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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: The West

Gujarat and the Rann of Kutch

2019 Narrative

Our local guides knew exactly where to take us but even so our chances of seeing it were apparently only 50:50. We’d spent the early morning searching for other species and had already encountered a couple ‘trip birds’ – an initially elusive, but eventually cooperative, Red-tailed Wheatear and a hulking juvenile Himalayan Vulture. Nevertheless, we were all totally unprepared for our next encounter: a magnificent Indian Eagle-owl! Perched conspicuously, mid-way up the shaded side of a huge desert rock and glowering at us he looked every inch the owner of the desert we’d been exploring. It felt like this was his property and we were clearly trespassing! We stayed as long as we dared before retreating a safe distance (three kilometres perhaps) for a picnic breakfast. This Indian Eagle-owl, the only one we saw, single-handedly won the accolades in end-of-trip ‘Bird of the Tour’ poll. We were on the edge of the so-called Banni Grassland in Kutch, and undoubtedly not far from the Pakistan border in easternmost Gujarat. Grassland was a bit of a misnomer though, as there wasn’t much grass and the local cattle herders clearly had their work cut out feeding their stock as it would be at least another seven months before there was any chance of rain! The 2008 monsoon had been disastrous for Gujarat, with this particular part of Kutch receiving miniscule amounts of rain, all of which fell in a single 30-minute period of ‘light drizzle’! We’d been warned that this drought would have a negative impact on our tour – there were fewer birds and fewer species to see. That’s what we were told…but boy we saw lots.

Only Velavadar, our first port of call, and Jamnagar, our third, failed to produce any top 10 ranking bird in the ‘Bird of the Tour’ poll, but then Velavadar did reward us with our first mammals: a fantastic Jungle Cat, repeated and prolonged encounters with umpteen Indian Wolves and more Blackbucks than you could shake an Indian police issue riot baton at! Jamnagar also delivered – not least with a massive flock of 170 magnificent Indian Skimmers that we watched sitting, in leisurely short flights and even doing their ‘aerial trawling’ exercises.

We’d spent our first night of the tour in a very comfortable Ahmedabad hotel but were all eager to have breakfast, head south, and see some birds. Our drive to Velavadar took us about three-quarters of the way from the state capital southeast towards Bhavnagar and boy did we see some birds. Gajendra had promised us a few on a small roadside wetland and, wow, what a superb introduction the ensuing spectacle proved to be! Dozens of Great White Pelicans, some sitting while others flew directly overhead. And this was only the start. We’d see pelicans, Great Whites and Dalmatians, on over half of the days of the tour! Other goodies among the 100 species we saw during the drive from Ahmedabad to Velavadar included hundreds of egrets and storks; a pleasant variety of ducks; 300 Common Cranes; a remarkable 33 Black-winged Kites; five White-eyed Buzzards; four Short-toed, two Greater Spotted and our first Booted Eagle; 30 Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and hundreds of Rosy Starlings.

This was our first morning and what a nice welcome to Gujarat’s avifauna we’d had! That afternoon we revelled in views of almost one hundred harriers at the world renown Velavadar roost. Although mostly Montagu’s, both Western Marsh and Pallid Harriers, including several ghostly males of the latter, were well represented. It was here too that we saw our first Long-legged Buzzard and Eastern Imperial Eagles, where our local guides showed us our first Spotted Owlets, and Tawny and Long-billed Pipits but it was the mammals that we’ll perhaps remember most – the two Indian Wolves on our first game drive and the pack of four on the following morning’s excursion. Velavadar was great – not least for the most comfortable lodge of the entire tour, the aptly named, luxurious Blackbuck Lodge, and the sheer number of Blackbucks inside the sanctuary. We logged a hefty 800 of these stunning creatures on our two excursions in to this fabulous grassland reserve.

Leaving Velavadar we next headed to Gir Lion Sanctuary and National Park. This would be our base for the following three nights. Five game drives later we’d had some spectacular encounters with perhaps as many as 13 Asiatic Lions! We saw them, occasionally uncomfortably close, on every excursion in to the park but perhaps our longest lasting memory of them will be hearing the pre-dawn roaring of two competing males. That full-volume interaction dispelled any misguided illusions any of us had about this otherwise rather lazy-looking feline. As if these magnificent encounters weren’t enough we also all saw two separate Leopards as well as umpteen Wild Boar, Sambar, Spotted Deer, and Nilgai! Our time as Gir was our least bird-rich in terms of the number of species we saw but the quality was there with a species haul ranging from Crested Serpent to Crested Hawk-Eagles, impressive numbers of Yellow-wattled Lapwings right beside our hotel, cryptic Indian Stone-curlews, several encounters with Yellow-footed Green-pigeons, a magnificent Brown Fish Owl, and umpteen Thick-billed Flowerpeckers.

