This whole trip to India started because of one particular bird but along the way we had been birding a few locations (here and here) searching for range-restricted endemics working our way towards the number one target. But the time to tick the number one target had finally come.
I hate to paint such a depressing picture, but the fate of Great Indian Bustard does not appear to be a good one. Let me just put it bluntly — the bird is hanging on by a thread. Unfortunately, the numbers are so few already that unless strict conservation measures are put in place it probably won’t survive more than another decade, maybe two. The Great Indian Bustard or GIB as it is often affectionately referred to as, is the largest terrestrial Eurasian bird. It is somewhat turkey-like in appearance and frequently roams the plains of arid habitat hunting for beetles or grasshoppers or whatever seeds it can find. Historically, the Great Indian Bustard was distributed throughout Western India, spanning 11 states, as well as parts of Pakistan but the entire population is now estimated at only 150 individuals with a very patchy distribution. Now they are mainly confined to the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat with the highest density found in Desert National Park.
Before I bore you with the specifics, just know that habitat loss is one of the main reasons that the population of GIB is declining. The amount of arid grassland that the birds can live in has been declining due to widespread animal grazing and the installation of wind turbines, electric pylons and new roads. All of these human activities are having negative effects on an already fragile ecosystem. With habitat loss comes species loss.
Desert National Park, one of the last remaining footholds for the bustard, is a sandy, desert, grassland environment in the west Indian state of Rajasthan and is one of the largest national parks in India. It is made up mostly of sand dunes, but does contain areas of suitable grassland habitat for the bustard. Unfortunately during our trip to Desert National Park I saw no less than several hundred goats INSIDE of the park’s borders eating whatever they could get their teeth on, so you can imagine the grassland habitat that was once widespread in the park is now nearly wiped out. Desertification at its finest. In fact, the only grassland habitat left inside of Desert National Park are the areas that were fenced off. But during the course of our visit it became clear that the fenced off areas meant to keep out grazing livestock are not respected by the humans that call these sandy dunes home. We spotted several locals within the fenced areas harvesting various plants. These people also put additional pressure on the bustards by flushing them throughout the day as they continue doing their daily activities.
I mentioned in an earlier post that The Great Indian Bustard was the main purpose of our entire trip. It was New Year’s Eve when we arrived at Jaisalmer, a bit of a tourist destination for Indian locals, made famous by the 12th-century fort in the city center and it’s proximity to Desert National Park where people come to ride camels and “go on safari.” Due to the holiday, we spent our night in a dormitory as no other lodging was available, falling asleep to the sounds of blaring music and hoping that the next day would be a successful one! Prior to our visit to Jaisalmer, Julien had coordinated for us to have a local guide inside of the park to show us to the areas where the bustard can still be found. Before first light on New Year’s Day, we met up with Urash, our local guide, to start on our adventure searching for GIB. Urash had brought along a driver and a high-clearance vehicle which we were informed were necessary as parts of the road in the park were quite sandy. Even with the higher clearance, this vehicle still wasn’t a 4×4 and a few times we got stuck in the sand and had to do a quick dig/push to get back on our way. Luckily we never got too stuck — each time was merely a quick inconvenience versus any type of real disaster. (But in case you were wondering, it might be possible to take your low-clearance vehicle in from the south entrance to the park. The roads from that end seemed more suitable.)
It was dark as we drove in and we all started asking “what would be the first bird of the year?” This is a common question among birders as they start out a new list of birds for the year. Every year one bird gets the distinction of being the first bird seen. We all were staring intently out the windows scanning for bustards figuring the first bird of the year would be a lark or wheatear or raven that flew overhead or perched up on the side of the road. You know, something common. I don’t think any of us expected what happened next. Suddenly, as we were driving in Urash yells out “bustard!!” pointing directly in front of our car! Sure enough there were five Great Indian Bustards in flight. Somehow the most critically endangered bird any of us were going to see for the whole year was bird numero uno! Urash amazed us once more when he miraculously spotted where the bustards had landed out in the grassy field. Somehow he had seen the bustards naked eye, meanwhile the rest of us struggled to even see them with our binoculars. I’m serious, these birds were quite distant and despite their size, blended in with their backdrop. How is it that local guides around the world have such incredible eyesight?! Needless to say we were standing out in the desert of India staring at Great Indian Bustard, our biggest target of the trip and somehow our first bird of 2019. If anyone has a better first of the year bird than this, please let me know– I’m 99.9% sure it cannot be outdone.
