The birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, Mark Nicholls discovers the state of Gujarat in the west of India and its appeal to bird watchers
Huddled in the back of a spluttering auto-rickshaw, we were like fledglings crammed in a makeshift nest. There must have been five of us in the yellow and black three-wheeler, a multi-national contingent brought together in Gujarat like migrating birds from across the globe.
Malaysian, Filipino, Mexican, American and English, we were united by a fascination of birds as we sat hunched in this most typically Indian form of transport for the short journey from a gated entrance to an inlet in the midst of the Nal Sarovar nature reserve.
In the semi-darkness, boatmen waited on the shoreline with narrow punts to take us out onto the lake. Their breath steamed in air that was unseasonably chilly.
The January air, colder than expected, was cooled by a fresh wind tainted by the heavy snows that had fallen hundreds of miles to the north over the Hindu Kush.
With the waters at Nal Sarovar mirror-still before us, there was a flutter of excitement and expectation as we cautiously boarded punts to be silently transported through the wetlands.
Dawn lingered as we set off, silhouetting the narrow craft against the skyline. And then, at daybreak, the deep orange sun that had taken an age to emerge from behind the trees suddenly raced into the sky, burning off any haze and sharpening the light.
Long lenses focused on the slightest movement as the improving light offered a clearer view.
The bird life was all around, not only diverse but highly visible and very close. We saw harriers, an eagle perched on a rock in the distance, cormorants, egrets, bulbuls and lapwings among many others.
Gulls harried the punts while waders hovered low over the water and in the distance a flock of cranes – thousands strong – caused an airborne commotion.
Armed with a long pole, the agile boatman navigated us across water that in places was barely a few inches deep, gliding from one open area of the lake to another through channels bordered by reeds and tall grasses.
The multi-national gaggle of us in the punt maintained an unspoken, subconscious, sense of balance to maintain the stability of the vessel as we turned and twisted in search of one species after another.
Nal Sarovar, some 40 miles (64km) from Ahmedabad, is one of Gujarat’s popular reserves and gives shelter to 250,000 birds, many of which winter in western India before migrating thousands of miles to Europe, Siberia or central Asia.
It is the diversity of Gujarat’s terrain that so appeals, not only to the birds but the birders – as they are known in India – who travel equally great distances to observe them; from the jigsaw of sun-dried mud leading down to the lakes where the flamingos feed and breed in the Little Rann of Kutch to the salt flats of the Great Rann of Kutch; the coastal inlets and grasslands elsewhere; and the reservoirs, lakes and wetlands such as Nal Sarovar.
The enthusiasm of bird watchers on the trip hovered between a passion and an obsession as they endeavoured to spot a species new to them, but there was universal admiration of depth of knowledge, expertise and keenness of eye.
Lured to Gujarat by the vast array of species and diversity of terrain, one of the big attractions is that you can get close to the birds. Within a two-day period, more than 180 different species were spotted in this area of Gujarat including sightings of the Greenish Leaf-Warbler and Lesser White Throats among many others.
From the stillness of Nal Sarovar, we lunched on the vegetarian thalis Gujarat is famed for before heading by jeep to the Little Rann of Kutch, a landscape of cracked mud and brackish waters.
Dusk was not far off as we arrived and a pinkish hue spread across the horizon.
At a distance, it shimmered.
To the naked eye, movement across the stretch of water before us and the changing shade of the skyline momentarily merged. But through binoculars and telephoto lenses, the avian beauty of thousands of flamingos took form in the middle of a shallow lake.
The air was freshening after the warmth of the middle of the day, the quiet punctuated by the distant “chop, chop, chop” of a petrol engine pumping water through irrigation channels.
With the sun dipping further in the sky, the flamingos remained beautifully undisturbed; the pink vividness of their plumage revealing much about them and their habitat – an indicator that they were healthy, well-fed, birds of a successful breeding colony. They danced romantically in pairs or took off in unison in spectacular numbers.
Bird watching tours of Gujarat attract curious amateurs and expert visitors alike. As we observed the flamingos, the gentleman to my left outlined how the Greater Flamingo feeds on shrimp while the Lesser Flamingo survives on bacteria and algal slime and that Gujarat is an idyllic environment for the species.
You see flamingos in many different places in Gujarat because there is a lot of muddy coast and shallow wetlands around the state, but what makes them so attractive to see is that they are never on their own; they are always with many other species.
