The forest department is meant to conserve ecology. Unfortunately, they interpret their job to mean they are supposed to grow forests. As a result, they are changing the desert scrub ecology of the Rann of Kutch by planting white bark acacia (Vachellia leucophloea). These plants have nitrogen fixing nodules in their roots, which are useful when you want to green a desert. That may be part of the reason why the forest department likes it. This acacia also grows naturally in other parts of the Thar desert. So, maybe, this experiment is not as bad as the one carried out in the 1970s, when the desert was seeded by the exotic mesquite Prosopsis juliflora. But the Rann of Kutch is a special habitat, and reduing the space for its distinctive flora and fauna creates a sudden change in ecology which will have effects that we cannot predict. But then, maybe none of this matters. Maybe the rising seas will reclaim the Rann very soon.
On our last evening’s attempt to spot birds in the Rann, I found myself quite distracted by the greenery. We walked gingerly between the trees, but there was little to see. You see a typical stand of white bark acacias here: spindly trunks with white bark spreading out a little above your head. The older bark turns rough and dark as the tree ages. The canopy is full of the typical feathery mimosa leaves. The flowers are very interesting, as you can see in the slideshow above. The dense round collection of white flowers are called glomerules, and they grow in a multiply branched stem called a panicle. That picture does a good job of explaining the words.
But there were too many trees, and the birds were avoiding this place. We moved away into the open land and were immediately rewarded by multiple sightings: silverbills, larks, warblers, robins, flycatchers. A single bird came and sat on a branch of a tree right at the edge of the open scrub. It was the grey-necked bunting (Emberiza buchanani) that you see in the photo above. In the setting sun and against the bright green background its drab brown plumage looks red.
Aak (Calotropis procera), named rubber bush, is the typical dry area plant. You won’t find it deeper in the Thar desert, but the bushes were visible around rocks everywhere we went. In the Rann of Kutch they seem to be usually less than two meters high. Usually they attract ants, so I keep a watch on the small purple five-petalled flowers to see what kinds of ants I can spot. In Kutch, as the featured photo shows, I didn’t manage to get the flowers with any ants at all.
The succulent called Thor (Euphorbia caducifolia) is the commonest plant in this region. I spotted lots of birds sitting on a projecting stem of the bushes. You can see an Indian Robin in the photo on the left above. They can grow well above a man’s height, 3 meters often, taller sometimes. It flowers in late winter. If you want to see what the local insects are, keep a watch on its flowers at that time. They attract many of local insects wherever they grow.
Another succulent that is widely found in the desert is the Aak Thor (Cynanchum acidum). It has attractive tiny six-petalled white flowers (6 is not a Fibonacci number) which were budding from the ends of the stem; you can see them most of the year except in the winter months. It seems to be a climber. I saw stems trailing on the ground when there’s nothing else growing nearby.
The Rann of Kutch is full of many different kinds of grass or millets growing wild. I find myself completely unable to identify grasses. I’ll have to spend time learning more about this group. Many of them were in bloom at this time, immediately after the monsoon.
The low bushes of Kana (Commelina benghalensis) were very visible even from speeding cars, because of the attractive three-petalled blue flowers. There was a variant in purple which was also quite widespread. The flowers are large, petals can be half a centimeter in size. It seemed that a plant can either have blue or purple flowers, but they can grow quite close to each other. That makes me suspect that the colour is determined by genetics rather than soil.
Thorny nightshade (Solanum virginianum), Kateli in Hindi, is again a plant that is common in most dry areas in India. I’ve seen it deep inside the Thar Desert as well. Here you see the five-petalled flower poking out from under a different bush. Kateli is a spreading herb, and this particular plant was spread along the ground below this other bush. You can see it flowering around the year, except in the monsoon months.
Perhaps the commonest tree that I saw was the Khair (Senegalia catechu). It happened to be in flower. It is a typical mimosa, with the feathery leaves (called pinnate by botanists), flowers with wire-like petals, and thin gnarly trunks. They grew up to a man’s height, and spread out thorny branches which were exactly at the wrong height for me. if you add the Kair (Capparis decidua, bare caper), which I’ve written about earlier, I think I’ve listed the most widespread plants which I noticed in this area.
