Kutch; Day 2 – Banni Grasslands

February 4, 2015

DSC_0330We left before daybreak. Last evening we witnessed the moon take over the heavens as the sun went home to rest. This morning we watched as the moon retired and the sun stretched and yawned and patted all creation on its head.

As a part of their efforts to involve local communities in conservation, CEDO asks their guests to employ a local guide to help them sight a grey hypocolius. This monotypic  bird is a regular wintering species, usually found in the *tooth brush tree forest  close to the Jat settlement of Fulay village.  What is it that makes these uniformly grey birds with white-tipped black primary wing feathers and a black tip to the tail so special? They are not endangered or even particularly rare.

  1. This bird is the sole member of the genus Hypocolius and family Hypocoliidae
  2. They are found only the Middle East, breeding in the Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan area, and wintering mostly near the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts of Arabia. The political difficulties in getting in and around any of these countries, makes sighting by foreigners a rarity.
Grey Hypocolius (male)

Grey Hypocolius (male)

India the best place to spot this unique species, making  Fulay, the only place in India where this bird is regularly seen famous among birders . We were lucky; we saw more than one of them. At day break, the silence of night was broken by stray tweets, and then all of a sudden the air was filled with the chitter chatter of birds gossiping as they went about making a breakfast of berries. As the sun steadily made its way up, our avian fakirs retreated into the shrubbery and the chirping became more subdued till the day relapsed into silence.

White Eared Bulbul Bulbuls are known to feed hanging upside down

White Eared Bulbul
Bulbuls are known to feed hanging upside down

We drove on to have our breakfast with the red tailed wheatear at Chhari Dhaand. After we had had our fill of chai and sandwiches, Vaibhavji  decided it was time to see if we could sight a flock of cranes. As we drove through the parched grasslands we saw a mirage shimmering on the horizon. The best way to observe the crane is from the interiors of a sturdy vehicle. Since our vehicle was not an all terrain, we parked at a distance and tried to approach  to birds by foot. Just as we felt we were getting closer, the birds would feel the same and fly off.  We didn’t get close enough to make great pictures, however we did get a good view. We got a chance to see them from closer later as we drove towards the watchtower.

At one point, we crossed an a small area littered with crane feathers. Vaibhavji supposed, an Eagle had made a meal of a crane

At one point, we crossed an a small area littered with crane feathers. Vaibhavji supposed, an Eagle had made a meal of a crane

By now the sun was glaring fiercely and threatening to strike anyone who didn’t hide, with its thick golden staff. We returned at lunch hour to feast on a light home cooked vegetarian meal. I can’t tell you how delighted I was at every meal at CEDO. Once again I could eat without having to double check and then check again if the food was vegetarian.

P.S – An audio (video) of the early morning twitter is up on our Instagram page. More pictures will be up on our FB page soon. 

Kutch; Day 1 – Chhari Dhand

March 4, 2015

Here I am, sitting in NYC’s legendary landmark the Waldorf Astoria Hotel typing out my post about our trip to the Rann of Kutch. The original Waldorf-Astoria stood where the Empire State Building stands today. The hotel moved to its current location in the 1930s and became an official New York City landmark in 1993. With its two tiny horns, this is quite the devil of a building.

February, 2015;Kutch.

Travelling first class a/c for the first time was an experience in itself

travelling first class a/c for the first time was an experience in itself

I have always longed to go the Rann of Kutch. Each year, thousands of flamingos migrate here to breed. February is touted to be the best time to see these bashful beauties, pink as your cheeks on a windy day. Thankfully good sense prevailed. I decided to be more eco sensitive and let the birds have their privacy. Even so, our short trip to Kutch was deeply satisfying.

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While I was still planning, I had written to Kalyan Verma and he had suggested that I get in touch with CEDO for birding. I am so glad I took his suggestion. CEDO is the most eco-friendly place I have stayed at. Not only do they use solar energy for heating water, their flushes are most unique too. They have taps that allow you to control how much water you use as opposed to the conventional arrangement which uses a *fixed quantity of water each time you flush, whether you need it or not.

At lunch hour you can enjoy the sight of dozens of sparrows flocking to the bird feeders set up in the front pavilion. If you get here close to noon, this is probably the best way to start your birding. We had an air-conditioned room, but even the afternoon it was so pleasant inside that we never turned it on.

Indian Eagle Owl in flight

Indian Eagle Owl in flight

Since Jugalji, the extremely knowledgeable man who runs this wonderful place was busy with another group, we were accompanied by his brother-in-law and associate Vibhav Mishra. Vaibhavji is also very well versed with his birds and just as passionate about them. We left for our evening safari at around 3:30 in the afternoon, so that we could be at our destination at sundown. After a while, Vaibhavji asked the driver to pull over and stepped out. He told us eagle owls had been spotted in the vicinity. The Eurasian Eagle Owls are among the world’s largest owls and most powerful raptors. Pumpkin orange eyes and horn like feathery ear tufts make them one of the most striking owls in the world.The Indian Eagle Owl is considered a subspecies of the Eurasian eagle-owl and is very similar in appearance. Despite their size and ferocity, these birds are shy and elusive and are seldom seen in broad daylight. Vaibhavji knew where the owls were most likely to be seen and we scrambled after him. At first it was hard to spot the owl, but once you spot it, it is hard to miss.  Vaibhavji had trained his tripod mounted binoculars on the bird, and even though we were looking straight at it we couldn’t tell till Vaibhavji said, “Don’t you see the wing?” and described the exactly what I had mistaken to be a rock.

