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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: The West - Gujarat and the Rann of Kutch

2016 Narrative

When questioned at the start of the tour, Paul had definitively pronounced our chances of seeing it ‘unlikely‘. Fortunately, he was wrong and we saw 135 magnificent Indian Skimmers on the tour and it went on to win the accolades in the end of trip ‘Bird of the Tour’ poll. By then we were close to the Gulf of Kutch near Jamnagar and were five days in to our Gujarat jaunt and had watched them sitting, in leisurely short flights and even doing their ‘aerial trawling’ morning exercises. It wasn’t plain sailing for the skimmer however – the poll was a close-run thing (closer than the either the Brexit vote or the Donald Trump presidential election for sure). Fittingly it was pushed very hard by some spectacular performances by birds at four of the tours’ five main sites. We’d been enthralled by a presumed family party of seven spectacular White-bellied Minivets at Gir, captivated by a brilliantly cooperative pair of White-naped Tits south of Bhuj and had seen no less than five Sykes’s Nightjars, two of them spectacularly well, in the Little Rann of Kutch. Only Velavadar, our first port of call, failed to produce a top-ranking bird in the ‘Bird of the Tour’ poll – but then Velavadar did reward us with our first mammals - a fantastic Jungle Cat, a prolonged encounter with our one-and-only Indian Wolf and more Blackbuck than you could shake an Indian police issue riot baton at! Velavadar also surprised us with perhaps our most comfortable lodge, the aptly named luxurious Blackbuck Lodge, and the sheer number of Blackbucks inside the sanctuary. We logged a hefty 1400 of these stunning creatures on the first of our two excursions in to this grassland reserve.

Several of us only had the briefest of visits to our Ahmedabad hotel rooms at the start of the tour – we were eager, eager, eager to have breakfast, head south and see some birds. Our drive to Velavadar took us about three quarters of the way from the state capital southeast towards Bhavnagar and boy did we see some birds. Gajendra had promised us a few on small roadside wetland - and wow what a superb introduction the ensuing spectacle proved to be. Hundreds of pelicans with good numbers of both Great White and Dalmatian – some some sitting, others right overhead (we’d see pelicans on over half of the days of the tour!); our first Greater Spotted Eagle, first Common Cranes and some decent performances from our first Paddyfield and Indian reed-warblers. We even managed to add a write-in, Red Avadavat, to our checklists. The first morning and a nice start! That same afternoon we revelled in the views of well over one hundred harriers at the world renowned Velavadar roost. Although mostly Montagu’s, Pallid Harriers, including several ghostly males, were well represented. It was here too that we saw our first Steppe and Eastern Imperial Eagles, where our local guides took us right to a Painted Francolin and where we saw our first Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse on the following morning’s game drive.

Leaving Velavadar we next headed to Gir Lion Sanctuary and National Park – our base for the next three nights. Five game drives later we’d encountered, or sort-of-encountered, two separate Asiatic Lions – the first was uncomfortably close, but unfortunately only for those in the lead jeep while the second was led up under a shady tree and simply didn’t move enough for all of us to distinguish it from the surrounding dense foliage. What we DID see however were three separate Leopards! Other goodies at Gir included a host of quality birds ranging from Short-toed and Crested Serpent Eagles, impressive numbers of White-eyed Buzzards, repeated encounters with Yellow-footed Green-pigeons, our first night birds, Indian Pygmy Woodpecker, and Tawny-bellied Babbler.

Our only coastal stop, at Jamnagar, produced more excitement with some excellent wetland birding at Khijadiya plus a wide variety of shorebirds there and at nearby Navibandar and on Pirotan Island. Khijadiya was so good that we went twice and massive numbers of flamingos, with 1620 Greater and more than twice as many Lessers featured prominently while other highlights included a pair of Black-necked Storks, and over 2000 of two species of crane (the 800 Demoiselle’s that we counted were, somewhat surprisingly, the only ones we’d see all tour). It was here too that we saw our only Little Pratincoles and our first, and easily most obliging, Jacobin Cuckoo. Nor did we neglect to look at the ‘small stuff’ – Khijadiya helped us improve on our first morning’s Sykes’s Warbler encounter and gave us great looks at our only Sand Larks. For some the time that we spent surrounded by thousands of birds up the small tower hide on our second evening at Khijadiya was one of the highlights of the entire tour.

The salt pans, pools and beaches near Navibandar and a hastily arranged visit to Pirotan Island produced more memorable encounters and it was near Navibander that we encountered the aforementioned Indian Skimmers while some rather-too-elusive Great Knots as well as both Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers, 36 Yellow-wattled Lapwings, 150 Terek Sandpipers, a small party of ever-busy Red-necked Phalaropes, over 1550 Crab Plovers and close-range looks at Lesser Crested Terns were equally welcome entertainment and again ensured that we were kept busy all day.

Our morning drive to the deserts south of Bhuj went smoothly and once there we met our local guide, Jugal Tiwari, and soon headed back out. One stop produced some great looks at Indian Courser and Eastern Orphean Warbler, another with a pair of Marshall’s Iora, another with a stunning encounter with a pair of hugely cooperative White-naped Tits, another a Sykes’s Lark and yet another with a small covey of Painted Sandgrouse. Small numbers of Grey Hypocolius winter near Bhuj but very few had been seen this autumn. Nevertheless, we arrived at the appointed site in time and were eventually rewarded by some great views of a female and further views of a high-flying male. Subsequently Jugal took us to more of his stake-out sites - and in turn these produced our first Asian Desert Warblers and Macqueen’s Bustards, our only Red-tailed Wheatears, Indian Eagle Owls, Cream-coloured Coursers, and Hoopoe Larks. 

Moving on a couple of fabulous Red-headed Merlins were our chief prize on our first evening excursion in the Little Rann of Kutch. Some of our Little Rann target species such as Asiatic Wild Ass (no titters please) were just as easy as we’d expected, others such as the Macqueen’s Bustards proved harder to find but our perseverance, and that of our hosts, was rewarded. Sykes’s Nightjar was far, far easier than we’d ever dared dream and we had stunning, prolonged looks at one bird hovering in our torch beam and of another sitting tight that we could walk almost right up to. The local Sarus Cranes obligingly flew by and a couple of flocks of Collared Pratincoles sat sitting. It wasn’t all plain sailing though as unfortunately we simply couldn’t find the Sociable Plovers that used to winter in the area and the Striated Scops-owl in the garden of a neighbouring lodge are now well and truly out of bounds.

Although our final tally of 284 is probably the lowest species total of any of Sunbird’s offerings in the Indian Subcontinent this belies the essence of this exciting tour. Focused on Western India’s desert specialities this year’s tour, reprised after a lengthy absence, was a great success and yielded impressive numbers of a good many quality birds and mammals in some dramatic settings from start to finish. We’d noted up to eight Paddyfield Warblers on two different dates, Asian Desert Warblers on three and Sykes’s on seven, a further five species considered Globally Threatened and no less than 16 species that are endemic to the Subcontinent! An impressive haul in anyone’s book. But perhaps our fondest memories will be of the myriad roadside pools filled with a profusion of waterbirds – egrets, storks, ibises, flamingos, pelicans, ducks, and waders.

-        Paul Holt


Created: 06 December 2016