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”.

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Flamingos of the desert

Lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor) are the most numerous of the flamingos, and the greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) are the most widespread. In India I often see flocks of lesser flamingos mixed in with a few greater flamingos. I found early on that the easiest way to tell them apart is by looking at the shape of the neck when it is relaxed: the neck of the lesser looks like an inverted letter J, and that of the greater like an S.

Flamingos are common across western India. I’ve been delighted more than once to look out of my window and see a flock flying past in the distance. Still, they are weird enough that it is always a delight to watch them. They stand around in groups, like humans, but in constant motion. Like humans they keep doing their own thing in groups: now walking away from the group, then joining up and walking with another bunch. All through this they constantly keep honking at each other.

We came across a bunch of them in a shallow pond in the Rann of Kutch. They were all active (not a single one stood on one leg, dozing with half a brain turned off). Although a small hamlet had grown up on the banks of the pond, I’m sure that the water was salty; flamingos like their water either salty or alkaline. Flamingos dominated the waters, although swifts and a few ducks held their own. The desert may seem like an unlikely place to find these birds, but a big population of flamingos breed in the Rann of Kutch.

The strange shape of their black-tipped beaks helps them to hold their head upside down and sieve water for the small algae, insects, and crustaceans that they eat. The pink of their beaks and feathers come from the molluscs that they eat, so you can tell the juveniles by their lack of colour. I’d seen flamingos numerous times before, but was happy to stand at this place and watch them again; they are fascinating.

An Imperial Eagle

I was very surprised when I saw an Eastern Imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) in the Rann of Kutch. I’d never seen this bird before, but my haphazard impression was that this is a bird of forests and open grasslands. I’d read about its tendency to nest in high and isolated trees, so that it could survey its surroundings from its high perch. I was also mistaken about the meaning of the adjective “Eastern” in its name. This did not imply an Asian population, but merely distinguished it from the Spanish species. So the Eastern Imperial eagle is the eagle of the Habsburgs, and the one that I saw was wintering in the desert. I wonder why the Habsburgs thought this was a majestic bird; because it mainly robs prey from other raptors?

Our first sighting was late in the first evening of my trip to the Rann. It sat on a high mound; the only thing that stuck out of the flat desert up to the horizon. As the sun faded, it sat there, not paying much heed to our jeep circling below the mound, trying to find the best angle for photos. The number of mature individuals across the world is less than 10,000. So I was very surprised to have another sighting the very next morning. It was the same area of the desert, so I’d probably seen the same individual twice. What was it doing in the desert? The desert is a wonderful habitat for raptors. Any water body attracts lots of birds and smaller animals, and the unobstructed views are a great delight to hunters of all species.

In the clearing stands a boxer

One of the memorable sights from my trip to the Rann of Kutch was watching two bull nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) face off against each other. As we drove along, we saw a hefty male cross the road in front of our jeep. It gave no sign of being alarmed. It just kept an eye on us as it crossed. We followed and found that it had reached a clearing surrounded by a dense growth of acacia trees.

There was another hefty bull. It didn’t look very happy to see an interloper. To my eyes both bulls looked healthy and large, and both had a glossy pelt. In this region we had probably come across the two bulls during mating season, when they are more territorial than usual. In fact seeing two mature bulls together at this time was a little unusual. They usually mark out territories of 15-20 square kilometers each.

The interloper advanced to the middle of the clearing and came to a halt. The defender approached slowly, and at an angle. The interloper stood its ground as the defended began to circle him slowly. Clearly the two were sizing each other up. To my eye the interloper looked larger, but the defender had a glossier pelt. I didn’t know what the two bulls would look for in the other to make a judgement about whether it was useful to fight.

The tense circling was completed as the two came face to face, staring at each other. The decision was made without a fight: the interloper decided to leave. I had no idea what had convinced each about the possible outcome. I would think that a clear mismatch in sizes would have meant that a fight is avoided. If the sizes are well-matched, as they seemed to be, a fight could be avoided if one had no stake in fighting. Maybe that was the case; maybe the interloper had perfectly good territory, and knew that it was encroaching on another’s.

