This year, to celebrate my 60th birthday, the wife suggested that, instead of the standard party (with the inevitable over-drinking, over-eating not to mention the humongous headache and mess the following day) we do something different.
We decided, or should I say, I decided, (since it was my birthday ;)) to do a trip to Keoladeo Ghana bird sanctuary in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, and I must say, my wife and daughter, (both nowhere as committed to birding as I am) both very graciously agreed.
History of the park
The Keoladeo Nationa Park is situated in the flood plains of Bharatpur just outside the city proper and covers 29 sq/km.
It’s water bodies are man-made, not natural.
In the late nineteenth century, Maharaja Ram Singh, the then Maharaja of Bharatpur, inspired by the beautiful duck shooting spots he encountered in England, decided to create a similar setting in Bharatpur.
He flooded the low-lying areas just outside the city by controlled breaching of the Ajan Dam that held the seasonal waters of the Ghambir and Banganga rivers. The swamp and water bodies so created spawned an entirely new and complex ecosystem that attracted a large number water birds.
Incidentally, the Ajan Dam was created by Maharaja Surajmal way back in 1760. Its prime function was to fill three protective moats around the Iron Fort of Bharatpur.
In the early 17th century intentional breaching of the Ajan dam was used to serve a totally different purpose, as, ironically, Lord Lake and his attacking British forces found out the hard way. The ensuing flooded areas bogged down his artillery leading to his eventual defeat.
The Parks diverse habitat, of marshes, woodlands, grasslands, scrublands and saline patches attracts over 375 species of birds, both resident and migratory.
Till the mid twentieth century, hunters, mostly high profile ones, ruled the roost. The ‘scoreboard’ above, located in the middle of the park tabulates the last few shoots conducted here. The figures are staggering with the number of ducks bagged per day often running into thousands!
Keoladeo Ghana became a reserved forest area in 1953. In 1981 it was upgraded to a National Park and in 1985 it was declared as a World Heritage site under the World Heritage Site convention.
At the turn of the twenty first century, repeatedly hit by several seasons of drought, the park’s water bodies began to dry up alarmingly causing several species of its flora and fauna to disappear. So much so that around 2007-2008 there was serious talk of removing it from the list of World Heritage sites.
About 5 years ago water from the Chambal river was piped to the area to boost the supply of the now unreliable Ajan Dam. Feedback for the locals suggest that this has resulted in a definite improvement in the numbers of both flora and fauna.
Bharatpur is located 55km west of Agra, 187km south of New Delhi and 180km from Jaipur.
We opted to fly in to Delhi and hire a private taxi to take us to Bharatpur, retaining the cab for the four days we were there. I would strongly recommend using the Yamuna Expressway to get there. It may mean spending a bit more in tolls but is a much more comfortable drive as opposed to taking the inner roads through congested villages.
Where to Stay
The only hotel within the park is the government run Bharatpur Ashok Hotel. All other hotels are located outside the Park. The fact that private cars are not allowed within the Park Gates needs to be factored in when deciding on where to stay.
My initial preference was to stay in one of the many hotels just outside the park gates. I had shortlisted the following: Iora, Sunbird and Birder’s Inn based on advice from people who had previously visited the area.
My wife had other ideas. A non-birder in the strictest sense of the term, optimal creature comforts were non-negotiable!
The ‘Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel’ is one of two hotels rated as heritage hotels. I must admit it was not my first choice as it is situated a distance away (5-10 minute drive) from the park.
To avoid a potentially steady stream of ‘kit-kit’ (non-Indians please speak to your Indian friends to get an explanation of that term) I reluctantly agreed to stay at the Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel.
Looking back, I must say I’m glad we made that decision. For one, with a car at our disposal getting to and from the park was not a problem. And, more importantly it was a wonderful experience!
The Hotel is a converted palace of the Maharaja of Bharatpur. Living descendants of the royal family still stay here and we spent a delightful evening with them watching a 70’s documentary on the park and reminiscing about ‘the old days’.
The hotel consists of an old wing (the converted palace itself) and a replicated new wing seen in these 30sec night exposures above and below respectively.
