Monday, December 1, 2008

The Land of the GIB

Situated about 22 kms North of Solapur lies the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) Sanctuary at Nannaj. Comprising extensive grasslands, it is home to a small population of 15-20 Great Indian Bustards. These majestic grassland birds, once common in India, are now on the brink of extinction with less than 400 birds remaining in the wild.

The landscape in this part of our country immediately reminds you of scenes from the African Savanna, so often shown on Discovery or Nat Geo. Vast stretches of flat terrain, covered in short grass swaying gently in the wind, with the occasional thorny bush or tree sticking out in the distance. But don't be fooled. The diversity of wildlife in this region is simply amazing. While there are mammals like Blackbucks, Chinkaras, Indian Wolves, etc. there are also birds like Quails, Floricans, Larks, Pipits that are well adapted to this kind of habitat. And of course, there are snakes, scorpions, .....the like! The star attraction, though, is the elusive GIB.

The GIB sanctuary has an area of 8500 sq. km., which includes whole towns like Solapur itself. Rather than having a namesake area of this high magnitude, the government has recently decided to declare only a 300 sq. km. area as the sanctuary, and protect that area properly. Out of this area, about 100 hectares of land lies near a small village called Nannaj, where the GIBs are seen more often than in the other areas, especially while breeding. Adesh Shivkar had organised a trip to this place as part of his NatureIndiaTours programmes, and I was only too happy to join.

The Siddheshwar Express that leaves CST at about 10:20 p.m. brought us (9 of us including Adesh) to Solapur early on Saturday morning. We checked in at the Ritesh Hotel, and after a quick breakfast, left for Nannaj by a hired Trax and hit the highway.

Soon after crossing the toll naka, we stopped by the roadside for a quick look at the birds on the nearby wires. There was an Indian Roller, a Laughing Dove, a Brahmini Starling troubled by some Black Drongos, some Indian Robins and also an Oriental Honey Buzzard which was in 'Pandharpur' (Adesh's expression for really far away birds!).

Back in the Trax, we drove on for some 20 minutes till we reached an area called 'dreamland', which is quite close to the Nannaj village. We had reached Africa! There were birds all around. A couple of Eurasian Collared Doves sat on a nearby bush, while a Rufous-Tailed Lark darted about in the rocks. A Montagu's Harrier haunted the area, scaring away some doves in the distance. A Southern Grey Shrike posed nicely for a picture. Some Indian Silverbills showed up on a thorny bush. Large flocks of Greater Short-Toed Larks were on the move. A few Chestnut-Bellied Sandgrouse came flying searching for water, and instead found us. A few anachronic Grey Francolins cheered for Kapil Dev with their typical calls (sounding like they were calling out Kapil Dev's name with an accented 'i'). Thankfully, it was cloudy and a steady breeze had set in. Perfect birding.

Quite satisfied, we moved on and reached a small village close to Nannaj and took a walk through it. While on our way we saw Ashy-Crowned Sparrow Larks, Large-Grey Babblers, a Shikra, Rosy Starlings, a Lesser Whitethroat, several Rose-Ringed Parakeets, and a handsome male Asian Koel. The village children had started following us, and Adesh obliged by letting them see through the spotting scope and chatting them up.

We boarded the Trax again and soon reached the '100 hectares' area of the Nannaj sanctuary. This is the place where the chances of seeing a GIB are high. We entered the main gate and began walking on the narrow path that leads to a small hut.

The hut here is as far as anyone is allowed to venture into this area. It provides cover and shelter, so birders can safely see the birds unnoticed. As we approached the hut, a Bay-Backed Shrike greeted us by perching on a nearby tree.

As it was cloudy, we preferred not to use the hut, and instead stand outside it. And as we scanned the area with our binocs, a Common Kestrel was spotted hovering in the air. Some Blackbucks were giving us enquiring looks and had stopped moving completely. The air seemed to freeze. There was hardly any movement. Flocks of Greater Short-Toed Larks were seen.

Then, a lone GIB was spotted far away with its clean white neck sticking out from the grass!! Surely, it was in 'Pandharpur'. These birds have become so shy that they never venture close to humans, and most of the GIB sightings are, well, in 'Pandharpur'. Sure, the bird was far away, but the spotting scope Adesh had brought along managed to bridge that gap pretty well.

The grace of this bird is simply unmatched. With its neck upright and head tilted up slightly, it has an aura of nobility. Like a ship in slow motion, it glides smoothly across the grasses. The body does not wobble an inch! It feels almost unreal to imagine a bird of this size to walk so steadily and slowly. Floored!

This one was a male, with the clean white neck being the identifying characteristic. It sailed at its gentle pace for a long time after which it was just too far away. We headed back, and decided to visit another area on the opposite side of the sanctuary gate. Now that the GIB had been seen, we could focus more on the other bird species too.

On our way, we were crossed by a couple of healthy looking Indian Wolves. We got down for a pic and some snacks too!
As expected, the landscape had not changed at all. We had reached some private land in the vicinity and decided to spend some time birding in this area. It was nearly 1:00 p.m., but thankfully it was still cloudy.

