Great Indian Bustard and more at Desert National Park, winter 2019: Trip Report

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

The critically endangered Great Indian Bustard at the Desert National Park

Travelling to the extremities of a country as large as India always produces birds (and other wildlife) that are regional specialists – either as an extreme of their global range or local endemics. The Thar Desert, in the extreme northwest of India, is one such location, with a handful birds that are restricted to the arid habitats of the region. The Indian Bustard, the only significant global population of which is found here, is however, on this list for the wrong reason. This large, slow-reproducing, arid-grassland specialist was once widespread through much of Western and Peninsular India (where the appropriate habitat existed), however its current range is an artefact of severe pressures on its habitat over the last few decades. Any naturalist travelling to the Desert National Park, is inevitably on a pilgrimage to see among the last remaining wild Indian Bustards, and we saw about 10% of the estimated world population of this majestic species in a brief, birdwatching oriented trip in January this year! There were other attractions too,  including the delightful Greater Hoopoe Lark, Bimaculated and Desert Larks, various raptors (vultures, Aquila Eagles, Lagger and Peregrine Falcons, Long-legged Buzzard among others), Indian Eagle Owl, Trumpeter Finch, Demoiselle Cranes, MacQueen’s Bustard and Indian Eagle Owl. Mammals included Desert and Indian Foxes, Indian Gazelle and Indian Desert Jird, with no special effort looking, except incidental to birding. The trip also included a brief visit to the lovely Akal Wood Fossil Park near Jaisalmer, the superb Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park in Jodhpur and a couple of hours to watch the Demoiselle Crane congregation at the village of Keechan. The desert landscapes were a mixture mesmerisingly pristine in the confines of the NP to glaringly modified for tourism and agriculture, outside of it. The weather was cloudy and drizzly – not uncommon for the time of the year – for large parts of the visit, culminating in a dust storm on the day of our departure.

Dates:

8th to 12th January 2019

Tour Locations: 

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jodhpur; Keechan Village; Desert National Park, Sudasiri Range; Kabha Fort; Jamda Village; Netsi

Detailed Report

Day 1, January 8th 2019:

Overfed by a king size (delicious) Rajasthani Thali at the famous Gypsy Restaurant in Jodhpur, dragged self to what turned out to be a lovely experience at the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park – an extent of rocky desert near the Jodhpur Fort, replanted with native vegetation of the Thar Desert and a natural museum for the geological highlights of the region. Was led by Harsh Vardhan Rathore, who expertly interpreted the brief history of the park and correlated it with its rather longer, fascinating natural history. While the habitat promised more, our brief foray produced only a handful of commoner birds, while some superbly camouflaged Northern House Gecko entertained by hiding in plain sight in the cool walls of an Aqueduct.

The landscape at the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park

Day 2, January 9th 2019:

Joined a larger group of birders in the morning and having fortified ourselves with a breakfast of hearty Onion Kachori at Kanji sweets, we journeyed along the desert landscape towards Jaisalmer with a detour towards Keechan – a site famous for congregations of Demoiselle Crane, which are attracted here by a historic tradition of villagers feeding the cranes. Arrived here by 1030 AM and enjoyed a lovely spectacle of hundreds of cranes drinking of a village pond. Other birds in the vicinity included Common Chiffchaf, Brown Rock Chat, Eurasian Hoopoe, Common Teal, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Little and Temminck’s Stint, Grey-throated Sand Martin, Ruff, Greater Flamingo, Northern Pintail and Ruddy Shelduck.

Demoiselle Cranes at Keechan

We returned to the road past noon, and a 6 hour or so drive to the Pal Rajah Desert Camp, through sparsely populated desert produced several Variable Wheatear, Long-legged Buzzard, Lagger Falcon, Indian, Cinereous, Red-headed, Eurasian Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Steppe and Tawny Eagles, Desert Courser, several Indian Gazelle and Nilgai and a pair of Desert Foxes. The habitat transformed to less inhabited, pristine desert after passing the town of Jaisalmer, with sand dunes interspersed with sparsely vegetated desert.

Long-legged Buzzard in the Desert Landscape near Jaisalmer

Day 3, January 10th 2019:

A pristine sand dune within the Desert National Park

A 45 min drive in an open vehicle to enter the heart of the Desert National Park (Sudasiri Range) at 0730, coinciding with the break of dawn on a cold, clear morning. Habitat a mixture of pristine dunes and extents of sandy desert vegetated with grasses, shrub and rocky desert with Euphorbia. Some of these patches are fenced as havens for nesting Great Indian Bustard, in an otherwise open landscape with significant pressures from cattle grazing and feral dogs.

Highlight birds from the morning included a group of 8 Indian Bustard (3 Male/5 Female), Trumpeter Finch, Desert Lark, Black-crowned Sparrow Lark, Red-tailed, Isabelline, Desert and Variable Wheatears, Eurasian Griffon, Egyptian and White-rumped Vultures, Long-legged Buzzard, Steppe Eagle, Short-toed Snake Eagle and Lagger Falcon. Mammals included several Chinkara and a lone Desert Fox late in the morning. Exited around 1 PM.

Evening ride in a similar habitat produced a group of 3 Indian Bustard plus 1 male in flight, Trumpeter Finch, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Grey Francolin, Green Beeeater, Cinereous and Eurasian Griffon, Egyptian Vultures and all the Wheatears from the morning. 2 Indian Foxes appeared at dusk and delightful sunset hues, with fading light highlighting ripples on the dunes brought an end to a productive day.

A colourful sunset at DNP

Day 4, January 11th 2019:

A full day outing from 0645 towards the village of Netsi – an Oasis in the Desert on a cloudy, cold morning, with overnight rain – and from there to Ramgarh and culminating in the rocky desert landscape around Kabha Fort. Landscape a mixture of sandy/rocky, scrubby desert and farmland.

Bird highlights included Lesser Whitethroat, Desert, Greater Hoope and Bimaculated Larks, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Greater Imperial Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Laggar Falcon, Indian Eagle Owl,  Cream Courser and Red-tailed Wheatear. A significant miss at Netsi was of the Black-bellied Sandgrouse, which are known from the location. Only a smattering of Chinkara showed among mammals.

Day 5, January 12th 2019: 

A late start to the day at 0745, which started out dramatic – cloudy, with distant lightning and a sandstorm – a special atmosphere in the desert!

A drive towards and around Kabha Fort produced a Tawny Eagle (which confounded ID in the darkish weather and damp light, with superficial resemblance to a dark morph Long-legged Buzzard and Greater Spotted Eagle). Bird Highlights pre-lunch included Red-tailed Wheatear, Cinereous Vulture and a Pair of Indian Eagle Owl (in what appeared to be an ancient cemetery close to the Kabha Fort). Overall a slow morning on our last session of birding, possibly exacerbated by poor weather).

Later, on the drive to Jaisalmer railway station, an active Desert Jird colony by the road side, in a landscape which had (surprisingly) filled up fast with lakes and fast flowing streams, given the modest quantum of rainfall that seemed to have fallen overnight.

Logistics Etc

The trip was organised by Nature India and led by Adesh Shivkar and Mandar Khalidkar – both outstanding bird guides and hosts.

To access the desert landscape and NP, we stayed at the Pal Rajah Resort, superbly located on the fringes of the Desert NP and a private dune in its backyard. The accommodation here was a simple, but comfortable, mixture of Swiss tents and local style mud-houses (warmer), with ensuite toilets. Meals were hearty, local-style and vegetarian.

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