Tuesday 1st December 2015

Kutch or Kachchh, that is the question!

We have just completed what has been, at least as far as I am concerned, the most successful and enjoyable part of this whole Great Indian Adventure 2015, in the remote Great Rann of Kutch – or is it Kachchh, as earlier scholars had anglicised its spelling (I love the impossible combination of consonants in the early version)?

One of my principle aims during this part of the trip is to scout suitable areas for bird tours, which I am aiming to organise in collaboration with Sumantha Ghosh, our friend and fixer from Rural Traveller, and Chris Mills, of Norfolk Birding. Kutch is home to an amazing array of desert and semi-desert birds, many of which have an essentially Middle Eastern distribution and only reach India here in this far-flung western corner, up against the sensitive Pakistan border.

Our home for the past few days has been the attractive Cedo (Centre for Desert and Ocean) Birding Lodge, brainchild of Mr Jugal Tiwari, a passionate ecologist and conservationist, who cares deeply not only for the wildlife but also for the local people of this beautiful part of rural Gujarat. Our expert guide has been his brother-in-law, Veer Vaibhav Mishra, who is resident naturalist at this homestay.

We could not have been in better hands, and over the coming few days, Veer and I built up a successful bird-finding partnership, and our luck was certainly in as we found almost all the regional specialities, with a few unexpected bonus birds thrown in – and searching for these species with him has been enormous fun too.

Our first morning involved a quest to find one of the really key birds of this area, and one that I had long dreamed of seeing, the Grey Hypocolius. This enigmatic species is not closely related to any other bird, although some taxonomists place it with the Waxwings, with which it does share a similarly shaped bill and a liking for berries, but its Middle Eastern distribution and its long tail certainly do not make that relationship immediately obvious.

Before setting up Cedo Birding, Mr Tiwari had spent eight years working in the tiny village of Fulai, and during that time he had found that considerable numbers of this extraordinary species regularly wintered close by, attracted by the berries of Salvadora persica, the Toothbrush Tree. When he left the village himself, he passed over the guiding of visiting birders to a local villager, Mohammed, who was waiting for us at the appointed place and time, and we headed into the bushy areas near the village, crossing castor oil fields, checking any birds that perched up on the top of the Salvadora or Acacia bushes, in the hope of finding the elusive Hypocolius. Most of the birds were Bulbuls, and eventually Mohammed went off to search on his own.

Perhaps half an hour later, there came a message of success: a Hypocolius had been spotted! Normally birders should probably not run, but in this case I hared across the field, and a few moments later I was feasting my eyes on a lone male Grey Hypocolius, peacefully feeding on the Salvadora berries. I was able to watch it and obtain a few rather distant but recognisable photos before it flew off, luckily passing over Rosemary, who had not made it across the rough ground to our vantage point, but was able to least see it in flight.

The Grey Hypocolius is a rare bird with a mainly Middle Eastern distribution

Delighted with this success, we headed out onto the dried up former seabed that makes up this arid landscape, known as the Great Rann of Kutch. Rann means open and barren place, and the transition from the agricultural land to the semi-desert became clear as we drove on to our breakfast point, the extraordinary basalt rock formation known by Veer as Bird Rocks. Here we were able to admire Desert, Variable and Red-tailed Wheatears while enjoying our delicious breakfast in the first warming rays of morning sunshine. The location was utterly desolate, in the most positive sense of the term, surrounded by the flat expanse of the Great Rann, and wonderfully free of human activity. The sound of hundreds of roosting Cranes flying out from their roosting areas, uttering their evocative bugling cries in the morning sunlight, was an experience to savour.

The Desert Fox: Rosemary Fox enjoying her breakfast at Bird Rocks

Not long afterwards, a train of perhaps two hundred camels made its way slowly by, these ‘ships of the desert’ led by two herdsmen providing a timeless scene as they disappeared gradually into a cloud of dust and haze. Apparently these herds used to cross the White Desert into what is now Pakistan, but the border is now firmly closed and no cross-border trading is tolerated.

A random glance up into the deep blue sky revealed a formation of perhaps 150 Great White Pelicans circling in perfect unison, the wind hissing in their flight feathers, eventually becoming clearly audible as they soared over our heads. It seemed strange to see these aquatic birds over the arid desert landscape, but from their elevated position they could clearly see the great wetland of the Chhari Dhand, a seasonal lake that only appears in years when the monsoon rains are sufficient to turn what is otherwise a dry dustbowl into a wetland that teams with life.

