This post was long overdue. I was travelling a lot in the early part of the year. A family engagement took me to Kolkata, from where i branched off into rural Bengal. That was January. In February came one long trip across a hitherto unexplored swathe of Madhya Pradesh. Later, in March i found myself in Uttarakhand. In the middle of all these long travels, one weekend, me and my friend Imroz Adeeb visited the Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur over the weekend.
Being a history nerd, i could not resist the nearby Deeg, so we modified our route a bit. We followed the National Highway 2 to Mathura from where we turned right towards Govardhan and eventually to Deeg. After driving on the flawless but boring tarmac of the NH, the tiny, bumpy roads seemed like heaven-sent.
But if you are driving on this road, don’t get too excited by the spreading mustard fields and the quaint hamlets around you. There are many unmarked speed breakers on this stretch and if you are not paying attention, they might break your vehicles and you even. Although we went to Deeg first, I am going to move ahead and talk about Bharatpur. Deeg I will post later.
The area around Mathura is generally referred to as Braj bhoomi, or the ‘land of Krishna’. Mythologically speaking, this is where Krishna grew up and did all those things we remember him for (steal butter, steal clothes of bathing beauties, herd cows and lift a chariot wheel, among others). So, every now and then, the tiny road weaves through a tiny town, dominated by an oversized and multi-coloured temple.
We had left home quite early in the morning and as a result, reached Deeg before 10 am. We idled around the palace complex for a couple of hours before heading towards Bharatpur. Just as the dusty little town came into sight – DISASTER! The clutch cable broke off while I was doing about 100 kph. I somehow managed to bring down the speed to around 40 kph. I knew that if the bike stopped, we would have to push it for around 5 kms, so I downshifted somehow and continued towards the town. Asked a couple of passing motorcyclists about the location of a good bullet mechanic and as it turns out, one of them were on our way! I also had a spare cable with me, which was fortunate because finding a spare would be like searching for a needle in a dusty, crowded town!
We had initially planned to foray into the park for a little while in the afternoon and spend more time again the next morning. However, the clutch wire episode ensured that by the time we got into the hotel, it was already dark. For those who have not been to Bharatpur, the Park lies south of the National Highway 11 that connects Agra with Jaipur. As we had been to Deeg, we approached the town from the north, negotiated the endless crowded lanes and reached the southern part of the town where all the hotels are located within 500 m of the park’s entrance.
There are three ways of exploring the park – on a rickshaw, on a bicycle and on foot. We tried to hire a bike, but none of them were free. So we turned to the rickshaw, which in retrospect was a good idea. The rickshaw pullers are authorised guides and are pretty fluent in English. Our guide – Hardev Singh – even surprised us by quoting Salim Ali and throwing at us almost unpronounceable scientific names of birds.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park is largely man-made. It was developed in 1899 by Prince Harbhanji of Morvi in Gujarat as a duck hunting reserve. He constructed bunds and dykes all around the saucer-shaped depression in the outskirts of Bharatpur and increased its water holding capacity. It remained a notified forest for years before being granted the status of a National Park in 1981. In 1985 it was designated by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It sprawls over an area of 29 sq kms.
The park is a mosaic of grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps and wetland. This diverse habitat is home to 375 species of avifauna. In addition to this, it also has 372 species of plants, 34 species of mammals and 14 species of snakes. Right as you enter the gate, on both sides of the road are open grasslands and patches of bush. Around a kilometer from the gate, on both sides of the road, the swamps begin. The water is covered with red and green algae which is the main food for many of the birds as well as the park’s large deer population. Apart from being the foundation of the food chain, the multicoloured algae is spectacular to look at. Certain closed swamps, where the algae is cultured and eventually distributed across the park, look almost dreamlike.
The road ends near a temple and right in front of you in the large, main swamp of Bharatpur. Little mud islands, covered with birds, both endemic and migratory dot the swamp.
If you are a budding bird-lover like me, the best time to visit the park is from November to February when you can see a large number of migratory birds. The park, however is open throughout the year and continues to attract serious ornithologists who come here to study the endemic species.
Painted storks (Mycteria leucocephala) are the most visible birds in the sanctuary. This is not only because of their large numbers and large size, but also due to the fact that they make a tremendous racket. As the name suggests, the adult birds are quite colorful. The youngsters, on the other hand are a dull shade of grey and start putting on colour when they are about four months old.
Another bird we saw a lot of was the Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis). I grew up in rural Bengal where this bird, locally called neelkanth (blue-throat, a reference to its obvious colouration), is a common sight. Its only after i saw it here, after so many years that i realised how beautiful it actually is. One i sighted on a low branch slightly off the main track. I successfully managed to tread the distance without disturbing the bird and captured a few shots.
Being a marsh, there is an obvious abundance of kingfishers – particularly the Halcyon smyrnensis or the white breasted kingfisher. These birds appeared to be surprisingly bold and remained still even when i was barely an arm’s length away. These brilliantly coloured birds are quick and one of the world’s most efficient hunters.
Of the many species of egrets, we saw three – Great egret, intermediate egret and the little egret. The difference in these three are, as the names suggest, mainly in terms of size. But frankly i might have seen more but failed to identify as many of the egret sub-species vary very little in appearance and can be said apart only by the most expert ornithologist.
Related to the egrets and herons is the ibis. Of the many varieties found worldwide, Bharatpur is home to two – Glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and the black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus). Of the two we just saw the latter, and that too in large number. However although they were obviously many, all of them were concentrated on the farthest corner of the main marsh. Ibises have a beak that is curved forwards which helps it sift through the mud for small crustaceans.
Also in the central marsh we saw two other beautiful water-birds. The first was the wooly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus). They are found across the globe fro m the grasslands of Africa to India and as far east as Indonesia. In spite of the vast geographic field and their ‘least Concern’ status in the IUCN list, we saw just one bird.
The other was the bar-headed geese (Anser indicus) which migrate here every winters from the distant Siberia. There were a huge flock of these at the marshes but for some reason they never really took flight. As a result the desire to capture the image of a huge flock of birds in flight has to date remained a fantasy. Interestingly, they are thought to be the highest flying birds in the world. Tagged individuals have been noted to have flown over Mt Makalu (8,841 m), the fifth highest mountain in the world.
Apart from the main, circular swamp, the little marshes on the die of the main road also hold a huge population of birds, mainly painted storks, spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia), grey herons (Ardea cinerea), cormorants (little and great), darters (Anhinga melanogaster ), etc. The waters are rich in algae and crustaceans and can support a large number of birds and the occasional nilgai and sambar.
Apart from the obvious water-birds, two other sightings record special mention. The first is the spotted owlet (Athene brama), and like the Indian Roller, i had seen a lot of these growing up in the village. It was nice to see them again.
Then there was the nightjar, which definitely was one of the highlights of the trip. Credit here goes totally to our guide who spotted it out of nowhere. These nocturnal birds rest during the daytime and often on the ground. It was so well camouflaged against the foliage that it actually took us some time to see the actual bird even though it was only a few feet from us. The particular species is not clear. Maybe the pros out there can help. Looks like it is a large-tailed nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus)
I know the park is famous for its feathered residents, it also has a significant number of mammals as well and we did get to see some. One of the first animals we saw upon entering the park was a jackal (Canis aureus). We kept getting glimpses of this slippery customer throughout the park.
Nilgais (Boselaphus tragocamelus) are a common sight in Delhi and its outskirts and so it was not a big surprise to see it Bharatpur. But still, hand on heart, i’d rather see a pack of nilgais in the wild than a tiger in a cage.
We saw surprisingly little of the cheetals (Axis axis). Early in our trip, we noticed a Crested Serpent Eagle in the distance and decided to go towards it, and on the way, we were surprised by a herd of them (they also surprised the bird, who immediately took to the skies).
In the middle of a forest, just before the main swamp is a shiva temple which gave Keoladeo Ghana National Park its name. Here, in a fenced off enclosure is a tiny canteen where one can buy chips, snacks and water. here we came across some super friendly squirrels who would eat the chips right off our hands.
My most interesting encounter, however, was with a pack of wild boar. I was walking off the trail in knee-high grass when i was alerted by the sounds of grunting. I immediately turned to face a pack of wild boars which comprised on a few juveniles and the mother. All the wild boars we had seen so far were small and this was no exception, so i decided to take it lightly. When i moved ever so little, just to raise my camera to take a photograph, the mother charged. Fortunately for me, it was just a half charge, meant to scare me off and trust me, it had the desired effect. No matter what the size of the wild animal, never, even un-intentionally threaten the kids!
Another sight, and this time pretty, was a pack of Sambar (Rusa unicolor) grazing ion the marshes, feeding on the algae. We were just a few paces away and the animals were thankfully unmindful of us. The colours of the water and the grace of the animals made for a fantastic sight.
It had been a good trip, and with the exception of the pythons (which, being February, must have been hibernating) and the sarys crane, we had seen almost all the birds and beasts we had come to see, and then some. What i enjoyed the most was that one could simply walk on the paths and spot wildlife. Sometimes its good not to have a tiger around! I am writing this almost a year after i went there, and already in my mind, i am planning a return. Can anyone lend me a telephoto (Nikon mount) for a weekend?
Leaving you with these two images: