India – Tal Chappar

After a long drive, a few snacks for dinner, another night in an adequate but far from clean hotel, and an hour more of driving in the early morning, we arrived at our morning birding location about an hour southeast of Tal Chappar. As you know, we were independently birding Western India, stopping at a few known sites for localized and endemic birds.

Our next target on the agenda was Indian Spotted Creeper, an Indian endemic with a patchy distribution in central India. Once we arrived, we spent our morning walking around a sandy habitat bordering a small village of houses searching for our main target, Indian Spotted Creeper. The birds are known to occur amongst Khejri Trees (prosopis cineraria) where they feed on insects found in the bark. We were very fortunate to have one fly by somewhat early on, although at the time we weren’t sure if it really was what we thought it was, so we spent the better part of another hour or two attempting to relocate it for much better views. Eventually Julien ended up spotting a bird in almost the exact same spot we had first seen one and in the end the Indian Spotted Creeper showed quite nicely on a heavily pruned Kherji Tree. Why the locals completely annihilate the branches and turn the tree into nothing more than a stump with a few limbs is beyond me. Makes for good firewood I guess? Over the course of the morning we accumulated quite a following of local children as we walked and we did our best through charades to explain that this bird was special in their area. In fact, I wouldn’t take a selfie with them until they took a picture of the Spotted Creeper page in our bird book so they could remember the special bird found in their backyards. Truly the Indian people are some of the nicest I’ve ever met. Some other highlights from the area included Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Spotted Owlets, Rufous-fronted Prinia, and great looks at the common Rose-ringed Parakeets that were flying around all over! It was so nice to see parakeets so common and unharassed, but sadly if this was Indonesia they would all be in cages! By 9AM we had all we needed so we made the hour drive to the Black Buck Reserve at the edge of Tal Chappar.

As we approached our destination, the protected Black Buck grassland inside of the reserve was in stark contrast to the barren and desolate non-protected side of the road as we were driving in. Basically you could look to the right and see fine habitat but a look to the left would produce exactly the opposite. Simple acts of conservation really do make a difference. We may not have had to come to this location, but we chose to seek out quite possibly the most stunning of antelopes– the Black Buck. Black Bucks were abundant inside of the reserve and it didn’t take us long to find White-browned Bush-Chat either, our other main reason for visiting. A few Greater Short-toed Larks flew by as well before we opted to get going to our next destination, a cattle carcass dump where we hoped to find a slew of frenzied vultures feeding on the dead scraps. With these birds in the bag, Stephan informed us he had 8 birds to go before hitting 6,000.

We finished up our day at the carcass dump which smelled just as bad as you would imagine rotting flesh in the heat of the day to smell. Luckily the stench was only potent while standing amongst the carcasses and really not bad if you were upwind. Our stop just outside of the dump where we ticked Yellow-eyed Pigeon hardly smelled at all. The carcass dump is a known raptor and vulture hang out for obvious reasons, but we came specifically for our yellow-eyed lifer pigeon and we were surprised to find that they numbered in the high hundreds if not thousands. We then wandered amongst the dump, first noting the speed and skill with which the men skinning the cows possessed, and then at the sad, primitive, and tortuous lives of the packs of dogs living in the park and the doomed fates of the puppies born into such squalor. The dogs we passed really had resorted back to digging dens and hanging in packs. One may have to strain to admire the landscape but it was very enjoyable to see Egyptian, Griffon and Cinereous Vultures up close as they came to feed on the rotting flesh. We were sure to keep an eye out for the pale-tipped bill subspecies, N.p. ginginianus of Egyptian Vulture. Along with all the vultures, a number of other raptors were present including dozens of Steppe Eagles and a few Shrika, Eastern Imperial Eagles, and Laggar Falcons.

The following morning we arrived at Khichan before sunrise to watch the world wake up around the Demoiselle Cranes that had roosted on the lake the night prior. We estimated at least two thousand cranes were inhabiting the small lake so you can imagine how loud they were and how fun a spectacle such as this can be for birders. In hindsight, this location is not completely necessary to visit as we saw Demoiselle Cranes at several other locations, but it was pretty cool. We hung around for a little while, snagged a few decent photos and then hit the road, getting ever closer to our number one target of the trip, Great Indian Bustard.