A flock of Great White Pelicans wheeling overhead

After adding Isabelline to the three Wheatear species we had already seen, our next target bird was another regional speciality, the Stoliczka’s or White-browed Bushchat. Similar to the much commoner Stonechat, but with a bold eye-stripe in the male, we were only able to locate a rather drabber female, but a clearly recognisable one nonetheless, and yet another ‘lifer’ for me.

The pale eyebrow of the female Stoliczka’s Bushchat is a key feature

The afternoon excursion was also to the same area, but also included a visit to the Chhari Dhand, and a tower provided excellent views right across this seasonal lake, on which hundreds of duck, coot and other waterfowl were to be seen. After scanning these flocks, we drove on across the dried mud of the Rann, hoping to find a roost of Short-eared Owls that sometimes appears here. We were unlucky with these, but a wonderful Southern Grey Shrike put in an appearance instead.

A Southern Grey Shrike gave a grand showing in the evening light

Our tea stop coincided with a splendid sunset across the Chhari Dhand wetland, and the Cranes put on a star performance for us, flighting in against the orange sky in long skeins, bugling as they came.

The sunset over the wetlands was spectacular

Despite the gathering darkness, our day’s birding was not yet over, as Veer had brought along a powerful spotlight, and as he played the beam across the dried out landscape, it was not long before some eyeshine led us to an outstanding viewing of a Sykes’s Nightjar, another Middle Eastern and Pakistani breeding species that winters here in Kutch. The bright light allowed us to admire the cryptic colour pattern of this desert bird, which is paler than its forest-dwelling relatives in order for it to blend in better with the sandy soil it normally rests on during the daytime.

Sykes’s Nightjar is well camouflaged in its desert habitat

Even then our luck was still with us, as just before we arrived back at our accommodation, a Desert Cat appeared in the headlights of our vehicle, again allowing for clear observation, the spotting on its back and the striped legs distinguishing it from a domestic cat.

Desert Cat was an unexpected bonus

As on all serious birding trips, the following morning saw us heading out before dawn, this time in the direction of some native dry thorny Acacia woodland. Our target bird was the endangered White-naped Tit, which is restricted to parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, and a few isolated areas in South India. Far more boldly marked than the similarly sized Great Tit, this dramatically patterned bird was high on my wish list. Our first stop produced several Common Woodshrikes and a number of Marshall’s Ioras, both species that frequently associate with the White-naped Tit, so my hopes were high. A Grey-necked Bunting put in an appearance, yet another new species for my life list, but it was not long before a typically tit-like call drew our attention to a black and white bird perched on the top of a nearby tree – and there was the White-naped Tit. I managed to obtain a number of reasonable photographs and a short video recording of this beautiful bird, and we were all treated to outstanding views over quite a long period.

The boldly patterned White-naped Tit is a threatened Indian endemic

Veer told us that least nine different types of call have been identified for the White-naped Tit, meaning that it has its own ‘language’ that can be used to express different messages. Sadly, though, this linguistic skill cannot save the bird from habitat loss and replacement of native Acacia forest by agricultural expansion or industrialisation. Long may its ringing calls be heard across these peaceful north-west Indian hillsides, but whether they will remains to be seen.

A backroad through White-naped Tit habitat

Indeed, one of the Tit’s other calls was heard during our picnic breakfast break. Veer informed us that the birds tend to finish their morning foraging around 09.30 AM, after which they retreat into thicker foliage and roost during the heat of the day before venturing out again in the late afternoon. The call we were hearing at this point must have been one that meant “I’m going for my siesta”, and it certainly was coming from deep within the thicker vegetation, and we could not even catch a glimpse of the bird.

What we were able to feast our eyes upon, though, was the gorgeously marked Indian Courser, a long-legged bird of open fields with a deep chestnut belly and a bold white eyestripe. Several were feeding in a nearby ploughed field, running short distances on their extraordinary pure white legs (other than the Forktails, I do not know of any other birds that have white legs) before bending forward to pick up some worm or beetle along the furrows.

The Indian Courser is a beautiful bird

I will end this blog post here, but our stay in the Great Rann of Kutch was to take an even better turn the following day, with a rare sighting of one India’s most magnificent and drastically threatened birds. All will be revealed next time. For now though, I shall take the opportunity to thoroughly recommend Cedo Birding as an outstanding provider of good accommodation and food, as well as fabulous sightings, in this unique and little-known corner of far western India.

