffic in our lane!
It is well after dark when we reach the J P Hotel in Nakhtarana, whose rather shabby rooms are more than compensated for by the fantastic vegetarian meal they provide.
Saturday 12th December
We leave Nakhtarana at 06.30 to drive the 4km to the village of Moti Virani, home of the ‘Centre of Deserts and Ocean’ (CEDO) (http://www.cedobirding.com/), where the proprietor Jugal Tiwari welcomes us with the finest cup of chai in Gujarat! Jugal runs the guest house as a business to support his conservation efforts around the Greater Rann, and has provided us with a local guide for the duration of our extended stay.
Thirty minutes drive through agricultural land delivers us at the famous village of Fulay, known far-and-wide in birding circles for its winter roost of Grey Hypocolius. One of the young guardians of the site awaits our arrival and we follow in line on the ten minute walk to the clump of Toothbrush Trees where these monotypic marvels spend the night.
It is still decidedly chilly and the ground laden with dew as we watch a large orange sun rise above the horizon and slowly illuminate the bright green foliage. White-eared Bulbuls begin to spring from the depths of the bushes and finally the striking form of a male Grey Hypocolius alights on the top of a Toothbrush Tree.
The term ‘must-see bird’ is one of those extremely annoying stock bird tours phrases, but in this case it has to be said that it really is true. You must see Grey Hypocolius if you intend to see every bird family, you must see it because it has a range which gives very rare access to those without a death wish and you must see it because it really is an absolutely awesome looking bird. Over the next hour we think we study three males and a female, but counting is difficult as the birds remain mobile whilst they consume the tiny purplish Toothbrush Tree berries. The pale grey males show a unique combination of black mask rising into peaked crown, creamy throat patch, black primaries with milky white tips, long black-tipped tail and chunky pink legs. Although much more subtle, the broad white tips to the black primaries of the female are similarly appealing. It’s a great start to the day.
Our walk back to the minibus takes us past feeding flocks of Rosy Starlings and below airborne strings of Common Cranes, for a fifteen minute ride to a barren world of sandy plains, sparse patches of acacia and dramatic rocky outcrops. This area is known as the Banni Grasslands, though in this dry environment there really isn’t much grass to be seen! We stop at the base of one of the most striking monoliths, whose orange rock has been hewn into sharp relief by millennia of wind-blown sand. Know as ‘Bird Rock’, this is the site for our next target bird and within a few minutes we have located a magnificent Red-tailed Wheatear. Much more impressive than the field guides suggest, the pale grey bird periodically fans his orangey-red tail.
A picnic breakfast is broken out at the base of the rocks, in a spot giving stunning views of this harsh but beautiful environment. After a search of the surrounding hillsides we set off for an area of scrub frequented by a certain owl. Local knowledge pays off and we are soon face-to-face with a magnificent Indian Eagle Owl, ear-tufts raised and orange eyes glaring in defiance of our attention, as he tries to shelter beneath a low bush from the strengthening sun.
Moving on to a habitat of sparse low bushes on a flat desert plain, we brave the now-intense heat to chase the numerous Asian Desert Warblers which frequent this area. We see our first Long-legged Buzzards here too, but the biggest surprise is another Stoliczka’s Bushchat, this time a rather uniformly-plumaged female bird. Half an hour at the adjacent reed-fringed Chari Dhand Lake produces both Oriental Reed and Paddyfield Warblers, before we return to CEDO for a welcome lunch break.
The food is predictably excellent, then it’s back on the road for the short journey to an area of slightly more lush thorny scrub on the road back to Nakhtarana. We stop beside a rather scenic valley, where one of the few remaining sources of water in the area attracts a steady stream of both Grey-necked and Striolated Buntings. Several Desert Lesser Whitethroats, Indian Bushlarks and late evening flocks of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse are also noted, before we head off for some nightjar spotting.
Back at the Bird Rock site visited earlier in the day we search the open plains for Sykes’s Nightjars, which periodically dart in and out of the headlights and torch beam. The last of the day’s targets in the bag, we return to CEDO for a celebratory feast, held outdoors beside a warming fire.
Sunday 13th December
At 07.15 the sun peeps over the horizon above an expanse of dry thorn forest. First site of the day is Phot Mahadeo, quite possibly the best spot on the planet to search for White-naped Tit. We spread out widely in the undulating valleys in order to maximise the chances of finding our elusive prize, a thinly distributed species whose range has contracted hugely due to habitat destruction.
It takes almost two hours of searching before JN’s distant cries have people running through the unforgiving thorns from all points of the compass, to home in on a pair of stunning White-naped Tits which work their way slowly through the low canopies. Other inhabitants of the area are Marshall’s Iora, Grey-necked Bunting, Painted Sandgrouse and another Jungle Cat. We feel that our picnic breakfast is well deserved after our early morning persistence, then after dining we travel just a few kilometres to the village of Rampur.
