Spring Comes to Bharatpur

a.k.a How A Salvaged Vacation Actually Turned Out To Be One Of The Very Best Trips I Ever Had

Photo credits: Bhaskar Bhattacharya, Sumita Bhattacharyya, Me

 

This was last Friday, the day after Holi – I lay stricken in bed with tonsils the size of golf balls, possibly the consequence of having swallowed some of the abeer people egregiously smeared over my face. I was in agony. Also guilt, because my wanderlust(ing) parents had had to cancel a short getaway to Narora since I refused to get up and be human. Several antibiotics and lots of gargling later, we (meaning I) girded the old loins and decided to drive out to Bharatpur. We couldn’t bear to waste a lovely weekend break moping around the house. Bharatpur had a lot going in its favour – it’s close, it’s lovely, and most importantly, my enterprising father had called the RTDC guesthouse and confirmed that they had rooms available. Half-packed due to our previous plans, we tossed Baba’s (and now mine) old Russian binoculars that features some fantastic white mottling on its leather casing due to mould and happens emit one of my favourite scents in the world, and ourselves, into the car.

Baba struck out a route for Bharatpur, which is on the north-eastern edge of Rajasthan. From the Indirapuram-adjacent edge of Noida, we drove down through Sarita Vihar, Faridabad, Palwal and bypassed Mathura. The roads were passably smooth, but the number of bumpers seemed to have exponentially increased along with the population of our country. Maybe there is some other calculus going on that justifies building steep, unmarked speed-breakers on highways? “Ah, one more Indian Forbes billionaire? Suresh, build another pimple of NH 2 to mark the occasion!” (Honestly your guess is as good as mine). We threaded our way through narrow two-lane highways past ripening fields of wheat. As we approached Bharatpur, the road got worse although we witnessed a magnificent sunset that was unhindered by highrises. Babul, keekar and other scrubland vegetation spread out on either side as we sought out our hotel. The entire drive had taken us around 4 and a half hours (with very few pee breaks included).

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Located on the Fatehpur Sikri Road, Rajasthan Tourism’s economy hotel, Saras, is an excellent place to stay. And I’m not saying that because we have always been steadfast, loyal customers of RTDC but because of it is wonderful on all counts – a flat, low building that’s a 10 minute walk from the sanctuary, it has dorms and rooms. As my mom is fond of observing, we always find crisp, white sheets and reliable scratchy blankets on our RTDC beds throughout Rajasthan. The bathrooms are always clean and well-maintained, and the service is courteous and efficient. While the food is never bad, in Bharatpur it is a tad unimaginative – Pradeep, our manager, ruefully observed that Bharatpur is almost UP. Hence the lack of gatte ki sabzi or any Rajasthani dishes.

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We turned in early after a simple dinner (“The rotis here taste so good?” we marvelled, turning them this way and that to ascertain the source of such tastiness. My opinion is that at least 20% of the deliciousness comes from the food being Elsewhere. Travel makes magic).

6.30 A.M – Saturday

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Sunrise over the ghana

At 6.00 am, we reached the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary Gate. Half an hour too early, the locals who were taking a nice morning walk informed us. The park is also known as Keoladeo Ghana – ghana meaning thick vegetation. It is quite large, spreading over 29 sq kilometres and luckily, one is permitted to wander around the park much more than at other famous parks like Corbett or Ranthambore. The entire area is forested by the native flora and fauna, which means miles and miles of acacia trees and shrubs and thorns. This is ideal for the scrubland birds, while migratory waterfowl are attracted by Sapan Mori, the large marshy wetland that spans the middle of the park. The government is pretty dedicated to keeping the marshland alive – in the height of the dry summer, water is pumped in from hundreds of kilometres away.

 

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Actually this is an example of the three ways you can navigate the path – by foot, by cycle rickshaw, or bicycle

 

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My dad does a Saira Bano

Getting around the park is a delight – one has the option of either walking, hiring a bicycle (@Rs 25/- or Rs 40/- per hour depending on the kind of bicycle), taking a certified cycle-rickshaw piloted by a trained rickshawalla, or a tonga. Obviously I ached to take a tonga and go clip-clopping through the trail because I adore horses and tongas are hard to come by in everyday Noida life.

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A Brahminy Starling (or Brahminy Myna, if you’re old-school)

But tongas arrive much after the gate opens, so we opted to take one bicycle that Baba and I would share, and one rickshaw, pedalled by the soft-spoken and endearing Sarman ji who had eyes and eyes as sharp as an owl, and very decided opinions on the changing of birds’ names for marketing new birding guides. We all got along fantastically well. One can hire guides at the fixed rates, but the rickshawallas also double up as guides. In case you need extra binoculars you ca hire them for Rs 50 per hour. We found it to be quite efficiently managed, and a board inside proudly displayed the numbers of tourists per year, which went up into the lakhs.

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The common city tourist poses confidently.
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A White-Cheeked Bulbul in the dawn glow
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A tonga

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How we got around Bharatpur

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Sarman ji made this trip so wonderful for us all, he’s a treasure.

