On a cold and windy January morning, as the sun hid behind a curtain of fog, we scanned the vast grassland expanses inside Desert National Park, part of Thar in Jaisalmer. A flock of sparrows perched on a nearby Ziziphus plant, unsure of whether to set out foraging in the cold. A gaggle of short-toed larks flew overhead, chirping along. No other bird was in sight. Just then, Aradin, our driver and field assistant, pointed eastward. A big bird took off. Our binoculars followed the movement, and then it came into focus—the great Indian bustard, one of the less than 100 remaining in the world, was soaring away. This was the type of rare, unexpected sighting which makes Desert National Park a happy stomping ground for devoted wildlife seekers.
I was in the Desert National Park Wildlife Sanctuary—3,162 square kilometres of grasslands, agriculture and scrubland, to check off a birding wish list too. Apart from my friends, Ram and Varun, my only other cohorts that morning were Aradin and Musa Khan, a resident bird guide-cum-naturalist. We had begun our expedition that morning in Sudasari, a part of the park close to the village of Sam. Early mornings were unusually chill, and the strong winds with foggy skies only leavened the portentous theatre of dawn. Sudasari was what the forest department termed an enclosure, a large area of the park that was fenced in and allowed only restricted grazing. Entry inside the enclosure is not permitted but we could stay on the perimeters to spot birds. Right off the bat, I encountered a thousand, if not more, bimaculated larks foraging close to our vehicle. A winter migrant, this is one of the largest larks found in this region, possessing two black patches on the breast (therefore bimaculated: two spots); I squinted to observe a few black-crowned sparrow larks among them. Soon they had taken flight, streaking the skies like a wave rising from the ocean. Interspersed throughout the grasslands were smaller scrubs where we spied the Asian desert warbler, skulking about, mouse-like. A small brown bird with a pretty yellow iris, this warbler is a migratory species found in the Indian desert in the winter. As the day progressed, we encountered raptors soaring on the thermals, and a red-headed vulture near a carcass.
Once the fog started to lift, we made our way towards another part of the sanctuary. While driving, Musaji pointed to something on the ground, scurrying away from our transport. We trained our binoculars on the cream-coloured courser, a rarer cousin of the Indian courser, with a beautiful black-and-white V pattern on its head. There were five of them, scampering off before stopping at a distance and eyeing our car with what I imagine was suspicion. Yet another bird crossed from my list! Buoyed by my success so far, I was feeling sanguine about what lay ahead.
After lunch, we visited Khaba, east of Sam village, characterised by rocky terrain and a desolate fort (the Khaba fort) atop a hill. I was hoping to get a glimpse of two special birds: while the desert lark did manifest, the trumpeter finch eluded me (minor consolation: I did see the finches outside the park, a flock of 20). The fort was a welcome distraction from our birding session. Once the seat of the Paliwal Brahmins, the 13th-century structure struck a regal but solitary portrait; here and there, we’d stop to run our eyes over millennia-old fossils and rocks. Perhaps the most poignant and fascinating of all was the fossil of a tree trunk, indicating a once-thriving rainforest in the very place reduced to stretches of sand.
On my last day, we decided to explore the Bhuwana region. Situated outside the sanctuary, this was perhaps the driest region I have visited so far. As our vehicle revved through sandy tracks, we came up empty aside from the red-tailed wheatear, another speciality that attracts birders to this part of the country. At an abandoned school along our route, three Punjab ravens foraged while we stopped to admire some underground wells. The dhani was not too far. As we passed by, Aradin waved at the shepherd who was sitting on a charpoy outside his house. He gestured for all of us to come and sit with him. While his lady greeted us with tea made with goat milk, his three young boys seemed preoccupied with my binoculars. A hot cup of tea under the sweltering desert sun might be ludicrous to some but we were beyond grateful for any signs of hospitable company in the faraway corner of the land.
On our return journey, we clocked one more sight, the McQueen’s bustard, a winter visitor to India, mostly from Central Asia and the Middle East. Satisfied and glad, we finally halted to appreciate the remarkable atmosphere of the park; pristine dunes that evoked epic cinematic montages were all around. We plonked ourselves onto the sand to watch the sunset, in awe of the people who call this place home, and whose toil and resilience form the lifeblood that preserves the desert’s precious wildlife.
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This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India, March-April 2021.
Sutirtha Lahiri is a Master’s student at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. He is always in search of birds and birdsong, good food, a cup of tea, and a reason to ditch transport for long walks.