A Siberian Stonechat, Paddyfield Pipit, Long Billed Pipit and a Tawny Pipit were seen scurrying about. Some Eurasian Collard Doves fidgeted in a tree nearby. Common Kestrels were busy flying about. There were birds everywhere. But the best one was the Isabelline Wheatear (a winter migrant) which perched right in the open on some rocks. As Adesh explained how to distinguish it from the Desert Wheatear (by looking at its lore, which is the area between the eye and the base of the beak), I managed to get a pic by digiscoping my camera with the spotting scope. This result was quite satisfying!

Then, on our way back, we also saw a Richard's Pipit and a Lesser Whitethroat. And just as we were about to board the Trax, we even saw a juvenile Pallid Harrier perched on a thorny bush. Right on the opposite side, but a little far off, an adult male Montagu's Harrier had perched on a small mound on the ground. Both sightings were amazing, with Adesh explaining how to distinguish a juvenile Pallid Harrier from a juvenile Montagu's (by looking at the white neck collar on the Pallid). And then Adesh spotted the GIB we'd seen earlier, except that it was much closer to the sanctuary gate now. For us, on the other side, it was still in 'Pandharpur'.

It was time for lunch. We headed for the 'Nisarga' restaurant somewhere outside Solapur, and managed to catch a small nap on the way in the Trax. Arriving at nearly 3:00 p.m. at the restaurant, Adesh prompty ordered the local delicacies, viz. the sweet Shenga Poli with loads of ghee, not-so-pungent Shenga Chatni, a fiery Thecha, a few curious sounding 'Dhapaate' (which are like Theplaas), Bhakris, Zhunkaa and Shrikhanda-Basundi. This vivid combination of dishes made for a sizzling lunch which left us with rather protruding bellies, and we wondered how we'd continue birding!

The next place to visit was a small village called Kegav, where the magnificent Eurasian Eagle Owls are seen in what appears to be a canal of some sort. The canal lies on both sides of the road leading to Kegav, and we soon ventured into the right hand side.

These owls, though huge in size, are excellently camouflaged against the rocky outcrops. It was almost like a game, finding the owls that are in the area, but are so difficult to spot. After seeing a Grey Necked Bunting and a Long Billed Pipit on the way, no one had yet seen the elusive and much anticipated owl. We managed a glimpse of a Blue Rock Thrush and a female Black Redstart hopping on the rocks below while a Eurasian Spoonbill flew past in the air.

Sameer finally spotted the owl, but even with binocs, I wasn't able to locate it in the direction he pointed. Adesh soon trained his scope on the Owl so we could all have a better look. And what a look it was (from the Owl)! The Owl was sitting behind a small bush, and its big orange eyes were staring us down! It was in fact quite scary! But the Owl soon got self-conscious and flew off. Although a big bird, its flight is completely noiseless! Not a whisper!

Since no more owls could be seen, we decided to move over to the other side of the road, and try our luck there. Here, again, it was Sameer who spotted another Owl, while all of us had coolly walked past it. This one too was impressive. We also saw some Spotted Owlets, many Grey Necked Buntings, a few Small Minivets and Streak-Throated Swallows in the area.

We were just heading back, when the Owl was seen again, this time sitting in the open, but far away. As it sat there, gazing at us even from that great distance, some Black Drongos were obviously offended and tried to drive it away. Interestingly, the Owl was looking exactly like a cat! I managed to get a record-shot of the Owl, again, by digiscoping. As the light was really low, the pic didn't come off exactly as planned!

After a much satisfying view of the Owl, we decided to head back to the hotel. It had been a tiring day of non-stop birding, and the trip so far had been simply too good. I knew I had seen many lifers (first time sightings) today, including the GIB and the Eurasian Eagle Owl. Tomorrow we'd come back to Nannaj and then also go to Hiparga Lake to see ducks and waders.

Dinner was at the Ritesh Hotel itself, and after a rather blatant "None" in reply to our query "What sweet dishes do you have?", everyone got a good night's sleep. Actually Ranjeet had tried rephrasing the question too by asking "Gulab jamun hai kya?", but the waiter seemed to have his wits about him and said there were no sweet dishes to offer!

Early on Sunday morning, we set off for Nannaj again. The task for today was to get a good look at the Bustard and some of the other species too. On the way, all of us kept a watch for any birds on the road-sides, and soon we halted to see some Red-Collared Doves, Black-Headed Buntings, a Common Hawk Cuckoo which looks quite like a Shikra, a flying male Pallid Harrier and also a White-Eyed Buzzard perched on one of the poles.

Once at Nannaj, Adesh went up a small lookout tower, to see if there were any Bustards around, but unfortunately there were none. Since we'd already had our fill the earlier day, we decided to move on and look at the other species in the surrounding area, particularly a small lake nearby. Back in the Trax.

As we approached the lake, we saw a couple of Grey Francolins running about on the road. We also saw an Indian Bushlark on some rocks as it posed nicely for a photo. I managed to get a pic of it using even the mere 4x zoom lens on my camera! While about it, a Black-Winged Kite crossed the road in front of us.

