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

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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.