India: Chhari Baby
Gujarat is mostly Kutch. And Kutch is mostly desert. After the excitement of the Sociable Lapwings, we made our way down seemingly impassable twisting roads to arrive at Chhari Lake, a massive wetland right in the middle of expansive, flat, hot, desert. As you might imagine at a waterhole of this size in the middle of such inhospitality, it was crawling with birds. Unfortunately, they were way the hell away. In wanting to pack for this trip (as well as Florida mere days before), I had decided to go sans scope, figuring I’d probably be able to figure out access to one while I was out there. This worked well in Florida, but in India things took an unfortunate turn. This trip to Chhari Lake was our one big birding outing of the conference. And upon arrival at the lake, fully amped up from seeing the Sociable Lapwings and ready to bird this place within an inch of its life, all 300 of us were unceremoniously unloaded from the buses, pointed in the direction of a massive tower blind about 2 miles away, and told to make our way out there. No guides, no experts, no direction save a waved arm and a promise that things would work out.
Oh, and no scope either.
So I started walking, grouping up with a couple bird tour leaders from South Africa I’d met the day before, an Indian birder in an official looking national park uniform who seemed to know what he was doing, and a young bird researcher from Belarus. It was funny though, that each of us brought some area of local expertise to this group such that we managed pretty well. The Indian dude turned out to be from the eastern part of the country, so many of the western birds were new to him but he knew the normal Asian fare backward and forward. The South Africans recognized many of the western Old World birds and the Belorussian had the shorebirds, though he only knew the scientific and Russian names for them. And as for me, I was familiar enough with the distant ducks, mostly Holarctic fare like Shoveler, Pintail, Green-winged (Common) Teal, and Gadwall, such that I could add something to the group. We were like an international A-Team, but with birds.
Anyway, it was a long and hot day. Many birds were seen. Here are a few of them.
Aquila eagles are notoriously difficult in the Old World. When I spotted this one perched atop a laughably small tree I sort of panicked. Fortunately, the Indian birder was there to narrow down some choices and it was decided that this is a Steppe Eagle. I guess the pattern of white on the base of the primaries, the little bit of white in the rump and, especially, the long gape are distinctive. I feel good about this ID.
This Bluethroat was tooling around at the base of the reeds. I was one of only three people to see it, and apparently I gripped a few people off. One of the side effects of releasing several hundred people on the site was the fact that everyone had a unique experience. To the extent that I felt good about myself for essentially being thrown into Asia and figuring out enough to learn to swim reasonably well I enjoyed it. But it also meant that several people saw birds I would have liked to see, things like Wryneck and Indian Spot-billed Duck, that I did not. Of course, I got this Bluethroat so there’s that.
The livestock situation in India is as advertised. Cattle are free roaming and indistinguishable from feral animals. Camels are all over the place and wander freely. This herd of water buffalo-cattle hybrids joined us at the edge of the lake for some time. They are strange, smallish, beasts with wirey hair, short legs and odd curly horns. Apparently they are well-adapted to Gujarat’s dry climate and give a milk-out to feed-in ratio that is much better than the Zebus and Brahmins that are in the villages and cities.
Here’s a typical sight on the lake with several species represented, all facing left for some reason. Anyway, in this photo you can see all three species of cormorant (Great, Indian, and Little), Gray Heron, Painted Stork (sort of like a gussied up Wood Stork), Eurasian Coot, Lesser Flamingo (!!!!!), and, if you look very closely on the right side of the cement structure, a Gadwall. Not a bad haul! There was also a massive flock of pelicans, both Great White and Dalmation together, that I ended up getting awful photos off. Rest assured though, that it was impressive.
More on the Lesser Flamingos, about 40 of them were working the shallow water near the shore. Apparently Greaters were seen in the area as well but I didn’t get any. One of the casualties of sending 300 people marsh-stomping – things fly away.
Shrikes were very common just about everywhere, the most common being this Red-tailed (Isabelline) Shrike. I was disappointed when I saw the name had been changed as “Isabelline” is one of my favorite bits of etymological trivia. It refers to the sandy tan color of so many of these desert birds, which is apparently the precise shade of Queen Isabella’s undergarments following a long military siege in which she vowed not to change until the siege was broken. As with most things, this is probably popular myth, but there are too few birds names after women’s undergarments, frankly.
I felt like I studied pretty well before visiting India, so there were not too many birds that surprised me, at least that surprised me *unexpectedly* as I assumed Aquila eagles and Asian warblers and prinias would be tough. But this one was a total brainbird, as Seagull Steve artfully coined. I eventually figured out it was a Chesnut-shouldered Petronia, one of the little finches in the back of the book that are easy to miss. Classy little yellow chin on the male bird (left), though.
Wheatears are amazing. In this corner of India I saw four species, the most common of which was the Desert Wheatear like the one above. These things are everywhere in open country, but in the places where the trees are bigger they’re replaced by Variable Wheatear and in the places where there are fewer trees they’re replaced by Isabelline Wheatear. I never got tired of them.
The day ended with something like 60 species. Not as high was I would have like (this is the desert, after all), but still a productive day out. The conference had to start tomorrow, so the birding was less intense sadly, but we still managed to find birds when we could. More on that coming soon.