Indian Peafowl male

Rann Roadies – Part 1 – Phillaur to Khichan

Every New Year, I go on road trips to wonderful destinations across India with my family. This New Year 2021, that wonderful destination was Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat! The initial plan was a 14-day road trip covering Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Dholavira and Bhuj. But, since we had to be back by 13th for Lohri, we left Jaisalmer for another trip.

Our planning was rather spontaneous throughout the trip. Most of the days we didn’t know which city we were going to spend the night in until about 8 pm. Then at 9 we began the search for a hotel. In almost all the hotels we had late night check-in and early morning checkout.

Entering Rajasthan

We started from Phillaur at around 9:30 am. We encountered dense fog all the way till Bathinda, so the journey till there was a slow one and we didn’t see any birds at all. As we crossed Bathinda, the fog started clearing out slowly. We entered Rajasthan at about 12:30. This when we started to see some birds.

After another hour of driving, we reached Suratgarh. After crossing Suratgarh, There was a large pond on the right hand side of the road. The pond was filled with birds. Wood Sandpipers, Common Sandpipers, Red-Wattled Lapwings, Little Cormorants, Indian Cormorants, Cattle Egrets, Northern Shovelers and many more. But, the main attraction there was a group of 20-30 rare White-Tailed Lapwing! I have seen big groups of them before at Bharatpur but never this big!!

White-Tailed Lapwing
White-Tailed Lapwing
White-Tailed Lapwing
White-Tailed Lapwing

As we moved ahead, we saw lots of bird filled ponds but none of them had any special birds. In one of the ponds, there were some 10-20 Northern Shovelers feeding. I had seen them feeding for the first time so the way they were doing it seemed very funny to me. some were moving randomly in water with their heads submerged all the time, some were constantly spinning in one place, some were moving in a straight line.

We entered Northern Thar Desert at around 3 pm. Some time later we stopped at a huge pond where we saw a a group Demoiselle Cranes. Our plan was to spend the night at Khichan, which for those of you who don’t know is famous for thousands upon thousands of Demoiselle Cranes that come there every winter. So, since we were going to Khichan and these birds were very far anyway, we didn’t spend too much time with them though we really wanted too.

Wood Sandpiper in Thar Desert
Wood Sandpiper

Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner

In a few hours time the sun began to set and the birding time was over. The plan still was to reach Khichan. When we were just half an hour away from Bikaner, we decided that instead of staying at Khichan we should stay at Bikaner instead. So now that we had decided which city we were going to stay in, it was time to look for hotels.

After some research we finalised Laxmi Niwas Palace to spend the night. We checked in at about 10 pm and had a lovely dinner, after which I went out to the garden to photograph the palace.

Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner at night
Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner
Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner at night

With all the lights on, the palace just looked magnificent!

Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner at night
Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner at night
Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner
Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner

I spent half an hour trying out various angles and compositions. It was getting pretty late by then so I packed up all my paraphernalia and went back to my room.

In the morning, I again went out to the garden to get day shots of the palace and to do some birding.

Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner
Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner

There was a small platform, with fountains on either side, in the middle of the garden. There were beautiful lamp posts throughout the perimeter of the fountains. On top of one of the lamp posts I saw a White-Breasted Kingfisher. Though it is a commoner, I took some shots because the frame of it sitting on the lamp post seemed interesting to me.

White-Breasted Kingfisher
White-Breasted Kingfisher
White-Breasted Kingfisher
White-Breasted Kingfisher
White-Breasted Kingfisher

Next, I saw a Little Egret wading the waterhole and occasionally striking to pick up frogs and insects. Unlike, the Kingfisher, this guy gave me hard time. Whenever I thought it would come towards me, it would run to the opposite side of the fountain. But, after some time of running around in circles around the fountain, it came out of the water onto the grass and that’s when I finally got some decent shots of it. A few minutes later, it flew away and perched atop one of the trees in the garden.

Little Egret
Little Egret
Rock Pigeons
Rock Pigeons

While I was photographing the Egret, I could see a stray dog frantically moving around on the far end of the garden. When I was finished with the Egret, I turned to look at the dog who by that time had settled down. I moved towards it and looked through my camera and saw that it was eating something.

The dog was eating a Rock Pigeon which I believe he had hunted down!!

By the time I reached at a reasonable distance to photograph it, it had almost finished up his meal and I could only get shots of it finishing the bird off.

Stray dog eating bird
Stray dog finishing off a Rock Pigeon

Next up, I saw some Indian Peafowls behind the palace parking. The male came extremely close to me while the females decided to stay back.

Indian Peafowl male
Indian Peafowl male
Indian Peafowl male
Indian Peafowl male

Junagarh Fort, Bikaner

After breakfast, we left for Junagarh Fort. Just outside the palace there were lots of birds like House Sparrows, Brown Rock Chat and others on a bush. The one I was interested the most in was a Common Babbler. Though it is a common sighting in this area, I didn’t have any shots of it. The bird was friendly and came very close to me and gave good poses.

After that we went straight to Junagadh Fort.

Junagarh Fort, Bikaner
Junagarh Fort, Bikaner
Junagarh Fort, Bikaner
Junagarh Fort, Bikaner

It was 12:30 when we left Junagadh Fort and started our journey towards Khichan. Somewhere near Bikaner, I saw a group of Eurasian Griffon Vultures. I knew about Jorbeer but didn’t know that it was so close to Bikaner. I hadn’t even checked how far it was from Bikaner. The place where we stopped was right on the turn for Jorbeer, which was hardly 15 minutes from there. Had I known then that Jorbeer was so close, I surely wouldn’t have missed it. But, unfortunately, I didn’t know, so we went straight ahead towards Khichan.

