Chasing Grebes at Jamnagar

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(Also a look back on the events that happened in 2009)


From the time I saw a few breeding image of the Great Crested Grebes by a wonderful English Photographer/Conservationist Jeremy Early, I always wanted to photograph this magnificent avian in our own motherland India. Due to their shy nature it was always a challenge to photograph them here in India and to show their beauty to a wider audience who love birds and nature as a whole. It was so very amazing to see that even though this species bred very successfully in Ladakh and at Gujarat, still good picture of this species were not obtained from the wilds of India. To tell a few features of this very royal looking bird, like all grebes it’s a great diver and captures fish, frogs and other amphibians under water, the largest species of the grebe family, their breeding plums and displays are one of the spectacles in the avian world and they make floating nests made out of water vegetation like all the other grebe species.

All the above said really motivated me to do my tiny bit to capture this very adorable species at a close range. Hence I was on a pilgrimage (birding/photography tours) to some awesome destinations here in India, looking for this species. I travelled to Ladakh in 2005 and spotted the species breeding at Tsomoriri and Tsokar lakes but the distance, the equipment, the weather conditions and general health of the team was not favorable to any good work out there. There after I was communicating with few birders, photographers and naturalists in the state of Gujarat, Kangra and in Punjab about the occurrence of this species and also on the possibility of photography but the attempts were all a big failure. Made few trips to Kutch and other wonderful locations in the state of Gujarat but yet again the species eluded me. It was very frustrating at times but that’s what you get most times when you have a hobby, which is bird photography.

But with lots of single mindedness I still continued my search and loads of phone calls and emails were exchanged with my fellow hobbyist from Jamnagar region. This always was a very promising location as in a very small area like Jamnagar there were many records and photography evidences that the Great Crested Grebe occurred here in good numbers, so over a period of time I short listed very positive sites with the help of some great local birders and nature lovers of this region. From the end of 2008 and throughout 2009 I kept pursuing on this and this month (December 2009), one of the most talented and knowledgeable birder/photographer from the Jamnagar region Mr. Jayesh Patel offered to help me on the search for a favorable location where that wonderful looking species can be photographed. After many email exchanges, it was felt by Jayesh and I that there was a possibility of 50-50 chance of photographing the bird at Khijadia. Hence we booked ourselves (Venky my colleague here at Texas Instruments and my dear friend Ramesh Anantharaman) in Indigo to fly to Ahmedabad and thereafter catch one of the buses that ply to Jamnagar. The flight was on time and we reached Ahmedabad at mid afternoon and we headed to Jamnagar late in the evening. We were generously picked up at the bus stand and were dropped at Hotel Foliage by Jayesh. We rested there that night and headed to Khijadia early in the morning. Jayesh was accompanied by his dear friend Kunal who is a very avid birder and more than that a very energetic youth who loves conservation and loves mother nature madly.

On arrival at Khijadia we did spot a few Great Crested Grebes, some in breeding plums and most were in their winter coats. We did get some pictures of this species from the car as they were swimming in the open waters. On the Southern tip of the water body we found a pair in breeding plumage and they had a fully-grown chick that was feeding on its own and the parents were chasing it away to fend for itself. But once in a while the fully-grown youngster still made huge demands to be fed by its parents and they did oblige once in a while. This region is covered in reeds and in the middle there was a channel of open water where the grebes fished. We targeted that area and hid ourselves behind the reeds. Even though we felt that we were hidden, the grebes spotted us easily and kept themselves away from us. The frustrating waiting game continued for the whole of the morning (to be precise for around 4 hours), this was the only time the sun was behind us for some good photography, the afternoons in this area are bad due to backlit conditions, hence we moved out to Narara and photographed the waders and few coastal birds, our bonus out there was a magnificent adult Osprey which had mercy on us and posed for few photographs. We did get some great pictures of the Pied Avocet, Great White Pelicans and some Gulls out there. With loads of expectations and hope we came back to the hotel late in the evening still dreaming of getting the pictures of the Grebe.

