Tal-Chhapar, Bikaner – Raptor Special
- With JungleHike Tours
- Jan, 2022
Since October’21 I was not able to go on birding trips because of my father’s health. Things were critical in Nov/Dec but he was gradually recovering. By Jan 1st week, things looked much better, and with that my hopes of making this trip were brightened.
I was all excited to restart but there was still one hurdle. With the increasing cases of Omicron variant, the government bodies once again started tightening the noose. Now I may have to undergo the RTPCR for travel. Although there were no symptoms, I did not want to take this risk. By chance, if the result was positive, all maids, nurses would be stopped from entering our house (as per our Society rules) and we couldn’t take that. Thankfully for Rajasthan, this was not required and I was on the way…..
Day 1: 20-Jan
Due to the chaotic situation all around, the airline was making many changes to the schedules and our 6 am flight was changed to 9 am. Which meant instead of reaching at 7:30 we were now reaching Jaipur by 9:30. From Jaipur airport, we had to cover about 220 km to reach Chhapar village (in Churu district).
So instead of reaching comfortably for lunch and then onwards for safari, we may barely make the evening safari now.
By the time we reached our destination (Raptor’s Inn – homestay), it was about 3:30. We all decided to have a quick lunch and then proceed for our first safari. Our host, Atul (who runs the facility is also a birding guide and has been in business for the last few years, before which he was a working executive in Delhi) had kept all the things ready.
Quick lunch and we were in the gypsy. We were 10 in the group (including our guides, Avinash and Clara). We divided ourselves into the 2 open gypsys (perfect from the photography point of view but not-so-helpful in this cold weather). We hardly had one and half hours of light left till 6 pm so I was not very hopeful of finding anything worthwhile.
Instead of going to the sanctuary, we decided to visit the Gaushala area that afternoon. We were immediately greeted by a few blackbucks that were lazing around in the sands.
The start didn’t look very promising but Atul had some aces on his sleeve. He quickly drove towards a small bund in the sands and we were facing a desert fox. The fox seemed to have picked up a leftover piece of a kill and he kept playing with that. Although it was hiding behind a few bushes, we managed to get a few shots from distance. Our other gypsy even managed to get very close to the fox without alarming it.
The Fox “darshan” certainly raised our spirits and hopes. We decided not to disturb the fox much and instead go ahead for our avian friends. Just ahead a desert wheatear welcomed us to the jungle but the real show-stopper came after that.
Atul then took us a little inside the grassland and stopped at one point. At first, I had no clue as to why did we stop; but then Avinash pointed us to a tree. Right there, we could see a pair of Laggar falcons guarding their nest.
One of them was inside the nest while the other was preening on a branch close to it (it was probably there to relieve the partner). Taking the cue, the one in the nest came out and flew away.
But luckily it perched not very far and we could follow the falcon. It got down to the ground and slowly made its way towards a bush. What we realized then was, it probably had made a kill earlier (desert jird – a type of mouse found in the desert) and it was hidden inside the bush. Slowly the falcon walked towards it and carried it away.
Once again it perched nearby and both our gypsys followed. The falcon was busy tearing away the prey and was not bothered by our presence there.
As the falcon was busy, suddenly we saw the shrike perched on the same tree. It was cautious but was slowly approaching the falcon’s branch. Not that it could have been any threat to the falcon but it flew away as the shrike closed in.
It once again flew to nearby perch. This one was a relatively open one (from the photography point of view). But soon a black-winged kite saw the falcon with prey and started hovering nearby. Once again, the falcon decided to fly away.
This time the falcon decided to take a safer perch, it landed close to the nest (Here it probably had the additional protection of the partner). And in all this drama, we managed to get some very good photos. So we decided not to disturb the falcons further (we were with the falcons for close to half-hour).
It was 5:30 and we still had a bit of light, so we decided to search the Spotted Creeper. This was one of the target birds of the trip and a lifer for me. (I guess I have explained in earlier blogs what a lifer is – but for anyone reading it the first time…. It is a species that you would be seeing for the first time). This bird is seen only around the Khejadi plants (शमी चं झाड in Marathi) that are seen in this part of Rajasthan.
