Tal Chappar : A Birder’s Heaven

Tal Chappar Sanctuary, Churu District, Rajsthan has been famous for some of really hard-to-get birds in the world…Been planning for this place since quite long but never materialized due to many reasons…Finally A call from Sharad Shridhar did the trick ..and we were set to drive 1000KM to explore this birder’s beauty.

Spotted Creeper (Salpornis spilonotus)

Although meeting the legendary Mr. Surat Singh Poonia, Range Forest Officer, Tal Chhapar Wildlife Sanctuary was actually very high on the list. Mr. Poonia made all the hard effort to get this park and park visitors(Both Birds as well as Birders) to feel at Home. Mr. Poonia ensures that every birder enjoys the park in best way which ensure birding pleasure with conservation. After meeting him I would really hope that such officer should be in every range……

White-browed Bush Chat (Saxicola macrorhynchus)

Tal Chhapar Sanctuary is a sanctuary located in the Churu district of Northwestern Rajasthan in the Shekhawati region of India. It is 210 km from Jaipur and situated on road from Ratangarh to Sujangarh. The Tal Chappar sanctuary lies in the Sujangarh Tehsil of Churu District. It lies on Nokha- Sujangarh state Highway and is situated at a distance of 85 km from Churu & about 132 km from Bikaner. The nearest Railway station is Chappar which lies on Degana – Churu – Rewari metre gauge line of North Western Railways. The nearest Airport is Sanganer (Jaipur) which is at a distance of 215 km from Chappar.

The flourishing grassland ecosystem of Tal Chapar has a tale of its own. Till the 1940s, it was a hunting ground and horse pasture belonging to Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner. The area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1966. The Geology of the zone is obscured by the wind blown over-burden. Some small hillocks and exposed rocks of slate and quartzite are found in the western side of the sanctuary. Area between hillocks and the sanctuary constitutes the watershed area of the sanctuary. The whole sanctuary used to be flooded by water during the heavy rains but with salt mining going on in the watershed. Hardly any rain water falling on the hillocks reach the Sanctuary. Nothing much grew in these parts except the Prosopis juliflora, an invasive plant species that had pushed out native plants. In 2006, the Rajasthan government prepared a five-year action plan for the integrated development of the sanctuary and included it on the state’s tourism map. And unlike other fruitless action plans, this one worked. The turnaround can mostly be credited to SS Poonia.

SS Poonia started with the systemic eradication of Prosopis juliflora by planting a grass species locally known as mothiya, a special type of grass is found. This grass is called Mothiya locally. The word “Mothiya” comes come from the word “Moti” or from the English word for Pearl. The shape of the seed of this grass is like very fine round shaped pearls. Mothiya has a very sweet taste. People enjoy eating it, but it is found in very small quantities. Production is only a few kilograms every season. Mothiya is also food for Black bucks and other birds which dig it from earth with their starks. But it’s for another reason that visitors to this birding paradise seek Pooniaji for company. His passion for, and knowledge of, birds is second to none, and he can effortlessly spot birds such as the Lesser Kestrel or Spotted Creeper or Yellow Eyed Pigeon. He is the man who has managed to turn the dusty desert scrubland into Birding Heaven.

The Tal Chhapar sanctuary is located on the fringe of the Great Indian Desert. Tal Chhapar nestles a unique refuge of the most elegant Antelope encountered in India, “the Black buck”. Tal Chhaper sanctuary, with almost flat tract and interspersed shallow low lying areas, has open grassland with scattered Acacia and prosopis trees which give it an appearance of a typical Savanna. The word “Tal” means plane land. The rain water flows through shallow low lying areas and collect in the small seasonal water ponds.

Finally on 4th Nov 2011 Myself along with Yagnesh Bhatt (Dharmaj) and Bimal Patel (Anand) started off midnight on a 1000km drive to Tal chappar. we took Anand-A’bad-Udaipur-Chittorgarh-Bhilwara-Ajmer-Surjangarh route. Which took almost 11 hours to complete. As we were not booked at Forest Guest House at Tal Chappar, we searched for hotel in surjangarh. At surjangarh there are very limited hotels available and all of them are pretty basic standard. Sharad was about to reach Tal Chappar by evening so We took some rest and at evening we met Sharad and Mr. Poonia and worked out the plans for birding. Infact I’m in touch with Sharad since last couple of years..but eventually this is the first time we met in person.!!!!!!….

