357 kms from Delhi & 210 kms from Jaipur lies a dusty flat saline depression locally known as ”Tal” close to the village Chhapar. All of 719 hectares, this place was the private hunting reserve of the Maharaja of Bikaner pre independence. One of India’s most fascinating endemic antelopes – the Blackbuck was introduced into the reserve in 1920 and populations have thrived here to make Tal Chhapar one of the finest Blackbuck sanctuaries in India, with more than 2000 of them living in the sanctuary today.
Large herds once roamed freely on the plains of North India, where they thrived best. During the 18th, 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, blackbuck was the most hunted wild animal all over India. Until India’s independence in 1947, many princely states hunted this antelope and Indian gazelle, the chinkara, with specially trained captive Asiatic cheetas. (Asiatic cheetahs became extinct in the 1960s.) It once was one of the most abundant hoofed mammals in the Indian subcontinent, so much so that as late as early 1900s, naturalist Richard Lydekker mentioned herds of hundreds in his writings. Today, only small herds are seen, largely inside reserves. The chief cause of their decline is excessive hunting. The killing of antelopes was so rampant that a movement developed to protect them with the birth of Guru Jambeshwar (Jambaji) in 1485 CE in Bikaner, Rajasthan, and the establishment of the Bishnoi who follow his 29 principles of which eight are about preserving biodiversity. The Bishnoi are strong protectors of blackbuck as they revere them as Jambaji. They share their crops with blackbuck and other antelope and even bring up orphaned fawns.
Though the royal sport had ended, farmers of the expanding areas of cultivation saw it as crop-raider, further leading to its decline. Eventually, when in the 1970s, several areas reported their extinction, it was listed as a protected animal under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
Blackbuck are antelopes, which belong to the family of cows and goats. They have horns made of the same material as our hair. Males have beautiful spiral horns, which gives them an elegant look. The females, on the other hand, are yellowish fawn coloured and so are all the young ones. Young males grow horns by adding a spiral to their crown of horns each year. Most males turn into a beautiful black and white, which becomes even more prominent during the mating season.
One of nature’s shows worth seeing is their mating system known as lekking. Every year at a particular place in the grassland, males in their prime gather and start marking their territories. Each male’s territory has within it one or more saucer shaped dungpiles, where he defecates and urinates multiple times and sits and rubs his secretions on small blades of grass in the vicinity. This is done to signal to other males and interested females. The male also guards his territory from other intruding males. This aggregation of male territories is known as a ‘lek’ and the behaviour is known as ‘lekking’.
The lek is a very dynamic place. As more and more males gather, newer territories are formed, some older ones get divided between two or three males and stronger males replace weaker ones. Females enter the lek in small groups or solitarily and inspect the different male territories and take notice of the male’s displays. The females get to choose a male from all the males at the lek, who are trying hard to impress the females!
The males also challenge each other with a ‘heads up’ display, walking parallel to each other. this helps them assess each other strength and whether they want to get into a head butt!
I saw a similar heads up display when a male was trying to attract a female, so I guess its used to show off physicality to either intimidate or attract.
While many antelope species are native to Africa, blackbuck are native to the Indian subcontinent. A couple of centuries ago, they were found in large herds all over the country. Today, the blackbuck is listed as ‘near threatened’ in the IUCN red list.
Blackbucks are also the fastest land species in the Indian subcontinent and amongst the fastest in the world, with a maximum speed of 80 km /hr having been recorded. Its speed has been recognised from ancient times in our scriptures too. Nandita Krishna in her book, Sacred Animals of India, tells us that the antelope was considered the vehicle of Vayu, the Wind God. It was the mount of the Maruts, the storm deities. Lord Shiva is seen in many sculptures holding a horned stag, representing control over the restless mind and thoughts, for “thoughts are like the antelope, flying switfly as the wind”. Their gracefulness at these speeds, especially of the female blackbuck, when it is at the height of its long leap, is an amazing wildlife experience to photograph.
