bird and mammal safari in the Rann of Kutch
The Indian state of Gujarat nestles into the extreme north-west of India and offers some of the very best bird and mammal watching in the subcontinent; an accolade indeed in a country so well known for the profusion of its wildlife. Yet for some inexplicable reason it has been off most birdwatchers’ radar, remaining for the most part little known to western tourists. This new tour aims to search out three of the rare mammals which make the state their home – Asiatic Lion, Asiatic Wild Ass and the exquisite Blackbuck, though other exciting possibilities include Leopard, Sambar, Spotted Deer, Nilgai, Indian Wolf, Striped Hyena and Desert Wildcat. Whilst mammals feature highly, Gujarat is also very rich from an ornithological point of view having some of the richest wetlands in India, plus dry deciduous forest and desert grasslands which add to a daily variety of birds. Large mixed flocks of flamingos and pelicans are to be expected whilst the hoards of waterfowl and waders attract many wintering raptors including Eastern Imperial and Steppe Eagles, as well as resident Tawny Eagles and Crested Hawk-eagles. Uncountable flocks of larks are harassed by Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers and we should be blessed with prolonged and close views of these, not least as dusk approaches because the area boasts the largest harrier roosts in the world (3000 estimated in its heyday!) In addition, it is the wide variety of range restricted and highly sought-after species which draws the birdwatcher to these parts. Gujarat offers great chances of encounters with Grey Hypocolius, MacQueen’s Bustard, Marshall’s Iora, White-naped Tit, Crab Plover, Pallid Scops Owl, Indian Courser, Sykes’s Nightjar, Stoliczka’s Bushchat, Red-tailed Wheatear, Grey-necked Bunting and many more.
We begin with a flight from London to Ahmedabad, where we will rest in a city centre hotel before venturing out on our Indian adventure later in the morning. It is just a two hour journey to the grassy plains of the Velavadar National Park, also known as the Blackbuck Sanctuary. This tropical grassland is the best place in the world to see the elegant Blackbuck, a species of antelope found exclusively in the subcontinent. The males are particularly attractive, sporting a black body with contrasting white undersides and strikingly long, corkscrew horns. Velavadar is also blessed as a stronghold of the declining Indian Wolf and forms a refuge for the enigmatic Striped Hyena. The park is equally famous for its birds, and we will be entertained by flocks of Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark and Rufous-tailed Larks whilst Isabelline Shrikes and Sykes’s Warblers frequent the scrub. Raptors, including both Steppe and Greater Spotted Eagles, figure dominantly and as evening approaches impressive numbers of Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers arrive to roost offering a memorable finale to the day. Our hotel is actually within the national park itself, thereby offering outstanding chances of encounters with these birds and animals throughout our two night stay.
The next day we have a drive of about six hours to Sasan Gir. We have three nights at the famous Gir Lion Sanctuary searching out this most fearsome of predators. Asiatic Lions once roamed all across India and beyond as far as Greece, but habitat destruction and hunting decimated numbers until a mere handful of animals survived! Thankfully, a concerned Maharaja established the sanctuary, and today Gir remains the only stronghold of this stately creature, with 320 animals making the 1400 square kilometre of dry deciduous forest their home. With four game safaris we stand a good chance of an encounter, and whilst looking, Nilgai, Spotted Deer, Wild Boar and even Leopard may be seen. Birds include Crested Hawk-eagle, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Plum-headed and Rose-ringed Parakeet, Tawny-bellied Babbler, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, plus a selection of flycatchers and warblers. A visit to the nearby Somnath temple, a site of significance to Hindus from all around the world, will provide both a short cultural distraction and an insight into local Indian life; but not for too long, as an enticing nearby wetland is home to a variety of herons, ducks and waders including both Greater and Lesser Sandplovers and Great Thick-knee, a host of gulls including Great Black-headed and Brown-headed, plus resting terns including Gull-billed and Whiskered.
After a final morning safari in Gir, we leave after lunch for an overnight stay in Rajkot, the administrative centre for Saurashtra district and reputedly one of the cleanest cities in India! This former regional capital is famous for providing education to none other than Mahatma Ghandi himself, at a time when his father was the local Chief Minister. Our overnight stay will break the long journey to the Rann of Kutch, and whilst there, we can easily incorporate a visit to the Swami Narayan Temple.
