Sykes’s Nightjar is one of the prizes on the tour. Photo: Paul Holt
Gujarat, in extreme north-western India, is ornithologically one of the subcontinent’s richest and yet least well-known areas. The home of Blackbuck, Asian Wild Ass and Asiatic Lion, the avifauna of this region is arguably on a par with India’s other, often more famous, birding locations.
Huge mixed flocks of flamingos, pelicans, waterfowl, waders as diverse as Crab-plovers and White-tailed Lapwings, gulls and terns will vie for our attention alongside desert specialities such as Macqueen’s Bustard, Grey Hypocolius, White-browed Bushchat and Asian Desert Warbler while regional specialities like White-bellied Minivet and White-naped Tit will add extra spice to our birding.
Gujarat, even by Indian standards, has a particularly ancient and tumultuous history. It has suffered numerous foreign incursions, hosted frequent battles and been ruled by innumerable cultures. The State was also an early point of contact with the west and the first British commercial outpost in India was in Gujarat. It boasts some massively varied environments - a 1600 kilometre coastline which is inundated every year, first by tremendous monsoon tidal surges and later by the monsoon rains themselves and yet inland the State remains very dry with some superb desert areas, whilst elsewhere extensive grasslands can be found.
For those with a sense of adventure, Gujarat offers a true wildlife experience and one that perfectly complements our other tours to the Indian subcontinent.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Ahmedabad, one of India’s more vibrant State capitals.
Day 2: On arrival we’ll transfer to a nearby hotel for the rest of the night. After breakfast we’ll begin our two hour drive south towards Bhavnagar, a bustling textile and cotton trading city in south-eastern Gujarat. Little over one-and-a-half hours drive north of Bhavnagar, is the beautiful savannah grassland reserve at Velavadar. Better known as Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar, at just 34 km square, is a small sanctuary yet it’s a worthy introduction to Gujarat’s abundant wildlife. The sanctuary holds about 4400 Blackbuck with the males being particularly gorgeous in their black-and-tan dress and conspicuous white goggles. Velavadar is also one of the last remaining refuges of the severely threatened Indian Wolf and one of the best places in the subcontinent to see Striped Hyena. The National Park also boasts the world’s largest harrier roost where a massive 3000 birds have been estimated! Montagu’s Harriers dominate but impressive numbers of both ghostly Pallids and Western Marsh Harriers also occur and we’re sure to see an abundance of all three. Among the many other birds we’re likely to encounter at Velavadar are Ashy-crowned, Rufous-tailed and Bimaculated Larks, Isabelline Shrike and both Sykes’s and Paddyfield Warblers. Our very comfortable hotel is right beside the reserve entrance.
Day 3: This morning we’ll return to Velavadar for another game drive and the chance to pick up any species we missed the previous afternoon - and in previous years we’ve seen Indian Wolf ans Striped Hyene here. Following that we’ll drive on, heading northwest but pausing at several bird-thronged pools and low-lying wetlands as we travel. Birds here could include our first Great White and Dalmatian Pelicans, Greater Flamingos, a wealth of waterfowl and waders and possibly even Sarus Crane. Greater Spotted Eagles are a fairly common winter visitor to this part of Saurashtra (the central portion of Gujarat) and we should encounter a few of these. Following a morning here we’ll drive on to the famous Gir Lion Sanctuary and National Park. This reserve covers some 1400 square kilometres of rugged hill country and is a wonderful and unspoilt place to visit. Night in a comfortable luxury camp just outside the sanctuary.
Days 4-5: We’ll have two full days at Gir, with a game safari in the morning and another in the afternoon, during which we’ll explore the rich forests of this attractive reserve. Once widespread and ranging from Gir right across Northern India to Bihar (almost as far east as Calcutta) Asiatic Lions are less sociable than their African counterparts and differ in appearance by having shorter manes and a prominent fold of skin on the underside. Today Gir is their last refuge as Lion numbers were decimated by chronic over-hunting which reduced their numbers to a mere 12 animals. Thanks to a farsighted Maharaja who established the sanctuary, lion numbers are now increasing and many authorities believe that the reserve, at 1400 square kilometres, is too small for the 311 lions it reputedly supports. With a total of four game drives we stand a very good chance of encountering this magnificent predator. Large populations of Spotted Deer, Sambar and Nilgai form the prey base while other mammals in the park include the even more elusive Leopard. We’re sure to see an array of new birds, perhaps including Spotted Sandgrouse, Indian Black Ibis, Crested Hawk-eagle, Jungle Bush-quail, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Tawny-bellied Babbler and possible even White-bellied Minivet. Nights just outside the Gir Sanctuary.
