Great Indian Bustard, Grey Hypocolius, Desert Cat and other wildlife of Kutch & DNP: Trip Report

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

A birdwatching oriented guided trip to the thorn forests and grasslands of Kutch, the salt pans of the Little Rann of Kutch and the sandy Thar Desert of Rajasthan produced superb birds like Great Indian & MacQueen’s Bustards, Grey Hypocolius, White-naped Tit, Marshall’s Iora, Grey-necked and Black-headed Buntings, Laggar Falcon (among various raptors), Red-tailed Wheatear, Stolickza’s Bushchat, Asian Desert Warbler, Greater Hoopoe Lark and Syke’s Nightjar among 152 species.While we did focus some sessions on mammals, we had less luck with this group except for an excellent Desert Cat, a couple of Indian Fox, a number of Desert Fox and Indian Wild Ass among a handful of commoner species. As always, it was memorable to experience the varied habitats of Kutch, the wide open spaces of the Little Rann of Kutch and the beautiful, sparsely vegetated landscape of the Desert National Park. It was a pleasure to host David and Irene Jackson, immensely knowledgable birders, mammal enthusiasts and great travel companions, on their second visit to the wilds of India.

The critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, among the highlights of the trip

Dates

5th to 12th January 2020

Locations

Kutch (Banni Grasslands, various thorn forests),  Little Rann of Kutch (Wild Ass Sanctuary) and Desert National Park (Thar Desert)

Participants

David and Irene Jackson from Wolverhampton, UK. David, a veteran birder and nature enthusiast associated with the West Midlands Bird Club, had a target list of several bird specialities from the arid northwest of India. Irene was keen on wild cats especially and mammals generally. Both have travelled extensively to far flung corners of the Earth in pursuit of their interests. This portion of the tour preceded their unguided portion to the National Chambal Sanctuary in pursuit of Indian Skimmer, primarily, as well as to the Satpura Tiger Reserve for Sloth Bear, Dhole, Tiger and the off chance of Rusty Spotted Cat (summer is better though, reputedly).

Detailed Report

Day 1, Kutch

Arrived in Bhuj on a cool, sunny morning and a circuitous drive (in the broad vicinity of the Banni Grasslands), birding along the way to CEDO (our host for the next three nights). The countryside of largely farmland interspersed with seasonal tanks and scrub produced interesting birds like Paddyfield Warbler, among a host of commoner birds, but not the sought after Grey Hypocolius in a known communal roost among Salvadora bushes (several recently cleared to make way for a power project, a sign of rapidly changing landscape in this region). A pair Grey Mongoose and Mugger, basking on the banks of a seasonal village tank, made the list of quadrupeds. Reached our homestay around noon, on a warm afternoon for lunch and a bit in its pleasant interiors.

Set out at 1540 towards Chhari Dhand, a large, seasonal catchment of rain-fed streams in the middle of the Banni Grassland Reserve – a vast, sparsely vegetated (with sedges and halophytes) area on the edge of the salt pans of the Rann of Kutch. Enroute, while driving through thorny scrub, we came across Grey-necked Bunting, playing hide and seek in the bushes around a puddle of water, and later, the rather good looking, Painted Sandgrouse. The last season’s copious (and unseasonably late) rainfall was evident in the lake’s ‘as far as the eye could see’ expanse. About half and hour or so around the lake produced a large variety of wetland birds including Dalmatian Pelican and Greater Flamingo, however, we missed the Grey Hypocolius, a rarity this season, in a spot where it was earlier observed feeding on Salvadora berries around the lake. Highlights in the surrounding grasslands included a healthy population of Common Crane, often correlated to good rainfall the previous season and associated abundance of sedges, Short-eared Owl, Red-tailed Wheatear, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Steppe (many) and Greater Spotted Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard and after dark, Syke’s and Indian Nightjars. Lean pickings though for mammals – possibly negatively correlated with rainfall associated mortality (through drowning) for Lesser Bandicoot Rat, a significant prey species for foxes, jackals and wild cats – with only Golden Jackal and a fast scurrying Indian Gerbil recorded in the long, dusty evening that culminated at 2030. Earlier, a magical sight (and sound) of countless Common Crane flying to their night-time roost, across the Banni Grasslands at sunset.

