The Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur is my favourite national park in India and I have been to almost all the big national parks in the country. So forgive me if this post gets too indulgent!! My love for Bharatpur is not because of the big animals you see there, even though there are plenty of deer, nilgai, boars, monkeys and jackals in the park. Its because of the sheer variety of birds found in this minuscule national park and the unique cycle rickshaw system which limits noise in the park and makes it very conducive for bird photography.
This is my fourth visit to this wonderful place and I hope that I will get the chance to go back there again in the future. Bharatpur is a short drive away from Agra (60 km) and as we were attending a conference in Agra, I couldn’t let the opportunity to go to Bharatpur at the end of the migration season slip by.
We were a group of 4 Plastic Surgeons all enthusiastic about bird watching. We left Agra early and reached Bharatpur before it got too hot. We had booked our stay at the Bharatpur Ashok, which is the only option of staying in the park itself. This ages old government run hotel has been stuck in a rut for quite some time now, but the excellent location, courteous service and delicious food make up for the tired looking rooms. This was my third time staying at the Ashok and things are slowly starting to look up, I hope to see revamped rooms when I get there next time.
We left our luggage and straight away hired rickshaws for a few hours of birding before lunch. February end is the right time to visit Bharatpur for photography as there is none of the fog which makes photography very tough in January and early February even though the birdlife is more concentrated then. It was a clear sunny day and I was hoping to get some good photos.
Before we entered we did our customary visit to see the spotted owlets just outside the park. We have seen the birds each time I have visited and they didn’t disappoint this time too. But this time we saw more of them at unexpected locations later ( More on this in my second post on Bharatpur)
As we entered we first saw the usual suspects, grey and purple herons fishing in the placid waters just besides the road. These birds can maintain position for hours and wait for fish to arrive before they pluck them out of the water. Me and my friend fired our cameras away.
Next we came to flocks of ducks of a huge variety. There were huge flocks of Common coots swimming around. The plain looking black birds look pretty against the bright green mossy waters. ( Featured Image) .Pairs of Spot billed ducks were behaving like synchronised swimmers. Migrants like Northern Pintail ducks and Northern Shovellers spending their last few days in the country before flying back to cooler climes when summer descends on India. It was a feast for the eyes to see so many species in such a short time. I have always run out of storage space on my camera in Bharatpur but this time I had come prepared with two 32 gb cards in my D7100.
Bharatpur is not a big park by national park standards but you can easily spend 2-3 days here provided you enjoy the feathered company. We had 2 days which is the minimum this park deserves. I have seen people come for day trips in the afternoon which is a waste of time as most waterbirds are deep inside the waterbodies at that time.
As we moved on ahead we saw the huge number of painted storks that call this national park home. The heronries were threatened a few years back when a birdbrained idea ( how ironic!!) to make a new path close to the breeding grounds was initiated. The birds promptly abandoned their young and flew away that year!! Fortunately the plan was abandoned and the birds are back.
Some birds always have the habit of evading your camera, with me and my friend two such birds have been the white breasted water hen and the pied kingfisher. The waterhen always manages to scurry off before we get a decent photo. Well not this time!!
The more common birds seen in the park include the lesser and the greater cormorants which are seen here in huge numbers. The greater cormorant is much bigger and has a bright patch at the base of its beak and looks magnificent in the sun with its feathers shining after a swim.
As it got close to lunch and stomachs started to rumble we came onto a Indian roller sitting on a perch. We waited for it to fly as rollers have the most amazingly colourful wings. We had the best of luck as the roller flew and returned to its perch three times giving us ample chance of getting a few photos of its magnificent colours.
We returned to the hotel for lunch which was hot and delicious. Even though we were tired, me and my friend set off immediately after lunch to resume our birding. As we entered the park in the bright afternoon sun we were greeted by a jackal which had come to get a drink but was put off by our presence and decided to postpone its drink and walk away into the forest.
Me and my friend both have a special place in our hearts for Sarus Cranes. We have gone to a decrepit park called Nawabganj close to Lucknow just to photograph them. We had never managed to see Sarus from close quarters in Bharatpur. When we heard that a pair of Sarus were wading close to the road at a particular place we asked of rickshawwala to rush there.
As we were turning off to the road which led to the place where the cranes were seen I saw something close to the road and asked the driver to stop. It was a open billed stork so close that I actually had to move away to get him in the frame. It didn’t pay any attention to us and continued its lunch.
We soon said bye to the stork and went to see the Cranes. Thankfully they were still there and hadn’t flown off. The red headed Sarus Cranes are huge graceful birds who are always seen in pairs. This pair was searching for lunch and we sat down and took a gazillion photos of them. We spent close to an hour with the birds before leaving them to enjoy their lunch in peace.
It was time to head back as we had reached the distal most limit of the park till where tourists are allowed. In the day we had seen spotted eagles and crested serpent eagles on their perch in the distance and harriers flying over marshes. But they were a bit too far for the 300mm. Luckily on the way back we saw both of these at manageable distances and got decent photos.
We were satisfied with the days birding and met our two companions who had left the hotel much later than us and started our way back to the hotel. On the way back we were discussing how the pied kingfisher keeps teasing us by not giving us a better shot. Little did we know that the wish would be fulfilled in grand fashion the next day.
But that along with our second days birding and more bird photos is topic for another post, as this is too long already.