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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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