Our only coastal stop, at Jamnagar, produced more excitement with some excellent wetland birding at Khijadiya plus a wide variety of shorebirds there and at nearby Navibandar. Khijadiya was brilliant and in the 3.5 hours were were there we logged 108 species and revelled in the massive numbers of birds. Highlights included 350 Great White and five Dalmatian Pelicans; both Greater and Lesser Flamingos; three Black-necked Storks, and over 2000 individuals of two species of crane. It was here too that we saw our only Brown Crake and our most obliging Paddyfield Warbler.

The following day, the salt pans, pools and beaches near Narara and Navibandar produced more memorable encounters with shorebirds being particularly well represented (31 of the days’ 129 species were waders)! Narara yielded hundreds of sand plovers, 35 Terek and over 100 Broad-billed Sandpipers, an impressive 325 Crab Plovers, and a single Great Knot. It also produced our only Black-necked Grebes, thousands of flamingos, and close-range looks at Lesser Crested Terns. It was near Navibander that we encountered the aforementioned Indian Skimmers, and were enthralled throughout the busy day by the antics of India’s very own Santa Claus.

Our morning drive to the deserts south of Bhuj went smoothly and once there we met our local guide, Jugal Tiwari, and soon headed back out. Our first stop produced great looks at a gorgeous White-naped Tit as well as at least two Marshall’s Ioras and two Eastern Orphean Warblers. Just as satisfying were the views of a pair of Indian Coursers we all revelled in at a subsequent stop. Small numbers of Grey Hypocolius winter near Bhuj and we arrived at the appointed site well before the scheduled time the following morning and were rewarded by great views of several females and further views of a high-flying male. We’d return to this same site the following afternoon and were then treated to excellent views of several males. Jugal took us to a good number of his stake-out sites and in turn these produced our first Macqueen’s Bustard, our only Red-tailed Wheatear, the aforementioned Indian Eagle-owl, and some very confiding Hoopoe Larks.

The poor monsoon and subsequent drought had created a huge surge in the numbers Greater Bandicoot Rats and an accompanying boom in the numbers of raptors preying on them. The Banni Grasslands were a haven for raptors and raptor enthusiasts alike and we logged an impressive 16 species with a single Bonelli’s Eagle and two Laggar Falcons perhaps being the pick of the bunch. In reality, though, it was the massive numbers that impressed us most – the 40 Long-legged Buzzards and the 394 Steppe Eagles in a single day!

Moving on, our next stop was the Little Rann of Kutch and some of our target species such as Asiatic Wild Ass (no titters please) and Asian Desert Warbler were just as easy as we’d hoped while others such as the pair of Red-headed Merlin were significantly easier. Some, such as the Macqueen’s Bustards, proved harder to find but our perseverance, and especially that of our knowledgeable hosts, was eventually rewarded and we had excellent views of a pair.

It wasn’t all plain sailing however and, unfortunately, we simply couldn’t find the Sociable Plovers that used to winter in the area and the Striated Scops-owl that had been performing for everyone before we arrived had unfortunately taken a few days leave.

Sarus Crane was virtually the last bird we added to our lists, with three birds — two adults and an attendant juvenile — being seen between our last lodge and Ahmedabad.

Although our final tally of 291 is probably the lowest species total of any of Sunbird’s offerings in the Indian Subcontinent, this belies the essence of this exciting tour. Focused on Western India’s desert specialities, this year’s tour was a great success and yielded impressive numbers of a good many quality birds and mammals in some dramatic settings from start to finish. We’d noted Paddyfield Warblers on two different dates, and Sykes’s on five, five species considered ‘Globally Threatened’ and no less than 18 species that are endemic to the Subcontinent! An impressive haul in anyone’s book. But perhaps our fondest memories will be of the myriad roadside pools filled with a profusion of waterbirds – egrets, storks, ibises, flamingos, pelicans, ducks, and waders.

– Paul Holt

Created: 07 January 2019