by Bill Harvey
Images: Sumit Sen
2 February - 8 February 2007
I bird watched in Gujarat from 2-8 February 2007. From 2-5 February I was with Sumit Sen in Kutch, based at CEDO in Moti-Virani village (west of Bhuj) and following a programme organized by Jugal Tiwari. I transferred to Gir on 6 February and spent two nights at Gir Birding Lodge with a programme organized by Ganesh of Asian Adventures. On 8th I visited Velavadar Blackbuck Sanctuary with Ganesh en route to Ahmedabad. Sumit spent much of 6th with Niraj V. Mistry and Maulik Suthar visiting Thol Lake near Ahmedabad. Sumit had carefully researched past reports and lists and computed that in Kutch alone we should manage 200 species with up to 50 more from the other sites in Gujarat.
We arrived at Ahmedabad by air and took an overnight train to Bhuj. We were received by our friend, local birder and travel expert, Anil Mulchandani at Ahmedabad Airport and were treated to one of our best meals on the trip. Gujarat is a dry state and permits are required for those who need a drink. Food is mostly vegetarian and even eggs are hard to come by.
Our drive from Bhuj on 2nd gave us a chance to see what were the commoner species in Kutch. Laughing and Collared Doves, Common Babblers, Indian Robins, Rosy Starlings and House Sparrows were all numerous and it seemed that at almost every 100m the wires were graced with a Variable Wheatear. All were of the race pictata but I did see one male opistholeuca (the all black race) . We learnt that in this extreme western part of India many species common elsewhere in the country (and even the state) do not occur in Kutch. These included Jungle and Large Grey Babblers, Magpie Robins, barbets, Green Pigeons, tree pies and hornbills! In fact it was my thinking I had glimpsed a Grey Hornbill entering the canopy of a neem that led to our first stop and our first local specialty, a confiding group of noisy Marshall’s Iora; now an extremely local species confined to north-west India and apparently extirpated from Delhi. However we came across several parties in our time in Kutch. No trace of a hornbill (or indeed any similar sized bird) was found!
Some small birds
After arrival at CEDO around lunch time we spent the remainder of the day in the Banni grasslands and Chhari Dhand. We started in an area of gravelly desert flats with rocky outcrops and quickly found a fine Red-tailed (formerly Rufous-tailed) Wheatear that Jugal had first located some days ago. This is the subspecies chrysopygia which some (including Birds of South Asia) consider warrants full specific status. Two other wheatears featured prominently throughout our birding in Kutch; Isabelline and Desert. Both favour more barren habitats than Variable but all proved to be very approachable as did the Siberian Stonechats in the grasslands. Several of the Desert Wheatears were acquiring their very smart breeding plumage. Common as the wheatears were, they (and all other passerines) were roundly eclipsed by the large flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks which swarmed over the dry lands and the tracks and by the gatherings of House Sparrows (apparently of the large north western Himalayan race parkini) in the thorn scrub.
Habitat of Red-tailed Wheatear
Cranes and Raptors Galore
Raptors of several species are numerous in Kutch and we were not disappointed. From early on we started seeing Pallid Harriers and Long-legged Buzzards. An excellent monsoon had produced a fine crop of grass which in turn nurtured a huge population of Lesser Bandicoot Rats Bandicoota bengalensis. These are apparently the main prey of the harriers, buzzards and eagles. Other mammals included Golden Jackals, Indian Hares, Jungle Cat, Nilgai and Chinkara but none were numerous. Near Chhari Dhand up to 12 Marsh, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers and a similar number of Steppe Eagles could be seen at any one time. In the evening over 40 Steppe Eagles scuffled over the favoured roosts on top of the scattered bushes with the majority forced to perch on the ground. On two evenings we watched the fly-past of around 200 harriers of three species going to roost, an excellent way to hone id skills on the ringtails. Some seemed to deliberately change direction to fly over us and have a closer look!
