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Bounty of birds

N. SHIVA KUMAR
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WILDLIFE Bharatpur is not only a paradise for bird lovers, the place also has plenty of animals like sambhar deer, neelgai, antelopes, pythons and more

GAME OF PATIENCE A grey heron waiting to pounce on its prey in the cool waters
GAME OF PATIENCE A grey heron waiting to pounce on its prey in the cool waters

K eoladeo National Park is an exceptional World Heritage site located 200 kms from Delhi in the desert State of Rajasthan. It is more commonly called Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary but the locals simply utter the word Ghana, meaning dense forest. Until recently this hotspot used to be the Mecca for birdwatchers from across the world. Today this status has diminished a little even though the foreign tourist arrivals to India showed a remarkable increase of over five million in 2010. As an avid birdwatcher one can vouch that this 29-sq.km. is an ecological storehouse where drama in real life can be encountered at every turn you take, every move you make.

Apparently the blend of many marshlands, grasslands and woodlands of Bharatpur bird sanctuary seem to have a unique attraction to both Indian and foreign birds. An astounding 370-plus species of birds have been catalogued in this spectacular sanctuary. What is that attracts thousands of “bundles of feathers” and considered one of the best marshes for birds in the world? It is also described as “one of the most magical places for bird watching.” According to experts, it's the concoction of aquatic life in conjunction with moist earth that cultivates plenty of snails, tadpoles and frogs, beetles, crustaceans, molluscs and multitude of micro-organisms.

About 70 years ago fun with the gun was a pastime and on any given day 2000 to 4000 ducks were slaughtered in the name of sport. This figure was meagre when compared to the millions of ducks that converged in the lush wetlands of Bharatpur. Members of the royal family armed with shotguns took pot-shots at the flying ducks that arrived in the winter season from distant lands. While the birds came into tropical India to escape the bitter cold from the northern hemisphere, royal folk basking in the warm winter sun gleefully brought down the flying birds with rapid bullets. If that was not enough, many servants dutifully gathered dead ducks and assembled them in rows, not merely to be counted but also proudly posing for photographs. Duck shooting is a difficult sport but when the numbers are large any shot fired in the air was certain to bring down a few birds. This fun-fury unleashed in the bygone era is fortunately no more in vogue because killing wildlife is prohibited today.

This paradise for birds was declared a sanctuary in 1956, elevated to National Park in 1982 and finally declared as World Heritage Site in 1985. After the last sighting of the rare Siberian crane in 2004 in Bharatpur marshes, regular clientele from aboard who are accomplished ornithologists have stopped coming. It was a quirk of luck that one happened to photograph the last pair of Siberian cranes that visited India and now there are none. Come September and copious rain and water triggers nesting for resident birds. On a recent visit, herons, cormorants, egrets and storks were all competing for prime nesting sites. Open-bill storks and painted storks nesting close to each other caused constant bickering and it was a delight to see them quarrel. In the coming months, on show will be an assortment of performances in the process of building nests, mating, egg laying, brooding, hatching, feeding the young and finally the art of flying. The Bharatpur Bird Park heavily depends on sufficient supply of water for its flat patchwork of marshes artificially created in the 1850s.

This intricate water system is still maintained by a system of canals and dykes. Water is fed into the marshes twice a year from flood waters of the Gambir and Banganga rivers, which are impounded by a small dam called Ajan Bund.

However in recent times, the local farmers demanding more water have put the bird sanctuary in jeopardy. Inadequate monsoons have not helped the cause; hence there is paucity of water in some seasons. In September first week, ten solar systems worth Rs. one crore have started functioning with bore wells to pump out water and help fill the marshland with adequate water. Hopefully this will sustain the wonderful wetlands.

Late Salim Ali, the father of Indian ornithology, was happiest here in Bharatpur, amidst nature, making copious notes on bird behaviour. For those who are not aware, this is one of the world's best documented wetland ecosystems. Many species have been painstakingly studied by researchers for their ecological and morphological virtues to understand the magical mechanisms of nature at work. Though the sanctuary is mostly known for a variety of wild birds, there is also plenty of flora and fauna like sâmbhar deer, neelgai antelopes, large pythons, jackals, hyenas, mongooses etc.

Bharatpur bird sanctuary is the only natural reserve in the country where the maximum numbers of options are available to explore wildlife. Rambling or simply lingering in the sanctuary is exceptionally conducive both for the casual visitor and the keen observer. However one can hire a tonga, cycle rickshaw, a bicycle, a battery operated bus or even the official gypsy used by the field staff. Another unique way is to go in slow motion on the placid waters in a boat. The best way of course is just to amble and ramble at will with binoculars and cameras shooting birds.

Bharatpur is best visited from October to February when the weather is mild and accommodating.

N. SHIVA KUMAR

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