Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Birding in India -- Gujarat

February 2011
(Bird and wildlife photos by Nancy Bell, scenic shots by Chuck Bell)

Tue Feb 1 – Mumbai to Bhuj and Moti Virani
Having arrived in Mumbai last evening after a very long non-stop flight from Newark, we both were wide awake by 4 am.  We had to wait until 7 am for breakfast, which was Indian fare.  Though more like a lunch for us than breakfast, it was all quite tasty.  We returned to our room, as the section where the hotel was located was too full of construction to be inviting for a stroll.  We slept a bit more, then watched for birds out the window.  We had lots Rock Pigeons and House Crows but one crow was bigger and all black, an Indian Jungle Crow, our first life bird of the trip.  The ride to the domestic terminal was only a few minutes, and we found our flight would be a half-hour earlier than we thought.  Security was very thorough, and a guard had to examine all of Nancy's camera equipment.  The queue to board was very orderly.  Indians learned well the British tradition of queuing.  As we taxied out to the runway, we were appalled by the thick smog that enveloped all of Mumbai, clearly very unhealthy.

Our birding guide from CEDO, Vaibhav was at Bhuj to meet us with Josy, the driver.  Vaibhav has worked as a naturalist here for 4 years and posts regularly on Birdspix.  The drive to Moti Virani was about an hour.  We stopped a few times for new birds like Bank Starling and River Tern.  We arrived at CEDO about 3:30 pm.  It has 8 spacious & clean but sparsely-furnished rooms.  There was a large power strip for recharging, etc. that we especially appreciated.  The shower was just a shower head that pretty much soaked the bathroom but at least we had hot water and did not have to walk downstairs to a common shower room.   After coffee, we headed out to the Banni Grasslands.  We stopped for Painted Sandgrouse along the way in a small water-seep area near some huts.  The grasslands were anything but grass, a 4000 sq km expanse of flat bare ground punctuated by an ancient volcano and a few remnant outcrops of lava.  

Greater Short-toed Lark
Greater Short-toed Larks were abundant, and at a lava outcrop called "Bird Hill" we saw Variable, Rufous-tailed and Desert Wheatear and watched a beautiful pair of Montagu's Harrier hunt low over the rocks.  At dusk we spotlighted successfully for Syke's Nightjar.  At dinner we met Jugal Tiwari, the very impressive founder of CEDO.  Dinner was typical Indian vegetarian fare.  A local woman makes the food and has it carried to Jugal’s in covered metal pots.  Generally there is a soup-like dal and 2 types of curries.  These are served with chapattis and a special millet pancake for Nancy.  Always we found something we especially liked.  The beds were hard and flat but quite comfortable.  We got 9 new birds today.

Banni Grasslands
Wed Feb 2
We were awakened at 5 am by the sound of a sitar and wailing song being played very loudly in the village temple.  Chuck made coffee, and we eased into the day.  We enjoyed a delicious cup of local chai as we gathered our belongings to load into the vehicle and headed out with Vaibhav.  We drove back to the entrance to the grasslands and turned right into some private farmland.  We were met by a local guy who led us through a castor bean plantation to some thorn scrub in search of the rare Hypocolious, which looks somewhat like a waxwing but is its own monotypic family.  This is one of its few known wintering grounds.  It apparently summers in remote areas of central Asia.  It comes here to feed on very small berries that grow on the scrub.  It is one of our most desired target birds.  After a short while searching, we found our bird and enjoyed over a half hour of close viewing, watching the bird feed on the berries.  Nancy was thrilled to get great photos!  