Day 6: We’ll leave Gir after a final morning game drive head west to Jamnagar, another of Gujarat’s major cities that is rarely visited by tourists but which is overflowing with old buildings and colourful bazaars. Time permitting, we’ll stop at the impressive Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary less than an hour’s drive from the city. This wetland reserve is unique in that about half of the water is fresh while the other half is saline and consequently it harbours a staggering variety of wildlife. Huge numbers of flamingos and cranes (often including impressive numbers of Demoiselle) winter here, as do large numbers of pelicans and shorebirds. Indian Nightjars breed and we might be able to find a few, while other species we’ll look for include Baillon’s Crake, Small Pratincole, Black-necked Stork and Indian Reed Warbler. Night in Jamnagar.
Day 7: Spending a full day around Jamnagar, we’ll have ample time to explore other areas near the city including the Marine National Park at Narara. If we can time our visit to coincide with a high tide we could be treated to a real feast of waders, gulls and terns. Our principle quarry will be the over-sized, rather striking Crab-plover and, with large numbers present, we are assured of some great views. Lots of other waders also occur – both Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers, Terek and, with luck, Broad-billed Sandpipers should be mingling with Great Black-headed and Heuglin’s Gulls as well as Lesser Crested Terns and Western Reef-herons. Time permitting we’ll possibly make a second visit to Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary. Night in Jamnagar.
Day 8: Leaving Jamnagar, we’ll head west, pausing to look for Demoiselle Cranes and the now rare Laggar Falcon as we leave the Kathiawar Peninsula and drive to Bhuj, capital of Kutch and an area that, during the summer monsoon, is a seasonal island! Night near Moti Virani south of Bhuj.
Days 9-11: With three full days in the area south of Bhuj, our time will be spent in a quest to see the region’s specialities. Chief among these is the enigmatic Grey Hypocolius. A difficult species elsewhere in the world, Hypocolius are particularly partial to berries of the ‘Toothbrush Tree’ and with small numbers wintering south of Bhuj, we should be able to find a number of these attractive desert birds. The globally vulnerable White-naped Tit is also here and this ‘not too difficult’ to see attractive Indian endemic will be high on our wish-list. One day we plan to travel south to another grassland reserve where small numbers of the little-known White-browed (or Stoliczka’s) Bushchat winters. The reserve also holds White-bellied Minivet, large numbers of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and a few rare Macqueen’s Bustards and we’d hope to encounter all of these. Eastern Imperial and often impressive numbers of Steppe Eagles spend the winter in this area and with luck, we might be able to find a Sykes’s Nightjar roosting on one of the roads near our guest house. Nights near Moti Virani.
Day 12: After a final morning south of Bhuj we’ll retrace our route north and then east, re-crossing the mighty Gulf of Kutch as we head to the Little Rann of Kutch. Our final destination will be Rann Riders, a comfortable lodge at Dasada, right on the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch.
Day 13: Spending a full day here we’ll only have of time to explore a small fraction of the vast Little Rann. At first glance an unforgiving, stark, barren and often blindingly white area famed for its desert mirages, the Little Rann, has actually much to offer the keen naturalist willing to pause and enjoy its serenity. Home to India’s last remaining Asiatic Wild Ass, a majestic creature we’re virtually guaranteed to see, the Little Rann also harbours an abundance of bird life. Tidal surges in advance of the summer monsoon flood the Rann with huge amounts of salt water that the ensuing rains do little to dilute. For the entire summer the area is a huge, impenetrable mud bath and swamp but, as the rains cease, the area rapidly dries out and the mud bakes, leaving vast expanses of pancake-flat, iron-hard earth punctuated by brackish lagoons that hold impressive numbers of birds – both Greater and Lesser Flamingos are common and conspicuous, as are the flotillas of pelicans and millions of wintering waterfowl.
The salt makes the land xerophitic and largely barren but there are scattered ‘islands’ of coarse grass and alongside the region’s more typical desert species birds, we’ll be looking for Macqueen’s Bustard, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Hoopoe Lark and Asian Desert Warbler. A few critically endangered Sociable Plovers sometimes winter in the fields around the edge of the Little Rann and these can occasionally be found in the company of the gorgeous Indian Courser. Large numbers of Common Cranes and even more larks frequent these same areas. We’ll use open-topped jeeps to explore the Little Rann and will spend the night back at the Rann Riders near Dasada.
Day 14: After a final morning in the Little Rann we’ll have a leisurely, and relatively short, drive back to Ahmedabad. After dinner we’ll catch an overnight flight back to London where the tour concludes on the morning of Day 15.
Updated: 06 December 2016