Thursday 17th December 2015

Heinous hyaena harassment

Although our experience of wildlife watching on the Little Rann of Kutch was generally positive, with excellent sightings made of animals and birds going about their business peacefully, and us observing them from a suitable distance and not disturbing them, a case concerning Indian Striped Hyaenas came to our attention that I found deeply distressing and distasteful.

It is perhaps hard for many people to feel sympathy for hyaenas, animals which are seen as leering scavengers that show no mercy towards their victims. However, these preconceived negative impressions refer mostly to the African Spotted Hyaena, which epitomises many people’s most horrifying animal nightmare.

Few naturalists are even aware that hyaenas occur not only in Africa, but also in India, where the much more discreet, almost gentle, Striped Hyaena can be found sparingly across the north of the subcontinent, nowhere conspicuous and mostly nocturnal. It is usual solitary or occurring in small family groups, and is not often seen.

My grandfather F W Champion managed to obtain tripwire photographs of Striped Hyaenas several times in the 1920s and 30s, mostly in the Lansdowne Forest Division, where they have now virtually disappeared, but I have never yet managed to connect with this secretive animal. Rosemary and I came close at the Velavadar Blackbuck National Park, where a German guest observed a hyaena in broad daylight sheltering from the bright sunlight under a tree…but he was berating his guide for showing him a mere hyaena, when as he put it, “I came here only for ze vulf (the wolf)”!

A Striped Hyaena photographed by F W Champion in the 1920s

On one of our morning safaris from Desert Coursers camp, we were offered the possibility to observe a hyaenas’ den, and as I knew that the animals would almost certainly be safely tucked up underground at that time of the day and so would be unlikely to be disturbed by our presence, I accepted.

Visiting this den was an eerie experience. The den itself was in an area of slightly raised ground made up of compacted sand, and there were several holes into which the hyaenas retreat during the daytime. They had a specific area as their toilet, in a collapsed tunnel entrance, showing that they are hygiene-conscious animals. Fresh urine could be seen in the sand in one of the entrances, indicating that a hyaena had fairly recently been in or out.

The hyaenas had one specific toilet area

The den had several entrances

The entire den area was completely encircled with bones including nilgai and dog skulls, all absolutely white. Some pieces of dried hide were also to be seen, but apart from one area where I did catch the scent of rotted flesh, the whole area was remarkably clean. My feelings were only positive towards these hyaenas, who were going about their task of clearing the surrounding area of carcasses, transporting bits of them here to consume them in peace and feed their young. I found the whole scene surprisingly moving, in a macabre sort of way.

The area was littered with clean bones and skulls

I should have been alerted to what was coming by the presence of large numbers of human shoe prints (to which we added) in addition to the hyaenas’ own paw marks. This place was far from being an unmolested site, although the Forest Department had dug a ditch that would be impassable to vehicles some distance away.

More of the bones left by the hyaenas around their den

That night, our hosts sent one of their drivers to check the den area at dusk, with strict instructions not to approach or to disturb the animals in any way but just to see if they came out of the trees and onto the open sand, in which case we might be able to see them the following night. What he found was deeply disturbing. Four vehicles were apparently present, with loud chatter and obtrusive noise being made, and the occupants leaving the vehicles and approaching the den on foot.

But what was far worse was the report that he received from one of the other drivers of an unscrupulous resort owner throwing a firecracker into one of the den entrances in order to force the hyaena family out so that his clients might obtain photographs of the startled animals.

I cannot vouch for the veracity of this story, but if it is true, then I see that as the most despicable, grotesque form of wildlife tourism I have perhaps ever heard of. Striped Hyaenas are unobtrusive members of India’s mammalian fauna, and they are already hard-pressed enough as it is, suffering as they do from habitat destruction and persecution, and it is difficult enough for them to find a quiet home where they can go about their daily lives in peace. And then when they do find a place, in a protected area, they suffer the abuse of being forced out of their underground home by unscrupulous resort owners throwing firecrackers into their dens.

The Forest Department authorities must be aware of such activities taking place in this protected zone, with vehicles involved, but they do not seem to be taking sufficient action to prevent such behaviour (although the digging of the ditch had impeded the vehicles from driving any closer). Perhaps money had been passed in order that they might look the other way. Whatever the explanation, such actions have no place in wildlife tourism, and will only result in there being no hyaenas for anyone to photograph.

Another hyaena caught by my grandfather F W Champion’s tripwire camera trap in the 1920s

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Monday 14th December 2015

A driverless drive on the Little Rann of Kutch!

Following our highly successful (but Crab Plover-less) time in the Great Rann of Kutch, during which we had connected with virtually all of my target species and established an excellent rapport with our hosts Jugal Tiwari and Veer, our tireless driver Bhawani Singh transported us safely and comfortably to the other great flat former seabed area in Gujarat, the Little Rann of Kutch.