Gray Hypocolious

We also saw some other very good birds, including Common Babbler, Eurasian Wryneck and White-throated Munia.  We saw a Black Redstart in an area where locals were making charcoal out of the invasive "Crazy Bush." This is one of the few times charcoal making appears to be beneficial.  We then headed out across the vast barren plain of this part of the "grasslands."  We went back to Bird Rock where our drivers produced a nice breakfast of turmeric-flavored rice known as “poa”, bread with cheese and jam, bananas and tangerines.  We watched the 3 species of wheatear as we dined off the hood of our car.  We drove up toward the big lake, Chhari Dhand, to look for Stoliczka (White-browed) Bushchat.  
Stoliczka 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 returned to Moti Virani for lunch and a rest, then headed back out into the grasslands and the lake shore.  We enjoyed Dalmatian Pelicans, Eurasian Spoonbills, Indian Cormorant and a host of wintering shorebirds and waterfowl.  We stayed out until after dark to give Nancy a chance to photograph Syke's Nightjar which we found sitting quietly in a dry rut in the dirt road.  We also saw Indian Eagle-owl.  We ate a quick dinner and collapsed into bed.  We had 91 birds today, 21 of them new, for a trip total of 102 species, of which 30 were new birds for us.
Syke's Nightjar

White-naped Tit
Thur Feb 3
Today we went out with Jugal.  We started at 7 am and headed south through the small town of Nhakatrana.  We went to an area of thorn forest, known as Phot Mahadeo.  We had wonderful views of the colorful Small Minivet and other dry scrub birds.  Our main target was the White-naped Tit.  We had wonderful views of this rare Indian endemic and Nancy persisted for a few good photos.  We then headed back, picking up gray-breasted Prinia and Eastern Orphean Warbler among others.  In Nhakatrana, we spent a bit of time photographing mynas in the trash along the road.  This included the handsome Brahminy Starling, a new bird for us.  Further on in the town, we found a small flock of Syke's Lark in an open area.  We then drove to a temple area, where we picked up Indian Chat.  Then we explored an absolutely beautiful hidden canyon, where we found the two Rock Eagle-owls that hang out there. Nancy crept along the dry sand bed until close enough to photograph the Eagle-owl.  We enjoyed the grandeur and painted colors of the canyon walls as much as we did the owls.  We then stopped at a thorn forest, where Jugal had seen the White-naped Tit.  We refound it in the exact same spot he had seen it before.  (We later learned that he identified its roosting place in this small patch of forest.)  On the way back, we saw Painted Sandgrouse.  We got 11 new birds today for a total of 41 lifers for the trip.
Hidden Canyon
Rock Eagle-owl
Fri Feb 4
We left at 6:45 am and headed south to the Naliya Grasslands.  The road was very rough with pavement very deteriorated.  We had a nice Indian Nightjar on the road.  We stopped at a small lake where we saw several species of duck, including Ferruginous Pochard.  Interesting how Northern Shoveler and Northern Pintail are so widespread.  In the thorn trees, we saw two target warblers, Booted and Sykes' as well as Lesser (Small) Whitethroat.  A bit further we birded along the track to the Naliya Grasslands. We were lucky to find two Sirkeer Malkoha.  Then we went into the grasslands to look for Black Francolin and Great Indian Bustard.  We stopped for breakfast, saw a herd of Nilgai, and finally Nancy spotted a beautiful male Black Francolin, just after Chuck told the driver to stop as he had seen an Indian Fox scooting away in the bush.  We walked some through the grass but flushed nothing.  However, we did see flying Eurasian Griffons and a beautiful Black-shouldered Kite.  

Red-naped Ibis
We drove on to a country restaurant for lunch.  Nancy was the only woman in the place and was stared at by many.  The food was ok, and the cold mango juice was a delight.  At 3 pm, we headed back into the grasslands where we spent the afternoon in a futile search for the rare Indian Bustard.  There are apparently fewer than 20 of these large birds in this huge area.  We did get good looks at Indian Courser, and a flock of Indian Black, or Red-naped Ibis.  As the sun was setting, we watched perhaps 100 harriers come in to roost on the ground.  The grassland also has some mammals, and we saw a few small herds of the very large Nilgai, the smaller Indian Antelope or Chital and two gorgeous Golden Jackals. The Nalyia Grasslands are officially a protected reserve managed by the Forest Department.  But they are being severely encroached upon by fairly large-scale farming operations.  Punjabi farmers, known for their expertise, are apparently coming in and buying off officials so they are able to cultivate and irrigate this public land with impunity.  Before long, there will be very little wildlife habitat left.