Kutch is a flat land, a sea bottom raised in geologically recent times by the motion of the Indian continental plate. When Alexander’s army came to India, the Rann of Kutch was a vast inland lake. Now it is the southern end of the Thar desert. A plane so flat that large parts are covered in a millimeters thin sheet of water every monsoon, then baked dry the rest of the year, it is perfect for generating renewable power. For years, isolated families in this region have installed solar panels for their own use. Now they install wind turbines and pumping the output into the national grid.
The people I was traveling with laughed when I started taking photos of the pylons which criss cross this land. But I find that these impossibly tall towers have a poetry of their own. They are a first glimpse of our future. They are impressive when you stand near them. Low down on them falcons alight and scan the desert for prey. Buzzards build nests on the second rung of the towers. Ipomoea grows dense around the bases, taller than a man, but can’t climb beyond the first rung. The power lines which they support do not seem to pose a hazard to flying birds. Most fly well below them. Others fly far above.
But when you see lines of these columns disappearing over the horizon, you see what a light footprint they cast on this land. That tiptoeing through the landscape, like giraffes on the veldt, seems to be the only sustainable future for us. You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan famously sang.
Each village in the Rann of Kutch seems to have a craft that it is known for. Since we decided to skip lunch on our day of arrival, we decided to visit a nearby village that The Family had marked down as a place of interest. This was the village of Bhujoda, and it was known for its woven woolens. The craft is very traditional and utilizes hand looms. The looms are made in a different village.
Each family has its own “factory”. This is a large courtyard where women card and dye the yarn (see the featured photo). Traditionally only earth and vegetable colours were used. We were told that the bright colours that people prefer today started to be used about a generation ago. The Family was enchanted by the traditional weaves: whites, browns, earth reds, black. The men work at the looms. A painstaking job. At one end of the courtyard was the family’s residence. A young girl offered us tea, and we were glad to accept.
Some of the things on display had Kutchi mirrorwork. That is done is yet another village which specializes in it. The cloth from this village is sent there, and the two families involved share the profits. I’ve seen villages specialize in crafts before in other parts of the country. But I hadn’t had the time to ask whether they have the same level of specialization.
In a completely different part of Kutch, deep in the Rann, we came to a village called Bhirandiara. It’s speciality is mawa, made from milk obtained from nomadic herders. These herders are perhaps the oldest inhabitants of this desert. The colourful mirrored cloth which Kutch is known for is their normal dress. We stopped in this village for a chai after spotting the marbled duck, and tasted this famous mawa, surrounded by crowds of the herders. I wished I had the time to travel through the Rann. Perhaps we’ll do that some other time.
Ram Singh Malam, the Kutchi polymath, designed a palace for Rao Lakhpatji, a rajah with an equally wide-ranging mind. It was called Aaina Mahal. A literal translation would be Palace of Mirrors. I prefer to call it the Palace of Illusions. When it was built in 1750 it must have been a stunning sight. Faults in the Indian continental plate which developed 180 million years ago during the breakup of ancient Gondwanaland triggered an earthquake of magnitude 7.7 on Republic Day, 2001, in Kutch. Bhuj is about 20 kilometers away from the epicenter, and the palace was badly damaged. It had housed the state museum. In the aftermath of the quake, many of the pieces that remained were stolen. The restoration is slow because of the lack of funds.
Looking at the palace today, you have to work hard to imagine the opulence that impressed people even thirty years ago. Visiting in the early 19th century, a Marianne Postans wrote a travel memoir called Cutch; Or Random Sketches, Taken During a Residence in One of the Northern Provinces of Western India; Interspersed with Legend in 1839, where she describes the palace in these words, “Feeling quite inadequate to the task of presenting the reader with a catalogue raisonné of all the unnamable articles of virtù, which adorn this chosen retreat of luxurious royalty, I must request him to imagine himself introduced, by some wholesale glass dealer, to his sample room, where, amongst jelly glasses, and old vases, are introduced some half dozen antique musical clocks, all playing at once, and the whole display brilliantly illuminated by large wax candles at noon-day!”
A small part of the palace has been restored and is on display, as part of the state museum. The rooms are now overcrowded, and you have to spend time to examine all that is on display. I’m afraid that the time we spent was not adequate. Still, I must make special mention of the doors in this palace. Fantastically decorated doors are a specialty around the Indian Ocean, from Kerala to Konkan, north around the coast in Gujarat and Arabia, and down to Zanzibar and Malindi. Even among them, these are amazing. I wonder which was the door that a colonial Governor General was prevented from taking away as a gift to Queen Victoria.
This is also a good place to say something about the architect, Ram Singh Malam, whose portrait hangs in one of the galleries of the palace. Little is known about his early life, except that he was born in Okha, at the mouth of the Gulf of Kutch. His early life was spent as a sailor. He was rescued from a shipwreck by a Dutch ship bound for Netherlands, where he spent eighteen years learning a variety of crafts: glassblowing, architecture, clock making, enamel work, foundry and gun casting, to name a few. You can see his influence in the cast iron structure of Aina Mahal, and its once-famous mirrors.
The mirrored ceilings were an invention of Malam. The gallery around the room called the Fuvara Mahal, the wonderfully designed music chamber, the bedchambers, and the inner corridor all have ceilings in this style. They require restoration, but given the magnitude of the post-earthquake restoration needed, I was happy that at least they gave some indication of the former opulence of this palace. The Kutchi school of painting developed largely due to the royal patronage given at this time. I was entranced by the painting with the flamingos. It catches the terrible beauty of the Rann very nicely. I was happy to see a portrait of Rao Lakhpatji eventually in a niche in one corner. The tour of the palace would have seemed incomplete without portraits of him and his architect, Ram Singh Malam.
The most relaxed part of bird watching comes when you are not really looking for a particular bird. You just stand in the open, soaking in the atmosphere of the shoreline, or the forest, or the open scrubland, while birds go past you, or go about their lives as you watch. Some of this happened to us every day during our trip to the Rann of Kutch.
The first day, on the drive from Bhuj to Nakhatrana, we spotted many birds on the road. You can see some of them in the slideshow above. On this morning’s drive we also managed to sight three of the passage migrants that we had gone to see. We spent a long time trying to look for the European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus). This is another of the passage migrants. We never spotted it, neither that day, nor the next. This was our big miss.
That afternoon, our first in the Rann of Kutch, we managed to spot two more of the passage migrants. After that we spent an hour walking about spotting birds, some which I knew well, others which I’d seen less often. At times like this you can concentrate on photography, especially interesting configurations. In spite of the heat, I felt very relaxed.
The next afternoon yielded the final passage migrant and the rare marbled duck. But apart from that we had a wonderful time watching waders and ducks. These are birds which one sees very commonly in Mumbai, but I’ve missed them in the lockdowns of the last years. It was nice to stand there and watch them foraging.
The morning of our second full day in the Rann of Kutch was spent in another fruitless hunt of the European nightjar. The saving grace of the morning was a sighting of a Painted Sandgrouse (Pterocles indicus). We had a really lovely time in the afternoon. The featured photo is one of the last I took on the trip. It shows a White-tailed Iora (Aegithina nigrolutea, also Marshall’s Iora). Everything we had gone to see was done, and it was time to enjoy the beauty of the landscape and its bird life.
On a very hot day we drove to the Banni grasslands. Parts were under water at this time. But the shimmer on the roads was mirage. This isn’t an unusual sight in India, but this was my first view of this common mirage after almost two years. As you can see from the featured photo, the hot air blurs every photo a bit. It felt like resuming an old and forgotten life. There had been reports of sightings of marbled ducks (Marmaronetta angustirostris, also called marbled teals). They’ve become rare and threatened in recent times, but even so, for us this was very rare. India is far to the east of its normal range. Sightings are few and scattered, so it is always worth making the effort of going to look for them.
October had tracked them over the last weeks, spotting more every day, and was convinced that we could see a group of them. Their normal range straddled the Mediterranean until recent years, when falling numbers restricted them to two populations: the Maghrib and the Asian. The Maghrib population breeds in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal, with some having been spotted as far north as the UK. The Asian population breeds mainly in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran. There is some evidence of movement in the population, with scattered sightings from India, northwards as far away as Kazakhstan, and south to Egypt. A study in the Maghrib found that they could be attracted to wetlands near coasts which have diverse vegetation. That could be the reason why it has occasionally been sighted in India as far south as Goa. The attraction to vegetation is possibly due to its stronger dependance on seeds than other dabbling ducks.
We had a bit of misfortune. After much scanning we could see only one duck, and the sound of our cars on the shore sent it swimming away (my photos are all at extreme range; fortunately the air over the water was not as warm as that over the road). I saw it upending once, and dabbling often as it swam. The bird is sensitive to disturbance, which could be a survival tactic learnt in recent years. I had my lifer, possibly my only sighting, unless I go birding in Shadegan or Alicante. Even our attempts at keeping a distance, taking photos with a 6000 mm equivalent lens, was enough to disturb this individual. Later we heard reports of another group of birders who had entered the waters here to get “good photos”. Perhaps it was this encounter which had driven the birds away. October tells us that have not come back to this site till now. Man-animal conflict extends to “bird lovers” who are more in love with counts and photos than with birds.
Luna glided overhead as we looked for nightjars. It was easier to spot the triad of lunar seas, serenity, tranquility, fertility, than a savanna nightjar in flight. Certainly photographing them at night with my equipment was out of the question, even with the moon waxing to nearly three quarters. I turned my camera up to the moon.
The lunar seas of showers and of clouds had become visible a couple of days ago. These fancifully named seas are actually basalt shields, the frozen remnants of lava flows which were caused by an extensive bombardment by meteors around four billion years ago. The earth was also shaped by this shower, and very few fragments of continental crusts are older. Life began on earth soon after that. On the moon the lava seas in these enormous craters had solidified more than three billion years ago. By that time photosynthesis had begun on earth. Our atmosphere was changing even as the splotchy appearance of the moon took shape. The new photosynthetic life made the earth unlivable for most anaerobic bacteria and caused the first age of extinction.
Near the northern end of the terminator, my camera could pick out the far edge of Plato crater catching the morning sunlight. This crater is as old as the sea of showers (Mare Imbrium) just south of it. If you were to stand inside that crater then and looked up at the cliffs on the far edge, what a sight the morning sunlight must be! At the southern end of the terminator you can see a jumble of craters. Just inside it, at roughly mid-morning, is the bright young Tycho crater, only a 108 million years old. The dinosaurs may have seen it forming. In a few days, the whole of the visible half of the moon would have day. That lunar day is what we call a harvest moon. It was still more than a week away.
In the next two days we were to cross the Tropic of Cancer several times, as we scouted for more of the winter’s birds passing through the Rann of Kutch. It was a funny astronomical coincidence. The Tropic of Cancer marks the furthest point north where the sun can be at the zenith. And we were near that at the time the sun was crossing the equator! As I took photos of the signboard someone remarked that it had seen better days. True enough. So had the moon, by my reckoning.
Masks and foreheads. Nape and wings. Over a couple of days I learnt to tell shrikes by these characteristics, instead of going by the tails and backs by which they are named. Darwin taught us that the gradations of Galapagos finches are evidence of evolution. I realized the central Asian shrikes are no less. The fine gradations between their plumage, and the minor differences in the feeding and nesting habits, are all evidence of evolution in the same way. The four species that I learnt to distinguish are the bay backed shrike (Lanius vittatus, an endemic native of India), the Isabelline shrike (Lanius isabellinus, whose range extends well beyond India, as I now learnt), the red backed shrike (Lanius collurio), and the red tailed shrike (Lanius phoenicurides). The last three share part of their ranges, and are called sympatric species because of that.
We’d arrived in Kutch to watch the migrations of the red backed and red tailed shrikes, little knowing that backs and tails do not really distinguish them. Out first lesson: the males of the red backed shrike (L. collurio) is very similar to the native bay backed shrike (L. vittatus). There are two things you have to look out for. The first is that L. collurio‘s eye mask narrows over the forehead but that of L. vittatus does not. The second is even more subtle: a white patch on the wings tells you that you are looking at L. vittatus. Look at the first two photos in the gallery above to see the differences (as always, clicking on a panel will take you to a full sized photo).
The featured photo shows a red tailed shrike (L. phoenicurides), but it took me some time to recognize it for what it is. Individuals can differ in the amount of red in the back and tail, and when you see lots of them together, it may get hard to tell them apart. I learnt to look at the head and nape. These are completely blue-gray in L. collurio, but have more of a red tinge in L. phoenicurides. In other words, to tell the red tailed shrike, look for a red head!