Veer scanning the cliffs for an Eagle Owl, which did not appear

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Friday 27th November 2015

Year of the Cat

Following our tiger sightings in central India and the jungle cat at Velavadar, our next destination involved a quest to find another of India felines, this time in the Gir Forest, home to the World’s last population of Asiatic Lions, and for Rosemary Fox and myself, a visit to the state of Gujarat would have been impossible to imagine without at least trying for this other big cat in its home range.

We left Velavadar and headed across the centre of the state, eventually arriving at the small town of Sasan Gir, where we checked into the Gir Birding Lodge, and enjoyed an evening walk in the mango orchard that surrounds this quiet accommodation facility. The wall that surrounded this property was broken down in places, leaving a clear way for any stray lions to join us, but none chose to do so.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Gujarat is a ‘dry state’, not only in terms of its low rainfall, but also in terms of lack of alcohol. When we had arrived at Ahmedabad airport a few days previously, our guide Yogi had advised us to hold onto our boarding passes. We did not know why, but the twinkle in his eye as he gave us this advice should have alerted us to the fact that he had a plan up his sleeve!

After dark, Yogi asked us to find our boarding passes, and we then headed, somewhat puzzled as to what was happening, to the back of a disused but still attractive-looking hotel…and there was a government alcohol shop! Apparently non-Gujaratis can obtain permits to consume the demon liquor in the state, but they have to provide evidence of their arrival from outside…hence the need for the boarding passes.

Some Indian customers from Bangalore were in the middle of a heated discussion with the official behind the counter, and we felt (only slightly) guilty as we ordered two half-bottles of vodka and a case of Kingfisher strong premium beer, and the Indians had to watch it all being carefully wrapped in newspaper and placed in a box for us, while they were refused a single drop! And so the dry state of Gujarat has once again become habitable for the Fox/Champion team!

The following morning saw us arriving at the gate of the Gir Forest National Park at 06.30, and our lion quest began in earnest. We were a little nervous, as it was only on our eighth safari in Bandhavgarh that we had finally connected with a tiger, and we only had three safaris scheduled to find a lion, but we need not have worried, for on that very first drive in Gir, we were lucky enough to see two lionesses and five cubs together, an extraordinary privilege.

Our driver had heard from another Gypsy driver that others were watching these lions, and he instructed us to hold on tight as he raced along the twisty and bumpy track towards the point where they had last been seen, and almost immediately after arriving at the location, the first lioness ambled towards us, followed by two largish cubs and three smaller ones, and then the other mother appeared, and we were able to watch the entire group together for a while, until a forest guard who was monitoring the movement of vehicles, himself on foot and armed only with a stout stick, motioned us on so as to minimise the disturbance to the animals, whilst allowing other tourists to have their turn to see.

Our first Asiatic Lioness came ambling towards us, apparently unconcerned by our presence

Four of the five cubs that accompanied her are visible here

The cubs looked healthy and strong

Both lionesses were together briefly

The Asiatic Lion population had been reduced to only 12 individuals by chronic over-hunting and persecution, and these last individuals were finally afforded protection by the Maharaja of Junagadh in the 1880s, since when the numbers have gradually grown, until today there are an estimated 520 lions in the Gir area, and they are spilling out of the park and into surrounding forests. There is a fear that genetic problems could arise from the population having been reduced to so few in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but our seven lions certainly looked healthy and bright.

We in fact re-connected with one of the two lionesses in the afternoon, and then found the cubs just over the next hill, all sitting as though their mother had instructed them to behave themselves in her absence and to stay where they were. It was again an extraordinary experience to watch a significant number of these magnificent beasts, knowing how close they had come as a subspecies to total extinction. We can only hope that their futures are bright and that there will still be wild Asiatic Lions in the long-term future, and that the planned relocation of some individuals to Madhya Pradesh will happen, a move which has not received the universal support of the Gujarati authorities, who may well wish to keep the animal as a uniquely Gujarati possession.

We reconnected with one of the two lionesses in the afternoon

Three of the five cubs awaiting their mothers’ return

The cubs seemed to have been instructed to behave well in their mothers’ absence

And so we added another cat to our list of wild felines…and it was not the last, as my next post will explain. It certainly has been the Year of the Cat as far as feline sightings are concerned.

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Thursday 26th November 2015

Gujarat – a dry state, in more ways than one!

