This is an account of a birding oriented natural history trip to the Little and Great Rann of Kutch in India's arid northwest, in January 2011.
We saw 146 species of birds in 7 days, including a number of regional specialities - notably, Indian and MacQueen's Bustards, Syke's Nightjar, Grey Hypocolius, Cream Courser, Pallid Scops Owl, White-naped Tit, Marshall's Iora, Grey-necked Bunting and several species of Larks and Wheatears. Wintering waders and waterfowl, Harriers, Aquila Eagles and Common Cranes were found in good numbers in and around the seasonal wetlands of the Rann. A sighting of a Water Rail was an unexpected surprise, probably previously unrecorded from the region.
Among mammals we saw the endangered Indian Wild Ass, Chinkara, Nilgai, Desert Cat, Jungle Cat, Indian Fox, Indian Jackal, Wild Boar, Nilgai and Indian Hare. Although not uncommon here, we only saw spoor and scat of Striped Hyena on our trip.
The dry, saline, flat terrain of the Rann was sparsely inhabited by small clumps of hardy grasses, and patches of woodland in higher ground. The grasslands and wetlands on the edge of the Rann, in contrast, had a greater diversity of plant and animal life and was the focus of much of our birding effort. Sadly, woodland of exotic Prosopis juliflora seems to be taking over these arid grasslands, in many locations.
The starkly empty landscape of the Rann - the beauty of which was enhanced by the clear, winter skies - was a novelty for us living in the crowded, tropical south of India. The weather was clear throughout our trip (no sea fog or cloudy weather), albeit cold, especially, early in mornings.
Four days were just enough time to explore the matrix of wetland, scrubby grasslands and fallow agricultural lands, surrounding the Little Rann and for a couple of forays into the vast openness of the Rann.
On our couple of visits to Nava Tal, a significant wetland at the edge of the Little Rann, we saw large numbers of wintering wetland birds - most noticeably Greylag Goose, Great White and Dalmation Pelicans, a few Common Crane and miscellaneous ducks and waders. There were a number of Eurasian Marsh Harriers hovering over the wetland as well. As per some local reports, wintering bird congregations here are typically even larger than what we saw on our visits. The previous season's excess rainfall in the region meant that a number of other ephemeral wetlands could have been alternative feeding ground for the birds.
The other wetland we visited was a creek, opening into the Bajana River, within the Little Rann's Wild Ass Sanctuary. Here we saw our only sightings of Lesser and Greater Flamingos and Hen Harrier (uncommon in these parts). Other birds along the creek included Montagu's Harrier, miscellaneous waders and ducks (mainly Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler). The approach to the creek, through fallow farmland and grassland (with woody cover of Prosopis) proved very productive for our first sighting of MacQueen's Bustard, Red-necked Falcon, Tawny Eagle, Rufous-tailed Lark and Indian Courser.We entered the vast openness of the Rann through the Khari Gate, for our first sighting of a herd of the endangered Indian Wild Ass - a species that is locally common and easy to see - and a Short-eared Owl. We stayed back after a stunning sunset, to look for the two crepuscular foxes and the Syke's Nightjar. As night fell, we had a number of sightings of the Indian Fox but missed seeing the somewhat rarer Desert Fox. We also had numerous sightings of Syke's and Indian Nightjars and roosting Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse.
Entering through the Junjiwada Gate, the Rann was spectacularly isolated, even, as we were, only on the edge of this expansive landscape. Notably, there was very little of the exotic Prosopis that seems to have choked the fringes of the Rann in the Khari and Bajana gates. Here, there were much fewer birds nor obvious signs of other fauna. However, we had an incredible sighting of six MacQueen's Bustards as they were resting in a sparsely vegetated, stony hillock. Our presence seemed to have flushed them or seeing them would have been highly improbable while they rested, superbly camouflaged on the ground. Other birds here included Desert Wheatear and groups of Bimaculated and Greater Short-toed Larks.
