Little Rann of Kutch is a salt marsh, which is a part of Rann of Kutch in the Kutch district of Gujarat. It is famous for the Wild Ass population it supports. But it also has a wide-ranging fauna, of Desert Fox, hyenas, Wolves, many different reptiles and countless Migratory Birds. This is from December of 2019, a trip made memorable not only because of the beautiful wild sightings I had, but also the company I was in. Here I am sharing an excerpt of one such sighting which would debatably be one of the best sightings of the entire trip.
This was my first time out onto the lands of barren vegetation and endless expanse of cracked earth. Before we got in our vehicles, there had been a discussion of all the various birds that can be seen here, and among those there were these big 4 - MacQueen’s Bustard, Merlin, Short Eared Owl and Peregrine Falcon. Everyone wanted these birds on their bird list before they were to head back home. With these names in mind we had all set out. Bird sightings were abundant and the experience of birding out of a 4X4 was nothing short of brilliant. After an hour or so of driving around, we decided to head towards the grassy patches hoping to sight a Hyena as it was known to visit that place often. We entered a grove of Prosopis juliflora trees to try our luck and after 30 minutes of having to save our faces from their thorns we had not a single sighting to show for. We had just gotten out of the grove when we decided to take a break and scout the area to see if there was any movement in the bushes. As we were busy doing that our guide suddenly asked for the binocs, and just as quickly with an excitement in his voice he told us to look at where he was pointing, for he had just spotted one of the big four! It was a MacQueen’s Bustard, walking regally in the grasses. The MacQueen's bustards are distributed in Middle East nations, Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China while the wintering populations occur in Northwest India, Persian Gulf countries, Pakistan and Central China. Their numbers have dwindled in the last 20-30 years because of oil exploration, road buildings, mining activities, habitat loss and fragmentation, and hunting. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has categorized and evaluated these bustard species and has listed them as "Vulnerable".
It was at least 200 meters away and at this distance the best any of us could hope for, was a decent identification click of the bird. As we had expected the bird took flight and vanished behind the trees. I was happy to have seen the Bustard on my first outing, but there was a sense of sadness as there were no clicks that would make a viewer go “WOW”. We decided to move ahead slowly in the general direction that the Bustard had taken flight. Now it being an open 4X4, I was standing to have a better view and as luck would have it, this paid off. We were going over a bumpy patch as there were grooves all along this small piece of land. It was moist soil and vehicles would leave deep tire tracks behind and to our surprise, the MacQueen’s was sitting down in one of these tracks!
The bird has a plumage which makes it extremely hard to spot when it sits still in the grasses but here, unbeknownst to the bird, he was very clearly visible. The groove was deep enough to hide it, and we would have completely missed it had we not been out looking. The vehicle was brought to a silent stand still and very slowly we clicked to our hearts content. We knew if we made any sudden moves, the bird would surely get disturbed and fly off which is something no one wanted, so we stayed as silent as we possibly could. We were to learn later that this was an interesting sighting as this bird is not known for its patient behavior. It generally runs or flies away the moment it sees something on the horizon and hence majority of its images are either the bird walking or flying, and the ones where it is sitting, it’s usually among the dry grass.
It’s tempting to zoom all in and get a crisp image of your subject because you never know when you will get to see it again but that, was not the frame I had in mind. I wanted to show where we found this MacQueen's and there was no better way of doing that, other than zooming out and clicking habitat shots. I wanted to show the tire tracks on the ground, the general vegetation it preferred and if possible, the horizon in the back. I was clicking both, horizontal and vertical images and it was during one of these clicks when I saw that a few wild asses were running in the background and soon after they were followed by a vehicle which was heading towards us. It took us a second to realize that they may not have spotted the Bustard cooped up in the groove! It was a dilemma because us waiving or making wild gestures would surely make the bird fly away but standing quietly was not an option either!
But before they saw the bustard, the bustard had seen them. It got up, walked out of the groove, and that was when they could see this bird. The vehicle stopped so as to not make it fly away. The MacQueen's stood there for only a few seconds and it was here where I could manage to get a click or two where the bustard stood tall, and behind it was the 4X4 along with the entire habitat.
We were all standing still, hoping the bird would settle down, but it flew away. It had been with us for about 45 minutes and asking for more would have been greedy on my part. Although this was all we were to see of this elegant bird in the entire trip, it would debatably still be one of the best sightings we were to have in LRK.