As you submit to its silence and space, the vast salt desert that is the Little Rann of Kutch, slowly shares its secrets.
The Little Rann of Kutch – being smaller than the Great Rann of Kutch that stretches to its north and northwest – covers almost 5,000 sq km. According to one explanation, the region was once a shallow part of the Arabian Sea. And then a geological uplift cut off its link with the sea and left most of it just above sea-level. The occurrence also left the soil seeped with salt, the land with a distinct topography, and the region with a unique rhythm of life.
Adding to this fascinating rhythm is the wildlife sanctuary’s strategic location of being on the migratory route of birds flying from the Middle East and Central Asia, to escape the winter there, as well as being a destination for many flocks. Birders tell of spotting thousands of birds and mixed flocks at the larger water bodies. They speak of a bird count of over 250 species at the Rann that includes resident and migratory, from the small to the large, seed eating to birds of prey, terrestrial and water birds.
Asiatic Wild Ass and More
The Little Rann of Kutch is home to the endangered Asiatic Wild Ass. Standing strong and sturdy, a bit horse-like, of brown body with a brown chestnut mane running along its back, white underparts and muzzle, its colours drew from the salt desert. Their trot showed off their strength and grace, conveying their reputation of being one of the sturdiest animals being able to withstand high and low temperatures, and sustaining themselves with scrub grass and vegetation.
Buoyed by the sighting, a sense of expectation set in. A dark stretch of furrowed earth suggested that Common Cranes had been at work for they forage on tubers of dried sedge, a family of flowering plants under the earth, their stout bills assisting them in their task. Moving on, they appeared, their colours blending into the landscape. True to the parental attributes credited to them, they were a group of three, two parents with their juvenile.
Life in a Salt Desert
Driving further, we passed clumps of the indigenous Acacia Senegal and the introduced Prosopis juliflora. The latter provides fuel wood, has increased vegetation cover, and its seedpods provide food for the wild asses. However, some naturalists have mixed feelings about its slow yet steady spread as they feel it is overtaking indigenous vegetation and adversely affecting the eco-system.
Arid land took over and there seemed a slight movement. The vehicle stopped, and a pair of Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse emerged. The belly feathers of the sandgrouse can absorb and retain water like a sponge. Thus, the parents fly in search of water, quench their thirst and allow the feathers to soak water, and then return to their chicks who quench their thirst!
We then spotted a light flutter. It was a group of Greater Short-Toed Larks, dark streaked greyish-brown birds. Further on, we came across a flock of Common Babblers, and their brown-grey streaked bodies concealed them in dry scrub country.
Stopping by a Wetland
As evening set in, we stopped by the Bajana wetland and dotting the waters were a row of Greater Flamingos, with S-shaped necks. A Eurasian Spoonbill zigzagged its unusual bill through the water, and a Little Stint rapidly probed the waters with its needle-like beak, the action being likened to that of a sewing machine. A Pallas Gull, the world’s third largest gull, flew by, as did a Caspian Tern. A gaggle of Greylag Goose took off, flying strong and smooth. Painted Storks walked in shallow waters, stirring the waters with their feet and catching fish with their bills.
The breeze turned from warm to cool to cold. The sky filled with stars. As we drove back, the jeep lights incidentally grazed a mongoose running close to the ground, a bit later a Sykes Nightjar on the ground, and then an unmoving Eurasian Stone-Curlew. We took what the desert revealed to our urban eyes and returned enriched and grateful for the experience.
To visit the sanctuary at Dhrangadhra, the nearest airport is Ahmedabad about 190 km. GoAir has direct flights to Ahmedabad from Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata and convenient connections from Chennai, Goa, Patna, among others.
Written by Brinda Gill
Photographs by Mandar Khadilkar