A travel writer tries to blend in with birders!

I can’t even say I’m a cuckoo in this international nest – after all, a cuckoo is at least another bird – I feel like a completely alien species. I’ve read the Steve Braunias book ‘How to Watch a Bird’ so was sure I was well-prepared. It soon became obvious – I’m out of my depth.

It first became clear on the bus from Gujarat‘s Ahmedabad airport where, in the middle of the night, I meet a Welsh couple who have written a best-seller bird book and a South African birder, all presenters at this gathering – they’re talking a different language to me.

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Hours later, after a slow, bumpy trip, I’m checked into the Jamnagar hotel as “Vikitoria from Ukraine” then, after less than three hours sleep, at breakfast it becomes even clearer that I’m an imposter.

Steve says birders are passionate people and I start to see what he means. Beside most settings, along with the coffee, fruit, cereal and curry, was a piece of equipment. Olive green or black, obviously well-used, some with sticky-tape repairs, are huge binoculars. I’m pleased my little opera-type glasses are still in my suitcase – I don’t want to be outed so early. Telescopes and tripods lean against tables, chairs and walls. As I eat, a bird call fills the air: one of my table companions answers his phone, the bird stops singing. It seems a birders accessory is a bird call ringtone. My phone has the factory setting ring, it confirms my out-of-my-depth-ness: I come clean.

I tell everyone I meet I’m a kiwi, ‘quite likely the only person here named after a bird’. I also confess to not being a birder but a travel writer, there by invitation to cover the Global Bird Watchers Conference. Some 500 people have ‘flocked together’, as the conference title declares, in Gujarat, India, a mostly vegetarian, low-alcohol use state and birthplace of Gandhi, for some bird talk. I wonder, do they, will they, also twitter or tweet?

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Evidently bird watching is not only one of the biggest hobbies in the world; it seems avitourism is a niche activity among, often well-heeled, travellers. Sadly, as bird watching increases, the numbers of many birds are declining and soon presenters are telling us “we have not been able to halt the decline of bio-diversity”.

It seems twitching, a subset of birding – rather like train-spotting – raced around the world in a godwit-like migration. Birders, like trainspotters, are often obsessively ticking off, or creating lists. Most of the enthusiasts attending the conference know their exact place on the life-list ranking; a list of birdwatchers showing the number of species of birds they have seen during their lifetime. It appears there are over 9,000 bird species and according to the website Surfbirds, many have seen many more than 7,000 of those feathered creatures.

I breakfast with Narenda Modi (then Gujarat's Chief Minister)
I breakfast with Narenda Modi (then Gujarat’s Chief Minister)

I decide to tick off the birds I see, and appoint Alan, a travel writer, photographer and birder – as my go-to-person to identify birds in my photos. No longer will they be ‘a large black and white bird with pink legs and tail’ or one with ‘a cute hairstyle’, The first Indian bird I learn to name by its long v-shaped tail is a black drongo. No-one but me thought that was funny: it seems its only we down-unders who use the term ‘drongo’ for dim-witted and which I was now feeling.

While everyone seems supportive of each other in this particular flock there is no doubt birding is a competitive sport with people, or teams, trying to spot large numbers of species within a specified time. Others compete by attempting to increase their life, annual, national, or county list. No-one asks me about my status – after all, I’ve only just started ticking the bird book I’ve been given. They smile indulgently at me, a virgin twitcher: I’m slipping over to the ‘other side’ but I don’t know their language.

Travel writers learning to be birders
Travel writers learning to be birders … note the bird dog!

I overhear conversations about someone being ‘gripped’: it seems it has nothing to do with groping or being grabbed but being first to ‘tick’ a bird on a trip, especially a ‘lifer’ or a ‘mega-tick’. Evidently some of these people are not cooing doves, but hawks. Rivalry can sometimes mean they intentionally ‘grip’ a fellow birder with deliberate misinformation, or even scaring the bird away – I have a lot to learn!

While we crass travel-writers are looking at people, food, or lions, searching for stories, the birders have their bins – as I’ve learnt to call binoculars – trained on a spot in the distance, or pointing skywards.

One of the experts, American Ben King tells me birding is not usually a fatal disease but “it’s even worse than an addiction – it’s an obsession”. He also tells me some amateurs go bird-watching in white tops, ‘the very worst colour’. Two hours later I glance down and realise I’m wearing the offending colour.

My companions recount tales of birdwatchers who spent their lives trying to see most of the world’s bird species. They rarely died in bed. One spent her family inheritance travelling the world before dying in a road accident in Madagascar; another, who was leading a bird tour, was killed by a tiger; and yet another was killed in an air-crash in Ecuador. Clearly, these so-called ‘bird nerds’ don’t lead boring lives!

The Welsh couple I met on the bus, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, gave up their jobs and sold their home for a year-long twitching trip, resulting in a book “The Biggest Twitch”.

