In India, everything takes about three times longer than you expect it to. On the first full day we had in Kutch, the largest and northernmost district of the state of Gujarat and where this year’s Global Bird Watching Conference was being held, the plan was to load the entire 300 person strong conference into 8 buses and travel over the desert on questionable roads to Chhari Lake.
We managed to get everybody out and onto the transportation only about 45 minutes behind schedule, and as the sun rose over the regions famed White Desert, we were on our way southward.
Road birding along India’s main roads is surprisingly productive, but here, where there are no power lines or fences and even the barest impression of a road, there was little to see. Besides, to stop and explore meant that all eight buses in our caravan, along with a handful of support vehicles, would need to stop, unload, direct people towards whatever it was we were looking for, and then reload again, a procedure akin to setting up and taking down a traveling production of The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel. In short, it had to be something really good to get this wagon train to stop.
I’m not sure who first put out the alarm. I had intended to get on the “birder bus”, but instead ended up on the one about sixth in line. But there was no joking around when someone in the front of my bus picked up on the stoppage, put glass to eye and yelled out “Sociable Plover!”
And there they were, 12 Sociable Lapwings (I guess I can forgive the poor guy in front for forgetting the updated name in the excitement) tottering around in the short grass ahead of us. 300 people got off the bus. 300 people lined up behind scopes. About 70 realized the significance of the moment and exchanged high fives. This was one of the rarest birds in the world, or at least it was thought to be until relatively recently. It was a bird not on many people’s radar. Certainly not mine. And here they were, nice as you please.
It wasn’t that long ago that Sociable Lapwing was considered a critically endangered species with a population of only around 1500. As it turns out things aren’t really that bad for it, it’s just that they tend to hang out in unpopulated areas. They nest on the vast central plains of Asia and winter in inhospitable places like Iraq and Pakistan, and rarely visited places like the White Desert of Kutch in Gujarat. Large congregations of wintering birds have pushed the estimated population up towards 15,000 or so. The current outlook is not nearly as critical as believed before, but the species is still declining and no one is exactly sure why. In any case, it goes on the short list of the most special birds I’ve come across.
People often ask me when they find out I’m a birder, what is the rarest bird I’ve ever seen. I never know quite how to answer that because “rare” is used in several ways among birders. I’ve seen a handful of North Carolina records that have never been duplicated, and I’ve seen a couple North American vagrants that are rare for their place and time and few range restricted species in Central America and the Galapagos. But, prior to this, I’d never knowingly seen a species that was globally threatened.
Maybe that’s not something to be proud of – I know birders with extinct species on their life lists that regard that fact with a sort of grim pride – but at the very least, I have an answer when someone asks that question. And it made that long trip a much more memorable one.
Nate Swick is a birder. He grew up in the midwest but currently makes his home in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife and two young children, who are not yet aware that they are birders too. He has a soft spot for Piping Plovers and loves pelagics even when his stomach doesn’t, which makes him the quintessential Carolina birder. Nate is the editor of the ABA blog, host of the American Birding Podcast, and author of two books, Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
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