Oct 30, 2013

Rann Diaries - Wild Asses

Gujarat diaries so far...

The Indian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus khur) also called as khur, is a subspecies of the Asiatic Wild Ass species. The Indian Wild Ass sanctuary is one of the last places where the endangered Indian Wild Ass is found. It’s heartening enough to see them thriving and in good numbers in the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat.

Wild Asses are fast runners clocking speeds in the range of 70-80 km/hour and can easily outrun a jeep and what I observed is that they are instant runners, i.e., a distant sound and they start galloping and seeing this behavior almost every time I saw these wild asses made me come up with the below –

An ass started running and all the other asses followed him; they ran, ran till one ass stopped to look why they were running and the other asses stopped to look why the one ass stopped running.”

Well, taking it on a lighter note, that’s how I felt as I saw them mostly running. Only a few of them were at ease with us in their sight. I wonder, is it because the jeeps that come make them run to get ‘those shots’ or is their instinct to take off every time. Also, to be considered is that they do not have any natural predators to fear (except the wolves that would target the colts rather than grown adults). Yet, they are the flagship species of Rann and its pleasing to see them thriving in good numbers and expanding their domain to favorable areas.

next up is the 'Jamnagar Jatra'... stay tuned :)

Oct 23, 2013

Rann Diaries - the Barnie and the Eagles

Gujarat diaries so far...

Continuing the story or probably the highlight from the Rann as we drove deeper into the Rann, Pratap bhai and I sighted some blackish aberrations on the ground, a far distance away. A little further and we realized there were aquilans on the ground, four in total with a small object in between.

(the four Aquilans and the Barnie!)

We stopped at a distance (when we saw the eagles were aware of our arrival), quite far from where we could see 4 of them on the ground and an object in between them. Surprised and happy at the same time to see so many of them together, we were probing into what was the object in between. The eagle's are more or less identified as a combination of Greater Spottee Eagle and Steppe Eagles.

(Steppe Eagle)

We never figured out till the object moved its head and Pratap bhai noticed it and shouted Owl, Owl. What! I refused to believe stating it couldn’t be and it was a piece of stone or rock, but as I was uttering and watching through the binoculars, the object moved again.

(in the middle of nowhere...)

Ah! I was wrong and pretty surprised in seeing an owl in the middle of Rann surrounded by eagles…! By now, the eagles were unhappy with our presence (we were quite far still) and took off one by one soaring high into the sky and vanished without a trace.

The owl was still on the ground with its head lowered and looked lost or probably had lost hopes of survival or probably was being chased by the eagles or probably had fallen off in flight due to exhaustion, I’ll never know!!!

(a distant shot from the jeep - notice the angle)

By now, we had figured out it was indeed a Barn Owl that looked like an object surrounded by the eagles. We came closer and the Barnie was still and unmoved. We were about a distance of 30m and yet the Barnie was still and unmoved, meditating with its eyes closed.

(a closer look again from the jeep)

Now, I got off the jeep and wore the protective gear for the elbows, changed the settings in the camera and yet the owl showed no signs of movement! I went flat on the ground and inching closer to it got as close as 10-15m and yet it remained still.

(closest view, shot lying on the ground - notice the angle)

After the shoot, I woke up, retreated and now doubted whether the owl was well or in a semi conscious state of shock. I walked straight up to it slowly and then as I was close, it flew off much to my relief and then sat again a little distance away.

Sensing, it would be dehydrated, we left a little pool of water closer to it on a piece of foil sheet closer to it and left the scene.

(parting shot...the Barnie!)

What was the Barnie doing in the middle of Rann, how did it reach? What happened later are some questions that I have no clue about and best left unanswered.

On field, some incidents never fail to amaze you much to your disbelief.

Coming next… the Ass story…!

Oct 14, 2013

Rann Diaries - A full day in Rann!

Gujarat Diaries so far...

An early rise and we were off early passing the numerous salt pans, salt dunes, salt loaded trucks, salt refineries and the Patdi railway station (mainly used to transport salt) into the Rann, deep into the Rann to be witness to some amazing moments and sight some wonderful species out there that needs an experienced eye to sight the birds and no better person than Pratap himself. Some distance into the Rann and all you can see is the mirage of water over the distant horizon making you believe the coast is near but the farther you go, the farther the Rann extends and the mirage never ends. There are no tracks or paths inside Rann, where you go is where the track path created, an ideal place to get lost in the salt desert.

But, there is some charm in the Rann, a place of solitude and peace the heat notwithstanding, you just want to keep going chasing the mirages, sighting the birds, following them on a wild goose chase, be yourself and live for yourself and live your moments in the Rann. Water, is precious, and no better place than Rann to learn it the hard way, the seething hot sun and the hot weather sucks out every ounce of water from your body and you feel the thirst every now and then, also, its important to keep yourself hydrated sipping water frequently to keep you going…

We went in search of the elusive Macqueen’s Bustard that visits the NW India during winters and is a species whose number is going down drastically. These are large birds found on the ground and are found in grasslands or scrub forests. Habitat destruction and hunting are the primary reasons for the decline in their numbers. We were greeted to open spaces first when we scanned the area and after a couple of rounds here and there we first got to see the bird flying away from out of nowhere to deeper areas, such is its camouflaging nature its very difficult to spot the bird especially when its roosting or squatting on the ground (see image below)...