First impressions of the Little Rann area were far from favourable, the villages being strewn with rubbish and desperately poor people living in makeshift encampments along the roadsides. Even the entrance road to our home for the coming few days was lined with discarded plastic…but once we were in our encampment, Desert Coursers, the warm welcome we received from our hosts Dhanraj and Sylvie set our minds a little more at ease.

Desert Coursers is the longest-running of the accommodation facilities close to the Little Rann, and Rosemary and I found ourselves in small round mud-walled cottages with thatched roofs and attached bathrooms. Meals were taken in a charming open restaurant area, and the whole campus was shaded with trees, giving a pleasant, relaxed impression.

Our first excursion took us to the nearby Nawa Talab lake, which was covered with flamingoes of both species, both Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, herons and egrets of several species, Avocets, duck of numerous varieties, with two Imperial Eagles eyeing this potential feast from nearby treetops.

Flamingoes and Pelicans were just a few of the countless birds on the Nawa Talab lake

Common Cranes are a wonderful feature of the Little Rann

Pelicans resting on a sandbank in the Nawa Talab

Most interesting of all to me were the two delightful Red-necked Falcons that put on a splendid show, perching on telegraph poles and flying on with a dashing flight as we approached. I had seen this scarce species before, but it was a pleasure to reacquaint myself with it here. Other birds on the open grasslands included both Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, Short-toed and Crested Larks, Greylag Geese, and most impressive of all, numerous Common Cranes, whose bugling cries could be heard wherever we went.

Isabelline Wheatears have a characteristic upright posture

Red-necked Falcons perched on a telegraph pole near Nawa Talab

But it was the extraordinary open areas of dried out salty mud that really made this desolate place so impressive and unusual. Stretching over nearly 5,000 square kilometres, this formerly flooded area now dries out completely during the dry season, although apparently it becomes a sea again during wet monsoon years, when it hosts virtually all of India’s breeding Lesser Flamingoes.

Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of the Little Rann is the Asiatic Wild Ass, a species that has increased from a low of 362 individuals in 1960 to around 5,000 today. We were treated to several sightings of this attractive animal, and it was cheering to hear of a conservation success story when one normally only hears bad news.

An Asiatic Wild Ass with a Common Crane behind

The Asiatic Wild Ass is thriving these days on the Little Rann of Kutch

That evening, we ventured along the northern edge of the Rann, managing to see four MacQueen’s Bustards to add to the one we had been lucky enough to spot on the Naliya grasslands a few days earlier, and after dark we spotted several more Sykes’s Nightjars.

A Sykes’s Nightjar on the Little Rann of Kutch

On our second day, we were invited by our host to join him on what was to be perhaps one of the most extraordinary driving experiences I have ever had. He had asked me to provide a list of the bird species I most wanted to see in the area, and high on that list was the Greater Hoopoe Lark (I do not know why the Greater is necessary as there is no Lesser Hoopoe Lark – another of those inexplicable bird names like Common Hoopoe; there is only one Hoopoe!). This species, which is distributed from the Cape Verde Islands, right across the desert regions of North Africa and the Middle East and Pakistan, just reaches India here in the Little Rann. I had only ever had one opportunity to see it, in Morocco, but I did not really venture far enough into the Sahara there and therefore missed it, so it was high on my wish list. When I had mentioned this, Dhanraj’s eyes had twinkled and he proposed that we should head out on an all-day expedition to search for it.

Unlike most other larks, the Hoopoe Lark has a long, down-curved bill, and it inhabits the most desolate, arid areas of the Little Rann, occurring usually alone or in pairs, and its sandy plumage makes it hard to see against the sandy colour of its desert habitat. When approached, it usually runs away, but when it does fly, its wings are boldly patterned with black and white, rather like a Hoopoe, perhaps explaining its name (although the down-curved bill may also have contributed to that).

And so, early the next morning, Rosemary, Yogi and Bhawani climbed onto the back of Dhanraj’s Mahendra Bolero vehicle, myself joining him in the cab. The first part of our journey was on metalled roads, but shortly afterwards we found ourselves heading out onto the dried-up flats, eventually losing sight of any features in the surrounding landscape at all. I was amazed to be in a place where I was completely surrounded for as far as the eye could see, in all directions, by a totally flat and entirely featureless landscape. I had never seen anything similar anywhere else.

A Wild Ass breaks the monotony of the total flatness of the Little Rann

The featureless landscape seemed to stretch on forever

So impressed was I that I decided to make a video of this extraordinary landscape as we drove. Suddenly, Dhanraj said, “Shall I make your film a bit more interesting, James?” Thinking he was suggesting doing some wild skidding movements and handbrake turns (not my scene at all), I said I didn’t think that would be necessary as driving across the totally featureless landscape with no landmarks around us would be unusual enough, but then to my total astonishment, he said, “I think I’ll just go and have a chat with Rosemary”, and he climbed out of the window of the vehicle, leaving me alone in the cab, seated in the passenger seat, with the driver’s seat vacant and the car powering on across the open desert!

I was so taken aback that I did not really know what to think at all! Eventually, the car began to slow slightly, and Dhanraj shouted down to me, “Put your foot on the gas!” Well, that was none too easy from the passenger seat, and so I climbed over into the driver’s seat and took the controls. It was indeed an extraordinary feeling to know that I could drive in any direction I liked, and nothing would hinder me until I reached the edge of the Rann. It gave an unusual sense of liberty and unfettered freedom. I was rather disappointed when Dhanraj eventually descended and retook control of his own vehicle!

One of the disconcerting things about driving in a featureless landscape is that one loses all sense of how far one has driven. I was astonished when Dhanraj pointed out on the milometer that we had covered nearly 100 kms! By now we were nearing a raised ‘island’ of rock, with a sparse covering of trees, and it was here that we were to commence seriously searching for the Hoopoe Lark. Dhanraj had seen two here a few days previously, and we drove slowly across the dusty landscape close to the ‘island’, but there seemed to be no sign of the Lark…or any other birds at all.

The utterly empty landscape of the middle of the Little Rann

Rather as with the Crab Plover, I love this kind of quest for a rare bird, and we searched and searched, eventually almost giving up…until suddenly a slight movement on the ground ahead of us turned out to be our quarry, a Greater Hoopoe Lark running at top speed, heading rapidly away to our right. I desperately tried to get both telescope and camera ready, but I was only able to snap two unsatisfactory, blurry images before it was out of range, and a further search from the vehicle (this time with driver) failed to reconnect with it.

A poor shot of the Greater Hoopoe Lark as it ran past

The Hoopoe Lark was not keen to be photographed

One of the reasons why I find this kind of search for rare species of bird so thrilling, obsessional though it is, is because of what it leads to. If I had not been so keen to see the Greater Hoopoe Lark, which is restricted to such inaccessible and distant localities, we would never have experienced that extraordinary 200 km drive across the remotest parts of the Little Rann of Kutch. We would of course have visited the parts closer to civilisation in order to see the Wild Ass, but we would not have gained such an impression of the vastness of that empty landscape…and we would not have experienced a journey in a driverless vehicle!

The ‘island’ in a dry sea close to which the Hoopoe Lark was found

Yogi and Bhawani on the desert island in the dried out sea

Rosemary recounting her life story to Dhanraj, not realising that he had fallen asleep

Another safari brought us into an area that was known by our driver of that day to hold a daytime roost of Short-eared Owls. He drove us around, seemingly aimlessly weaving between the acacia trees, until eventually Yogi and I had become tired and we asked him to call off the search. “Just ten more minutes!”, came the driver’s reply, and sure enough, to my total surprise, a few minutes later we were gazing at a splendid Short-eared Owl that was sheltering from the sun under a tree. We were able to admire him for quite a while before he flew a short distance and then landed again, affording us even better views.

A Short-eared Owl was found roosting in the shade of an Acacia tree

The Short-eared Owl flew a short distance and then landed, giving excellent views

Short-eared was not the only owl we connected with on the Little Rann. Dhanraj had tested my bird knowledge on the very first day by showing me a photograph of a particular species of Scops Owl that he told me he was keen to show me. To my shame, I must confess I was unable to identify it, and it turned out to be a species that was not even on my wanted list, so unlikely did I consider it that we would see one, the Pallid (or Bruce’s) Scops Owl.

One or two of these scarce birds, which range from the Middle East to Central Asia, had been wintering in trees around the encampment, and Dhanraj set his staff to work to seek them out, and it was not long before one was located, concealed deep within a cactus-like bush. How it had wriggled in there was hard to imagine, and photography was impossible in such a dark place, but a few days later another was found in a tree behind one of the cottages. This again was hard to photograph due to the intervening branches, but I was pleased to be able to obtain one poor record shot anyway.

The Pallid Scops Owl was almost impossible to photograph

I shall end this blog post on the positive note brought by the sightings of the Greater Hoopoe Lark and the Short-eared and Pallid Scops Owls. This will be the last post from India as Rosemary and I are due to fly out of Delhi at 04.30 tomorrow morning, but I shall continue with the saga over the coming days until I have completed the entire story of our Great Indian Adventure of 2015. And quite an Adventure it has been!

Rosemary Fox taking advantage of the elevation the vehicle gave her in order to look through the telescope

The adventurous Rosemary Fox, thriving at 85 in the Little Rann of Kutch

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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