Keoladeo National Park, formerly known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary is in the state of Rajashtan and is home to more than 375 species of residential and migratory birds. The more than 7000 acres national park is divided into 18 zones that can be explored using various transportation options. The majority of the tourists hire cycle rickshaws, while still others prefer to cycle, and some die-hard bird enthusiasts like my husband choose to walk.
Bharatpur National Park History
If you are a bird watcher, then a visit to Bharatpur in Rajasthan is mandatory, where your eyes can feast on both wetland birds as well as land birds. Maharaja Suraj Mal created the wetland/bund between 1726–1763 on the confluence of two rivers- Gambhir and Banganga. It was a royal hunting reserve for kings and the British. The Birdman of India, Dr. Salim Ali, was instrumental in establishing the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary.
It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The word ‘Keoladeo’ is got from the name of a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva located inside the park. The word ‘Ghana’ means dense signifying the forests and green cover.
Arriving in Bharatpur
After visiting Fatehpur Sikri, we arrive at Bharatpur around the afternoon and check into our hotel. Rafiq calls up his guide, who confirms that morning is the best time to explore the National Park when both smaller birds and wetland birds can be seen. Since the sun sets early, it didn’t make sense to visit the park in the evening. He suggests we visit a place close to the highway near the park. Some of the aquatic birds have nestled here in a departure from usual.
The Saga of Birds
We grab our lunch and head to the chosen location, a stone’s throw away from the busy highway, and are surprised to see thousands of water birds. This year the water levels in the National Park are higher, so some of the birds have nested at a shallow water body outside the National Park. We watch Cormorants basking in the sun; Purple Swamphens are wading through the water; Black-headed Ibis, Asian Open-billed Storks, and Grey and Purple Herons have built nests in the trees and shrubs. Eurasian Spoonbills are feeding their chicks. Surprisingly Spoonbills weren’t seen in the park the next day. We observe with rapt attention as the saga of birds unfolds in front of us. The sun is now at the horizon as Rafiq tries to capture a silhouette of these water beauties with the flaming orange setting sun in the background.
All Set to Explore
The following day, we rise early and are ready with cameras and binoculars to explore the National Park. We meet our guide Gajendra Singh who has promised to take Rafiq on a walking tour to see smaller land birds that come out to feed early. My son and I know that this walk will be long and tedious, although fulfilling, but we choose to hop on a rickshaw instead. Our rickshawala Phool Singh Lali is well trained and promises to do a good job.
It’s cold and misty as we all begin exploring the park on foot first. Within minutes we see the Indian Grey Hornbill with an obvious casque or horny helmet above its bill. In quick succession, Gajendra points to White-cheeked Bulbuls, a flock of Yellow-footed Green Pigeons, Common Hawk-Cuckoo (or Brain Fever), and Brahminy Starlings and shares tidbits about them.
We part ways, with Rafiq and Gajendra choosing to walk on narrow, dense tracks, and my son and I prefer a rickshaw ride on the main treks of the park. We see a couple of Peahens prancing on a shrub. Soon we are near the wetland, and Lali stops the rickshaw, and we get down. Like the previous evening, we see thousands of freshwater birds perched and nested on trees in the water.
We can’t stop gazing at the magnificent Painted Storks that get their name from the distinct pink tertial feathers some feeding their young ones, some flying and carrying nest material, some relaxing, and some even mating (though late for this season as per Gajendra). The Painted Storks get their name due to their pink feathers as they eat an ample amount of carotenoid-filled food, like fish. An orangish red pigment found in this food (beta carotenoid) results in the bright pink feathers of these birds.
Common Coots, Grey Herons, Purple Herons, Cormorants, Egrets, Purple Swamphens, Asian Open-billed Storks, Black-necked Stork are all staging a performance for us. Some are wading in the water; others are preening their feathers, a mother feeding the young ones as the father keeps a watchful eye. “Look at my wings! Watch me dive. Observe how I build the nest.” It’s as if the birds are having a conversation. Some prefer being alone and motionless, making one wonder if they are contemplating or in a meditative trance. While others are in groups fighting, hunting, dancing, or basking (sunning) in the morning sun.
Animals and Reptiles
We get distracted by a squirrel, some noisy Jungle Babblers, and White-breasted Waterhens on the ground. They have a brawl for some grains that brings a smile to our faces. Unlike other locations where one needs to search for birds, at Bharatpur, it’s not the case. Not just birds, the Bharatpur National Park has several animals and reptiles like Spotted deer, Nilgai, monkeys, Monitor lizards, and scorpions.
Canals and Watchtowers
The park has several canals or ‘moris‘, which have unique names like ‘Sapan Mori’ where water snakes are spotted, ‘Bhoot Mori’ where ghosts have been spotted, explains Phool Singh. (Yes, you read that right). Many of these tales are folklores, and how much of it is true is anybody’s guess. Strategically placed watchtowers provide an aerial view of the National Park, and we decide to go on top of one. Bats hang upside down on neighbouring trees, parakeets are screeching, and a graceful Oriental Darter or Snakebird catches a fish.