On the way, we saw 2 male blackbucks fighting and managed to get a video of this action. But that was about it, our search for the elusive creeper was futile. Some of us did see a glimpse of it though. By 6 pm it was dark and there was no point in waiting any further, so we called it a day.
Back to our homestay and we got into our allotted rooms. It was so cold that taking a bath was out of the question for me, but some of us did prefer it after a long journey the whole day.
As it is the usual practice with JungleHike, the day ends with a list of species seen during the day (with knowledge sharing on the habitat, and the biodiversity of the region by the experts).
Day 2: 21-Jan
We decided to start the morning at about 7 am after a nice hot cup of tea (which is late for some of the other trips but here we were staying very close to the sanctuary and there was no point in going there before the sun comes out).
One interesting thing (for me) about the tea here was the usage of Jaggery instead of Sugar. Tea was served without sugar (as some members preferred it that way), so instead of mixing sugar we decided to try jaggery (on the suggestion from Nilesh) and it turned out to be a nice change.
Today we visited the Tal-Chhapar Sanctuary. It’s a very small sanctuary by area but is known for its bio-diversity especially for the birds-of-prey or the raptors. It was once a reserved hunting ground for the Maharaja of Bikaner (his palace is now converted to a school).
On entering the sanctuary, we were greeted by a male blackbuck at the gate itself. It seems with the tourists feeding these blackbucks, they have grown accustomed to people and expect everyone to feed them (although feeding is an offense).
Within the first five minutes, we managed to see a wild cat and a couple of spotted owlets. It was a foggy morning, thereby leaving no chance of any meaningful photographs but we still got a few clicks for record purposes.
The park had abundant Blackbucks all over the place, there were some chinkaras as well. But other than that, it was a disappointing morning safari. We did see a few Steppe Eagles and a Montagu’s Harrier but they were mostly far off.
We spent a couple of hours in the park and then decided to go back for breakfast. By about 10:45 am, we were back in the Gaushala area. Target once again was the creeper and this time it did not disappoint. After reaching the area full of Khejadi trees, we all got down from the vehicle and spread across in search of the bird. A little later, our guides managed to find one, and then for the next 1 hour, we all were running like mad from one tree to the other, all along following the Creeper. The creeper has the habit of traversing the tree bark for insects and keeps moving from branches to trees very often (rarely perching at a spot for more than a few seconds).
After an hour we finally gave up on the creeper (In reality: it flew away beyond what our tired legs could take us, hence we abandoned the search). But on the way back, we managed to see a few other birds.
On the way back, we decided to stop at a small lake in search of the water pipit. We didn’t see it but saw a few other ducks. One funny thing was the lake was fenced and we all managed to get in thru a small opening (to our utter dismay we realized the next day, that the doors were just jammed and with little push, we could have opened it). See the odd poses of us to realize the fun.
Just as we were coming out of the lake area, Avinash spotted another small bird with a peculiar flight pattern. It was quickly moving from branch to branch and in between was making wavy pattern flying a few feet away from the tree and coming back to the branch. It was the plain leaf-warbler.
After lunch, we once again drove to the Sanctuary (hoping to have better luck than the morning safari). Once again we were greeted by the Blackbucks. During the safari, we did see a few common birds like Indian Roller, Isabelline and Bay-backed Shrikes, Stoliczka’s Bushchat, and also a nice male blue bull. But the main attractions (raptors) were conspicuous by their absence. Just before we were moving out, we saw a hovering Black-winged kite, but that’s all we could get in the park.
After spending a couple of hours, we were back again to the Gaushala area (this seemed to be a better bet than the sanctuary). And the Laggar flacons didn’t disappoint us. Today we saw 2 pairs. One we had seen yesterday plus another one not very far from that place. This time, I could also get some frames of the flying falcon thereby making a collage possible.
