Little Warsaw (there”s a long story there) of Jamnagar stands near a tidal flat. We reached when the tide was coming in. A group of Sarus cranes (Antigone antigone) was foraging in the low waters. They are wonderful to watch at all times, so it was a while before I took my eyes off them to look at the tourists basking on a spit of sand beyond them.
They were mostly Crab plovers (Dromas ardeola) winter visitors from Sri Lanka and Maldives. You wouldn’t think anyone would leave those Indian Ocean islands to come and winter in Gujarat. There has to be a story there; one that I intend to follow up some time. As they roosted, a noisy flock of Great Knot (Calidris tenuirostris) came flying in. As they picked their way between the roosting Craab plovers, I noticed some distinctive Heuglin’s gulls (Larus fuscus heuglini) floating behind the islet. The gulls roost in the water.
A knot of locals were sitting by the shore when we arrived, and now they decided to wade out. Their village was probably on the far side of the flats, and they seemed pretty sure of the route to follow. I heard more commotion, and I took my eyes off them. A bunch of elegant Eurasian Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) cam flying in. The Crab plovers were beginning to get crowded out. There was a lot of squawking and crying from the mixed bunch on the island. The villagers had turned in the meanwhile. They were definitely following a fixed route.
The Great Knots were alert to the approaching humans, and took off in a flurry of wing-beats. The Crab plovers had given up on their sleep and here on their feet. The villagers were very close to the islet when they birds took off. As the humans crossed the sand on their way home, a few brave plovers stood their ground. When they were gone, the Crab plovers came back to reclaim the island for themselves. They wanted to spend the afternoon roosting. We were off for lunch.
It was quite dark when we started climbing the observation tower in Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary. I could hear a lot of quarreling and squawking from behind the line of trees next to the road to the tower. As I climbed above the line of the trees a biting north wind hit me. The previous afternoon had been hot, and I’d neglected to bring my jacket with me. In an hour it would begin to warm up, but now, before dawn, the wind cut through my tee like knives. Still, there was this immense commotion which sounded like it was something to see. And it was.
As I reached the top of the tower I saw a very large flock of Sarus cranes (Antigone antigone) had gathered together. In the dim pre-dawn light the wet land seemed to be a charcoal drawing, all shades of grey. Sarus are the tallest of cranes, reaching up to a man’s chest or shoulders. And some of them were dancing. Early February is not breeding season, so this was not a courtship dance. I’ve never seen anything like this before, nor read about it. Was it aggression? Unlikely, since there was no food or sex involved. Was it exuberance? Perhaps, but one would have to eliminate many other reasons to establish that as a reason. I was happy to watch and take photos.
In a matter of minutes they began to take to the sky. Wave after wave of them passed overhead. There must have been an enormous number of birds roosting in this place. A lifetime ago, when cities were less crowded, you could see them in the middle of fields. Now they are excluded from many more places. The result is that IUCN now classifies them as vulnerable.
They passed north of the tower and headed over to their feeding grounds to the east. Now the sky was beginning to turn from gray to pink. I had been hoping that I could take a photo of them flying into the sunrise, but missed that by a minute or so. The sun came up just after they had vanished into the distance. Too bad. It would have been such a wonderfully cliched image!
The sun was yet to make a difference. If anything, the wind seemed to be stronger. I turned back to look at the wet lands to the west. With the cranes gone, and the sun above the horizon, the place looked different. Not worse, just different.
It is frustrating to run through ploughed fields while bent double, camera carefully held in your hand, so that no harm comes to it even if you stumble. It is even more frustrating when your quarry flies off as soon as you reach camera range. That’s what was happening to me that morning in early January when I tried to take photos of the very rare Sociable Lapwings. Finally, crouched uselessly behind a berm, I began to take photos of the fields.
The landscape between Ahmedabad and Nal Sarovar is totally flat, and used to be barren. In the last twenty years irrigation has converted this to farmland. Now I saw farmland broken into rectangles bordered by berms. Trees dotted the fields. Next to berms ditches held water, which slowly soaked into the surrounding land, keeping it moist and preventing it from turning wholly into dust. Farming here is hard work. In one of the fields a woman was working, bent double most of the time. I reconsidered my frustration at my enforced posture.
Almost simultaneously, there was a whisper from Adesh. “Keep your head down,” he said, “Sarus ahead.” There was a small flock of around 15 sarus cranes (Antigone antigone) in the field ahead of us. This could be more than a thousandth of the world’s population of cranes. There were about of the same number of birders in the field, and we would be about a billionth of the world’s population of Homo sapiens. As you might expect, the bird is now classified as vulnerable, mainly due to loss of habitat. When I was a child I would see them occasionally standing in paddy fields, looking enormous (I suppose I must have been shorter than the meter and a half height of a full grown male). Since then I’ve only seen them at long intervals. What’s special about them? They are the tallest of flying birds. That big adult in the center of the photo could easily weight 40 kilograms.
One of my vivid very early memories is the sight of Nilgai running through fields dotted with egrets and Sarus, glimpsed from the window of a passing train. I don’t think the plains of north India will see this sight again very soon.