It’s been over six years in Delhi now, and while Bharatpur has turned up in discussions several times as a travel destination, I was never sure of its location nor distance from Delhi. Neither have I thought of myself as a bird-watcher. Until a week ago when I received a Facebook invite from Jassi Oberoi of ‘The Footmarks’ asking people to join for a bird-watching trip, only actual expenses to be borne. Why not try my hand at bird photography, and I accepted (aware that I lacked the zoom lenses required for this).
Bharatpur, the town and the bird sanctuary, are less than 200 kms south of Delhi. Take the Delhi-Agra highway (NH2) and once you cross Mathura, look out for a fly-over over a railway track. As you get down the slope, a sign-board to the right indicates the distance to Bharatpur as 36 kms. Except for the last 8-10 kms, the overall drive to Bharatpur is fairly smooth. We made it there under three hours in a new Mahindra XUV500, it helps to start as early as possible.
On hindsight, I can say Bharatpur is more than a one-day trip. Other than the sanctuary itself which can take almost a full day (even if you are not a bird enthusiast), the town has other attractions too, viz. the Government Museum, Bharatpur Palace, Lohgarh Fort and Deeg Palace (~30 kms from Bharatpur). We restricted our trip to the bird sanctuary as we wanted to be home the same evening.
This place was originally known as Ghana national park (Ghana, meaning ‘dense’ in Hindi) due to its dense grasslands and wetlands. And then renamed as Keoladeo national park, though it popularly goes by the name Bharatpur bird sanctuary. Its probably the only man-made and man-managed national park in India, originally created by the Maharaja of Bharatpur more than 250 years ago.
To understand the true story of this place, it helps to get a glimpse of the geography of Russia and the history of the Siberian crane. It is the migration of the Siberian crane to this sanctuary that has made it popular, though there are several other species that migrate here from other parts of the world too. The siberian cranes originate from two separate regions in Russia, Ural mountains in the west and Kolyma region to the extreme east almost near Alaska, the distance between these two regions being almost 3000 kms. The need to find a safe habitat to escape the harsh winters in Siberia, get access to food and an opportunity to mate are cited as the primary reasons why they migrate. Their strong instincts, earth’s magnetic poles, the direction of the sun and various other geographical clues enable them to fly over 6000 kms every year to this place, which is less than 30 square kms in area. Call that finding a needle in a haystack, and they do it with pinpoint accuracy. It takes just one trip for a young crane to be able to figure out the route on its own the next year.
However, the population of the Siberian cranes has vastly declined over the past decade, numbering less than 4000 now, of which more than 90% migrate to China. So the actual number of cranes flying to India is only in two digits. And there hasn’t been any crane from Siberia coming to Bharatpur since 2006. While this is disheartening, there are over 200 other species of birds that flock here in the thousands. It is also a World Heritage site.
I had two gentlemen for company in the vehicle, one an ornithologist and the other an avid bird photographer. We started from Delhi a shade before 7 am, and both were eager to make it to Bharatpur as early as possible, so we skipped any halts on the way. Having been here umpteen times over the past two decades, they knew exactly what to eat for breakfast – mouth watering delicacies like kachori & alu, jalebi and halwa. An odd combination for your first meal of the day, if you haven’t tried it before. Served warm, I gulped down two plates of each, to combat the chilly winter morning, only realizing later how incredibly tasty they were. I strongly recommend starting your day in Bharatpur with precisely these items. They are best eaten standing outside one of the several stalls around the market area. You won’t be disappointed.
