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Following The Call of the Desert Fox

Before dawn, while all are still soundly sleeping, an animal calls from nearby. The sound haunts me as I unsuccessfully try to return to my peaceful slumber. And yet, I happily awake even before the birds as this morning we set off on our first safari in Blackbuck National Park.

Here in Central India, in Gujurat State, our quest continues to find and photograph birds and other wildlife of India. Today we seek not only the local birds but larger animals like the Indian Wolf, the Striped Hyena and the Desert Fox responsible for waking me this morning. Other likely sightings include Nilgri (a type of antelope) and plenty of Black Buck, which accounts for the name of the park.

Covering just about 35 square kilometres the park is quite small but, as we find on our safari expedition, a wide variety of bird and other wildlife live here. Consisting of two main types of landscapes, the wide open, flat grasslands and the wetlands, the animals and birds seem to have found a comfortable home.

Our first sighting is a wild boar family running over the road in front of us, the young skipping along behind the adults. A lone striped hyena loped along through the long grass, the first golden rays of sun touching its yellowish fur. The hyena sought a suitable shady spot in which to slumber over the warmth of the day. Our guide explains that there is a den elsewhere containing the young ones. The adults return at night bringing food stolen from another animal’s kill.

Huge herds of black buck wander through the grasslands. Sometimes, just their horns poke up above the tops of the grass as they scan the area nearby for predators. Other times, the taller grasses totally embrace them as they feed. Breeding occurs twice a year in April-May and September-October so the one young fawn only a day or so old has some catching up to do. A group of youngsters, probably around 8 months old, gambol nearby. Just the buds or the beginning of their horns show on top of their golden heads. They run and jump just as youngsters of all species do.

Different birds wearing their breeding plumage stand out. This small change in their outward appearance, seems nature’s way of ensuring attractiveness to potential mates. Sometimes however, their breeding colours do not really enhance their appearance to human eyes, especially when their heads turn a livid red.
Bumping along in our jeep, we stop frequently to exclaim over a new sighting and to take photos. The photographic challenges are many, including bumpy roads, trees and sticks poking in front of our subjects, and the sunlight shining from the wrong direction to show our subjects in their best light.

Returning to our accommodation we spy a huge flock of common cranes flying high overhead. They leave every morning around 5 or 6am, a local naturalist tells us later over breakfast. This flock is so large that we can call it a murmuration, and despite its weaving and dipping, it moves too soon from our field of vision. We sit, somewhat stunned at what we have just seen. We can only guess how many birds were involved in this mass migration to seek another food source. Perhaps there were several hundred all choosing to fly together and co-operate as they soared above.

Returning to base, I feel somewhat dazed after our early morning start. I’ve been vigorously massaged all over during our travels over bumpy roads. My brain ticks over cataloguing all the birds and animals sighted in the last couple of hours. And yet, the stomach wins out with demands for breakfast.

I feel very lucky to be able to experience mornings like this. To see so much wildlife and bird life in a protected area. To interact with others who know so much about the birds and animals, their habits, migratory patterns and their names. To learn more of the diversity of nature and its abundance in the right circumstances.

The sound of splashing distracts me. I look up to see a herd of water buffalo splashing through a small puddle just outside the fence. It seems that nature wants to remind me of how close it really is. I smile as I recall a sign in the wilderness garden in front of my room “You are in a wilderness, take care of your children”.

While we visit from half-way around the world, to see the natural wonders contained in this national park, I fervently hope that this Gujarati wilderness remains cared for and protected from human interference, greed and lack of understanding. The birds and wildlife need us to leave them in peace.

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Nilgri in the morning light