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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Thol Lake Bird Sanctuary - Ahmedabad

    Thol lake bird sanctuary is a shallow freshwater body surrounded by marshes on the edge and scrubby forest embarking the sides. The lake sanctuary covering an area of 7 square kilometers was declared officially in 1988 and is also known by the name of Thol Bird Sanctuary.

    The shallow water reservoir speckled with reed beds gives it a distinct ambience while being an ideal dwelling for varied species of birds and insects. The agricultural land surrounding the lake provide ample amount of food for quite a number of birds while the hydrological ecosystem takes care of the others. One gets overwhelmed with flocks of bird flying together and crating graphical patterns on the sky while long-legged elongated necked cranes keep stalking for fishes and small insects. The still and serene ambience of the locale gets melodiously symphonized with the echoing of thousands birds and illustrated by the varied movements of these spirited creatures.

    A visual treat for any tourist and a treasurable experience for a bird watcher or ornithologists, this place is home to more than 100 species of birds.  Cranes, geese, flamingoes, pelicans, egrets, herons, spoonbills, ducks, whistling teals and many other migratory birds nest and breed in the lap of this natures exuberance. The most commonly noticed Indian Saras Crane with its long bare legs, elongated head and red head gracefully pecks insects while walking around the lake with dance like movements. This bird which flaunts the status of being the tallest flying bird on earth is often see in pairs and has over centuries inspired poets and artists with its elegance and beauty.

     I bird watched in Gujarat from 2-8 February 2007. From 2-5 February I was with Sumit Sen in Kutch, based at CEDO in Moti-Virani village (west of Bhuj) and following a programme organized by Jugal Tiwari. I transferred to Gir on 6 February and spent two nights at Gir Birding Lodge with a programme organized by Ganesh of Asian Adventures. On 8th I visited Velavadar Blackbuck Sanctuary with Ganesh en route to Ahmedabad. Sumit spent much of 6th with Niraj V. Mistry and Maulik Suthar visiting Thol Lake near Ahmedabad. Sumit had carefully researched past reports and lists and computed that in Kutch alone we should manage 200 species with up to 50 more from the other sites in Gujarat.We arrived at Ahmedabad by air and took an overnight train to Bhuj. We were received by our friend, local birder and travel expert, Anil Mulchandani at Ahmedabad Airport and were treated to one of our best meals on the trip. Gujarat is a dry state and permits are required for those who need a drink. Food is mostly vegetarian and even eggs are hard to come by.

     Our drive from Bhuj on 2nd gave us a chance to see what were the commoner species in Kutch. Laughing and Collared Doves, Common Babblers, Indian Robins, Rosy Starlings and House Sparrows were all numerous and it seemed that at almost every 100m the wires were graced with a Variable Wheatear. All were of the race pictata but I did see one male opistholeuca (the all black race) . We learnt that in this extreme western part of India many species common elsewhere in the country (and even the state) do not occur in Kutch. These included Jungle and Large Grey Babblers, Magpie Robins, barbets, Green Pigeons, tree pies and hornbills! In fact it was my thinking I had glimpsed a Grey Hornbill entering the canopy of a neem that led to our first stop and our first local specialty, a confiding group of noisy Marshall’s Iora; now an extremely local species confined to north-west India and apparently extirpated from Delhi. However we came across several parties in our time in Kutch. No trace of a hornbill (or indeed any similar sized bird) was found!

    After arrival at CEDO around lunch time we spent the remainder of the day in the Banni grasslands and Chhari Dhand. We started in an area of gravelly desert flats with rocky outcrops and quickly found a fine Red-tailed (formerly Rufous-tailed) Wheatear that Jugal had first located some days ago. This is the subspecies chrysopygia which some (including Birds of South Asia) consider warrants full specific status. Two other wheatears featured prominently throughout our birding in Kutch; Isabelline and Desert. Both favour more barren habitats than Variable but all proved to be very approachable as did the Siberian Stonechats in the grasslands. Several of the Desert Wheatears were acquiring their very smart breeding plumage. Common as the wheatears were, they (and all other passerines) were roundly eclipsed by the large flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks which swarmed over the dry lands and the tracks and by the gatherings of House Sparrows (apparently of the large north western Himalayan race parkini) in the thorn scrub.
Raptors of several species are numerous in Kutch and we were not disappointed. From early on we started seeing Pallid Harriers and Long-legged Buzzards. An excellent monsoon had produced a fine crop of grass which in turn nurtured a huge population of Lesser Bandicoot Rats Bandicoota bengalensis. These are apparently the main prey of the harriers, buzzards and eagles. Other mammals included Golden Jackals, Indian Hares, Jungle Cat, Nilgai and Chinkara but none were numerous. Near Chhari Dhand up to 12 Marsh, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers and a similar number of Steppe Eagles could be seen at any one time. In the evening over 40 Steppe Eagles scuffled over the favoured roosts on top of the scattered bushes with the majority forced to perch on the ground. On two evenings we watched the fly-past of around 200 harriers of three species going to roost, an excellent way to hone id skills on the ringtails. Some seemed to deliberately change direction to fly over us and have a closer look!.

     In smaller numbers we saw in this area a couple of very pale immature Imperial Eagles, Short-toed Eagle, Oriental Honey-buzzard, Osprey, a single Greater Spotted and Tawny Eagles together with good numbers of Black-shouldered Kites and Common Kestrels. What were missing were any vultures, only on the 3rd did we have very distant views of four Eurasian Griffons even though we visited a carcass dump.

     In terms of numbers probably the most impressive species was the Common Crane. Groups of birds were frequently encountered in the grasslands and on the dry flats, many including juveniles which spoke of a good breeding season. On our two evening watches we were treated to the remarkable sight of at least 25000 streaming in from all quarters over a couple of hours to roost on mud banks in the lake. The well-disciplined chevrons and lines were constantly bugling their contact calls. This must be one of the largest wintering concentrations in India and contributes to Kutch’s status as the host of the largest numbers. What was interesting during the day was the number feeding (apparently on roots and tubers) on dry flats and in the thorn scrub. Certainly they were not restricted to wet or even damp areas.


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