Birding at Bharatpur

Birding at Bharatpur

There is never a dull moment for bird-lovers at Bharatpur as there are several rare, endangered and threatened species in the park, writes Kavita Kanan Chandra

Nests and birds at Keoladeo National Park. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

We could have totally missed the pair of owlets peeping through the hollow in the tree trunk if not for our guide Jagdish Prasad’s high-end Swarovski telescope. The optical device greatly enhanced our bird viewing experience at Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur. Together with a pair of powerful binoculars, we were on a roll. We could identify bird species as even the colour of the beak and eye could be distinctly visible.     

Jagdish and his septuagenarian father Sohanlal from the nearby Jaloti village are certified guides of the park and a storehouse of knowledge on the avian species there. Sohanlal had the opportunity to interact with ace ornithologist Salim Ali when the forest of ghana (popular name for Keoladeo) became his main centre for avifaunal study. Credit goes to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and Salim Ali for the first-time factual data of scientific value regarding bird migration in India and details regarding bird identification.

Painted stork taking flight.
Painted stork taking flight.


Nostalgic trail

As Sohanlal joined us on a birdwatching trail, it was interspersed by nostalgic anecdotes of Salim Ali’s several visits to Bharatpur. His first recollection is of 1962 when, on returning from the village school across agricultural fields, he saw a bird ringing programme. Salim Ali would carefully take measurements of birds and then release them. Sohanlal not only learnt all about bird census from him but invaluable human values, too.  

We had an enjoyable ride inside the park on a sunny afternoon atop Hoshiar Singh’s tonga drawn by the sturdy horse Sheru. We would alight at intervals walking through semi-arid scrubland, Babool (acacia nilotica) and prickly bushes spotting owlets, laughing dove, yellow-legged green pigeon, long-tailed Shrike, rose-ringed parakeet and purple sunbird humming on the fragrant flowering bush of ‘raat ki rani’ (cestrum nocturnum). There was a lot of clamour of tourists around the famous wetland spot where a single acacia tree houses fifty nests of painted storks. Photographers thronged the place seated with their tripods. As dusk descended, they shifted to the opposite side focussing their lenses to capture a flying bird against the fiery orange of the setting sun. In the marsh below, we could see the black-crowned night heron that had come out to prey.

Next morning our wanderings continued. In the woods we saw raptors like shikhra, crested serpent eagle and several Egyptian vultures. Sohanlal, who had worked for 50 years in the park, was not happy to see the scavengers gathering strength in numbers. He blames the people who dump carcasses of dogs and cattle against the boundary wall that has increased the vulture count. However, he cheers up spotting the glossy ibis and black-headed ibis.

Locally known as ghana meaning ‘thicket’ for its thick woodlands, the 29 sq km area of the Keoladeo park has grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps and wetlands. The artificial marshes comprise 11 sq km of area rich in aquatic vegetation and waterfowls. Declared as a ramsar site under the Wetland convention in 1981 and UNESCO World Heritage site (natural criteria) in 1985, it was built by the Maharaja of Bharatpur, Suraj Mal, in 18th century.

Later, Maharaja Ram Singh (1893-1900) developed the wetlands for shooting ducks inspired with what he saw in England.

Interestingly, a wall listing the record of major duck shoots during the Raj, lists Lord Linlithgow (Viceroy of India 1936-1943) and his team to have shot 4,273 ducks with 39 guns in a single day on November 12, 1938. Coincidentally, that day also happens to be the birthday of Salim Ali, and we were there on that day. It was like paying homage to him as we visited the Dr Salim Ali Visitor Interpretation Centre inside the park.    

Rose-ringed parakeet
Rose-ringed parakeet.


Sweet wanderings

Sohanlal remembers with delight the elegant Siberian cranes flying high in the blue sky with their white plumage. From 200 in the 60s to just two in 2002, and then none. It was a big loss to birdwatchers. He said that he has not even seen common crane and demoiselle crane. He also misses the brown-capped pygmy woodpecker, yellow-crowned woodpecker, chestnut-bellied nuthatch, moustached warbler and the dusky warbler among others. 

Still it’s a treat to watch several migratory waterfowls in a playful mood and up to their antics, feeding and swimming in the large wetlands.

We saw the purple heron, spot-billed duck with yellow beak and green feather inside, Chinese coot that migrates from China, white collared-dove, large egret, little egret, cattle egret, gadwall, painted stork, grey heron, Eurasian marsh harrier, common pochard, northern shoveller duck, yellow wagtail, common coot and even pelicans among others. We were thoroughly entertained by the aquatic drama. It was fun seeing the coots and ducks up-ending into water, cormorant perched on a dry twig drying its wings, and the palpable scare among ducks as the harriers fly and sweep upon them to catch their prey.

The freshness of the natural surroundings, a nip in the air and a wide variety of birds certainly made our day. We silently saluted Salim Ali for he was the reason we got interested in birdwatching in the first place.