10 days with binoculars from dawn till dusk
Text and photos © Dragan Simic
1500 kilometers along the roads of Gujarat, India, or 10 days with binoculars from sunrise to sundown... December afternoon finds us in the Little Rann of Kutch heading north from Dasada along a rather decent tarmac road, between the wheat fields and passing camel carts in our Gipsy. Target for today: critically endangered Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius). CR is the highest category in the Red List, and if you want to see some of those birds, you better hurry!
Ubiquitous Indian Roller on the wire by the road, a pair of Brahminy Starlings further away, Grey Francolins disappearing in the grass, Wooly-necked Storks in the fields... even two huge Sarus Cranes in the distance (also our third and in this area the last crane species to be ticked).
Sam, our driver/guide, is stopping the Gipsy on the small bridge above the canal and the six of us are scanning the fields with binoculars. Sociable Lapwings here overwinter in fields with young wheat. But something is clearly wrong – only Red-wattled Lapwings are showing. There is no sign of Sociables.
The road follows the dyke and Sam drives steeply down towards the canal, continuing along the water’s edge. Red-wattled Lapwings are still numerous, but Sociables are still missing. Sam claims that they are always there, 26 of them only a week ago. Locals being vegetarians, why are there no birds?
Frantic search - Peter is even running by the canal, scanning the fields occasionally. Looking in all directions... This threatened species would be the crown of these ten days – we can put binoculars aside after it. Any other bird would be just an anticlimax. We simply have to find it – it is critically endangered! Definition of that level in the red list says it could be gone within ten years, or could lose 80 per cent of its population within three generations, whichever comes first.
Sociable Lapwings breed in several areas along the Kazakhstani – Russian border and overwinter in Iraq, Sudan and northwest India. Reasons for its decline include steppes being turned into arable fields – the reason it disappeared from Ukraine and European Russia, on migration it is being hunted with guns and falcons, and on its wintering grounds natural habitat is dwindling in the absence of once large herds of wild ungulates (one should try to see these animals as gardeners of a well-kept landscape).
Actually, despite the fact that central Asian steppes cover huge areas, Sociable Lapwings breed only around nomadic cattle herders’ settlements, which signifies that this species has evolved alongside wild ungulates, such as Blackbuck and Saiga antelopes, which kept the grass short. With overhunting and the population crash in antelopes and Indian wild ass, these lapwings have left large areas and are nowadays found only with herds of domestic cattle. That can be traced back in time to 1875, when Alfred Brehm wrote that he had found Sociable Lapwings only alongside the domestic cattle. These birds even lay their eggs on piles of cow or horse dung, most likely to elevate them from the cold ground and possibly provide some heating through the process of rotting plant material.
Peter is running back from recce: some 600 meters away, he has noticed about 15 Sociable Lapwings in flight! Back to Gipsy and toward a distant group of farmers working their fields. Five excited pairs of eyes are scanning the ground... By dirt tracks in between fields, we come ever closer, bit by bit. At first, we observe from a far.
I am trying to count them, but they keep walking and searching for food, so a few birds remain hidden from me at any given time. One, two, three... 26! Let’s check that... one, two... 27! Did I counted some pile of dirt as a bird? Again, two, three... 26. And again, just in case... three, four... 28! Few minutes later, Peter confirms my count. Still, a record count in Dasada was 45 birds in November 2007.
Overexcited by the tick, we are heading back to the lodge through the winter sunset. On the outskirt of the village, by the last house, stands a dry tree decorated with six Indian Peafowl. A smile will remain glued to my face for days.
For being invited to the Global Bird Watcher’s Conference, I would like to thank the organizers: Government of Gujarat, Gujarat Tourism Corporation and the Forest Department of Gujarat. The conference was organized by excellent J N Rao Travel (thanks, Uttej), post-conference bird tour by Arpit Deomurari whose Indian list these days stand somewhere at 900+, so he is forced to chase endemics in the Himalayas and the Andaman Islands (go, Arpit), and the lodge we used in Dasada was charming and lush green Rann Riders with the best cuisine we tried en route.
Follow the amazing journey of Sociable Lapwings – one of the world’s rarest birds with BirdLife International, RSPB and Swarovski Optik: www.birdlife.org.
Our Dasada bird list (98 species):
Grey Frankolin Francolinus pondicerianus
Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatus
Little Cormorant Phalacrocorax niger
Indian Cormorant Phalacrocorax fuscicollis
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron Ardea purpurea
Great Egret Egretta alba (Casmerodius albus)
Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Painted Stork Mycteria leucocephala
Asian Openbill Anastomus oscitans
Woolly-necked Stork Ciconia episcopus
Black-headed Ibis (Oriental White Ibis) Threskiornis melanocephalus
Black Ibis Pseudibis papillosa
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia
Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus
Greylag Goose Anser anser
Ruddy (Brahminy) Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
(Northern) Pintail Anas acuta
Common Teal Anas crecca
Gadwall Anas strepera
Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Common Pochard Aythya ferina
Black-shouldered Kite Eleanus caeruleus
Black Kite (Black-eared Kite) Milvus migrans (M. m. lineatus)
Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus
White-eyed Buzzard Butastur teesa
Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus
Montagu’s Harrier Circus pygargus
Eurasian Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus
Short-toed Snake Eagle Circaetus gallicus
Shikra Accipiter badius
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Purple Swamphen (Moorhen) Porphyrio porphyrio
Common Coot Fulica atra
Macqueen's Bustard Chlamydotis macqueeni
Common Crane Grus grus
Sarus Crane Grus antigone
Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius
Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus
Common Sandpiper Tringa hypoleucos
Ruff Philomachus pugnax
Temminck’s Stint Calidris temminckii
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Indian Courser Cursorius coromandelicus
Collared Pratincole Glareola pratincola
Brown-headed Gull Larus brunnicephalus
River Tern Sterna aurantia
Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse Pterocles exustus
Painted Sandgrouse Pterocles indicus
Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
Red Collared Dove Streptopelia tranquebarica
Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri
Spotted Owlet Athene brama
Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus
House Swift Apus affinis
(Lesser) Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis
(Small) Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis
Indian Roller Coracias bengalensis
Common Hoopoe Upupa epops
Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark Eremopterix grisea
Rufous-tailed Lark Ammomanes phoenicurus
Greater Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla
Crested Lark Galerida cristata
Syke’s Lark Galerida deva
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Wire-tailed Swallow Hirundo smithii
Red-rumped Swallow Hirundo daurica
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava
Purple Sunbird Nectarinia asiatica
Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis
Bay-backed Shrike Lanius vittatus
Roufous-tailed Shrike Lanius isabellinus
Chestnut-tailed Starling (Grey-headed S) Sturnus malabaricus
Rosy Starling Sturnus roseus
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
Bank Myna Acridotheres ginginianus
House Crow Corvus splendens
White-eared Bulbul Pycnonotus leucotis
Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer
Common Babbler Turdoides caudatus
Indian Robin Saxicoloides fulicata
Common (siberian) Stonechat Saxicola torquata
Pied Bushchat Saxicola caprata
Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti
Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina
Zitting Cisticola (Streaked Fantail-W) Cisticola juncidis
Greater Whitethroat Sylvia communis
Desert Warbler Sylvia nana
Baya Weaver Ploceus philippinus
Black-breasted Weaver Ploceus benghalensis
About the author
Now nearing 50 and duly lost in a mid-life crisis, Dragan Simic took to birding rather late – only half a lifetime ago, after successfully testing his inadequate skills in other life threatening activities, such as rock climbing and vertical caving. In the end, it was birding that has taken him from his native Serbia, across the Balkans and Turkey, to the very borders of the Old World: East Anglia and Spain, southern Africa and India...
Beside birds and traveling in search of them, Dragan likes a good beer and the croaky voice of Shane MacGowan, hates confinements of four walls, but prefers four wheels and a lot of elbow room around. Birder by passion and environmentalist by education, he is the coauthor of three common birds guidebooks, the writer and the host of one TV film on birding for beginners, a field researcher, an ecotourism consultant, a bird blogger and a guy who always think that birding must be better behind that next curve of the road, and that the best bird ever is the – next lifer.