Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur is a haven for palaearctic migratory waterfowl birds and birders alike. With over 350 species in the 4 km long sanctuary, including rarities like the Siberian rubythroat, steppe eagle, and eastern imperial eagle, the sanctuary is a must for birders. It is so rich in avian diversity that many birders visit it every year in winter.
This year, we- that is, my mother, me, my brother, and two birder friends of ours visited Bharatpur in the nick of time. We visited it a week before all the migratory birds flew back to the north.
On the 21st of March, we set off at 6 in the morning. We had to drive halfway through the Taj Expressway, then through Mathura, a few cities of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, and finally reached Bharatpur at about 10 am. After checking in to our hotel, we called up our rickshaw- another specialty of Bharatpur. Instead of disturbing wildlife by using noisy jeeps, you could either cycle or hire a rickshaw. Walking wasn’t allowed as there were hyenas and jackals in the sanctuary too. It was an overcast day, but the clouds kept moving. After about an hour, we got sunshine. The sanctuary suddenly was a plethora of bird activity. Tiny scrub-land birds started to flit from bush to bush, raptors scattered the huge groups of shovelors, pintails, teals, and other waterfowl, while boars and chital (spotted deer) came to graze and bask in the sun.
After covering 2 km, we reached the Keoladeo temple, after which the park was named. Here there was a little garden where we had lunch, which we had packed and brought from the hotel. This was also where the ‘bird monument’ of bharatpur, as I like to call it, was perched. At any given moment of the afternoon and late evening, the oriental darter could be seen with his wings outspread, drying his feathers.
After having lunch, we moved forward and saw black bitterns, dusky eagle owls, and more waterfowl, until, we reached a quieter spot, where less tourists and birders were present. This was 3 km into the sanctuary, and the sky was orangish ans dusk was approaching. The wetland had several cows, but waterfowl continued to swim around, not scared of the massive beast. But there were other creatures to be scared of. About a 100 metres away, a Western Marsh Harrier rose out of the grassland, and shrieked loudly. The waterfowl, till now peaceful, made a massive noise as they flew away, their wings flapping loudly. As we moved ahead, 2 steppe eagles flew past each other, then finally settled face to face on a mound, face to face. But before I could click a picture, one of them flew away. Just as we were moving away, a loud trumpeting noise was heard, and two huge birds flew above us and settled not too far from the lone eagle. These were sarus cranes, the largest flying birds in the world.
They first groomed each other, then performed a little dance, called the clarion call. By now we had almost reached the end of the sanctuary. Sunset was fast approaching, and the gates were going to close, so we turned around started moving out. Around a kilometre form the entrance, we reached the ‘sunset point.’ A pied kingfisher was perched on a piece of wood just a few inches way form the sun. I ducked down as much as I could and clicked a picture in which the kingfisher was just touching the sun. But a crowd was accumulating and we moved away. Just about 500 metres away from the entrance a chital stag and doe raised their heads in alarm, as the rhesus macaques leapt up into the tree-tops. And then we spotted him- a lone golden jackal, making his way through the tall grass. But he quickly moved away, and the macaques got back into their antics. A small group was drinking water from a puddle, while others were chasing each other. After observing them for a while, we moved out of the sanctuary.
The next day dawned bright and clear, which was a relief, considering that the previous day was overcast and dark. Our only aim for the day was seeing the Siberian rubythroat. Being the rarest bird of Bharatpur, it was exciting just to wait and watch an empty bush. But we did get impatient, and the guide-cum-rickshaw driver told us to go and watch the bush from the other side. Here, we saw a bluethroat hop into the bushes. But, a few minutes later, my mother showed me a small dull-coloured bird hop into the very bushes which we were observing earlier. Within a few seconds, our rickshaw driver came running and whispered one word ‘Rubythroat!!’ we rushed to the other side, and out he came! A beautiful male with the bright crimson breast. I somehow managed a picture while it stood still on the ground, which was a good thing, because it never gave another opportunity. It flitted form twig to twig, so much that the birders with big, heavy cameras could not manage even a single record shot.
After this, we moved ahead for just half an hour as we had to leave that very day. We saw three cute cuddling owlets, a mother and baby macaque, and a few babblers and sparrows. Though short, the trip was fruitful and extremely satisfying.