Bharatpur. A birder’s myth. Vast expanses of water, home to thousands of birds fleeing winter, and some more thousand staying there all year round.
Even before thinking of this trip to India, I talked with a friend about this place, one of the last winter refuges for Siberian cranes (Leucogeranus leucogeranus). Alas, victim of hunting and habitat destruction, these majestic white birds haven’t been seen in India since 2002. Sad as it is, I knew there would still be birds there.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park is the official name of the place nowadays. It’s an artificial wetland next to the city of Bharatpur, built in the 18th century and formerly used as a hunting ground by the local Maharaja. It protects the surrounding land from flooding, and provides the necessary water for life to thrive. The area was protected as a bird sanctuary in 1976, and as a national park in 1982.
I didn’t really know what I would find there. I had barely prepared this Indian expedition, too occupied with my peregrinations half a world away. I just wanted to see birds, and make pictures.
The morning was cold, and people had lit wood fires by the road to warm themselves. From the hotel, we walked to the entrance of the national park, paid our fee and went in. Drowned in mist, the trees pointed skeletal fingers towards the sky, and Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus) used these as perches.
We were not alone, and many visitors had cameras in hand. Wherever they stopped, we stopped, and thus we saw these three lovely Spotted owlets (Athene brama) huddling together on a branch. They were not younglings, but adults, sharing a tree. There, by the main path, so close to the entrance, they were rock stars.
The land we crossed at first was dry, and among the bushes, jackals and deers ran, playing hide and seek with us. Then we came upon a troop of monkeys.
We had already seen some Rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) in Agra, in the fort and around the Taj Mahal, had admired their agility, had wondered about their “humanity”. There, in the low trees, they ate like humans and they scratched like humans. The expressions on their faces were a delight: shock, contemplation, focus… all was there, it felt like looking into a mirror.
Birds sometimes show some personality, but these monkeys simply took it to another level. It was a revelation.
Then we passed another checkpoint (Indians love controls of all sorts), and entered the heart of the park, where the track crossed large bodies of water. Birds abounded there, but by that time, light was rather poor for photography. Still, when an Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) perched on a stick in the open, I shot. When I spotted a Shikra (Accipiter badius) two meters away in the bushes, I shot.
After several hours of walking and many new species on our list, we were back at the hotel for lunch. For the evening, we had booked two rickshaws, or bike-taxis. The drivers, trained by the park, knew a fair bit about the birds, and we saw things we would have missed had we gone alone again: an Indian python (Python molurus), a Dusky eagle-owl (Bubo coromandus) on its nest were just a few examples. Somehow, our guides really wanted to show off their knowledge, and the two of them seemingly competed, sometimes saying the same things just a few seconds apart. They also knew some bird names in French, and truly thought they knew better than me. When I told them that Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) is “héron cendré” (ashy heron, literally) and not “héron gris” (grey heron), they didn’t believe me. You’ll tell me the difference between ashy and grey is insignificant, and I certainly understood what they were talking about when they said “héron gris”, but when they wanted me to accept that “héron cendré” was the Purple heron (Ardea purpurea, “héron pourpré” in French), we had a problem 😉 Ash and purple, now that’s not the same thing. I kinda won this battle, but I still don’t think they believed me 😀
They were lovely people nonetheless, funny and friendly, and motivated to show us as many birds as we could, while still leaving us time to enjoy them and photograph them.
We ended the day with flying foxes hanging upside down in palm trees and the fiery sun setting in the distance.
Our time was short, but we still had time for another rickshaw excursion in the morning, with one of the guides from the day before. Actually, he took us to a track where only pedestrians could go, and I walked it with my two brothers for one and a half hour. The sun gently pierced the mist, a Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) crossed the pond, an Oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster) dried its wing at the top of a dead branch. It was quiet and relaxing, a world away from the frenzy that would come later, in this period of local holidays.
On the way back, we greeted the three owlets, then left to the Pink City of Jaipur.
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