Gujarat means Land of the Tradesmen. But for us it was indisputably Land of the Birds. On our first drive from Ahmadabad to Bhavnagar one roadside pool after another was filled with a profusion of waterbirds – egrets, storks, ibises, flamingos, pelicans, ducks, waders – and this wealth of wildlife continued throughout the trip. What’s more, in addition to sheer numbers, the speciality species count was impressive so that quantity and quality combined to provide a most satisfying experience. In all, 36 species of waders, 27 raptors, over 20 herons and allies, and 14 ducks and geese. The selection included 23 endemics, plus three near-endemics, with six species either critically endangered or vulnerable. But the accolades for Bird of the Trip went to none of those. It was a close call between Crab Plover and Grey Hypocolius with Pallid Scops Owl and MacQueen’s Bustard as runners-up. We were indeed spoilt for choice.
Typifying this was the first of many impressive reserves – the Blackbuck sanctuary at Velevadar grassland: not only the largest harrier roost in the world (with a count of 3000 Pallid, Montagu’s and Marsh) but home to our first Sykes’s Warbler, Stoliczka’s Bushchat, and Dalmatian Pelican and our only Sarus Cranes and Indian Eagle Owl. Nearby were Greater and Lesser Flamingo and Indian Black Ibis.
Then came the contrasting habitat of Gir forest with a succession of star attractions: our only Indian (Long-billed) Vulture to greet us on our arrival, then Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Hawk-eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Collared Scops Owl, two cuddling Mottled Wood Owls, White-bellied Minivet, Plum-headed Parakeet, Black-naped Monarch, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Tri-coloured Munia, and Tawny-bellied Babbler. A fruiting Pepol tree provided a lively performance area for a cabaret of class acts: Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Coppersmith Barbet, Indian Pygmy Woodpecker, Common Iora, Common Woodshrike, White-browed Fantail, Small Minivet, Indian Golden Oriole, and Asian Koel. Even so, it was a mammal which stole the show. The only Lions outside Africa delayed our breakfast on our first game drive when we were already on hour overdue. More came on our third drive – plus a Leopard on the second. (Other cats were to feature later in the tour: Jungle, Desert, and Small Indian Civet – well, at least it meows.)
Different again was the Narara marine park. This provided us with one of the most fascinating walks of the tour. Although the target species was Crab Plover (of which we saw 1500-2000) there were so many other life forms to intrigue us, from Octopus and Puffer Fish to various anemones, sea slugs, and sea cucumbers – plus Heuglin’s, Slender-billed, and Great Black-headed Gulls, Terek Sandpiper, and an endless carpet of Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers. A short diversion to Phapoda on our return to the hotel at Jamnager added more than 200 Demoiselle Cranes. And yet another impressive reserve (Khiyadiya, with its vast saltwater and freshwater pools) presented a host of new species before sunset: Black-necked Storks, the daddy of them all, Black-necked Grebe, Comb Duck, Black-headed Wagtail, Indian Reed Warbler, Greater Thick-Knee, Temminck’s Stint, and the most obliging Baillon’s Crake ever.
Our stay at Nakhtrana lived up to expectations and 6 December was an indisputable red-letter day, particularly for one birthday girl (whose presents included six lifers) and for two other clients who on seeing Grey Hypocolius completed their tally of all the bird families in the world. New species were delivered throughout the day (White-naped Tit, Sirkeer Malkoha, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Asian Desert Warbler, Desert Whitethroat, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Red-tailed Wheatear, Marshall’s Iora, Sykes’s Lark) and our night drive yielded not only superb views of a perched Sykes’s Nightjar but a completely unexpected Pallid Scops Owl (plus Saw-scaled Viper, Red Earth Boa, Golden Jackal, Red Fox, and Bengal Fox). Other specialities during our stay here included Grey-necked Bunting, Brown Rock Chat, Dusky Crag Martin, our first Indian Coursers and definitive views of Stoliczka’s Bushchat.
Our final home was the perfect place to conclude our tour. Rann Riders offered not only comfortable accommodation in an attractive and peaceful setting but the best cuisine on a trip which was notable for good food and a complete absence of tummy trouble. Also a satisfying selection of birds and butterflies kept us happy during our free time – Black-crowned Night Heron, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Cotton Teal, Purple Sunbird, Southern Coucal, Spotted Owlet, and Sykes’s, Booted, and Paddyfield warblers, plus a much-visited Chequered Keelback snake and a delightful Fulvous Fruit Bat. But our main target species were a little further afield in the Rann of Kutch and gave us the opportunity of several jolly charabanc excursions reminiscent of those post-war Sunday School trips and works outings. After so many days in a convoy of three vehicles it was good to be all together in the lodge’s sturdy open-sided safari bus. First came 23 Sociable Plovers, then eight MacQueen’s Bustards, followed by Small, Collared, and Oriental Pratincoles, White-tailed Lapwing, Blacked-headed Bunting, regular Black-winged Kites, a splendid perched Red-headed Falcon, 29 more Indian Coursers, Pintail Snipe, Jungle Prinia, and a succession of welcome reprises.
Returning to Ahmadabad on our last day, our journey was not without excitement. A short detour took us to a productive area which required neither permits nor camera fees – a local abattoir. (Sunbird really does reach those parts which most holiday brochures fail to feature.) At last we saw vultures (18 Egyptians) and the best views of several raptors hitherto only glimpsed or seen at a distance, including White-eyed Buzzard, Black Kite, Black-eared Kite, Tawny Eagle, Steppe Eagle, and most importantly Indian Spotted Eagle.
Rounding off our Gujarat experience was a delightful Gujarat evening with typical traditional cuisine and appropriate entertainment of dancing, music, and a puppet show. It would have been difficult in just two weeks to sample more of the state’s 75,656 square miles of habitat and wildlife. Our thanks must go to our efficient, erudite, and congenial escort, our three superb drivers, and our many local guides who were all so anxious that we took away only happy memories. – Bryan Bland
Updated: January 2011