We once again checked the fox place but it was not seen today. On the way back, we saw a water source that had a congregation of few parakeets and Chestnut-shouldered Petronias. On the way back, we also saw the tree full of banks (not the financial ones, but the Bank Mynas).
Day 3: 22-Jan
Considering the earlier experience at the Sanctuary, today we decided to directly head towards the Gaushala area. We had time only till about 10 am as after breakfast we had to travel to Bikaner
On the way, Avinash made us stop at one random point. He caused excitement when he thought there was a Dusky Warbler in the bushes. We all got excited and got down, started frantically clicking whichever small bird that we could see in the thickets. But it turned out to be a false alarm. It was only a common chiffchaff. But soon a bluethroat made an appearance there and also the white-browed fantail.
After spending 15-20 minutes we headed further. Atul our local guide had seen a flock of sparrows in a nearby field and we hoped to find 2 different varieties of sparrows there. We were looking for Sindh Sparrows and Spanish Sparrows. Once again we had a false alarm with a sparrow pair, but that turned out to be a different race of our house sparrow (the Parkini race, which is seen mainly in the Kashmir region).
Once again on the way back, we stopped at the lake, and here we accidentally discovered a Black-winged Cuckooshrike (it was perched in a corner on a tall tree and this is hardly a region where this bird is seen).
With that we ended our TalChhapar leg of birding and after breakfast started for Bikaner (frankly this was the main attraction for me as I was hoping to see the vultures/eagles in big numbers). We had to cover about 130 km. Today the weather was cloudy all along and there was some prediction of rain, this meant we could not keep any luggage overhead and hence had to adjust all 10 of us plus luggage in the 2 vehicles.
We started by about 11:30, had lunch on the way, and went straight for the Vulture conservation center. This place in Jorbeer was a little outside the Bikaner city, so we had asked our local guide to join us at the common point.
As we started approaching the center, we started getting signs of what was in store for us. On the nearby trees, we could see eagles, vultures perched close. But Avinash/Clara told us not to wait for these as we are likely to see them at a closer distance inside the center.
The center is a huge area well demarcated with proper walls. And it is just amazing from the birding point of view, just that you have to adjust yourself to the stink of the dead animals strewn around and the scavengers feasting on it. We could see the Egyptian Vultures, Eurasian Griffon Vultures, and Steppe Eagles in huge numbers but other than these we could also see Imperial Eagles, Tawny Eagle, Cinereous Vultures, Egrets, Common Starlings, crows, and not to miss a large number of Stray Dogs. All feasting on the free meal that is always available.
As we entered the main area that was full of these birds, we got down from the vehicle. The birds are probably used to seeing humans around so they were not unusually alarmed (unless of course, you go close to them).
Steppe Eagles and Eurasian Griffon Vultures were the most abundant. And seeing 5+ raptors together on a tree was like a common sight. Seeing all this, we (at least the first-timers) went berserk clicking birds in all directions.
They were so many subjects all around, the problem was the cloudy weather and the light. The only silver lining was “being cloudy meant, there was no specific direction of light… so with whatever light that was available, there was no worry about which direction to shoot.. basically there were no against-light photos”.
There were umpteen opportunities for taking pictures of more than one species in a single frame (for comparison or understanding purposes).
Out of all the birds that I have mentioned above, the Cinereous vulture was my lifer, so we desperately searched for that but it was nowhere to be seen. Finally, we decided to abandon the search (hoping we would see it the next morning) and go instead for the Yellow-eyed Pigeons. Yes, you got that right “for Pigeons”. I know in our cities, we just hate the menace caused by Pigeons. But these are migratory pigeons and are seen only in this part of Rajasthan during the winter.
Our local guide knew about a small water body where these birds roost in the night. So we headed towards that area. Just as we moved out of the Conservation Center, Avinash magically spotted a cinereous vulture perched together with a steppe eagle. He quickly called our vehicles back (we had happily gone ahead without noticing the vulture) and I managed to get a few photos of my lifer.
