Most people visit Kutch to see two things – the wild ass and the flamingos. But there’s always more.
A barren emptiness for as far as the eyes can see and beyond welcomes one to Kutch. The Little Rann of Kutch is situated in Gujarat and is the last abode of the Asiatic wild ass. Contrary to popular belief, Kutch has quite a bit of water; thanks to the Narmada overflow and the water released by the government. A flat land that it is, water forms a thin layer and has the perfect depth for waterfowls; and although it is known for wild asses and flamingos, it attracts a whole lot of other species in terms of avian life.
At Toehold we organise what has come to become one of the most awaited tours on the birding calendar, to LRK every year. In December 2014, we pulled off three back-to-back tours to this magical land. And here is a small account of one of them:
Day one started with a quick transfer of the participants from Ahmedabad airport to the tiny, cosy resort in the Rann, which is a hardly-two-hour drive. A quick lunch and an introduction session were followed by some much-needed sleep before we hit the Rann.
The Rann of Kutch, for first timers, is an eyeopener. It’s a place where one can drive for hours together without seeing another soul. It is also a place where one can find some magnificent birds and that’s precisely what we were looking for.
Our first ride was to an area close to a water body. The waterfowl here attract quite a few raptors (birds of prey) and they are always on top of the wish list of our clients. So, off we were, to try and get a thorough look of two of the specialities of Rann – the peregrine falcon and the merlin.
Our first stop was at a tiny puddle which had attracted two black storks. Not the most common of residents, and very skittish, it demanded a very careful approach and manoeuvring to ensure that they did not fly away before giving us a few decent shots.
It was a good start to the tour, which was followed by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight of the elusive Eurasian merlin in flight. We hoped to meet him again the next day and moved on in search of other birds.
Birds such as grey herons, flamingos, greylag geese, waders, etc., are in good numbers in Kutch, but our main target for the day were the raptors, and so we marched on further to see if we could spot some.
A lone juvenile Montagu’s harrier appeared on the horizon and since it seemed like a co-operative individual, I chose that as a good spot to talk to the group about ground-level shots and the difference that make to one’s photography. After a good ten minutes with the harrier, we left him in peace.
The mighty eagles proved elusive during the evening ride but the group did get lucky with the biggest draw of LRK – the peregrine falcon – and on a kill at that! A good session with him in the dying light of the day marked the end of the first evening in the Rann.
Back at the resort, dinner was followed up with a session on bird behaviour and ways to approach your subject in the field.
A wakeup call in the wee hours of the morning was followed by tea/coffee and a drive to our destination for the day, while the sun still slept at the time just to ensure that we welcomed the sunrise in the Rann.
The area that was chosen for the morning was the best place in the country for spotting the MacQueen’s bustard. Locally known as houbara, the bustard comes from the Middle East through a dangerous route, filled with men eager to shoot them down, and reaches Indian soil sometime in November. They find safe haven in the tiny scrubland islands in Kutch for the winter.
Very shy (and for good reason) that the bustards are, we were still lucky to see a few of them that morning, with a couple of them even obliging for a shot. Moving on from the area of the bustards, we landed up in a barren stretch known for another Rann speciality.
A few minutes of patient hearing led us to hearing a musical whistle in the air. Nothing sounds sweeter than the song of the hoopoe-lark in the Rann. It is a master of camouflage and can only be tracked down from its call. Once seen though, they are fairly comfortable obliging for photographs and we had some fantastic time with this chap who called out to us.
Happy with the morning’s clicking, we decided to move on in search of the eagles. A steppe eagle greeted us some kilometres down the Rann, and immediately after that, we saw a small speck standing out in the Rann at the horizon. For the trained eye, this tiny speck was a clear peregrine falcon, but for the untrained, it just wasn’t there. It takes a few days for one to get used to the patterns and shapes of the Rann. This particular peregrine falcon (again with a kill) was in a mood to make the photographers happy. It gave us all the time to try out ground-level shots, vertical shots, etc., and made sure that our Compact Flash cards were full in a rather short time.
We followed a similar pattern in the evening, returning to this area again to meet our friendly peregrine. Unexpectedly, we also saw a confident desert fox who gave some of the best ground-level shots of the trip.
A sunset with the wild asses in the frame is always on the cards and we got lucky that particular evening with a few of such shots.
A session on the art of composition and some intense discussion on exposure and how the camera metering works was followed by a sumptuous dinner to celebrate what was earlier a beautiful day in the field.
The next morning, we again started before the sun came up, and landed at a place known for eagles. The first one to show up was a sub-adult imperial eagle, who put up quite a show. With enough images of the imperial eagle stored away in our memory cards, we set our eyes on a greater spotted eagle, which decided to play tough and did not give anybody a shot.
The disappointment was short-lived, for soon after we hit upon a juvenile peregrine falcon that kept us busy till breakfast.
Back in the resort, the group was in two minds on where to head for the afternoon session. I suggested a new place which had the potential of the appearance of the Eurasian eagle owl, sarus crane and the short-eared owl. Owls are generally the favourites for most birders and it was no surprise that everyone opted to shoot the short-eared owl.
On the way to this new place, the group spotted a couple of red-necked falcons sitting close to the road but they seemed to be in no mood for photographs that day. A white-eyed buzzard kept watch over the lands of the owls. It was a productive outing as we could see two Eurasian eagle owls, half-a-dozen short-eared owls, and a pair of sarus crane, and also a lone Egyptian vulture.
The last morning of the tour was again reserved for the area in which we had seen the hoopoe lark, and it proved to be a good decision, as we got a few shots of some harriers as well in the bargain. A very productive tour thus came to end with the hoopoe lark’s song resonating in our ears and a very happy group leaving with a myriad of images to be processed.