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…

 

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!

Day 6 – Havelock and Neil islands


This day, as usual, started at 5 in the morning. Oh i am so getting used to it. We checked out of the hotel, reached the jetty and took a boat to the marvellous Elephanta Beach (consult map on previous post) for some coral viewing and snorkelling. Post Elephanta and hopefully brakefast too, we would take the boat back to Neil Island where we would stop for the night.

The weather was back to its gloomy ways. It had actually rained the entire night and the sea was rather rough. On top of that we were in a dinghy of the most insignificant size.

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Elephanta is not much of a beach. As you can see from the picture here, its a very thin strip of land surrounded by deep waters and untouched coral reef. This is a hot-bed for scuba diving and snorkelling.

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A huge tree had fallen into the water and it provided an amazing scope for my shutter-happy ways. In this picture, however, you can see that a tiny drop of water has settled on my lens, thus blurring out a part of the image.

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More of the fallen tree….

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This one is my favourite. Check the sky out. When we were going back, it rained so much that we actually feared burial at sea!

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Ma goes snorkelling….

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And comes back to tell the tale.

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Thats me, venturing into the reefs…

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Tired and wet!

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At Neil now… guess who finally decides to join the party after a week of silent observation from the dry land!

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This beach was quite amazing… no matter how far out into the sea you walk, the level of water remains the same. This is just the largest swimming fool ever.

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Ma is collecting shells. I dont know what baba is doing. I think he is digging a tunnel to Burma!

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Who said ‘Spa’?

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Look ma, i am a crocodile. Raaarrrrrrrrr……..

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Like father..like son

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I believe i can fly..sorry… SWIM!

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Ma

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In the evening, Baba and me went to this beach, a rocky one at that where one can spot stranded aquatic life at low tide. Just like the rocks i visited in Port Blair. Ma complained of fatigue and stayed back at the hotel. The rocks were strewn with pieces of broken coral.

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There were limestone cliffs surrounding the beach. In case of this one, the sea has worked its way into creating an arch. The locals call it the ‘Howrah Bridge’.

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A rock that has been gnawed to the bone by the sheer force of the sea!

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The loow tide leaves pubbles like these on the beach. They form the best places to spot unique sea life forms.

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Clams!

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Sea amemones. If you touch them they retract into the rocks. Vry much like the touch-me-nots or what we call in Bangla lajjabati

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Who knew that corals come in metallic shades too!

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Finger corals!

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Another kind of coral!

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For some weird reason, i wore a kurta to the beach!

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The amazing beach where we saw the sunset! The little man to the right is baba!

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Another one!

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The main bazaar at Neil Island at night!

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The biggest grocery shop of the tiny island!

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