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.
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?
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 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.
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.
Although it’s a few years since I visited the huge Little Rann of Kutch (staying at The Royal Safari Campwhen it was 18 months old) my memories of staying there are still vivid and I often tell people to put Gujarat on their bucket-list.
We enter the ‘camp’ through a traditional red arch and into the facilities by huge one hundred-year old doors. Among some of the fabulous pieces of furniture is a carved wooden chest which, when I ask, I’m told “this is a family heirloom. It was carved from one piece of wood: my father-in-law gave it to us.” Still having my hand-written notes and notebooks is a great resource!
Covering nearly 5000 sq. km, the Little Rann of Kutch is a unique landscape and includes an official Sanctuary to the beautiful wild ass. Related to the zebra, this is the world’s last population of these ass.
Believed to once been a shallow sea, we take a tour of the bare surface of dark silt, encrusted with salts which evidently transforms into a spectacular coastal wetland after the rains and is considered to be a transitional area between marine and terrestrial ecosystems. In the monsoon, it gets flooded for about a month. With no, or little, vegetation, except on the fringes, the ground-cover which requires little water, is dominated by short-living plants.
The land is so arid, I hope we’re not lost!
the tracks change every year after the floods
the ground is drying fast
lack of water
we ask locals the way, and offer water to them
the land is spongy and featureless
Note: it was while we were here that fellow travel writer Jon Haggins got the tittle for his book, Chasing Wild Ass
Until I went to Gujarat, India, I did not realise how big birding was in the world – as well as birding blogs, see a blog I wrote about Desert Coursers the resort at Zainabad, Gujarat, India where I stayed a few days.
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.
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.
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.
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.
About a year ago I was surprised to see a bronze statue of Mahatma Ghandiji outside the Wellington Railway Station – however it seems it was gifted to the city in 2007 by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations on behalf of the Indian people.
Today about 60 or 70 people gathered at this statute to celebrate the Mahatma’s birthday: he was born in Gujarat, India. Enjoy these photos I took.