Friday, September 14, 2012

Sonkhaliya - Quails, Owls and Floricans

Sonkhaliya, a hitherto unknown hamlet, 40 kms from Ajmer district in Rajasthan, has in recent years captured the imagination of birders for the two of the most sought after species in the oriental region - Lesser Florican (Sypheotides indicus) and Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps). Not just because both birds are strikingly pretty in their own respect, but because their populations have suffered rapid declines and not many are sure they'll see them in future decades. Best season to see these birds is from 15th July till 1st week of Aug when the Jowar in fields is not very high and chances of spotting the birds are high. The other factor is also the amount of rainfall that the region experiences. With heavy rains, the birds aren't easily visible though it probably is good overall for the survival of these very vulnerable birds. Drought like situation has been detrimental to the population in the past. [Update - I recently learnt that photographing GIBs between Apr - Oct is banned by MoEF due to increasing concerns around unethical photography of these already vulnerable birds]
Grey Francolin dust bathing

Armed with these facts, Ateesh and I set out for a quick weekend visit to try our luck at sighting these birds. It was incredible to have Ateesh accompany me for trip devoted entirely to birding. We've mixed vacation trips with birding in the past but nothing which qualified as a birding trip in it's entirety. Guess I owe him a Star Gazing trip sometime in future. But the timing of our trip was slightly delayed and not ideal. We went on 1st and 2nd Sep, by when the Jowar fields were flourishing waist high. In the recent years, a substantial area in the region has come under Moong cultivation, which I learnt, has found favours with both the farmer and the Lesser Floricans. Farmer, because it requires less water and grows quicker and Lesser Floricans for some unexplained reason. The village of Sonkhaliya is still untouched by surrounding urban compulsions and looked every bit a north Indian village, with small hutments, kuchha roads (or paths) turned into tiny stagnating puddles, harbouring mosquitoes, their larvae and the kins, children with curious expressions and relaxing elderlies by the well. Vast emerald fields interspersed with thorny scrubs were adjoined by vast Grasslands that looked very pristine and ideal for scrub land species. There's a large grassland just outside Sonkhaliya that's used for cattle grazing by villagers.
Lesser Florican doing it's famous jump

We were lucky to elude rains during our 2 day trip but had to bear the scorching Sun all day long in the fields. I guess you can't have everything. But that meant that we heard and saw and photographed Lesser Floricans right from the word Go. Locally called Khad Mor (for Grass peacock though they are Bustard family and not pheasant), they are all around in the fields. A bird of the size of Cattle Egret but remains almost entirely hidden in the field except for a little black head popping out continuously as it paces few meters every few mins and then makes it's trademark jump. This is part of the ritual that male Floricans adopt to impress the females and to ward off other males from their territory. While jumping, the Floricans could go up to 10 Ft high straight up in the air, with folded legs and stretched wings. Flapping of it's wings makes a characteristic frog like sound, which I had earlier thought came from it's throat. But later realised it was the wings doing the trick. We counted 9 Floricans over 2 days and felt very satisfied.
Wild Flower

Other bird of interest was Great Indian Bustard which eluded us all through the trip. Enquiring with the local herd grazers confirmed that they aren't as commonly seen. Godawan as they are locally called, have a large habitat to them but with frequent disturbances by humans, knowingly or unknowingly. The villagers seemed to be aware that tourists come for Godawan but didn't care beyond that. The importance of this critically endangered bird seemed lost on most of them. 2 afternoons and evenings were spent looking for them, but while Godawan eluded us, there were many more good birds spotted.
Rock Bush Quail (M)

Rock Bush Quails were plenty and almost always got flushed out from the sides of the tracks when they went scurrying in all directions like a pack of mice. Next most abundant quail was Rain Quail. Spotted few small groups of them but Rain Quails seemed more secretive than Rock Bush Quails. Small Buttonquail was only a hint and so I cannot be sure about it but others have reliably seen and photographed Small Buttonquail and Yellow Legged Buttonquail from this region. Scores of Grey Francolins were everywhere. Common Passerines included Southern Grey Shrikes, European and Indian Rollers, Plain and Ashy Prinias, Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, Pied-crested Cuckoo, plenty of Indian Bushlarks, Ashy-crowned Sparrowlarks and Rufous-tailed Larks singing around in the grasslands.
c2 White-eyed Buzzards perched on top of trees were great to see. An unIDed falcon which in my brief glance looked like a Red-necked Falcon to me, was seen in the fields. No other raptors were seen.
Indian Eagle Owl

Another noteworthy species to report is the Indian Eagle Owl or Rock Eagle Owl (Bubo bengalensis) which is resident in the area. The felspar mines in the region surrounded by thorny scrubs provide an ideal habitat to these big owls. One resident pair gave us good views in the mines while the other flew in the grasslands.

On day 2, we ran into Devender Bhardwaj from Forest department who is actively taking interest in building the area into a better birding destination and were happy to know him in person. He was kind enough to divert his official guide help to us, whom he called guests from outside and instructed them to show us the best around. Any help we can provide like the checklists prepared after the trip will be helpful to him in making a case for at least an increase in ground staff which is right now dismally inadequate. Rajendra and Goga are the only two who help out as many visiting birders as they can and also keep a vigil on birds in the region all year round. Wish more power and strength to them and wish we see an increase in these endangered birds in times to come.