It’s interesting to be surrounded by this flock of mostly interesting, sometimes obsessive, people from all over the world, keen to see Gujarat’s resident and migrant birds. It’s obvious more and more bird tours will arrive there, and around the world, for twitchers to add to their many lists.

Ted Floyd, American Birding Association, says in his blog, “Birding is “just” a hobby, I realize. It’s mere sport, some would say, or avocation. Yes, but it’s also a lifestyle, a way of life. Birding brings out the best in us, imagine if there were far more birders. Imagine if birding were to catch on in a huge way in, say, Israel and Palestine. Imagine if everyone in Washington and Tehran were birders. No harm could come of that. In all likelihood, it would do a world of good.’ I wonder.

I finally meet ‘Vikitoria from Ukraine’. She is young, blonde, and gorgeous: I tick off some 100 birds but it seems I’m just a ‘dude’ – a casual birder who prefers pleasant surroundings and nice weather.

Khijadia bird sanctuary. Gujarat
Khijadia bird sanctuary. Gujarat

India is much more than slums: Gujarat is one of my fav spots

Chaos, slums, beggars, pollution and poverty: India is so much more than this and I recommend you put one of the least visited states, Gujarat, onto your must-see bucket list.

Birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, a long coastline, this largely vegetarian area is astonishingly varied with huge cities, national parks, bird sanctuaries, majestic monuments, and temples – as well as locals who are extremely welcoming to travellers.

 

Ahmedabad (founded in 1411) is the largest city and has some of India’s finest Hindu and Jain temples along with Islamic monuments. The guided heritage tour of the ancient walled city is a necessity to appreciate the old ethnic diversity of the area. Up and down narrow streets we walk, into even narrower lanes and through secret passages these few hours flew by – some of us repeated the tour days later we loved it so much. The volunteers who are the guides are charming and informative – but keep your eye on where they are – turn the wrong corner and you will be lost! When your expedition is over, stay in Manek Chowk to explore the market and taste the food – then jump on a tuk-tuk and leave him to find the way back to your accommodation or next sightseeing destination and adventure.

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This huge bustling city is a good base for day trips to explore nearby temples, step-wells and even birding areas: Gujarat has some 40% of India’s bird species and with large numbers of migratory birds also, it’s an excellent venue for bird watchers.

Known for their slow but steady success in protecting the last surviving Asiatic Lions in the wild, Gir National Park is a popular destination. There are some 350 lions now compared to the 20 when the park, their only home, created 100 years ago, and with a reliable water supply, it is also home to many other creatures – this is worth more than one days worth!

Interestingly, the Sasan Gir area, in the south of the state, is also home to village of African migrants who have lived there for generations. As well as living alongside, and in harmony with, the lions and leopards of Gir, they perform wonderfully energetic, traditional dances. People come from all over India to offer their prayers to the Peer (priest) who I understand is contacted through the gymnastic-like Dhamal dance.

 

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One of my favourite areas was a corner of the 5-thousand square km area known as the Little Rann of Kutch, home to the beautiful and endangered Indian Wild Ass (Ghudkhur) of which there are only some 2000. Few other animals can survive this harsh environment, although, as these desert salt flats flood to a depth of a metre every monsoon, it’s also home for over 350 species of birds, and where I saw the rare, and shy, McQueen’s Bustard.

Also endangered, in different ways, are the families who live in this arid setting, eking a subsistence living from harvesting salt for eight-months each year. My small donation for their hospitality seemed meagre despite being told it was appropriate, and enough for a ‘big bag of dhal” according to my guide. Next time I will take a gift of jandals (flip-flops) and milk too. I visited two families on different safaris and was charmed by their friendliness, and their willingness to share stories of generations of being salt-workers. (Agariyas)

The salt is produced by pumping, with small pumps, the underground brine up about 14 metres: it then takes four months to crystallise, a harvesting technique unchanged in centuries.

In their shack, right beside the pump, lives an inter-generational family who serve me tea in the old Indian way, on a saucer.

“Because we work in the saltpans, our feet become septic and they absorb the salt. Nobody lives more than 50 or 60 years,” a grandfather tells me – through my guide.

Locked into a religious and cast system that seems impossible to move out of, he sees no way for his family to escape the cycle of poverty and poor health. Despite the low wages and appalling conditions, they will continue to leave the villages on the edge of the desert to labour all day for eight-months each year.

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The history of Gujarat goes back to the times of the Indus Valley Civilisation in 2500BC and the culture, architecture, food and history have amalgamated to create an exciting region.

India is a land of contrasts and colour, of culture, festivals and seductive cuisine and Gujarat has it all: I recommend making a list of places or types of things you want to see, contact a local tour company and ask them to create an itinerary from that list, or make recommendations, and for ease of travel, supply a car and driver for much of your trip.

A must-do is the free walking tour of Ahmedabad and see my posts – search Gujarat on right 

NOTE: For my Gujarat travel arrangements I used J.N.Rao Tours, Ahmedabad.