We did most of the drive home in the dark on single lanes of pavement with heavy truck traffic going both ways.  Very scary, but our driver has nerves of steel and did well.  We saw 74 bird species today, 7 of them new for a total of 48 lifers out of a grand total of 140 species.

Short-eared Owl
Sat Feb 5
We began birding at 7 am by heading north into the Banni Grasslands to look for Desert Cat and White-tailed Lapwing.  We took some desert photos at sunrise and enjoyed the sight and haunting calls of all the Common Cranes.  Amazingly, thousands of Common Cranes winter in these dirt grasslands where they successfully probe for invertebrates.  It seems so out of place to see cranes in a dry mud habitat.  We then went to the cat den.  We waited awhile but the cat never emerged.  Another car had arrived well before sunrise and they did not see the cat.  We did see two village dogs and an Indian Fox.  We also got a life bird, the Graceful Prinia.  On our way to look for the lapwing, driving cross-country on the pancake-flat ground, Nancy got good photos of Greater Spotted Eagle and a very obliging Short-eared Owl.  We pulled up near the Chhari Danhd and our "bonnet" breakfast of turmeric rice, bread, cheese, fruit and chai.  

We then walked around the water's edge in damp grassy areas to look for the lapwing.  We saw scores of pelicans, shorebirds and ducks but no lapwing.  We had several snipe, 4 Great Black-headed (Pallas') Gull, and Chuck saw two life Black-headed Ibis while Nancy was photographing pelicans.  We then headed back out of the grasslands and continued south on the long drive to the coast.  The town of Nhakatrana was especially busy on a Saturday with all manner of conveyances clogging the streets, from camel and donkey carts to little taxis, folks on bikes and on foot, and large goods trucks.  Interestingly, we saw almost no personal cars in this part of India.  A lot of people get around on motorbikes, and the three-wheeled taxis are everywhere, essentially a motorbike with a box on the back that carries up to 6 people.

And what an afternoon we had!  Talk about sensory overload.  It all began with our arrival in the ancient port city of Mandavi.  We crawled through the narrow, twisty streets and parked in front of a primitive saw mill.  We walked back up the street, cut left into a narrow passageway, emerged into another narrow street, cut down another dark passageway past a cloth shop to a third street, climbed a flight of stairs, washed our hands in a sink at the top, and stepped into a very busy restaurant.  We sat down in a booth with a formica-topped table, and a metal plate with 7 small bowls of sauces was set in front of each of us.  Then out came the chapattis (rice for Nancy) and glasses of buttermilk, and we began to fill ourselves.  There was also a type of corn bread and some light puff bread that tasted like Navaho fry bread. Our plates were continually filled by the waiters with pots of food they dished out to all the tables.  We ate our fill and got up to yield our table to others, as there was a line waiting to eat.  Back in the car, we passed a ship yard where men were building huge wooden hulls for traditional coastal cargo ships.  There were about 8 of these huge hulls under construction.  
Great Thick-knee
Then we drove out to a beach and walked a long way down a deserted stretch of sand to look for Great Thick-knee.  We eventually found a single bird mixed in with Eurasian Oystercatchers.  Nancy managed some rather distant photos.  On the way back we heard noises coming from behind the dune bordering the beach.  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.  Nancy moved in to help and Chuck joined her.  (See separate article in this Blog).  We grabbed onto the baby's legs and pulled, being careful not to dislocate anything.  The mother camel knew we were trying to help, and she pushed, enabling us to pull the baby completely out and lower it down to the sand. 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 the birth stuff off our hands and arms.  Back near the car, we found another target, a Slender-billed Gull.  Back in Mandavi, we stopped at a small urban lake, where people fed gulls, and cows walked among the crowds and traffic.  We looked unsuccessfully for the White-browed Wagtail that is sometimes there.  Then after Josy had a cup of tea to fortify himself for the long drive home, we left Mandavi just as the sun dropped below the horizon.  We saw 5 new species today.  We have now seen 173 bird species, 53 of them new.   And we accomplished the surprising task of being midwife to a camel!

Sun Feb 6 – To Little Rann of Kutch
We said our goodbyes to Jugal and departed Moti Virani at 6 am.  We drove more than an hour in the dark, passing through small town after small town.  Each was just waking up.  We stopped for our packed breakfast on the side of the road.  A street dog and her two pups came out looking for food.  We all fed them bits of our food, started by Josy who clearly has a soft spot for animals.  The traffic, mostly brightly painted "Goods Carriages", was awful.  But Josy did well weaving in and out of slower moving vehicles and through a lot of road construction.  At 1 pm, 7 hours after leaving Moti Virani, we arrived at the little village of Dasada and Rann Riders. We were met by the owner, Muzehid Malik, a very nice guy in his mid-30s, who is from the family that once ruled Dasada.  The open-sided Indian motif lodge lounge and restaurant are beautiful as are the grounds.  The accommodation is in African-style rondavels.  The whole place is quite upmarket.  We nearly lost our hand luggage, as Josy took off for the long drive home before it was removed from the back seat.  Vaibhav called him back on the cell phone.  Lunch was served from a very nice buffet, and we then had a siesta until 4 pm.  
We went out in an open safari vehicle and drove about 15 km 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, which we didn't spend much time identifying.  We watched a Peregrine Falcon on the sand where it was feeding on something it had caught.  Nancy worked hard to get good crane photos but the birds were quite distant and the heat waves were substantial.  We stayed at the wetland until sunset.  The lodge had delicious Indian food.  We are quite happy being Indian vegetarians and find the dishes with chicken are not that interesting or tender.  A real treat was ice cream for dessert, which we had also enjoyed for lunch.  We got 1 new species today, the Jungle Babbler, as we were eating lunch, bringing our lifer total to 54 out of a total of 183 species seen.

Pallid Scops-owl
Mon Feb 7
We headed off around 7 am after an adequate breakfast.  We drove about 45 minutes to the headquarters of the Forest Department here.  A Pallid Scops-owl has been roosting here in the trees.  We found it quickly, and after some maneuvering to get a clear shot between the many branches Nancy got good photos.  This is a very unusual owl in this area.  We then moved into the protected area of the Little Rann, where we soon came upon a Peregrine Falcon sitting on a stone marker.  Again, Nancy got some great photos, including one with the bird just taking off.  Moving on to a lake, a part of the Rann which has not yet dried up, we saw large groups of both Lesser and Greater Flamingo with good numbers of young birds.  There were also huge lines of Shoveler, more of this species in one place than we've ever seen anywhere.  We returned to the lodge for lunch and a siesta.  These siestas are nice since we get up very early and generally the mid-day is too hot for bird activity.  We went back out at 3:30 pm, returning to the Rann.  We looked for but did not find any new birds.  We spent lots of time with a group of 26 beautiful Asiatic Wild Ass, staying with them until sundown.  We saw one new species today, the owl, bringing our trip totals to 55 and 189.

