“Some times road less traveled is less traveled for a reason” – Jerry Seinfield
That’s also my view on the journey between Tal Chappar and Bikaner. Specially if you are starting after completing your evening round of the sanctuary at Tal. You pass through sleepy towns of Rajasthan, with some lights sprinkled in between. Many people think of this as a time fit for discovering the meaning of life and find the question for the answer 42. I am a simpler being, I plop myself in the rear seat and take a royal nap. Only time one can see the sign of life is when the magic phrase (do you want to have dinner?) are uttered. I wake up, have a light dinner (harr harr.. do remember you are in Rajasthan) and request that car windows remain open for rest of the journey for the safety of co-passengers due to the reasons that can not be mentioned here.
I must appreciate Goutam Bhai for ignoring the zombie in the back seat and driving safely through the trip. He never once drove rashly, or lost focus. Obviously his knowledge of birding around Tal and Bikaner is really good too, and he was a huge help in spotting birds. And he was a pleasure to talk to. I will highly recommend him to anyone planning a trip in the same circuit.
Someone around midnight, Gautam Bhai announced that we are now entering Bikaner. I opened one eye, saw the street lights and BSF area passing by and promptly closed my eyes again. Finally the car stopped when we reached Vinayak Guest House. Despite the time being past midnight, Jitu was up to welcome us and decide the program for the morning. While Bikaner was quite cool, after our stay at Tal Chappar the night felt like pleasant summer night. We got to our designated room and promptly fell asleep.
Next morning, we were up at dawn (read 06:30 AM) despite repeated attempts by Jitu to wake us up much sooner. Quickly bundling ourselves into Jitu’s car, we started for the star attraction “Jorbeer” or “Jorbeed”. Having been there previously, I was prepared for the stench to hit us very soon, and I was not disappointed. As we got closer to the area, I realized that there have been a few changes in last few years. The dump has been cordoned off with a boundary wall and a guard has been posted at the gate. There is even a watch tower for the guards to keep an eye on things. When inquired, Jitu told us that this arrangement has been created to keep unscrupulous tourists/photographers in check. Apparently, a lot of people visiting there would harass birds for getting their shots. I think this is a good step and hopefully will force people to introspect.
After making an entry in the register, we entered the dump area. Took me a couple of minutes to get used to the “ripe aroma” of carcasses. Raghu probably took some more time, but he was a trooper about it. He tied a handkerchief, covering his mouth and nose and lost it the minutes we came across the first bird (I think it was Egyptian vulture). And thus begun our exploration of Jorbeer.
In case you are wondering what can one expect to see in Jorbeer, let me paint a picture for you. Anything that looks like a Steppe Eagle, is just that. Everything that looks like a Griffon & Egyptian Vulture, is going to be that. It’s like going to an all-you-can-eat-buffet. Raghu was overwhelmed like a kid in candy store. I counted 8 steppes on one tree. Egyptian Vultures were everywhere, basking in the rising sun. We were spoilt for choices in terms of where we point our camera. We started going around the dump slowly. Very soon we spotted Griffons. At first we saw only a few but soon these guys started popping up everywhere. The light was getting harsh and we started moving away from the dump, in search of the star attraction – Cinereous Vulture.
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While Griffon and Steppes are aplenty in Jorbeer, the large Cinereous Vultures are very few. With 3-4 ft. height and 8-10 ft wingspan, these are very magnificent birds. Unfortunately, they are very shy as well. I find it very difficult to approach them. But we take what we can. Soon we saw a solitary Cinereous Vulture. We started a very slow approach, framing the shot while trying to get close, crawling (at least that’s what I thought we were doing) at a snail’s pace. Alas. The bird had seen us coming and took a short flight to join another group of Griffons. We retreated with a promise of giving it a try some other time. All this hard work had made us very hungry and I was bushed.
We got back to the guesthouse and found homemade Rajasthani food ready. There are very few things I love more than good food, specially if it’s authentic food. I lost all the self control and ate shamelessly. I think when it comes to food I must put a disclaimer “These stunts were performed by professionals with years of practice under their belt (very evident). Do not imitate, or your digestive system will hate you”. I had warned Raghu to expect heavy and rich food in Rajasthan and he was like “game on”. Oh well, all this writing about that food is already making me hungry.
I decided to skip the evening safari and take a nap instead on our first evening. Raghu and Goutam Bhai to another area in the outskirts. Good thing they did. Raghu got a very nice image of Desert Fox, a mammal that I have seen a few times but have not managed to make a decent image of. Raghu on the other hand was able to make a awesome image of this sly mammal.
When we discussed the plan for remaining days with Jitu, he advised us to use our time to explore areas other than Jorbeer to see a variety of wildlife. One of the places I always wanted to visit was Khichan, a place where thousands of Demoiselle cranes congregate. Jitu also set us up for a couple of outskirts areas where we would look for Sociable Lapwing, Indian Courser and Cream-colored Courser. We also planned a few more trips to Jorbeer dump in the hopes of viewing falcons and buzzards.
One our third morning we did a day trip to Khichan. It was a long drive from Bikaner, but was probably exciting in terms of bird sightings. I wouldn’t know as I spent most of this time compensating for the ungodly hour that we had to wake up at for this day trip. We reached Seva Ram’s house in Khichan and were invited to join him on the roof. This was the vantage point for seeing cranes that were visiting “Chugga Ghar” or “Feeding House” that is run by volunteers. It was amazing to see hundreds of these lovely birds visiting this place and noise levels can get very high. We spent quite some time here and were treated to home made “poha” and tea for breakfast. After breakfast we walked up to the water body near by, that was manned by another set of volunteers. Cranes had retired there after their morning feeding session. In addition to the cranes, we saw Shovlers, Grebes, Lapwings etc. Seva Ram also has a very basic B&B at his house that can accommodate a couple of visitors. I might plan on staying there next time I visit home. He is fighting a long drawn battle for conservation of cranes and can really use all the support he can get. So please, do drop by and extend your support.
For the rest of our days, we went around multiple outskirts areas around Bikaner. These were new to me and I was glad that I was spending some time away from Jorbeer. Sociable lapwings, Indian and cream colored coursers, larks, spiny tailed lizard, desert fox, long-legged buzzard, common buzzard (potentially), wheatears were the highlights. I think on my next visit I will spend even more time here.
I would like to make a special mention of Jitu Solanki and Vinayak guest house. Jitu is a trove of knowledge when it comes to birding in and around Bikaner (PhD). His hospitality, local knowhow and knowledge of habitats makes him the most sought after person for visiting birders. You can ask him for authentic Rajasthani food and you will not be disappointed, I wasn’t. Food prepared at his home was absolutely like what I used to eat growing up in Rajasthan. Vinayak Guesthouse will be a brilliant choice for visitors who are not after luxury and frills, but want to experience Rajasthan up close.
So, this was yet another visit to Tal Chappar and Bikaner. When are you going?