The agricultural fields and woodland near habitation surrounding the Rann, proved productive for birding effort including for Sarus Crane, Blue Throat, Black-breasted Weaver, Black-headed Bunting, Pallid Scops Owl, Red-throated Flycatcher, Eurasian Thick-knee and few warblers. We also saw countless, raucous, gatherings of Rosy Starling - winter visitors here - in almost any available perch!
Most of our birding effort was concentrated in the magical Banni Grassland Reserve, on the southern edge of the Great Rann and in a couple of other sites outside the Rann, known for a few local bird specialities.
We saw Grey Hypocolius in a well known roosting site, close to the village of Fulay in the Banni Grasslands. From here, the woodland of exotic Prosopis thins out into open, arid grasslands typical of the region, further into the core of the reserve. The arid grasslands, provided a number of bird highlights including Cream Courser, Syke's Nightjar, Shorteared Owl and several Larks and Wheatears (including the rare Red-tailed Wheatear). We saw hundreds of wintering Common Crane through the landscape, and especially closer to the Chari Dhand, a large seasonal wetland within the reserve. This wetland is reputedly the centre of the reserve's bird activity in winter and we saw countless ducks, waders and terns here, including, unexpectedly, a Water Rail. The wetland and surroundings had good numbers of Raptors - mainly Eurasian Marsh, Pallid and Montagu's Harriers, Common Kestrel, Black-shouldered Kite and Greater Spotted Eagle. We also saw Long-legged Buzzard, Tawny and Steppe Eagles and Laggar Falcon in the landscape.
On a cold, clear morning we were lucky to observe a family of Desert Cat as the mother and kittens emerged from a burrow. They sat out in the early sun, for a few minutes before disappearing into the grasses, evidently on a hunt. Other mammals we saw included Indian Fox, Jungle Cat, Nilgai and Indian Jackal in the Banni Reserve. There was a doubtful sighting of a Caracal, an extremely rare cat in these grasslands, but the late hour and fast moving animal did not allow us to distinguish it with certainty from the more common Jungle Cat. Notably, we missed seeing Striped Hyena and Desert Fox, which are not uncommon here.
The hills that dot Banni's landscape - evidently remnants of ancient undersea volcanic activity - were strewn with marine fossils. The dark outline of these hills against multi-hued skies at sunset was a spectacular sight. We found the Banni Grasslands the highlight of our entire trip, not just for the number of birds and animals that we saw but also because there was a certain magical ?naturalness' that is difficult to put in words. A couple of hours spent at the Kutch Bustard Sanctuary of the Naliya Grasslands and surroundings proved lucky for a sighting of a pair of the endangered Indian Bustard - normally difficult to see in winter in these parts. The grasslands were filled with calls of Black Frankolin and we also saw several of them, a few Bimaculated Lark, Tawny Pipit and a solitary Chinkara.
On our last stop we spent an evening in a habitat of rocky hills at ?Phot Madhey', sparsely vegetated with Cacti and Acacia for sightings of Marshall's Iora - a species restricted to drier habitats in the northwest of India. This is also habitat for wintering Grey-necked Bunting, and we saw a group of the birds among the Cacti. Another highlight bird sighting from here included the White-naped Tit, a species with a restricted distribution in the dry habitats of south and NW India.
We used a combination of road and train travel from Ahmedabad, the capital city of Gujarat. The drive to the Little Rann is a short one from Ahmedabad. However, to get to Great Rann from here is a 300 Km plus drive and, despite an excellent national highway for about half the distance, it still took us almost 8 hours. On the way back, we took a day train back from Bhuj, the biggest city in the Kutch District, to Ahmedabad. This cut down travel time to some extent, but was also a more comfortable means of travel. Bhuj has an airport and is easier transit for those concentrating on the Great Rann. We used a chauffeured Chevrolet Tavera for road travel - a very spacious, comfortable ride for up to 5 persons and capable of negotiating bad roads that are inevitable as we approach and within natural areas around here.
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