Birding in Bharatpur

Keoladeo Ghana National Park (whew!) is India's premier bird sanctuary- a squawking, singing, HUGE crowd of birds in a setting of marshes. Great for a winter-time birdwatching trip!

Birding in Bharatpur

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by phileasfogg on June 14, 2002

Birds, birds and birds! The Siberian crane is a must-see; so are the raptors and the geese. An early-morning walk is just about the best thing to do here.${QuickSuggestions} Take a sturdy pair of boots and don't forget your binoculars. Winter - between October and mid-February - is the best time to visit; that's when the migratory birds are all over the park.

Keoladeo's very close to Delhi (just about 200 km, along the National Highway to Agra), so getting here isn't a problem, and you can do the trip by bus or hire a jeep. Whatever you do, reserve your hotel room well in advance. And try not to go over a weekend. That's when hordes of noisy families descend on Bharatpur from nearby towns, around 90% of whom have absolutely no desire to actually see birds. ${BestWay} Cycles are available for hire at the main gate of the park, and are great for getting around. We walked, instead, and found that was probably a better idea than biking, as you don't need to stick to paths - you can actually wander off through the surrounding grasslands for a closer look. Hiring a naturalist guide to take you for a walk costs about Rs 300 or so, and is really the best way to do it.

For the lazybones, cycle-rickshaws can be hired at the main gate. All the rickshaw-wallahs act as guides, although only some of them (the park's certified rickshaw-wallahs: their rickshaws will have a sign with the park's name) have gone through a special training programme. If you do opt for a rickshaw, go with one of these guys- they know what they're talking about.

The Park

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on June 14, 2002

The Park is one of the many plush hotels which have appeared in recent years close to the entrance of the Keoladeo Ghana Sanctuary. It's large, looks rather like a colonial white-washed bungalow, and isn't high-rise. This place was newly built when we stayed here, so maybe that accounted for the overwhelming smell of fresh paint and varnish that enveloped it. Rs 1,000 got us a very comfortable and airy double room, with a huge bed (beautifully crisp sheets!), a coffee table with two large chairs; and a 26" Colour TV. The room was air-conditioned too, so I think that Rs 1,000 a night was really a very good deal- and this was at peak season! The only drawback to the room was the bathroom- though very clean, it had an undefinably nasty smell about it. Downstairs, in the lobby, was the restaurant- they serve a mix of Indian and `Western' food. The Indian is infinitely better than the `Western', although it's fairly spicy. During the day, they set up chairs and tables on the lawn outside, so you can have your breakfast or lunch in the sun- wonderful in the winter.

The best thing about The Park is that it's fabulously located - just about 3 minutes' walk from the main gate of Keoladeo Ghana.

The Park
Near Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Main Gate
Bharatpur, India

Walking through Keoladeo

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on June 14, 2002

Although the options for exploring Keoladeo Ghana are many- including hiring a rickshaw or a cycle- we discovered that really the best way of seeing this place is on foot. The good thing about walking through the park is that the trails are all level ground, so it isn't frightfully strenous; you aren't restricted to bike trails- you can actually head off the path if you want to- and there aren't any dangerous wild animals lurking in the undergrowth (barring a tigress which happened to have strayed into Keoladeo while we were there). The park covers an area of around 29 sq km, and a series of paths- some paved with brick, others dirt tracks- wander through the park. To begin your walk, get an entry ticket (Rs 200 per person) at the main gate, from where a walk of about 2 km brings you to the `core area' of the park. There's a check-point here, and a fork from which two main paths- one 6 km long, the other a circuit of 11 km- branch off. Both are great for bird-watching. The way to get the most out of your walk is to hire a naturalist-guide at the main gate (a hired guide costs about Rs 300 for 3 hours- about the usual length of a walk). The guides are very knowledgeable, not just about birds, but also about which part of the park you'll see which birds in, so going with one of these guys is really reccomended.

Time your walk for early morning (around 8, when the park opens), or for afternoon. The park closes by 6, so a walk beginning at about 3 should be alright.

Walking through Keoladeo
Keoladeo Ghana National Park
Bharatpur, India

Of Lipstick Birds and Jungle Kotwals

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by phileasfogg on June 14, 2002

We’re ploughing our way through tough, knee-high grass, wet with dew and harbouring God knows how many insects. Every now and then, there’s a pothole, an anthill or some such unpleasant surprise, and the fact that one can’t even curse loudly- for fear of scaring away birds- makes us even madder.

We’re in Bharatpur- or to be more precise, in the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. It’s 8 in the morning on a chilly January day. A mist is hanging over the marshes and the grasslands, and the park is, mercifully, free of the crowds of tourists who’ll come in later in the day. Since this is a bird sanctuary we’re in- India’s best known, and a World Heritage site, incidentally- it’s very quiet.

Our guide, a tall, gaunt man from the neighbouring village, has a voice loud enough to scare off all the birds for miles around. His name’s Bacchu Singh, and he admits, very frankly, that he isn’t one of "those young upstarts from town" and can’t read English. What comes as a bit of a surprise is his astounding knowledge about nature. A chance question about the name of a plant we see, and he rattles off a string of botanical names. He carries a book (an English one) on birds, with each bird’s name- common and scientific- carefully penned alongside in Hindi.

