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Kutch Surfing

April 9, 2013
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There were more than just larks in the area surrounding the Tent City, and depending on the direction you walked you could pick up any number of interesting species even if the total count was fairly low. One side of the site faced out towards the Great White Desert, a massive salt pan the size of New England. The other side faced the more or less habitable village of Dhordo. You could always tell where people lived because of the proliferation of a short, spiny tree the locals called gando bawal, the mad tree.

As the story goes, the local prince of the area now called Gujarat brought the trees over from Africa 400 years ago to slow the expansion of the desert. It worked, more or less. Now they’re everywhere, a monoculture that makes any of the dense thickets impossible for anything other than camels to move through. The locals put it to good use though, instead of barbed wire, livestock are placed in corrals made by stacking the prickly limbs of the tree. Inside these corrals the shrubs are grazed clean, making the interior more like the native tussocky scrub you find elsewhere but more protected from the elements. It’s not much of a surprise that the skulky birds like this sort of microhabitat. We heard francolins, both Black and Gray, crowing from these openings, even catching a glimpse of the second species. But the most exciting find was a trio of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse tucked in behind a sand hill and nearly invisible.

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse - Tent City, Gujarat, India

We watched as they slowly realized we were there and crept away towards a pile of thorny scrub, but they were in no danger from us separated from us by a five foot tall fence of limbs featuring thorns three inches long. Mad tree, indeed.

In this formidable thickets we’d find lots of Common Babblers, the second species of babbler for the trip following the Jungle Babblers in center city Ahmedebad. This was a family completely foreign to me, being only present in the Old World. They behave something like towhees, but with songs reminiscent of a melodious Winter Wren. And more, they travel in large flocks of up to a dozen, which is disconcerting for such a large bird.

Common Babbler - Tent City, Gujarat, India

I was intimidated by Old World warblers going into this trip, having had practically no experience with them aside from an apparent Willow Warbler from Great Britain when I was 15. I can say now that I was completely right to be scared of them. They are every bit as difficult as advertised, and made even worse by the fact that they’re distribution in this part of the world is far from settled. The most common species we came across in the vicinity of the Tent City was Syke’s Warbler, which used to be conspecific with Booted Warbler but hell if I know how to tell them apart. I went with range as the determining fact, but sweet fancy jesus these birds are tough.

Syke's Warbler - Tent City, Gujarat, India

The British birders I was hanging around with had a little better sense of what to look for here. Apparently the legs and the primary extension are important. I am not used to looking closely at the legs of anything in North America save gulls. That’s my own failure as a birder, I guess, but it also sort of explains why the average British birder is probably more skilled than the average North American birder.

Red-wattled Lapwings are colorful, loud, and extremely common. Fortunately, one never really tires of looking at them.

Red-wattled Lapwing - Tent City, Gujarat, India

More on India to come. I’m still working my way through it!

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