Once inside the sanctuary, there are various ways to explore it. Going around on foot is the best, though that would mean walking over 10-15 kms. Other two options are bicycles and cycle-rikshaws that are available for hire at the gate. If you have kids, renting bicycles is the way to go. Being alone, I chose a rickshaw, so that I could offload my photography gear on it while I chased the birds. The cycle-rikshaw puller also turned out to be a great guide, and he later told me all the rickshaw owners are formally trained to double up as guides too. Chet Ram, cycle # 29, my guide for the day at Rs. 70/ hour. Five hours later, I was totally impressed by his knowledge of birds, politeness and eagerness to help. He also guided me on various camera angles and regaled me with his one liners:
- The migrating season of the birds is usually from Diwali to Holi (Oct – March)
- Most migratory birds are vegetarian. Its the local birds that are carnivores
- We have over 30 yrs of experience taking tourists around, whereas the formal guides started only 5 yrs ago. However we don’t speak unfavorably about them as we belong to the same villages (this was kinda cute)
Dr. Salim Ali was the pioneer researcher at Bharatpur where he spent over three decades understanding migration patterns. Chet Ram claims to have worked with him. They’d catch birds and put a tag around their feet. Later on, another researcher in another location would get curious about the tag on the birds’ feet and catch them and read it, this is how migration patterns were studied in those days. There is a museum dedicated to him, just before the parking inside the sanctuary, very basic but worth a visit.
Inside the park, one species you’ll get to see in abundance is the painted stork as they forage for food in flocks. A few kilometers down ‘Hunter’s road’, to the left is the nesting ground of these birds which migrate from China and other parts of India. They migrate as a pair and settle down on trees in wetlands, where they lay eggs, hatch young ones, teach them to fly and then return back to their place of origin.
Another migratory bird is the collared scops owl that nests inside the holes of trees. If you are lucky, you can hear it goog-gooking as it calls for its mate. The bar-headed geese are one of the highest flying birds in the world migrating from Mongolia and China. Grey herons, named because of their grey plumage, migrate from Europe and parts of Asia. Another bird that migrates from Europe is the pintail, it looks similar to a duck but has grey and brown feathers. As it dips into the water in search of fish, you can see its twin feathers poke out.
It is easy to get fooled by the smooth and vast expanse of colorful grass as you enter the wet-land areas. Chet Ram stopped me from stepping into it in the nick of time. This is actually a fine layer of red and green algae over the water. Throw a stone in it and the algae parts to suck it up, just like quick sand, but more inviting and attractive at the surface.
There was an interesting incident last year when a tiger accidentally roamed into the sanctuary and spread fear amongst the birds and tourists for several months. The rescue team tried hard but couldn’t catch it, until someone came up with a smart idea. They recorded the roar of a tigress and played it on tape. The tiger soon walked out and was caught.
At the end of Hunter’s road is a Shiva temple, next to the canteen. The canteen offers only water, soft drinks and chips, hence its advisable to carry some food with you. Nearby is a machan that offers great views of the wetlands. A plaque opposite the canteen lists British Viceroys and Indian Generals who came hunting to this park and the number of birds they killed, the maximum being 4273 on a single day by Lord Linlithgow in 1938.
I am inspired by the calm and peace at this place. Other than the chirping and coo-cooing of the birds, the place was extremely relaxing and unhurried. There was unexpected camaraderie amongst onlookers as they peered through small openings to sight a kingfisher or some other bird. The jostle to dig themselves at the front to get the best view was completely missing. The place seemed to be working at a spiritual level on everyone.
I continue to remain a bird non-enthusiast. There are only a handful of birds I can identify with total confidence, probably pigeons, parrots, crows and the peacock. But I still had a great leisurely time at Bharatpur bird sanctuary. In my next trip, I plan to take my family along.
- Start as early as possible to reach there by 8 am
- The kachori + alu, jalebi and halwa of Bharatpur are very famous, plan on having these for breakfast
- Carry some food and water into the park
- Be patient, it might take some time before you start sighting the smaller birds
- Hire a guide, if you don’t know much about birds, its meaningless to walk in just like that. Or still better, rent a rikshaw, the rikshaw-wallah will not only ferry you around, but also fill you up on the birds, their migration pattern, sounds etc
- Carry a powerful binocular or a super zoom lens. Without these, most birds will look like a speck of dust in the distance.