Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Bharatpur - Feast of Feathered Finery

Long tailed Nightjar
Ouch! The thorns bit into arm and leg, pierced through sole and cloth; but we wavered not. We remained resolute on our quest to get a decent sighting and picture of the elusive long tailed nightjar. And finally, we nailed it in a patch of especially dense thorn bushes. After about half an hour of quiet, patient stalking, we finally managed to get a few decent pictures, before leaving it to its solitude. And the scratches and thorn-injected soles of my sandals were but little pain points to savor.

My first trip to Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur, a place I've always wanted to visit  but for one reason or another, it always got pushed; and to top my inertia, the lack of water over the last few years had caused many birds to skip their annual visit here. Now, with the waters gracing this beautiful little wetland once again, it seemed like the right time to make a trip. And so, on the third leg of our Rajasthan trip we left Ranthambhore for Bharatpur, just a couple of hours away. We were with the inimitable Baney Singh, one of Bharatpur's legendary guides. And straightaway, he bundled us into the car and took us to a little marshy waterbody, surrounded by shops and what not and pulled out Sandpipers, Greenshanks and a Painted Snipe! Right in the middle of a chaotic Bharatpur town. Who would have believed that?

Brown Hawk Owl
From there, we stopped nearby to see a beautiful Brown Hawk Owl perched on a tree. He looked wide-eyed at us, wondering what we were doing coming all the way to stare up at him. After a few pictures, we left him in peace and wandered over to the entrance of the Keoladeo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This tiny (29 sq. km.) water-endowed piece of paradise is home to an unbelievable number of bird species, including some really special winter migrants. How these birds find a tiny haven like Bharatpur is a real tribute to their homing skills!

Beautiful Bharatpur
We stopped at a patch of thick bush just alongside the entry barrier and Baney Singh told us that a Siberian Rubythroat (a rare winter visitor) normally makes an appearance there in the mornings, but after a brief look, he concluded that we were too late for our appointment. So we headed in, straight onto a boat and explored some of the beautiful waterways in Bharatpur. Along the way we saw Grey and Purple Herons, Bronze Winged Jacanas, Egrets and Purple Moorhens. The purple algae on the water makes the whole place look magical and surreal at the same time!

Right after the boat trip was the nightjar expedition and post that we hopped onto the quaint cycle rickshaws, the only mode of transport within the park (besides feet)  Bharatpur has a network of 'paths' through the wetland, which the rickshaws navigate and get to vantage points from which to see birds. Prominent is a wide central path with several 'arms' branching out at various points, and these 'arms' sometimes have (side?) arms of their own.  The rickshaw drivers are all very capable guides themselves, so don't fret if you can't get a hold of Baney Singh! As we went trundling down the cement  roads, we saw loads of beautiful painted storks, including about a couple of hundred juveniles; their grey-white plumage nowhere close to the beautiful pinks they will inherit as they grow into adulthood. Then, we got busy with black bitterns, black redstarts, darters, flycatchers all around us when the buzz went around - "Saras aaye".

Saras Crane male calling
And it was quite easy to figure where they were - we just followed the crowd. And then, just like a 'tiger sighting' a crowd of people were huddled in a few gaps in the bushes that line the road, watching a pair of Saras Cranes. Beautiful birds and in open ground... so what was wrong? A herd of feral cattle in the background. Luckily for us, as we got our turn, the birds moved away from the cattle and then, suddenly, the male gave us our full money's worth - he spread his wings, craned his neck and 'called', a harsh, piercing cry that stopped all activity around them. Then, show over, we headed to a different path where we saw a black necked stork, steppe eagle and pallas' fishing eagle, but all very far and only visible with binoculars. But the highlight was a flock of Rosy Pelicans, gliding in like a bomber squadron and landing effortlessly on the water.  And as we headed out, a beautiful little Bluethroat nodded a silent farewell. And that ended an incredible day in bird paradise.

