by Prachi Dadhich

Chirping of various birds with fantastic sunset and sunrise views, Keoladeo national park is indeed a pure delight for nature lovers. Formerly, known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary is one of the few important wetland complexes still existing in India. Due to mixture of various habitats like wetlands, scrub forests, grasslands and woodlands, it supports a great variety of flora and fauna. It is home to 370 species of birds, 27 species of mammals, 7 species of amphibians, 43 species of fishes and 13 species of reptiles. It also supports a huge amount of flora including 375 species of angiosperms out of which 90 are wetland species. Spreading over an area of 29 km2, this park is situated in eastern Rajasthan. Around 58 km south of Agra and approximately 180 km from Delhi and Jaipur makes it a perfect weekend getaway.

Interestingly, this place was not constructed to be a national park but a famous hunting ground for the maharaja of Bharatpur. Back in 1890s in one of his trips to Great Britain the maharaja fell in love with practice of waterfowl shooting. It was there he decided to have his own shooting ground. As soon as he came back to India, he selected a small marsh land and started expanding it. He regulated the water flow using canals and dykes. He then constructed various paths to walk so that hunters have better chances of shooting. Soon, Bharatpur attracted a lot of hunters and became famous for bird shooting. Even various princes from foreign lands visited this place for hunting. With this increasing fame, the number of birds killed per day also increased. At some point of time, a record of more than 4,000 birds hunted down in a single day was recorded. With conversion of a high number of wetlands into agricultural land in north India, the birds had no choice but to fly towards Bharatpur.

Even after independence in 1947, maharaja tried his best to hold back the place he created for hunting. But, the local farmers and people of the nearby village started having issues with ownership of the wetland by maharaja. They thought that maharaja is selfish for owning this place only for his entertainment purpose. They started demanding access to the village land for agriculture purposes. This is when Dr. Salim Ali, the birdman of India came into picture. He was neither concerned about village people protesting for having agriculture land nor about greedy maharaja. He only saw a great and one of the last remaining wetland habitats for helpless birds was in danger. Without wasting any time, he went to his close friend Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India at that time. He explained the debate going on for this wetland and appealed to save it. Fortunately, Nehru responded very well for the issue. In 1956, Rajasthan forest department for management and maintenance became responsible for every wetland. In August 1981, Bharatpur was officially declared a national park. So, according to the Wildlife Protection Act no human activity or grazing were allowed in the national park. In 1985, it was declared as the World Heritage site under the World Heritage Convention. Luckily, now people shoot with their cameras and not with guns.

Presently, due to different types of habitats, it supports large numbers of resident terrestrial and local migratory species. It hosts as a wintering ground for many migratory waterfowl and is the only staging ground for the endangered Siberian Crane population.

The best time to visit the park is from August to March. However, late winter (October-March) is a great time to spot various migratory birds. There are various options available to explore the sanctuary like cycle rickshaws, bicycles, horse tonga or on foot. Rickshaw rides are highly recommended for one-day trips as rickshaw pullers are well trained guides having good knowledge about every species as well as their hotspots. Other than this the best way to explore the beautiful trails of the sanctuary is to walk, spot diverse wildlife and enjoy the amazing experience.

Here are some of the beautiful bird species I captured during my visit.

Great White Pelican 

These are one of the largest flying birds with a characteristic long beak and broad gular pouch (skin pouch extending underneath the beak). They migrate in large colonies to India in months of February till April for breeding. They can be seen early morning searching for fishes in warm shallow lakes. Unlike other aquatic birds, they just dip their head inside the water and gulp the whole fish in their broad gular pouch.

White-breasted Kingfisher 

A small-sized bird with a beautiful mixture of colors like turquoise blue, chocolate brown, white and a long, heavy, pointed red bill. They can be found singly near paddy-fields, ponds or sandy seashore. It can feed on wide range of food like grasshoppers, earthworms, lizards, mice and even young ones of other bird species.

Spotted Owlet 

A greyish-brown small sized owl with white spots. It has a large round head with characteristic large staring yellow eyes. This is the most common species of owls found in India. They can be often spotted as a pair cuddling on a branch of tree or inside some hollow trunk of a tree. Unlike other owl species, presence of humans does not concern this species. They are mostly nocturnal i.e. they are active during night, but they also hunt during mid-day. Its food choice includes small insects, mice, lizards, birds.

Indian Cormorant

Cormorant derived from latin corvus marinus which means ‘sea raven’. A middle-sized, stiff-tailed water bird having beautiful glistening black feathers. They can be commonly spotted around jheels, sitting for hours on rocks or tree logs. They love to take a sunbath by spreading their wings and tail. They are excellent swimmer and diver known to hunt all the fishes underwater. Cormorants breed in large colonies often mixed up with other birds like storks, herons and shags.

Jungle Babbler 

A small, earthy-brown bird commonly known as Satbhai or ‘Seven sisters’ or ‘Seven brothers’. They were given this name because they always move around in flocks of half a dozen. They love spending their time hopping around the place and searching for insects.  Other than insects like spiders, cockroaches and larvas, this species is also fond of the flower-nectar of the Coral and Silk Cotton trees. Hence, they act as a major pollinator for these species of flowers.

Brahminy Starling 

A typical small Myna with reddish-brown chest, grey feathers and a characterstic glossy, long black crest on the head. They can be seen chirping around gardens and even houses in towns or villages. A group of 6 to 12 individuals can be commonly seen feeding on Banyan, Peepal, Ber, Lantana and other fruits. They also make a close association with cattles to hunt for insects they disturb during grazing.

Painted Stork 

Standing true to its name, this bird’s plumage consists of different colour strokes such as white, greenish-black and rose-pink. This species is a typical large stork with unfeathered yellow face and long yellow beak slightly decurved at the end. These are resident but also local migrant species. They can be seen either standing motionless around jheels or searching for fishes and frogs in shallow water bodies. They breed in huge colonies sometimes running into thousands with other species like herons, ibises and cormorants.

Glossy Ibis 

When seen in dim light, they look like a species having blackish or brownish feathers. However, when spotted in bright light the feathers iridescent bright green and purple glossy colors. Therefore, named glossy ibis. Their long, slender and curvy beak helps them to search and catch food at shallow wetlands. They feed on various aquatic invertebrates and insects. Their nests can be spotted with other species of birds like spoonbill, egret or heron.

Red-vented Bulbul

An earthy brown bird with scale like markings on back and breast and a long tail with a red patch underneath. It is a resident species which can be commonly spotted in gardens, light scrub jungles and either near or away from human habitations. They usually roam around in pairs, but a large number will gather around the place where food is plentiful like on Banyan tree having ripe fruit or a swarm of winged termites.

Being a Ecology student and a bird enthusiast, this place was pure heaven for me. I absolutely loved observing and thinking about the fact that how a mixture of different ecosystems can bring such diverse species together. If we leave any ecosystem undisturbed, it has the ability of taking care of its own. Nature does not need humans, but humans need nature. Respect it.

Photo credits: Prachi Dadhich.

 

References

Ali, S. (1942). The Book of Indian Birds. Bombay: The Bombay National History Society.

Azeez, P.A., Ramachandran, N.K., & Vijayan, V.S. (1992). The socio-economics of the villages around Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur (Rajasthan), India.

Lewis, M. (2003). Cattle and Conservation at Bharatpur: A Case Study in Science and Advocacy. Conservation and Society, 1(1), 1-21.

UNESCO – IUCN Enhancing Our Heritage Project : Monitoring and Managing for Success in Natural World Heritage Sites Initial Management Effectiveness Evaluation Report : Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur, India, July 2003.