On our trip to Hampi, both birders and non-birders had heard a lot about the “GIBs”, and had met Samad and Santosh, who “redisovered” GIB breeding in the north Karnataka area. For the uninitiated, GIB stands for “Great Indian Bustard”, a bird of the Indian grasslands that is seriously threatened due to loss of habitat, with only 300 odd individuals left in the wild. The next time I heard about GIB was when Adesh organized a guided trip to Nannaj near Solapur, a sanctuary for the species, and one of the group participants wrote up this hilarious report of the visit. So when Adesh announced a repeat tour on 29/30 Nov, I jumped at the chance and booked R, M and myself on the Friday night train out of Bangalore.
The Mumbai attacks a few days before our trip gave us a serious jolt, and we were glued to the news which unfolded on the telly. The sheer brutality and mindlessless of the attack was sickening, and we started looking forward to our trip as a welcome distraction and an escapist break from gruesome news. Z ditched us, but Adesh confirmed that our trip would go on as planned, and we boarded the train and reached Solapur at 7:30 on Saturday morning, where the others had just landed half an hour earlier.
A quick freshen-up and breakfast at Hotel Ritesh where we were staying, and we set out for Nannaj with the entire group consisting of 9 people. En route to Nannaj, an area called “Dreamland” was very productive, with several larks, shrikes and other common birds. We also were thrilled to see a pallid harrier soaring, and Adesh pointed out a flock of chestnut bellied sandgrouse which flew over us. A village walk before reaching the sanctuary yielded lesser whitethroats, flocks of rosy starlings and some ashy crowned sparrow larks and bay backed shrike. Large grey babblers were ubiquitous, as were black drongos. Interestingly, we did not see a single ashy drongo, Adesh’s explanation for this being that they prefer wooded areas, and on arrival for the winter, aggressively push away the black drongos who settle for what habitat they can get.
After much mirth about the black drongo’s “rectal” (ahem, rictal) spot, we soon reached the main gate of the sanctuary which has a look-out tower and a small observation hut 200m from the gate, which is the furthest point that visitors are allowed since the core area begins from here. En route to the hut, I clicked a bay backed shrike which had just caught a bee and settled down on a throny bush. At the hut, Adesh set up the scope and we observed a kestrel perched in the distance and herds of blackbucks grazing all around. We soaked in the wonderful vista of the grassland – a flat landscape stretching for miles, with only a few trees dotting the dry and grassy terrain. Adesh said he could imagine it as an Indian savannah with leopards chasing their prey, as surely would have been the case perhaps half a century ago. Sadly, there are no large cats left now, but wolves and wild dogs are still around as predators.
Suddenly, a shout from Nikhil that he had spotted a GIB! It was a lone male far enough away to be deemed to be located in Pandharpur, and we took turns observing it through the scope as the upper half of its body seemed to glide gracefully over the grassland. I was surprised at the ease with which we had seen one, since there were only a few dozen of these magnificent birds left in the area. R, who was forced to become birder for the day, was skeptical and jocularly commented that we would soon see the man who was operating the GIB’s movements. Adesh explained that they breed in the area around the observation hut, and many more can be seen during their breeding period which is August-September.
As the GIB moved away, we headed back to the vehicle and in the direction away from the core area, on a dirt track. A magnificent male blackbuck half hidden in the grass made a superb picture as we furiously clicked it from inside the car. Suddenly, a pair of wolves appeared in the distance, they looked very healthy and well-fed. We stopped the vehicle, excited at this rare sighting, and had a good look at the wolves racing across the grassland, as a cowherd grazed his cattle in the background. Back in the vehicle, we were observing some pipits when suddenly hundreds of larks flew out of the grass all around us, and were identified as the migratory greater short-toes larks. They settled a short distance away, but were completely invisible inside the carpet of grass!
Adesh led us to an area where he had earlier seen wheatears, a first record for the area. We soon encountered a siberian stonechat (a fancy name for the bird previously known as common stonechat) and indeed our target species with the even fancier name of Isabelline wheatear. Befitting its name, it stood proud and erect, its perfectly groomed cream coloured feathers blending superbly into the background. It had a sleek, wax-like appearance, which led M to comment that it probably frequented the same hairdresser as the small pratincoles we had seen at Galibore. We spent quite some time admiring and photographing it, with Nikhil trying some digiscoping. Back on the road, we got a good look at a female pallid harrier perched on our right, and a male Montagu’s harrier to our left. Adesh patiently explained the distinguishing features of the two harriers, and asked us to remember them with the pnemonic “pallid=pale” since the pallid harrier had a prominent pale neck collar, in the case of the female, and pale underside of the wings, in the case of the male.
