A Desert Cat Yawns! Banni Grassland, Kutch, Gujarat.
There is this gentleman called “Jugal Tiwari” who lives in a little place called Moti-Virani in the Kutch district of Gujarat. He provides a unique window of opportunity to all nature lovers to experience and enjoy the biodiversity of Kutch. I decided to spend a week with him to seek my fortune and came back with treasures that would last me a lifetime! Thanks Jugal for all the help!
My good friend “Kulashekara C S” from Mysore accompanied me on this trip. Thanks Kula for the great company!
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Day 1 – Wednesday, February 20, 2008.
The monotypic “Grey Hypocolius”, an elusive specie of bird is easily seen feeding on the tiny berries of “Salvadora persica”, in a private farm owned by the Mutva community at the Fulay village in Kutch. In India, Kutch is perhaps the only place these birds visit in winter. Within an hour of landing in Bhuj, I was happily shooting multiple images of these birds! A treasure to cherish and of course share!
Not too far away from the location where the Hypocolius feeds, I found the locals using “Mesquite (Prosopis juliflora)” a drought resistant small tree that is considered a weed by many, to make charcoal! They cut, dry and burn the branches of this tree to convert them into charcoal. This charcoal is then sold commercially in the urban markets of India. We actually walked through dense smoke to reach the area where these rare birds feed! Amazing India!
We then spent a fascinating hour or so at the nearby “Pakhi Bhit” meaning “Bird Rock”. Two wonderful “Rock Eagle Owls” were perched on the rocks. I was so engrossed in enjoying the proximity of these large bold owls, I hardly noticed the sunlight fade and was soon basking in bright moonlight! This was just a sneak preview of what was on offer in the awesome “Banni Grassland”.
Moonrise at Banni Grassland, Kutch, Gujarat.
Earlier that day, Kula and myself, boarded the 8.30 am, “Kingfisher Airlines” flight from Bangalore to Mumbai. We took the immediate connecting flight that arrived into Bhuj a bit after noon. Now, just a few hours later, I was watching Owls in the moonlight and hearing stories of the “Ghost Lights of The Banni Grasslands”! Just the right teaser for one of my greatest trips into natural India!
On our drive back to base, in the darkness of the night, we came across a Short-eared Owl, a Jungle Cat and a Saw-scaled Viper! Yes, this was just our first day!
Each of the next five days we would wake up early and leave before sunrise and return much after sunset. Choosing convenience over comfort we decided to opt for the basic accommodation that Jugal offers next to his house as our base, a wise decision from my point of view. The food was simple vegetarian that Kula and myself very much enjoyed.
Here are some images I made on this day -> VARIABLE WHEATEAR, WHITE-EARED BULBUL, BLACK-SHOULDERED KITE
Day 2 – Thursday, February 21, 2008
A Chinkara takes a good look towards Bhuj from the Naliya Grassland, Kutch, Gujarat.
This day we decided to spend at the “Naliya Grasslands”. Even before we reached the Grasslands I had my catch of the day – close views and a fleeting photo opportunity of a wonderful Eurasian Wryneck!
As we drove through the mud roads in Jugal’s vehicle we could see plenty of raptors. A short-toed Eagle was hovering just above us, a Long-legged Buzzard was perched atop a tree and several Harriers were quartering in search of prey. Though we did not see the famous “Indian Bustards” that day, we enjoyed watching and photographing many species of birds. The Greater Short-toed Larks were seen in thousands all over the place. Grey Francolins and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouses were in plenty.
The star attraction for me, apart from birds, were the numerous “Spiny-tailed Lizards” we came across. These medium sized, mostly herbivorous, lizards merge so well with the landscape that it is difficult to spot them until they move, and when they do move, it is only to disappear underground. They form an excellent prey base for the hungry raptors above.
Spiny-tailed-Lizard at Naliya Grassland, Kutch, Gujarat.
After a nice lunch at a local “Dhaba” we headed towards the coast at “Pingleshwar” in search of waders. After wading in knee-deep slush I was able to shoot the Broad-billed Sandpiper! All of a sudden the coast was completely engulfed in fog! I had never experienced anything like this before, one moment I am shooting in the bright 4 pm sunlight and the next moment I can see nothing except water drops forming on the lens! Oh, the challenges a bird photographer has to deal with!
Fogged at Pingleshwar, Kutch, Gujarat.
We had to exit the coast and head back to the grasslands. A couple of minutes drive from the coast and we were back in bright sunlight again! That evening we watched dozens of harriers come to roost in the grassland as the sun set on another lovely birding day.
