Saturday 12th December 2015

To see, or not to see, that is the question

Once we had completed our highly successful Bustard mission, we set off for our only scheduled coastal experience during the whole of our three months here in India, enjoying a traditional Gujarati lunch in Mandvi before venturing out to the shore.

The entire team of self, Rosemary, Veer, Bhawani and Yogi, enjoying our Gujarati lunch in Mandvi

Clearly such a visit would be likely to boost my overall India trip 2015 bird list quite considerably, with the possibility of adding gulls, terns and waders, but it also held the prospect of a ‘lifer’ that I had long wished to see, the extraordinary and taxonomically uncertain Crab Plover. Not a plover at all, this dramatic-looking black and white shorebird with its cleaver-like, jet black bill, which it uses to crack open the shells of crabs, occurs sparsely along certain shores of the Indian Ocean. It nests in burrows in sandy areas of Pakistan, the Middle East and Somalia, and then disperses to specific wintering grounds from Kenya and Madagascar to Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands.

The bird has the unusual habit of resting on its ‘knees’, the only wader to do so (some other larger birds such as Painted Storks and Adjutants sometimes do this). Its black and white pattern and long legs link it in some way to Stilts and Avocets, but nobody really knows what other birds it is related to, and it is placed in its own family, Dromadidae. All I knew was that I wanted to see it.

One of its few regular Indian haunts is the Gulf of Kutch, and according to our hosts, we had a 99% chance of finding it on the sandy shoreline close to the bustling seaport of Mandvi, and so we found ourselves arriving at the beach, and setting off on what I initially thought would probably be a gentle stroll, almost a formality just to tick off Crab Plover on my list.

I should have known better, as the instruction to remove my shoes and socks and to take plenty of mineral water and biscuits along with me might have indicated that a longer hike was possible! Rosemary was unable to tackle such a walk, so she stayed with Bhawani Singh, our driver. I assumed that we would only be gone a short while.

Almost immediately, we found ourselves sinking in the muddy sand, and it became very clear why shoes were out of the question. We eventually made it out to the open beach beyond the dunes, and it was a splendid sight after having been land-locked for so long. The beach seemed to stretch endlessly in either direction, with a few fishermen dotted along the shoreline, tending their nets.

Veer and I while searching for Crab Plovers on Mandvi beach

Birds were much in evidence, with Pallas’s, Heuglin’s, Caspian, Black-headed, Brown-headed and Slender-billed Gulls all being seen, along with Lesser Crested, Caspian, Gull-billed and Little Terns. But several scans with the telescope in both directions revealed no CPs, as we had come to call the Crab Plover, rather as the Great Indian Bustard is referred to by birders as the GIB (Gee Eye Bee).

Lesser Crested Terns and a juvenile Little Tern, and winter plumaged Black-headed and Brown-headed Gulls on Mandvi beach

Veer was unconcerned, and he indicated that we would probably only need to walk a short distance eastwards, around a point, and there the CPs would surely be waiting. Well, as with all wildlife searching, one can never guarantee anything, and they were not around the next corner, nor the next. In the far distance, we saw some low rocks sticking out into the sea, and Veer told us that the CPs were frequently present just beyond the rocks, so on we trudged.

The beach held plenty of birds, but no CPs

The rocks themselves held some avian delights, most notably considerable numbers of another unusual wader with an oversized bill, the Great Thick-knee. Although we had seen this spectacular species in 2014 on the sandbanks bordering the Brahmaputra, this was the first time I had ever been treated to such close views, and I focused for a while on appreciating these impressive birds before recommencing the CP search.

The Great Thick-knees allowed a close approach on the rocks

The Great Thick-knee should perhaps be called Great Thick-bill thanks to its heavy bill, which is much more noticeable than its knees

We had close-up views of the Great Thick-knees

A fisherman turned out to have set up his nets just beyond the rocks, ruling out there being any Crab Plovers resting there, and an extensive scan failed to reveal any in the bay beyond. And so, with heavy hearts, we commenced our return hike, eventually reaching the car about three hours after we had set off on what was supposed to be a quick stroll. Rosemary was not amused. Apparently she had suggested abandoning us and letting us find our own way back to the hotel by public transport!

Yogi and Veer desperately scanning for the elusive Crab Plover

Fishing boats against the evening light at Mandvi beach

The sun dropping towards the horizon made a spectacular sight

During the night, Veer’s consultations with Mr Tiwari came up with the suggestion that we should try again the next morning, as the absence of the Crab Plovers on one occasion did not rule out their having returned during the night. And so we set off, this time minus Rosemary, who had actually said the previous morning that she was thinking of taking a day off (but had she in fact done that, she would have missed both Bustards), and two hours later we arrived at the same beach.