On the outskirts of Rampur are several cattle pens, which our guides tell us are a great lure for Sykes’s Larks, a species which has managed to elude us to date. So we march through the cow pats to be instantly confronted by several small groups of very smartly-crested Sykes’s Larks! As we watch the larks a Bengal Fox, with distinctive black-tipped tail, trots past us and then away into the distance.
From Rampur it is a 1 ½ hour drive south to the coastal town of Mandvi, on the Gulf of Kutch. As we enter the town some time is spent around Topansar Lake which is home to a colony of Painted Storks, plus some highly photogenic Indian Shags and Spot-billed Ducks. Next we concentrate our photographic efforts on a large roost of Indian Flying Foxes which rain droppings on several adjacent Hindu shrines, before entering the bustling heart of Mandvi in search of some lunch.
The busy markets in the town’s centre are a photographers’ heaven, and we find time to capture colourful, vibrant Gujarati life around the stalls and street corners. In contrast to many parts of the world, the local population seem to relish the opportunity to be photographed and the broad smiles or inquisitive looks on the faces of the market traders create a series of captivating images. Then, after a fine meal in a busy local cafe it’s time to head for the seaside!
We hit the coast at Modhba, where a small fishing community dry their catch on timber frames at the head of a wide sandy beach. The drying fish attract a small congregation of gulls and amongst the numerous Heuglin’s Gulls we pick out several Steppe and ‘Eastern’ Caspian Gulls. A dozen Pallas’s Gulls, a few Slender-bills and a couple of Lesser Crested Terns loaf further down the long stretch of sand, while a handful of immaculate Crab Plovers stalk the water’s edge. All this is set against a pink backdrop of hundreds of Lesser Flamingos, making for quite a coastal spectacle. Several Sykes’s Nightjars flushed in the dunes, which are also home to hole-dwelling Indian Desert Jirds, conclude another superb day.
Monday 14th December
Our early departure from Gir has given us a whole extra day in the Greater Rann of Kutch region. So far we have concentrated on the target birds close to CEDO and we have been highly successful in our quests. With the relatively easy birds bagged, we are left with two full days to search for the bird which most of us class as our number one priority in Gujarat, namely Great Indian Bustard. Jugal tells us that in the past this species has proven much easier to find in the Naliya Grasslands area to the west, but agriculture is encroaching rapidly on prime bustard habitat and in his previous twelve visits he has failed to find a single Great Indian Bustard.
It is therefore with more than a little trepidation that we make an early start to the Naliya area, an hour-and-a-half drive west of CEDO. At 07.30 we are in position on a 10m high concrete lookout tower which affords fantastic views over many square kilometres of a flat mixture of dry grassland, sparse scrub and agricultural land. Raptors are plentiful, Bimaculated Larks abound and several Black Francolin call from the fields below. There are, however, no Great Indian Bustards and the fact that several tractors are ploughing up the grassland as we watch, feels very ominous.
As the morning progresses we work our way around a series of likely sites, relentlessly scanning all available habitat, notching both Indian and Cream-coloured Coursers, Booted Eagle and a flock of Lesser Whistling Ducks. Although we find some extensive grassland areas, all is rather fragmented and human disturbance never far away.
Thankfully our lunch break at the ‘Hotel Sahara’ proves to be something of a culinary revelation and serves to lift spirits considerably. The tiny roadside cafe rustles up some of the tastiest dishes and most perfect naan bread in the whole of Gujarat, served by friendly staff who are clearly delighted to be blessed by what must be extremely infrequent Western patronage.
The afternoon is much the same as the morning, as we cover great distances on tiny dirt roads which bisect various tracts of flat, dry, bustardless grassland. The end of the day sees our return to the original observation tower, where all fingers are crossed in hope of a change in our fortunes. The bustards fail to show, but the final hour of daylight in this incredible spot does prove to be most memorable.
As a huge orange sun nears the horizon, so thousands upon thousands of Bimaculated Larks stream overhead, all heading to the north west. Atop the tower we are actually amongst the lower birds, while all around the black specs of other more distant flocks pepper the orange sky. Close to ground level large numbers of Greater Short-toed Larks sweep through in the same direction, as dozens of both Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers congregate to roost. It really is breathtaking, and we try to concentrate on the moment, and the fact that we have another whole day to attempt to locate our bustard goal.
Tuesday 15th December
Déjà vu. The sunrise is viewed from the Naliya observation tower, with first light revealing four Golden Jackals, two Bengal Foxes and no Great Indian Bustards. Nearby our grassland searching produces some close Black Francolins and yet another Stoliczka’s Bushchat, this time a male.
An aging and presumably highly knowledgeable forest guard joins our troop, and when he reveals that he has seen a Great Indian Bustard a few days previously the rollercoaster of emotional highs-and-lows hits an upward trend. This trend lasts for an hour-or-so, until it becomes apparent that the bustards are long gone.
