Greater Rann of Kutch: A Birder’s Paradise

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This was going to be our second trip to the Greater Rann of Kutch, hence forth referred to as GRK, in 2 years. Last time around, it was a well planned one but this one was almost impromptu and so we decided to drive down to Nakhat Rana, in a hope to see some passage migrants like the Blue Cheeked Bee Eaters, European Rollers, Spotted flycatchers etc..

The day dawned and I packed my 600 F4.0 + D800E in my new Tamrac 5793 big lens bag along with my backup 200-500 f5.6 + D7200 in a National Geographic shoulder bag. Extra cards, chargers, 1.4 TC and a Rokinon 14 2.8 UWA for some night shots were all part of the kit.

We started at 5:45 AM and reached Ghodbunder – NH8 exit almost non stop, before we were halted abruptly for the Vasai bridge crossing. Thankfully, 10 minutes later we were on NH8 motoring away to Ahmedabad. This must be one of the busiest highways in India and also quite a frustrating one to drive on, as slow lumbering trucks keep trying to outdo and over take each other, effectively blocking all lanes and the poor cars have no option but to wait till one of them completes its painfully slow overtake maneuver and frees a lane, or creates an opening large enough to scoot through. In the process we missed our breakfast rendezvous with Ahura, completely missing it and were forced to take  a U turn to satiate our hunger at Parsi Da Dhaba, on the other side of the high way. After all it had to be a hearty Parsi breakfast that morning 🙂

So after some Mutton cutlets and Akuri Pav, we were off to our next pit stop at Surat. A few hours later, Surat was upon us and we decided to break and pack our lunch at the highway McDonald’s. Now the next important point to surpass was Bharuch. We decided to take the Golden Bridge through Ankleshwar. However being the eighth day of Navratri and a long weekend looming ahead, it seemed like the whole of Gujarat had decided to take the Golden bridge and this led to a 1 hour delay to reach the highway again. After that it was smooth sailing or should I say driving to Vadodara and eventually, via the NE-1, to Ahmedabad. On reaching Ahmedabad, we were again delayed by some horrible traffic which led to a further half hour delay. After this some cops decided to stop us on seeing a Maharashtra registered car and proceeded to check all our luggage in a quest to find some hidden liquor bottles that we may be carrying on a long Navratri weekend. The cops were disappointed and we finally checked into our Oyo room near Anand Nagar.

After a quick nap we decided to go to Vishala Village for our dinner. Now this is a very old and a famous place for an authentic Indian village experience and tasty Gujarati/Marwari/Rajashthani cuisine. Food is served in Pattal (Utensils made of leaves) and is unlimited and extremely delicious. Fresh white butter served in little kullads (earthen containers) are especially appetizing and go well with everything else. There is a variety of Farsan, vegetables, breads, sweets and sides like garlic chutney and what not . Frankly it can get a little over whelming after a bit. This is followed up by some nice rose flavored ice cream. Satiated, we left and refueled the car for the long journey ahead. Finally it was time to call it a day, in anticipation of an early start the next morning.

At 6 AM, we were on the road to Bhuj and after a Handvo breakfast near Dhrangadra, we soon reached my favorite area of the road, the area with hundreds of windmills and water birds everywhere. The road had improved since last year and the road from Bachau to Bhuj is almost ready, except for a few small patches. Soon we reached the Budhia juice center and had a small apple and coconut juice break before reaching Nakhatrana and checked in at CEDO.

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After lunch and a quick nap, we were ready for our first safari at Banni. Enroute we saw our first passage migrant other than the ubiquitous European Roller, the Red Tailed Shrike. After this we saw many Chestnut Bellied Sand Grouse at their regular roosting site near the Fulay village.

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The regulars like Greater Short Toed Lark, Rufous Tailed Larks, Indian Robins, Green bee Eaters, Desert and Variable Wheaters were also in good number. We then proceeded to photograph some Red tailed Shrikes and saw hordes of Common Cranes making a beeline for the water body.