Day 2, Kutch
Grey Mongoose

0630, while still dark, towards the Phot Mahadev Thorn Forest, on a coldish morning. A small cat, superficially resembling a Desert Cat, in the headlights caused much excitement, but likely a hybrid with a domestic cat at best. Reached around sunrise at 0715, to find a fragmented thorn forest scarred, with countless wind turbines and encroached upon by farmland – Jugal says most of this ecologically insensitive development over the last decade or so. Even so, this is one of the regular sites for the globally threatened White-naped Tit, which we had great views of, as well as of Marshall’s Iora, Black Redstart, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Indian Courser, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Eurasian Wryneck, Rufous-fronted Prinia, Grey-necked Bunting, Indian Bushlark and Syke’s Lark (in a regular site on stony ground adjacent to a village), among commoner birds. Once again lean pickings for mammals though, with only Grey Mongoose and Indian Hare from the multi-hour effort.

We were out again at 1515, again towards Chhari Dhand with Grey Hypocolius as the main target. This time, methodically skirting the vegetation along the lake towards the watchtower proved fruitful (as it was, evidently, for the Hypocolius!), when Jugal spotted a bird feeding on the tiny Salvadora berries for good views of a pair through the scope (despite propensity of the subjects to disappear inside thick foliage every once in a while). Having found this significant target relatively early in the evening, it gave us enough time to look in the (charmingly open) Suaeda dominated plains for the Stolickza’s Bushchat and Asian Desert Warbler. The former entertained with its classic, almost comical puff and roll display, while the latter was less cooperative by being rather more skittish than ideal for satisfactory observation. The warm evening was once again productive for a variety of wetland birds, Common Crane, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Long-legged Buzzard, Steppe Eagle, Collared Sand Martin, Bluethroat and Eurasian Marsh Harrier. Returned to base at 2030, via the thorn forests adjacent to Dinodar Temple, but no luck with any mammal sightings either in broad daylight or after nightfall.

Sunset at Charri Dhand
Day 3, Kutch
MacQueen’s Bustard in the Suaeda dominated plains of Central Banni

The day’s program to spend the day in the heart of the Banni Grasslands Reserve was planned based on Chetan’s, our driver’s, (commendable) instincts. We started out on this sojourn at 0630 on a cloudy, windy morning, first towards the beautiful Central Banni – a vast area of pristine Suaeda dominated plains, with very little outside disturbance or exotic Mesquite (a far cry from the heavily disturbed and overgrazed part of the Banni near Chhari Dhand).  The morning proved productive for some lovely species like MacQueen’s Bustard, Bimaculated Lark, Cream-coloured Courser, Montagu’s Harrier, Long-legged Buzzard and Steppe Eagle. Our session culminated at 11 am for a break for lunch and bit of a rest at the Epicentre Homestay, with a handful of ducks and Dusky Crag Martin in the lake close to the property.

After a hearty Gujarati lunch, were were out again at 1500 towards the pristine Eastern Banni, this time willing ourselves to focus on mammals, specifically Desert Cat. We were distracted though, initially, by the lovely Greater Hoopoe Lark (and its acrobatic aerial displays), Cream Courser and MacQueen’s Bustard, before refocussing our attention on the four-legged denizen. First positive signs from a large colony of Desert Jird – a notable prey species for carnivores in these habitats – soon followed by a fleeting view of a Desert Cat, before it disappeared in a depression surrounded by low grasses. Curiosity (and possibly overriding thoughts of supper) got the better of the cat, as its head appeared first and a few minutes later, its entire body, as it tiptoed across open ground towards thicker vegetation. A very satisfactory sighting in the glow of the evening light and in a beautiful habitat – thanks to Bharath Kapdi of the Epicentre Homestay for this memorable sighting, lunch and general hospitality. With a productive evening under our belt, we started on the long trudge (2 hours) towards home base to arrive at 2030.

Indian Desert Jird – a sign of good things to come
Desert Cat at Eastern Banni – one of the highlights of the trip
Day 4, Kutch & Drive to Wild Ass Sanctuary

A brief morning visit to the Mata-no-Madh Thorn Forest capped the final effort of our visit to Kutch. Arriving at the entrance of the forest at 0650, still dark, with an outside chance of Caracal in our minds (I was lucky to see one here in April 2019! Report here). However the thick undergrowth of tall grasses/shrubs (late season rains?), further inhibited any chance of sighting this incredible rarity. We did, however, manage great views of Grey-necked Bunting and other birdlife included Rufous-fronted Prinia, Oriental Honey Buzzard, White-eyed Buzzard and a colony of Streak-throated Swallow under a bridge, on the way back to home-base.