 

It was colder than anticipated at 6.30 am, and I shivered a little on my cycle as we started. We’d barely set off before we stopped – bee-eaters, yellow-toed green pigeons, laughing doves, energetic Indian robins and yellow-throated sparrows perched on the sparse branches of the shrubbery around. These are quiet birds, only sometimes emitting a sharp chirp, but their lack of chirping is offset by frenetic energy – bee-eaters swooped in  sudden acrobatic leaps as they caught insects in their sharp little beaks, vivid flashes of yellow-green and orange as they alternated between their burrows in the ground (where they nest), the perch and the air.

These are one of my favourite bird species, even though I say this about almost all birds, but I love bee-eaters for being very playful. I’ll never forget the sight of Chestnut-Headed bee-Eaters rolling about in the dust at Corbett, hardly a few feet from our car. They’re pure extroverts. Also, they’re a pleasure to photograph, although our camera doesn’t do them justice.

 

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A male Indian Robin eyes us warily
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A green bee-eater in its burrow

 

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One of my favourite birds

 

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‘In a hole in the ground there lived a little green bird’

 

Sarman ji pulled the rickshaw to a halt, whispering, ‘Wahan, titiar’. Far away in a gap between two bushes, was a Grey Francolin, a bird I would never have spotted without his help. Pheasants and other gamefowl may be fat and fluffy, but their lack of noise and extremely quick running/zooming(?) into undergrowth makes them very difficult to spot. I clicked my few hazy photos with great satisfaction.

 

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The greatest stealth artist ever, the Grey Francolin

 

Sarman ji also pointed out a Spotted Owlet, which is the cutest thing I have ever seen in my entire existence. It glared tiredly at us from its hollow, trying to look as intimidating as something the size of a pouch can. Its SO FUZZY.

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Spotted Owlet, just as cute and terrifying as the lore says.

 

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Incredibly sleepy and incredibly fuzzy.

 

We were brought to a halt again by the ear-splitting keening of Rose-Ringed Parakeets, the denizen of any decently forested neighbourhood. Despite being common in Delhi NCR, parakeets are entertaining to watch as they turn upside down to get at fruit, chew their seeds while dribbling the debris everywhere (thus helping to spread seeds, mind you) and generally get quite loud. In a pilu tree, an arm’s reach away, a flock of parakeets descended upon the berries a little above eye-level. Baba, delighted by such unafraid subjects, clicked away in delight, yielding some excellent pictures.

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Yeah?
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Rose Ringed Parakeets on a pilu shrub
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The fruit of Salvadora persica, Latin name provided by Sarman ji

Sarman ji plucked a few salvadora persica berries for us and encouraged us to try them: they taste sharp and tangy, “like wasabi!”, Baba observed. Apparently, even a verse in the Mahabharat mentions this tree in passing, and it is clearly a vastly important species in Bharatpur’s ecology. The plants were really in quite spectacular form. It is spring, which means little green leaves and buds everywhere.

The babul trees had developed their pod-like fruits, bushes were full of flowers and an elegant tree called Papdi was festoned with fruits that looked like pale green paper circles. Sarman ji and some other guides bemoaned the introduction of acacia and hyacinth species that were now proving difficult to eradicate. To our untrained eyes, Bharatpur looked perfect under the morning sun.

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Papdi tree full of fruit

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Entering Sapan Mori, everything turns green and lush
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‘Bees?’ ‘Bees’ 🙂
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The Silk Cotton tree, Bombax malabaricum
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Small but important: the Siberian Rubythroat

 

 

 

As we came to a small checkpost, I noticed a flurry of people flocking to the embankment on the roadside. In the slightly damp floliage underfoot, a Siberian Rubythroat plucked away at the fallen leaves in a storm of shutters and urgent pointing. It is such an understated and lovely bird, I’m glad I got a decent shot of it.

We knew we had crossed from the scrub to the marshy part of Bharatpur as a massive jamun tree loomed over the path, standing guard over the threshold to Sapan Mori. Unlike the Okhla bird sanctuary with its large water bodies, Bharatpur’s marshes are spongy, full of reeds and bracken, gnarled trees that make perfect heronries for nesting cranes, egrets and storks. We saw the magnificent Glossy Ibis, whose illustration in my Book of Indian Birds doesn’t do justice to just how iridescent its plumage really is. Ibises stalked about in the shallow waters, occasionally accompanied by a juvenile. In the same vicinity, you would see several common waterfowl such as the Common Coot or Indian Moorhen.

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A Glossy Ibis
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The great marshes of Sapan Mori

Grey herons are another sight to behold – they’re large birds that look awkwardly shaped, but in their perfect repose over the still waters they look naturally at ease. Baba got some wonderful shots. Bharatpur is crisscrossed by several canals and ducts, and the fleet of tourists, cycles, rickshaws and tongas, would more or less halt and gaze around together. I have to say there was not much noise despite the presence of many small children – something about the calm manner of our rickshawwalla guides ensured no one felt like creating a fuss. I noticed a large number of guides were Sindhi Sikhs, reminding me that a large community had allegedly settled in the region as Partition refugees.