At the pigeon place, we did see them in large numbers but they were really very far from us plus there was hardly any light. We tried hard going thru the bushes and hiking small hillocks in the hope of going a little closer. Finally, we got a few record shots and had to be content with that.
Day 4: 23-Jan
Today again we decided to start a little late because of the foggy conditions. We reached the vulture conservation center by about 8:30. We had a couple of hours for birding after which we had to undertake the long journey to Jaipur (close to 350 km to cover).
Luckily the light improved as we reached the birding spot. Right in the beginning, we managed to see an Imperial eagle calling and pretty soon joined by a Steppe eagle (on the same tree). Once again, there were birds everywhere and the situation was like confusion-about-which-direction to look for.
Today we managed to see a couple of Cinereous vultures very quickly. Initially, we took a few record shots from the distance and once all of us had got a few photos, we decided to get down from the vehicle. I was ready with my tripod and started moving (in different directions because the action was everywhere).
On one of the trees, I could spot the cinereous vulture perched together with a Steppe eagle. Then on the ground, some of the vultures had spread their wings full-stretch (almost 8-9 feet span). I think the photos might explain it better than my words.
While there was a lot of action in the field, I noticed a different-looking eagle at one corner (tree near the compound wall). It turned out to be the Himalayan Griffon vulture. Suddenly 2 crows came on the scene and they started going after the Vulture. They were so tiny in front of the vulture but they were mobbing the bigger bird and eventually managed to unsettle it from that tree (possibly they had their nest nearby). It was interesting to observe the drama instead of taking photos but I still managed to take a few.
The Himalayan vulture then came to the ground and got into the group of other griffon vultures.
We kept going further and finding more photo opportunities. Among the photos below, you can see an image of the adult Steppe eagle. The buff-colored feathers on its crown (head) are a clear indicator here.
Some more photos for comparison between various raptors.
As we were clicking these pictures, Avinash alerted us about a Tawny Eagle (this was the first Tawny eagle we saw since yesterday), and all of us pointed our cameras in that direction.
It was 10:30 but so far no one even remembered to have breakfast. Reluctantly, we all decided to move. On the way out, near the gate, we had our customary group photo (the same is used for the collage seen at the beginning of this blog). There we also saw a lot of curious desert jirds pipping out of their ground holes.
We decided to have breakfast near the pigeon spot (where we had been yesterday evening). Once again we saw the pigeons in good number (but far off).
After breakfast, we quickly got into the vehicles and started our long journey to Jaipur. On the way, we took a lunch break (at about 2:30 pm).
At Jaipur, we all were divided into 3 groups. To Airport, to Railway station, and 4 of us were staying back for another day. We planned to do 2 safaris in the Jhalana sanctuary near Jaipur which is famous for its leopards.
Day 5: 24-Jan
Today we had scheduled 2 safaris. The first one was for half-day (normal morning safari is 6:45 to 9:30 but the half-day one was till 12noon). And then the normal evening safari (from 3:30 to 6:30).
Started by 7 am (no light before that) as the safari gate was just a 10 minutes drive.
There were only 2 gypsys for that morning safari (including ours). Our guide explained that the days being very foggy no one wanted to book the morning safaris but fortunately today the sky looked clear.
As soon as we entered the park, we could see 2 entry gates inside and both had a leopard picture on them. Avinash jokingly pointed to it saying “look .. leopard”.. and before we realized what was happening, we saw a real leopard. It was there on the hillock, relaxed, resting, and probably waiting for the dawn to break.
Just to give you the background: Jhalana is famous for leopard sightings and I had visited this park in December 2017 (my first ever jungle safari). But despite doing 4 safaris, I had not even seen pugmarks of the leopard. And so with that in mind, this sighting was really special!
The leopard continued to sit there for the next 15-20 minutes and all along we were waiting for the Sun to come out. Managed to get a few shots in the available light anyway.
It then moved and decided to walk inside the jungle. Our guide had some knowledge about their possible paths so we drove at one possible point (and the other gypsy driver went to another possible spot). We patiently waited there for more than half-hour but there were no signs of the leopard. No warning calls either. As we were waiting, we were able to observe the feeding activity of a pair of Grey Francolins and a few Peafowls.
