(Story and scenic photos by Chuck Bell, bird photos by Nancy Bell, camel photos by Vaibhav Mishra)
The beach was long and deserted, and the tide was coming in. Our driver dropped us near the village and we set off on a long walk in the soft sand to find a Great Thick-knee on a series of rocks that we could barely see far in the distance. We hurried, as the tide would soon cover the rocks and send the thick-knee away. We got there just in time for good scope views and for my wife Nancy to get a few distant photographs as the bird flew away.
On our return, the high tide forced us to walk up next to the dunes that bordered the beach. We heard a weird moaning sound coming from just over the first dune. We went up to investigate. A camel was in the process of giving birth. We watched for a bit and saw that she was clearly having trouble. The head and front legs of the baby were out, but it seemed to be stuck at the shoulders. Nancy moved in to help and I joined her. Having owned horses, we both felt comfortable around large animals. We grabbed onto the baby's legs and pulled, being careful not to dislocate anything. The mother camel clearly knew we were trying to help, and she pushed, enabling us to pull the baby completely out and eased all 90-pounds of it down to the sand. It gasped for air and let out a bleat, so we knew it was alive. It was too exhausted to stand up but it was trying when the mother camel made it gently clear she didn't want any more help from us. We went down to the sea and washed our hands and arms.
Continuing back to our car, we waded through a tidal pool to get a good look at a flock of gulls from a sandbar, and yes, we found another of our target birds, a Slender-billed Gull, mixed in with the flock of Black-headed Gulls. This was a birding adventure like we had never had before!
But Gujarat, the western-most state in India, provided many other adventures. We had chosen Gujarat for our first birding foray on the Indian subcontinent because of its relatively low population density, extensive natural areas, and numbers of bird species we had not seen on extensive travels elsewhere. It proved to be an excellent choice. A good part of the state is flooded during the summer monsoons. These areas then dry out over the winter, when we were there, leaving extensive salt pans, dry flats and grasslands, including the Great Rann of Kutch, the Little Rann of Kutch, and the Banni and Naliya Grasslands. It is a haven for wintering Palearctic migrants and hosts many interesting and beautiful year-round avian residents.
The day before our camel adventure, we had arisen early to walk in complete darkness through a huge castor bean plantation to an area of shrub-land in the hopes of catching the rare Hypocolious in the early morning light. We were not disappointed. As the sun breached the horizon, this monotypic species, which vaguely resembles a waxwing, perched up on a bush and sang, to our great delight. It added a new bird family to our lists. That night we stayed out late to find and photograph Syke’s Nightjar in the Banni Grasslands. It was another very full day, and we returned to our lodgings just as a delectable array of vegetarian sauces and stews were set out on the buffet table under the stars.
We were staying in the small village of Moti Virani, in the heartland of Kutch, at the Centre for Desert and Ocean (CEDO), a non-profit conservation organization, which organized our tour. It is ideally placed for birding this part of Gujarat, just south of the Banni Grasslands and within a day’s reach of the coast. CEDO, founded and led by Jugal Tiwari, offers birding tours in the dry season, runs children’s environmental education programs in the off-seasons, and conducts research year-round. On another morning, we set off with Jugal to find the White-naped Tit, a species classified as “Vulnerable” because of its rapid decline due to the loss and degradation of its habitat. We found two of these small black and white birds where Jugal had seen them before, and he and Nancy got some very good photos. We also went with him to a beautiful, isolated canyon, with multicolored sandstone walls, to photograph a pair of Rock Eagle-owl. The remainder of our time at Moti Virani and later at the Little Rann of Kutch, we were guided by the very engaging naturalist and birder Vaibhav Mishra who also works at CEDO.
With Vaibhav, we made several forays into the extensive Banni Grasslands. Early one morning we watched three species of wheatear as we dined off the hood of our car on turmeric-flavored rice known as “poa”, bread with cheese and jam, bananas and tangerines. Then we drove up toward a big lake, Chhari Dhand, to look for Stoliczka (White-browed) Bushchat. Attesting to Vaibhav's knowledge of his "patch," we found the bird quickly, and Nancy again got good photos. This was another very important target bird. We were also enthralled by the flotillas of Dalmatian Pelican, and more Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintails than we had ever seen before in one place.
We were less enchanted by the Naliya Grasslands, where corrupt park officials are permitting large-scale encroachments by farmers. Though we looked long and hard for the Great Indian Bustard, it has become increasingly difficult to see as it suffers from habitat loss. As a consolation prize, though, we did get a nice pair of Sirkeer Malkoha, Black Francolin and Indian Courser, and we watched the evening descent of hundreds of harriers coming into roost on the ground.
With 173 birds on our trip list, we headed east with Vaibhav to the Little Rann of Kutch. After a tortuous 7-hour drive over unpredictable Indian roads, we needed some birding refreshment, so we headed out to a huge wetland with tens of thousands of birds, including thousands of Common and Demoiselle Cranes and huge rafts of ducks. There were also at least 100 Eurasian Spoonbills and a couple hundred Indian Cormorants, as well as large numbers of shorebirds.
Early the next morning, we began our exploration of the Little Rann itself, a 5000 square kilometer salt flat that is a sanctuary for the rare Asiatic Wild Ass. Over the next few days, we would spend hours in an open vehicle, covering the vast open expanses in search of birds and mammals. The wild donkeys can be found in small groups throughout the area, their beautiful tan and white bodies shining in the sunlight. We enjoyed Pallid Scops-owl, a very close Peregrine Falcon, two MacQueen’s Bustards, Desert Fox, and the large Nilgai Antelope.
But our most desired species, the Greater Hoopoe-lark, was no where to be found, though we spent hours searching for it. Finally, when we had about given up, we startled one out of a dry mud tire rut, and it posed for photos.
This brought to a very happy ending this part of our Gujarat trip. With a trip list of 207 birds and several interesting mammals, we bid goodbye to Vaibhav and the staff at Rann Riders and set off with a car and driver on the remainder of our Gujarat trip. With such adventures in Gujarat, our appetite has been whetted for further birding in India, and we are now beginning to plan our next India trip.