 

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A Median Egret, calm as a kung fu master
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Grey Heron, with its distinctive markings
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The Openbill Stork may not be showy but it is fascinating
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A Common Moorhen among the hyacinths, which is an invasive species

One of the tourists, a young man with his mother, possessed an enviably sharp pair of eyes – he spotted a jackal basking in the dappled shade. Oohing and aahing, everyone remarked how much the jackal looked like a common dog, with its large soft ears and sandy coat. We watched silently as it groomed itself, a little thrilled at seeing a variation from avian fauna. It loped away soon after, but not before we got some pictures of it.

At one such canal crossing, we all wandered along the bank. Someone exclaimed ‘Water snake!’ and a bunch of heads peered down into the embankment where, sure enough, a very shy little reptilian head looked back at us. Sadly we didn’t think to get a photo, although the lady in this picture spotted its sloughed-off skin, which probably explained why it was secreted away in a hole in the bank. Baba and I wandered off on our own and found a cormornat resting on a gnarled stump.

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The elusive jackal, lord of the leaves.
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The sloughed-off skin of a water snake, spotted by the lady in the sari
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Notice the blue irises of the Great Cormorant
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Just camp out in Sapan Mori and the birds will come to you.
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Painted Storks always look startlingly colourful among their somber cousins

 

We reached the Keoladeo Temple and rest stop around 10.30 am, when the sun was beginning to really beat down on us. There is a modest grassy park, scattered with sandstone benches and a single tea/snacks stall manned by one guy who patiently emptied the contents of bhujia packets into paper bags. I was puzzled by this practice, alarmed when he started to rip apart my purchase, but I later realised it’s actually an effort to keep Bharatpur paper and litter-free. Judging by the cleanliness of the park, I have to say this is commendable. All the other tourists were delighted by the flocks of garrulous babblers and jungle crows which descended upon biscuit crumbs, their eyes gleaming unafraid and intelligent.

If one wants to go further into the park, the path leads left from the temple towards a place where pythons are often found. I was really quite keen to spot them, but the sun was getting quite blinding.

 

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Keoladeo Temple, our rest stop about 5 km into the sanctuary

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We started back, Baba and I swapping possession of the bicycle while Mummum reigned from the rickshaw. Sarman ji pointed out the brown-winged jacana, teals and Northern shovellers. In a series of marvellous sightings, we found Golden Ducks, followed by Saras cranes, and a large clearing where a pair of Spot-Billed Ducks were chivvying along their fuzzy, enthusiastic brood of ducklings. Adorable. Baba and I ventured out onto the great trunk of a fallen tree over the water, and had a really nice view of the general busy-ness of Black-Winged Stilts that walked like harried college students at Rajiv Chowk metro station. Some stragglers from the winter season also nosed about – common teals, Garganey Teals and Shovellers.

 

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A Pond Heron firmly skewers its prey
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Common Moorhen

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Spot-Billed Ducks ( a drake and hen); on the bank a Common Teal

In the distance, a pair of Golden Ducks gleamed like they were made out of solid yellow metal. “Can we get a feather?” Ma asked wistfully. They were placid birds, resting with their heads tucked into the wings, shining a bright gold in the sun like some sort of fabled creature that would lay equally golden eggs.

The clapping, screeching call of the Sarus cranes had us rushing to catch a good look at them. Despite Sarman ji’s keen eye, all our sightings since morning had been of Saras cranes very far off in the distance, but now we came upon a sizeable number of them calling all at once. Only when you’re up close to them do you realise what massive birds they are, harking back to prehistoric ancestors with their huge beaks and gangling legs, but they’re absolutely spectacular. At some invisible signal, they all took to the air, flapping their large wings as they took flight with the grace of feathery aeroplanes. I craned my neck to see them fly over our heads. The sight fills you with awe. What magnificent creatures, really. Saras cranes also pair-bond for life, and they’re famous for their mating songs and dances.

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The Saras Cranes were a little too far away for our struggling camera
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A very, very Golden Duck

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The Pied Kingfisher is a very spirited bird that can be relied upon to photograph well

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A lone Northern Shoveller
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We saw a flock of Bar-Headed Geese, which nest at Tso Moriri in Leh
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A pair of Spot Billed Ducks with their brood
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A tortoise suns itself
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The Glossy Ibis lunges after a meal, much like a hungry college student

Somehow, for all that we had walked and cycled under the sun on a bright March morning, we hardly felt tired at all. I fervently wished we’d seen more reptiles, or the jackal once again, but I was really grateful for the sheer number and variety of birds we had seen in a few hours.

That’s the best part about Bharatpur for any tourist who doesn’t have the expertise or the stamina to seek birds hidden away in tree-tops or thick forests – water has a way of attracting diversity to it, and all you really have to do is a carry a camera or a pair of binoculars and plonk yourself on a nice bank to do some literal bird ­watching. Sadly, the park hasn’t seen any Siberian cranes since 2004, which is quite alarming, but I really want to go back again in the winter and camp out with the camera. Bharatpur is deeply satisfying experience for the amateur birdwatcher or naturalist; it gives freely of itself. I will return.

fin ~