This Lonely Planet author stepped out in search of the flamingos that populate the Chari-Dhand Wetland Conservation Reserve and fauna at its best is what he found. Here’s a first-hand account.
Its 4am and I am driving on a surface that looks more Martian than that of our planet. The baked, grey earth over which we are driving is the Rann of Kutch. We have no maps, no road signs or signals, no GPS coordinates and no roads to take us to the destined place.
Being blessed with the beatific sight of huge flock of flamingos at Lake Neruru in Kenya, my yen for catching a glimpse of them in the Indian mainland was fuelled. This brought me to probably the most tantalizingly beautiful landscape in the country – Rann of Kutch with a set goal of capturing flamingos. Soon, it’s 4am, and I’m in a completely unknown surface with no landmarks, searching for flamingos. I am at the Chari-Dhand Wetland Conservation Reserve, a lesser-known place, in the midst of Rann. It does find a mention in the travel map of Kutch, but looking at the desolateness of the place, one can spot, that it is a less travelled by place.
While the clear night amazed us, it was dark and lonely and the road was parched and battered, yet surreal. With no maps and even the faintest of idea of what direction I had to take, I started looking for wheel tracks and followed them. Just to make sure, that I follow the same track while returning, I piled heaps of rocks or the parched soil, at every turn.
At six, a great idea of finding the rare Grey Hypocolius, endemic to the Banni Grasslands (of which Chari-Dhand is a part) struck my mind. Applying the unique combination of my birding knowledge and Neeladri’s experience, I look for the berry tree Salvadora persica on which you can easily find this elusive bird. Though I couldn’t locate this rare bird, I did sight Stoliczka’s Bushchat doing its ‘puff and roll’ display and skirting its way past me. As I drove, I spotted some raptors, a short tailed eagle hovering just above, and a buzzard perched on top of an acacia tree.
Sunrise gave me a better look at the landscape I had come through and was going to. There was no sign of human inhabitation save for some wheel tracks. The flats of Banni Grasslands in Kutch conceal many depressions where rainwater collects during monsoons. These shallow water bodies are locally known as Dhand (Kutchi word for a water reservoir). Chari-Dhand is the largest of these, covering an area of almost 10sqkm.
As I drove past the first sign post of the Forest Department, I noticed a row of something white on the lake surface. A first look and the instant conclusion led me to understand that these were the magnificent flamingos. I heard them before I saw them. A vast expanse of grassland, hint of salt in the air and a distant trumpet chorus greeting me; I raced forward through the puddles and the tall grasses to get to a safe position from where to shoot birds. A tottering ‘V’ of specks in the pale orange sky carrying a hint of blue, flew towards me. This was the troop of common cranes. Out in the distance was a huge huddle of flamingos, heads down, busy, but still cautious. Shovelers, comb ducks, painted storks, egrets, common teals, sandgrouse and many plovers formed the chorus.
Banni supports countless migrants from over 200 species that spend winters here, migrating from as far as Scandinavia, in droves. More than 50,000 water fowls, colonies with more than a million flamingos, uncountable cranes and thousands of birds belonging to other species, and over 50 different animal species make this place special for birding and camping.
I was told of the tuberous roots of a nut sedge, which the cranes come looking for. While they rummage for the tubers, they leave behind tilted parches, for smaller birds to rummage for seeds. Flamingos come in huge numbers looking for the algae that blooms in these alkaline patches and gives them the pink colour on their coats.
I redoubled my focus to capture some more shots, some raptors wheeling above us, flamingos filtering the steel-blue waters for algae, pelicans quietly sashaying on water, egrets taking cautious steps to find some unlucky mud-skippers, plovers rummaging for crabs, and at a distance buffaloes taking holy dips; all in a silky frame silhouetted against the flaming orb of the sun: all in crystalline silence.
Near the lake we spotted some more local herders belonging to Rabari, Mutva, Jat, nomadic tribes, who usually come to Banni Grasslands where their camels feed on a shrub called Suaeda fruticosa. I got a humble invitation of tea – a thin, frugal brew hot, sugary, and laden with spices. This was the time when I worried less about the photography and listened more to their stories. My host Mohammad, promised to take me to the hideouts of desert fox and Indian wolf and to teach me how to milk camel the next time.
I got up to make my way back, through the same non-existent roads, searching for the trails I had left, leaving behind the golden savannah studded with occasional acacias, the raptors that perch on these branches and the thousands of birds. As I drove, I crossed some herders with their camels, fitting in the landscape as a colour coded topo map. This frieze of motion seemed a perfect place to learn stillness.
Chari-Dhand in Banni Grasslands, Gujarat is around 60km from Bhuj city. Chari-Dhand is a Ramsar site and an important birding site. Always go with an expert birder and a local resource. My trip was well arranged by Regenta resort of Royal Orchid group. You can also go to some nearby village like Fulay and take a local guide.
November through February is the ideal time to visit.