BHARATPUR It’s that time of year when we should be flocking together with birds of a feather

Getting up early on a cold, foggy winter morning is tough. But not when you are in Bharatpur. The sheer anticipation of getting glimpses of rare birds can fill the air with excitement. So it was for me. Incidentally, my interest in birds is fairly recent. And once I fell in love, Bharatpur was my dream destination.

When my family and I reached the gates of the sanctuary, it was well past 8 am but still quite foggy. A group of rickshaw pullers were keeping themselves warm around a small fire. The parking lot was almost empty and it seemed like we were among the first ones to brave the cold. We bought tickets and hired Harish, a guide, and a rickshaw pulled by the tall, stoic Ramprasad.

Harish started telling us about the park. Bharatpur in Rajasthan was founded in 1733 by Maharaja Suraj Mal. The site of the present sanctuary used to be a duck shooting resort during the British Raj. It was declared a bird reserve in 1956 and upgraded to Keoladeo Ghana National Park in 1981. The park is listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO. One-third of the total area of 29 sq. km is wetland but some parts are quite arid, making the flora of the park strikingly diverse. Harish told us that there are over 350 bird species that are either resident or visitors here.

As a couple of foreign tourists rode past us on a bicycle, we spotted a green pigeon, a spotted owlet, a drongo and a few other common species. Without the trained eyes of our guide, we would have missed many of them. As we rode along, the arid landscape gave way to dense vegetation and shallow waters on both sides of the road. A wonderful scene unfolded — an amazing range of water birds appeared all around, each busy searching for its breakfast in the shallow waters. There were purple, grey, and pond herons, great and median egrets, cormorants, oriental white ibis, spot-billed ducks, moorhen, shovellers, and coots.

From then on, it was almost like a well-choreographed, non-stop Broadway show. No wonder this place is called bird paradise. We were lucky that the fog cleared soon, and bright sunlight flooded the park. Over a hundred painted storks and their two-month old babies (already quite big!) sat around and decorated tree-tops and little islets with their presence. Snake birds dived into the lake and reappeared elsewhere, only their snake-like necks and heads seen over the water surface. A flock of purple swamp-hen perched on a tree made disgruntled sounds as we stopped by. Twenty-odd great white pelicans flew towards us in unison and settled down closer as if to give us a better view. We had not been sure if we would catch sight of these migratory birds; therefore, the air show was a joyous bonus. We also got to see the glossy ibis, Brahminy shelducks, black redstarts and bay-backed shrikes among others. Harish showed us glimpses of a Sarus crane playing hide-and-seek a long way away. The tallest of the flying birds, its height up to 1.8 metres, it is considered sacred and mentioned even in the Vedas.

The park is also home to a number of animals and reptiles. We saw antelopes, deer and Nilgai. We went in search of pythons in an area called ‘python point’, but they remained elusive, probably watching us from the bushes instead.

I would highly recommend exploring parts of the park in a row boat, a facility that started again this year after a dedicated pipeline from river Yamuna solved the water shortage problem. This was an absolutely meditative experience, in the backdrop of a glowing afternoon sun, and clean, still water all around us. Herons and egrets fished meditatively in the calm waters.

The setting sun and the cold winter breeze reminded us that it was time to leave. A red-wattled lapwing and a common hoopoe waited for us at the gate to say goodbye. When we returned, we realised that we had spotted over 60 species of birds through the day, several of them migratory from Europe and Central Asia.

HOW TO GET THERE

Bharatpur is approximately 3 hours (180 km) from Delhi on excellent roads; and 53 km from Agra on the Agra-Jaipur highway.

WHERE TO STAY

Within 3 km of the park, you have several options. The Bagh Resort is high-end (Rs. 8,000 per night upwards) while Surya Vilas Palace is a good new hotel (Rs. 3,000 upwards). If you want to stay inside the park, try Hotel Bharatpur Ashok (INR 4,000 upwards).

WHEN TO VISIT

November to March.

BEST VIEWING

Early mornings and dusks.

TRAVEL TIPS

Bicycles are a great idea, but rickshaws are convenient if you have young children or the elderly with you. Carry your binoculars. You can hire these at the park as well. Also, pack a copy of The Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali, and of course, warm clothes during winter and early spring. The park gets chilly at dawn and dusk. Pack some sandwiches and picnic in the park, admiring the antics of the birds.