A 7 hour drive to the vicinity of the Wild Ass Sanctuary followed, with little potential to stop and watch the countryside birdlife along the busy highway. The little birding that we managed produced a couple of new additions to the trip list, including Western Reef Egret, Bank Myna and Little Swift.

Day 5, Wild Ass Sanctuary

We left our resort at 0640, on a cold morning, freezing (I could not feel my mouth for a while there, what as probably below freezing with windchill!) in the open safari vehicle on the 40 minute drive in the dark to the sanctuary entrance (Zinzuwada Gate). The morning, warming up to more bearable temperatures as the sun rose in the sky, was not especially productive, with only Indian Wild Ass among the mammals and birdlife that included Common Crane, Lesser and Greater Flamingo (among a handful of ducks and waders at the lake), Black-headed Bunting and Peregrine Falcon among commoner birds.

Lesser and Greater Flamingo

We entered the sanctuary again, this time near Zainabad, at 1540 PM with a focus on Indian and Desert Foxes. The early part of the evening was very quiet for the quadrupeds with only Indian Wild Ass, a Wild Pig and Nilgai to show for some rather intense effort looking in the vegetated higher grounds abutting the salt pans. Our luck improved as we exited the sanctuary with 2 Indian Foxes, one rather cooperatively lying on the ground for as long as we wanted to look, in disturbed vegetation where the Rann meets the outside world. The evening’s birdlife, while not especially diverse, was interesting for a MacQueen’s Bustard in flight and the lovely Pallid Harrier, among commoner birds.

Indian Wild Ass
Day 6, Wild Ass Sanctuary & Desert National Park

A travel day, mostly, to Jaisalmer by flight from Ahmedabad, preceded by a brief visit to a regular roost for Indian Eagle Owl, with Indian Courser and Chestnut-shouldered Petronia incidentally, in the surrounding countryside.

Later that evening, our first taste of the Thar Desert, on the drive between Jaisalmer Airport and Pal Rajah Resort (our host for the next 2 nights), provided a bit more adventure than we had bargained for, with our MUV stubbornly stuck on a dune which had encroached the road we were traversing until a rescue vehicle to towed us out of (not quite) the quagmire. We did see several Indian Gazelle, Desert Lark, Brown Rock Chat, Asian Desert Warbler, Steppe Eagle and Long-legged Buzzard, on this beautiful drive to compensate. Mixed news awaited, however, at the resort, where birders suggested that the Indian Bustard, our main target here, had been hard to find this year but the park itself was in great shape, following good rains the previous season.

Day 7, Desert National Park
Landscape, Desert National Park

Set out in the cold of dawn with the multi-faceted Anwar (driver, tracker, cook and singer rolled into one), in pursuit of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard – the only significant global population of which (less than 200 birds) is known from here. Despite several hours looking in the lovely desert landscape of dunes and sparsely vegetated surroundings (focussing also around enclosures built to protect nests from cattle/other human disturbance) only the MacQueen’s version showed. Other bird highlight from the morning included 2 pairs of Laggar Falcon, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Red-tailed Wheatear, Indian, Eurasian Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Black-crowned Sparrow and Bimaculated Larks, Stolickza’s Bushchat and Asian Desert Warbler. A Desert Fox in a pristine extent of desert, several Chinkara and Nilgai showed as well, in what was a productive morning, but for the star bird.

After much scouring, Indian Bustard!

Back in the resort to wait out the heat of the day and for some lunch, there was news of Indian Bustard sighting from one of the other groups. We set out soon after lunch (around 1340) on a warm, sunny afternoon to look where the supposed sighting took place, but without luck. This was not the end of the road however, as little further down, a pair of Indian Bustard, relatively close by, walking majestically through open ground, not unduly bothered by our presence (but for an occasional squat amidst the grasses). A big tick on the target list for David, and the rest of evening was spent appreciating the other riches of the park, including 5 Desert Foxes, Red-tailed Wheatear, Bimaculated Lark (huge flocks, but turned out very difficult to photograph when on the ground), Egyptian Vulture and Southern Grey Shrike.

One among numerous Desert Fox at DNP
Day 8, Desert National Park

For the last birding session of the tour, we left the resort at a relaxed 0730, on a cloudy, very windy and cold morning. The brief morning session proved productive for Laggar Falcon (in a nest), Punjab (Northern) Raven, Cinereous, Red-headed and Eurasian Griffon Vultures, Long-legged Buzzard, more, equally difficult to photograph, Bimaculated Lark and a Southern Grey Shrike with a lark (greater short-toed?) kill – a relaxed, satisfying finale to a very productive couple of days in the desert.

