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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Desert National Park near Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, 31 December 2005 to 9 January 2006,
The primary purpose of the trip was to visit the Desert National Park (DNP) near Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. We hired a car and driver for 12 days to cover the 3,000km round trip from Delhi to Jaisalmer, stopping off at Samode, Tal-Chhapar, Gajner and Kheechan on the way. The return journey was via Gajner and Jaipur. With hindsight it would probably been better to take the train to Jaisalmer and hire a vehicle locally as the actual journey did not produce many additional species that were not found once we got to the desert proper.
The only truly daunting aspect of the trip was the permit getting process in Jaisalmer to visit the national park, the permit is necessary to get access to the road that takes you into the northern end of the park and a place called Sudaseri. All in all it took 30 hours in total to arrange the permits and access, the official permission is free, but requires 4 different authorisations, once this is achieved you take the permit to the DNP office in Jaisalmer and arrange for your access and escort for the visit, this was 425 rupee a day for 2 foreigners, car, driver and guide.
While in Jaisalmer we stayed at the Fifu Guest House, they helped and supported the permit getting process, provided an excellent local guide to the history and traditions of the area and offer clean rooms with friendly and helpful staff. The roof top dinning area offers great views over the ancient city and provides lovely Indian food cooked to order from breakfast to supper around the camp fire. The camp fire was an essential service as the evenings were very cold in January!
Day 1 Delhi – Samode
A long and hot drive from the airport to Samode, near Jaipur, nothing of any significance from the back seat of the car!
Day 2 Samode -Tal-Chhapar
After a cold night the morning was clear and bright, within the hotel grounds Greenish warblers were quiet common along with Red-breasted and Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers. After breakfast we made our way up to the hill fort/palace, hear behind the fort an open area of short grass and scrub produced Variable and Desert
Wheatears, Bay-backed Shrike, Indian Robin, Black Redstarts, Common and Desert Lesser Whitethroats and Silverbills. Leaving around lunch time the journey to Tal Chhaper produced several White-eyed Buzzards and Southern Grey Shrikes.
Day 3 Tal-Chhapar – Gajner
After another cold night in the parks accommodation and early start into the reserve on a slightly misty morning. The part itself is a refuge for the Black Buck and these fine beasts are common throughout the savannah like grasslands within the reserve.
We found a flock of 50 plus Demoiselle Cranes who were quietly grazing watched over by a superb Red-necked Falcon and a pair of Tawny Eagles. Leaving the car I eventually found a small pool of water which was attracting a good mix of larks and pipits including Greater Short-toed, Crested, Bimaculated and Indian Bush larks. A Long-billed Pipit and several Desert and Isabelline Wheatears were also around the water. Many Grey Francolins were around but no quails were seen. After the park we set off for Gajner and the road side scenery was much the same as before, additional birds seen were European Roller, Pied Bushchats, White-eared Bulbuls, Green Bee-eaters and a nice flock of Rosy Starlings. Egyptian Vultures were seen fairly regularly along the way and were by far the most common raptor.
Day 4 Gajner Kheechan-Jaisalmer
We woke up to a cold and misty morning at Gajner however the sight of several hundred Demoiselle Cranes flying over was a warming start to the day. After breakfast a futile couple of hours were spent searching the desert area around the hotel for Sandgrouse and other birds, which produced virtually nothing. At around 11 we gave up and headed for Kheechan. From the disappointing start to the day ended in spectacular fashion once we reached Kheechan, here you are witness to the sight of thousands of cranes feeding and generally hanging out around the village reservoir. The waters edge produced a flock of 50 plus Ruff, 2 Temminck’s Stints, Green and Common sandpipers, plus many Pale Martins hawking over the water.