I find it hard enough to figure out what another person is thinking, and here I was trying to understand the mind of a nilgai. Quite unlikely! I interloper gave a last backward look at the clearing as it pushed through the brambles and disappeared.

A Desolation of Salt

We sped into a desolation on the back of an open jeep. Behind us a lurid sunrise, in front a perfectly flat desert with the wind whipping up a cloud of salt. I settled a surgical mask over my face to filter out the salt. It wasn’t good enough. You need a better filter in this part of the Rann of Kutch.

Salt is part of everyday life in this desert. As we pulled off the highway we passed the production area of a government-owned company called Hindustan Salts Limited. From a distance it looked like a typical chemical industry, fenced off for your own good, different production areas connected by conveyor belts.

What you see from the road is incongruous. Immense pyramids of impure salt, with earth-movers trundling along between them, cutting the heaps into smaller piles. Other machinery moves these piles into sheds and from there into purification plants. This is machinery you normally associate with quarrying. I wondered why the impure salt is first piled up into mountains which require excavation.

But incongruities begin to pile up as you move far into the desert. This was the last day of our time in the Rann of Kutch, and this area was much more inhospitable than anything I’d seen till now. But there were more people living here. The Swedish countryside is dotted with farmholds, each well-separated from the next by fields. The landscape here was a desolate version of that: make-shift houses, well-separated from each other. Around every house were shallow ponds separated by low berms. Each rectangular pond held briny water, to be evaporated by the sun for a harvest of salt.

Everything was make-shift. Each family start work here late in the year, and try to harvest the salt before the beginning of the monsoon. The monsoon floods the area, so that you have no choice but to move out. My two-week long troubled breathing after half a day here cannot be singular. People who spend half a year here must be paying a price in poor health. It is not a life that one would choose freely. I keep returning to a wonderful movie which introduced me to the story of the people here.

Further on I saw a smaller establishment. Perhaps the family is more poorly off, but they had a couple of thorn bushes near their house. A considerable walk away they had set up an array of solar cells. This was common. There is a lot of pumping of water as part of their normal work. The old oil-fired motors have been phased out for solar power. A small luxury comes with it. In the other household I noticed that the makeshift toilet, walled off in green and white plastic, had a makeshift overhead tank of water.

Geologically, the Rann of Kutch is a rift basin, originally formed during the break-up of Gondwanaland, about 180 million years ago, but active today since it forms part of the continental boundary region of the Indian plate. It was inundated during the geologically recent Pliocene epoch, about 3 million years ago, and periodically later, as the sea level rose and fell during the Quaternary glaciation events during which humans crossed the globe and settled across the world. I suppose most of the salt here are evaporation residues from these events. Non-renewable removal of these salts should be the least of our concerns, given that another rise in sea levels is anticipated.

Old myths and histories are full of stories of armies destroying enemy nations by sowing salt into the soil. That is the normal landscape here. I suppose that the process of extraction of salt is not totally efficient. As a result a surface layer of free salt always remains, making this region even more inhospitable by blowing in the wind.

The wild asses of Kutch

The whole of the Little Rann of Kutch, a tidal salt marsh with an area of nearly 5000 square kilometers, is a sanctuary for the Indian wild ass (Equus hemionus khur). The IUCN red list calls it near-threatened because its population has been increasing since 1972 when the area was declared to be a sanctuary, and now has reached a level of 2000 mature individuals. Unfortunately, this is the only population of these animals anywhere in the world. My first view of this animal came in the morning of my second day in the desert. A family group of about a dozen animals were spooked when we arrived and began walking away from us. There was a little bit of a panic, which never broke into a run, presumably because we kept our distance. As you can see in the featured photo and the one below, there was still a little jostling, because no individual wanted to bring up the rear.