The next day again started very early and this day we planned to go there very early before the sun rose and position ourselves at the water’s edge among the reeds so that we can get the Grebes fishing when the Sun rose, as expected when the Sun appeared at the horizon, both the adults along with their grown up young appeared in the scene and after an hour or so, started to feel comfortable with us and started to fish in the open water. When I saw the grebe appearing large on my viewfinder, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, the camera clicked away to glory and my wait for these many years was over. I missed many spectacular scenes when the male displayed and when the adults dived and caught large fish, as I was too engrossed in watching them than clicking. It was such an awesome spiritual experience for me to see and photograph this species at such close quarters and I was awe stuck by their presence and they just ignored us and were so comfortable out there fishing. At times they appeared few feet from my zoom lens where I couldn’t focus them due to minimum focus distance. Over all we spent more than 10 hours in the 2 days that we spent there with my dream birds. It was one-of-a-kind of experience and I don’t think this kind of events happen on a regular basis in any photographer’s lifetime. We just cherished every moment of this and when the sun rose higher, left that area with utmost satisfaction and were jumping for joy.

We did visit Charakla, Dhijda, Khijda, Lakota Lake and few more places in the three days that we spent in that great land. The population of birds in Jamnagar area is so high, one of the spectacles that we witnessed early in the moring on day two when we were waiting for the sunrise; a huge flock of Greater Short-toed Larks, I am not exaggerating here, the flock was at least 2-3Kms long and at least half a kilometer wide, there would have been more than a million birds in that single flock, it took almost around 15 seconds for that flock to move off our sight. The whole sky was just filled with the lark cloud. It makes you wonder there at Jamnagar “there is something wrong here at Gujarat”. Its simply mind blowing to see how that land can host so many species of birds and in such great numbers. We were even amazed to see a few thousand Demoiselle Cranes, hundreds of pelicans, thousands of waders and Rosy Starlings. We also met Mr. Ashiwin Trivedi and Kapil out there at Jamnagar. I would like to thank Ashwin for his leads about Jamnagar before the trip began.

When you visit places like Jamnagar, kindly carry your ID Cards, few personal business cards if you have, this advice is due to the ever present police patrol teams out there, as all of you know Jamnagar is a border district. Any time you may be stopped while birding to be checked and it will be quite embarrassing if you don’t carry your ID cards and you are taken to the local police station for questioning. The police out there are doing their duty and the intensity of the patrolling has become severe after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Also ensure that you always go with the locals. I recommend you hire people like Kunal/Jayesh so that most of your local problems are taken care.

On our journey back to Bangalore, we booked the evening flight from Ahmadabad deliberately so that we had a full day of birding at Ahmadabad. We thank Ms. Falguna Shah who is a local birder here and knows the birding destinations of her region completely. She was very helpful in taking us around Dabla ( cattle skinning center, famous for scavengers like vultures) and Thol wetlands. We also met a very emerging new talent from that area, Mittal Patel. I was very keen to photograph the Eurasian Griffon Vultures that visit this carcass dump in few numbers in winter and also the White-backed Vultures that are seen there in good numbers. Some times even 50 individual are seen out here. In the early morning golden light we did spot the vultures and had a wonderful photo shoot. From Dabla we were driven to Thol by Falguna and we spotted numerous Comb Ducks, a few Spotted Eagles, few Brahminy Ducks, scores of Ruffs, few Common Starlings and a pair of magnificent looking Sarus Cranes with their grown up chick. Falguna was very kind in preparing the breakfast for us and we thank her for the hospitality, she even accompanied us to few boutiques to check out the Gujarati dresses. That’s how ended the Grebe chase.

As always, in winter Gujarat is the place to be if you are a Shutter-Happy person. It is a vast, wide landscape and most places offer you birds and animals in the open. The lighting is magical throughout the day and you can click pictures any time between 7:30AM and 6PM. What more a wildlife photographer needs when he is in the field, it’s a birder’s paradise and the hospitality of the local people and not to forget their cuisine, it is just awesome….

Events in 2009

There couldn’t have been a more eventful year for me than 2009, it all started with the fear of recession (losing your job), a trip to the Western Himalayas to photograph the local birds there in their breeding plumages, a visit to Kutch to watch the passage migrants during the monsoon and watching the massive downpours which caused flooding out in the desert, spending much of August and September at a hospital due to heart problems, getting nominated for the Teacher’s Achievement Awards and then the above Jamnagar trip which was one of the success stories; and in December my long wait for adopting a baby gets fulfilled as my 2nd daughter Gloria arrived from an orphanage in Maharashtra to our home here in Bangalore….. What more one needs in life? All that I have to do now is to count my blessing and thank God for this wonderful life that he has given; to enjoy every bit of it and to live it fully and if possible in a very tiny way help one another and our mother nature.

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