A few days ago, our central Indian sojourn reached an end, and we flew with IndiGo from Nagpur to Ahmedabad via Pune, arriving late in the afternoon. We were picked up by our driver Bhawani Singh, who launched us skillfully into the traffic of the capital of the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Initial impressions of Ahmedabad were not very favourable, the roads being lined with grotty makeshift stalls, and considerable numbers of families were living rough, with poor street children running around, some begging from car drivers at red traffic lights. Rubbish was piled everywhere, and it seemed ironic to me that Prime Minister Modi’s Clean Up India campaign should apparently have had so little impact in his own home state.

It seemed an age before we finally escaped the outskirts of the city, passing polluted ponds, piles of plastic trash lining every water body, with cows and buffaloes nosing through the discarded bags in the hope of finding some tasty morsel. All this led me to mentally rename the state as Gunjarat, so much human gunge does it seem to contain!

Our 200 km route took us to the bustling town of Bhavnagar, where we checked into the Basil Park Hotel, our home for the next two nights. Our customary “garam pani” (literally meaning “hot water”, but in our case this meant a cold Kingfisher beer) was sadly absent in this dry state, where alcohol is officially banned.

The next morning was supposed to be a rest period, but little did I know that Bhawani and Yogi were using the time productively by scouting out some nearby wetlands, which Rosemary and I were then taken to in the afternoon. These extensive pools and saltpans, despite the appalling detritus they contained, turned out to be a birders’ Mecca, and my overall list for this year’s trip surged forward from a paltry 180 species to 239. Perhaps due to the Gujaratis’ predominantly vegetarian tradition, plus the ban on hunting that Indira Gandhi had so farsightedly introduced in 1972, large numbers of waterbirds were to be found, literally right on the city’s doorstep.

Part of the extensive wetlands close to Bhavnagar

Perhaps the most spectacular among the many avian delights were the Flamingoes, both Greater and Lesser, which were here in very large numbers. They do not breed in these marshes, and in fact they are apparently under some threat, as there is a plan to drive a military road through their only known Indian breeding ground, in the Great Rann of Kutch, close to the sensitive Pakistan border, which may cause the birds to abandon that site, and therefore India, altogether as breeding birds.

Just a few of the hundreds of Flamingos in the Bhavnagar wetlands

Other highlights included six endangered Dalmatian Pelicans, which like so many of the larger migratory birds will have had to run the gauntlet of flying over Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries in which guns are owned by large numbers of people, some of whom are eager to practise their aim by blasting at a soaring flock of pelicans, storks or cranes on their long migration routes from Siberia, Kazakhstan or Central Asia.

Dalmatian Pelicans are a rare sight

It was noticeable that birdlife was restricted to the unaltered areas of natural-looking marshy vegetation and pools, the saltpans being clearly too saline to be of any use to the birds. Large areas have already been converted into salt workings, into which salty water is pumped, the water then evaporating off in the mid-day heat, leaving the pure white salt behind. Other sections are being lost to industrial development, one particular factory announcing itself as a toxic waste disposal plant. One wonders where the toxic waste ends up: in the marshes, most probably.

The salty areas did not attract much birdlife

After a final morning spent re-checking these areas and an additional nine species of bird being found, we headed out of Bhavnagar, into a drier area of low acacia-dominated grasslands, eventually arriving at our extremely plush accommodation, at Blackbuck Lodge, where we were pampered in style (even to the extent of being able to indulge in some “garam pani”, in this case gin and tonic).

Sunrise over the Bhavnagar wetlands

One of the great sights we witnessed here was the constant stream of Harriers of three species, predominantly Montagu’s and smaller numbers of Marsh and the ghostly Pallid, sailing past the luxury open tent in which we were enjoying our tea, all heading for the large patches of dry grassland within the adjacent Blackbuck National Park, in which they roost on the ground. Apparently more than 3,000 of these graceful raptors gather here each evening, in what is apparently the largest communal Harrier roost in the World.

A Montagu’s Harrier in the Blackbuck National Park

But it is the Blackbuck, that extraordinarily elegant antelope, that the park was set up to protect. These hugely attractive animals were decimated in the great massacre of Indian wildlife that took place in the 1950s and 60s, when previously closed areas were opened to hunters with high-powered firearms in motor vehicles, and anything went. Indeed, this slaughter had already started in cultivated areas even earlier, and as I admired these wonderful creatures, I felt proud that it was my grandfather, F W Champion OBE IFS, who was one of the first to campaign for their protection, albeit in another part of India. He wrote an article back in 1934, entitled “A Plea for the Indian Blackbuck”, which began:

In the olden days the handsome Indian blackbuck [Antilope cervicapra] was certainly the commonest game animal in India, and vast herds, sometimes running into thousands, were scattered all over the country, except in moist places such as parts of Bengal and Malabar. On railway journeys they could commonly be seen from the train windows, forming a very typical and striking feature of the Indian landscape, and their numbers were so great that they undoubtedly did a good deal of damage to crops and were consequently classed as “vermin” by Government. Blackbuck still occur in fair numbers in more distant places, but every year they seem to be getting fewer and fewer, and it is doubtful if there are now 10 percent of what there were fifty years ago. This destruction of one of the finest antelopes in the world is increasing annually, and one begins to wonder if the unfortunate blackbuck is doomed to follow the fate of the bison of America, and of other creatures, once existing in countless numbers, that have now disappeared from the world.

Blackbuck photographed by F W Champion in UP, probably in 1933

Luckily, thanks to far-sighted conservationists such as my grandfather, that doomsday prediction has not befallen the Indian Blackbuck, and at least here, the animal seems to be flourishing, and it was a pleasure to admire the spectacular males with their extraordinary spiral horns, and the pale beige females and young, some of which were indulging in the jumping behaviour that is so characteristic of several species of antelope, perhaps most famously the Springbok.

Blackbuck must surely be one of the most elegant of the antelopes

The other wonderful mammal sighting we were treated to here was a Jungle Cat, which appeared in the long, dry grass beside one of the tracks on our last safari. I leave the description of this delightful animal to my grandfather, who published an article in the magazine “India” about it in October 1930:

The common jungle-cat is quite a large animal, a little smaller than the average jackal and weighing up to as much as 20 pounds. It is therefore considerably larger than the ordinary domestic cat, with which it undoubtedly sometimes interbreeds. The colour of the body varies from sandy grey to greyish brown but most specimens usually have a brownish tint. In adults there are, in most cases, no markings on the body or limbs, but the tail, which is normally rather short, is nearly always ringed with black near the end and terminates with a black tip. Sometimes there are slight transverse markings in the limbs and occasionally a black variety occurs, an example having been brought in to me only last year. Few sportsmen can have failed to have seen this creature at one time or another, for it is by no means entirely nocturnal in its habits and is not particularly shy of human beings. It feeds on birds and small mammals and is said to be especially destructive to partridges, peafowl, hares and other game. Cases have been recorded of birds shot by sportsmen being snatched away by this cat before they could be picked up, and a reward of Rs. 5 is paid for its destruction in the reserved forests of the United Provinces. The track left by this animal is exceedingly small for the size of the leg, and, in the case of the photograph illustrating this article, which was taken by automatic flashlight, I expected the negative to show a much smaller cat than it actually does. The track is a typical cat’s track, exactly like the spoor left by a tiger or a leopard, but on a miniature scale. Incidentally I would point out that an early morning study of the tracks left on sandy roads in the jungle is one of the very best ways of learning what animals are living in the neighbourhood, for most animals, except the deer tribe, are very fond of walking along the roads and paths made by man, presumably because they form the easiest and most direct way of moving from place to place, but also because hunting animals can move along them extremely silently. Automatic flashlight cameras placed by me along such roads have been fired literally hundreds of times by the various animals, from wild elephants down to hares and small cats, the commonest victims being hyaenas, but the number of times that deer, which in numbers probably exceed all others put together except porcupines, have fallen into my photographic traps, could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

An Indian Jungle Cat photographed using a tripwire by F W Champion

Our sighting was altogether different, with us being to look down on the animal from our elevated vantage point on the vehicle. The Jungle Cat was stalking in the long grass, and at times only its ears were visible. It then ran out across a patch of open ground, and then finally jumped up out of the grass an apparently caught something. Unfortunately I had looked away just at that moment, and therefore missed this sight.

The Jungle Cat stalking through the grass

The Jungle Cat moved out across an open area

It then ran away towards the grass beyond

I end this post with my grandfather’s appeal at the end of his 1934 article, which could apply not only to the Blackbuck, but also to so many other species that were decimated before sport hunting was banned by India’s Wildlife Act of 1972:

There is much more that could be written about these interesting and handsome animals. I will close by appealing once more to all concerned and to those Indians who are proud of their country in particular, to remember that no species of wild animal, no matter how common it may once have been or may even appear to be now, can stand the unfair and destructive methods of slaughter which modern science has placed in the hands of those who have no feeling for wild animals or for sport in the true sense of the word.

F W Champion seemed to be able to ask his animal subjects to pose artistically for his camera

Thankfully the Blackbuck seem safe here at Velavadar thanks to rigorous protection