It was 5:00 am on a cold, cold January morning that I stepped into the sleeper compartment of a train at Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Station. AC coaches were not considered out of a mere whim while I was booking the ticket from the warm confines of my office. Once again I had underestimated the Delhi cold. Nevertheless, the journey was going to be a short one. Just 180 odd kilometres to the southwest, to the erstwhile princely state of Bharatpur.
Three and a half hours later, I emerged out of the compartment at Bharatpur station, thawed and adequately tea-d. It has been three years since my last visit and i could immediately see that the station had received a make-over. On almost every wall was a mural flaunting the feathered residents of this small town and the importance of nature. The bottoms of every mural, however, was stained by the ever-present paan spit.
A massively noisy and overgrown autorickshaw delivers me to my hotel half an hour later and before I could deposit my luggage, Bachchoo Singh (+919351341917) had arrived to take me to the park. I had met Mr Singh on the previous trip and encountered a man who was as patient as I was restless and with over two and a half decade worth of experience, knows the best birding spots in Bharatpur.
For the next three days, I would enter Keoladeo National park at 6 am and leave only when it got dark. Here’s what I saw:
Of the many species of Owls in the park, I could only photograph the Spotted Owlet and a solitary Indian Scops Owl. Was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Eurasian Eagle Owl at a distance.
In my last two visits, i failed to spot any pelicans. This time, however, i was lucky. There was a whole pod of them, swimming around the main swamps. At various points through the next three days, i could see these massive birds flying into their swamp, sometimes in formation. Fascinating birds, Pelicans. I can spend whole days watching them. You can read about a fantastic (and hiding in plain sight) spot in the heart of Delhi to see pelicans here.
DUCKS AND GEESE
BAR HEADED GEESE
An enduring memory of my first ever visit Bharatpur way back in 2007 was the sheer number of bar-headed geese, all over the main swamp behind the temple. Since then,, even though the water supply to the park has improved, their numbers have declined. These photographs capture the opnly flock that i could find.
Unlike the bar-headed geese, the greylags were seemingly everywhere. These are large and raucous, but also infinitely charming.
LESSER WHISTLING DUCKS
Unlike the Bar-headed geese and the Greylag geese, the Lesser Whistling ducks are year-long residents ofKeoladeoo National Park. They live in large family groups and get their name from a whistle-like noise they produce while flying.
Another of my favourite visitors. There is something about that golden plumage and the contrasting black wing-tips! Once, these birds were numerous but now are limited to just tens of pairs.
As the name suggests these ducks are everywhere in the park. They are extremely small and boisterous and darting in and out of the thicket. .
Resident species and one of the commonest duck species across the Indian subcontinent. They might be common but I always love photographing the spot-billed as it is a truly handsome bird.
Most ducks and geese get along well and live in large groups. It also bodes well in terms of safety as there are always eagles and Marsh Harrier’s circling in the air above. Stragglers and chocks are usually the ones picked up first. Here’s a look at the birdscape of Bharatpur before we look at more migratory/endemic species.
Striking! That is one word to describe this duck. Piercing white eyes on a bright brown plumage give it that striking look.
This is the first time spotting this bird and that too from a great distance. Unlike the other ducks in the list, this is a diving duck, as in it disappears underwater for minutes at an end to feed, before emerging on the surface.
After going through a water crisis in the mid 200’s, Bharatpur now was a plentiful supply of water. This means that there has been a spike in the numbers of both resident and migratory species of ducks. Here is a gallery of some other ducks from Bharatpur:
Now that we are more or less done with ducks and geese, we can move on to the other birds.
Believe it or not, I had never ever seen a Pied Kingfisher and had never shot the ubiquitous Common Kingfisher. So you can imagine my excitement when I turned a corner and found a Pied Kingfisher literally posing for my lens! The next day, the same happened but with the Common King.
On my last trip, I had particularly good luck with the Sarus Crane, in that one just appeared right in front of me in the most perfect photographic conditions. This time, however, no such luck was to be had.
Bitterns are hard to spot. They stay motionless in the tickets on the water’s edge, carefully blending into the surroundings. If you are a fish that happens to come within striking range, the bird telescopes its wonderfully long neck in the fraction of a second to snatch the fish out of the water. I have seen a number of bitters, including the great bitterns, but this time was lucky enough to photograph two – a Black Bittern and a Yellow Bittern.
HERONS & EGRETS
Purple, grey, night crowned, little green – herons come in many shapes and sizes and Bharatpur provides them with the most ideal habitat.
Fantastically weird birds, spoonbills. Theyb sift through the bottom of the swamp with their unique bills, and when they are done feeding, tuck that bill in the folds of their wings and go back to sleep!
OK. Confession time. I have been an active birder for over five years now and even after going through a number of books, videos and of course physical sightings, i am still unable to distinguish between most waders. How can you tell different species of sandpipers apart? Then there are ruffs and snipes and whimbrels. I know this sounds bizarre but it is the 100% truth! So please help me with the captions here:
When it comes to waterfowl, i have only scratched at the surface. Below you will see the swmphens, waterhens and the bronze winged Jacana. I am yet to spot any of the crakes, rails, and even the pheasant tailed Jacanas.
It is true that the best of the sightings happen in the mornings and evenings. Most birders follow this pattern and return to their rooms during those hours. But like me, if you like nature and value some quiet time, take off on foot through the site paths deep into the sanctuary. You will come across hidden pools and maybe even a secluded spot where you can wait and watch the day pass.
BEST OF THE REST
So many birds, so little time. After spending three whole days inside the park you have one problem… a problem of plenty. Those of you have endured thus far in this post would have noticed that i am very bad at selecting photos. I hate leaving photos out and hence every selection becomes this lengthy. Here are some other birds I photographed.
Walking through Bharatpur, it is very easy to forget that birds are not the only residents of this small National Park. In fact, during this particular visit, a section of the park was closed off because a leopardess had taken up residence there. It is very common to see jackals, three species of large deer – Sambar, Chital and Nilgai, snakes, monitor lizards and at least 6-7 species of tortoises! In fact, during my 2013 visit, I had a close encounter with an Indian cobra.
Truth be told, I am writing this in mid-January 2018, almost exactly a year after the trip and barely 2 weeks before my next. Calls to Bachchoo Singh have been made and he has informed me that this year, the storks haven’t nested. Migratory birds are present in large numbers, he assures me.
Wishlist for February 2018 Bharatpur pilgrimage:
- Boatride on the swamp.
- Visit the turtle temple (You’ll know more when I know more)
- Mooar sarus photos
- Get close to a basking python.
- Close photographs of the great crested Grebe
- Owls, owls and some more owls – the dusky eagle owl would be great.
- Lastly, can a black-necked stork come pose for me please?