A Kutch of birds

Soon after sunrise the chill of a northern January is baked out of the air of the Rann of Kutch. An hour after that heat shimmers make it difficult to focus on the flat ground. By mid-morning mirages begin to appear, making the strange desert look even more strange. Very often I found it hard to spot birds on the ground.

The Crested Lark (Galerida cristata) is well camouflaged against the broken muddy floor of the desert. It wasn’t just the heat haze which made it difficult to see. I was staring at it without seeing it for a while. Then, when it moved its head, I could suddenly resolve it out of the background, and take a photo.

The beautiful Bay-backed shrike (Lanius vittatus) presented no such problem. It sat, as it always does, on a thorny bush, in the open, better to see and be seen. Shrikes keep sallying and returning to their perch, so once you see them they are easy to photograph. They have a habit of storing part of a catch on braches where they sit, which is perhaps why they return to their perches. It was sitting on a thorny branch of a bush, and I quickly scanned it for any signs of cached food the shrike may have placed on the thorns. I couldn’t spot any. Maybe the bird hadn’t found much to eat that day.

In my recent trips into deserts I have finally begun to recognize wheatears. This Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe deserti) sat high up on a thorn bush scanning its surroundings for the insects that it eats. I’m happy with these insectivores, since they always sit in the open and give people like me many good opportunities to take photos. Not like those rascals, the warblers, which tweet at you from thickets.

A year ago I’d seen Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles exustus) for the first time. I hunkered down next to a shallow pond and waited for a huge flock of sandgrouse coming in to the water. Photography was hard then, because the grouse dip into the water quickly and take to the air again. This time I saw them hunkered down in the sparse grass in the desert, sitting completely immobile.

If I’d not been with experts, I would have had a tough time telling this Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark (Eremopterix griseus) from its confusing cousin called the Black-crowned Sparrow Lark. Our jeep parked near it, and it did not consider us a threat. We had a long time to look at it and take photos. Eventually I decided that the best way to tell the difference was from the fact that this one did not have a black patch at the nape, which the other species does.

The Rann is marshy, dotted with extremely shallow sheets of water near which it is dangerous to drive. Jeeps bog down easily, and begin sinking in these places. Parked at the safe edge of one of these patches I took a photo of this flock of Greylag geese (Anser anser). They are very common birds, widely seen in India in winter. I would not mind a tee with the slogan “The Anser is Goose”.

Sandgrouse drinking

We drove to a large pond in the desert close to the border with Pakistan. In the middle of a barren landscape broken only by acacia and small shrubs, the grass around the pond looked inviting. There was livestock grazing here: sheep, goats, cows and donkeys. We had a little breakfast and then hunkered down on the edge of the water to wait for chestnut bellied sandgrouse.

This bird can be found in a long arc of arid land from Senegal and Gambia in West Africa, through Saudi Arabia and Iran up to India. We sat near the easternmost range of this sandgrouse, Pterocles exustus. We did not have a long wait. Soon flocks of these birds showed up to drink water. We could hear their tritone calls as flocks of twenty to thirty birds wheeled around the pond and landed at the edge to drink. There was much movement, noise and fluttering of wings as each flock dropped to the pond, drank and took off. Soon after that, another flock would appear. I was busy trying to photograph them and did not keep count of the total number of birds, but over 20 flocks would have watered that day, meaning there must have been more than 500 sandgrouse. My count is so bad, that it could easily have been twice as many.

The birds feed on seeds, and so must drink water. At the time I watched the birds I was not aware of the spectacular way they carry water to their young. The male, which have yellow faces, sit in the water, and let their downy belly feathers soak up water. When they come to the nest, the young suck the water from the wet feathers. Since I did not know about this, I did not look for this behaviour. Nesting season starts by the end of winter in these parts. Even so, in my photos the males are generally in the water, whereas the females are at the edge of the pond.

The IUCN entry on the chestnut bellied sandgrouse says that the Egyptian subspecies, P.exustus floweri, is extinct. So I was happy to see a report about the rediscovery of the Egyptian sandgrouse population in 2011.