He’s phenomenal- all he needs to do is look at a thorn tree about 100 metres away, and his verdict is instant: "Look there- see that? About ten feet down from the top of that tree- that’s a spotted owl. And it’s looking this way." We peer through our binoculars very dutifully, but can see nothing beyond a dark smudge which may be a bird- or may not. Eventually, Bacchu Singh ends up having to take us, through the grass, to the tree. The owl is there, and it has been looking at us. And the smudge we’d been peering at turns out to be a clump of leaves.

Keoladeo is, even for city people like us who can barely tell the difference between a rock chat and a house sparrow, a fabulously interesting place. A wide stretch of marshland, it started off being a private hunting reserve for a Maharaja, and later became a national park. All through the year, it’s crowded with birds- especially aquatic ones- and winter is when that squawking, feather-brained crowd increases by about a few thousand.

Now is when they’re all around: kites, crested eagles, purple, grey and night herons; greylag geese; bar-headed geese, cattle egrets, darters ("snake birds" is what all the guides call them- when they swim, with their long curving necks sticking up out of the water, they do look rather reptilian), jacanas, brahminy ducks, rosy pelicans and hundreds more. Near us, a sudden flash of bright yellow reveals the presence of a golden oriole; on a roadside bush, a podgy little black-and-white magpie robin suddenly bursts into exquisite song. A V-shaped flock of pelicans circles lazily up above, looking out for a place to land, and far away, in a leafless tree, sits a large black bird, its forked tail distinctive in the early morning light. "That’s a drongo," says Bacchu Singh. "A jungle kotwal." (a kotwal is the Hindi equivalent of a police inspector- basically a lawman). It turns out that drongos defend their nests- and the trees on which they make their nests- very belligerently; that’s why the epithet.

Epithets, in fact, come very easily to the local people: the brahminy myna, with its distinctive black head, is called a Sunil Dutt myna, after a Hindi filmstar of yesteryears whose hairstyle looked much like the myna’s patch of black. The crimson-beaked purple moorhens (deliciously jewel-like in colour, these birds: a gorgeous vivid purple, shot through with emerald green) are called `lipstick birds’. The red beak, you see.

On an island in the marshes is a rock python, sunning itself in the weak winter sunshine; further away, in the slowly-evaporating mist, we can see a couple of sambhar deer, the male with a beautiful pair of antlers. An evening walk reveals more of Keoladeo’s mammalian inhabitants: on a long walk back to our hotel, our path is crossed by a skittish spotted deer. In the fading light, a mongoose scurries across the road, and suddenly a wild cackling, howling chorus breaks out- far away, but eerie enough to make us just a wee bit nervous. "Jackals," our guide explains. "They start their hunts around this time, when the sun sets."

Jackals are about the only large predators in Keoladeo, although a stray tigress, probably an illegal immigrant from Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, is wandering around the park these days. "We saw her the other day," Bacchu Singh says, as he takes us through a really wild patch of tall grass. "Just about where you’re standing-" (we glance around nervously, half-expecting the creature to leap out at us, bang on cue)- "we hadn’t realised she was around; just happened to look back- and there she was".

But tigers aren’t Keoladeo’s forte; birds are- and none as much as the rare Siberian crane. Part of the Siberian crane population- and it’s a small one- flies south to Bharatpur every year during the winter. Till about two decades ago, the number of cranes which came to nest here was around 40; now, a single pair comes. Bacchu Singh tells us of the breeding programmes organised by the National Park in an attempt to boost the crane population- with our friend himself dressing up in a crane costume and acting the role of foster mother. "It didn’t work," he says sadly. The birds (one called Boris- after Yeltsin; and the other called Billy- after Clinton; obviously named by some overworked Indian bureaucrat with politics on his mind) didn’t survive.

But things are looking up. A Russian pal of Bacchu Singh’s has just sent him an e-mail with some welcome news- he’s spotted 17 pairs of Siberian cranes, of the population which comes to Keoladeo. Does that mean we’ll see more of the cranes than the solitary pair we’ve seen this year? We’ll be back next year to check.

The Birds of Bharatpur

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by phileasfogg on June 14, 2002

Keoladeo Ghana is India's best bird sanctuary, and the birds you'll see here will be a fabulous cross-section of not just species from the Indian sub-continent, but also a sizeable bunch of migrating species. Most prominent are the aquatic birds, which include greylag geese, bar-headed geese, brahminy ducks, pelicans, pintail ducks, jacanas, common moorhens, purple moorhens, darters, egrets, and the gorgeous shocking pink-tinted painted storks.

The park's also got a decent popualtion of raptors: white-shouldered kites, spotted owls, crested eagles, and a few others- though they're not as visible as the rest of the birds.

Other feathered friends around include magpie robins, golden orioles, thrushes, mynas, weaver birds, and the stars of the show- the Siberian cranes. The beautiful scarlet-necked Indian Sarus cranes are also around, though they're on the endangered list.

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