RANN OF KUTCH
After breakfast we will journey to Bhuj, close to the fabled Great Rann of Kutch. Our convenient hotel, for the next four nights, is located within a short distance of several of the region’s speciality birds. A chief target is the Grey Hypocolius, a little known and range restricted species, possibly allied to the waxwings. In the early morning, small groups of these attractive desert birds feed on the berries of the toothbrush tree and our local guide will direct us to the best place to secure close views. Nearby grasslands hold Stoliczka’s Bushchat, one of the most elusive of chats, with a breeding distribution limited to the harsh desert landscapes further north. Rocky outcrops host Red-tailed and Variable Wheatear, whilst stony plains should reveal many Bimaculated Larks. It is worth keeping an eye on any Desert Wheatears, as Asian Desert Warblers frequently follow them across the arid plains. If the monsoon has been good, a nearby lake will be full of waterbirds, including pelicans and ducks, whilst a procession of Common Crane pass overhead to rest and bathe on its shores. Reedy margins host wintering Paddyfield Warblers, suitable prey for attendant Pallid Harriers!
A journey of about six hours will take us from Bhuj to Dasada, our home for the next three nights. Large areas of Gujarat are inundated each year by the monsoon, including our next destination, the Little Rann of Kutch. As the environment dries to expose a huge flat saline wilderness, the barren landscape often appears devoid of life, but don’t be fooled because an abundance of wildlife will soon be revealed to those who venture there. Home to the last remaining Asiatic Wild Ass, the Little Rann also attracts large numbers of Lesser and Greater Flamingos, both Common and Demoiselle Cranes, and even larger numbers of larks. Targets include the elusive Pallid Scops Owl and MacQueen’s Bustard, whilst a short evening trip is likely to produce the virtually endemic Sykes’s Nightjar. Large flocks of wintering Rose-coloured Starlings are an attractive and commonplace sight.
It will be with reluctance that we leave the Little Rann, undertaking the two hour journey back to Ahmedabad where a short guided tour of the city awaits. Later we settle into the House of Mangaldas Hotel to enjoy a final evening meal, before embarking on our direct flight home to London.
CLIMATE AND PACE
We are visiting during the winter when daytime temperatures are warm but not stiflingly hot. However when we are on game drives in the Little Rann and at Gir, early mornings will be cool. Rain is unlikely. On a typical day breakfast will be around 7am, but earlier on days when we are on safari. Most days there will be a chance to relax early afternoon, before venturing out again later. There is no strenuous walking, short ambles from the vehicles being the order of the day.
ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD
Full-board accommodation is provided, with two nights at the Blackbuck Lodge, Velavadar, three nights at the Gir Birding Lodge, one night at the Imperial Palace in Rajkot, four nights at the Infinity Resort, Bhuj, three nights at Rann Riders in Dasada and one night at the House of Mangaldas Hotel in Ahmedabad. All hotels are of a good or excellent standard and all rooms have an en suite bathroom.
PRICE INCLUDES …..
All birdwatching excursions with expert leader and local guides, full-board accommodation (starting with breakfast on 26th, ending with breakfast on 10th), soft drinks at meal times, bottled water throughout, transport throughout by mini-coach, all safari activities, reserve and cultural site entrance fees and international flights.
WHAT IS NOT INCLUDED
Travel insurance. Cost of obtaining an Indian visa (approx. £40). Personal items, alcoholic drinks, laundry. Please note: the Indian authorities have now introduced the eTV, a vastly simplified tourist visa scheme, saving us all time and money.
Return flight from London Heathrow to Ahmedabad using the scheduled services of Air India. Outbound flight departs early afternoon, return flight arrives back late morning. Domestic flights from Manchester and other UK airports are available on this tour. See booking form for details.
Asiatic Wild Ass. The Rann of Kutch is their only home in the World!
Asiatic Lion in the Gir Forest, only 450 animals are left in the wild.
Indian Eagle Owl.
The elegant Indian Courser.
Range restricted and ultra attractive; the Grey Hypocolius which occurs at only one location in the whole of India!
A male Blackbuck in Velavadar.
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