The sensory power of birds and animals never ceases to amaze me. Even at that distance, across the water, with its face hidden under its wing, the bird knew we were there and it made it uncomfortable. When the disturbed bird took flight, it became apparent why it was called an eagle owl. Much to our surprise and absolute delight, moments later a second owl flew out of the thicket.

A Common Babbler decides to take a good look at us

A Common Babbler decides to take a good look at us

The Banni grasslands are home to a number of avian species. A large number of migratory birds and passing migratory birds are annual visitors. Bird spotting here is always great, though which birds you see depends on the season. During monsoon the plains are frequently flooded. In the period after monsoon, they are covered with lush green grass and passage migrant birds, like the blue cheeked bee-eater  and European rollers make  pitstops here. When winter comes, the grass dries out leaving the earth caked and brown. This is a great time spot migratory birds as they return after spending summer elsewhere. Listen to them trill about wonderful foreign lands as they go about building their nests and raising their young.  As we drove through settlements and the dry dusty plains Vaibhavji pointed out kingfishers, bee-eaters, thrushes, bulbuls, wheatears, drongos and other common and uncommon birds, their beauty enhanced by the golden evening light. Another remarkable sighting was the common rock thrush. Despite the nomenclature, this bird is very rare in these parts and had been spotted here after more than a decade.

getting a better look at all that's silently observing us -at Chhari Dhand Photo Courtesy Vaibhav Mishra

getting a better look at all that’s silently observing us
-at Chhari Dhand
Photo Courtesy Vaibhav Mishra

Our last sightings for the day were a desert cat sunning itself outside its den and the red tailed wheatear at the dry for the season Chhari  Dhand wetlands. We stayed on the empty plain and sipped on chai as the setting sun cast a rosy glow over the rocks. As the regal sun was setting on one hand, the moon, glorious and full, was rising on the other, determined not to allow the sky to dissolve into inky blackness. Tomorrow we would try to spot the seasonal heroes – the Grey **Hypocolius.

*varies from building code to building code. In the USA, I believe it is 1.6 gallons.

**I’m not sure what the plural of Hypocolius would be – Hypocolius or  Hypocoliuses or Hypocolii? Can somebody help?

P.S – more pictures coming soon on our FB page

Warwick Winery

April 4, 2015

It’s the first real weekend of spring. Clear blue skies, a happy yellow sun, crispness in the air and Saturday make a great combo. Wistful Winter in her robes of white is forgotten as soon as you set your eyes on Spring laughing at your doorstep. It’s impossible not to love this beautiful boy child with golden curls, bright blue eyes and an upturned mouth.

2015-04-05We decide to get the car washed and then drive up to Warwick for wine tasting. Warwick Winery is like a whimsical dream set amid bucolic bliss. Individual tables have been put up on grass for some fun in the sun, but there is still a nip in the air so is on one sitting outdoors.There are more tables in the covered patio and they are all taken. The tasting room is simply teeming with people. There is absolutely no place at the bar. We are asked to wait for 15 minutes or so as there is a big group tasting going on. There’s live music playing in the café, and all the tables in there are taken too.  We walk around the store cum tasting room, doing our best not to knock anything down.

Collages9Finally, we manage to squeeze ourselves by the tasting bar. The wines are palatable, but have a long way to go. This is, however,a fine tasting experience. Our pourer is well informed and guides us on what notes to expect in each wine. There are bottles of water and little ice buckets helpfully kept on the bar to rinse  glasses between tastings. We get to keep the glasses as souvenirs. This is included in the price of the tasting.   My only suggestion for improvement in this department would be to be generous with the wine. All other wine tasting we have done has been more liberal.

Not wanting to go home yet, we drive to Bellvale to sample the ice cream at Bellvale Farms. We get ourselves thick ice cream sundaes, topped with chocolate fudge and a cherry. The ice creams are good but nowhere close to the velvety goodness of  Cayuga Lake Creamery.           .

IMG_3092A breathtaking sunset brings this heavenly day to close.  Spring is here to stay for a while and make all our dreams come true.

Istanbul; Egyptian Market(Spice Bazaar)

January 31, 2015

We  decided to spend our last half day in Istanbul in a more relaxed way. We were on vacation, after all! We did our best to lazily roll out of bed and make breakfast a leisurely affair. We were having the best weather possible on this trip and it almost demanded that we explore the city by foot. We walked past the Blue Mosque, cut through the  Hippodrome and followed the train tracks to the Egyptian Market or the Spice Bazaar.

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The Spice Bazaar was a bit of a revelation. The Grand Bazaar is huge and it is easy to lose yourself inside, but the Spice Bazaar is much smaller. It is somewhat ‘T’ shaped, with three short branches. Both sides of these branches are lined with shops selling spices, herbs, sweets, dryfruits, dryfruits stuffed with dryfruits, soaps, teas and more.

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As we walked through the bazaar we were besieged with entreaties to come in and take a look. Once inside we were plied with tea and charm. Beware. It is easy to be led in by the vividly coloured spices and pleasant manner of the salesman, but it is much harder to come out empty handed. The salesforce makes their money on commissions. If you do leave without buying, they will hand you their card and tell you to ask for them when you come back. More exotic than the spices were the teas. The shops had a flabbergasting variety of fruit and floral teas, few credited with aphrodisiacal qualities. I am told, apple and pomegranate are the top sellers.

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I am a collector and hoarder of spices and spice mixes. In any supermarket, I am most likely to be found in the spice aisle, scouting for new additions to my stash.  Last semester we had guest speaker in our economics class who happened to mention the high levels of adulteration in ground spices. That class made me wary but has not cured me of my fixation. We almost came home with an assortment of goodies, but were saved by a bargain that didn’t work out.

P.S –Check out the Istanbul, Turkey album our FB page to enjoy our journey through pictures.