Two photos of Peregrine Falcon
Tue Feb 8
We awakened at 5:15 am and left at 6:30 to go look for McQueen's Bustard.  We had an hour's drive in the open Suzuki jeep, and it was quite cool, something Nancy did not need as she was coming down with a cold.  We went into the Rann from a new direction, and after an hour searching, we came upon two MacQueen's Bustards.  They flew off a ways, and we followed, first in the jeep then on foot.  We had good scope views and saw the bird's white eye, but we were not nearly close enough for photos though Nancy did take a couple of record flight shots.  Driving on, we came upon a female Desert Fox (a subspecies of our Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes).  
She was by a den and ran to lead us away.  We stopped for our packed breakfast, and then began a very long hot and dusty search for Greater Hoopoe-lark.  We checked huge expanses of barren ground for at least two hours and came up with nothing.  On the way back to the lodge for lunch and a siesta, we saw another new bird, the Streak-throated Swallow on a wire along with a bunch of European Swallows.  In the afternoon, we took another road, birded a wetland alongside the road, and then went to a farm where Sociable Plover had been seen several days ago.  No plover was to be found.  We birded a marsh at the end of the farm lane and picked up several new species for the trip, like Asian Openbill and Comb Duck.  Nancy had fun photographing several species in the low afternoon sunlight.  We are clearly down to a few very unusual species for our life lists and will feel extremely fortunate to get any of them.  But we continue to enjoy this area, including the endangered Asiatic Wild Ass, for which this sanctuary was created.  We saw 83 species today, two of them new, for trip totals of 193 species, 57 of them new.
Asiatic Wild Ass
Wed Feb 9
We set off at 7 am after breakfast to spend the entire day in the Rann looking for our target birds.  We drove at least 25 miles into the flat pan of the Little Rann, looking once again for the Greater Hoopoe-lark.  We searched for at least 4 hours, peering at the dusty brown ground looking for a dusty brown bird, stopping at some salt works, where we picked up Sand Lark and were a delightful diversion for the families of the salt workers who camp out here during salt season.  They must wait until the Rann is dry enough to traverse after the monsoons, and they leave in May or June when it all becomes too dusty just before the monsoon starts again.  We finally gave up on the hoopoe-lark in the heat of the day and headed for a treed area about a half hour away to have our lunch.  
Greater Hoopoe-lark 
On the way, we were finally rewarded, after more than 6 hours of very intensive searching, when we flushed a beautiful male bird resting in a deep tire rut in the dried mud.  Nancy and Vaibhav spent considerable time photographing it, and then we continued on to have lunch and a siesta under a lone shade tree.  Around 3 pm we took the long drive back across the Rann to the paved road system. We stopped at a wetland near a village and were delighted to find not only several Common Snipe feeding right out in the open but also 4 Greater Painted-snipe, including a beautiful male who came in close for photos.
Greater Painted-snipe (photo by CBell)
We then stopped briefly at another wetland sanctuary but didn't stay long as we were looking right into the setting sun.  We did manage to scope a whole big flock of Small Pratincole accompanied by at least one Collared Pratincole.  We saw 69 birds today, two of them new.  We have now seen 199 species on the trip, 59 of them new.

Rose-ringed Parakeet
Thu Feb 10
We began our birding at 7 am after breakfast at the lodge.  We headed for a village not far away where Plum-headed Parakeets are found.  We parked under a couple of huge Banyan trees, and right away we saw both the gray-headed female and lovely plum-colored male.  There were perhaps 8 of these birds mixed in with a large flock of the common Rose-ringed Parakeets, and they were all squawking in their morning audio ritual.   Nancy was busy photographing them when Vaibhav called from up the road.  He had found a beautiful pair of Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, another target bird, snuggled up tight together in the bright morning sunlight at the very top of one of the Banyans.  One couldn't ask for a better photo-op of this species, which is usually concealed in the dark leaves of big trees.  We also enjoyed the village folk, especially all the children on their way to school.  They crowded round to see Nancy's pictures, and to look through the scope. And as always, cows moved around us, down the dirt path or to the river.  Nancy had to make way for them when she set up her tripod to take photos.   We then went on to a wetland where we spent the rest of the morning.  

