A Motorcycle Birding Diary

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 10, October 2020

By Shashank Dalvi

It was never planned as a bike trip! A road trip by car had to be cancelled after a friend’s freak accident, so I called on an old college friend, Gaurav Shirodkar… and we set off on his antiquated bike on an incredible journey to watch the display of the Lesser Floricans and passage migrants that visit Western India.

In 2015, I was on my ‘Big Year’, a quest to watch as many bird species as possible in a single calendar year, within Indian limits. By September, I was well on course and had crossed 1,000 species for the year. The essence of a Big Year is all about being in the right place at the right time. The birding strategy has to be just right
to maximise the number of species against effort. Successful birding is not just about spending more time in the field. It also involves homework to ensure efficiency. To achieve this, I spent hours on Google Earth, planning each trip meticulously. Another key strategy is inevitably the willingness to make difficult choices, as we did on our trip.

Getting the Time Right

The Savanna Nightjar Caprimulgus affinis, found across South and Southeast Asia, is a master of camouflage, with plumage that resembles bark and leaf litter. This, plus the fact that it is nocturnal, makes it difficult to spot the bird. Photo: Shashank Dalvi

Between July and August, male Lesser Floricans put on an unimaginable courtship display in an attempt to attract females in the north-western grasslands of India. These tiny birds jump up into the air amid lush green grass, as if on an invisible trampoline. Florican displays end by August. By mid-September (often earlier), there are nine passage migrant species that move through the northwest states of India. These birds usually breed in Central Asia and winter in Africa and only briefly traverse the western parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. This provides a tiny window of opportunity for birders to see them within Indian limits. My dilemma, however, was to choose between making two separate visits to Rajasthan – one during July and August to see the Lesser Florican and a second in September-October to see passage migrants or attempting a single trip to achieve both. The difficult choice involved keeping a firm eye on the progression of the monsoon in north India. A delayed monsoon that year meant that the Lesser Floricans could remain visible for a little longer than usual and I could risk going late and still see both.

By the first week of September, I was getting nervous as news came that the number of displaying Lesser Floricans dwindled every passing day. Despite misgivings about Gaurav’s Hero Honda Passion Pro bike’s ability – with its 100cc engine – to cover over 1,000 km., we set out at 3:30 a.m. Our luggage was tied up on either side of the bike, and we set off for Ajmer, where the floricans were displaying.

Getting the Mode of Travel Wrong

Found across the Thar Desert, Kutchh and other arid regions in India and Pakistan, the spiny-tailed lizard Saara hardwickii is a social species, unlike most other lizards that are solitary. Photo: Shashank Dalvi

We barely drove half a kilometre when we realised that the fuel tank was leaking. Taking a U-turn we returned to Gaurav’s house, grabbed a spare water purifier tank and emptied the petrol into it. Then we waited for a garage to open, fixed the tank and set off again. We were off schedule by seven hours, but the misadventures didn’t end. An hour into the drive, the front tyre of the bike shattered. This wasted another hour or so, by which time I knew it was impossible to reach Ajmer that day and we decided to drive to the outskirts of Ahmedabad to get some shut-eye.

The next day’s drive was actionpacked. We ticked off the first passage migrant of the trip, albeit the most common one – the European Roller. Just like its cousins, the Indian Roller, these birds were following strict social distancing norms, sitting five to seven metres apart on electric wires. We encountered hundreds during our drive. Other resident species such as Painted Francolins and Besra also showed up. Painted Francolins are one of those typical resident birds, which are easy to see during the monsoon when they perch on top of trees or electricity poles and sing their heart out, but become extremely difficult to see in winter. We eventually crossed Ajmer and reached the outskirts of Sonkhaliya, extremely tired. However, we arrived to see a magnificent earth boa surrounded by a large crowd. Many superstitions surround this snake, one of the most baffling being that it has two heads at either end of its body. Some even believe that the snake uses each head in an alternating six-month cycle. Just like any educated snake charmer would react in such a situation, I picked up the snake to release it. The crowd was in total disbelief, reacting as though I was holding a dynamite stick which was about to go off. After a pungent warning of these strange superstitions, the snake was rescued from the angry mob.