The search continues, sometimes covering new ground, sometimes covering sites already visited on the previous day; we feel like we are starting to know every bush and grassy knoll of this bleak landscape. The Lala Bustard Sanctuary is one of the new locations, but after driving the short circuit we decide that the hundreds of new wind turbines which border the grassland reserve have probably not added to the likelihood of a bustard sighting.
The appearance of the Hotel Sahara is the highlight of the day so far, and we ask for several dishes of ‘the usual’. We pan out our visit for as long as we can, but all too soon we must return to the minibus and continue with the quest which is clearly beginning to sap the enthusiasm of all concerned. The afternoon search of more parched grassland is enlightened by an occasional ‘bustard false start’ of a half-concealed Chinkara or a flying eagle, plus a couple of new birds in the form of Alpine Swift and Long-billed Pipit.
As shadows begin to grow, so hopes begin to fade. We decide to end the day in the vicinity of the original watchtower, where the Bimaculated Lark hordes are already heading off to roost. It is 18.00 and we have been searching for Great Indian Bustard for twenty-two hours over two full days, when we park up for one last effort and wearily climb a low bund to scan the five hundredth grassy horizon of the day.
Typically it is AD who first picks up a large bird flying towards us, from a great distance to the east. Disbelieving his eyes, the call is delayed until identity is certain. “Bustard!” No-one can believe it is happening, but there is no doubting the fact that not one but two male Great Indian Bustards are heading this way! Certain moments of one’s birding travels will live in the mind’s eye forever, and this is undoubtedly one of them, as the two bustards perform a fly-past in the orange light and a group of elated watchers celebrate on the grassy bank.
Following the birds’ trajectory, some hasty cross-country driving gets us to a spot where we can observe the bustards where they have alighted and we savour telescope views as these huge birds strut through the grassland, until the light finally fails and we set off back to CEDO. I cannot personally recall ever cutting a bird so finely, or having been so pleased to have finally found it.
Wednesday 16th December
With an afternoon flight to catch from Bhuj, our choice of destination for the morning is slightly limited, with the consensus directing us back to the Phot Mahadeo White-naped Tit site. This time we start at the temple, set in the base of the valley, whose delicate pastel-shaded painted imagery and trailing flags create an unexpected explosion of colour amongst the dark green foliage.
Our allotted two hours at this excellent site produces Sirkeer Malkoha, Jungle Prinia, White-naped Tit, White-bellied Minivet, Marshall’s Iora, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker and finally some views of Painted Sandgrouse on the ground. After our traditional picnic breakfast we return to CEDO to pack bags, setting off for Bhuj at 11.30.
The airport, where we say our much-deserved thank-yous and goodbyes to both Ganesh and Ragu, is refreshingly clean, modern and efficient. Our fifty-minute Kingfisher flight has been rescheduled, which means that we arrive in Mumbai with just half an hour to collect our bags and make the connecting Jetlite flight check-in. Our run between the terminal buildings certainly entertains the locals, and causes some sweat to flow in the heat of our southerly location.
After an unexpected stop-off at Indore we finally reach Nagpur at around 21.00, where we are glad to see that the Hotel Pride is actually visible from the airport. Upon our arrival at the hotel we discover that we are sharing our overnight accommodation with both the Indian and Sri Lankan cricket teams, who are engaged in a one-day match, and consequently the establishment is bristling with machine-gun toting security guards.
They don’t spoil our meal however, or the enjoyment of our first publicly consumed Kingfisher beer for the best part of a week!
Thursday 17th December
When our 04.00 taxis to Melghat arrive just twenty minutes late it is quite a relief, in spite of the fact that both vehicles have clearly seen somewhat better days. The drive to Melghat is a full six hours in duration, though the first half passes quite rapidly in unconsciousness. We awake to a flat landscape of agricultural fields and small villages, and also soon discover that neither driver speaks a word of English!
Forested hills eventually appear on the horizon, and we are soon winding our way upwards on narrow roads which snake through the dry teak forest. This is where the language barrier begins to present some difficulties, as our drivers seem unsure of the rendezvous point and we have even less of an idea what is supposed to be happening. We arrive at the village of Haisal, on the boundary of Melghat Tiger Reserve, where confusion reigns until we pick up a mobile phone signal again and manage to ring Asian Adventures. It transpires that Nikhil Devasar has been with a Forest Owlet since first light and his driver is coming to guide us in!
We race along 10km of bumpy tracks to arrive at the allotted spot, in open forest of distinctively broad-leaved teak trees. Leaving the vehicles at 10.45 it takes us less than a minute to walk to the spot when Nik has his scope on one of the rarest owls in the world!
