“You’re going birding where?!” a well-meaning friend asked, incredulously. A regular visitor to Kutch on account of his textiles business, he seemed concerned about the state of my mental health. “There’s nothing there, buddy. It’s all arid land. Hardly any trees even!” he said. I smiled patiently. I was aware of the reputation Kutch had. And to be fair to him, it is arid. But he was wrong about the birds. Kutch lies on the migration route of many birds flying south for winter, including the stately common cranes that arrive here by the thousands. And they’re just one of hundreds of different species that follow suit.
At the heart of the Kutch birding experience is Banni, possibly the largest natural grassland on the Indian subcontinent. It is about 85 kilometres northwest of Bhuj and spread over about 3,000 square kilometres and hosts an incredible population of birds, reptiles, and mammals. Come monsoon, large swathes of land are inundated by saline water, which, although shallow, has been instrumental in influencing the flora and fauna of this region.
Human activities in the last few decades have also had a great impact on this ecosystem. These include damming of rivers that help drain the ingress of salt water, salt farming in pans, rampant livestock grazing, and the introduction of the notorious gandobaval (mad babool). In the 1960s, the Gujarat government introduced this plant across 300 square kilometres of the region to minimise the impact of salt water ingress. Today, it covers more than 1,500 square kilometres of Banni, having displaced many indigenous grass species and reduced the groundwater levels.
Jugal Tiwari, who has accompanied me to Banni, is the founder of wildlife conservation organisation, Centre for Desert & Ocean. He ruefully looks over the grassland as he narrates a tale of a family of desert cats that had made their home in a small mound of rock. Evicted by constant human movement and plumes of smoke billowing out of the makeshift charcoal manufacturing mounds, Jugal only hopes they managed to relocate successfully. He says they were one of the many species that got displaced by this activity. But it isn’t all bad news. In 2009, the forest department prepared a working plan to restore the grassland, 54 years after it was declared a protected forest. Another heartening fact is that the ecosystem of Banni is no pushover. Locals narrate stories of times when this used to be a lush landscape in the early 19th century, when the Indus flowed through. It is said to have changed course after the 1819 Kutch quake, turning the Banni arid. However, soon a whole new ecosystem evolved and the most significant was the growth of halophytes, plants that thrive in saline waters. These plants are the reason why the cranes make a beeline for this place. And voyeurs like me, follow.
We have arrived in the end of October, and Banni is still drying out. So we have to make our own tracks through the Chhari-Dhand Wetland Conservation Reserve—an area of the Banni which lies in a slight depression, and retains moisture the longest. As winter progresses, tyre tracks get more pronounced and are easier to follow. For now, I’m depending entirely on Jugal Tiwari. Fortunately, his knowledge of the area is stupendous but even he can’t tell where exactly the short-eared owls would be resting during the day. There’s a bunch of these migratory birds whose camouflage is working exceedingly well, and we almost plough right through them. Jugal swerves madly at the last second and they take off in a cloud of feathers, accompanied by some disgruntled screeches. I rue the missed opportunity for a shot, but Jugal is quite confident we’ll get to see more. And he’s right. That’s the thing about Kutch; you don’t see just one or two individuals of a particular species. If you spot one, you’ll probably see plenty more. Except for the great Indian bustard; we see just two of them, but considering that they are critically endangered with less than 300 of them left in the wild, I consider myself extremely lucky.
We set off in the opposite direction the next morning. Barely 20 minutes out, we see a desert hedgehog lying still by the side of the road. We approach cautiously, and as suspected, it’s a roadkill. I move it away from the road and we continue.
Soon we’re exploring the toothbrush tree forest in search of the grey hypocolius. Banni is one of the few habitats in India where this species is regularly seen, making the adjoining village of Fulay a favourite haunt for birders. We don’t spot one—Jugal had mentioned it was early in the season to spot this visiting avian—but at least now the hedgehog is off my mind. We ramble through the brambles of a tropical thorn forest in search of the white-naped tit, another bird of particular interest to me. Endemic to India, it is only observed in two isolated populations, with rare sightings outside of Kutch. So I am pleased that we get to see it.
What blows my mind however, is the raptor paradise that is Naliya grasslands. Five species of buzzards, seven of eagles, shikras, kestrels, falcons and harriers: this place is like their private playground. Jugal has timed our visit well. It is early evening, and there’s a flurry of activity. Dusk comes quickly, though, and we make our way back.
The crab plovers look more perplexed than perturbed. Shifting uneasily on knobby knees as if they’ve been afflicted by a bad case of gout, they seem to wonder what I’m doing on the wrong side of their sand bar. But the beach here slopes gently into the ocean and even 50 feet out, the water’s just knee-deep. I’ve waded in beyond their safe perch to a vantage point looking back at the shore. On the edges of the Gulf of Kutch, there’s a whole set of avian species sporting unusual beaks. The pied avocets have short ones curving upwards at the tip, Eurasian curlews have ones so long that their sole purpose seems to be bragging rights, the plovers have thick, powerful ones that can crack open crab shells, and the great thick-knee that should have been named great thick bill, instead. There’s a large congregation of smaller Kentish plovers scurrying about in the sand, a western reef egret squawking like it’s got a fish bone stuck in its throat, and a multitude of other waders going about their business with single-minded determination. I make sure I tread lightly. As I’m jotting their names down in my field diary, I notice the list has crossed the magical three-figure mark, and my thoughts turn to my disbelieving friend. I wonder what he’ll have to say about all this.
Later, as I tour other parts of the Kutch, I miss Banni and being around someone as passionate about the land as Jugal Tiwari. The pangs of separation settle in and it will be a while before I can overcome the feeling.
Banni is about 450 km/7.5 hr west of Ahmedabad and about 85 km/ 2 hr northwest of Bhuj. Centre for Desert and Ocean has a homestay and organises guided safaris (cedobirding.com; doubles Rs 4,500; half-day safaris Rs3,500 for 4 people).
Anjuman Deodhar quit medical school to pursue his passion for writing. A well-heeled traveller, intrepid birder and wildlife enthusiast, he is currently working on a memoir of the 15 years he spent with "the dog who didn't know better".