Day 267: Raptor Fest

Birds of prey congregate in the Thar Desert.

September 24, 2015, Tal Chhapar, India — Surat Singh Poonia, the wildlife officer at Tal Chhapar Sanctuary, spent the day showing Ramit and me around his 800-hectare nature reserve and beyond. We were joined by Dhananjai Mohan, the chief conservator of forests in Uttarakhand, and Badri and Padmini, a visiting couple of bird enthusiasts originally from India but now living in the UAE. The six of us squeezed into a five-passenger Jeep and set out to explore.

Tal Chhapar protects a unique grassland within the Thar Desert of northwestern Rajasthan, India’s largest state. The grassland, flat with few trees, is home to thousands of blackbucks and a few nilgai, the biggest antelope in Asia, along with other wildlife. The surrounding area also hosts a good diversity of birds, including some desert specialties which I probably won’t see elsewhere, which is why Ramit and I allotted a whole day here.

Poonia knows this place better than anyone and we spent most of the day in a maze of barely traceable dirt tracks, often venturing entirely off-road to access the best habitats. This paid off early in an outlying patch of desert scrub where Poonia had staked out a couple of waterholes. Several species of buntings came in to drink and we were able to track down a Painted Sandgrouse, one of the day’s big targets.

As the day heated up, birds of prey began to appear everywhere. Tal Chhapar is famous for its raptors and we saw 20 species by dusk—a new personal one-day record! (Today’s list included: Black-shouldered Kite, Egyptian Vulture, Indian Spotted Eagle, Booted Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Short-toed Snake-Eagle, White-eyed Buzzard, Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, Pallid Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier, Shikra, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Black Kite, Long-legged Buzzard, Eurasian Kestrel, Red-necked Falcon, Merlin, and, last but not least, the near-endemic, threatened, and declining Laggar Falcon.)

After the morning rush, things slowed down, and our group spent several long hours meandering in the desert without much result. We didn’t get around to looking for two of my most-wanted birds, Indian Spotted-Creeper and Demoiselle Crane, until the worst heat had kicked in, by which time the creepers had crept away somewhere and the cranes had evidently craned themselves off, too. On slow afternoons like this, I must remember: If I hit 5,000 this year, that means I’ll still miss half the birds in the world. And if we saw everything all the time, it wouldn’t be fun anymore! 

New birds today: 10

Year list: 4462

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