Our first day in Jaisalmer started well with a clear sun rise and an optimistic feeling, this was soon too lost once we started the permit process to gain access to the DNP. We initially visited the director of the park and received his verbal approval, then to the Jaisalmer town hall to start filling out the various forms and getting photocopies of passports and visas, this all went fairly well (remember the power is turned off between 8-12/13 o’clock), we filled in the forms visited around 4 offices and after a brief 5 minutes where someone important shouted at us we received our first signature. The next step we were told would take 24 hours and we should come back tomorrow at 12:30. After a quick lunch we headed off to the Fossil Tree Park about 20 minutes drive from the city, this was our first desert experience and interesting place to visit both for the fossilised trees but also the bird life. After what appeared to be a birdless wasteland you soon start to see various movements and quickly Desert Lark, House Bunting, White-eared Bulbul and Indian Silverbills were on the list. At a dried up water hole, Lesser Whitethroats and a Desert Warbler were flitting around the trees and several bush/stone chats were about. A couple of Desert Foxes were about and keep there distance quickly making there way through the rocky terrain. As
the afternoon faded away warblers became more active and several Chiffchaffs were seen, a Black-shouldered Kite made a brief appearance and a couple of distant Griffon Vultures floated on the thermals on a far off ridge.
The next morning we birded the road from Jaisalmer to Khuri, before heading back to the town hall for more permit fun. The 25 or so km along the road is littered with small pools of water, these produced
several excellent stops to observe the birds as they came in for an early morning drink, Short-toed, Bimaculated, Crested and Desert Larks were all quiet numerous along with Black-crowned Sparrowlarks, the three regular wheatear species were all common. By 10:30 when the air was a little warmer the Sandgrouse and coursers started to move and we had the good fortune to find a large concentration of Black-bellied, Chestnut-bellied and Spotted Sandgrouse about 200m off the road, we were able to approach in the car without disturbing them and got great scope views. Feeling uplifted by the Sandgrouse we returned optimistically to Jaisalmer for the permit only to find that the paper work was stuck somewhere and we needed a letter from the police to continue the process. Off we went to the foreign visitors permit office and the very helpful police guys sorted out the letter in about half an hour so we headed back to the Town Hall, after another signature we were told to return at 15:00 for the permit! Three o’clock came and went, at half past our helpful Indian guide returned to say that there was a problem and we must return to the town hall. There was a problem in transcribing our names from the passport to the police permission letter, once this was fixed the official noticed that the dates were no longer the same as on our original application form so another letter was hastily written to ask for an amendment and bingo all the paperwork was complete. Another guy took the papers for a final signature and at 17:10 we received our permit. A mad dash to the DNP office to arrange access was then the order of the day as they closed at 17:30. Fortunately Jaisalmer does not has a traffic problem and we made the park HQ by 17:20, the forest guards and director were really helpful and stayed open to complete our paper work and arrange the visit for the following day, success!
At 07:00 we set off to collect our guide/guard from the DNP office and then set off towards Sam to visit our target destination. Just outside Sam, 2 Indian Bustards flew over the road, agh! Why did we waste 30 hours getting a permit, we’re not even in the park yet and had seen the target birds. A quick stop at Sam police station to check the paper work and we entered the DNP, about 10-12 kms down the road you find Sudaseri, a collection of traditional buildings which act as the ranger station/accommodation and access point into the protected area. We are assigned another guide to take us into the reserve and we set off on foot, the atmosphere is tense and exciting, the scenery is beautiful without being spectacular, I was taken by the peace and quiet of the place in particular. We wandered around spotting the Bushlarks, Tawny pipits, Silverbills and Petronia’s, then a shout and a couple of Indian Bustards fly right in front of us and land about 400m away, I quickly get them in the scope a male and female, they are incredibly difficult to see, their plumage blending perfectly into the desert background. A Tawny Eagle fly’s over and lands in a nearby tree, I mistakenly focus on him for a minute or two, when I try and relocate the Bustards no chance, they had disappeared into the grassland. We walked over in the general direction of the last sighting of the Bustards but could not find them again, then another 4 Bustards fly over, great flight views in the scope as the disappear about 1km away. A Stoliczka’s Bushchat is sitting on top of a small bush, no problems identifying this one after many frustrating views of suspect birds over the previous 2 days, then 4 vultures drift over, again scoping them they are identified a two Redheaded and two Griffon Vultures. A forest guard comes over on his camel and informs our guide that he had seen 8 MacQueens Bustards (Houbara) about a kilometre away, we set off in search but alas no luck, we do however flush several groups of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a Pallid Harrier was seen perched on a small bush slowly warming itself up. After about 4 hour walking around the reserve we returned to the ranger station, flushing another 4 Indian Bustards, probably the same 4 as before. After a quick Chi break we decided to bird the road down to Khuri and back for the afternoon.