We spent 5th and 6th Birding all around Tal Chappar and got many prized sightings, For me the best one were Yellow-eyed Pigeon or Pale-backed Pigeon (Columba eversmanni), Spotted Creeper (Salpornis spilonotus), White-browed Bush Chat (Saxicola macrorhynchus) and Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni). But the best award would be chance to record full song of White-browed Bush Chat (Saxicola macrorhynchus)… Probably first time in the world!!!!! She kept singing for me more than Half an hour at very close range(10-12 feet)…

One of the really sought after birds was Spotted Creeper (Salpornis spilonotus) specifically Salpornis spilonotus rajputanae R. Meinertzhagen, 1926

Spotted Creeper has been placed in Sittidae or treated as a monospecific family, Salpornithidae, mainly due to lack of stiffened tail feathers. Data derived from DNA-DNA hybridization indicate present genus is closest relative of Certhia. Recent research using biometrics, song structure and cytochrome b sequences supports treatment as a separate family with closest but still loose relationship to Tichodromidae; also calls for specific separation of African birds as S. salvadori. In contrast, other studies suggest distinct vocal differences exist between, on the one hand, Indian and W African birds and, on the other, S African populations, and these two groups might represent two separate species; further study required, e.g. of Ethiopian birds. Six subspecies currently recognized.

Spotted Creeper (Salpornis spilonotus)
The spotted treecreeper is distinct from the other treecreepers in a number of ways: first, it’s a large and rather robust bird, weighing as much as twice what any other similarly-sized treecreeper weighs. Second, this species constructs nests and produces eggs are quite different from the Certhiinae species: its nest is an open cup constructed in a crotch of a tree on a horizontal branch, and camouflaged with spiders’ egg sacs, caterpillar frass, and lichens. The African population typically produces clutches of three blue or greenish eggs, marked with grey, lavender, and brown whilst Indian birds usually produce clutches of two greenish or grey eggs, spotted darker brown and pale blotches. Unlike other treecreepers, this species has strongly spotted and barred plumage, and it lacks the stiff tail feathers that all the Certhiinae have to support themselves on vertical trees.

Spotted Creeper (Salpornis spilonotus)Indian Taxa of Spotted Creeper:

Salpornis spilonotus rajputanae R. Meinertzhagen, 1926 – C & SE Rajasthan (E from Sambhar, Ajmer, Aravalli Hills and Mt Abu), in WC India.

Salpornis spilonotus spilonotus (Franklin, 1831) – C India from E Gujarat (E from Rajpipla and Disa) and S Haryana (Gurgaon) E to N Uttar Pradesh (Gonda, near Nepalese border) and N Bihar, S to E Maharashtra, N Andhra Pradesh and SE Madhya Pradesh (Bastar District).

Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger)

A very close encounter with a resident pair of Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger) was really amazing to photograph.

Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni)Unfortunately all the adult male Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni) had all already left by end october and we saw about 6-7 individuals – one subadult male and the remaining were all females.

We saw atleast 100+ Yellow-eyed Pigeon (Columba eversmanni) coming for roosting in evening time. But on 7th Nov morning we were lucky to see on perched right next to sanctuary gate while coming back from morning birding session.  She perched for long enough to give us few shots with good lights!!!!!

Yellow-eyed Pigeon or Pale-backed Pigeon (Columba eversmanni)

I will deal with each species later on the blog in details. so till then enjoy the Birding!!!!!

Some Gallery from Tal Chapar Rajsthan:

Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger)

Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax)

White-browed Bush Chat (Saxicola macrorhynchus)

Yellow-eyed Pigeon (Columba eversmanni)

Spotted Creeper (Salpornis spilonotus)

Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni)