Delhi to Bharatpur: Flights of fancy

Birdwatching in a Unesco-listed sanctuary


The national park. Photographs by Charukesi Ramadurai
The national park. Photographs by Charukesi Ramadurai

After a taste of Delhi’s fog and fumes, I could bear it no longer. Winter was at hand, the year was drawing to a close. I knew I wanted to bid adieu to the year in my own way, under the open skies.

As always, the Google gods came to my rescue, pointing out that Bharatpur was within easy driving distance of where I lived, and that it was the season for migratory birds from the northern regions to make their way to this small town in Rajasthan.

So, my husband and I set off towards Bharatpur. Officially known as the Keoladeo National Park, it’s a rare natural Unesco-listed heritage site in a state where only historical and architectural monuments enjoy this elite status.

This national park was once the hunting preserve of local kings. It was declared a sanctuary in 1956, but hunting went on uninterrupted till 1972.

Till now, over 360 avian species have been recorded in this park, spread over 29 sq. km. The season promised delights like the Siberian Crane, spoonbills, pelicans and storks, but Bharatpur is a birdwatcher’s paradise at any time of the year.

A Spotted Owlet.
A Spotted Owlet.

It was late afternoon by the time we checked in at The Birder’s Inn, practically next door to the national park. And although we were itching to head out to the forest, common sense (and the fast-fading sunlight) dictated that we rest and head out early in the morning.

The minute we stepped out of the hotel the next morning, even before the sun had risen, we were approached by a cycle-rickshawwalla. Despite a dozen waiting outside the hotel, there was no pushing and shoving, since it was Raghubir Singh’s turn. Here, the rickshawwallas usually double up as guides, since they have been going into the woods for decades and know virtually every leaf and branch.

The sun was just coming up as we crossed the main gates, and our first sighting was that of a couple of peacocks silhouetted against the golden light of dawn. Within minutes, Singh had pointed out Rose-ringed Parakeets, a Spotted Owlet peeping out from a tree trunk, a dozen Green Bee-eaters feasting on a hive, a plump magpie robin, a Black-rumped Flameback Woodpecker busy at work, and a gorgeous Purple Sunbird glistening in that mellow morning light.

A Black-rumped Flameback Woodpecker.
A Black-rumped Flameback Woodpecker.

Painted Storks, ibises, Ruddy Shelducks, darters, Northern Shovelers and many more casually posed for us along the ponds and lakes. The show-stoppers, of course, were the winter birds—and there were dozens of them in the small water bodies scattered across the park. If we were fascinated by the abundance of birdlife, we were even more amazed by the ease with which Singh spotted, identified and described each species.

Singh had promised us a sight of the Siberian Rubythroat, which routinely nested in a dense tree in a lane leading off the main dirt path. Knowing that birdwatching requires some patience (and luck), we settled down on a fallen tree branch. But just about 20 minutes later, we had begun to get restless.

Sensing our mood, Singh took us towards a pond at one end of the woods, smiling mysteriously, “I have a surprise for you.” And there they were, right in the middle of the pond—a couple of Sarus Cranes, the world’s tallest flying birds, flapping their wings and performing an elegant ballet.

Indians hold the Sarus Cranes to be symbols of marital fidelity, given that they mate for life and bond with their partners to such an extent that if one dies, the other is said to pine to death. As a sucker for romantic stories, I left the forest smiling, hoping Singh would be able to keep his promise of showing us the Siberian Rubythroat the next time.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @charukesi.

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