Hoopoes and Kingfishers
As we walk back to the rickshaw, we see a Common Hoopoe with a crown looking for some worms on the ground. Several varieties of Kingfishers are also spotted, like the White-throated Kingfisher, the Common Kingfisher, which Phool Singh describes as the ‘Vijay Mallya one’ as it was the logo of Kingfisher Airlines. Rafiq even spotted the Pied Kingfisher, which we had last spotted in Jim Corbett.
A Marathon Bird Watching Session
It’s nearly four hours since we entered the park, and call it a day. We visit the souvenir shop and decide to explore the Bharatpur Museum and Fort. But Rafiq is on a marathon bird-watching session. He calls and excitedly narrates his experience of seeing several birds including Greenish Warblers, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Bluethroat, Grey Francolin, Spotted Owlet, Bay-backed Shrike, Common Woodshrike.
Among the common birds spotted are Prinias, Wagtails, Munias, Drongos, different kinds of Doves, Magpie Robins, Black-rumped Flameback Woodpecker, Brown-headed Barbets, Rose-ringed Parakeets to name a few.
The National Park has a fair share of predator birds or birds of prey. They were lucky to spot Black-shouldered Kite, Booted Eagle, Eurasian Hobby, Eurasian Marsh, Greater Spotted Eagle.
Gajendra has taken him to a walking trail away from the main trek and asks him to be silent. He then gestures and points to a pile of dried leaves inside which a Long-tailed Nightjar is camouflaged. It is hard to spot it, and one needs to be patient and have a discerning eye. Talking about camouflaged birds they later spotted Jungle Nightjar and Indian Scops Owl too.
It’s now six hours, and finally, Rafiq and Gajendra finish the trek. They are pleased to have seen or clicked and documented 84 different species of birds! But they still haven’t spotted the Sarus Crane. Most avid bird watchers and guides have been asking each other, “Did you see it?” Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary is famous for the Sarus Crane bird.
In Search of the Sarus Cranes
Not to give up, they decide to eat lunch and head on a motorbike to a small village ahead of Rupbas 38 km from Bharatpur. A kachchi sadak (dirt road) takes them into fields, but they don’t spot any. Gajendra asks Rafiq to hang around as he speaks to the locals, who direct him to a field where they were last seen.
They walk through the fields for almost half an hour and spot a family of parents with young ones. All that patience and hard work have finally paid off when they spot the beauties. Without disturbing the family of cranes, they admire them and take some long shots. These cranes are the tallest storks and, once frequently found in the National Park, are slowly becoming rarer. While searching for the elusive birds, they end up spotting several Scaly-breasted Munias, Tricoloured Munias, Silverbills, Pied Bushchats, and Egrets on these fields, including Red Avadavat.
Bharatpur- A Haven for Birds
Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary is definitely worth visiting as it’s a haven for birds and is on the bucket list of every birdwatcher and wildlife enthusiast. Considering that it is just a couple of kilometers away from Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, you can easily cover it should you decide to visit the Taj in Agra as we did. The flora and fauna and natural beauty will leave you spellbound and craving for more. It was refreshing to be able to visit the park and see the avian beauty post Covid lockdown. Also, every time we went to Bhigwan Bird Sanctuary or Dr. Salim Bird Sanctuary Pune Rafiq would mention his dream to travel to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. I am happy for him, we could finally visit Bharatpur.
Additional Information about Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary
Nearest Airport: Delhi
Distances: Delhi to Bharatpur distance is 220 km (4 hours by road via Taj/Yamuna Expressway) and Agra to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary distance is 56km. Bharatpur to Deeg distance is 35 km (1 hour by road), Agra to Bharatpur distance: 56km (1 hour by road), Fatehpur Sikri to Bharatpur distance: 23 km (1/2 hour)
Accommodation in Bharatpur: From Forest lodges to hotels for every budget are available in Bharatpur. The best resorts in Bharatpur are The Bagh, Laxmi Vilas Palace, and Udai Vilas Palace. Experience Bird watcher prefers The Birder’s Inn or Hotel Sunbird as it’s near to Bird Sanctuary and these resorts understand their customer’s requests and requirements.
Latest Timing and Latest Entry fee: 6 am – 7 pm (Summers) | 6.30 am – 6 pm (Winters). The entry fee is INR 111/- for Indians and INR 691/- for foreigners.
Best time to visit Bharatpur: The best time to visit Bharatpur Bird sanctuary is October to March.
Contact details: Guide Gajendra Singh- 9982535015, Rickshaw Puller Phool Singh Lali- 9588901604
Official Website: https://www.tourism.rajasthan.gov.in/keoladeo-ghana-national-park.html
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