The story of the Forest Owlet is a fascinating one. The species was first described in 1872 and between this date and 1884 just seven specimens were collected from four sites in central India. After the latter date there were no more records, and in the 1970s extensive searches by Ali and Ripley around the type locality and other areas where specimens had been collected drew a complete blank. Subsequent studies of specimens by Rasmussen and Collar concluded that some of data relating to the skins had been falsified, and that the searches had actually been conducted in the wrong areas!
In November 1997 Pamela Rasmussen, Ben King and David Abbott set about a methodical search of what were now known to be the genuine sites of collection of the only known specimens. After several weeks of searching, and close to the end of their available time, the mythical owl was finally relocated in north west Maharashtra, after an incredible 113 years of absence.
We spend the next hour with our extremely obliging Forest Owlet, soaking up his every detail as he sits quietly in the low, open teak canopy. Now given its own monotypic genus, Heteroglaux, Forest Owlet really is a much more distinctive bird than many of the early field guides suggest and instantly secures a position as one of the highlights of our trip.
There is actually very little else to search for in the degraded forest at this altitude, so we set off on the two hour drive to Chikhaldara Hill Station. An extremely tight and winding road takes us through scenic uplands to the run-down hill resort, where we check in to the correspondingly run-down Hotel Harshawardhan. Thankfully even run-down hotels serve superb food in India, and after our meal we spend some time birding close to the town. White-naped Flameback is the only bird of note, but we also secure some wonderful photographic images of smiling local life.
Final birding of the day is done as we walk down the road through remnant patches of forest, picking up Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Common Rosefinch, Sulphur-bellied Warbler and Spot-breasted Fantail as we go. Back at the Hotel Harshawardhan, a brief power cut brings back memories of India in the past, before a chilly outdoor feast is consumed.
Friday 18th December
Theoretically this is our Forest Owlet backup day, but with the bird already in the bag we have a spare morning on our hands. On Nik’s advice we are at Chikhaldara Forest Park at first light, in the hope of Grey Junglefowl, but this local tourist attraction proves to be useless with Orange-headed Ground-Thrush and tame Rhesus Macaques the only sightings of note.
Hastily departing, we pick up bags and packed breakfast from the hotel and head down hill. Between 08.00 and 12.00 we descend on foot, following the tarmac road as it winds through some fine forest. It is not particularly birdy, but the temperature at this altitude is perfect and we steadily amass a reasonable list of species. Highlights are undoubtedly a couple of stunning male Ultramarine Flycatchers, Western Crowned Warbler and a pair of Mottled Wood Owls flushed from a roadside roost, with a supporting cast of Indian Grey Hornbill, Pale-billed and Thick-billed Flowerpeckers, and Indian Blackbird.
The remainder of the day is spent in transit back to Nagpur, but includes a few refreshment stops in fascinating little rural towns. One brief birding stop, in farmland just before dark, gives us White-eyed Buzzard, Wryneck, Indian Bushlark, Red Avadavat and Plum-headed Parakeet, with our Nagpur arrival taking until 19.00 due to heavy traffic.
As the Hotel Pride has now been completely taken over by the cricket teams, we are transferred to the Sun and Sand Hotel. This is a great move, as the newly built complex is the epitome of luxury and serves food to match.
Saturday 19th December
After a scrumptious breakfast we transfer to Nagpur Airport, expecting a 09.20 flight to Delhi. The weather has other ideas, however, and fog at a connecting airport delays us by an incredibly frustrating four hours; only MK has any cause to savour the experience, as our extended stay in the departure lounge allows him to be photographed with his Sri Lankan cricket hero Sanath Jayasuriya!
Our original plan gave us half a day’s birding at Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary. Even though we have cars awaiting our arrival in Delhi, the delayed flight plus heavy traffic mean that it is already 17.00 by the time we arrive at this superb reserve. This is immensely frustrating because our brief visit in rapidly failing light clearly demonstrates that the area is teeming with birds, as we notch up Indian Spotted and Imperial Eagles, Sarus Crane, Brooks’s Leaf-Warbler and Moustached Warbler. Sind Sparrow, which is apparently now breeding at Sultanpur in ever-increasing numbers, will have to wait until the next visit.
The drive back is the full-on Delhi rush-hour experience of total highway madness, but we are not in a hurry as all that remains is a final curry and Kingfisher, plus a bag-packing session in the very grotty Star Hotel.
We have had an absolutely outstanding two weeks in this captivating country, effectively achieving a clean-sweep of our target list which contained some of South Asia’s most sought-after birds. The ground arrangements made by Asian Adventures (http://www.asianadventures.net/) have been impeccable, and we would thoroughly recommend their services to anyone intending to follow in our footsteps.
Having longed to return for many years, India has lived up to all expectations and exceed them in many ways, proving to be one of the most fascinating and culturally rewarding destinations in the world; the culinary experience alone will ensure that I will be back again before too long!