Bharatpur 2017: Getting My Mojo Back


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.

Sign of things to come.
Mr Singh’s Steed

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:

OWLS

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.

PELICANS

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.

GREYLAG GEESE

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.

RUDDY SHELDUCK

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.

COMMON TEAL

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. .

SPOT-BILLED DUCK

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.

Darter drying its wings. Spot the ducks in the photo.
Ducks and habitat
Birds of different feather
Ducks and coots
Ducks and coot II

FERRUGINOUS DUCK

Striking! That is one word to describe this duck. Piercing white eyes on a bright brown plumage give it that striking look.

RED-CRESTED POCHARD

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.

OTHER DUCKS

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.

KINGFISHERS

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

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.

SPOONBILLS

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!

WADERS

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:

WATERFOWL

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.

Long brick road
Sarus alley
Same Alley, different view

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.

 

NON-FEATHERED FRIENDS

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.

View of the swamp from one of the watch towers
It is the algae that grow on the water which is the base for the whole ecosystem. Fish eat the algae, birds eat the fish.
View from my early morning perch, waiting for the ducks to come closer
My secret lake.
mirror… mirror on the water

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?
Most spectacles in Bharatpur hide in plain sight. Take this tree for example. Looks bare, right?

 

but if you zoom in, you will notice that what the tree lacks in leaves, it makes up for in Yellow-footed green pigeons.
Another day of birding comes to an end as the sun goes down over the swamp.
A stark reminder of our borrowed time
Until we meet again…

 

Don’t Tell Anyone About Surajpur


As I got out of the car the first thing I realised was that the temperature had dropped drastically. I reached into the backseat to retrieve the down jacket that I hadn’t bothered to put on when I left from home on this freakishly early January morning.  There was, of course, the fog which was doing a fantastic job of obscuring the massive iron and wood gate that I knew lay not ten feet ahead of me.

A lone palm tree stands guard as the veil of fog lifts ever so slowly off the waters
A lone palm tree stands guard as the veil of fog lifts ever so slowly off the waters

I was standing outside Surajpur, the small, yet intense reminder of the habitat that once surrounded what we now, rather unimaginatively refer to as the National Capital Region. Surajpur is essentially a large, shallow lake, surrounded by reeds and a sparse forest. While other wetlands fell prey to residential high-rises and the occasional Formula 1  track, Surajpur survived. In fact, with a little help from the WWF and the Uttar Pradesh government, it is now thriving.

Surajpur, much like bonfires and barbecues is a part of my winter ritual. Over the last few years, it has become so engrained in my muscle memory that even wheI I write this, in a featureless, boxed-in office building on a sultry September evening, I can still catch the faint whiff of rotting vegetation. Wait! Was that the quack of a northern shoveller I just heard. Surely that can’t be true. Oh how the mind plays games!

The lake at Surajpur is home to a variety of resident birds, including Sarus Cranes, Spot-billed duck, Black-headed Ibis, Wooly-necked Stork, Asian Spoonbill, Painted stork, etc. In the winter months, however, the numbers swell with the arrival of the migrants. Walking along its sometimes overgrown paths, the occasional nilgai might just cross you.

Here’s a selection of some of the resident birdlife of Surajpur Bird Sanctuary:

One of the smallest and perhaps the most charming residents of Surajpur Bird Sanctuary are the Munias. Unfortunately, during my visits to the park, I have only spotted the Indian Silverbill, or the silver-billed Munia.

One of the largest (actually, the second largest after the graceful Sarus crane) birds of the park is also one of my favourite birds – the Black Necked Stork. Possessing a jet black neck and a menacing, almost sword-like bill, loharjung as the bird is known in Hindi, has acquired an almost mythical status in my mind. In my five years as an active birdwatcher, I have had numerous sightings of this magnificent bird, but never got as close to it as I would have desired. Surajpur was where I got the closest. This passage from the Wikipedia entry for Black Necked Stork tells an interesting tale:

The Mir Shikars, traditional bird hunters of Bihar, India had a ritual practice that required a young man to capture a black-necked stork “Loha Sarang” alive before he could marry. A procession would locate a bird and the bridegroom-to-be would try to catch the bird with a limed stick. The cornered bird was a ferocious adversary. The ritual was stopped in the 1920s after a young man was killed in the process.

