THE SALTFLATS AT THE LITTLE RANN OF KUTCH HAD BEEN CLOSED BY HEAVY RAIN for three days just prior to our arrival but fortunately they had a chance to dry out enough for us. A traditional camel cart welcome in the small town of Zainabad put a smile on our faces and we were delighted to see that one of the regular Pallid Scops Owls was present in the lodge gardens. This bird breeds across a wide range from Turkey to Pakistan but many of its regular haunts are now off limits to western travellers making the birds in Gujarat some of the most accessible remaining birds. This year’s experience was better than usual as I have never seen one choose such an exposed daytime roosting perch! However, the main reason we visit the Little Rann is for its lovely Asiatic Wild Asses and although not as plentiful as usual we were still able to spend time photographing a couple of groups of them. One silhouetted against a salt flat sunset and another in early morning light, feeding along the edge of the mesquite fringes of the flats. They were, as always, surprisingly delightful to folks who had not seen them before.
Our regular night drive across the hard-baked salt flats, which are basically a monsoon lake was light in variety but high in quality. We saw no fewer than 15 of the very sought-after and range-restricted Sykes’s Nightjar and managed to get very close to a couple of spot-lit birds using our well-drilled nightjar technique. During the day the wide-open spaces of the salt flats of the Little Rann present a surreal and barren landscape but they are still inhabited by few creatures. Our meanderings here included an Indian Grey Mongoose peering from its burrow, Wild Boar, Nilgai and some obliging Common Cranes, more Indian Thick-knees, Southern Grey Shrike, Desert Wheatears, Long-billed Pipits and a lovely male Steppe Merlin of the Central Asian form pallidus, as pale as a Shikra(!) but pride of place went to an endangered MacQueen’s Bustard, although it could have been a lot more obliging for the photographers! This bird has a dwindling wintering population in western India and Pakistan but it would help if Arabian falconers would stop hunting them please! Sadly our attempts to find some photogenic Indian Coursers were thwarted by the birds flying off into the distance at first sight of us. The bird-thronged wetlands south of Zainabad were thronged a bit out of range of our DSLRs but the flocks of Lesser and Great Flamingos, Common and Demoiselle Cranes and numerous ducks and shorebirds were a fine sight nevertheless. We also enjoyed an opportunity to shoot some people here, visiting a delightful local family (originating from Rajasthan), who presented some very nice fabrics and allowed a privileged insight to their village life not to mention the chance to drink some of their excellent tea!