By this time, lunch beckoned, and we set out away from Nannaj in the quest of the perfect “shenga-poli”, roti with a peanut filling, a speciality of the area. Hotel Nisarg provided that and more, and for the time being we forgot all about birds as we tucked in. Post lunch, we headed towards an area called Khegav, where the magnificent Eurasian eagle owl had its abode in a rocky canal. While we searched for the owl, a long-billed pipit and a flock of grey-necked buntings diverted our attention. In the canal, a blue rock thrush and female black redstart were admired until Sameer managed to bag the prize catch – the Eurasian eagle owl which perched on a grassy rock, but we had failed to see it all along. Even now our eyes could not make it out, and we needed the help of the scope which Adesh promptly trained on the owl. The owl, of course, was observing our every movement, and before I could find it with my camera, took off away from us, leaving us awed at the expanse of its wings.
We too headed in the direction the owl had disappeared, towards another rocky canal further down the road. As we searched for the owl, we found its smaller cousins, three cute little spotted owlets peering out from the crevices in the rocks. M wistfully reiterated her desire to adopt one as a pet. While we observed the other birds – grey necked buntings, rufous-tailed larks and small minivets – Sameer managed to track down the owl hiding inside a bush, which eventually came out in the open, giving us a chance to admire its hypnotic red eyes.
As the light faded, we headed back to the hotel exhausted. An early dinner followed by a nearly sleepless night listening to the hotel staff entertaining themselves by banging doors, running up and down and generally making a racket.
Morning nevertheless found us bright and early headed towards Dreamland once again. En route, a fruitful stop for black-headed buntings, red collared dove, white eyed buzzard and some grey francolins which ran across the road. At Dreamland, a singing lark sent Adesh into raptures and he added around 50 pictures of it to my camera! Various pipits made an appearance, and Adesh gave us a crash course on how to tell them apart. Some more photo-ops of the usual suspects, and then we headed to a lake just before the sanctuary, which was simply teeming with bird life. Spotted a number of different ducks, along with black-winged stilts, little ringed plovers, wagtails, whitethroats and some raptors overhead, including a short-toed snake eagle which hovered motionless in mid-air, giving us time to admire it through the scope.
We headed to the sanctuary again, where Adesh climbed the watchtower at the entrance, and not finding anything exciting, we decided to move on to another small pond before making our way back to Solapur for lunch. At the pond, 3 yellow-wattled lapwings posed for us silently, in quite a contrast to their cousins the red-wattled lapwings which simply don’t stop their screaming “did-you-do-it” calls. Next to them, a common greenshank and spotted redshank offered a helpful side-by-side comparison while a lone green sandpiper foraged the mud for his midday meal. Soon we were on our way towards our mid-day meal, after which the plan was to bird at Hipparga lake in the afternoon.
By this time the group had got to know each other fairly well, and we laughed over Nikhil’s innovative attempts to point out bird locations – “in the tree at 11:30” or “to the right of the green grass”. At Hipparga lake, Adesh congratulated himself on spotting the tufted duck, with its tuft clearly visible through the scope. Attempts to get him to identify some undistinguished looking warblers were met with a rebuff and a proclamation of detesting that horrid family! We focused our attention on the ducks in the lake, and were also treated to flight displays by black ibis, marsh and Montagu’s harriers. Red-headed buntings were chased by Anup, while a rare rufous-tailed lark perched in the bushes. A citrine wagtail and paddyfield warbler added to our growing checklist. A juvenile brahminy kite flew by and Adesh’s suggestion to look at its nostrils as ID was met with some skepticism and much laughter. As we were preparing to return back, a flock of spectacular red avadavats held us up and a cute spotted owlet peeped out of a gap in a stone culvert. Ranjeet was dragged out of the car and forced to enjoy these beauties through the scope.
Thus rounding off a superb birding session, we headed back towards Solapur, where Adesh took us to meet Mr. B.S. Kulkarni, who has been working for the conservation of GIB for several decades. A quick chat and photo sessions with him later, we were back at the hotel and soon on our way to the station, satisfied with the fantastic 2 days spent in the most enjoyable company of birds and birders!
Other pics from the trip:
3. bhakri, kadak
4. danya chi chatni
6. shenga poli