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Flocks of Dalmation Pelicans had also started arriving in huge numbers. As it was getting dark, saw a couple of Jackals and also saw some of the other target passage migrant species we were aiming for, the Blue Cheeked Bee Eaters. A tea break near the water hole with Common Cranes coming in to roost for the night makes one forget all worldly affairs and wish that they could do this everyday and thank god for the little pleasures of life. As it got dark, I decided to take some night shots of Mount Kiro under the stars. Unfortunately the moon was very bright so couldn’t manage what I was after.

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The return from Banni was also quite eventful and we saw a dead Saw Scaled Viper along with a sighting of another passage migrant, the European Nightjar. This was followed up by the Indian Nightjar, who dashed into our vehicle, but was thankfully fine. In all it was a very fruitful day of birding and we were all charged up for the next day.

Next day was again at Banni. This time we stopped at the seasonal river that still had some water to see some waders like Green Sandpipers, Marsh Sandpipers, Stilts and River Terns.

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This was followed by some lovely sightings of the White Naped Tit and and the Sirkeer Malkoha. Then it was time for packed breakfast at Bird Rock with the newly arrived winter visitor, the Red Tailed Wheatear.

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After this we decided to follow a female Montague’s Harrier but she refused to let us come closer. Next 1 hour was spent in photographing Blue cheeked Bee Eaters in various poses and we had a false alarm when a Siberian Stone Chat was identified as a Stolickza’s Bushchat.

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After lunch break we decided to do some thorny forest birding and in the process  saw one of the most amazing natural rock formations like the American Grand Canyon, but on a miniature scale. This is one of those closely guarded secrets of the GRK region and is really worth going the distance to see.

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The birds did not disappoint either. Saw the Marshall’s Iora, lots of Rosy Starlings, Grey necked Buntings, Baya Weavers, Sykes Warbler, Orphean Warbler and then the sighting of the session, Painted Sand Grouse. These are extremely beautiful birds and are so well camouflaged that you won’t notice them even from a couple of feet away from you. On the way back, saw a Checkered Keelback and a scorpion that we were told is fatal to Humans.  Indian Nightjars, infact 4 in number, were also seen.

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After having satiated ourselves with scrub and grassland birds, we started early next morning for Mandvi. Enroute, we saw a lone Jacobin Cuckoo and a Short Toed Snake Eagle. Mandvi is one of the cleanest Indian beaches that I have been to. Long stretches of white sand and dunes everywhere. We had a quick breakfast before I mounted my long lens on my tripod and started trekking towards the sea where there was a plethora of birds. Greater Flamingos feeding amongst the waves was a really a calming sight.

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There were many crab plovers nearby and unlike those in Jamnagar, these allowed me to come close and photograph them.

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There were also multitudes of waders seen such as Dunlins, Turnstones, Grey plovers, Red and Green Shanks, Sand Plovers, a lone Terek Sandpiper, Curlew sandpipers and a lone Eurasian Curlew, wary of me photographing it.

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But the star birds here, was a flock of Sanderlings which had movements like those of a spring loaded toy and a few passed by at touching distances from me. Never imagined them to be so fearless.

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There were large gulls flying by and on the beach mostly Heuglins and Pallas Gulls. It was interesting to see a sub adult Lesser Crested Tern cry for food with Mamma Tern turning a blind eye to all its pleas. A lone Gull Billed Tern allowed me to come close.

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After a fantastic few hours with these birds it was time to head off to Bhuj for a scrumptious Gujarati Thali at Hotel Prince.

Rest of the afternoon, post lunch was again spent on road, birding. Marsh Harriers, Osprey, Northern Shovlers, Barred Button Quail and Little grebe with a young one were the stars of the afternoon.

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We then ended our day with the Indian Eagle Owl and Spotted Owlets on the rocky banks of a seasonal river. But a Savanna Night Jar decided to be the last bird to be seen on this wonderful trip after dusk.

Thus ended a trip with a bird count of over 145 species seen over 5 sessions. Next day we started early for Mumbai, only to take a long detour to avoid a dharna at Halvad, that set us back by 50 kms and 2 hours. After a continuous drive of around 17 hours, we reached home, tired, but happy after another successful trip to the Great Rann.

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