Logistics etc

Kutch

Accommodation and local logistics/guiding taken care of by Mr Jugal Tiwari, an ecologist at the Centre for Desert and Ocean in the village of Moti Virani. He runs a quaint, eco-friendly homestay with comfortable, spacious, air-conditioned rooms and excellent home-cooked, vegetarian meals. The set-up has been hosting and guiding naturalists and birders for decades now, apart from pioneering an eco-restoration project for native plants of Kutch, as well as several outreach programs. One of CEDO’s naturalists, Mr Shivam Tiwari, a budding wildlife filmmaker, has some very interesting natural history footage from the region. A special mention to Chetan Bhai’s (the pilot of the Sumo Gold) amiable company, tireless driving, excellent spotting abilities and

One could also spend a night or two at the Epicentre Homestay to explore the pristine Eastern Banni, with better chances for Desert Cat and Desert Fox, as well as Spotted Sandgrouse, than in the Chari Dhand area.

Wild Ass Sanctuary, Little Rann of Kutch

We stayed at the Rann Riders Safari Resort, offering modern, air-conditioned accommodation in a charming oasis of green – among the popular options for wildlife enthusiasts. Food is a reasonably elaborate affair, largely pan-Indian, with some Chinese and Continental options (spice levels catering to Western palate). One could also consider staying at Desert Coursers, in an equally charming setting (and well loved by nature enthusiasts), offering rustic accommodation with a local touch and superb, largely local style food. Both offer safaris into the sanctuary.

As with sanctuaries in the rest of Gujarat, safari entrance and camera fees for foreigners are (absurdly) considerably higher than for Indians – INR 2800 (for the vehicle permit if just one of the visitors in a foreigner) and INR 1200 for each camera (as against INR 400 and INR 100 respectively).

Desert National Park

We stayed at the Pal Rajah Resort, superbly located on the fringes of the Desert NP and a private dune in its backyard. he accommodation here was a simple, but comfortable, mixture of Swiss tents and local style mud-houses, with ensuite toilets. Meals were hearty, local-style and vegetarian.They also arrange local guides, experienced in tracking Indian Bustard and other desert wildlife, and open safari vehicles to enter the Desert National Park. However, at the time the trip took place, there were quite a number of restrictions on entry into the park and we were only able to explore due to special permissions arranged by the resort. The daily evening entertainment of local folk dance and music by talented artistes, was a very enjoyable addition to the travel experience in the region.

