Just before sunrise on Friday morning we were collected from Devpur by an ecologist & his driver from the Centre for Desert and Ocean (CERO) and taken to the Banni Grasslands, a semi-arid region skirting the Great Rann of Kutch for a morning of bird and mammal spotting. That's a desert warbler in the photo above (or sylvia nana, which has to be one of the greatest Latin names ever).
I'm beginning to run out of words to describe Gujarat's astonishing landscape so I think other-worldly is probably the best I can come up with. The odd shaped rock formations and pink-tinged environment were breathtaking at sunrise especially accompanied by the soundtrack of Kutch's dawn chorus.
Other than us, our guide and his driver there wasn't a soul around.
To be honest I was a bit worried about going bird spotting as I know hardly anything about them. I leave food out for them at home and know the difference between a robin, a sparrow and a blackbird but that's about it. I'm also useless at looking through binoculars so I was expecting to spend the morning having to pretend I'd seen things I hadn't.
I needn't have worried. Our guide, Veer's passion for birds, mammals and nature was contagious. He didn't expect either of us to be familiar with the creatures we spotted - he even slowed down to point out a domestic cat (Felis catus). He'd position his telescope on a tripod so we could see exactly what he'd seen. He played their calls on his smart phone and showed us the individual birds in his manual just in case we couldn't understand his accent (we could, his English was excellent).
The Indian paddy bird.
The common crane (Grus Grus).
A pair of painted sandgrouse. As is usual in the birding world, the boys are prettier than the girls.
Time for our car bonnet breakfast!
The long legged buzzard.
The silence was broken by the sound of bells emanating from a hundred-strong camel caravan passing through. The maldhari* comes from one of Kutch's nomadic tribes, the Jat community, whose forefathers fled from Baluchistan in Pakistan around 500 years ago. Following a feud with the king, the Jats sold all their other animals replacing them with camels to prepare for their 440 mile journey to Gujarat.
The maldhari and his family were moving on after a week spent grazing their herd elsewhere in the area. Although the Jats are Muslim and our guide & driver were Hindu they greeted each other warmly. When asked if his family were in need of food and water he happily accepted what was left of our breakfast picnic and continued on his way.
One of the most enchanting things I've ever seen. I'm so glad we bought a bell from the workshop in Nirona, I'll have a reminder of those precious few moments forever.
We came across another tribe of nomads on our journey through Banni. The milk from their water buffalo is so highly prized that each beast is said to be worth over one lakh rupees (£1,100).
The herd is looked after by these young men, also from the Jat community, whose tribe have been herding water buffalo in Kutch for over half an millennia.
We found it very strange that, unlike elsewhere in Gujarat, the nomads showed absolutely no interest in our foreignness and definitely didn't ask us for a selfie.
We also spotted (to name but a few) the white tailed tit , the grey hypocolius, Skye's Nightjar, Skye's Lark, the MacQueen's bustard, the lesser florican, the cream-coloured courser, the sociable lapwing, the white-browed bush chat, the grey necked bunting, the white bellied minivet, the graceful prinia, and the red-tailed wheatear.
Our favourite spot of the day had to be this gorgeous Indian grey mongoose.
You can see rest of our Banni photos HERE.