Catch a Sunrise at this Birding Paradise in Gujarat

Thol may be low on the pecking order, but it is a wonderful place to make avian friends.  
Gujarat Thol Sanctuary Flamingos
Thol Sanctuary, about an hour’s drive from Ahmedabad, attracts flocks of flamingos, pelicans, kingfishers, ibis, and leggy storks. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

Gujarat has some of India’s most accessible wetlands, and these marshy areas are rich territory for birdwatching. The largest, most famous location is Nal Sarovar, about 80 kilometres from Ahmedabad. But on a recent visit to the city, I didn’t have enough time to make the trip before sunrise and get back to catch my flight to Mumbai.

Luckily, there is Thol, a shallow, freshwater lake that is less popular but just as fabulous for bird sightings. And it’s only 30 km from Ahmedabad. Surrounded by marshes and a light forest, with agricultural lands on the outer periphery, Thol was declared a sanctuary in 1988 and measures about 7 sq km.

I set out at about 5.40 a.m. and arrived early enough to find the watchman fast asleep. A firm hand on his shoulder woke him from his slumber. I bought tickets and headed to the tall bund built around the lake. A road with a walking track goes around this bund, and there are places where you can climb down to the more solid areas of the marsh.

It was still pitch dark when I reached the lake’s edge and I could just about make out the chrome glint of the water. It was so quiet that I could hear my own heartbeat. I was a little sceptical—I didn’t want to see just one kingfisher and a few lapwings and call that birdwatching. But when the sun broke over the horizon, it was like the flip of a switch. One moment I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face; the next I saw a purple heron standing in the water, just a few metres away, now bathed in orange light.

Along with light came sound. The cackle and cries of feathered folk greeting the sun were discordant, yet sweet to hear. Storks winged across the lake. Ducks waddled out for a morning swim. Flamingos stood in vriksasana, the tree pose in yoga. Pelicans nodded at each other like octogenarians meeting for a walk. Kingfishers darted about in search of breakfast. A bold ibis danced near the shore, where the water was the colour of liquid gold. An eagle cried from high above.

My shutter fired away incessantly, trying to capture all these, and other, wonderful sights. Some painted storks stood meditating in the water. I put my camera down and picked up my binoculars, mesmerised by their beautiful colours and their peaceful stance.

Appeared in the April 2015 issue as “High Fliers”.

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    Rishad Saam Mehta is a travel writer and photographer. He is the author of two books, the latest being "Fast Cars and Fidgety Feet" (Tranquebar, 2016).

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