We finally decided to move and explore the jungle. There was a group of Neelgai seen grazing in the thick jungle. We could see a good bird activity and calls as well. At one of the water holes, we even saw the Eurasian Sparrowhawk. But with our vehicle’s approach, it flew to a nearby tree.
As we were moving around, our guide got alerted by the calls of Neelgai. There was a leopard around, so we all started looking in the direction of the call. We were on a road sloping upwards and on one side there was a thick jungle. As we were watching carefully, we could see some definite movement in the woods below and then we realized there was a leopard pair in that clutter. That’s the only glimpse we could get of them. A little later, the calls stopped. We did search along a few routes for the signs but nothing! We had no choice but to give up there.
Moving on from there, our guide took us to a known spot for Eurasian Scops Owl. After reaching there we searched for about 10 minutes and finally found the owl on a tree very close to the safari path. It was so small and must have been resting for the day. It was at exactly the same spot when we checked in the evening safari. By the way, after checking the photos and comparing the features it tuned out to be a Pallid Scope owl instead.
From there as were moving ahead suddenly Avinash saw some movement in the bushes. We all searched the area with binoculars and kept our eyes on any rustle/ movement. After some efforts, we managed to see the Scaly Thrush (a not-so-common bird in this region, though it can be seen in the Himalayas). For me, both these were lifers anyway.
As we had taken the half-day safari, we had time till 12noon (ours was the only vehicle in the park that time and that additional time wasn’t very productive from the leopard sighting point of view).
But we were happy with the birding opportunities. Our driver then took us to a known spot of the desert fox den. He informed that it was occupied by a couple of pairs and also included a few pups. We were lucky to see one adult (possibly mother) and a baby playing in the sun. A little later we also another adult popping out its head from an adjacent hole.
We then saw a slender-looking mongoose, that was different species from what I had seen earlier around the country. Avinash updated us that this was the Small Indian Mongoose. We were also able to see a few other birds.
By noon, we went back to the hotel. They had allowed us an extended check-out. We had our lunch and then kept our packed bags at the reception.
We started the evening safari by about 3:30. Once again we first went for the Pallid Scops owl spot. With help of another guide, we saw 2 more owls at a nearby tree but they were in clutter, so not appropriate for photos. But the same individual that we saw in the morning was now in a good light, so we took a few more snaps.
As we were moving in search of leopards, Avinash made us stop at a point and asked the driver to reverse slowly. He had sighted a jungle nightjar on a tree, at a comfortable height for an eye-level photo. That was the advantage of birding with Avinash. Many times, he finds birds that are not known to even the local guides
For most of the evening safari we kept waiting at a couple of waterholes expecting a leopard sighting but today they decided to stay in the jungle. By 6 the light reduced but none of the gypsys had seen any leopard (for evening safari there were about 7-8 gypsys in the jungle). A little later the news came from near the gate, that the same leopard (Rana) from the morning had been seen moving close to the entry gate (where we had seen it in the morning). All gypsys then drove as fast as they could towards the spot. Our driver/guide took a smart decision and instead went to that spot from a farther route (in fact moving out of the safari gate and then entering from the side of the forest offices/guesthouses nearby). That turned out to be a fantastic decision. Although the light was fading fast, we could see the leopard following our gypsy in a slow gait. It was such a wonderful experience that those 5 minutes were like a paisa-vasool show!
We had already overstayed our safari hours so we quickly moved out, and went to the hotel. The bags were already packed, so we took a cab and went straight to the airport.
The last leopard sighting was like icing on the cake and after my long break away from wildlife, it tasted even sweeter.
Background music used for the videos is courtesy BenSound (Music: https://www.bensound.com)
Additional Info - Camera Gear
- Canon 80D (Crop-sensor body)
- Tamron 150-600 mm (version G2)
- Manual Exposure for all photos
- Focus Mode
- AUTO – except for objects in clutter