Conservation planners at Surajpur have ensured that the wetland is dotted with a number of man-made islands for birds to perch and nest on. In certain cases, Surajpur Bird Sanctuary’s resident population of Purple Swamphens take over a particular island, resulting in what can appear to be a purple floating mass:

Every winter, the resident population of Surajpur welcome travellers from the steppes of central Asia and the wetlands of Siberia. Unlike Donald Trump, the spot-billed ducks and the Sarus Cranes of Surajpur have not yet passed an executive order banning seasonal migrants like Red-crested Pochards, Ferruginous Pochards, Bar-headed Geese, Greylag Geese, Common Teals, Northern Shovelers and Gadwalls.

 

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A male Northern Shoveller in all its glory
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A group of resting Teals.

The walking trail at Surajpur is essentially one long oval circuit, parts of which are often overgrown. On many a winter morning, I found myself walking through knee high grass, dripping with dew. Towards the end of the circuit, one comes across a grove, that stretches till the water’s edge. This is my favourite spot in the park. The picnickers do not make it till here, so it is often quiet, and if you sit here quietly for some time, the birds start to get accustomed to your presence.

Surajpur is a brutal reminder of what once was, and what precious little we have left. Surajpur is a cautionary tale against human greed and mindless ‘development’. Recently, I hear whispers of an ‘eco-village’ being planned on the side of the sanctuary that is the most undisturbed. Why? Why can we not let the wild things be? There is a large and very selfish voice inside me that wants nobody to know about the existence of Surajpur. This part of me does not want people to come here for picnics. This part of me does not want to see children running amok and parents running after them, dropping plastic bags and wrappers wily-nily. This part of me wants to keep Surajpur a secret.

So if you chance upon this blog, do not go looking for Surajpur. Do not share this blog on your social media timelines. Let the first and only rule of Surajpur be ‘You don’t speak about Surajpur’. So here is one last look at Surajpur before you purge its memory off your brain.

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New species of bird discovered in Arunachal Pradesh


According to a 2004 estimate, India, with 1180 species of recorded birds is 9th in the list of countries with the most diverse avifauna. Well, it can now safely be said that this particular figure is history, thanks to the spectacular habitat that is Northeast India in general and Arunachal Pradesh in particular.

A new species of bird has been described from northeastern India and adjacent parts of China by a team of scientists from India, Sweden, China, the US and Russia. The bird, thanks to the preferred habitat, has been named Himalayan Forest Thrush. The scientific name, Zoothera salimalii, honours the great Indian ornithologist Dr Sálim Ali (1896–1987), in recognition of his huge contributions to the development of Indian ornithology and wildlife conservation.

Zoothera-salimalii1
Himalayan Forest Thrush, or the Zoothera salimalii. Image credit: Per Alstrom

This is the first Indian bird which has been named after Dr. Salim Ali. Dr. Per Alström and Shashank Dalvi first discovered the Himalayan Forest Thrush in May-June of 2009 while studying birds at high elevations of western Arunachal Pradesh. It was realised that what was considered a single species, the Plain-backed Thrush (Zoothera mollissima), was in fact two different species in northeastern India.

What first caught the attention of the scientists was the fact that the “Plain-backed Thrush” in the coniferous and mixed forest had a rather musical song, whereas individuals found in the same region, but on bare rocky habitats above the tree-line had a much harsher, scratchier, unmusical song.

Studies of museum specimens in 15 museums in 7 countries revealed consistent differences in plumage and structure between birds from these two populations. It was confirmed that the species breeding in the forests of the eastern Himalayas had no scientific name. They have therefore named this new species Himalayan Forest Thrush (Zoothera salimalii). The high-elevation “Plain-backed Thrush” is now renamed as Alpine Thrush while it retains the scientific name of Zoothera mollissima.

Zoothera-salimalii
Himalayan Forest Thrush in its natural habitat. Photo by Craig Brelsford

Further analyses of plumage, structure, song, DNA and ecology from throughout the range of the “Plain-backed Thrush” revealed that a third species was present in central China. While this population was already known, it was treated as a subspecies of “Plain-backed Thrush”. The scientists have instead called it Sichuan Forest Thrush. The song of the Sichuan Forest Thrush was found to be even more musical than the song of the Himalayan Forest Thrush.

DNA analyses suggested that these three species have been genetically separated for several million years. Genetic data from three old museum specimens indicated the presence of a fourth species from China that remains unnamed. Future field studies are required to confirm this.
The Himalayan Forest Thrush is locally common. It has been overlooked until now because of its close similarity in appearance to the Alpine Thrush.

New bird species are rarely discovered nowadays. Since 2000, an average of five new species per year have been discovered globally, most of which are from South America. The Himalayan Forest Thrush is only the fourth new bird species described from India since our independence in 1947.

Pelicans in the heart of New Delhi


In the recent years, Delhi has been in the news for mainly two reasons – the lack of safety for its women and the ever worsening quality of its air. So be it the shocking rapes, pollution or the other Delhi staple – politics –  you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing good could possibly come out of the city. But Delhi, in its own endearing way comes to the rescue of those like us who love this city.

We, as birdwatchers are used to travelling out of the city to take a look at the resident species and our migrant friends. We however, often overlook a gem that hides in common sight, right in the heart of this throbbing metropolis. Yes, I am taking about the Delhi Zoo, and no, I am not talking about the captive birds.

The Zoo is located under the lofty walls of Dinpanah, popularly called Purana Qila (Old Fort). Sections of the moat of the old fort were converted into water bodies and the relative protection offered by the park meant that egrets, herons, painted storks, spot billed ducks and other waterbirds started breeding here. While these birds can be seen all-year round, winters offer a special treat.

The habitat in the Delhi Zoo premises:

Every winter, a flock of Rosy Pelicans (also known as Great White Pelicans) descends on one of the water bodies, located right next to the tiger enclosure. Great White pelicans are some of the heaviest of flying birds. The birds swim effortlessly, their spotless white plumage in stark contrast to the algae-stained green waters and the even greener background of the park’s trees.

Getting the heavy bodies airborne is no mean feat, even if you are equipped with sturdy wings that span from 7 to 11 feet. Much like an airplane, the take off begins with a run, in the final stages of which the bird actually uses its webbed feet to walk on water. Once airborne, these huge birds glide through the air, gaining height and momentum with flaps of its massive wings. Touchdown involves a sudden drop to the water level and the use of the webbed feet as a brake.

The zoo is home to a flock of 30 Rosy Pelicans, all of whom live on a single water body. At the center of the lake is an island where the juveniles spend most of their time. Apart from humans, a fully grown pelican has no natural predator, but juveniles need to be careful. As I sat and observed this flock, one particular individual caught my eye. Unlike the others, it sported a rather flamboyant hairdo. The light on this winter morning was just about perfect and my camera was drawn to him over and over again.

Just look at him… can you really blame me?

Pelicans are great survivors and live and breed on all continents, except Antarctica. With their exceptional size, oversized beaks and an outlandish pouch they have fascinated nature lovers all over the world. This nifty little limerick neatly captures the weird appeal of these giants of the sky:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his beli-can.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for the week;
But I’m damned if I see how the heli-can.

pelicans

BONUS IMAGES

The Delhi zoo is a good place to see birds that live in the city’s urban habitat. Although the focus on this particular trip was to observe and photograph the resident Pelicans, I did manage to capture some other birds that came my way:

 

Okhla Bird Sanctuary: A study in decay


Delhi, with its 2 crore people, buildings to house them in, vehicles to transport them is bursting at its seams. The cost of this human expansion is sadly being borne by the animals and birds that used to call this bit of geography their home. Nowhere is this terrible price clearer than at the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, at the border of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

Here are 5 things I noticed on a recent visit to the park:

The stench

The bird sanctuary is located along the eastern bank of the Yamuna, upstream of the Yamuna Barrage at Kalindi Kunj. Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world and multiple attempts (and crores of rupees) to clean it has yielded negligible (at best) results. As a result, the moment you enter through the gates of the sanctuary, your nostrils are assaulted with the stench of untreated sewage and human waste. Even the otherworldly beauty of the reeds on a misty winter morning does not take your mind off this olfactory onslaught.

The dogs

I love dogs, I really do! I will also confess that I usually prefer the company of canines over most humans. But even I will admit that feral dogs have no place in a protected sanctuary. Okhla is home to a number of species of endemic waders and waterfowl and most of them nest on the ground amidst the reeds. Packs of dogs roaming across the sanctuary decimate the nests and massacre the chicks. Here is hoping that the UP government comes up with a humane process for relocating the dogs that roam inside the park. (The following photographs by Sriparna Ghosh)

 The rubbish

Okhla Bird Sanctuary is popular with a wide variety of people – birdwatchers, errant schoolchildren, lovers in need of a quiet moment and even picnicking families. While most leave with pleasant memories, they leave behind bottles, candy wrappers, plastic bags and all forms of refuse that have no place in a bird sanctuary. The park is also massively understaffed, which means that the garbage rarely gets collected and removed.

Where are the migratory birds?

While Okhla is home to a vide variety of endemic species, every winter thousands of migratory birds descend on the marshes. With the birds come birders like yours truly. This time, however, things were different. Sure, we did see a number of resident birds like spotted owlets, Red and Silverbilled munias, spot billed ducks and purple swamphens, but the flocks of Northern pintails, Northern shovellers, Common Teals and Eurasian Wigeons were conspicuous by their absence. According to this report by News18, it was ‘due to the pollution at the Okhla barrage as the Chhath Puja concluded recently’.

 

Some welcome changes

On my previous visit to OBS in November 2014, I encountered a bizarre set of rules. You could drive your cars / motorcycles anywhere within the park. You would also have to cough up an exorbitant Rs 500 for the privilege of carrying a camera in the sanctuary. I am glad to report that both these rules have now been scrapped. Cars remain parked outside the sanctuary gates (no designated parking) and all you pay is a Rs 30 entrance fee.

 

Have you visited Okhla Bird Snctuary recently? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Birds of the Kumaun Himalayas


It is not an overstatement to claim that the Indian subcontinent is a creation of the Himalayas. As a barrier, it has protected this landmass from being encroached upon by the cold northern deserts, and has nourished it by harnessing the potential of the Monsoon winds. The rivers that flow down it has, over the years, created a vast plain which supports at east a 10th of the world’s population.

But this post is about the winged little beauties that the lower Himalayas support. From Pangot in Uttarakhand to Eagle Nest in Arunachal Pradesh, the thick forests that carpet these slopes make some of the most diverse bird habitats in the world. Couple of months back the girlfriend and I took some time off and trudged up the pugdundees to the wonderfully secluded Jilling Estates in the Kumaon Himalayas. The aim was to spend as much time as possible far from the ‘civilised world’ and of course look for birds.

One of the most common birds in these parts is the  green-backed tit (Parus monticolus). One colourful individual had his eye on a hole in an apple tree right in front of the bungalow we were staying in. Unfortunately, a pair of Russet sparrows (Passer rutilans) had already moved in. Not willing to give in without a fight, the tiny tit tried its best to dislodge the sparrows and failed. Undeterred by this failure, the tit returned every morning, only to be driven off.

The hills around the cottage were also home to quite a few verditer flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus). Electric blue, with an almost zorro-like black mask around the eyes, they appear as mere blue streaks darting through the foliage.  Thanks to my utterly slow lens, photographing an individual up close (or any other bird for that matter) is next to impossible. These are what I managed to shoot:

The biggest surprise at Jilling was how the birds seem to come to you, right at the doorstep. One morning, I looked up from my thriller to find two black eagles riding the thermals right above the bungalow. I ran inside to grab my camera, determined not to miss the eagles like i missed the red-billed leiothrix earlier that very morning. Fortunately as I reappeared, lens in hand, the eagles were still airborne and I managed to get a few shots off before they disappeared over the ridge, graceful in flight.

The bird I had the most fun chasing after was the flamboyant Indian black-lored tit (Parus aplonotus). Bright yellow, with a kohl-black streak down its breast, this bird carries around a large crest, not unlike Jim Carrey’s character in the Ace Ventura film series. The first couple of days at Jilling I could see them darting around the apple orchard… never still, never resting.  Eventually i did run into a rather restive individual who did not complain as I got close to him. If only all other birds shared this one’s virtues….

To be honest, I am better at spotting birds in the jungle than shooting them. I am still honing my skills at being a photographer of birds, but I am limited by my equipment. So here’s a look at the other birds I managed to shoot while at Jilling.

For every bird I shot, four got away. If you love birds but love the mountains even more, you must go to Jilling. I wish I never came back!

A Different Christmas


No, festivals do not excite me. The only use i see of them is the fact that you generally do not need to work on those days. But ever since I started working at a news channel, i had to say goodbye to those festival holidays as well. Because, you know, news just keeps on happening. So yes, I am not that big on festivals.

The last Christmas day was slightly different though. Everyone in my team was working and so I took advantage of the fact that that I am the boss and took some time off to join the good folks at Delhi Birds for an old fashioned bird walk. I am not big on group activities either, but the DelhiBird group is led by expert birders who know those secret little corners which I, on my own would never have known. This is how on a cold, foggy Christmas day, I landed up at Dankaur – a village in the middle of nowhere.

The map embedded above only shows you the location of the village. The spot, a now dry lake bed, was a few kms away from the village. The group met up at a designated spot in Noida before taking off towards the destination, around 50 kms away. I was looking forward to this trip for two reasons. Ever since I started working in the live news environment, i lost my weekends, a sense of time and personal life. So, unlike other years, this was to be my first day out birding this season! Secondly, I had finally managed to fix my trusty motorcycle (Dope, as I call him) and this trip out of the city would test my modifications .

For the first few miles we were on the Greater Noida Expressway. Turning off the Expressway at Greater Noida we kept turning into  smaller (and increasingly more potholed)  roads till we reached what looked like a massive grassland with a shallow pond at its center. This is supposed to be the fabled spot, where, on a good day over a 100  Sarus cranes congregate. Will this Christmas day be the proverbial ‘good day’?

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Snapshot: Stills from Sultanpur


Delhi is a good place to be if you are a birder. Not only does the many parks and green belts house a significant number of species you can, much like me, observe them right off your balcony (see THIS and THIS). Then there are the immediate outskirts of the city. Numerous wetlands (albeit severely threatened) dot the vicinity of this megacity supporting a wealth of endemic as well as migratory species. But the proverbial jewel in the crown is definitely the Sultanpur National Park.
For decades, bird lovers of the city have flocked here to see the winter migrants. Peter Jackson (the ornithologist, silly, not the film director) was impressed by the habitat at Sultanpur jheel (wetland) and wrote to the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi to protect the area. Working on Jackson’s recommendation, Sultanpur was turned into a Bird Sanctuary in 1972 and later upgraded to a National Park in `1989. At 1.43 sq kms, this is, in all probability the smallest National Park in the world. Size, it seems does not really matter.
I have only started noticing, studying and photographing birds for a little over two years now. In fact, after I upgraded my equipment, Sultanpur was the first place i visited. While it is clear that I am yet to perfect the art of spotting a photographing the residents of Sultanpur, I will nevertheless thrust my attempts till date on you unsuspecting lot!
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Bharatpur 2013


Something remarkable has happened over the last year and a half. Due to reasons I cannot explain properly, I have found myself drawn to one of nature’s best creations – birds. Over the last year or so, i joined online groups, went for birding walks, bought books and read them from cover to cover. I really surprised myself when i started waking up before sunrise on weekends to go for birding walks.

The timing could not be better. My eight year old Nikon D80 was in its dying days and it was time to upgrade. So i invested in the brand new Nikon D7100 and the Sigma 50-500 OS HSM telephoto lens. Now that I have read the books, shot some birds in my garden and in and around Delhi, it was time to take a trip to that Mecca birders call Bharatpur.

Last time I went to Bharatpur was over two and a half years back. Back then I could not tell the Sarus crane from the Painted Stork. But now i can do just that. Not much else. Bharatpur was in a bad shape in the February of 2011 when i was last there. The water levels were almost at an all-time low. Feral cattle had taken over most of the pastures. Politicians were , well politicing on the much needed water and the whole thing was a big, big mess. Fortunately, the water issues have been resolved. Now water will come in from Chambal as well as from a dam nearby in Rajasthan. The canals were full and so were the marshes. When I went in the beginning of November, the numbers of migratory birds were not large but i think if they can maintain the water levels for a few more years, the numbers will steadily increase.

THE HABITAT

[Click on images for bigger view]

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It was the first day of the boat rides. The water was quiet and quite spectacular
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The channel opens up on the main swamp, which is guarded by a flock of fierce and fearless cattle egrets
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Other people
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Still waters
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This algae turns red around February. Even more spectacular
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View of the heronry from the watchtower
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Perfect habitat for munias
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One of Bharatpur’s many tree tunnels
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Another swamp from another watch-tower. Hendrix was playing on my headphones. Guess the track 😛
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I check out some nilgais. They reciprocate
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Stranded tree
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Mirror-like water
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Quiet little corner
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Marooned Nilgai

THE GUIDE

[Click on images for bigger view]

In the numerous recent Delhibird walks, I met Mr Ajay Maira who was kind enough to point me in the direction of one Bachchoo Singh (+919351341917). I was with him from sunrise to sunset for three days and not for a moment did the smile fade from his face. He knew his birds, drove the rickshaw at a languid pace and was quick with a joke.  I cannot recommend him enough.

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Bachchoo Singh
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Finds me Sarus cranes to shoot then goes to fetch his rickshaw

THE BIRDS (and some amphibians, reptiles and mammals)

[Click on images for bigger view]

I think it is safe to say that I am more of a photographer than a birder. Apart from a handful of birds that I could identify (sarus cranes, painted storks and a few others :P), i was dependent on my field guide and of course, on Bachchoo Singh. I could have really used a tripod though. The camera and the lens together weigh close to 3kgs and getting the frame right was a challenge, especially at 500 mm. Anyway, here’s what came out of the trip:

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Greater Coucal or Crow Pheasant (Centropus sinensis)
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Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) – not the best of shots, but i love this one
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‘What have you got there? Is it for me?’
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Portrait of a bee-eater
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A slightly cock-eyed White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) also known as the White-breasted Kingfisher
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Woolly-necked Stork, Bishop Stork or White-necked Stork (Ciconia episcopus)
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Painted stork with chicks. The mothers open their wings thus to protect the chicks from direct sunlight. In this case the mother clearly does not know where the sun is. Or maybe she is just sunning herself.
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Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striata)

I love munias especially so because due to their small size and the constant state of motion they are in, they are extremely difficult to photograph. On this trip, i also saw a few Red Avadavats or the Red Munias but could not photograph them. A couple of silverbills did pose for me.

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The Indian Silverbill or White-throated Munia (Lonchura malabarica)
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Cosying up
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One comes closer
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I wish this was a better shot.
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Collared Scops Owl (Otus lettia)
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The resident Comb Ducks (Sarkidiornis melanotos), males
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The Himalayan, or the White-cheeked Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys)
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Indian Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris), male
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Shikra (Accipiter badius). About the size of a small crow, it is one of my favourite birds of prey. Packs way too much punch for its size. I have seen it chase off Oriental Honey Buzzards with are about four times the Shikra’s size.
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Shikra, this time viewed from the back
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Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus), also called the jal-mor (water peacock) in Hindi on account of its stunning colour
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A male Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) was kind enough to pose for me

House sparrows which we have seen all around us are undergoing an alarming decline in numbers, especially in human-inhabited ares due to human activities. Read this to know more about the decline and how you can help.

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The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
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Portrait of a Great Egret (Ardea alba)
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Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus), back view
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Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus), front view
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Was stalking this Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) for over 45 minutes in very bad light conditions hoping for a record shot. Just when i had my lens trained on it, it decided to fly. This is what came of it
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Finally the Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) decides to sit so i could get off some shots
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Why did the chicken cross the road? Ask the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)
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Common Babbler (Turdoides caudata)
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Oh the colours – Back view of White-breasted Kingfisher
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Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri), also known as Chandana. Popularly also referred to as Mithoo
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Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) male
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Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (Dendrocopos mahrattensis) or Mahratta woodpecker, female
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Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus) female. It is known in Bengali as ‘Moutushi’
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A male Pied Bush Chat (Saxicola caprata
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Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus)
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Oriental Darter or Indian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster ). Also known as the snakebird on account of its serpentine neck
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A snakebird, or the Indian Darter pokes its head out of the water while hunting
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A group of great cormorants strike a pose
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Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) keeps an eye on the surroundings
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Just before some poor fish gave its life
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Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea), flying away
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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) shares its hunting spot with an Intermediate Egret (Mesophoyx intermedia)
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Grey heron with neck retracted
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Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) or ‘Doel’ as it is known in Bangla. Also, the national bird of Bangladesh
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Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) or ‘Doel’ female
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Another one. I love these birds
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Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)
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A bunch of pretty ladies. A brood of Purple Swamphens
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Hoopoe, pronounced huːpu (Upupa epops). Looks like a woodpecker, but isn’t one
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Portrait of a Hoopoe
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A baby python sunning itself
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Could have lost it in all the vegetation
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A water snake, at a water hole
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A monitor lizard
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Close-up of the monitor lizard’s head
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In Bengali, we call these fish ‘Shole’. Tastes great in a coriander based jhol (gravy)
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Chance encounter with a pair of male nilgais
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Another male Nilgai.
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Nilgai female with calf. So beautiful!
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Close encounters of the blue kind
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Indian black turtle (Melanochelys trijuga) or Indian pond terrapin
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A beautiful little butterfly
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And a beautiful little lizard

In the three days that i spent inside Keoladeo National Park, two sightings stand out. The first was a creature I had seen a lot as a child growing up in north Bengal (for images of north Bengal, or Dooars as it is better known see this, this, this and this). The sun had just come out and i was walking beside Bachchoo Singh, trying to shoot a pair of grey headed canary flycatchers. Suddenly this black shape slithers out of the grass on the left side of the road. It was a common cobra. The same creature that almost left me fatherless, but that is a story for another day. As i drew closer, it showed absolutely no sign of fear and started to cross the road.

I could tell that it had just molted and the scales were shining in the morning sun like thousands of little amethysts. I probably got a little too close when without warning, it spread its hood. I was fortunate to get the perfect light and just had time to get off a few shots. here are the results:

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Eyes glinting in the sun
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Close look at the skin
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When you see this, back off
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last shot before it slithers back into the thicket

Now the second encounter: Sarus cranes. I have been an admirer of these beautiful birds for years now. Even before i got into birding. So far, I have always viewed them from a considerable distance, at Sultanpur and Basai. This time,however, i was determined to observe them from up close.

On the first and second days at Bharatpur I heard their calls numerous times, saw them fly past and watched them for hours again from a distance. So I decided to devote my third and last day entirely to these most elegant of birds. As we entered the park at 6:30 am on a chilly November morning, we headed straight to the grasslands by the painted stork colony where they usually spend the mornings. Sure enough, there was a couple there, but again, at a considerable distance.

There were three other pairs in the general area and they were taking turns answering each others calls. On Bachchoo Singh’s advice, i started following one of the distant calls along one of the trails branching off from the main road into the sanctuary. I walked for some 3 kms and with every step the call kept getting closer and closer. Then i turned left and BAM! there was a crane barely 30 feet from the trail. It took me the better part of five minutes to actually register what I was seeing. It was a female and she was so close that i did not have to employ the 500 mm end of my lens. The light was perfect too! The first shot below is from the original couple i viewed from a distance. The rest are from the close encounter.

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Responding to a call
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Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Grus Antigone
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The ballerina
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Spreading her wings. I was late with the shot here
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In her habitat

Thus ended a most satisfying trip to the paradise for birders. Here’s hoping that the water levels remain true and the bird numbers remain large. Also it wouldn’t hurt if a couple of Siberian cranes re-visited their old haunt.

Here’s to high hopes.

SPECIES SEEN

1. Black francolin (Francolinus francolinus) Resident, Breeds

2. Grey francolin (Francolinus pondicerianus) Resident, Breeds, very common

3. Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) Resident Common

4. Lesser Whistling-duck (Dendrocygna javanica) Resident Common

5. Greylag Goose (Anser anser) Migratory, very common

6. Comb Duck (Sarkidiornis melanotos) Resident, common

7. Spot-billed Duck (Anas poecilorhyncha) Resident, common

8. Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) Migratory, very common

9. Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) Migratory, very common

10. Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) Migrant, common

11. Brown-capped Woodpecker (Dendrocopos nanus) Resident

12. Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (Dendrocopos mahrattensis) Resident

13. Back-rumped Flameback (Dinopium benghalense) resident, breeds

14. Indian Grey-Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris) resident, breeds

15. Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops) Resident and migrant

16. Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis) Resident, common

17. Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) common resident

18. White-thoated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) resident, very common

19. Black-capped Kingfisher (Halcyon pileata) LM, U

20. Little Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) Resident common

21. Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) passage migrant

22. Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopacea) R,O

23. Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis) R,C

24. Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) R,C

25. Collared Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena) R,O

26. Dusky Eagle-Owl (Bubo coromandus) R,C

27. Spotted Owlet (Athene brama) R,C

28. Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) R,C

29. Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) R,C

30. Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) LM,U

31. Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) R,C

32. Yellow-footed Green-Pigeon (Treron phoenicoptera) R,C

33. Sarus Crane (Grus antigone) Resident, breeds, common

34. White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) Resident, very common

35. Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea) breeds

36. Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) R,C

37. Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) RM,C

38. Common Coot (Fulica atra) very common migrant

39. Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) M,C

40. Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) M,O

41. Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus) R,C

42. Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) LM,C

43. Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) LM,U

44. Lesser Sand Plover (Charadrius mongolus) ?

45. Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus) R,C

46. Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) Migrant uncommon

47. Oriental Honey-buzzard (Pernis ptilorhyncus) R,C

48. Black Kite (Milvus migrans) R,U

49. Crested Serpent-Eagle (Spilornis cheela) LM,C

50. Eurasian Marsh-Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) M,C

51. Shikra (Accipiter badius) R,C

52. Oriental Hobby (Falco severus) M,U

53. Oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster) R,C

54. Little Cormorant (Phalacrocorax niger) R,C

55. Indian cormorant (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis) R,C

56. Great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) R,C

57. Little egret (Egretta garzetta) R,C

58. Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) R,C

59. Purple heron (Ardea purpurea) R,C

60. Great egret (Casmerodius albus) R,C

61. Intermediate egret (Mesophoyx intermedia) R,C

62. Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) R,C

63. Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) R,C

64. Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) R,C

65. Little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) LM,U

66. Black Bittern (Dupetor flavicollis) LM,O

67. Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) LM,C

68. Black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus) R,C

69. Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia Linnaeus) RC,O

70. Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala) R,C breeds in large numbers

71. Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans) R,C, breeds

72. Wooly-necked Stork (Ciconia episcopus) R,C, breeds

73. White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) M,U

74. Black-necked Stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) R,C

75. Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus) M,U

76. Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus) R,C

77. Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius schach) LM,C

78. Rufous Treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) R,C

79. House Crow (Corvus splendens) R,C

80. Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) R,C

81. Eurasian Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) BM,O

82. Scarlet Minivet (Pericrocotus flammeus) LM,O

83. Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) R,C

84. Common Woodshrike (Tephrodornis pondicerianus) R,C

85. Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) M,U

86. Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) R,C

87. Indian Robin (Saxicoloides fulicata) R,C

88. Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) M,C

89. Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) R,O

90. Pied Bushchat (Saxicola caprata) R,C

91. Grey Bushchat (Saxicola ferrea) LM,U

92. Indian or Brown Rock Chat (Cercomela fusca) R,C

93. Brahminy Starling (Sturnus pagodarum) R,C

94. Rosy Starling (Sturnus roseus) M,O

95. Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) M,O

96. Asian Pied Starling (Sturnus contra) R,C

97. Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) R,C

98. Bank Myna (Acridotheres ginginianus) R,O

99. White-eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis) R,C

100. Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer) R,C

101. Ashy Prinia (Prinia socialis) R,O

102. Plain Prinia (Prinia inornata) R,C

103. Oriental White-Eye (Zosterops palpebrosus) R,O

104. Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) R,C

105. Common Babbler (Turdoides caudatus) R,C

106. Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striatus) R,C

107. Purple Sunbird (Nectarinia asiatica) R,C

108. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) M,O

109. Red Avadavat (Amandava amandava) R,C

110. Indian Silverbill (Lonchura malabarica) R,C

Symbols used(in alphabetic order).

? = status or source or occurrence unknown or doubtful

C = Common

Evans = Bharatpur Bird Paradise by Martin Evans

HA = Checklist by Humayun Abdulali and Pandey

Handbook = Salim Ali & S.D. Ripley’s Compact Handbook

LM = Local Migrant

O = Occasional

PM = Passage Migrant

R = Resident

SM = Summer Migrant

U = Uncommon

VSS = Flora and Fauna by V.S. Saxena

VSV =VSVijayan(BNHS publications or Ramsar site booklet)

WM = Winter Migrant(Migratory in the list usually refers to this category)