The huge grounds and exquisite old world décor coupled with a sense of space given by the high ceilings and large areas within the hotel that seem to lead from nowhere to nowhere all add to its unique charm!
With that out of the way – although I daresay it made a very significant contribution to a truly super trip – down to the birding.
The ubiquitous two-seater cycle rikshaw is the preferred mode of moving around the park. Other options include hiring a cycle (although we were told that they were not in very good condition), or simply walking. Remember cars are not allowed within the gates.
The fact that most of the rikshaw drivers are expert guides is a huge plus point and one of the special features of this park. They charge Rs. 100 per hour, and for the effort they put in, most people tip tend to them well over the standard fare.
I decided to hire an additional guide. The names of Ratan Singh and his son Lokesh Kumar were strongly recommended, and it was the latter who was to be our guide for our 3 days in Bharatpur.
Between Lokesh and our rikshaw driver, Raman Lal, their ability to sniff out wildlife bordered on the paranormal!
We arrived in the early afternoon and after a short lunch at the hotel met up with Lokesh who had arranged Raman Lal and another rikshaw to accommodate the 4 of us.
The first kilometer or so was scrubland where we got to see a few grey francolins.
Just before the water bodies, a tree on the right of the road was home to a pair of spotted owlets. Right away we got our first taste of the famed hospitality of the birds of Bharatpur!
They posed patiently as we clicked away!
Further down, the road goes past a large water body on the left and a swamp on the right. The water body had a smattering of water birds and I busied myself shooting them.
These included common coot, pintails, feruginous ducks, gadwalls, northern shovellers, common moorhen, purple moorhen, white breasted waterhen, cormorants, black-crowned night herons and oriental darter birds to name a few that I remember off the back of my head.
Lokesh called me over to the right side of the road. In the swampy area a grey heron had caught a large frog that it swung around for a few minutes before proceeding to effortlessly swallow it.
Hidden in the foliage on a branch overhanging the road was a slumbering Oriental scops owl. The next day I got a better shot of the bird that was in exactly the same spot. In the distance an Indian spotted eagle perched high atop an acacia tree looking for possible prey.
Further on the left were a large colony of painted stork nesting in the Acacia trees about 50 yards off the road. It was evening and air was filled with the cries of the chicks waiting to be fed.
As the sun set Lokesh was keen on my getting the now compulsory ‘bird-against-the-setting-sun’ shot. The ones I took were not particularly to my liking so I’ve included this one of an acacia (babul) tree that formed a lacy pattern against the setting sun.
Back in the hotel we were awed by the stunning decor of the huge dining room. (I must add, though, the food in our opinion was average, at best).
The park opens at 6.30am. Early morning fog, especially if you are into photography, compromises visibility and it was only by about 8.30 am that the light was good enough to take decent images. (Some regulars commented that we were lucky that the fog was lifting early for this time of the year!)
We entered the park at about 8am. We did see grey francolins, jackals and yellow footed green pigeons but the low light and fog meant suboptimal images.
This white-eared bulbul was shot at 8.40am and the first decent image I got that day.
Shortly on entering the park there is a mud road that leads to a bird nursery, (supposedly for ill/ wounded birds but the cages were empty). A couple of fruiting trees attracted a number of birds including this brown-headed barbet and Indian grey hornbill.
At a small pool (almost a puddle) en route to the nursery I got my first shot of the beautiful blue throat, a bird that we saw at regular intervals over the next couple of days.
Back on the main road a pack of jackals, about 6 in all ran parallel to the road. One of them decided to take a breather and kindly posed for this shot!
The park is full of rose-ringed parakeets. They are usually found in groups and create quite a racket. I was hoping to get a shot of them feeding their young but no such luck! Ah well, maybe next time. And without a doubt there will definitely be a next time!!
This time around I did manage to get a better shot of the Oriental scops owl. Not the world’s best image, I admit! So, yet another excuse to come back!
We passed the water body with the ducks on the left. Lokesh pointed out to a crested serpent eagle on the right perched on a branch some distance away. It was still foggy and the light was not great.
