“To be standing together in a frosty field, looking up into the sky, marveling at birds and reveling in the natural world around us, was a simple miracle. And I wondered why we were so rarely able to appreciate it.” Lynn Thomson.
On our weeklong visit to Kutch, one of the must do items on our itinerary was to set aside a day exclusively for bird watching. Having a trained ornithologist and wildlife photographer as my better half means being able to get close to nature and admire the avian beauties and other wild life. Read on to find how our family went in search of birds around Kutch, in a year when monsoon had played truant which meant the number of bird sightings would not be as expected. With a never give up spirit we set off looking for these winged friends and ended up getting to see more than what we had bargained for.
Raptors in the Banni Grasslands and Chari Dhand
At the centre of the Kutch bird watching excursion are the Banni Grasslands that are spread over an area of more than 3,000 sq. km. It is best to explore it with a guide who is well versed with the area and its topography. After a lot of research and contacting several bird watchers and travel experts, it was our driver Arjunji from Gujarat Trails who said that he knew of an expert by the name of Jugal Tiwari who runs CEDO (Centre for Desert and Ocean research) who organizes jeep safaris in the grasslands.
As agreed, we meet at his homestay in Moti Virani village in Nakhtarana district in the afternoon. After the initial round of introductions, we set off in a jeep armed with binoculars and zoom cameras in search of raptors. The Banni grassland is the largest natural grassland in the Indian sub-continent formed from the sediments deposited by the Indus river thousands of years ago and are recognized for their rich bio diversity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has even released a book on ‘The Birds of Banni Grassland’ which is a compilation of research on more than 250 species of birds found here.
On the way to the grassland, we see a settlement of the Maldharis who are a group of nomads that rear camels and buffalos and depend on their milk as a source of livelihood, explains Tiwari. Just then our driver slows down as we see three painted sandgrouses marching on the periphery of the dirt track. As we move ahead still more birds are spotted and each time our guide and the driver point in their direction and the jeep halts for us to get a better view and to be able to capture them in our cameras.
We are now in Chari Dhand in Fulay village- a shallow wetland during the monsoons but for now, it is barren and stark. A change in the ecosystem is evident due to the failure of monsoons. So, no signs of any water birds but it’s party time for the bandicoots who emerge from their burrows. Each of these borrows is interconnected to the other and these ‘bandicoot highways’ are a feasting ground for the raptors like eagles and buzzards, explains Tiwari. We notice a lone steppe eagle resting under a shrub unafraid of the jeep getting close to him. “Just as grandpas have their favourite armchair, where they like to lounge every evening, so also this eagle finds comfort at this spot where it has been spotted for the last couple of weeks” enlightens our expert. The steppe eagle migrates to India from Romania and Mongolia and has a magnificent wingspan of 5.5 to 7.5 feet!
There are more and more sights of raptors like the long- legged buzzard, common buzzard and other eagles. Abruptly the driver signals in the distance to a movement of a creature hidden behind the vegetation. In hushed whispers, we move in the direction of the animal which is handsomely camouflaged among the tall grass. Soon it reveals itself – a golden jackal with a golden- brown fur coat, upright triangular ears, long, pointed muzzle and a short bushy tail. Its piercing eyes look straight at us as if meaning to say, “I know, you are watching me as I watch you” and it wanders away and we soon lose sight of it. We move ahead and it’s double rejoicement as we spot a juvenile jackal learning to navigate the expansive grasslands independently.
It is now close to six in the evening as we prepare to witness a spectacular sunset with the conical Keero extinct volcano at the horizon and a lone steppe eagle in the foreground. Its stunning silhouette is evident as the sun sets and the sky changes from blue to yellow ochre, bronze, crimson and finally darkness descends. I have no words to describe the feeling of being the far and few travelers in the vast stretches of the grasslands. It is in these moments of stillness and solitude that one feels a cosmic connection with the universe when everything else ceases to matter and a sense of calmness and serenity engulfs you. You are one with the cosmos and a strange sense of awakening to a higher divine consciousness occurs.