A Harrier Lands inside the Grass to roost at Naliya Grassland, Kutch, Gujarat.
Here are some birds I was able to click on this day ->
EURASIAN WRYNECK, CHESTNUT-BELLIED SANDGROUSE, GREY FRANCOLIN, SYKES'S LARK, GREATER SHORT-TOED LARKS, BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER
Day 3 – Friday, 22 February, 2008.
Kula and myself started the day by spending an hour or so in the “Bird Rock” area and then went on to photograph some raptors in the Banni Grasslands. An Eurasian Eagle Owl roosting under a shrub gave us some excellent photo opportunities! We came across several Steppe Eagles, Long-legged Buzzards and Harriers. I found myself getting addicted to the vast open space called Banni !
We caught up with Jugal and his friend Varu Kaka after noon and then drove up to the “Hodko Sham E Sarhad Resort” for an excellent lunch!
On the long drive back to base, at about 6 pm, I had almost called it a day, when we came across a couple of Jackals. Then suddenly, we saw cats dart for cover! There were three of them. The vehicle came to a halt. All of us assumed they were Jungle Cats that were quite common in the area. I was however a little more excited than others! Had I noticed something different?
I had spied one cat duck into what I initially thought was a dent in the ground. I quickly decided to stay put at one spot without taking my eyes off the dent. The others moved on to try and spot a Short-eared Owl.
As the vehicle moved away, I sat alone in the vast open space with my eyes glued on the dent and my camera ready. I knew I only had a feeble chance of shooting a fleeing cat in the fading light. Something told me not to approach the dent or try anything funny, just sit still and wait. The loneliness was invigorating!
A Desert Cat Appears! Banni Grassland, Kutch, Gujarat.
As I watched, very slowly two ears emerged from the dent, and then two bright eyes looking directly at me! It took my breath away! All I did was to sit still and “click”. The cat emerged from the hole, bit by bit, and seemed quite relaxed! It did not try to run or hide, just sat by the dent and did some “cat stuff” while I clicked and clicked! ... and I clicked when it yawned! … and would you believe it, it actually went off to sleep! I put away my camera and just sat there in the tranquility, I was enchanted by Banni, those wonderful eyes – forever mine to cherish!
A Desert Cat Rests! Banni Grassland, Kutch, Gujarat.
Inevitably the jeep came back and the cat disappeared underground. The others enquired if I had shot anything? When I showed them the image, Varu Kaka immediately said “Desert Cat” – a mini volcano erupted! What we all had thought to be a common Jungle Cat turned out to be a not so common “Desert Cat”!
Excitement. It was almost dark by then and as Jugal and myself approached what I had initially assumed to be a dent, I saw a vertical flat hole on one side of a Suaeda Shrub. This is the hole the cat had emerged from. On the opposite side of the same shrub we could see a larger diagonal hole with a heap of loose excavated earth at the entrance. The two were connected and in the middle of this tunnel I could see the dark entrance of another tunnel perpendicular to this one. We had inadvertently found the den of a “Desert Cat”! I did not even know cats lived in a den and I surely did not realize I was photographing a Desert Cat in the wild! What a stumble!
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As we drove back to base, the enchanting eyes kept popping up repeatedly in my mind as it does even now! My heart was full of joy and for some strange reason “awe’! I had assumed that Jugal knew this location where I had spent half and hour of my best time in nature! To my surprise, none of us could locate the den again! Banni magic at its best!
Here are some birds I was able to click on this day -> RUFOUS-TAILED WHEATEAR, DESERT WARBLER, LESSER WHITETHROAT, COMMON CHIFFCHAFF, ROCK EAGLE OWL, STEPPE EAGLE, LONG-LEGGED BUZZARD, RUFOUS-TAILED SHRIKE, RUFOUS-TAILED LARK, ROSY STARLING,
Day 4 - Saturday, 23 February, 2008.
A large group of Rosy Pelicans roost in the open at Banni!
This morning we decided to try our luck with the “White-naped Tit”. Not very far, about 20 mts drive, from our base is the Rampur village. Here in the thorn forest lives the White-naped Tit. Though we could hear and spot a couple of these rare birds, I was not fortunate enough to photograph these restless small birds. I was however able to get a shot of the “Marshall’s Iora”.
After lunch we were back in the Banni area and were happy to see and photograph a “Imperial Eagle” and a Short-eared Owl”
That evening we watched the sunset at Banni as thousands of common cranes in large formations noisily flew above us to their roost. End of another wonderful day!