This is one shot that I will remember for a long, long time. As I was shooting this bird I had a ‘slight’ mishap with the camera! I’d rather not talk about it, but all I can say is the Canon 1DX2 is built like a tank!
A short distance away we were lucky to spot the elusive black bittern partially hidden in the bushes on the water’s edge just off the road.
Lokesh suddenly turns to me and asks if I had any images of yellow-eyed babblers.
When I said I didn’t he set up my tripod in front of a large bush and told me to wait. There were a bunch of yellow-eyed babblers in the bush. Typically they’d dive into the middle of the plant and then gradually work their way towards the periphery where they’d pause momentarily before diving back in again. The trick is to be prepared to shoot them for the brief moments they are in the out in the open. It took me a few test runs to get it right.
Having a guide is vital to do full justice to the park. For one their eyes are well trained. Equally important is the fact that they know where the birds are.
We took a small detour onto a mud track to an area frequented by this pretty bay-backed shrike. it was here that I got this juvenile painted stork below that seemed to have wandered away from the nest.
Lokesh points up into a palm tree he is standing under. It takes me a few moments to pick out a pair of Indian scops owls roosting deep within its branches.
Further down the road we take another mud road detour to the right. An observation tower gives one a panoramic view of a huge water body. We see a few coot, darters and a bunch of feeding pied kingfisher in the distance. Being mid-December, Lokesh informs me that it is still relatively early in the season and many migratory birds come in later, by January and early February.
On the left was another huge – and I mean huge – swamp. From our vantage point we could see, in the distance, a pair of sambhar, spotted deer, a wild boar sow with three piglets, a flock of spoonbills, an open-billed stork, a wooly-necked stork, a couple of grey lag geese, a small flock of comb ducks, and a lone ruddy shelduck! With Christmas approaching, all that was missing was the proverbial partridge in a pear tree!!
Most of the animals were quite far away, and as if to compensate for that, this blue throat below put on quite a show on the road just in front of us.
Lunch time. There is a small canteen that serves only tea and cold drinks besides biscuits and potato chips (the chips are removed from their plastic packaging and put in paper bags to deter littering). Packed sandwiches from the hotel and home made bhaji/parathas a la Lokesh more that replenished depleted blood sugar levels!
Lunch entertainment was provided by jungle babblers and bank mynas, with a guest apperance from a female red-breasted flycatcher.
I added my two-cent rendition of the Mary Poppins classic: ‘Feed the birds’.
…Ok, ok… maybe the Shrek version of it!
Post lunch we went past the hunting score board stopping to get shots of a common moorhen and a bunch of feeding oriental white eyes.
An observation tower on the right gave one a beautiful view of another colony of nesting painted storks.
(I had taken quite a few clips of video and I plan to upload one that shows the feeding ritual of the painted stork here. Hopefully!)
We took another by-road to see the nest of a pair of black-necked storks. The nest was close to the top of a large acacia tree far in the distance. It needed every millimetre of the 500mm + 2x teleconverter to get this image.
The yellow eyes of the adult (this is a low resolution image and you may need to zoom into the page to appreciate it) confirms that it was a female with one chick visible in the nest.
A Eurasian marsh harrier appeared to have made a kill, and we walked through an adjoining field to get a closer look. I did get a decent shot of the bird but there was no evidence of a kill unfortunately – or fortunately – if you look at it from the potential victim’s perspective!
The road ran along a large swamp on the left, at one end of which was the tree with the nesting black-necked storks.
As we went along I got nice shots of (another) blue throat and a common redstart.
Around this time we saw the male black necked stork flying back towards the nest (possibly to relieve the female we saw earlier).
A large turtle appeared like it was trying to blend in with a flock of lesser whistling ducks!
On the left a marsh harrier made a series of low level sorties, terrorising the large colonies of coot in the swamp. Each fly-by resulting in a cresendo of fluttering wings that gradually subsided as it passed by.
While I was shooting the redstart Raman Lal the rikshaw driver had gone on ahead and came back all excited. The female black-necked stork was now at the far end of the swamp and was feeding on a duck it had killed!