We saw how pelican, spoonbill, geese, ruffs, godwits, painted stork, egret, pied kingfisher and coucal survive and thrive alongside the ubiquitous flamingo, which can also be seen in large numbers at Porbandar, where Mahatma Gandhi was born in 1869.
Present in Gujarat all year round and with half a million or more of them, it is no coincidence that this inimitable bird is the state emblem.
Protecting the Wild Ass
On bird watching tours of Gujarat you have to acclimatise to short nights and long days. Up again before dawn and warmed by sweet, milky chai at breakfast, we were soon on the road through this cracked landscape.
From either side of the jeep expert eyes trained on trees and shrubs, seeking the slightest movement or flash of plumage. We paused at regular intervals and the species were carefully noted: lapwing, bulbul, drongo, gulls, bustards, hoopoe, lark, shrike and Indian roller. We also saw harriers, falcons, kites and more cranes.
Heading down dusty tracks flanked by open fields, winding through small villages, we witnessed Indian life in its purest, rural form. Life here has changed little in centuries: a potter turned clay pots on a wheel and dried them in the sun as nearby a tethered camel – the workhorse of Gujarat – was grinding its teeth in irritation. Another, hauling a cart laden with hay pulled aside as we passed and across the open, arid landscape, more of the stubborn beasts were coaxed along in exaggerated loping strides.
On the main road, before we branched off, we dodged overladen goods wagons adorned with slogans and garish paintwork or overtook chugging tempos, the three-wheel passenger-carrying motorbikes that are big sisters to the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws.
The Little Rann of Kutch protects another of Gujarat’s endangered animals, the Wild Ass. There are more than 4,000 of the donkey-like beasts, which are known locally as the Ghudkhar, in the Wild Ass Sanctuary. The narrow band of land of the reserve virtually encircles the Little Rann and was established in 1973 to protect the endangered creatures. Strong and fast, the Wild Ass can be seen in herds or in small groups in an area that is also home to the Blue Bull, Blackbuck, the more abundant Nilgai antelope and many species of birds.
Beyond the wildlife, Gujarat has more riches to offer with impressive temples, mosques and monuments.
Just outside Ahmedabad, the biggest city in Gujarat (the capital is the newly-built Gandhinagar a few miles beyond), is the step well (or vav) at Adalaj. Dating from 1499, it was used for bathing and as a water supply in centuries past and descends five storeys below ground into ornately-carved chambers. Around its entrance, an afternoon market was crowded with stalls piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables, women with bags of produce balanced on their heads talking in small groups and sacred cows pushing their way through the melee in search of a snack.
Within the city we discovered more about Gandhi’s life at the Sabarmati Ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River where he lived in a simple cottage with his wife Kasturba for many years spinning cotton and making sandals.
A must-do in Ahmedabad is the early-morning heritage walk around the oldest quarter of the city, following a route through the fascinating architecture of narrow alleys from the Kalupur Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple to the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque).
What those following along learn, among many other things, is that Ahmedabad is a bird-friendly city with some 120 specially-built feeding towers, along with dozens of bird holes high up on the walls of houses to allow birds to roost. Known as chabutra in Gujarati, the bird-feeders are like ornate pulpits tucked discreetly away in small squares or dead-end streets.
The narrow, intriguing alleys are virtually free of traffic, apart from the smallest of vehicles, the whining auto-rickshaws that dodge noisily past like angry wasps.
Gujarat is a state that is working hard to ensure its wonderfully diverse bird population thrives and survives, not only in the numerous reserves and wetlands, but also in urban areas too.
It is this diversity of species, and intimate access to the birds, combined with fascinating historical and cultural attractions, that is transforming Gujarat into a tourist destination with so much to offer.
Birdwatching: Gujarat has 21 wildlife sanctuaries and four national parks. Thol Bird Sanctuary is 25 miles (40km) from Ahmedabad; Nal Sarovar is (64km) from Ahmedabad; while elsewhere in Gujarat is the Vadhvana Wetlands near Vadodara, the Khijadia Bird Sanctuary close to Jamnagar and the Porbandar Bird Sanctuary and Chhaya Creek. The Wild Ass Sanctuary is 80 miles (130km) from Ahmedabad and best accessed from Bajana.
When to go: The best time to visit is from October to March when the climate is pleasant and the migrating birds are present in large numbers.
Mark Nicholls is an award-winning freelance travel writer and author, based in the UK and has written for a range of national titles, specialist magazines and international websites and operated as a war correspondent in locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photographs by Mark Nicholls