“Where did you spot these Red Necked Falcons?”
“In the Tal Chapar grassland.”
“No. Exactly where? which side?”
Well…..and we narrated the spot as best as we could, telling the spot in a jungle or grassland where trees are not given any address, nor the mud tracks have anything like 7th cross or second left. But we tried.
“Why? Are these uncommon here?”
“Every raptor is uncommon here because you do not get to see so many at one place. But we came all the way from Delhi to see these only.”
During many years of birding ( we are still beginners though), this typical behaviour of experienced birders have sometimes amused and other times puzzled me. You can find newer and newer birds for n number of years but sooner or later you would have seen most or perhaps all, in a given locality/area or even country. Will then bird-watching become boring? Will only the newer finds will give the pleasure? Perhaps I should restrict my bird watching trips to keep the interest alive. But what to do? I am an outdoor animal..to the core.
A day before, we ( four of us and another amateur birder, and three senior birders ) all had come as a birding group to Tal Chapar, the lesser known wildlife sanctuary of Rajasthan. Hidden in a nook in Churu, it is a small place sheltering a large number of fauna. Though predominantly a Blackbuck kingdom, it is famous for bird watching, specially the raptors.
Birds of prey, also called raptors, have a place of might and prestige in the bird kingdom. Raptors do not look like feathery filigree; they have keen cunning eyes, ferocious looks and a suitable beak and cleverly designed claws , to catch and tear down the prey.Spotting raptors is not a common game in birding. While some like Black Kite, Brahmany Kite(south) can be seen easily, others are quite uncommon even at common places of birding.
Not all birds of prey are called raptors. In Bird’s world, this honour is given to only those who have a great eyesight to locate food, strong feet to hold the kill and strong beak to tear the flesh. Hence fish-eating penguins, storks, gulls are not raptors.
Eagles, a common name for almost all raptors, is only one of them. hawks, Falcons, Harriers, Buzzards, Kites, Osprey are all raptors.
India has some 65 species of raptors which are distributed from the coastal areas in south to the snowy peaks in Himalayas, from the sandy deserts of Rajasthan to the dense jungles of North –East. A few of these are the migrants like the famous Amur Falcons in Nagaland, which arrive from south-east Siberia and northern China,across India and over the Arabian sea to winter in North Africa.Others migrate within the country to escape the cold of north. During September-October and then Feb-March, as many as 40 species can be spotted at TCS , where they arrive as a passage migrant.
First morning, by the time we were out for birding, seniors were already in the TCS, armed with expensive binoculars and Hummer like lenses. We, with our two modest binos, a kit lens, and a young kid (only five then) who was not much interested in birds, did cut a sorry figure. Initially we tried to be with them to learn from their experience, but soon parted ways. Mainly because we had a young kid who simply walked and stopped as he pleased, and secondly because they were in search of Red Necked Falcons; other raptors did not interest them much.
As we walked through the muddy tracks ( it had rained the day before), the black bucks put up their best shows in a significant number. We smiled, stopped a few minutes but did not change our single track of chasing the raptors.
Because it was muddy, and snakes had not yet gone to hibernation, we were advised by guides to not enter the grass. We did know a lot about the snakes that are found there and some are just too venomous to not pay heed. A lot of raptors were seen flying in the middle of the vast grassland( How this grassland was saved by one single man Mr Surat Singh Punia, calls for one separate story). These were too far for our modest lens and binos and too many for our modest knowledge of raptor identification.
We tried to identify these with our birding book but raptors are difficult to identify in the field even for experienced birders. Many look exactly alike and can be differentiated only by way number of bars on tail, or color patch or tails shape and size, or flying patterns and so on. Here is a link to give you some idea on raptor identification.
Soon we gave up.They were just so many, suddenly appearing in the sky, circling to find a kill-landing, looping down and down, swooping a dive and flying away with the breakfast. Others made a sudden dash from some concealed perch. Kites just soared and soared and never bothered to find a prey at all. Some exhibited a powerful flight whiles others preferred to glide. The span of their broad and big wings, the majesty and grace of their glides, the speed of catching their kill, it was as thrilling as it is in dense Jungles where ferocious cats and cunning foxes hunt, sans the violence involved in later. Manish tried to take pictures as best as he could and me and my elder son enjoyed their appearance and disappearance with bino, and made worse possible assumptions for identifying them by their body shape, flight style, tail shape and size and sometimes just rattled of names that sounded exotic.
When it was half past ten and the sun shined too brightly, we packed the binos and now paid our undivided attention to the Black-bucks. While returning, we saw two falcons, sitting on a stump. Initially we could not identify ( as if we had identified all in the morning). We went closer and closer and still this duo kept its cool. With a very clear and longer sighting, we could identify these to be the Red Necked falcons. I remembered the two other birders, for whom spotting Red necked falcon was a mission in the morning.
Tired and loaded with some blurry and some Ok kind of images, both in mind and in camera, we went for a well spread breakfast. Here we met Shri Punia ji and showed him the images. He rattled those glorious names one by one Eurasian marsh harrier, Pallid harrier, Montagu’s harrier, Laggar Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, red necked falcon, honey Buzzard, long-legged Buzzard,Oriental honey buzzard,Common Kestrel, …… … …. and we were almost floored that we had really seen these many, although for us, it was difficult to identify these same species again in the field.
Later, when we shared our list of treasures with fellow birders, they could not believe. The best expression came when they saw the Red necked Falcons. They spent all the morning searching for these but could not see any!
Evening, we decided to chase more raptors at a nearby area called Gaushala. It is not a grassland but a typical semi desert vegetation with abundance of spiny tailed lizards. This is the reason for a big number of raptors residing in this area. As we entered, we were driven mad by the fact that almost every tree had a large raptor sitting on it. har shakh pe raptor baitha hai.
We tried to shoot a truly blue blood- the Steppe Eagle, a really large eagle, sitting atop a tree and looking at us eye to eye.Even before we could come a little closer to take even a blurred shot , it flew away. We sneaked behind trees but to no avail. We thought of parking the car away and fool it by pretending that we were gone..hehe…we did so and we spent twenty minutes to come back by hiding ourselves behind bush and trees, and whenever we looked at it , it was looking back right at us. Finally day light faded and we could not take a decent shot.
So much ado about human superiority! Quashed by the powerful vision of Raptors!