Eating options in the village and road leading upto Sarwar, where we stayed, begin and end with Kachauri /Kadhi and Jalebi/Milk cake for sweets. So, if you are one with more refined urban tastes, pack a decent quantity of Ready-To-Eat meals with you. You'll not regret. Staying options are basic and at some distance from Sonkhaliya. Nearest is Sarwar, ~20 kms from Sonkhaliya where we stayed. The hotel provided basic but good portions of the meal. One could also put up in Kishangarh where a heritage hotel is run by royalties. Enquire before you land up though.
One other depressing fact that I learnt from the driver was that though hunting is legally banned, there are some tribes on the fringes of society like Kanjar, Kaal Beliya (of the famous Kaal Beliya dance) which actively hunt local birds for regular meals using nothing but catapult. They would hunt anything from a peacock to a quail to a Myna and rarely get caught. Even mainstream communities consider Common Myna's meat as a panacea for long standing cough and regularly kill them for medicine. As we bid good bye to the region, images of these hunted winged beauties in an ecologically important region, refused to go away from my mind and I feverishly hoped for more education and activism for the region.

Those who wish to visit Sonkhaliya should get in touch with Rajendra (09214600140). Map of the region is attached below for reference, followed by complete checklist of birds seen.

View Larger Map

Complete List of Birds seen - Sonkhaliya (1st - 2nd Sep, 2012)
SpeciesScientific Name
Grey FrancolinFrancolinus pondicerianus
Rain QuailCoturnix coromandelica
Rock Bush QuailPerdicula argoondah
Indian PeafowlPavo cristatus
Comb DuckSarkidiornis melanotos
Lesser Whistling-duckDendrocygna javanica
Spot-billed DuckAnas poecilorhyncha
Common HoopoeUpupa epops
Green Bee-eaterMerops orientalis
European RollerCoracias garrulus
Indian RollerCoracias benghalensis
White-throated KingfisherHalcyon smyrnensis
Pied CuckooClamator jacobinus
Asian KoelEudynamys scolopaceus
Greater CoucalCentropus sinensis
Alexandrine ParakeetPsittacula eupatria
Rose-ringed ParakeetPsittacula krameri
Indian Eagle OwlBubo Bengalensis
Rock PigeonColumba livia
Laughing DoveStreptopelia senegalensis
Eurasian Collared DoveStreptopelia decaocto
White-breasted WaterhenAmaurornis phoenicurus
Common CootFulica atra
Black KiteMilvus migrans
White-eyed BuzzardButastur teesa
Yellow-wattled LapwingVanellus malabaricus
Red-wattled LapwingVanellus indicus
Greater Painted-snipeRostratula benghalensis
Eurasian Thick-kneeBurhinus oedicnemus
Black-tailed GodwitLimosa limosa
Spotted RedshankTringa erythropus
Common RedshankTringa totanus
Green SandpiperTringa ochropus
Common SandpiperActitis hypoleucos
Little GrebeTachybaptus ruficollis
Little CormorantPhalacrocorax niger
Little EgretEgretta garzetta
Grey HeronArdea cinerea
Great EgretCasmerodius albus
Cattle EgretBubulcus ibis
Indian Pond HeronArdeola grayii
Black IbisPseudibis papillosa
Common BabblerTurdoides caudata
Large Grey BabblerTurdoides malcolmi
Jungle BabblerTurdoides striata
White-eared BulbulPycnonotus leucotis
Red-vented BulbulPycnonotus cafer
Wire-tailed SwallowHirundo smithii
Booted WarblerHippolais caligata
Indian SilverbillLonchura malabarica
Indian BushlarkMirafra erythroptera
Ashy-crowned Sparrow LarkEremopterix griseus
Rufous-tailed LarkAmmomanes phoenicura
Ashy PriniaPrinia socialis
Plain PriniaPrinia inornata
Baya WeaverPloceus philippinus
House SparrowPasser domesticus
Chestnut-shouldered PetroniaPetronia xanthocollis
Black DrongoDicrurus macrocercus
Rufous TreepieDendrocitta vagabunda
House CrowCorvus splendens
Southern Grey ShrikeLanius meridionalis
Brahminy StarlingSturnus pagodarum
Asian Pied StarlingSturnus contra
Bank MynaAcridotheres ginginianus
Siberian StonechatSaxicola maurus
Pied BushchatSaxicola caprata
Isabelline WheatearOenanthe isabellina
Brown Rock-chatCercomela fusca


  1. As for the hunting of birds by local tribes, it seems a global phenomenon. In India it's an organised institution and can not thrive without the nexus of local authorities with these hunters. The very fact that everyone there knows who hunts what says a lot about how organised all this is.

  2. Its just wonderful. Thanks for sharing. Sonkhaliya has so many bird. Its just unbelievable. I would like to share more. Check out all other best hotels in Ajmer.