The red tailed shrike (L. phoenicurides) breeds in central Asia, through an arc from Afghanistan to Mongolia. The Isabelline shrike (L. isabellinus) has a wider range, breeding as far west as Ireland, and southwards in Asia into India. Russian ornithologists apparently distinguished between the two for quite a while, but it was only about a decade ago that West European scientists agreed to split the species. The crucial observations were the rarity of cross breeds, or, in the language of modern biology, the absence of gene flow between the two populations (note however, that there are photos of courtship between the two species). Although the two have very similar colours, the mask over the eyes of the male L. phoenicurides is definitely more pronounced. The females of both species lack the distinct mask. But both sexes have a red head in L. phoenicurides. Again, click the photos in the gallery to see the differences.
What about their behaviour? Shrikes are called butcher birds for a reason, and I saw that behaviour clearly in my first sighting of the red tailed shrike. It had just caught an insect, and was busy impaling it on a thorn. Like a butcher, it keeps a stock of carcasses. All sought out higher perches, their favourite being two to three meters off the ground. This was perfect for photography. You can see them either sitting on wires, or on thorny bushes. The latter are perfectly suited for their lifestyle. A study made almost exactly two years ago in Oman on migrating individuals of L. collurio and L. phoenicuroides could not find any differences in their foraging habits. I guess one would need a longer and wider survey to find any differences, since they are so subtle.
The immature birds present an equal challenge in identification. I eventually managed to figure out the differences between juvelines the red backed (extreme left) and the red tailed (middle) shrikes. The old rule again: look for a red head to tell the red tailed. But surprisingly we also spotted a long tailed shrike (Lanius schach). This one breeds in India and to the east, and we saw only this one specimen. So the Rann of Kutch may be on the western border of its range. Thinking of immature birds and breeding, also brings to mind the ability of shrikes to distinguish between their eggs and those of others. A recent attempt at constructing the evolutionary tree of the shrikes mentions that this may point to past brood parasitism. Cuckoos have created similar cognitive abilities in some other birds as well.
Kutch was a major learning experience for me. I’d only seen the Isabelline and bay backed shrikes earlier. They are easy to distinguish. Seeing the two passage migrants, the red backed and red tailed shrikes brought home to me how recent the evolution of the shrikes must have been. Of course, all birds that we see today evolved fairly recently. They are the remnants of the dinosaurs after all. But the evolution of some shrikes could be even more recent than of humans. That surprised me no end.
A small, nondescript bird. Easily spotted sitting on exposed high ground. Unremarkable call. What’s the fuss about spotted flycatchers (Musciapa striata), you may ask. I didn’t see it in the field either, when I took several photos of this bird. But consider this. The bird is less than 20 grams in weight, smaller than 15 cms in length. Despite that, the individuals that I saw were on an annual journey from Mongolia to Tanzania. I couldn’t think of walking that distance! It isn’t an easy life, not many birds live longer than a couple of years, although they are known to be able to live as long as eight years. And if that wasn’t enough, they raise two broods a year, all within the space of three months.
M. striata breed in Europe as far north as Sweden and Finland, and even across Gibraltar in Morocco and Tunisia, and in an arc north of the Caspian, eastward into Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. The western population spends most of the year in sub-Saharan west Africa; the eastern population in east and south Africa. In September you can see it pass over a swathe of land that includes Turkey, Georgia, and western India. This little bird had drawn us for a couple of days to the Rann of Kutch.
I was very happy to be able to photograph it when some of the other birds gave me a hard time. Once you found its perch, you could be sure that it would return there after a sally. I didn’t get to see its prey. The air was full of large dragonflies. They couldn’t possibly be swallowing them on the fly. So maybe they were picking out something smaller, or maybe I just happened to miss them feeding. If the latter, then they seem to miss an insect on most of their hunting sallies.
A study showed that they are able to tell the difference between their own eggs and eggs of other species introduced into their nests. This marks it out as fairly special, since most birds are unable to do this. This ability has been interpreted as the result of a past evolutionary arms race where the ability to distinguish eggs evolved in response to nest parasitism by cuckoos. Support to this idea is given by the fact that currently parasitized species are able to distinguish eggs with some, but lesser success. The group also tested whether such an ability to distinguish eggs is related to special discernible patterns on the eggs. The lack of visual patterns shows that it is cognitive abilities which have evolved, and not egg shape, size, or colour. It is interesting, though, that the birds are not able to distinguish between their own chicks and chicks of other species placed in their nests. As Mullah Nasruddin pointed out, it doesn’t do to judge a person by their coat.