A Blackbuck male and fawn slaking their thirst in the mid afternoon heat.
However they are only one of the many attractions in a long list that make this place an absolute wildlife gem. It is also one of the best destinations in India to watch grassland birds – residents, migrants and passage migrants. Over 300 birds have been recorded at this place, including rarities like White-tailed Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Spotted Creeper, Sociable Lapwing, Red Phalarope, Yellow-eyed Pigeon, Punjab Raven and Stoliczka’s Bushchat. In winter, many migrating birds arrive at Tal Chapar from their breeding homes in Central Asia and Europe. The open grasslands are a magnet for raptors, with numerous species of Eagles, Buzzards, Falcons, Vultures, Harriers and Hawks dotting the park-scape.
Common Kestrel. A little known fact about it – This species is able to see near ultraviolet light, allowing the birds to detect the urine trails around rodent burrows as they shine in an ultraviolet colour in the sunlight.
The Kestrel is sometimes seen, like other birds of prey, as a symbol of the power and vitality of nature. In “Into Battle” (1915), the war poet Julian Grenfell invokes the superhuman characteristics of the Kestrel among several birds, when hoping for prowess in battle:
“The kestrel hovering by day,
And the little owl that call at night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they,
As keen of ear, as swift of sight”
The common kestrel is a winter visitor and a non breeding resident in India. It arrives around October and departs around April for breeding in its central Asian haunts.
Long legged Buzzard. This species is again a non breeding resident. It arrives during winter and departs thereafter to its breeding grounds in central asia.
Female Pallid Harrier. It breeds in southern parts of eastern Europe and central Asia (such as Iran) and winters mainly in India and southeast Asia. Pallid Harriers hunt small mammals, lizards and birds, surprising them as they drift low over fields and moors.
Imagine a rodent or a lizard looking up suddenly and seeing him! The ghostly male Pallid harrier
Looking for a suitable roosting place for the night…in the last flush of sundown.
Pallid harrier juvenile roosting (settling down to rest and sleep for the night) at sunset. They roost on open ground amidst grasslands like in Tal Chappar. I also saw the Montague’s Harrier, but could not manage a good enough shot of it to share here. A relatively rarer species of Harrier – the Hen Harrier has also been sighted regularly at Tal Chhappar.
The Eurasian Marsh Harrier.
Eastern Imperial Eagle. Both adults and immatures are migratory, wintering in the Middle East, East Africa south to Tanzania, the Arabian peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent and south and east Asia, wintering birds have also been reported in Hong Kong. These birds make their southward migration between September and November, returning between February and May. Wetlands are apparently preferred on the wintering grounds. Birds are usually seen singly or in pairs, with small groups sometimes forming on migration or at sources of food or water. This species has a small global population, and is likely to be undergoing continuing declines, primarily as a result of habitat loss and degradation, adult mortality through persecution and collision with powerlines, nest robbing and prey depletion. It is therefore listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN list.
Juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle
Steppe Eagle. The Steppe Eagle breeds from Romania east through the south Russian and Central Asian steppes to Mongolia. The European and Central Asian birds winter in Africa, and the eastern birds in India. The Steppe Eagle’s diet is largely fresh carrion of all kinds, but it will kill rodents and other small mammals up to the size of a hare, and birds up to the size of partridges. It will also steal food from other raptors. Like other species the Steppe Eagle has a crop in its throat allowing it to store food for several hours before being moved to the stomach.
Flight of the Steppe
Listed as Endangered in the IUCN list, the Egyptian Vulture is declining in virtually all parts of its range, apparently for a number of different reasons. In India, it has declined by >90% in the last decade; European populations have declined by >50% over the last three generations, and West, East and southern African populations also appear to have declined significantly, as do Arabian populations. Diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) often used for livestock, and which is fatal to vultures when ingested at livestock carcasses, is driving the recent rapid declines in India. The drug is now banned in India.