It was along the four hour drive to our next location, Akhil Fossil Park, that Ross opted to sit in the back and start typing up the detailed trip report for those planning their own independent trips to Western India. About halfway through our drive Ross peeks his head up from the laptop, looks around and says “Julien find me a Courser!” Ross had barely finished the sentence when Julien exclaims “I have one!” We had to laugh because we had been looking all along for Cream-colored Courser, but it wasn’t until Ross said that for Julien to actually find the bird. I promise it was quite the hilarious coincidence in person. We then stopped to relocate the courser Julien had seen in flight by pulling off onto one of the dirt tracks along the road. I didn’t even have my binoculars up when I spotted it naked eye, running around on the ground doing the things that coursers do — run around on the ground. The long, pale legs of the Cream-colored Courser were just the right amount of glam for this understated bird. We admired it for a few minutes and then continued on our way, stopping for a quick lunch break along the way.

Eventually we arrived at Akhil Fossil Park, just in time for the heat of the day and began our quest for our four target birds in the area. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, birds can still be found in the heat of the day, it just might require a bit more effort. The terrain of Akhil Fossil park was a dry, rocky outcrop with a few small rocky hills and small scattered pavilions highlighting petrified wood. It was for these boring fossils that the park was built. (Wait, is it bad to call the petrified trees boring?) It was blue skies with no clouds and 80°F (26°C) sunshine, but despite these conditions we quickly found Red-tailed Wheatear before Julien wandered off and found the first Striolated Bunting. He called Ross and I over, as we weren’t too far away so we could get on the bird too. Two targets in the bag. Unfortunately the group had split up quite far apart which made it a bit of a challenge to gather everyone back at the car so we could head back to where we had the buntings.  When we all reunited, we learned that Killian had flushed up a pair of Indian Eagle Owls. We hoped to relocate those on our way over to the buntings but no such luck. To make matters worse, the bunting was also not around when we arrived back at the spot. Stephan and Claudia wandered off to do their own thing in one direction while Julien had stayed behind hoping to relocate the owls Killian had found. Ross, myself, and Killian were walking together when Killian suddenly flushes up a nightjar. Killian the flusher! We watched the nightjar fly knowing that in all likelihood it would be an Indian Nightjar, but the bird flew right in front of Ross and didn’t have any white in the tail which made him question that ID. We called to Julien who was standing on the opposite hillside to say we found a nightjar. He called back to say he refound the eagle owls and a few more buntings. It was a productive few minutes!

Nightjars are masters of camoflauge and despite seeing the general area the bird landed, the bird blended seemlessly with the terrain and we couldn’t see it sitting on the ground. When this happens the best way to find the bird is to walk close to the landing site and flush it again and hope you do better the next time it lands. Up it went and then down it went, once again perfectly out of sight. At least this time Julien could see it fly as he stood on the hillside opposite of us. When he got over to us Ross quickly checked Julien’s bird book because this was looking less and less like an Indian Nightjar. We had to flush the bird once more but at least this time, once it made its way back to the ground, we had found it sitting. This was no Indian Nightjar. Without question we were looking at a Syke’s Nightjar. This was a good bird. We laughed at how Killian had flushed up two night birds, one of which was a complete surprise. Finally we manage to get Stephan to come over to us and we all stood and admired the light sandy-toned feathers and stunning camouflage, not knowing at the time that this bird was more than just another lifer. We all refound the Indian Eagle Owl when Killian once again flushed them up off the ground. Killian clearly had a knack for flushing up roosting birds!

It wasn’t until we got back to the car and were driving around the area hoping to pick up a few more targets, finding Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers and Punjab Raven, that we were sure Stephan had hit his milestone 6,000th life bird at some point during the day. We wouldn’t know which one it was until he tallied the numbers but when he did finally sort that out, it was clear that Syke’s Nightjar was in fact more than another lifer — it was number 6,000 to Stephan!

We celebrated with masala chais on the rooftop of our hostel. We were staying in a dormitory tonight because nothing else was available in the bustling tourist town of Jaisalmer. It was New Year’s Eve in Jaisalmer, a tourist destination where Indians from all over the country come to go “on safari” in the sand dunes. People were everywhere and the music was definitely louder than it needed to be. Jaisalmer was a party town ringing in the new year but we didn’t stay up to celebrate, we had bigger fish to fry. Tomorrow morning we were going for India’s rarest bird, Great Indian Bustard. Stay tuned!