This post is the continuation of a series documenting our visit to the state of Gujarat in November 2021. We had planned this as mainly a nature and wildlife trip but had started off by visiting the Statue of Unity (Gujarat Road Trip, Part 1 – Visiting the Statue of Unity ) and The Lakshmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara (Gujarat Road Trip, Part 2 – A morning at the Lakshmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara).
We started the wildlife part of our trip in the Little Rann of Kutch. We were based at the Bhavna Resort and Farms in Patdi. We reached the resort right in time for lunch. So we hurriedly checked in & had a delicious Gujarati lunch. As we finished our meal our guide Mr Bechar, who came highly recommended by a birder friend called and asked if we were ready to start our first foray into the Little Rann of Kutch. We quickly got ready and got the camera and binoculars ready. We went to the parking where Bechar was waiting and soon we were off to find ourselves some birds.
The Little Rann is an arid salt marsh which is smaller than its larger cousin, the Greater Rann of Kutch which is farther away and extends upto the border with neighbouring Pakistan. It may be smaller in comparison but it is still 5000 sq km in size! It consists of flat land interspersed with clusters of shrubs mainly consisting of a thorny tree called gando bawal ( mad tree in Gujarati). The tree was introduced by the British to control the spread of the Little Rann and has now started invading the pastures, hence the name! There are checkpoints around where you officially pay fees to enter and take photos in the Little Rann. It will be very easy to avoid these checkpoints but the flat land and same looking vegetation makes it very easy to get disoriented about direction in the Little Rann, so it’s highly unwise to venture in without letting the checkpoint people know that you are going in lest you get stranded in for any reason & a guide is compulsory to make sure you don’t empty your fuel tanks driving around in circles in the disorienting landscape.
I’m not a habitual rule breaker, nor is my idea of fun getting lost in an arid desert like region, so we paid our dues and went in with our experienced guide. Another reason to have a good guide is that the bird life in the Little Rann though diverse is not abundant. So what you see and how good your photos are is highly dependant on how skilled your guide is at spotting the wildlife.
We got a good idea of how good Bechar was when after a few minutes of driving into the Rann we went towards a clump of the mad tree bushes and he asked our driver to go slowly. Neither me nor the better half could see anything. As our Innova slowly crept ahead Bechar pointed at the bottom of one of the bushes. Lo and behold there was a Short eared owl sitting right there in plain sight. It was obvious Bechar was a regular and he knew the habitat and the birds well. The camera went off like a machine gun and I got some of the best Owl photos I have ever taken.
The Beautiful Short eared Owl
But Bechar wasn’t satisfied and he said the light wasn’t perfect and we should move the car around for the perfect angle to get good light. The problem was that our car had a faulty reverse proximity indicator that kept shouting “0.5 metres!” even if there was nothing in the next 100 metres behind the car. One attempt at reversing and the owl pricked its ears up and was about to scoot.
That’s when Bechar politely asked our driver to drive away from the owl for a short distance & then asked him if he could drive the car so as to do the needful without reversing. Our driver very kindly agreed and for the next 4 safaris Bechar was our driver and guide! He expertly manoeuvred the car and gave me some pretty memorable moments and photos to go with them.
As soon as he got the wheel Bechar went back to the Owl who was now in the open. It posed beautifully for the 300mm giving all sorts of poses as I clicked away to glory. I’m an easy mark on safaris one good sighting and I was already satisfied.
More poses of the Short eared Owl
When the Owl was finished posing and moved back into the shrubs we moved on in search of some more birds. We spotted a pair of Juvenile Short toed snake Eagles. They were quite far away and didn’t seem to be in a mood to get photographed. However much our guide tried they kept moving to parts where our car couldn’t reach. I got some photos which I found satisfactory but my guide had higher standards than me. He sighed in disappointment as they flew away without getting into what I had started calling ” Bechar range”.