In smaller numbers we saw in this area a couple of very pale immature Imperial Eagles, Short-toed Eagle, Oriental Honey-buzzard, Osprey, a single Greater Spotted and Tawny Eagles together with good numbers of Black-shouldered Kites and Common Kestrels. What were missing were any vultures, only on the 3rd did we have very distant views of four Eurasian Griffons even though we visited a carcass dump.
In terms of numbers probably the most impressive species was the Common Crane. Groups of birds were frequently encountered in the grasslands and on the dry flats, many including juveniles which spoke of a good breeding season. On our two evening watches we were treated to the remarkable sight of at least 25000 streaming in from all quarters over a couple of hours to roost on mud banks in the lake. The well-disciplined chevrons and lines were constantly bugling their contact calls. This must be one of the largest wintering concentrations in India and contributes to Kutch’s status as the host of the largest numbers. What was interesting during the day was the number feeding (apparently on roots and tubers) on dry flats and in the thorn scrub. Certainly they were not restricted to wet or even damp areas.
The mystery Hypocolius
The village of Fulay on the edge of the Banni grasslands is the only place in India where the fabled Hypocolius can be seen with almost certainty in the winter months. Indeed it is one of the few reliable sites in the small south western Asian range. Here the numerous Salvadoria persica bushes provided food and roosting sites although the berry-bearing bush is numerous in Gujarat so it is not the limiting factor. On our first evening we went to see the birds going to roost and were not disappointed although the views were limited. On 4th morning we were back for longer and had extended views of up to 30 birds perched on the tops of bushes or towering high like Long-tailed Minivets as they moved from bush clump to bush clump. A beautiful, subtly coloured bird and well the worth the trip alone, indeed I class them with Wallcreeper, Ibisbill and Crab Plover as special birds that cannot disappoint! Also of interest here were numerous Rosy Starlings, Common Rosefinch, Black-headed Buntings, Orphean and Sykes Warbler.
Sea fogs and bustards
On 3rd morning we ventured into the Naliya grasslands on our Indian Bustard search. Heavy sea fog limited visibility at first but perhaps enabled us to drive very close to numerous pairs of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and small flocks of magnificent Bimaculated Larks among the Greater Short-toes. Interestingly three other Indian dryland specialities (Eurasian Thick-knee, Indian Courser and Yellow-wattled Lapwing) were in much smaller numbers than the sandgrouse throughout the area; indeed we saw and heard none of the former at all in Kutch. We had a couple of sightings of Desert Warblers in low scattered scrub as ever, numerous arenarius Rufous-tailed Shrikes, more wheatears and Rufous-tailed Larks. One of the best sightings was a fine Laggar eating a Spiny-tailed Lizard, which species seemed extremely numerous along the sand roads. Jugal found us the Indian Bustards without much difficulty. Four were picked up in flight at some distance and we found them or another five with limited searching. The five comprised 4 immature males and a female. With care we were able to drive close to them as the stalked haughtily through the long grass. We moved on to visit a Tawny Eagle’s nest with young and while viewing it had unusually close and open views of Common Quails in the patchy grass. We searched for Stoliczka’s Bushchats but only well marked Siberians Stonechats showed. In the warm weather some of these looked very attenuated and many females showed strong supercilia. It is not surprising that the females have caused confusion recently.
Arabian seas and thorn forests
Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin
We went on the coast at Pingaleshwar where Jugal took us to a small village rubbish dump swarming with very confiding Sykes’s Crested Larks. Common Cranes were more confiding here and we saw our first Brahminy Kites. However the recently observed Macqueen’s Bustards near a coastal temple seem to have been driven off by extensive cutting of the mesquite. We did get good views of Grey-necked Buntings here and later in the Morai thorn forest. On the beach were very confiding Sand Larks while offshore Caspian and Lesser Crested Terns and a group of Oystercatchers flew over two inquisitive Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphins that seemed to come deliberately close in to have a look at us! We went on the Chiyasar thorn forest in search of the White-naped Tit and fairly quickly had reasonable views of this striking bird. In the same area we flushed a pair of Painted Sandgrouse (the only ones seen on the trip) and several buntings.