The morning held out renewed hope of an encounter with the Crab Plover

Off came the shoes and socks, and this time we headed slightly further westwards towards some fishing boats, but again there was no sign of a CP. We did locate a small group of eight Great Knot, an East Asian shorebird that I had not seen for many years, as well as numerous gulls and terns, and the beach again looked splendid in the early morning light.

Yogi posing with a young fisherman who arrived with his donkey cart, curious as to what we were up to

We worked our way further along the shore, until eventually we reached a point where we could check the entire shoreline with the telescope, but there were clearly no CPs! This meant only one thing: a long walk.

A Pallas’s Gull yawns…or was he laughing at my desperation to find the Crab Plover?!

We eventually reached the Thick-knee rocks, and we had high hopes as the receding tide had exposed several sandbars way out in the bay. But no amount of scanning allowed us to glimpse the elusive Crab Plover. We decided to walk on, but were eventually blocked by the outfall from the thermal power stations that dominate the skyline of this coast for miles around.

Painted Storks flying in front of the power station near Mandvi

At this point, Veer said that we would dedicate the whole of the rest of the day to an all-out search for the Crab Plover, using every available method. Little did I know that he was about to phone one of his friends who had a boat in a nearby port, and that he would arrange for us to be taken out into the Gulf of Kutch, where surely the Crab Plovers would be calmly awaiting us on a distant sand bank!

This kind of extreme search is one of the things that make birding such an exciting hobby as far as I am concerned, and I was thrilled at the prospect of surveying the area by boat. However, just after Veer had made the arrangement with the boatman, a call came through from Mr Tiwari, saying that Mam was expecting her evening safari. Oh dear, it was indeed true that I had said to Rosemary that we would be back for a drive in the late afternoon, and it is just as much her trip as mine, so back we went, the boat trip having been cancelled, and the Crab Plovers having to get by without being added to my life list!

The moral of the tale is, a) never say that a bird is virtually guaranteed, and b) never say that you’ll be back in the afternoon if you do not know how long a bird will take to find! My father always says, “You cannot do natural history against time”, and he is quite right. There is nothing worse than coming close to finding a rare bird that one is keen to see, and then having to abandon the search due to some other commitment. So I shall endeavour not to fall into that trap again!

One cannot see everything on one trip, and it is good to leave something to entice one back in the future. The afternoon safari was very pleasant, with the addition of a late migrant Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, which perched briefly next to its much smaller relative the Little Green Bee-eater, making for a wonderful potential photographic comparison shot, but I fumbled over getting my camera out and it flew off before I was ready.

We enjoyed a sundowner tea break (no G&T’s in the dry state of Gujarat) by the extraordinary “egg rock”, shaped like a huge hard-boiled egg, and so our Great Rann of Kutch stay ended.

Veer, Bhawani and Yogi by Egg Rock

Sunset behind the extraordinary Egg Rock

I certainly hope to return here with a group, and working with Veer will undoubtedly be a great pleasure. He and I clicked extremely well, and we made a great bird-finding team. And the Crab Plovers are still out there somewhere, sitting on their knees having the last laugh.

Crab Plovers photographed by Jugal Tiwari. Their curious resting posture can clearly be seen in the closest two individuals

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Friday 11th December 2015

The Great Indian Bustard, a stately bird walking into extinction

The morning after our Sykes’s Nightjar and Desert Cat sightings, we were off before dawn on a mission that was to lead us to encounters with two absolutely top quality birds, one even more endangered than the other.

A brief dawn stop on a road bridge to check a river beneath turned up an Eagle Owl perched in an unusually easy spot – and easy to point out as well, as it was close to a very conspicuous plastic bag; for once, plastic trash, of which there is so much in India, was useful for something! The Indian Eagle Owl is smaller than its European counterpart, but impressive nonetheless, and we spent some time photographing it, although the light was still poor and really sharp images seemed to be unobtainable.

The Indian Eagle Owl was easy to point out thanks to the plastic bag hanging next to it

Shortly afterwards, we branched off the main highway and entered the Naliya grasslands, a highly important bird area, and an oasis of natural savannah and acacia woodland in an otherwise agricultural zone. It was only a few moments after we had started searching that I spotted a large sandy bird running on longish legs through the grass between two Acacias, and a shout of “McQueen’s!” escaped my lips in my excitement! It was a McQueen’s Bustard, a species split from the better known Houbara Bustard, which I had seen on Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands, some years previously. These extraordinary birds are highly endangered, suffering appalling levels of hunting pressure, particularly from Arab falconers, who will pay astronomical amounts of money to corrupt officials, especially in Pakistan, to turn a blind eye to their hunting of this supposedly protected species.

