The grey clouds hung low with an early morning rain threatened to douse the meeting that lay ahead with our feathered friends. The morning chill cut through the window as we steered the Swift towards the gate of the biggest bird sanctuary of India. The sun had already spread its muffled light over the horizon.
After parking, we headed to get the entry tickets. We found a couple of modes of transport that were on offer – cycle rickshaw, bicycle, or a horse-drawn two-wheeled carriage. In extreme cases, an electric vehicle. All chosen carefully, not to create sound and scare the birds away.
Braving the cold air, we entered the sanctuary with many tourists with one objective – to see the birds.
Learning about the birds, the night before by browsing books on Indian and migratory birds would be put to the ultimate test when we see the winged visitors.
Can we identify them? We headed deep into the swamps.
A singular fifteen feet wide road stretched in front of us, with trees and water bodies, on either side. It was eleven kilometers long. We hoped to cover as much of the twenty-nine square kilometers of swampy grasslands.
A penetrating cry rang out and our first bird was sighted, a full-grown peacock atop an administrative building. Rajasthan has them like you see cawing crows in Kolkata.
Luckily the sun started to emerge with its golden hues dispersing the grey clouds that overcast the sky.
We looked around and saw a tree, devoid of foliage stood over the bushes around us. Usually, these dry high branches attract birds of prey and we were able to see a big, black visitor. It was menacing and the hooked beak spoke about the power of its owner.
We ran with soft feet and aimed the camera at the blackish grey tree yonder.
Chirping sounds which were quite mixed surrounded us. Small undergrowth which ran all along the road, with trees and plants not more than three to four feet from the ground seemed to be the home for very small birds.
Few of them even landed on the rain-washed road.
Suddenly, it seemed we were amidst a huge cauldron of small to medium-sized birds as the day progressed, with the rain cooling the heat off to a certain extent.
Everyone looked up as we trained our lens and heard a cacophony of sound coming down entwined branches. All of them vying for attention from their mates to have a field day of their own.
We had landed right in the middle of a mating season.
We had a visual treat of most boisterous to perfect calm natured birds. The variety seemed endless.
A light breeze brought with it, the mixed smell of flowers and we saw tiny birds, and they moved so much from leaves to the flowers, aiming and taking a shot became difficult.
Nevertheless, we pressed on.
Catching the small birds on the picture posed a huge challenge for the bulky cameras. So, we stepped back to get a better shot. Few were quite friendly and patiently stood for us.
With legs apart, doing all acrobatics, we got few shots of these tiny birds. They were a whirlwind of flying.
We moved along the road, once on the rickshaw and sometimes walking. Ears peeled to catch bird chirping.
Birds of all shapes and started pouring in. Far away we could see the broken edges of the landmass that had got encroached by the lake water.
The birds were accustomed to the visitors and few sprinkled biscuit bits and that attracted few of them. Loads of tiny bird bumped in.
Not far away we saw a pair of Raven in courtship act. The black coat of its feather was glossy and they looked quite calm, given their size.
Camera angled up, we trundled along the asphalted road when a white-breasted water hen emerged over the algae-covered swamp water and hurriedly crossed our path.
After about three kilometers of travel, we came across a check post where the road bifurcated. We kept our direction straight as the national park deepened.
The road came closer to the marshy land and we figured out that more water birds could be seen. Surprises were plenty. From a distance, all water birds look almost the same. It takes good practice and knowledge to differentiate.
The land on the left was a perfect hiding place for numerous organisms. Tree roots, branches, dead tree trunks had all formed a knot and few narrow branches shot from the water body presenting more species.
Kingfishers were plenty and darted so quick that their prey had no chance at all. The quick movement on our part was the call of the day.
Kingfishers were terribly fast, its focus and attack, and catching the prey all took place within a fraction of a second. Interestingly, they came back to the same spot from where they made the dive. Very unique.
A large area covered with tall trees unrolled itself in front. Birds of every description swam.
The western sun flashing vivid colors as the birds jostled about to stash up as much food they could grab for the night ahead.
We seemed to have completed our catch as far as small birds were concerned as we could see a change coming our way. About fifty meters away on either side of the road, the water body and large ground met. Few uneven mounds of algae-covered patches were distinctly visible.
As we focused hard, we saw a variety of big birds pushing through the undergrowth.
The branches had broken off at places, they had fallen at will. Grayish green plants of all descriptions grew on them. Millions of organisms thrived and attracted all these birds across the globe.
Now came the most elegant, and big water birds. They looked beautiful, both in flight and while swimming. Riotous color could be seen everywhere.
The flatter ground gave way to undulations with pockets of water with shrubs covering. More dabbling ducks rushed into them as they shrugged off excess water with a vigorous jerk.
Behind us, we heard a patting sound in the water and turned to see a big white bird with a flattened long beak wanted to dislodge perhaps snails, or small snakes.
The watch showed high noon or perhaps a bit late. Had it been summer, we would have been toasted but being winter, it was very cool and pleasant.
It was time to take a break so we descended on a nearby stone bench and ordered coffee as we were on our feet for now close to three hours and forty-five minutes.
Regaining strength, we made our journey further south into the park.
The water was made stagnant by earthen dikes which held the water for long enough for the algae and other organisms to grow.
The freshwater was made to rush into the low lands from the nearby Ajan Bund, Goverdhan drain and Chambal-Dholpur drinking water project.
We did see a few sluice gates which controlled the water flow when we were driving to the Bharatpur town.
The water present in this park will slowly dry up when the summer heat soared leaving the flora parched.
The floral diversity that we saw came from the Punjab plains biotic province of the semi-arid biogeographical zone, part of the Indus-Yamuna watershed. Large stretches of land were covered with Paspalum distichum (also known as knot grass) and Paspalum punctatum (commonly known as, dallisgrass) grasses that formed a dark green velvet texture.
We pushed on to see more birds.
Ibis could be seen flying around and few sitting high on the tall tree barren branches.
We came to a mound that kept the water beyond at bay. A line of very striking birds with its high neck pointed at us trying to figure out what we were doing.
Unfortunately, the Siberian Cranes are not to be seen now. The last of them was seen in 2002. Suraj Mal, the ruler who was the head of the princely state of Bharatpur made a valiant effort to create today’s national park between 1726 and 1763.
We were blessed.
Plenty of birds kept pouring in from the south known as the roosting site of Harriers.
A flat area with relatively calm water was seen. Trees with leaves shed off stood like skinny dancers against the grey sky. A very evil-looking bird grasped the branches. It was quite big.
Large numbers of Purple Swamphen scudded across the swamp and was busy dabbling its feathers and beak to search food.
The park was seriously very big and had potentially everything to attract birds and animals of all kinds.
Few raptors or birds of prey flew low and scared the dabbling ducks away. They made a smooth arch through the air and landed on one of the many tall trees that were present.
A huge beehive was hanging attracting hordes of green bee-eaters. We kept a distance from it as we passed along.
Our eyes also caught sight of a large Gangetic softshell turtle, trying to eat the morsels left by the birds.
Finally, after five hours of park tread, we thought of turning back as both physically and in spirits, we had touched the world of birds and thought of leaving the rest of the park for a second visit.
Picking up a book on birds, from the souvenir shop, we headed back to our good old Swift motor car to come back to Gurgaon.
I hope you enjoyed the birds that we saw along with you here. Thanking you for coming till this point. Bharatpur cannot be covered in one visit as time flies and the birds are so beautiful that you tend to gaze with no stops on the watch.
Until next time…