Birding community in India excited over Desert Finch sighting in Haryana


Birders from a section of North India are now likely to be having one eye out for this Eurasian bird that is largely found in West Asia

Lying 20 km south of Sirsa city, Nathusari Chopta village ticks to a noticeably mundane clock. It grows cotton — and as with many other villages in Sirsa district in Haryana, foodgrains too — but not on a scale that would warrant a turn-up for the books. But suddenly, Nathusari Chopta is plonked, firm and pretty, on the national map, thanks to an unexpected visitor this November, and a couple who were at the right place and moment to receive her.

On November 22, Dr. Sanjeev Goyal and his wife Shafina had headed to Nathusari Chopta for a spot of weekend birding, as is their wont. When they were done birding that Sunday, they returned with images of a female Desert Finch, as they discovered later. It was a lifer not just for them, but for the entire birding community in India.

Over the last fortnight, eBird India is celebrating this sighting of the Desert Finch, along with the record of the Willow Warbler in Kerala — both of them signifying a first on Indian soil.

The nearest known sightings of the Desert Finch are from Balochistan, Pakistan, points out Dr. Goyal, a dermatologist with a practice in Sirsa. The birding checklist for Balochistan with its mountainous and desert topography (Kharan desert is found in this province) includes the Desert Finch.

The Desert Finch, as its name suggests, seems to be built for desert and arid environments. These birds are however believed to single out places in such geography that provide them with access to water, and are also known to gravitate towards spaces around human settlements.

Classified as an Eurasian bird, it is found largely in West Asia. On eBird, photographic records of the Desert Finch from areas that fall in the Negev desert appear with remarkable frequency. These records are mostly from Phyllis Weintraub, a research entomologist.

“The bird sighted in Nathusari Chopta is most likely a vagrant.” So, this could probably turn out to be not just the first Desert Finch sighting in India, but the last as well.

There is a thought that chirrups for attention though: Is there a likelihood of finding a Desert Finch population in the Thar Desert? After all, Rajasthan accounts for much of the Thar desert, and Sirsa district in Haryana borders on Rajasthan.

“But there are so far no records of Desert Finch sightings from Rajasthan,” Dr. Goyal points out. True, but the question hangs on the flimsy thread woven by suddenly-sprung hope and extremely-remote possibility.

The female Desert Finch that Dr. Sanjeev Goyal and his wife Shafina saw at Nathusari Chopta village in Sirsa district of Haryana, on November 22. Photo: Sanjeev Goyal  

One thing is for certain: With this sighting, birders in North India will have one eye out for this bird. A few already have. Dr. Goyal reveals that a few days after the sighting, four birders from Delhi Bird Society (DBS) visited Nathusari Chopta, and waited for the Desert Finch at the same spot where it had showed up on November 22, for “six to seven hours”. The Goyals want to see the bird again; and their birding friends from DBS and Haryana Bird Society are on the lookout for this finch.

So, Nathusari Chopta can be expected to be a favoured destination for birders from the region for a while.

On what makes this section favourable for birding, Dr. Goyal says that on the outskirts of the village, “there is saline marshy land that remains muddy almost throughout the year. There are lots of reeds there.”

On November 22, the Goyals saw the Desert Finch — at that time, “just a different-looking bird” to them — in a space strewn with paddy stubble.

“The bird was picking whatever grains it could find in the paddy stubble that was lying there. It was there for 7 to 10 minutes.”

Sufficient time for Dr. Goyal to click away from various angles, capturing the various features of the bird.

The male and female of the species are similar, both having a beautiful roseate dab of the flanks. The male is distinguished from the female by a mark of black that extends from the eye to the base of the beak.

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