The khejri trees stand like short pillars in the wave of mist that hangs low over the grasslands. A variable whetear causes a distraction because it is one of the rarer subspecies of this bird (Opistholeuca). The birds of the area have just started to get active, but for us, today is all about finding one species — the Indian spotted creeper (Salpornis spilonota). Looking for it among khejri trees (Prosopis cineraria) is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack, as the bird is well camouflaged against the bark of the trees. The fog only makes things worse, further limiting our vision. Just as we are wondering if it is indeed there, a wavy flute-like call fills our ears. It is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful bird calls I have ever heard. Pointing in the direction of the sound, we see a slender, long bird just about waking up for the day. It is the spotted creeper!
We are at Tal Chhapar Wildlife Sanctuary in Churu, Rajasthan. To be precise, this morning, we are at the famed gaushala area, adjoining the protected sanctuary. For 15-odd minutes, we observe the bird slowly making its way up the branches of the tree, looking for its meal of small insects amidst the crevices. It moves in a typical nuthatch manner, spiralling up from the base. Once done with one tree, it will make a short and lazy flight to the next one, before beginning the entire process again. At times, it lets out a call, which is absolute music to my ears. I realise that once spotted, the bird is not shy, and I am sure it does not give two hoots about our presence.
Although found in several parts of the country, including the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chattisgarh, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Goa, spotted creepers are very uncommon, and their distribution is rather scattered. Tal Chhapar happens to be one of the most reliable places to find this bird. Birders often set half a day aside, dedicated solely to spotting it in the confines of the sanctuary and the neighbouring gaushala. Even historically, these birds do not seem to have existed in large numbers. An old hunting record by the geologist Valentine Ball states “I saw and shot only 2 specimens of the spotted gray creeper in Sambalpur (Western Odisha). It is probably quite rare there as it is in Chota Nagpur”
The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds by Allan Octavian Hume, gives a vivid description of the nesting of the Indian spotted creeper. It mentions how the nest is placed at a height of 10 to 15 feet off the ground, and placed in a fork of branches. Made of “leaf-stalks, tiny bits of leaves, chips of bark, the dung of caterpillar, all cemented together everywhere with cobwebs, so that the whole nest is firm but yet a soft and elastic mass.”
Although listed as a bird of “Least Concern” by the IUCN, the creeper lacks any comprehensive study about its ecology and distribution. With a high affinity to wooded patches, the species is likely to be affected by land-use change and possible habitat alteration. The need of the hour for species like this is increased attention towards research on various aspects of their natural history. Such species, by virtue of being uncommon, can be good models for local ecotourism initiatives if reliable locations for them are known and protected.