Tal Chhappar is also a migratory pit stop for the beautiful Demoiselle Cranes. The Demoiselle Crane is known as the Koonj in the languages of North India, and figure prominently in the literature, poetry and idiom of the region. Beautiful women are often compared to the koonj because its long and thin shape is considered graceful. Metaphorical references are also often made to the koonj for people who have ventured far from home or undertaken hazardous journeys.
The name koonj is derived from the Sanskrit word kraunch, which is a cognate Indo-European term for crane itself. In the mythology of Valmiki, the composer of the Hindu epic Ramayana, it is claimed that his first verse was inspired by the sight of a hunter kill the male of a pair of Demoiselle Cranes that were courting. Observing the lovelorn female circling and crying in grief, he cursed the hunter in verse. Since tradition held that all poetry prior to this moment had been revealed rather than created by man, this verse concerning the Demoiselle Cranes is regarded as the first human-composed meter.
The flying formation of the koonj during migrations also inspired infantry formations in ancient India. The Mahabharata epic describes both warring sides adopting the koonj formation on the second day of the Kurukshetra War. Seeing them fly, its easy to see why 🙂
The lovely Koonj…
In flight, a look up close. The whole flock in the area we saw them in (outside the sanctuary), numbered around 2,000 or so.
Bar headed geese. Their summer habitat are high-altitude lakes where the bird grazes on short grass. The species has been reported as migrating south from Tibet, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia before crossing the Himalaya. The Bar-headed Goose is one of the world’s highest-flying birds, having been heard flying across Mount Makalu – the fifth highest mountain on earth at 8,481 m (27,825 ft) – and apparently seen over Mount Everest – 8,848 m (29,029 ft) – although this is a second-hand report with no verification. This demanding migration has long puzzled physiologists and naturalists: “there must be a good explanation for why the birds fly to the extreme altitudes… particularly since there are passes through the Himalaya at lower altitudes, and which are used by other migrating bird species.” In fact, bar-headed geese have never been directly tracked (using GPS or satellite logging technology) flying higher than 6,540 metres (21,460 ft), and it is now believed that they do take the high passes through the mountains.
The challenging northward migration from lowland India to breed in the summer on the Tibetan Plateau is undertaken in stages, with the flight across the Himalaya (from sea-level) being undertaken non-stop in as little as seven hours. Surprisingly, despite predictable tail winds that blow up the Himalayas (in the same direction of travel as the geese), bar-headed geese spurn these winds, waiting for them to die down overnight, when they then undertake the greatest rates of climbing flight ever recorded for a bird, and sustain these climbs rates for hours on end, according to research published in 2011.
The super elusive and spectacular Black Francolin. Its got a beautiful call – http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Francolinus-francolinus. Lucky indeed to see it, though not in the clear.
White cheeked bulbul
I was pleasantly surprised to see a whole lot of wading / water birds at Tal Chhappar as well. There is an area outside the sanctuary close to an adjacent village, where there are a number of small water bodies. This is close to the site where the Demoiselle cranes were.
Black winged stilt, its loooong legs and long pointed bill are adapted to wading in shallow wetlands and spearing its food – insects and crustaceans
Common Greenshank. This is a subarctic bird, breeding from northern Scotland eastwards across northern Europe and Asia. It is a migratory species, wintering in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Australia, usually on fresh water.
Grebe, also called the ‘Duck chick’. Grebes have unusual plumage. It is dense and waterproof, and on the underside the feathers are at right-angles to the skin, sticking straight out to begin with and curling at the tip. By pressing their feathers against the body, grebes can adjust their buoyancy. When preening, grebes eat their own feathers and feed them to their young. the young are precocial and are able to swim from birth.
Marsh Sandpiper. It breeds across subarctic Europe and Asia and is a migratory bird, wintering in southern Europe, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and tropical Africa.