An Juvenile Short toed eagle
Also another thing about such highly particular guides is that they always go after the prize species – the raptors , bustards, predators. They pay no attention to the so called lesser species which I find equally fun to photograph. So Bechar concentrated his search on the highly endangered McQueen’s Bustard. I literally had to ask him to slow down as I wanted to take a few photos of the relatively plentiful Desert Wheatear posing beautifully on the thorny bushes.
A Desert Wheatear poses for the camera
Another so called Common species that we spotted were the Grey Francolin. These mainly ground dwelling birds were scurrying around in the undergrowth. Again I had to ask Bechar to interrupt his relentless search for the Bustard as we spotted a Francolin posing in the open with delightful evening light accentuating it’s beautiful plummage.
The beautiful Grey Francolin
As we were just finished admiring the Francolin a baby Indian Wild Ass or Khur galloped right in front of our car. Wild asses are an endangered species and there are only 6000 or so of these beautiful creatures left and the Little Rann is the last refuge of this once widespread animal. To anyone who feels that a wild ass isn’t graceful should see one running at full tilt, it will surely change your mind!
As I took a whole series of photos the baby Khur galloping towards its mother who was waiting for it just beyond the bushes. As the mother and baby got close together I was hoping they would stand and pose but they ran away at full tilt leaving me with another series of photos.
The Graceful and swift Khur Mother and Child
I didn’t remember the asses being so skittish in our last visit to the Little Rann. That’s when Bechar told us that the asses in the Bajana wetlands region which have more visitors are used to vehicles and less likely to run away, whereas those in these parts won’t let a vehicle get anywhere close to them.
It was getting dark and Bechar reluctantly abandoned his search for the Bustard and we turned to go back towards human habitation. As we were almost out of the Rann the car stopped and Bechar pointed to the ground where a beautiful Montagu’s Harrier female was sitting. The light was not ideal but one doesn’t ignore such a beautiful bird sitting at close quarters. Luckily for me the cameras and editing softwares have become so good that they gave me a great image of the harrier seen after the sun had gone below the horizon!
A Montagu’s Harrier Female poses
We returned back to the Hotel and rested for a while before it was dinner time. We ate and had a great nights sleep. We woke up early morning before dawn and got ready for our Safari. Bechar had asked us if we wanted to go to the Bajana Wetlands or search for more raptors in the arid part. Having only been to the wetlands in our previous visit the choice was easy and we resumed our drive into the seemingly endless Rann.
Early morning is the best time to spot raptors on the ground as after the sun comes up they spend most of the time either airborne or deep in the bushes, both of which are not ideal for photos. We drove around fruitlessly for a hour and I was beginning to feel if I would just be better off photographing my favourite flamingos! As if on cue Bechar said “Eagle!” no one else could see anything but Bechar continued to drive in a particular direction. After a minute or two a speck came into vision and as we trained our binoculars on it we could see the vague outline of a huge bird. How Bechar had spotted it when he did, I have no idea!
It was a majestic Imperial Eagle! It had just finished devouring a pigeon and the only sign left of its prey were a few scattered feathers. Bechar expertly got the car as close as the known to be skittish species would allow and I got photos that I will cherish for a long time!
The Majestic Imperial Eagle
We let the Eagle sit in peace and slowly moved away to see what else we could find. Bechar must have realised that I like to take photos of the small stuff too as he stopped the car to take photos of a beautifully posing blue cheeked bee eater. I had just finished taking a few photos when Bechar said the magic word “Peregrine!”
The Blue Cheeked Bee eater shines in the light
The Peregrine Falcon is a beautiful bird of prey that can reach 320 km/hr on its characteristic dives making it the fastest member of the animal kingdom ( The Cheetah can only reach a measly 120 km/hr in comparison!) I have for long seen beautiful photos taken by other birders of the Peregrine Falcon in these parts and some day hoped to take a half decent photo in comparison. Today would be that day hopefully!
Again how Bechar spotted the falcon sitting in the shade of a rock is beyond normal human vision & comprehension! So I took photos of the beautiful bird sitting in the shade. Though not ideal I didn’t want to waste this opportunity as the bird might take off and zoom off. Luckily for me the photos would get much better.
The Peregrine falcon loves the shade
The Peregrine did fly off after a few minutes but only a short distance away to the much larger shade of a bush. Now it had much better light on it for photography. We got close to the bush, much closer than the Eagle and I clicked away to glory. The bird even did a nice walk and posed around to my delight. Now even I had some photos of this beautiful bird that I could be satisfied with!
More poses from the Peregrine Falcon
We then resumed our search for the elusive McQueen’s Bustard. Once again the bird evaded Bechar’s keen eyes. He muttered under his breath that he had never searched so long for a @#$% Bustard! We then started our drive back, without realising we had driven a long way into the Rann and Bechar got us out to habitation at a location an hour away from our hotel. We then drove back to the hotel on smooth roads that were much kinder to our vehicle than the Rann.
A Bay Backed Shrike in the bushes
We returned to the hotel where we were greeted by the fierce Dolly, the hotel owner’s hound. We freshened up and took some photos around the Hotel till it was time for Lunch. The food at Bhavna resort was reliably good and freshly prepared and we ate more than we would usually. Full to the brim we rested our backs for some time.
The fierce hotel hound Dolly!
The pleasant Bhavna resort and Farm, Patdi
A Wagtail on the lawns of the Bhavna resort
Soon it was time to take one final drive into the dry parts to see if our Bustard luck would change. As we drove around , each minute without a Bustard irritated Bechar more & more. In our search for the seemingly invisible Bustard we spotted a Common Kestrel sitting in beautiful light. We reluctantly got Bechar to stop and take a few photos of the Kestrel before resuming his quest.
A common Kestrel in beautiful light
We drove around from one clump to the other for a good hour or more and it seemed that we would not have any luck. At last Bechar spotted a Bustard in the distance and it was well beyond the reach of my 300mm for any decent photos. Bechar tried to get us close but we saw it only for a fleeting moment before it disappeared into the bushes never to be seen again. At least Bechar got his Bustard even though he was not happy at all with that guest appearance. Frankly though I would have loved to see a McQueen’s Bustard at close quarters and get good photos, not getting a good sighting disappointed Bechar more. It also gave me a reason to visit the Rann again some day – always look at the bright side!
In our search for the Bustard I got to see another species I wanted to see and had missed during our last visit – The Indian Desert Fox. Though it was far from ideal for photography, we stopped and enjoyed watching the fox have a crunchy meal – the huge grasshoppers in the bush. As the fox finished his meal and disappeared deeper into the bush we started on our way back.
An Indian Desert Fox makes an appearance
The Desert fox munches on insects for lunch
We had asked Bechar to stop in the open part of the Rann just before Sunset as we wanted to take photos of the spectacular colourful sunsets here. Before that we got another unexpected bonus – An Indian Spotted Eagle perched at perfect height. Although it was very poor light for photography, I took a lot of photos which were salvaged to an extent by modern imaging technology!
An Indian Spotted eagle in failing light
We then rushed to the flat plains before the sun set and watched it go down taking some photos as the colours got more and more beautiful. Watching the sun set over the flat plains of the Rann is an experience in itself and highly recommended.
The beautiful colours of a Rann Sunset
The sun soon went below the horizon and it was the end of our time in the dry part of the Little Rann as we would be going to the Bajana wetlands for our last Safari the next morning. I had almost kept my camera away but the Rann still had one good raptor sighting left for me. A beautiful Male Pallid Harrier sitting at close quarters. So I took a few photos before the bird flew away. The Little Rann had proven it’s reputation of being a Raptor photography paradise.
A Male Pallid Harrier in near darkness
We returned to the hotel hoping our time in the wetlands the next morning would be as memorable as the time in the arid part. Whether our hopes would materialise is the topic for another post, some other time, some other day.
As usual my love for birding has made me ramble on far beyond my usual self set word limit. Hopefully my enthusiasm and love for my feathered friends shows in the photos.
Till next time,