Once at the lake, there were many birds to be seen. A few Ashy-Crowned Sparrow Larks came for a drink. A Little Ringed Plover darted across the banks while many ducks were busy swimming in the water. Most of them were Spot-Billed Ducks and Northern Pintails, but there was also a single Common Pochard and Northern Shoveler among them. There were many Little Grebes in non-breeding plumage too. As we watched them through the scope, Red-Rumped Swallows had filled the air and were gliding nicely all around the area.

A little further, Adesh spotted a Short-Toed Snake-Eagle soaring in 'Pandharpur'. As he explained how to identify it, the large eagle seemed to scan the area for prey. It even hovered in the air like a Kestrel for long durations. So much so, that Adesh was even able to locate it in his scope so we could see it better. It is amazing to see a bird of this size balancing itself in mid-air while scanning the ground for prey!

In the meanwhile, the Common Pochard was seen again and gave us a nice view. There was also a Spotted Redshank, a Yellow Wagtail and a White-Browed Wagtail in the region. Adesh captured the White-Browed Wagtail in a typical eye-level shot while Garima too took a few pictures.

As we were about to leave the area, a couple of Syke's Crested Larks too made an appearance! Leaving them behind, we set off for a nearby pond where Yellow-Wattled Lapwings are seen.
As expected, 3 Lapwings were seen at the edge of the pond, one of which appeared like a juvenile. There was also a Green Sandpiper and a Common Greenshank standing side by side in the pond! A better opportunity to compare these similar looking birds would be certainly hard to find!

It was lunch time again, and we decided to head back. This time we went to a restaurant in Solapur itself called as 'Sugran'. Here, too, the typical local dishes were ordered and were promptly served by the waiter. The food was, as expected, delicious! In fact the Basundi was probably the best that I have ever had!

Again, with bulging stomachs and a quick freshening up at the Hotel, we soon left for Hiparga Lake. This is a big lake close to Solapur and has many water birds. It was afternoon by now, and the sun had just started to come out of the clouds.

Birds like the Indian Roller, Citrine Wagtail, Chestnut Shouldered Petronias and a group of Red-Headed Buntings were busy in the area. A female Common Kestrel had perched on a small tree. About 5 Black Ibises and a Painted Stork lazily looked around on the banks of the lake. Even a Rufous-Tailed Shrike was seen as it flew about the bushes. As we headed closer to the Lake, which was full of Common Pochards, Common Coots and some Tufted Ducks, a Wooly-Necked Stork came soaring towards us.

Later, a male Eurasian Marsh Harrier came flying silently from the left. The beauty of this bird was accentuated by the surreal blue sky in the background. Exclamations of 'oohs' and 'aahs' filled the air. Seeing a male was rewarding, as usually it is the females or juveniles that are seen.

It was time to head back. The sun had peeked out from a few clouds and seemed to shower blessings upon us. Surely, it had been an exciting and eventful trip. But it wasn't over yet.

As we reached our Trax, there was some more activity around. A juvenile Brahmini Kite came to say farewell. A Clamorous Reed Warbler was seen on some bushes. A Blue Rock Thrush was hopping about the rocks nearby, accompanied by some Indian Robins. A Common Kingfisher kept watch over his part of the water.

Then we saw Red Avadavats, Silverbills and a Scaly Breasted Munia all on the same small, bare, thorny bush not too far away! In the evening sunlight, this sight was simply fascinating. It was as if the bush had acquired bright red jewels! We also saw a male and female Rose-Ringed Parakeet in the vicinity. Though very common, it was amazing to see them in the saturated yellow sunlight. A Spotted Owlet too was seen close by.

On our way back to the Hotel, we stopped by Mr. B.S. Kulkarni's place. He's over 75 years of age, and has spent most of his life studying the bustards and other birds in the region and consequently has published many books. We had a small chat with him before we left for home, again by the Siddheshwar Express that leaves Solapur at 10:40 p.m.

This had been a marvellous trip! Well planned and well managed by Adesh, it was total 'paisa vasool'. What made it even more so was Adesh's meticulous insights and tips that would improve us as birders. That's not to say that the others didn't contribute. Everyone contributed in some way or the other, and it all resulted in a memorable experience.

We had seen close to 115 species of birds, many of which were winter migrants. Moreover, 25 of these were lifers for me. We had missed the Quails and the Indian Courser, which are typical birds of this region, but after seeing so many other birds it would be unfair to demand these too. After all, on a wildlife trip, you never know what you'll see and what you won't. All you can do is visit the right places at the right time and hope for the best.

It is unfortunate that the GIB is getting extinct. It puzzles many people how such a graceful bird can be hunted down so mercilessly. It seems to be heading the same way as the Dodo, and hence will require special efforts to save its dwindling population. What was at one time a prime contender for being nominated as the National Bird of India is now well on the verge of saying goodbye.

Here are links to photos taken by Garima and Anup on this trip: