India Nature: Kutch Backroads, An Essay, part I

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Kutch Backroads

An Essay-cum-Trip Report in Four Parts with a Slideshow (click above)

Some of my first memories of the world involve insects and a pile of Delawarean autumn leaves. The memories flash quickly in my mind--jumping into a pile of colorful leaves my parents had just raked, just like Calvin and Hobbes would have done. I remember, in child-like innocence, guiding ants to their doom by pushing them towards the pits of antlions, large mandibles waiting below for the kill. I also remember bringing a praying mantis egg case into my bedroom. This experiment of nature ended when my mother vacuumed hundreds of baby mantis from the floor.

When ninth grade arrived, your regular cafeteria table defined who you were. I wavered between the geeky honors table and the outcast hard rock table. I was a mid-80s geek, waiting for Nirvana and Pearl Jam to save me. I couldn't tell you why I didn't have a regular table: perhaps I subconsciously felt that we all should eat at one big table or perhaps I wasn't really interested in cliques, I couldn't tell you at this point--high school memories are increasingly fading for better or worse.

So when given an opportunity to leave Delaware and head to Florida for Winter Break, I signed up immediately. The trip, however, wasn't a teenager's dream trip to Daytona Beach. Instead it was a trip to the mosquito-infested Everglades.

The trip leaders were Jeff Gordon and Jim White, from the Delaware Nature Education Society. They had the challenge of leading a week-long trip with ten teenagers stuffed into a tan DNES van, with the goal of teaching us a thing or two about nature, in the gaps between U2, Bon Jovi, and R.E.M. songs.

Our focus was birdwatching, especially looking for rare birds in all corners of southern Florida. This was my first exposure to real birding, with my National Geographic Birds of North America in hand. We found many of the rarities--the Roseate Spoonbill, the Snail Kite, the Crested Caracara, the Red-Whiskered Bulbul--and over 100 species of birds in all.

I continued birding, increasing my "life list" to over 300 species of North American birds and dragging my parents to remote sites just to see the Whooping Crane. But at the same time birding was only part of the picture. I became disenchanted with birding and its seeming focus on lists, with other animals and plants receiving a slight nod.

For years, I went without a desire to increase my life list, to actively seek a bird I hadn't seen. What was important to me was the whole, the essence of nature, the interconnectedness of it all--the ecology.

I focused on one area--the Islands of Massachusetts--and learned the songs of the common birds and the rare birds, the nests of the colonial waterbirds and plovers, the small brown moths that flew at night, the diminutive Carex species, the history of the land and its people. Working for a conservation organization, the Trustees of Reservations, I spent hours identifying plants following the forked paths of Latin dichotomous keys, carrying moth-attracting black lights through ankle-breaking scrub, and tracing land ownership back to colonial times in the local Registry of Deeds. To me, everything was related to ecology.

Yet now I am back birdwatching, this time in India, Greater Hindustan. In Nepal, I found a copy of Birds of the Indian Subcontinent and since then have been ticking off birds one by one, a life list for subcontinental birds. For this trip, I was determined to bag the birds, to find the rarities, just like I did twenty years ago in the Everglades.

This was an experiment: I was shopping for birds, a birding consumer with a list. The more good finds, the larger the species list, the better. If the loudspeaker said "Attention K-Mart shoppers, 50% off jeans in aisle three," people flocked to aisle three. If my guide told me that the Grey Hypocolius could be found in the morning at the town of Fulay, I'm there.

My destination was Kutch in western Gujarat, including the water surrounding Kutch: the Gulf of Kutch, the Arabian Sea, the Great Rann of Kutch, and the Little Rann of Kutch. Because of the unique characteristics of this land, I hoped to find many species of birds.

To begin, I wrote a list of rarities and other new birds that I could potentially find in late February and early March. I noted their habitats and looked for places they were found by other birders in their trip reports. I schemed, I planned, I began my quest.

During this scheming and planning, I realized that in order to understand Kutch, I needed to understand its paleo-ecology and geology. In ancient times, Kutch was a true island, shaped like a the archetypal turtle after which it was named, and was home to ancient Harappan ports and Krishna's capital port, Dwarka. The smell of the Bhagavad Gita and years of humanity was strong on the land. During Vedic times, ancient river valleys flowed from the Himalayas into immense river deltas on the Arabian Sea, depositing silt in their wake.

"Pure in her course from mountains to the ocean, Sarasvati River bestows for Nahusha nutritious milk and butter," The Vedas extolled.

But sometime between now and then, something drastic happened. The Himalayan-born rivers--the Sarasvati, the Shatadru, the Drishadvati recorded in the Vedas and the Mahabharata--flowed across an unstable landscape, the western fault between the Eurasian and Indian plates, the same plates whose opposing forces created the Himalayas. Earthquakes along this zone of tension repeatedly warped the relatively-flat landscape, easily shifting the flow of major rivers as if Mother Nature were conducting a massive Water Control Project, possibly (scientists aren't sure) sending the Yamuna River eastwards to join the Ganges, the Sutlej River westwards to mix with the Indus, and rendering the mysterious Sarasvati River impotent.

These earthquakes, including an 8.1 magnitude tremor that destroyed Kutch's capital, Bhuj, in 2001, also raised the former deltas of these rivers. At the same time, other areas subsided. The result was that Dwarka sank into the Arabian Sea and ruins of old deltaic ports sat emasculated.

Combined with a steadily-warming and drying climate and rising sea level, the seas and deltaic estuaries surrounding the turtle of Kutch eventually turned into the Great and Little Rann of Kutch, extensive salt-laden silt flats during the summer and wetlands during and after the monsoon. Kutch ceased to be an island, at least during the dry and hot Indian summers, yet it remained isolated and remote. Indeed, the sparsely populated landscape is unlike most of India, with its crowds, full of humanity.

The paleoecology and geology of Kutch have created habitats of buckled ridges, semi-arid thorn scrub, grasslands, dry deciduous forests, and extensive wetlands--mangroves, estuaries, freshwater lakes and marshes, and the immense seasonal ranns. In addition, Kutch is a prime destination for migratory shorebirds seeking a refuge from northern winters. Here, I could potentially find a dozen species of larks, two dozen birds of prey, one hundred shorebirds and waterfowl, and rare birds. Top on my list were Indian Bustard, Stoliczka's Bushchat, White-naped Tit, Imperial Eagle, Dalmatian Pelican, Grey Hypocolius, and Lesser Flamingo.
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