This population is the last surviving subspecies of the Asiatic wild ass in the whole of south Asia. There are four groups of E. hemionus remaining in the world; in addition to the one that we saw, there is the endangered populations of E. h. onager in Iran and Turkmenistan, and the E. h. kulan in Mongolia. DNA analysis of 52 individuals showed extremely low genetic diversity. The species diversified during the recent ice ages, perhaps around 6,50,000 years ago. During the time that this species spread across Asia humans probably did not come into extensive contact with it. However, the study also found an indication of a severe population bottleneck of the Indian subspecies which was coincident with the rise and spread of the Indus Valley civilization. So it would seem that it is not only the total number of animals which is of concern, but also the conservation of its genetic diversity.

We saw several kinds of groups. There were groups with 10-20 members, like the first one we saw. Then there were groups which looked like a breeding pair with juveniles, as in the photo above. We also saw an occasional single individual. An extensive study of the social organization of the asses did not list the “nuclear families” that we spotted on and off, but reported extensive fission of the larger groups. So it is possible that the groups of three or four we saw were either far-ranging members of a larger group, or part of a group which had broken up and was to reform soon. The single individuals were likely to be territorial stallions.

I wondered what they were eating. Adesh pointed out a low spreading herb which the asses seem to like. I broke off a little piece, and nibbled on it. It was salty. Was the salt just blown on to the vegetation from the desert or did it take up the salt from the ground? These animals must have evolved ways of living in a salty marsh. We know today that much of our ability to eat different foods is due to the bacteria which we grow in our guts. This is not a peculiarly human ability; salt tolerating bacteria may have been found in the guts of these asses. I loved the sight of these wonderful animals roaming a harsh desert, but it seems that the biology which makes it possible is also wonderful.

Owls on the ground

We had to wake before sunrise to see short eared owls (Asio flammeus). They hunt at night, but can still be seen early in the morning. I found to my surprise that they are among the commonest of owls, spread across the world. The populations in the extreme north are said to be migratory (the Scandinavian population winters in Britain, for example), but I suppose in India they are not. So, across the whole swathe of its range in Asia, from the deserts of Gujarat and Rajasthan to the extreme east of Asia, it must be resident. Had I seen it before? I don’t take myself seriously as a birdwatcher, so my record-keeping is atrocious. I may have seen it before, but I don’t think I noticed it.

There were many owls in this part of the Rann of Kutch. Our jeep meandered through the maze between thorn bushes, stopping every time someone thought an owl had been spotted. The streaks on the plumage are wonderful camouflage in this landscape of dried twigs, so there were many false calls. I managed to take photos of two individuals, a male (featured photo) and a female (photo above). The only way I can tell, and I could be wrong, is that the male is decidedly paler than the female. These owls nest on the ground, so the more cryptic colouring probably means that the female is the primary caregiver for the offspring.

The short eared owls mainly feed on rodents, although we didn’t see any on this trip, but may also take small birds and insects. With the continuous human demand for more space, I guess the open scrublands where they might normally nest are slowly becoming unavailable. The Great Indian Bustard, one of the most majestic inhabitants of the dry Indian scrublands, seems to be now well set on the path to extinction. The owls may survive longer; they breed faster, and, due to being smaller, they require less prey. But worldwide their numbers are decreasing. Very often we are not even aware of the conflict that our hunger for more space sets up; just by continuing our life as usual we endanger many species.

An unlikely encounter

It had been a long day out on the road: from the first touch of colour in the morning to the slow darkening of the sky now. As the jeep came to a halt, I took a shot of the glow in the sky (photo below). My camera flashed an indicator and shut itself down; the battery had run out. It gets pretty dark in the middle of the desert, but we climbed out of the jeep we’d sat in all day. It had been a good day of bird watching, but it was time to stretch our legs a little and give our eyes a rest.