List of Birds Seen

SpeciesLocation*
Eurasian Collared DoveKC, Banni, LRK, DNP
Red-collared DoveKC
Laughing DoveKC, Banni, LRK, PM, MNM, DNP
Rock PigeonKC, LRK
House SparrowKC, PM, MNM, DNP
Chestnut-shouldered PetroniaPM, KC
Purple SunbirdKC
Grey HypocoliusBanni
White-eared BulbulKC, Banni, PM, MNM
Red-vented BulbulKC, PM
Black-headed IbisPM
Black IbisKC, PM
Pied BushchatKC
Stolickza’s BushchatBanni, DNP
Siberian StonechatKC, Banni
Brown Rock ChatDNP
Bank MynaKC
Common MynaKC
Brahminy StarlingKC
Rosy StarlingKC, Banni
Paddyfield WarblerKC
Lesser WhitethroatKC, PM, LRK
Asian Desert WarblerBanni, DNP
Orphean WarblerPM
Red-wattled LapwingKC, Banni, PM, DNP
Black-winged StiltKC, Banni, PM
Wood SandpiperKC, Banni
Common SandpiperKC, Banni
Marsh SandpiperKC, Banni
Green SandpiperKC, Banni
Common SnipeKC, Banni
Black-tailed GodwitBanni
Pied AvocetLRK
Little StintBanni, LRK
Temminck’s StintKC, Banni
Little Ringed PloverLRK
Cream-coloured CourserBanni
Indian CourserKC
Greater FlamingoBanni, LRK
Lesser FlamingoLRK
Common CraneBanni, LRK
Black StorkLRK
Painted StorkKC
Dalmatian PelicanBanni
Great White PelicanBanni
Common PochardKC
Ferruginous DuckKC
Tufted DuckKC
Northern PintailKC
Northern ShovelerKC, Banni, LRK
Eurasian WigeonLRK
Common CraneBanni, LRK
Indian Spot-billed DuckKC
Lesser Whistling DuckKC
Little GrebeKC, Banni
Greylag GooseLRK
Gull-billed TernBanni
Whiskered TernBanni
River TernBanni
Indian RobinKC, PM, LRK, MNM
Bay-backed ShrikeKC, PM, MNM
Isabelline ShrikeBanni, LRK
Long-tailed ShrikeKC
Southern Grey ShrikeDNP
Rose-ringed ParakeetKC, LRK
Indian BushlarkPM
Bimaculated LarkBanni, DNP
Crested LarkBanni, LRK
Desert LarkDNP
Rufous-tailed LarkKC
Greater Hoopoe LarkBanni
Greater Short-toed LarkBanni, LRK, DNP
Ashy-crowned Sparrow LarkKC, PM
Black-crowned Sparrow LarkDNP
Syke’s LarkPM
Indian SilverbillKC, PM
Oriental Honey BuzzardPM, MNM
Long-legged BuzzardBanni, DNP
White-eyed BuzzardMNM
Eastern Imperial EagleDNP
Greater Spotted EagleBanni
Steppe EagleBanni, DNP
Tawny EagleLRK
Eurasian Marsh HarrierBanni
Montagu’s HarrierBanni
Pallid HarrierKC, LRK
Common KestrelBanni, LRK, DNP
Eurasian Hobby? DNP
Laggar FalconDNP
Peregrine FalconLRK
Black KiteKC, LRK
Black-winged KiteKC
ShikraKC, MNM, DNP
Cinereous VultureDNP
Egyptian VultureDNP
Eurasian GriffonDNP
Red-headed VultureDNP
Desert WheatearKC, Banni, PM, LRK, DNP
Isabelline WheatearBanni, LRK, DNP
Variable WheatearKC, Banni, PM, DNP
Red-tailed WheatearBanni, DNP
Indian Eagle OwlLRK
Spotted OwletLRK
Short-eared OwlBanni
Indian NightjarBanni
Syke’s NightjarBanni
Citrine WagtailBanni, LRK
White WagtailBanni
Purple SwamphenBanni
Grey FrancolinKC, Banni, PM, MNM, DNP
Chestnut-bellied SandgrouseKC, Banni
Painted SandgrouseKC
Common CootBanni
Common MoorhenBanni
Cattle EgretKC, Banni, LRK
Great EgretBanni
Little EgretBanni
Western Reef EgretKC
Indian Pond HeronKC, Banni
Grey HeronBanni
Night HeronBanni
Purple HeronBanni
Eurasian SpoonbillKC, Banni, LRK
Black-headed BuntingLRK
Grey-necked BuntingKC, PM, MNM
White-naped TitPM
Marshall’s IoraPM
Common WoodshrikePM
Black RedstartPM
Taiga FlycatcherKC
Rufous-fronted PriniaPM
Greater CornorantPM
Eurasian WryneckPM
Yellow-crowned WoodpeckerPM
Great Indian BustardDNP
MacQueen’s BustardBanni, LRK, DNP
Collared Sand MartinBanni
Dusky Crag MartinKC
Barn SwallowKC, Banni
Streak-throated SwallowKC
BluethroatBanni
Common KingfisherKC, Banni
Black DrongoKC, Banni, LRK, DNP
Eurasian HoopeBanni, DNP
Common BabblerKC, Banni, LRK, DNP
Large Grey BabblerKC
Indian PeafowlMNM, DNP
Little SwiftKC
Green BeeeaterDNP
House CrowKC, DNP
Punjab RavenDNP

* KC (Kutch Countryside); Banni (Banni Grasslands Reserve); PM (Phot Mahadev Thorn Forest, Kutch); MNM (Matano Mad Thorn Forest, Kutch); LRK (Little Rann of Kutch); DNP (Desert National Park)

List of Mammals Seen

Golden Jackal Canis aureus

Desert Cat Felis sylvestris
Indian Fox Vulpes bengalensis
Desert Fox Vulpes vulpes pusilla
Indian Hare Lepus nigricollis
Five-striped Palm Squirrel Funambulus pennantii
Indian Desert Jird Meriones hurrianae
Indian Gerbil Tatera indica
Nilgai Boselaphus tragocamelus
Indian Gazelle Gazella bennettii
Indian Wild Ass Equis hemionus pallas
Indian Wild Pig Sus Scrofa
Indian Flying Fox Pteropus giganteus
Grey Mongoose Herpestes edwardsii

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