Little Stint?. Another long distance migrant, it breeds in arctic Europe and Asia, wintering south to Africa and south Asia.
Pied Avocet. Another migratory species, they breed in temperate Europe and western and Central Asia, wintering in Africa or southern Asia. These birds forage in shallow brackish water or on mud flats, often scything their bills from side to side in water (a feeding technique that is unique to the avocets). They mainly eat crustaceans and insects. The call of the avocet is a far carrying, liquid, melodious, kluit kluit – http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Recurvirostra-avosetta.
Juvenile Wood sandpiper. Breeds in subarctic wetlands from the Scottish Highlands across Europe and Asia. They migrate to Africa, Southern Asia, particularly India, and Australia
White tailed lapwing. The birds that breed in southern Russia, migrate to the Indian subcontinent during winter, and to Middle East and North east Africa.
Some other birds I saw –
The Short toed Lark. Not sure whether this is the Greater short toed or the Lesser short toed. Request an id confirmation.
Isabelline Wheatear. Breeds in southern Russia and central Asia to Northern Pakistan, wintering in Africa and northwestern India. The male Isabelline Wheatear displays to the female by drooping and then spreading his wings while singing, leaping a short distance in the air, or flying up fifty feet or so, hovering and performing stunts, singing all the while, before landing again beside the female. Phew 🙂 hard work!
Variable Wheatear. Breeds in Baluchistan and N Pakistan, winter visitor mainly to Pakistan and NW India. Breeds in barren valleys and low hills, winters in plains, stony desert foothills and cultivation.
Chestnut bellied Sandgrouse, female. They are found in sparse, bushy, arid land which is common in central and northern Africa, and southern Asia. Though they live in hot, arid climates, they are highly reliant on water. They have been known to travel up to 50 miles in one day in search of water. At a water hole, the adult birds soak up water in the breast feathers before returning to the nest to “water” the chicks – a unique feature of the sandgrouse family. When a predator is detected, rather than fleeing and risk giving away its location, the chestnut-bellied sandgrouse sits still and relies on its wonderfully camouflaged plumage to conceal itself.
Spotted Creeper. A shy and elusive species. It forages moving up along the trunk of trees such as the Khejri (acacia). It hunts for insects in the deep fissured bark of these trees. The Khejri tree is one of the most useful trees of the desert. Its wood is used in house building, agricultural implements and is an excellent fuel. Khejri is regarded as a savior in the desert and is sacred in Rajasthan
Up close, was finally rewarded with this shot after following it around the grove of Khejri trees for over half an hour. Its got a beautiful call: http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Salpornis-spilonotus.
I also saw the Eurasian Wryneck & a pair of Sparrowhawks but could not manage a decent shot.
Some of the other species at Chhappar
The Desert monitor lizard. Its quite a large monitor and an impressive species. Unfortunately could not manage a clear shot, it scurried away into its warren of burrows as soon as I saw it.
A ruddy mongoose I guess, but am not 100% sure.
The Desert Jird, one of the main prey species of Chhappar’s raptors & desert foxes.
The Spiny tailed lizard…the staple diet of the birds of prey in Tal Chappar. The entrance of its burrow can be seen in front of it. They are numerous and its quite an amazing sight to see them popping out of their burrows in large numbers all over.
I saw a beautiful specimen of the Desert Fox, glossy red copper coat, thick bushy tail with its white tip, creeping up behind a small hillock, hunting birds. It saw us and bolted and unfortunately could not manage a shot.
Chhappar is an addiction and I am restless to go back once winter sets in again for a tryst with many other species I missed this time. My parting moments was beside the ‘saucer’ (a small depression which is a watering hole and hotspot for raptors), watching 8 Steppe Eagles soaring in random circles high in the clear blue sky above, while the breeze rustled softly through the golden grass. Timelessness & serenity.
The image of sparring Blackbucks is still fresh in my mind!