Gujarat Road Trip, Part 5 – Returning to Velavadar

This post is a long delayed continuation of a series documenting our travels to a small part of the state of Gujarat in November 2021. We had spent a great two days birding in the Little Rann of Kutch. (Gujarat Road Trip, Part 3 – Birding in the Little Rann of Kutch) After a great morning with the waterbirds at Bajana we had checked out of the Bhavna Resort and Farm and started on our journey towards the last destination on this trip – Velavadar National Park. (Gujarat Road Trip, Part 4 – Birding at the Bajana Wetlands)

I had first travelled to Velavadar a few years ago with my father and a friend. Since then I had been raving about the Park and it’s unspoilt beauty to the better half. So she had readily agreed to adding this on our itinerary when we planned our little road trip. The road from the Little Rann to Velavadar was not the best that we had travelled in this trip. But still it was much better than the roads in the rest of the country. We reached Velavadar after a quick lunch stop at a dhaba on the highway.

After the road turns towards Velavadar from the highway you progressively lose mobile network till eventually there is none. Most people would consider this a huge minus, I was actually looking forward to a couple of days not stuck to the mobile screen.

Velavadar National Park or Kaliyar Blackbuck National Park is one of the last so called off the beaten track National Parks in the country. Even most people from Gujarat have no idea that they have this gem of a park in their state. In most national parks there will be a minimum of a dozen hotels surrounding the park, numerous souvenir stands and a line of jeeps each day waiting to enter the park. Velavadar has 2 hotels (of which I would recommend none), none of which are close to the park, zero souvenir stands and on one of our safaris we were the only vehicle in the park!

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Even the no speeding board has a Kingfisher keeping an eye on it

The place we chose to stay at the park was the dormitory at the Forest office run Kaliyar Bhavan. This is a typical Government Forest Office run place, almost no online presence & very difficult to book. But once you do manage to get in, it has the best location right next to the park, costs a fraction of the hotels I mentioned earlier & has all the facilities you need. As an added bonus you get delicious, hot authentic local cuisine made and served with great affection by the caretaker Haji and his family. It is a place my father still remembers for the food even after a few years!  The Kaliyar Bhavan has 4 cottages and 2 dormitories with 9 beds each.One cottage is always reserved for the stray Government official that may drop by unannounced. For the past year the remaining cottages have been taken over by the people running a project started to breed the highly endangered Lesser Florican that breeds in the park in the monsoon. So I took the better half’s permission before booking one of the two dormitories for ourselves since we would be spending our anniversary there.

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The Dormitory section of the Kaliyar Bhavan – Unpretentious & worth every rupee!

We reached Velavadar well in time to go for the evening Safari if we wanted to. But we decided to take it easy that day and just walk around the campus which is right adjacent to the park. We were greeted by the resident pair of white wagtails that kept me entertained for the duration of our stay.

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A pair of White Wagtails at the Kaliyar Bhavan, Velavadar

The area is known for Common drongos , White Eared Bulbuls, Laughing Doves and they gave me some pretty photos without any effort. There is always a heron in the small pond just beyond the wired fence. Last time we were lucky enough to spot a Purple Heron there, this time we only got a Pond Heron trying very hard to blend into the grass.

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A monarch butterfly gives me practice at Kaliyar Bhavan

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A pair of White Eared Bulbuls pose for the 300mm

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A portrait of the most aggressive of birds – The Common Drongo

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A Laughing Dove in the soft evening light

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A pond Heron sits patiently in the small pond close by

Since it is a grassland park it has lots of huge grasshoppers and I was wondering if I would be lucky enough to see a bird catch one when a White Breasted Kingfisher came and swooped one off the floor. It landed on the gate of the Kaliyar Bhavan and proceeded to give me some great photos of it whacking the insect before consuming it.

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A White Breasted kingfisher shows me its lunch

I was already very pleased at our decision to not go on a Safari that evening when it got better. The better half spotted a bird in a bush in the campus and I thought it was one of the numerous species of larks that are seen here. I trained the camera on it and it was a pretty Siberian Blue throat. This beautiful winter migrant is sought out by birders and here it was parading itself right outside our dormitory. I took what are the best photos I have of this bird till date!

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The beautiful Siberian Bluethroat at Kaliyar Bhavan

It was almost dark and we were returning to the dormitory when we spotted something small hopping along the path. It was a tiny baby toad and it posed nicely for the camera to end a great leisurely evening.

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A baby toad poses nicely for the camera

We returned to our assigned dormitory and freshened up a bit before Haji called us to the dining room for a hot and delicious meal. We ate double of what we usually eat at home before reluctantly getting up and retiring to our beds. We had a surprise knock on our door at 9 pm and I opened to see the forest officer in charge of the place grinning at me. He had booked the dormitory twice by mistake for the same day! So to rectify his error and since we were only 2 of us he asked us if we could move to the cottage reserved for the so called VIPs for that night. Obviously we agreed and the better half got her wish of staying in one of the cottages (at least for one night) thanks to the mistake of the Forest Officer!

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Happy us after a night in the cottage of the Kaliyar Bhavan!

We woke up fresh the next morning ready for our first drive into the National Park itself. Haji served us piping hot tea and we drove to the park gate literally next door and paid the dues and entered the Park with a guide. Velavadar also differs from most other parks in this aspect, we are allowed to take our own vehicle inside. Though there are the typical Open Safari Jeeps that can be hired, if you have a high enough SUV it is good enough for sighting in this park.

Velavadar is known for its huge herds of Blackbucks that it is named after. These were the first animals we sighted as we entered the park. A huge herd with Blackbucks of all sizes – From suckling foals to adult males in their dark black coats decided to cross the track right in front of our vehicle. The soft morning light acting like a backlight making their bodies seem to have a glowing edge and I must have clicked in excess of a hundred photos!!

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Blackbucks with soft morning backlight – The stars of Velavadar

There is always a fight in between male blackbucks waiting to happen and we were lucky enough to see two lock horns right in front of us. As usual I clicked away to glory. People have told me to start taking videos and somehow I don’t feel myself drawn to the medium. Have to adapt and change as time goes on but for now the photos will have to do!

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A couple of photos from the series of two males going at it full tilt

The blackbucks are the stars of the show here but what brings me back is the amazing birdlife at Velavadar. More importantly the vegetation is such that when you do see a bird you usually get good photos of it in great light.

There are the European Stonechats. These pretty little posers have flown all the way from the cold parts of Europe and they always seem to know where to pose to catch the perfect light.

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The European Stonechats – The perfect posers who have come all the way across the globe

There are other pretty European migrants like the European Roller. We saw one sitting on a perch looking as pretty as a picture. But what a birder looks for when they see a roller is an opportunity to see or photograph it with its colourful wings on display while flying. Sadly this one was in no mood to fly, and we are not the type of birders that make birds fly just to get a photo. So we let the Roller enjoy his morning sunlight and carried on.

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A European Roller enjoying the Indian sun

It’s not just the migrants that are pretty. There are the omnipresent and oh so local green bee eaters flitting around. When you catch one sitting close by in perfect light you will get a photo that will rival the most exotic of migrants in beauty.

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A green bee eater in perfect light

The park also has a wetland area which has all the usual suspects – Flamingos in their pink glory, painted storks, herons, spoonbills. But we were also lucky enough to see some black storks in a mixed group very close to the track which made for great photos of this comparatively elusive bird.

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The Black Stork in great light

We spent the next few minutes photographing these brave specimens who were posing for me. Till they had enough of me and flew away all in a big melee. But it had been enough time for me to get some decent photos in at close range.

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A pair of painted storks

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A black headed Ibis

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A Grey Heron

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A  Eurasian spoonbill

As we moved to the comparatively small park it never ceases to amaze me at the number of raptors than you can see here in winter. Though there had been more variety of Eagles here last time when we visited, the sightings we had of the Short toed snake eagle more than made up for it.

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A short toed snake eagle in near perfect conditions for photography

I had been amazed at the number of Pallid harriers here on my last visit. As if to compensate there were very few Pallid harriers this time. But their absence was made up by the sheer number of Montague’s Harriers and Marsh Harriers that we saw. Strangely it was mostly female Montague’s Harriers that were seen, it was as if all the males were away on a stag party!

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A Marsh Harrier poses in the Sunlight

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A Montague’s Harrier Female poses on a stump

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A female Montague’s Harrier in flight

After that awesome first two hours inside the park we returned to the dormitory where Haji had piping hot breakfast ready for us. We enjoyed our hot breakfast and another round of tea before returning to the park to complete our morning safari. Another advantage of staying in the Kaliyar Bhavan, no need to pack a cold breakfast to have on your morning safari!

There are two concrete pillars on either side of the road that passes through the centre of the park dividing it into the grassland and wetlands part. These pillars were home to a family of spotted owlets when we had visited last time. To my utter glee the owlets were still there and I took photos of them every time we passed the pillars in the next three days!

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A spotted owlet in the concrete pillars marking the park boundary

We returned to the wetlands area after breakfast because a wolf had been sighted there. In Velavadar there are no big cats, so the apex predator in these parts is the Wolf. Wolves are notoriously known for running away as soon as they see a vehicle approach. So it would take some good luck to get one at close enough range for a good photo.

On our way we spotted even more passerine birds like the Hoopoe which is a bird which is found almost all over the world. I have photographed it in 3 continents myself, but there is always scope for a few more photos of this bird that can’t be mistaken for anything else!

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A Hoopoe poses for the camera

Giving the migrant stonechats company was the resident female Pied Bushchat. It rivalled it’s European cousins for posing around and giving clean photos!

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A Female Pied Bushchat poses on a perch

We went towards the area where the Wolf had been seen but we had little luck. We did get fly by from a white eyed buzzard and the D500 showed that it was no slouch in getting flight photos even from the awkward confines of a car.

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A White eyed Buzzard in flight

In our search for the Wolf we came across yet another Short Toed Snake Eagle , this one even closer and I certainly wasn’t missing the wolf!

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A close up of a Short Toed Snake Eagle

We reached the main Waterbody where you are allowed to alight from the car and we got down to take some photos of our pink friends.

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We also got to see the Greater Spotted Eagle and the Marsh Harrier flying at close to ground level  and the D500 ensured that I got some photos of these magnificent raptors in flight in focus.

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The amazing wingspan of the Greater Spotted Eagle

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A marsh harrier diving in full tilt

While we were still out of our car our guide spotted the Wolf in a grassland at some distance. So we hurriedly ran to our car and went in the track that led in that direction. We only got a brief glimpse of this apex predator before it ran into the tall grass.

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A brief glimpse of the Indian wolf

We tried to anticipate where it would emerge but we had no luck. The wolf had decided to wait it out and after waiting for a long time we decided to leave and hope for better luck in the later safaris.

On our way back we saw a raptor sitting extremely close and slowly inched our car towards it. It was the White Eyed Buzzard that we had seen flying by an hour ago. It posed every which way and I clicked away hoping that at least one would be good. Thankfully multiple were and it is always a pleasure to get a raptor with a catchlight glinting in it’s eye.

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A White Eyed Buzzard at very close range

That made up for the disappointment at losing track of the Wolf for now. We returned to the Dormitory to rest for a while and eat to our hearts content before returning to the park later in the day hoping that we have better luck with the Wolves.

But that is the story for another post.

Some other time, Some other day.

Till then.

Bye

PS – Places like Velavadar make me ramble on more and more than any city or palace can and I hope that it doesn’t get too tedious for the reader. Apologies if it does!

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