Taking a quick round of shots at this common chiffchaff we hurried down the road to the other end of the swamp. We could see the stork in the distance. It must have been at least 300-400 yards away.
We went down a narrow bund that cut across the swamp to try and get a closer look.
After walking a couple of hundred yards down the path, though significantly closer we were still quite a distance away from where I took the image below and a video (yet to be uploaded!). But it was well worth it! After thrashing it around for a while, the stork swallowed the entire duck, feathers and all! We suspect it will fly back to the nest and regurgitate it to feed the chick. ( The yellow eyes confirming the that this was a female are clearly visible here)
A white-tailed lapwing and a common snipe were bonuses!
Also got these two other birds (below) that strangely don’t seem to figure in my book on Indian Birds!!
Making our way back a bunch of spot-billed ducks made a pretty picture.
Here is a selection of images taken towards the end of the afternoon…
The header image (at the top of the page) was taken around this time. A large bunch of yellow footed green pigeons were feeding one what appeared to be deer droppings. We suspect that the droppings contained undigested seed that the deer inadvertently ate. Trust Mother Nature to take recycling to a whole new level!
The plan for today was to do a session out of the park and time permitting spend the rest of the day back in Keoladeo.
First stop: a dirty nalah (rainwater/sewage canal) in Bharatpur for water birds especially painted snipe. Got these images of a male and female.
The Ruff was a bonus.
Next we headed outside Bharatpur is search of the Indian Courser and the Yellow-wattled lapwing. It was mid December and the fields were full of flowering mustard crops. Got this beautiful image of a blue bull in the middle of one of them.
Indian coursers are superbly camouflaged and it was only thanks to Lokesh’s sharp eyes that we identified a field with about 15 -20 birds. These birds are shy and despite our efforts to get closer they kept their distance.
I did get some nice shots, but the image above was shot when we were back in the car. Yet again Lokesh’s eagle vision came to the fore, picking out an adjacent field that had both Indian Coursers and yellow-wattled lapwings. This were the closest that we ever got to them and since we were in the car they remained relaxed!
In the space of ten minutes I got both the images we came here for.
Walking through the fields we did see a number of other birds…
The wife and daughter had decided to give the field trip a skip. Instead they planned to lounge around the hotel, probably take in a massage and then head to the Park in the afternoon.
We met at the Bharatpur Ashok hotel within the park for lunch. The food was good and I definitely recommend it.
At lunch the ladies raved about a boat ride at the park they took before we met for the meal, on their insistence we headed for the small fibreglass boat operated by a boatman using a long bamboo pole to navigate between the trees and bushes in the shallow waters of the swamp.
The water is barely visible thanks to the thick vegetation that floats on its surface. At places the vegetation is replaced by large areas of pink algae that giving the scene a decidedly surreal feel. It was here that I got this beautiful image of a bluebull backlit by the setting sun.
One of the birds that is often seen on boat ride is the grey nightjar.
I was shooting a booted eagle perched on top of a bare tree when, from out of the blue another booted eagle swooped down forcing the former to fold its wings and duck for cover. By pure fluke, I managed to get this action shot of both birds in one frame!
These are some other images on the boat trip ( a trip that I highly recommend).
It was about 4pm by the time we got back on land.
A quick trip to the large swamp we had visited the previous day rewarded us with a very distant view of a dusky eagle owl. It was so far that I could barely see it with the naked eye and the light was fading rapidly. I must admit the shot below was only possible due to a combination of Raman Lal’s extremely sharp eyes and Canon’s excellent lens quality. I honestly don’t think I can take any credit for this one!
some more images in the last hour before it got dark.
Looking back Keoladeo National park and bird sanctuary was every bit it was hyped to be – and more! Much, much more!!
In two and a half days I shot over 13000 images.
We saw 122 species of birds of which, for me, 39 were lifers (birds that I had seen for the very first time).
In all I managed to record fairly good images of 82 species!
The icing on the cake was the fact that both my wife and daughter thoroughly enjoyed the trip despite the fact that they were not hard core birders.
Really, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my 60th birthday!