Before we turned in for the night, we had received news that only a single male florican was seen displaying that evening. I was nervous about the next day’s chances. Had it been too foolish to save the florican for this late in the season? Had it not been for the leaked fuel tank and shattered tyre, we would have reached a day earlier and seen the single male.

The Florican Quest

The Desert Courser Cursorius cursor uses its slim, long legs to race across its dry, often scrubby habitats in Southwest Asia, North Africa, Cape Verde and Canary Islands. A small breeding population resides in the Thar Desert as well. It winters in Asia, Arabia and the southern parts of the Sahara. Photo: Shashank Dalvi

Early next morning, we went to the display grounds of the Lesser Florican. We scanned the field desperately, as 15 minutes passed, then 30, and eventually 45 minutes without any sign. It was obvious that the last florican had also stopped displaying. Gaurav decided to scan a different field while I walked along a small bund, to gain a different angle of the same field. After another 15 minutes, there it was. A black-coloured head sticking out from the lush green field. It was one good-looking Lesser Florican. As soon as I alerted Gaurav about the bird’s presence, it took off and landed two fields away. The whole thing was over in five seconds, and that was the only Lesser Florican we got to see that day. Nevertheless, it was entirely worthwhile riding 1,000 km. on a motorbike to see the flight of a florican! As I write this article, two chicks of Lesser Floricans have hatched in a captive breeding programme. It is a good sign that the captive breeding of Lesser Florican had started much earlier compared to Great Indian Bustards. Conservation projects like Project Bustard can act as flagship conservation programmes for birds in India in the years to come.

With the Lesser Florican ‘in the bag’, we decided to concentrate on other birds. I had seen most of the birds in the area already for that year. However, it didn’t stop us appreciating the beautifully camouflaged Savanna Nightjar, majestic Indian Courser, handsome Red-necked Falcon, plenty of Rain and Rock Bush Quail, and many more. Just like the Painted Francolin, Rain and Rock Bush Quails are easier to see during monsoon months. We birded until late morning, before embarking on another backbreaking ride to Jodhpur. Even before we could find a hotel, I rode straight to a mattress-maker, and bought Rs. 25/- worth of cotton. Gaurav looked momentarily confused, but approved of my next action – stuffing the cotton into a plastic bag, to cushion the seat and our bottoms! After dumping our luggage at a hotel, we went out for some night birding. We narrowed in on an Indian Stone Curlew, but it took half an hour to pick up the call of our main quarry – the European Nightjar. And then another 15 minutes to actually sight the bird perched atop some scrub. We waited yet another hour, but the bird decided to stay put. Partially satisfied, and bonetired, we reluctantly called it a night.

The Desert Comes Alive

Inhabiting over 80 Protected Areas across the Indian subcontinent, chinkara Gazella bennettii are at home in the arid plains and hills of western India, mainly in the Thar Desert. Their populations in Pakistan have declined drastically on account of hunting. Photo: Hardik Rathod

The next morning, we visited Jodhpur’s Rock Park, a small area set aside to protect the native habitat of the region. We were joined by an employee, Denzil Britto. Here, we picked up the second passage migrant of the trip, the Greater Whitethroat. It was a new bird even for Denzil. This tiny bird weighs just 14 g., breeds in the central Asian mountains and winters in sub-Saharan Africa. Two passage migrants  down, we still had seven more to go. Another late afternoon ride brought us close to the small village of Sudasari, at the entrance of the famous Desert National Park. Scanning the main road for snakes and other herps, we were delighted to spot the saw-scaled viper, subspecies ‘sochureki’, which is at least twice the size (in width and length) of those found in south India. We also saw an elegant desert cat. It was past sunset when we reached Sudasari, where, after a quick dinner, we pulled out our sleeping bags and slept under the starlit sky. Whenever we opened our eyes, we saw the Milky Way stretch across the whole length of the sky and even managed to take some photographs.