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon
We took a long rest after lunch, then explored some grassland and wetland areas.  We picked up a few new species for the trip, like Wooly-necked Stork and 30 Black-crowned Night-herons in a roost, and Nancy enjoyed photographing Painted Storks in very good late afternoon light.  Shamet, our driver and a member of the Malik family, had great success digiscoping with his phone camera.  
Painted Stork
As darkness fell Shamet saw three huge, stately Sarus Cranes land in a field, while we were down by a wetland.  When we returned to the jeep, we rushed down the road and found them but Nancy had to struggle to get any pictures in the very dim light. We had dinner with Vaibhav and said our goodbyes, as he was taking a sleeper bus back to Nhakatrana so he could pick up a group of 15 Indian photographers and wildlife enthusiasts in the morning.  We certainly enjoyed him as a guide and now a friend.  Today was probably our biggest species count of the trip, at 98.  We got 2 new birds today bringing our total to 61 lifers out of a total of 207 species seen.
Vaibhav Mishra
Fri Feb 11 - to Gir Lion Sanctuary
Our car was right on time, and we left at 7:15 am after saying our goodbyes to the very friendly and helpful staff at Rann Riders.  We were a very fast car on a slow road.  Driving in India is not for the fainted-hearted.  Basically, the first few feet in from the edge of the road is where the slowest vehicles go -- motorbikes, three-wheeled motorbike taxis usually packed to the gills with people, tractors pulling mountains of cane, camel carts, and herdsmen driving their stock.  
Next in come the "Goods Carriages," and there are hundreds of them, big trucks with loads usually too great for their tired motors.  Then come cars like us, not very many but all travelling at a high rate of speed, passing everything from a position somewhere out in the middle of the road.  An oncoming truck?  No problem.  Just floor it and swerve back in at the very last minute.  And oh yes, the horn.  Every Indian driver must have big calluses on their thumbs from hitting the horn hard when approaching anything in the road--other vehicles, dogs, goats, cattle and people.  And all of this takes place on a road that is only about a lane and a half wide with no verge to speak of.  Amazingly, we arrived at Gir Birding Lodge without seeing a single accident.  The trip took exactly 6 hours, instead of the 7 we were told to expect. 

The lodge is located on the boundary of the Gir Lion Sanctuary.  It is a main building with a restaurant upstairs and individual chalets strung out along a long walkway on the edge of a large mango plantation.  We had a fine lunch, took a rest, and then took a walk down to the river.  We saw 31 birds on our walk, two of them new -- the Tawny-bellied Babbler and the White-browed Wagtail, which we had searched for so hard yesterday at Rann Riders.  At dinner we had more conversation with a young Indian couple.  He is an amateur photographer with lots of expensive equipment, and though only 24, she spent two years as a business news announcer on Indian TV but quit to pursue more idealistic goals related to the environment.  They left tonight for Velavadar because there have been hyena sightings there and they want to photograph it.  With our change of habitat, we added several trip birds this afternoon in addition to the two lifers.  Our totals now stand at 63 new birds and 214 for the trip.

Sat Feb 12
We had breakfast at 6 and left at 6:30 in an open safari vehicle with driver and park service scout for a safari in the Lion Sanctuary.  In all, it was a disappointing morning. These guides and drivers might as well be attendants at an amusement park.  They spend most of their time guiding carloads of Indians who only want the thrill of seeing lions.  Consequently, the guides don't really know much about the birds or the overall environment.  And their English is limited to phrases like "Smallbird" accompanied by finger-pointing.  What they are most interested in is their tip, and they clearly were not impressed with the $2.50 tip I gave each of them.  They are really a spoiled lot.  Despite them, we did manage to see two lifers, a Changeable Hawk-eagle barely visible through the morning fog in a treetop, and a good sighting of a pair of Black-rumped Flameback Woodpeckers.  At the end of our 3-hour safari, we came upon 4 lions near the road, a male and 3 females.  Our guides no doubt knew they were there and saved them for last in the hope of increasing the size of our tip, as a whole group of park rangers were having tea under a shade tree just 100 feet from the lions and most probably advised our guide.  Still the lions are magnificent and Nancy was thrilled to take lovely head shots of them.  

The Lions have abundant Spotted Deer as prey and we are told not only can they keep themselves well fed but there is no need for inter-lion aggression so often seen in African lions at a kill.  We returned to the lodge at 10:30 am and spent the rest of the day there and on the walk down to the river and along the road.  In the evening, we spoke with Pradeep, the manager, about getting better guides.  He explained that the lodge's two birding guides also work for Asian Adventures and are off on tour.  This is clearly unfortunate for birders like us.  This is the first time we have been to a place that calls itself a birding lodge that doesn't have a bird guide!  With the two new birds we got this morning, we now have 65 lifers and a trip total of 222.

