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.