Everything is still at Nalsarovar as my boat glides silently on a lake surface as clear as a mirror. The boatman handles the oars in an expert manner, clearly used to the morning chill as well as the dense fog blanketing the lake. There are only a couple of other boats around us, mostly silent, occasionally bursting with the muffled laughter of the tourist groups out on a joy ride. On this lake, boats are more like small, flat-bottomed canoes, making it easy to navigate through the shallow water levels and sandbars along the way.
As the sun begins to rise, the fog lifts slowly and I can trace the silhouettes of dozens of brown-headed gulls flying low in the distance. They swoop in and out of the lake rapidly, creating small ripples on the placid water that is now reflecting the muted pinks and oranges of dawn. By then, we have reached an area filled with low reeds, and Nakul bhai moves our small boat between them, startling the large group of pied bushchats clustered on one of the clumps.
Things suddenly pick up pace then on, with Nakul attempting to identify some of the birds that make an appearance along with the morning sun. I am at best an amateur birder, without the experience or patience of a twitcher, and I have made it clear to him that I am there mainly for the flamingos. The greater flamingo, to be precise, with its pale pink plumage and legs, that makes Nalsarovar home for the cool months. These are found by the dozens deep inside the sanctuary, silently bent over their food in a charming tableau, taking sudden flight at any small sound.
Nalsarovar, literally meaning Tap Lake, is a shallow lake sprawling over 120 square km on marshy land, with 36 islets. It has officially been a bird sanctuary since 1969. The National Committee on Wetlands has also identified it as one of the most important wetlands in India, and it attained Ramsar site status in 2012, meaning international recognition of its significance. Given the swampy landscape, vegetation is sparse with only reeds and a few aquatic plants such as eelgrass (Vallisneria), water nymphs (Najas) and lesser bulrush (Typha Angustata).
Only the most experienced or expensive boatmen take visitors to the farthest reaches of the lake, with most offering only the standard two hour pleasure trip on the lake with a visit to one of the islets. This is usually Dhrabla, where local women have set up tents to sell delectable Kathiyawadi thalis for Rs150.
At Nalsarovar, birdwatching is not particularly demanding, unless one is in search of species difficult to spot, like the critically endangered sociable lapwing or the elegant sarus crane that according to popular legend, mates for life. In that case, it is best to take along a birding guide who doubles up as boatman and knows where to look for specific birds among the water channels, islets and bordering green fields. There are also a few animals like the wild ass and the monitor lizard along these areas.
Estimates on the number of bird species at Nalsarovar vary from 200 to 250, but there is consensus on the fact that more than half of them are waterfowl. The lake plays host to both resident birds and migratory birds who arrive from Central Europe, Central Asia, Australia and Siberia from October onwards and stay on till early April. This includes the bar-headed geese that fly at altitudes of 24,000 feet and more, over the Himalayas, on their way to India.
Then there are the lesser and greater flamingos; rosy and dalmatian pelicans; painted storks and open-billed storks; purple herons and grey herons; little egrets, intermediate egrets and great white egrets; grey wagtails, western yellow wagtails, citrine wagtails and pied wagtails; red-wattled and yellow-wattled lapwings; little and great cormorants; common kingfishers, white-throated kingfishers and pied kingfishers; Oriental darters; pheasant-tailed jacanas’ Moor hens; whiskered terns and little terns; glossy ibis; black-tailed godwits; wood sandpipers and at least seven species of ducks — ruddy shelducks, common shelducks, lesser whistling ducks, knob-billed ducks, Indian spot-billed ducks, tufted ducks and ferruginous ducks.
The bird sanctuary is open through the year, but the best time to visit is between November and February when the migratory birds arrive from all over the world. The water level is manageably high after the monsoons and there is plenty of food in the form of algae, insects and aquatic plants. In the dry period, many species of birds fly to other places within the area, seeking water and food.
Reach Nalsarovar as early as possible in the morning, preferably before sunrise, for the best birding without the tourist hordes.
Costs and timings
Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary is open from 6 am to 6 pm daily, through the year, although the opening hours of the ticket office may vary according to the weather and whims of the officials.
An entry fee of Rs 75 is charged at the main gate, with Rs. 200 for cameras (not mobile phones) and a fixed rate of Rs 220 per person for a boat that takes 7-8 people. A private boat comes for Rs 1320, but that too is for the regular round trip to one of the islands.
For an immersive birding experience, hire a boat with a guide for a longer time at anything upwards of Rs 2,000. But be sure to bargain hard right at the beginning, else you will end up paying significantly more upon return.
By air: The nearest airport is at Ahmedabad (80 km/2 hours)
By train: Get off at Sanand (40 km/1 hour) or Ahmedabad (68 km/2 hours)
There are a few resorts on the Sanand–Nalsarovar road, although most visitors prefer to do this as a day trip from Ahmedabad.
Pelican Perch: Right by the lake, this is the most convenient location, for avid birdwatchers and nature-lovers. The accommodation is in cottages and the restaurant serves basic vegetarian food. Doubles from Rs 3,000 inclusive of all meals.
100 Acres Club: Half an hour from the sanctuary, this is an accommodation option with more modern trappings like a kids’ play area and a café. Doubles from Rs 2900, including taxes and breakfast.