White-throated Kingfisher
Sun Feb 13
We took the morning safari again today.  The guys we had today were a complete contrast to those of yesterday.  They were enthusiastic and eager to find good birds for us.  We took a "birding" route through the acacia woodland on the edge of the park to look for our target species.  We found one, the Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, and had good views of the Crested Serpent-eagle and we eventually identified a perched Oriental Honey-buzzard.  We had excellent views of Sambar, including a beautiful male, which are almost as large as elk, lots of Spotted Deer and a big Wild Boar which had been feeding on a cow carcass.  Best of all, as we crossed a big dam, a large Leopard crossed in front of us and moved on up the hill giving us a long sighting.  The guys kept us out a whole extra hour, and we rewarded them with an excessively large tip of Rs. 500 each.  In the late afternoon, we took another walk down to the river and saw many of the same birds in the same places as on our two previous walks.  We also saw a cute little Spotted Owlet, an Oriental Darter, and saw a pair of White-browed Wagtails in the same place we got our lifer sighting two days ago.  With the one new bird today, we are now at 66 new birds out of a total of 226 for the trip.

African Stonechat
Mon Feb 14
We had breakfast at 6:30 and left with our driver, Rafik, at 7 am.  He had a spiffy new small SUV and was dressed all in white, which many Muslim men seem to prefer.  His English was limited but we were able to communicate quite well.  He had very good eyes and clearly enjoyed looking for birds as we cruised slowly north on the road back toward Jonaghad.  We stopped several times along the way looking for buntings and for Nancy to photograph birds in the beautiful morning light.  We went as far as the big dam, where we had excellent views of Large Gray Babbler and fleeting views of White-browed Fantail, both new birds for us.  We scanned the entire lake for fish eagles but without success.  On the drive back, we stopped for Nancy to photograph Langur monkeys. In the afternoon, we went for a game drive with the same two guys we had yesterday and the same rattletrap bucket of bolts that passed for a safari vehicle.  We told them we wanted to see lions again today, so they had to stop in the village to file a different "flight plan" with the safari coordinator.  This done, we headed into the park.  Things were very quiet, but we did see two Gray Nightjars in their roosts.  Eventually, we came upon a lioness and her two cubs well obscured and too far for decent photos.  There were about 8 vehicles and they were managed by a Forest Department official so we each got a few minutes with the lions.  Heading out of the park, we came upon a lioness who was beginning to wake up from her nap.  Nancy got some good pictures.  She got up and started to walk down the road.  By this time there were 5 vehicles jockeying for position as we followed her down the road.  Each driver wanted to get his passengers in the best position.  It felt like a road race!  Indians packed into the open back of most of the vehicles were laughing and pointing their small cameras and cell phones in the lion’s direction.  However the lioness seemed oblivious to all the commotion behind her.  She eventually veered off.  Our guide explained that she had two cubs and was heading to a water tank that had just been filled by a Forest Department tank truck.  We got back to the lodge about 6:30 pm.  With the two new birds from this morning, we now have 68 lifers and a total of 229 species for the trip.

Fruit bats
Tue Feb 15
We began the day with another early morning safari.  It was cloudy, unusual for this time of year, and both birds and game were scarce.  We were not alone in this, as others reported the same on their game drives.  We did get much better sightings of Changeable Hawk-eagle and White-browed Fantail and Nancy got a few photo ops, but our guides were unsuccessful in finding any owls, though they looked hard.  We spent the late afternoon with Rafik, who took us out to a big Banyan tree that is a huge roost for very large fruit bats.  They were magnificent with their fox-red bodies and their vampire-capes they wrap around themselves to sleep as they hang from their feet.  We had fun photographing them, and later stopped to look at a rather primitive village-level sugar cane processing plant where Chuck took lots of pictures.  The young girls working in the field were very curious and spent much time giggling as Chuck took photos of them.  Eventually the foreman sent them back to work and we left.  We got no new birds today.  Our trip total now stands at 231.  We got only 7 new birds in Gir.  We would have probably doubled this number if Gir Birding Lodge had had a resident bird guide.

