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A day out with the birds

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Winged beauties At the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur
Winged beauties At the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur

An early morning trip to the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary can throw up interesting sights

I felt like a fool. Here I was on the Jaipur–Agra road armed with a very accurate map book, and yet I had missed the entrance to the Keoladeo Ghana National Park and Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur. I was educated in the English language and I could read directional signboards and yet, I had overshot the gate.

Migratory birds all the way from the Russian Steppes, Central Asia and other places over the world found the Park effortlessly. Not only did they find it, but also their favourite roost on their preferred tree. And, here I’d started from Jaipur, less than 200 km away, and I had to ask for directions. I didn’t even deserve being called a birdbrain.

Luckily, on that cold winter evening. I found some local farmers crouching around a fire, warming their hands and talking crops and cattle. They were kind enough to give me directions to the gate as well as to my hotel.

A small Rajasthani town, Bharatpur has its share of heavily ornamented women dressed in vivid colours and majestically turbaned men with immaculately groomed moustaches. Their livestock saunter across the roads without a single iota of fear that they might get run over and end up as the chops in someone’s dinner gravy. There are decorated camels pulling carts at a seemingly lethargic pace that they can keep up for an entire day without rest. Though all this adds to the charm of the little town of Bharatpur, the real reason anyone ever comes here is the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary.

Birds galore

The Park has the densest population of birds within its 29-sq km, with 120 species of Indian birds. These are joined by a further 130 species of migratory birds who come visiting in October and leave in March, some arriving from as far as St. Petersburg and Turkey.

If there’s one place that could be termed as a birdwatcher’s paradise in India, this is it. Unfortunately, the rains haven’t been that benevolent recently and the canal where you could once take a boat into the wetlands has all but dried up. Water pumps pull out water from the ground and hydrate some areas where the birds continue to flock. I drove into the park for a km till the second gate, where I hired a cycle and set off.

Yet again, I was reminded about how advantageous it is to be one of the first visitors of the day. Hardly had I started pedalling than I came upon a group of jackals gambolling on the road. They jumped up and ran into the forest on seeing me. I was repenting not having my camera out and ready when, overhead, I heard a gaggle of ducks, quacking away. Losing height by the second, they came into land like a group of cargo planes on the water hole bordering the road.

Away from the ducks, and towards me, a Eurasian thicknee was scouting the marshy banks with deliberate steps, looking for grubs. On a branch above me, a parakeet was shrilly letting out whistle after whistle because I was denying it the attention that its splendid green colour and bright red beak (that would put even the reddest sun-ripened Nagaur chilly to shame) demanded.

Kingfishers made a spectacular sight of rich cobalt blue and red as they sat attentively over the swamp, only to dive in, in a flash, for a titbit.

A little distance away, a snakebird was sitting on the tree with its wings spread wide as if it was taking a bow. This bird spends half an hour foraging in the water and then perches on a tree in this position to dry its wings. I spent about four hours walking and cycling around the park before the sun was too high and hot. The birds had retired into the shadiness of the tree top roosts and I returned the cycle and started off towards Agra.

RISHAD SAAM MEHTA

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