Here are some birds I was able to click on this day -> MARSHALL'S IORA, COMMON WOODSHRIKE, RUFOUS-FRONTED PRINIA, COMMON BABBLER, RED-THROATED FLYCATCHER, IMPERIAL EAGLE, SHORT-EARED OWL,
Day 5 – Sunday, 24 February, 2008.
The Banni addiction continued. We decided to spend the entire day at Banni.
On the way, we took another shot at the Hypocolius in morning light. I was also able to make good images of the “Painted Sandgrouse”.
A Wolf at Banni!
Muhammad, a local, joined us this day and showed us a Wolf and a few Foxes! I tasted some “Camel Milk” for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed spending time in this vast seemingly “nothingness”! We met a couple of “herdsmen” and listened to their stories. This day, I did not worry too much about photography and learnt much about Banni! Here is what I gathered …
Herders called “Maldharis” who belong to casts like Rabari, Mutva, Jat, are skilled in making use of the resources of the uncultivable arid and semi-arid lands of Kutch. Many are nomadic and move with their livestock in search of food and water. Banni a vast, seemingly endless flat land in Kutch that looks like a desert in summer is full of a shrub called “Suaeda fruticosa” that camels feed on. We came across several herders with hundreds of Camels roaming the grassland. Most would leave Banni before April at the height of summer as living conditions become unbearable due to scarcity of potable water and food.
Banni Grassland, Kutch, Gujarat.
I learnt that a vast number of rodents inhibit this area. They feed mostly on the tuber found in abundance in the area. They are not usually seen during the day and live underground. Almost everything except man and his livestock lives underground in the treeless Banni Grassland. Those that do not live underground have the ability to fly! The rodents attract various predators that thrive on them. These predators include a large number of migratory raptors and several resident owls. Foxes, Jackals, Wolves, Hyenas and several lesser cats breed and thrive in this area. We were able to see and photograph many of these predators.
A Fox at Banni!
When the rains come in June, the entire area is filled with water and turns green with various types of grasses sprouting. It is now time for the rodents to perish, literally drown, as the livestock return in large numbers to feed on the grasses.
This is the brief “on location” understanding I had of this magical land called the “Banni Grassland” in Kutch. I am sure the internet holds many fascinating facts of this great land… yet, I feel, there is more to Banni than meets the eye!
Here are some birds I was able to click on this day -> PAINTED SANDGROUSE - MALE, PAINTED SANDGROUSE - FEMALE, GREY HYPOCOLIUS - MALE, GREY HYPOCOLIUS - FEMALE, GRACEFUL PRINIA CRESTED LARK, WHITE STORK,
Day 6 – Monday, 25 February, 2008.
When a Peacock walks with its long tail up, you can see that last "C" !
Our last day, tomorrow we head back home. This morning Kula wanted to give the “White-naped Tits” another shot. While I lingered outside the “Thorn Forest”, Kula soon returned with a shot of the Tit!
We then drove all the way to the coast – the Bhadreshwar Randh area – over a hundred kilometers from base.
On reaching the coast we mingled with a colony of fishermen who had set base there. Late noon as a few nets were pulled in we were able to photograph gulls and other shore birds. We had a fleeting glimpse of a single Crab-plover and close views of a Westren Reef Egret (White Morph) darting a Mudskipper!
We saw this "White Morph-Western Reef Egret" actually dart a Mudskipper!
On the drive back we had good views of “Indian Crousers”. Kula’s perseverance fetched him a wonderful image. We also spent some good time with a pair of “Yellow-crowned Woodpeckers” as we watched our last sunset of this trip to Kutch! All good things must come to an end!
Here are some I was able to click on this day -> ORPHEAN WARBLER, HEUGLIN'S GULL, WESTERN REEF EGRET, YELLOW-CROWNED WOODPECKER
Day 7 – Tuesday, 26 February, 2008
We bid goodbye to Jugal and headed to Bhuj after breakfast. “Laku Bhai” who had been driving the vehicle for us on all our wonderful sorties at Kutch took us to a lake inside Bhuj where we were able to see plenty of water birds. I was happy to shoot some images of “Comb Ducks” and "Dalmation Pelicans" after which I packed up my equipment!
We drove around Bhuj with “Laku Bhai” telling us stories of the great disaster and showings us several buildings that still bore the scars of the earthquake.
We had a wonderful lunch at “Hotel Prince” and headed to the airport for our 3 pm flight out of Bhuj.
I was back home in Bangalore by 7 pm, while Kula continued on to Mysore.
… and so the story ends! A memorable experience and plenty of joy to share! A lot of learning too!!
Sunset at Kutch, Gujarat.
* Please visit www.indiabirds.com to view some of the bird images I made during this visit...