Wed Feb 16 - to Velavadar 
Our car and driver, Nepal Singh, had arrived last night from Ahmadabad and were ready to go this morning.  We left about 7:15 am.  Our driver explained that we would take a direct route using back roads rather than the main highway which was longer and "very dangerous."  This suited us.  We started out by going through the edge of the Lion Sanctuary.  Then we spent the rest of the morning driving through a major agricultural area where the main crops were wheat, cotton, sugar cane and mangos.  These farms are clearly large holdings, and the villages are for the farm workers.  We arrived at Black Buck Lodge a little after noon.  What a place it is with wonderful luxury at the entrance to Velavadar National Park.  It has only been open a little more than two weeks, and we are some of the first guests.  The Lodge is built to blend in with the environment with tasteful architecture.  The rooms are very large with marble floors and sills, and the appointments are very comfortable.  There is even a lovely outdoor shower, as well as a huge tub and shower inside. The Nilgai and Black Bucks come right around the 14 bungalows.  We met the owner, Mickey, an energetic guy from Ahmadabad and his Indian friend who owns a string of gas stations, convenience stores and liquor stores in Racine, Wisconsin and is here on holiday.  He appears to be one of the financial backers for the lodge.  We had a delicious lunch served on the lodge's own monogrammed china, took tea on the veranda and then retired to our bungalow for a rest in the heat of the day.  We went with our car into the park at 4 pm.  We paid more than we had planned for entrance fees, including a camera fee, at Rs.1860 or $45.  We also picked up a park guide, Ayub.  

We cruised around the grasslands of this relatively small park, which is one of the last refuges for the endangered Blackbuck.  Once one of the most numerous wild animals in India, it has suffered enormously from habitat loss as India's fertile grasslands have been ploughed under for crops, much like the destruction of the prairie in the U.S. Midwest.  The male Blackbuck is strikingly beautiful with a jet black back, tan belly and very long corkscrew straight horns.  It is the fastest four-legged animal on earth after the Cheetah.  Nancy photographed several Blackbuck as well as some of the many Nilgai in the park.  We looked at raptors, and from an observation tower, Ayub spotted a Jungle Cat.  We set off in the car and found it quite close to the road, our first small cat of the trip.  Nancy managed a few quick shots.  We also watched scores of harriers come in and roost either on the ground or in the occasional small trees that dot the landscape.  Ayub led us to an area near a Striped Hyena den, and we looked for hyenas in the grass.  Suddenly, three nearly full-grown pups crossed the road in front of us and cut over toward the den.  Nancy got a couple of pictures but the hyenas were mostly obscured by the tall grass around the den.  We returned to the lodge at dark and enjoyed an "outdoor" shower and then a nice dinner.  Nancy especially loved her dessert, a fruit new to us called "chiku".  It looks slightly like a brown, wrinkled, leathery kiwifruit and tastes like a sweet granular pear with brown sugar.

Jungle Cat
Thu Feb 17
It took the untrained staff at this new lodge more than a half hour after we arrived at the dining room to get organized enough to serve us breakfast, even though we had given them our order the night before.  We got into the park a little after 7 am, picking up Ayub at the entrance gate (we had paid the night before, since the office didn't open until 8 am).  We visited a wetland filled with ducks and some shorebirds.  Nancy photographed Blackbuck and Nilgai.  We saw the Jungle Cat again but had no more hyenas and looked unsuccessfully for Indian Wolf.  We did get two life birds.  First, Chuck corrected a miscall by Ayub who said a Painted Francolin was a Black Francolin.  But the bird's red head and lack of eyestripe clearly made it a Painted.  Then we found White-eyed Buzzard seeing perhaps three different individuals.  We also saw, and Nancy photographed, a Rock Eagle-owl which ended up perching on the ground in a bare open area, perfect for photos.  As the heat and light intensified toward 10 am, we returned to the comfort of our room.  We had lunch at 1 pm and departed for Ahmedabad.  We went directly to the home of a wonderful family in Ahmedabad that Nancy had met through the listserv Birdspix for a three-day stay.  This brought to an end the main birding part of our tour.


  1. So nice to read and see Chuck and camel midwives, you!

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