I think it was the driver who first noticed the furtive movement around our vehicle. Someone switched on a torch, and caught a desert fox (Vulpes vulpes pusilla) in the center of the beam. This one was not true to its name; it was not pusillanimous, cowardly, timorous, or fearful. It looked towards the light and then continued snuffling around the car. It seemed completely at ease around humans. Had people been feeding it, or is this one extreme of its natural range of behaviour? I searched later and found at least one more description (with better photos) of this behaviour in the Little Rann of Kutch. We went back the next day to look for this Vulpes Audacious, but found only empty foxholes.

Peg-leg Bill

Technically this bird is a Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), but its one-legged stance somehow reminded me of a pirate. It stood in the shallow waters which spill through parts of the Rann of Kutch, looking for insects. It eats molluscs, fish, frogs and leeches too, but I don’t think that the briefly flooded desert would have any of these. Why did it stand one one leg? A study on flamingos (would that be a study on scarlet?) performed by two people in Pennsylvania in 2009 suggested that water birds raise one foot out of the water to keep from getting too cold. This was an easy thing to understand, and was reported in lots of newspapers and magazines. A year later another study, this time from New Zealand, on many kinds of waders, including flamingos and spoonbills, found that birds stand on one foot regardless of the temperature of the water. So they concluded that the reason for standing on one leg could not be to maintain their body temperature, and instead suggested an interesting different reason for this habit.

It was a winter afternoon, and it was quite warm in the desert. Most of the spoonbills that I saw were still and resting. Only a few strode around the shallows looking for food. Most of the drowsy birds stood on one leg. This reminded me of the suggestion by the New Zealanders. They put together two earlier observations. The first is one that found in 2009 that flamingo (and perhaps other waders) anatomy makes it easier for them to stand stably on one leg than on two, so much so that even dead birds can be more easily balanced on one leg. The second is a landmark study from 1999 which found that birds sleep with one half of their brain on! During this period of sleep, as the bird switches awareness from one hemisphere of their brain to another, they see from one eye, or the other. The New Zealanders observed that waders switch from one leg to another occasionally while sleeping, and suggested that when one hemisphere of the brain sleeps, the leg which is controlled by it is retracted out of the water to help the birds balance more easily while asleep. I find this a wonderfully economical explanation, which puts together two surprising facts about the anatomy and physiology of birds. The next time you see a bird standing on one leg, stop for a moment to check whether it could be half asleep.

Desert luxury

How does a hotel announce to a visitor that it is special? I’m not talking about the service or the rooms, which is the core luxury that a hotel must provide, because this only becomes apparent over time. The announcement has to be instant. It is often something about the look: large lobbies in crowded cities, quietness in a noisy district, expensive art if you enter through a visually cluttered neighbourhood. I found that in a desert it is the suggestion of abundant water.

My trip to the Rann of Kutch was done on a pretty tight budget, but I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that prices in the Rann are bound to be much lower than in Mumbai. As a result, the hotel turned out to be luxurious by local standards. In terms of first appearances, it didn’t impress. There was a decorated door with rustic designs which opened into a garden. It was not one of the exquisitely carved, finely polished, and very well fitted doors which I have seen in this region. So this it left me a little apprehensive about the quality of the room.

Exotic animals roamed the grounds. I was in the desert with a bunch of bird watchers, so the sight of domesticated African guinea fowl did not exactly spell luxury to any of us. When I saw the room I was quite surprised by the size and the cleanliness. The food and service also turned out to be excellent. So I was sure that I’d missed some cues.

Then it struck me: greenery, flowers and lawns. In the parched surroundings of a desert, this was the declaration of wealth and luxury. It was not the garden door that I was supposed to notice, but the garden. Silly me. Not a single wilted leaf could be seen in the tall bushes here. The grass on the lawn was springy, and invited bare feet.

And, in case you still needed another hint, there was an enormous lily pond. I had been looking at everything with eyes jaded with the greenery and dampness of Meghalaya. This was the other side of the country in many ways: literally, in terms of geography, and metaphorically, a desert instead of the rainiest place on earth. I had to look at it through local eyes to see the signs of luxury and conspicuous consumption. I quailed at the thought of the ecological cost as I caught on.