Wetlands and desert
On 4th after several hours with the hypocolius we returned to the Chhari Dhand lake in the hope of more water birds. Recent incursions by non-local fishermen had caused some disturbance and possibly poaching. We had views of a range of the common wintering surface-feeding duck and waders including Lesser Sand and Kentish Plovers. The damp reeds held numerous Paddyfield Warblers and a few Bluethroats and wagtails but generally small birds were not numerous. We did see a few Sand Martins however. Best birds were the groups of Great White Pelicans and a few Dalmatians so the lake clearly has plenty of fish. Also round the shores were a few scattered White Storks, distant Lesser Flamingos and a single Oriental Pratincole. In the evening we returned to watch the roosting harriers and cranes and managed to add hunting Short-eared and Rock Eagle Owl (on the ground) to our growing list. Even more valuable were close flight views of Sykes’s Nightjars on the desert flats. We had missed out on them on our first night perhaps because of the full moon. En route home Indian Nightjar was seen on the road.
Chhari Dhand lake
Jugal was tied up with new guests on 5th so he had arranged for the experienced local birder, S. N. Varu to take us to another part of the coast. At the start we told him we would like to see places where he himself would go to see a wide variety of coastal birds. We started at a large creek at Mandvi where we had good views of our first Western Reef Egrets, both grey and white morphs in peak breeding condition. We also saw Grey Plovers and Eurasian Curlews out on the mud but no sign of the expected Black-necked Storks and Great Thick-knees. At the bridge in Mandvi we had more very confiding Reef Egrets and Brown- and Black-headed Gulls with our first of very few Slender-billed. A village pond with a thriving Painted Stork colony was next. The huge coastal salt works near Mundra (where we saw our first and only Black (-eared) Kite in Kutch!) was rather disappointing as construction was underway there for a new SEZ. But we had excellent views of a pair and a juvenile Dalmatian Pelican and our only Whimbrel.
After an excellent lunch of fresh fried pomfret we went onto the traditional fishing village of Bhadreshwar. This was one of the highlights of the trip as Mr Varu had ensured we coincided with the rising tide and the returning fishermen. Many hundreds of gulls and terns swarmed around and were very confiding for although they happily raid the fish stocks the villagers do them no harm. Heuglin’s dominated the larger gulls but a number of the smaller Steppe (barabensis) and a couple of Caspian (cachinnans) were seen. Brown and Black-headed Gulls were numerous but Slender-billed were again scarce. A few Pallas’s lorded over all, one already moulting into adult summer plumage which is always a fine sight. Gull-billed dominated the terns and were particularly adept at snatching the drying bombay ducks. Also good numbers of Lesser Crested and a few yellow-billed Greater Crested Terns harried the returning fish baskets. A few Little Terns were more circumspect hovering over the sea. As the tide rose waders gathered on the higher sand banks. They included a group of Bar-tailed Godwits, numerous Terek Sandpipers and a few Ruddy Turnstones. Mr Varu regularly sees Oystercatchers and Crab Plovers at this excellent site.
We drove back to Bhuj that afternoon to catch our train to Ahmedabad. The hoped for White-bellied Minivets didn’t materialize but we traveled through some beautiful rolling hills. Three short of our 200 Mr. Varu took us to his local village pond. This was a beautiful lotus covered lake bursting with birds. We quickly added Great Crested Grebe (about six), a pair of Garganey and a lone Ferruginous Duck as a fitting end to an excellent trip in Kutch.