Tip – to say Ahmedabad – sound it out like this “arm dar bad”

Recommended places for bird watchers

  • Khijadiya
  • Porbander Bird Sanctuary
  • Thol Sanctuary
  • Little Rann of Kutch
  • Sasan Gir

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  • Sason Gir: home to the Asiatic lions

    Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary (Gujarat) is one of the finest wildlife sanctuaries of India. It’s also the only known home of the world-famous Asiatic Lions in Asia.

    It covers some 1,412 sq km, and in November 2010 I had the privilege of being hosted by Gujarat Tourism  to their first International Bird Convention,  (search for ‘Gujarat’ to see other blogs I’ve  and written about this fabulous State) and after that, thanks to RAO Tours I explored parts of Gujarat I hadn’t seen such as the Sasan Gir

    Mainly made up of dry deciduous forests with short and gnarled teak trees, thorn bushes and grassland, it’s obviously a perfect home to its (approx.) 360 lions.

    During the jeep tour, my guide tells me there are some 450 plant species, 32 mammals, 310 birds, 24 reptiles and over 2,000 species of insects. It also has nearly 300 Leopards , 30,000 Spotted Deer, Antelopes, Striped Hyenas, Jackals, Nilgai, Sambar, Wild Boar, Ruddy Mongoose, Jungle Cats, Indian Porcupine, Gazelles and Crocodiles to name a few. Most of these provide the meals for the carnivores!

    The birders in the group were thrilled with the bird population, (see Alan McBride ‘s diary) and even I, a non-birder could tick off a number in my book of lists!

    The jeep safari’s almost guarantees a lion sighting – although, as I was in the last jeep, I was upset not to get good lion photos. However, like many missed photos, the image of the original remains firm in my memory.

    I stayed at the Vanvaso Resortand loved it so can well recommend them: it has been built with care and attention to detail – combining nature with luxury accommodation . I loved my bedroom and the bathroom was a combo  of indulgence and the jungle ambiance.

    I also visited the Lion Safari Camp where I had a tasty BBQ meal and was fascinated with the Siddis who trace their ancestry to Africa. They are believed to have come to India as mercenaries, slaves and labour. Here in Gir, there are villages of the Siddis, who are well-known for their dances and ability to live with the lions.

    Ranjit Sinh Parmer ( CEO Palaces of India) joins us on the jeep

    Enjoy this slide show of some of my photos from the area: as always, copyright to all my photos are owned by me

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    What a great little resort in Zainabad, Gujarat, India – I recommend it!

    Handmade, traditional covers on the plant and mirror decorated seats

    What a great little resort Desert Coursers  is and I can recommend it. This resort at Zainabad, Gujarat, was started in 1984 by Shri Mohammed Shabbir Malik, and today is run and managed by his son, Shri Dhanraj Malik and got its name from Dhanraj’s Great Grandfather whose favourite bird was the Desert Courser.

    It’s a great destination for birding, culture and generally experiencing the Little Rann of Kutch – especially as Dhanraj loves nature too and is a great source of information: there are some 70 species of birds in the area.

    The morning sun just touches 'my' cottage

    I stayed in one of the cottages, known as Koobas, which are a traditional design and very comfortable –  with  air-conditioning  if needed and have attached bathrooms with hot and cold showers.

    I went on early morning, afternoon and evening jeep safaris into the Little Rann of Kutch and other areas around Camp Zainabad.

    The highlights for me were  the Wild Ass;  the people of the salt plains,  and the local people ( I visited the high school and orphanage that Desert Courses supports  – check out their website to see the many social projects they support.

    As well as the Wild Ass, the Macqueen’s Bustard and Sykes Nightjar, see more about the wildlife here.

    Dhanraj and his wife Zyda are perfect hosts and its like being part of the family – spending time was them was great.

    I will be wrritng more about this area, especially about the Salt Plains, and would love to return there … always a recomendation!

    See here for a list of great birding sites in Gujarat including here in Zainabad.

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    International Bird Watchers Conference in Gujarat, India

    The next International Bird Watchers Conference in Gujarat, India will be 19th/22nd January 2012 (presented by the Government of Gujarat and Tourism Corporation of Gujarat) As someone who attended the first conference (November 2010) I can recommend it to birdwatchers around the world. So,watch this space and the tourism website (above) for more information and to reserve your place.

    Gujarat is one of the most prolific bird watching areas in all of Asia with a huge variety of habitats – coastlands, wetlands and islands, saline desert plains, forests, hills, lakes and grasslands have made the state a migratory route of birds from Europe and West Asia.

    My next few blogs will be about my last visit there, highlighting birds, accommodation and general recommendations about things to do and places to see. In the meantime, here are just a few photos to whet your appetite for travel to such a special and spectacular place. Check elsewhere on this blog – search on India or Gujarat – for other pieces I’ve blogged about India. Here is one to start your search – it’s about the top birding sites

    NOTE: while I was there my transport was arranged by the family company  JN Rao Tours and can recommend them.

    Khijadiya - one of the hotspots for birds, freshwater and saline

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