The McQueen’s Bustard kept its distance from our vehicle

Seeing this single bird was a privilege indeed, and we watched it for some time as it stalked through the grass, always keeping a wary eye on us. Unfortunately, these bustards are fairly easy to approach in a vehicle, which is what the Arab falconers do, releasing their falcons for the final dash, taking the cumbersome bustards by surprise and not allowing them time to escape.

Elated at this success, we could hardly have expected more, but suddenly Yogi exclaimed in a state of high excitement, ” G I B!” Well, the G I B referred to perhaps one of India’s most endangered and extremely rapidly declining birds, the almost mythical Great Indian Bustard.

I was so anxious to see this huge bird that despite Yogi’s careful directions, I could not see it. It turned out that I was looking too near, and it was in fact in a further field. But once I had finally latched onto it, there was no missing this huge and boldly marked bird, which was a full adult male, complete with black cap, pale grey neck and sandy wings.

We leapt back into the vehicle and bumped our way closer, forcing our way through patches of thorn scrub, until eventually we reached the area where we thought we must have been seeing this great bird, but initially there was no further sign. Finally, however, a movement in the grass and a flash of pale grey neck allowed us to relocate the bird, but he then hid behind a surprisingly small bush, becoming totally invisible but for his bill and his eye. Each time we moved, so did he, keeping the bush between us and him, but after we had remained still for what seemed like an age, he plucked up courage to stand up, and stalked out from his hiding place, and he then proceeded to walk off and then away to our left, allowing me to film him for around 3 minutes as he strode away.

The Great Indian Bustard hid behind a bush in the hope that we would not spot it

The Great Indian Bustard is such a charismatic representative of its dry grassland habitats, and such a magnificent creature, that it should not be allowed to disappear, and it would be a national disgrace for India to lose such a bird. It is the bird equivalent of the tiger, and an all-out effort is now urgently required if it is to be saved. Mr Tiwari, who has been campaigning for the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard in this area for two decades or more, informed us later that in all those years he had never seen a young bird. Missing the chicks in the long grass might be possible, but as the bustards take seven or eight years to reach maturity, he would certainly have come across juvenile birds if there were any. So the birds that still exist are now old stock, and no longer able to breed successfully.

The Bustard then stalked away through his already fragmented habitat

The causes of the demise of this species are numerous. Most immediately obvious to us was the presence of a large solar farm that had recently been built, on officially protected grassland, the land having been leased by politicians at a knockdown price to foreign electricity generating companies. Bustards need extensive tracts of undisturbed native grassland, which they had here in Naliya until recently. Solar power may be a supposedly green form of energy, but these vast plants should not be placed in prime bustard habitat.

Solar plants may seem ecologically friendly, but NOT in prime Great Indian Bustard habitat

The second problem faced by these ground-nesting birds is disturbance during the monsoon by cattle-herders, who bring their huge herds to feed on the lush grass in the bustard habitat. Nests are trampled or eggs taken by the herders’ dogs. A fence has been built, but there are huge gaps in it, affording the birds no protection at all. Help from Birdlife International or other organisations could surely fund the completion of the fence, but then there is the problem of official complacency.

We came across a Forest Guard who was scanning the area with binoculars, and he was delighted to hear that we had seen one bustard. Apparently top officials, perhaps from the Forest Department or the Gujarat Government, demand to be shown Great Indian Bustards when they visit, and the pressure on the junior staff to find the birds is huge. If they do, then the records are used to ‘prove’ that the species is still present, and even doing well. And shockingly, if they do not, these junior staff members are liable to be sacked. It all sounds rather like the official denials of the disappearance of all the tigers from Sariska National Park, when for years, officially there were still tigers present, although in reality they had all been poached out.

If the Great Indian Bustard is to have a future, then everyone involved needs to pull together for the benefit of the birds, and not to get bogged down in politics and denial of the problem. As I filmed the great bird stalking its way across this fragment of its originally extensive habitat, looking so stately and dignified, as it walked finally out of shot, I feared that I was watching this magnificent creature striding into extinction. I appeal to all concerned not to allow that to be the Great Indian Bustard’s fate.

The Great Indian Bustard seemed to be walking towards its own extinction

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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