Eurasian Griffon Vulture in flight from below
Eurasian Griffon Vulture
Eurasian Griffon Vulture in flight from below

Khichan


The story of Khichan

Khichan is a small village in the Thar Desert, 150 km north of Jodhpur. This rural village is famous for the migration of thousands upon thousands of Demoiselle Cranes which come here every winter from there breeding grounds in Mongolia and Eurasia. In the summer there is not much to see in Khichan but come August, the village echoes with the calls of thousands of cranes coming here after a perilous journey through the Himalayas. The birds stay here till March after which they slowly start leaving Khichan on a long journey back to their breeding grounds.

This all started in the 1970s when a local couple started feeding the village pigeons. This attracted the migratory cranes that are regularly seen in the area. Only a few hundred cranes came for the first few years. But, over the years, their numbers began to rise sharply. Seeing the numbers of birds increasing, the village panchayat assigned a plot in the village to be used as a chugga ghar for feeding these migratory cranes.

Right after sunrise, the cranes come here in batches, feed for some time, and go back to the lake and then the next batch comes in and this goes on until all the cranes have had their fill. In the evening they go to a lake north of the village and to surrounding areas.


We reached Khichan at around 3:45 pm and went straight for the lake. I was amazed to see thousands upon thousands of Demoiselle Cranes flying from everywhere to everywhere. I later found out that over 25,000 cranes had come to in Khichan to spend the winter.

While I was slowly and cautiously approaching the ones which were resting on the ground via the trenches that have been specially made for viewing them from up close without actually disturbing them, a group of foolish people came running straight towards the cranes. They were clicking photographs of themselves with their arms open and the thousands of birds flying in the background. They flushed nearly all the cranes there. The ones remaining were flushed by a herd of sheep.

I was disappointed because I had not got any decent shots when those fools flushed the cranes. What I didn’t know was that there was a ghat on the opposite of the road and all the birds that were flushed came here and the sight of thousands of cranes sitting in one place was amazing. There was a jetty specially built to get close to the birds. I went to the ghat and onto the jetty and took several photographs of the cranes.

Demoiselle Crane adult taking a sip
Demoiselle Crane adult
Demoiselle Crane juvenile at Khichan
Demoiselle Crane juvenile
Demoiselle Cranes at Khichan
Demoiselle Cranes in flight
Demoiselle Cranes at Khichan
Demoiselle Crane adult in flight
Demoiselle Crane adult in flight
Demoiselle Crane adult in flight
Demoiselle Cranes at Khichan

When I was satisfied with the cranes I took to photographing other birds that were present there. There was a group Common Teals in the pond. Though these birds are fairly common in Punjab during winters, I didn’t have any decent shots of them. I was lucky that the birds here were used to humans and gave me some good shots.

Common Teal male at Khichan
Common Teal male
Common Teal female at Khichan
Common Teal female

As we were leaving, I saw a Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse flying above. That was the first time I saw a Sandgrouse but I didn’t get any shots of it as it was flying very high and that too against the light.

We left the area after that and Sevaram ji took us to his home which is right next to the chugga ghar. On reaching the chuuga ghar, I saw a grey, pigeon-sized bird on the ground close to the fence. My first guess was that it was a Merlin. But, of course it was not a Merlin. I sat down on the footpath and with some difficulty managed to get some clean shots through the fence. It was a rare Red-necked Falcon and that too on a kill!

Red-Necked Falcon on a kill at Khichan
Red-Necked Falcon on a kill
Red-Necked Falcon on a kill at Khichan
Red-Necked Falcon on a kill at Khichan
Red-Necked Falcon on a kill

After spending some time with the Falcon, we left Khichan. Just outside Khichan, a man was feeding an Indian Peafowl couple. Since, both the birds were quite friendly and used to humans, I took a some shots of them. Somehow all the shots of the male were out of focus and without even checking them I sat back in the car and we left for Jodhpur.

Indian Peafowl female near Khichan
Indian Peafowl female

Checklist

Birds

  • Wood Sandpiper
  • Common Sandpiper
  • Red-Wattled Lapwing
  • Little Cormorant
  • Indian Cormorant
  • Cattle Egret
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Red-Wattled Lapwing
  • White-Tailed Lapwing
  • Demoiselle Crane
  • Ruff
  • White-Breasted Kingfisher
  • Little Egret
  • Indian Peafowl
  • Indian Roller
  • Black-shouldered Kite
  • Black Kite
  • Long-tailed Shrike
  • House Sparrow
  • Brown Rock Chat
  • Common Babbler
  • Eurasian Griffon Vulture
  • Common Teal
  • Little-ringed Plover
  • Northern Pintail
  • Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse
  • Red-necked Falcon

and the star of the day was – Red-necked Falcon


Also checkout – Rann Roadies – Part 2 – Jodhpur to Dholavira to Khichan
Rann Roadies – Part 3 – Bhuj and the White Rann


__ Thanks you for reading! __

~Arjun Basandrai

6 thoughts on “Rann Roadies – Part 1 – Phillaur to Khichan

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