If you have followed some (hopefully all) of my previous trip reports, you would notice a common theme. I end up promising myself that I will go there (whichever place I visit) again, soon. In reality, like most promises made by the mankind, these promises remain unfulfilled. You know how life can take over and before you know it, time runs out. Something similar was happening with me as well. I could have sworn that 2016 started with a January and due to some kind of fault in time dimension, we time travelled straight to November, effectively skipping rest of the year in the process. Work pressure was crazy. I have faint memories of a few Coorg trips in between with may be a couple of Chikamagalur trips and may be a quick dash to Kodaikanal, but other than that I don’t remember much of the year. Okay may be a couple of drives to BR Hills, a drive in Bandipur and may be a weekend at Madhumalai rings a bell. Yeah, this was a crazy year I tell you.
Raghu’s call was godsend in this crazy year. “Let’s plan something” he told me. “Don’t be a fool, look at your bank balance. Do you even have time?” said a tiny little cautious voice in my head. “We will not go to any place expensive and make do with basics” said Raghu, in unison with this other excited voice in my head that kinda takes over at times. “Let’s just start by exchanging ideas on what could be a potential destination” the excited voice was egging me on. Well, to cut a long story short, we decided to go to Rajasthan. Raghu had never been there and I love that place (without any prejudice that may creep in because of being a Marwadi etc).
If you are on a tight budget, and looking for some decent birding there are three places in Rajasthan that will fit the bill: Tal Chappar, Bikaner and Bharatpur. Just for the sake of getting an idea we did a quick costing. “I told you it is doable” screamed the excited voice in my head. A few tweaks here and there and we had a very doable TC-Bikaner plan. In interest of spending quality time in both the locations, we decided that Bharatpur will have to wait until the next trip. Off late I had been hearing difficulties people had had in contacting the right guy for TC guest house. I decided to do away with the whole thing and contacted Jitu Solanki of Vinayak Guest house in Bikaner. He made sure that our logistics for both TC as well as Bikaner were worked out.
Wishlist was made, packing tips were exchanged and a list of not to be missed food was prepared. I mean no one goes to Rajasthan and end up eating the same old food. I met up with Raghu at the airport and we headed for Jaipur. Flight was on time and we were told that Goutam will receive us. It took all of 10 minute to get out of Jaipur airport (yay) and we were promptly picked up by an ever smiling Goutam Bhai. First order of things was to pick up some medication for my injured hand (spill from the bike, the bike is okay!!) and then head for breakfast. For Raghu this was the first trip to Rajasthan, and I was quite confident that he will not know what hit him. We stopped at a highway dhaba for some alloo-pyaaz parathas. There were made to order, served with generous quantity of butter and spicy pickle. We ended up eating 3x the original estimate (original estimate was 2 each). We quickly escaped and headed to Tal Chappar before the guilt of overindulging could catch on.
Reaching Tal Chapar by afternoon, we checked-in into a cozy little homestay that is run by Mahinder bhai (aka Anand Bhai). There is no name to his homestay neither are there any boards, it’s quite nondescript. The place provides basic and clean facilities. Food is home cooked and service is with a smile. Perfect for what we were looking for. Service is provided by Mahinder bhai and his family. His son, who was preparing for his board exams was stationed there. I was amazed at how sincere he was in all his efforts. Never saw him wasting time. The moment he will have a few minutes to spare, I saw him hitting the books in kitchen. I wish I had that kind of discipline. The homestay is not expensive in my opinion, I think it was about 1200/- a day. As far as food is concerned breakfast, lunch & dinner (veg) with unlimited supply of Chai cost you 700/- a day. I think if you need to visit TC, this guest house is a very convenient option.
Once we settled into our room and I made failed attempt at taking a bath (did you know Churu district is one of the coldest states in Rajasthan?), we had a heavy lunch. As there was still plenty of sunlight we decided to do a quick round of saltpans around the sanctuary before moving inside. We came across a few waders (stilts, avocets etc) and an Indian Eagle Owl. As the eagle owl was nesting, we took a few distant pictures and moved away. On the way, we were keeping an eye out for possible sighting of fox. Unfortunately no luck. Finally after a longish drive around in saltpans, we entered the sanctuary. As the sun was still strong, there was a dearth of activities. “And you told Raghu to expect Raptors all over, huh” said that sarcastic little voice in my head again.
Slowly, as the sun started it’s sojourn towards western horizon, harriers started to make their presence felt. These raptors started getting back to the sanctuary for roosting. While the numbers were low, we were able to get decent views of marsh harriers, Montagu’s harrier and pallid harriers. The park is not very big, so it is possible to see activities from quite a distance away. As the sun dipped below horizon, we called it a night and headed back to Mahinder Bhai’s place for some homemade food.
Next couple of days, things started to get better for us. Obviously I was floored again with the golden light in the park, I think Raghu was as well. Specially the early morning explosion of golden light. This is the time, when I just try and shoot into the light. I don’t have the words to describe the light. It makes you forget about all you have learned so far and break all rules of photography. These are a few of my favorite images from this trip (that I can not explain).
Obviously, one does not simply goes to Tal Chapar and not try to photograph the illusive Indian Spotted Creeper. I wan’t gonna start. We spent a a few hours there during various times of the day and finally were rewarded with a pair of creepers hunting for worms. Chuck your cross-fit, get your longest tele and try to make a decent image of these suckers. Your body will have aches for days to come. I think I finished my annual quota of exercise in this one session.
And what about harriers, you may ask. To be honest, number of harriers was less. Seems like late Aug to October was the time for getting most of the raptor action, and we had missed the bus. We were left with a smaller population of harriers that were still hanging around. I was slightly disappointment, mostly for Raghu. However, we were able to make a few decent images. Smaller birds (stonechats, wheatears, sandgrouse, redstart etc) kept us happy. Despite the lesser numbers of raptors, we did see Montagu’s, Pallid’s and Marsh harriers coming down to the park.
On the third day we bid goodbye to Tal Chapar (with me making my obligatory promise to visit again), and moved on to Bikaner. That’s the adventure for the next part. Here are some of the images from Tal.