On the third morning of our trip, we found ourselves confronting two mega birds from the region. The first was a male Great Indian Bustard, completely hidden with only its white neck visible against the sea of grass. We never expected to find a bustard that easily and were understandably elated. Before we could recover from this, we stumbled upon another mega bird, the White-browed Bushchat. I was hoping to see this bird in its breeding plumage. Unfortunately though, it had already finished moulting. What a small window of opportunity this species must have to breed in the Thar Desert! Unlike other small passerines, it gets just one shot at breeding during the short-lived monsoon in this landscape. We stood there looking at the Bushchat with its conical bill and its unique puff-and-roll display, during which the bird literally struts across the ground swaying side to side, puffing its chest out. Later we picked up a few key passage migrants and lifers for Gaurav. Rufous-tailed Scrub Robins were everywhere, as were Red-backed Shrikes, while roadside fences were occupied by Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. Every cluster of three or four trees would reveal two or three Spotted Flycatchers. Quite a few Laggar Falcons were also encountered, eyeing spiny-tailed lizards greedily, which is their favourite choice of prey. A short walk through the desert also delivered a toad-headed agama, which would put even Harry Houdini to shame. Right in front of our eyes, its whole body disappeared into the sand. We soon came across fringe-toed lizards, a beautiful desert monitor lizard, chinkaras and a desert fox as well. While riding down a narrow tar-road across the Thar desert we encountered an amazing natural history moment. A line of camel carts walked by splattering their dung across the road. Within 30 seconds, hundreds of dung beetles flew in from the vastness. We stood there and marvelled at how quickly they reacted to chemical cues. In a desert, everything is valuable for each and every creature. We also stumbled upon a lone Lesser Kestrel (back in the day, records of Lesser Kestrel were quite sporadic unlike now, and so it was quite thrilling). After another night under the starry sky, we left, watching smart desert birds like Black-crowed Sparrow Lark, Desert Lark, a flock of Raven and Desert Courser (a small population of this species is resident in the Thar Desert) on our way.

The Last Leg

The Indian desert cat or Asiatic wild cat Felis lybica ornata is one of the most endangered small felines in the wild, despite its wide range, which stretches from east of the Caspian sea, north of Kazakhstan, into Pakistan, western India, western China and Mongolia. Photo: Shashank Dalvi

Our last target was a long ride to Mount Abu. Apart from a huge flock of Demoiselle Cranes that circled above us, much of the journey was uneventful. We did stumble upon a Schokari’s sand snake on the road, a species I had dreamt about for years. We parked and ran toward it, but the snake had taken refuge in an extremely thorny bush. We could see the head and tail but the snake remained just out of reach to take photos. By the time we reached Mount Abu, it was quite late. I couldn’t sleep, in anticipation of sighting a Green Avadavat. This is generally an easy bird in the right habitat, but highly localised. However, every bird is difficult until you get to see it, and that day was one of those difficult ones. The search proved longer than expected. After spending two hours in the scorching heat, we managed to see two birds. We also spotted a pair of Painted Spurfowls and range-restricted subspecies of the Indian Scimitar Babbler. This ‘obscurus’ subspecies is restricted only to the Aravali mountain range of Rajasthan and Gujarat and nowhere else in India.

Revelling in our successes, we turned for home. The way down from Mount Abu was full of twists and turns and sharp curves. All these days of bike riding, birding and lack of sleep had finally caught up with me, and on one of those curves, I dozed off. Thankfully Gaurav, who was driving, realised what was happening and stopped the bike. After a 15-minute power nap on a culvert, I was good to ride the bike again. We reached Mount Abu railway station safely, after driving 1,700 km. in six days. We loaded our bike onto the train, found our berths, and caught some well-deserved rest until we reached Mumbai the next day. It was a highly successful trip with all target birds in the bag.

Ace birder and naturalist, Shashank Dalvi has been involved in the discovery of the mass hunting of Amur Falcons in Nagaland resulting in an international conservation campaign and the discovery of the Himalayan Forest Thrush.

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