Thus, started the hide and seek game with us in pursuit to see the elusive one, and the bustard running amok. We were patient and completely at the mercy of the bustard, when it chose to sit/squat, we would lose sight of it and had to just wait for it to come out of its hiding. For the initial hour, the bustard never came close and was very skeptical of our presence. Slowly, as we patiently waited without a movement, biding our time the bustard started moving around and after more than an hour of us being there started appearing in areas much closer to us and in complete visibility. I didn’t get any super close-up shots nor didn’t I want it and so after more than a couple of hours, we left the place in search of other species.

Till date, I never understood why the Kestrel has the name ‘Common Kestrel’ as its hardly visible everywhere and sparser around the place I live. But in Rann, I could see them everywhere and so commonly, there would be a Kestrel on every other tree hiding itself or scanning for potential preys but I never got a good shot of it from Rann. All that I was engrossed in was trying to identify whether is was the more rarer ‘Lesser Kestrel’ among so many seen.

Pallid Harriers were more visible than in Velavadar, but again I never saw one perched or roosting on the ground, so all that I saw them was soaring high above scanning the grasslands.

Shrikes, Wheatears, Stonechats, Larks, Plovers, Pipits were all around the place and in good numbers, and the best part was I would see them all take-off only when the vehicle was closer to them, thanks to their super camouflage or my lack of trained eyesight! Roaming deeper in the Rann, we came across a pregnant Desert Fox that ran for cover on sighting us. One of the flagship species of the Rann is the Greater Hoopoe Lark and which also top of my wish list to see and I was lucky to see them up close and happier to see them in good numbers. Their flute-like-whistles song is a must-watch for all bird lovers and the way they do it is just amazing. They sing with rising and falling notes consisting of whistles and clicks, rising with fluttering strokes and then nose diving, wish I had a video to record the same, amazing display of behavior.

As we moved ahead, the next sighting was another first timer for me, the Merlin belonging to the Falcon family. Usually hunts in low flight with fast wing-beats and short glides and normally found singly. I was more than happy to sight this species that’s only common in these regions and uncommon elsewhere.

Next up was an interesting sighting sequence that will be shared in a separate post… 

With the sun battering hot, we took a much needed break at a temple located at a far end of the Rann (Sigh! I forgot the name) with people and kids interestingly looking at my attire and equipment. Past 2pm, we resumed our journey back into the Rann and Owls kept us busy for a long time. Also, our search for the hyena’s and wolves bore no fruit as there were no signs of them in their typical habitat in Rann!

As we traversed along the nook and corner of Rann, and me happy and contended with whatever I got to see rather than having an unfulfilled wishlist, we came across a big herd of Indian Wild Ass or locally known as Khur, probably the biggest herd I was seeing since stepping on to Rann. Why? The answer lay within, this being quite remote with minimal human interference and their population was thriving and in good numbers, great to see that! Hope, the flagship species of the Rann prosper and with it prosper the beauty of Rann for time to come! Wish!

wait for more to unfold...

Oct 8, 2013

Rann Diaries - Day 2

Gujarat Diaries so far...

After a mixed hectic first day, next morning was a quick starter with the jeep all set and Pratap bhai coming on time. Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouses were the toast for the morning, they are so beautifully camouflaged that its very difficult to spot them in the Rann and if you have seen one or two, you would have missed a dozen that would be right next to you and as you approach them closer, they all fly away in unison with a ‘phurrrr’...

After the patient session with the sandgrouses, then came the herd of wild asses and I was next busy occupied seeing and shooting various water birds, from flamingos to pelicans, to shovelers to gulls.

As Pratap bhai had to leave early, I called it a day for the session as going around without a person who knows the place is like searching a needle in a haystack... very difficult, every location looks the same and an untrained eye can never see anything unless its closer and in your view. With the early coming in, got more time to relax and enjoy the meal spread.

For the evening session, Pratap’s brother accompanied me and he was equally good as Pratap in sighting birds and identifying them. The evening belonged to the raptors, kestrels, harriers were there everywhere and it was a sight to the sore eyes seeing some of them coming to roost after dusk.

Literally, as the sun went down, the Rann looked like infested with harriers everywhere, all of them roosting and at one time I could see 8-10 individuals just around me, but albeit all at a safe distance from me. I tried getting some ground level shots of a couple of them but with absolutely no light around, it was a tough ask. Another interesting note was the female harriers were more co-operative and didn’t mind my approach than the males who took off every time I tried to approach them!

Next day would be a ‘mega day’ with loads of action… stay tuned :)