Tiwari flashes his torch light on the ground showing us bandicoots which have now come out of their burrows in darkness as we set back to his homestay. We make a mental note of wanting to return to the Banni grasslands when there will be an abundance of rains and the aquatic ecosystem will be more evident. When we ask Tiwari where we would find flamingoes, he mentions about Mandvi and a secluded beach close to it. We thank him and head back to our hotel in Bhuj eager to explore the secluded beach in Mandvi which we are to visit the following day.
Flamingoes at Mandvi
Mandvi located on the Kutch Coast with the Rukmavati river flowing through it is also a preferred spot for migratory birds that flock to its scenic beaches and water bodies during the winters. The ship building yard on the banks of Rukmavati river is where you will see these feathered friends flocking. The sun is over our heads as we ascend on the river banks to catch a glimpse of the flamingoes treading in the waters. The sun beams send the river a glitter with dazzling sparkles as we daze at the creamy white flamingoes with a hint of pink and are mesmerized by their grace and elegance. Known for their one-legged stance as a method to conserve energy, they even march in a straight line, close their eyes and take a nap by resting their heads on backs. After watching the drama of these flamingoes, we drive on to see some of the other attractions in Mandvi.
As per the advice of Tiwari we head to Mothwa beach in Dhrabudi 13 km from Mandvi hoping to see a large colony of flamingoes and other aquatic birds. Unlike Mandvi beach which is buzzing with tourists and locals, we were told that this secluded beach is preferred by the avian creatures as they don’t like being disturbed and prefer maintaining their distance from human interference. We knew the beach was close to Shamji Krishna Memorial and with a little help from the locals finally, find our way to the beach. The pristine, peaceful beach with talcum powder sand is a delight to walk on with bare feet. But alas we see no flamingoes from where we stand. Had we been misled by Tiwari? Were we at the wrong beach? Had the flamingoes decided to fly off in search of better locations? Numerous thoughts race through our minds as we spot a couple of locals who are going about their daily chores of mending fishing nets, drying their catch of fish and so on.
My husband asks the locals if there are flamingoes around and they vaguely point in the distance saying they usually are seen there in the mornings. Being late afternoon, the kids and I think that we won’t see the flamingoes and decide to head back to the car and wait for my husband who, with his never give up attitude, decides to go in search of flamingoes promising to return in an hour or so or even earlier if there are no bird sightings.
The clock ticks and minutes soon turn into almost an hour when my husband returns with the good news that there are several flamingoes a little ahead and since it is close to sunset, we should make the most. Excited we get off the car and head to the waters and sure enough we spot a hundred or so flamingoes. We have seen flamingoes at other locations like Bigwan near Pune or the Sewri mudflats in Mumbai but never so close. Soon the sun is at the horizon ready to dip in the sea and the sky changes into several shades of flaming red, yellow and ochre, as flamingoes gracefully wade through the waters in search of fish. We bid adieu to the flamingoes and as we head back to Bhuj we see the remarkable V-formation of birds flying in the evening sky.
A mélange of aquatic birds at Hamisar Talav
Hamisar Talav is a manmade lake located in Bhuj city and is a favourite of a multitude of migratory birds. Since the monsoons had played truant the lake was dry except for a small patch which had some residual water. A flock of migratory birds had made this peculiar water body their home, happily basking in the sun. This provided an unusual but perfect opportunity for my husband to step down into the lake and capture these avian beauties at close quarters in his camera lens. Pelicans, storks, ducks, cormorants, herons, flamingoes among others seemed to welcome him to their ‘Conference of Birds’.’
An egret stood on one long leg like a sadhu/monk doing penance for his sins. The inimitable flamboyance of flamingoes as they waded gracefully in the water, enjoying all the attention being bestowed. “Watch me as I flutter over the waters’, seemed to say a pelican with its snowy white outstretched wings and distinguishing large yellow bill. Little gulls were busy skimming the shallow waters to catch fish, while long legged herons stood still in the waters as if in deep contemplation. The Brahminy ducks are extraordinary birds that migrate from Central Asia and Siberia by flying over the Himalayas and arrive in Kutch in the winter months. Several of these orange-brown waterfowls were wading in the lake in search of prey.
Despite the drought, we had managed to see a sizeable number of birds at numerous locations in Kutch. We had made memories which we would cherish and treasure for a long time. Was it a blessing or one may call it chance that we were able to spend some quiet moments watching the saga of these beautiful birds unfolding in front of us?