Rosy Pelican
We headed out early the next morning, eager to get two particularly rare species - the Rubythroat and the Red Laughing Thrush. As we landed up at the barrier, still no sign of the Rubythroat. After a half hour wait, we decided to take a punt at the thrush and return in a bit. And a short walk later, we reached an old, beautiful and amazingly peaceful Hanuman temple. And the backyard of this temple is a favorite stomping ground for the thrush. So we looked inside and outside the walls, till Baney Singh saw one right on the road! As we slowly maneuvered into position, taking care not to get any closer, loud human conversation spooked the poor bloke and he flew off into the bush. A bunch of early morning walkers in full voice passed us with a cheerful 'hello'. I don't know if they heard our teeth gnashing or not, but it wouldn't have mattered to them anyway. We looked and looked and didn't find him, but found a pair of Grey Hornbills, silverbill, a lovely little Baya Weaver and a Purple Sunbird instead. We also checked out a favorite spot for pythons, but said reptile was not in attendance. So we retraced our steps to the barrier and guess what?

The Rubythroat had come out as soon as we left, provided many photographers with splendid pictures and disappeared back into the bush. Once again, we waited for half an hour, but no deal. And so we headed out again, this time to spend a lovely hour or so watching (in the distance) a beautiful Imperial Eagle playing hide and seek with a large flock of Bar headed Geese. As we walked back from that, we saw some mid-air drama - a Crow harassing a Booted Eagle, amazing how crows often do that to far larger birds of prey. The nerve! And there was more good fortune as a jungle cat suddenly appeared on the path and crossed far in front of us. A real bonus sighting! Finally, we headed back to the barrier for one more shot at the Rubythroat. And that little rogue had made another appearance during our absence and then had gone back in again. What a bummer!

The elusive Siberian Rubythroat
But Baney Singh wavered not. He was resolute in his quest to show us this bird. And so we waited, patiently, politely entreating our siberian visitor to make an appearance. But it finally took a veiled threat to get him out. We announced that we were leaving in five minutes if we didn't spot him. And as if on cue, he shyly peeked out of the bush, then hopped to the periphery and gave us a couple of decent pictures. Beautiful little fella and pretty self-conscious of his celebrity status, I would presume!

Black redstart
And that was that. We had to leave for Delhi that afternoon, so we pulled out of Bharatpur at lunchtime, sated to the brim. For amateur, first-time birdwatchers like us, the park had pulled out all stops to make it a spectacularly memorable visit. And Baney Singh's knowledge, skill and commitment were nothing short of exemplary. All in all the perfect cocktail for an amazing visit. With a definite promise to back next winter.

Bharatpur Trip Guide

Getting there
Keoladeo National Park is at the outskirts of Bharatpur town, on the Mumbai-Delhi rail route. Bharatpur Junction is itself a pretty big station where a lot of trains halt.

The closest big town is Mathura (46 kms away) and the nearest airports are Delhi (200 kms) and Jaipur (185kms)  


There are many options to stay in Bharatpur, The Birders' Inn is the most popular. We stayed at the new Kiran Palace Hotel, just off the main highway and less than a kilometer from the park entrance. 

Kiran Vilas is a nice, comfortable hotel with decent food and reasonable rates. All in all a pretty good package deal.

Park Visits
There are no 'safaris' here. You get to the gate, pay the nominal entry fees and either walk or take a cycle rickshaw. You have to agree an hourly rate with the rickshaw driver and it's better to do it in advance to avoid any chaos later on.

The rickshaw drivers are competent guides in themselves, so you're fine without one, but you're far better off with that Bharatpur legend - Baney Singh, about whose skills I have waxed eloquent in passages above.

Other tips
A good pair of walking shoes are essential, not only due to the thorns, but also because walking around the park is fabulous and you can cover all that you want to see at your leisure.

Carry some water and maybe something to eat. While there are a couple of canteens (one at the entry barrier and one inside) they're not exactly always bursting with goodies.

If you like sweets, do not forget to try the gajak from elderly Mr. Gupta in the main market street. He has been selling this trademark Bharatpur speciality for more than 55 years and it is truly outstanding.