We encountered many Indian and Cream coloured Coursers at the road side plus many larks and wheatears, a female kestrel and 10 or more Egyptian Vultures during our drive, we returned to Sam by about 16:00 and luckily found a Lagger Falcon perched on the telegraph pole, the first of the trip. On the way back to Jaisalmer a recent road side fatality, a sheep, had attracted a large group of vultures, these provided fantastic photo opportunities, the group consisting of 14, European Griffon and 8, White-backed with possibly
long-billed as well. A bonus Brown-necked Raven joined the feeding frenzy and to round off the stop a Rufous-tailed Wheatear was foraging in the scrub behind the vultures. Finally, a pair of Bonelli’s Eagles were seen just before sunset to end a truly memorable day in the Thar Desert.
Day 8 Jaisalmer-Gajner
Today’s road trip was dominated by raptor sightings along the main route 11 as we made our way north from Jaisalmer. Long-legged Buzzards and Tawny Eagles were incredibly common along the roadside, supported by Southern Grey Shrikes and Variable Wheatears. The
highlight of the day was a road side dead
sheep which had attracted a nice mix of Cinereous, White-rumped, Egyptian and European Griffon Vultures. A little later, a beautiful pair of Lagger Falcons were seen perched on a telegraph pole again providing excellent photo opportunities.
Day 9 Gajner – Jaipur
After the earlier foggy experience at Gajner, today we were blessed with a fine crisp and clear morning, spent the morning birding around the hotel and lake before heading off for Jaipur. The lake still held a good mixture of wildfowl, however in the clear skies raptors were now showing with our first Greater Spotted Eagle for the trip and possibly an Oriental Honey Buzzard. The waters edge revealed White-tailed
Plovers and a Common Kingfisher, about 50 Demoiselle Cranes flew in around 11:00 and a distant group of Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse flew off the rocky desert area in search of a drink. A Rufous-tailed Wheatear was foraging around the grassy edge to the lake while a couple of European Griffon Vultures drifted over the horizon.
Day 10 Jaipur
Visited the Grass Farm Research Centre in Jaipur which provided a green (brown) oasis in the city for birding. The farm offers a mix of acacia scrub and cultivated plots and is managed as a small nature reserve. The site was quiet birdy with all the local common species, highlights being Small Minivets, Common Woodshrike and Dusky Crag Martin, unfortunately the rumoured White-napped Tits did not show!
White-backed and Griffon Vultures
Day 11 Jaipur-Delhi
An uneventful journey back to Delhi with a brief stop over at Sultanpur.
The desert birding experience was excellent and the Thar Desert is a definite place to recommend to other birders, I recorded over 60 species in the desert national park itself and only missed a couple of expected species namely MacQueen’s Bustard and Hoopoe Lark. The area is great for raptors with at least 18 species identified, 5 vultures species were a special bonus as they are now so scarce in India.
Thanks to Amano Tracy for setting up the trip and providing company and excellent photographic records, these were great when reviewing the birds seen each day and for careful identification of species observed for the first time.
Additional, thanks to the owners and staff of the Fifu guest house in Jaisalmer, for helping with the permits and providing excellent food and shelter during my stay.
Finally, thanks to the rangers and staff of the DNP, lets hope that this unique place can be preserved and maintained for the future and that the DNP will remain protected to provide a safe haven for its wonderful wildlife and the traditions of the Thar Desert.