Thol Sanctuary is located 40 kms northwest of Ahmedabad city. Images from Thol had raised my curiosity and I had long planned to visit this 7 sq. km. wetland. Thanks to Niraj V. Mistry and Maulik Suthar my desire was fulfilled and accompanied by Maulik, I headed from Ahmedabad for Thol on a pleasant February morning. The drive to Thol was interesting with abundant birdlife. Small village ponds held Ruddy Shelducks and Common Teal. Greylag and Great White Pelicans flew overhead and common mainland birds like Jungle Babbler, Oriental Magpie Robin and Yellow-footed Green Pigeons quickly made it to our trip list. Thol itself comprises of a large stretch of open water with a few artificial islands providing a resting place for the birds. It is surrounded by marshy ponds and in many ways reminds one of Bhindawas and Sultanpur. A good variety of wintering birds were observed, the most eye-catching amongst which was a 500 strong flock of Great White Pelicans. A few Mallards were also noted amongst the Greylags, Common Pochards, Pintails and Coots. The star bird was a family of three Sarus Cranes seen at the edge of the sanctuary as we were preparing to leave. All in all a very attractive place and a must visit for birders traveling to Ahmedabad. (Thol text by Sumit Sen)
On 6th February a long drive from Ahmedabad on an excellent road took me to Gir. After an excellent lunch I walked the outside of the National Park with Ganesh. I added a few species (including Pied and Common Kingfishers and White-browed and Grey Wagtails) to my Gujarat list but we failed to find the Brown Fish Owl that had been seen recently. What was interesting was to watch a Paradise Flycatcher feeding almost on the ground on flying insects disturbed by Jungle Babblers. Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher and Plum-headed Parakeet were welcome as were the startling red Flame-of-the-Forest trees. Next day I did two jeep rides and managed in the morning three adult lions (a male and two females) and in the evening a mum with two well-grown cubs. Cheetal and Wild Boar were very numerous and confiding and we saw a few Sambar and Nilgai. Birds were not especially striking though Oriental Honey-buzzards were numerous and varied and we saw several Changeable Hawk-eagles and both Booted and Bonelli’s Eagles. There were Ospreys fishing on the reservoir with Darters and Muggers, Great and Eurasian Thick-knees and Wooly-necked Storks. Of interest were several Crested Tree Swifts, White-browed Fantails and, unusually, Tawny-belled Babblers feeding high on Flame-of-the-Forest blossoms. Three species of woodpecker were seen several times, including Brown-capped Pygmy and as a contrast to Kutch, Common Iora and Great Tit rather than the much rarer related species. In the evening a Grey Nightjar was heard by the lodge just before I tackled a wonderful fish caught in the local river and cooked three ways to my delectation. It was so good I had what was left for lunch the next day.
Velavadar National Park
On 8th I drove back to Ahmedabad via Velavadar. We left early in the morning which was perhaps a mistake as we could easily have fitted in another game drive in Gir and got to Velavadar in mid afternoon. As it was we arrived there at midday and rested for a number of hours to escape the considerable heat. The main targets here are the roosting harriers and the blackbucks, both of which can be seen with ease from the main road that passes through the Park. However we had time to go into the park and having negotiated a very reasonable fee did so in our saloon car with the compulsory guide. The park is very small and it was with some difficulty we persuaded the guide to do two circuits! Just as well for although we saw 100s of Blackbucks and several harriers, Common Cranes and Rufous-tailed Larks on the first round it was on the second we struck lucky with our only Stoliczka’s Bushchat (a male showing all the features and very obviously different from the Siberians around. We also had brief views of a Wolf and several Jungle Cats out in the open in mid-afternoon. We stayed til dusk but the harriers were not especially numerous, no more than 200 of the three common species being seen.
All in all an excellent trip and we are extremely grateful to Nikhil, Mohit, Anil, Jugal, Varu, Niraj, Maulik and Ganesh as well as various cooks and drivers for making it so with their advice and arrangements. We achieved almost all our objectives and saw some excellent birds and mammals in beautiful surroundings. Such tailor made trips always provide useful information for others and in this case some adjustments to the programme might have given more opportunities. The coastal experience with Mr. Varu suggests a number of possibilities if the CEDO visitor cannot get to the traditional sites at Jamnagar. And I suspect the Gir area needs a bit more exploration to find other good sites outside the National Park.