At Banni grasslands, as we were looking for wheatears, is when I saw them. At first, I mistook them for doves. Jugal Tiwari, our ecologist-host and guide who runs CEDO, quickly corrected me and identified them as Chestnut-Bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles exustus). This being my first sandgrouse sighting, I was immediately piqued by their unique gait: they walked like spring-wound toys, slanting left and right with each step.
Well camouflaged in the dry grassland and always observed in flocks or pairs, sandgrouse were rather shy birds that took off even as we tried to observe them from a distance. They were a frequent sight at most places in the Banni, and even near the thorn forest at Fot Mahadev, where they landed for a quick gulp of water at a small water-hole.
When Jugal mentioned that this was one of three species of sandgrouse found in Kutch, I hoped to see the others. Being ground-dwelling birds, they have a cryptic plumage that blends phenomenally with their surroundings.
The male Painted Sandgrouse (Pterocles indicus) is a work of art and makes for a brilliant photograph when shot against a plain background. Seeing our interest in the Chestnut-bellied species that morning, Jugal resolved to find us the Painted Sandgrouse.
The Painted Sandgrouse inhabits rocky areas with scrub vegetation. If you take a road in Kutch that winds through rocky terrain, you can sometimes see the birds sheltering in the shade of scrub trees on warm afternoons. We found a pair, and then a family of four, on our way to the Banni. The male is striking with an orange bill, prominent black longitudinal line across a white forehead, and a prominent ear cavity.
In the afternoon, while we headed back towards the Banni, we came across a Painted Sandgrouse family beside the road. Initially, we spotted the female and then the male, and then two relatively grown chicks as well. We enjoyed the sighting for close to 10 minutes and were thrilled to see our second species on the same day.
Jugal made it his mission to make it 3/3 for us. In the evening, over dinner, he shared his plan to make a foray further into Banni to show us the elusive Spotted Sandgrouse (Pterocles senegallus) also known locally as Waku Waku, an onomatopoeic name derived from the cackling sound it makes while taking flight.
We headed out early next day, scouring the grasslands for the Spotted Sandgrouse, and we passed through regions of heavy seismic activity. We saw raptors of various kinds — Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), Shikra (Accipiter badius), Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus axillaris), Montague’s Harrier (Circus pygargus), Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus), Oriental Honey-buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus), Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus) and Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis). Colonies of Indian Desert Jirds (Meriones hurrianae) were seen, a pair of MacQueen’s Bustard (Chlamydotis macqueenii) taking flight.
It was almost 9 AM when we wondered if we should head back. Just then Chetan, our driver, looked nodded attentively and mentioned that the birds were coming for water. Soon enough, a flock took off from the supposed watering hole calling “Waku-Waku-Waku-Waku…”
We waited near the puddle for more flocks to arrive and depart with the same “Waku-Waku” call announcing their arrival and departure. These birds reside in Middle East and Africa, and they make winter visits to Kutch. So, our 3/3 happened after all.
That we discovered the Spotted Sandgrouse near the watering hole was more than happenstance, as this is suggestive of a very important behaviour of this species. The flocks arrived in batches, and in every flock alert sentries maintained a lookout for threats and warned the flock, which was vulnerable to predators while visiting the watering hole.
The next day we sighted the Painted Sandgrouse and the Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse again during our visit to Fot Mahadev. The encounters with various Sandgrouse species stoked a desire within me that perhaps our next sighting should be in the Thar.