Our views were distant, but clear and unfortunately not as long as we had hoped and before we knew it, the GIBs disappeared behind the grass. Not to be undone, Urash hopped over the fence and asked for a camera. We were confused at first as to why he wanted the camera but eventually determined it was so he could go take a picture for us. It was a nice gesture, but clearly he didn’t understand that birders really don’t want to have the local guide take the picture, they want to take it themselves. Anyway, Urash hopped over the fence and started walking towards the Bustards. He didn’t speak a single word of English outside of “bustard” so it was through a lot of charades that we were communicating. We had no idea what he was doing. Clearly the fence does not deter the locals. Was he about to go flush a critically endangered species? The answer was yes and soon the five birds were in flight before he even got close to them. These birds were clearly wary of humans but seeing these airplanes in flight was something to admire. The six of us had a good idea of where the birds landed, after all we had a better vantage point for watching them fly off, but we had no way of communicating this with Urash. When he returned to us, he motioned us into the car and we drove off to some point and stopped. But no Bustards. We directed the driver back towards where we thought they landed and eventually we did see them again. When we did, Urash wanted us to walk out to them, but knowing how skittish they were with Urash walking the first time, and not wanting to flush a critically endangered species if we could help it, we hoped driving would get us closer. It didn’t. Unfortunately, these wary birds flew off at first sight of our vehicle and we were still a few hundred meters away! Maybe we should have listened to Urash and walked out? We’ll never know if that would have been the better option. All we knew was these birds feared humans. Even though we meant them no harm, the fact that they avoided humans was probably for their own safety.
The next five hours were spent driving around Desert National Park in the back of a rickety Jeep. We drove all around, up and down, searching for better views of our bustards. At one point while it was still early morning, we stopped at a small hut in the Thar Desert and met the family that lived there. I did a quick count of the people standing around and they totaled no fewer than 14 individuals, most of which were under the age of 10! The hut was no bigger than a standard living room in the U.S. so I sincerely hope that not all of them lived there, but realistically I know that more people than I like to think did in fact call that mud/straw hut home. They offered us drinks, but we had to decline for our own gastro-intestinal safety because if the exterior was any indication of the interior sanitation, we would be in a world of trouble if we indulged. Urash on the other hand enjoyed a hot cup of tea before we headed off. They had a sign reading “Save the Bustard” that they proudly showed off to us and waved as we drove away to continue on our bumpy ride in our rickety jeep. I think Urash wanted to drop us off back in town after we had seen the birds, but we explained that we were very serious birders and were committed to seeing this bird better, not really caring what we had to do to achieve that so we continued on and spent the rest of the day in pursuit of THE Great Indian Bustard. Let me spell out for you exactly what riding in a rickety jeep on a bumpy, dirt road for five hours feels like: one uncomfortable ride.
Over the course of our morning and afternoon, we spotted several vultures in the form of White-backed, Red-headed, and Himalayan Griffin, while we were out driving and driving and driving. We also found a few other good birds including lots of Desert Wheatears, Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Trumpter Finch, and Laggar Falcon. We checked several known spots and probably some lesser known ones, but no bustards.
When we got close to the initial location from early this morning, a grand total of 7 hours later, we found them again. Since we were still about 400 meters away, we got out of the vehicle and were about to put them in the scope, but some locals walking down the road flushed the group of three birds we had spotted. Uh oh, not again! Luckily this time we were able to follow and see them again, but even at 400-500 meters away, we could tell they were wary of us so we stayed in our vehicle until they disappeared out of site behind some bushes. We took another side road and finally were able to get within about 300 meters (our closest looks yet). We once again stayed in the car for fear of flushing them and luckily this time they remained calm as they fed out of sight over the hill. Urash wanted to try and get closer, but we had been flushing bustards way too many times that day so we told him we wanted to leave them be (he seemed quite confused, but oh well!). Luckily after leaving this group of three we quickly found another group of four that were only about 200 meters away. Awesome! Even better looks than the last group. In total we saw at least seven birds, possibly twelve if the first five we saw in the morning weren’t a part of these latter groups. (More likely it was only 7 though.) We enjoyed these bustards until they simply walked away from us out of sight, giving a whole new meaning to the common phrase in birding “walkaway views.”
In the end, Great Indian Bustard was seen and seen well, but still we left the park with an impending feeling of doom knowing the fate of the species is rather grim. I truly would like to see a miracle for the GIB, but one can’t be too optimistic. If you found this interesting at all or want to read a more detailed report, check out Bird Life International’s website to read more.