Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary (Keoladeo National Park)

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Migratory birds such as Chinese coots, Saras cranes, pelicans and many more from the Indian sub-continent made it their home in the winter months. But successive poor monsoons and a disruption in the release of water from the Pachna Dam led to severely-depleted water levels, which forced migratory birds to find newer havens.

However, environmentalists, ornithologists and the UNESCO raised the alarm, which led to the resolution of the Pachna Dam issue in September 2010. The monsoon was also kind to the region for the next couple of years. This led to substantial rise in water levels, which made 2011 the first good year for the wetland in quite a while. Chirps, cackles and a variety of sounds from thousands of birds returned, and as bird density improved, many species came back. This year, Saras cranes, the graceful birds whose mating dance is a sight to watch, showed up in Bharatpur after a gap of nearly five years.

Park ranger Bholu Abrar Khan, a long-term resident of the area and someone who knows every inch of the 29-sq km park, says that the revival of the park to its past glory will take some more years. "It takes several breeding seasons for many of the resident and migratory birds to establish presence in terms of breeding and feeding. While we are happy to see that the presence of water is attracting birds to build nests, changes in weather patterns along the migratory path in Central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan are delaying the arrival of many species. " Khan says that abundance of fish, which is the main food source for birds such as kites, eagles, cranes, storks and kingfishers, means that the birds could stay longer in the sanctuary this year. He hopes that the famed Siberian cranes, which were once found in abundance in Bharatpur but have now all but vanished, will make an appearance.

However, there is one worry: This year, magur catfish have been found aplenty in the water. The magur is an invasive species which can survive in very little water and feeds on other aquatic life and even small birds. More importantly, it can cause severe damage to the stomachs of large birds such as oriental darters, painted storks and cormorants once it is picked from the water and swallowed whole.

In fact, you can sometimes witness an epic struggle between a large darter bird (also known as snake bird due to its long neck that it moves about like a snake) and a magur it has just caught. After darting the fish under water with its long and sharp beak, darters hold the fish in their beaks out of water for a while until it dies. The magur, which can survive out of water for hours, will slither about from side to side, and even if the darter tries to swallow the fish whole, it will he forced to regurgitate it as the fish won't stop slithering. After 10 minutes or so, the darter will give up and drop the fish back into the water. Khan says that the only way to destroy this deadly catfish would be to wait for the park to dry in summer and scoop it out. But, given the resilience of the magur, they may not be able to rid the park of this menace completely.

The Bharatpur bird sanctuary holds over 350 species of birds in a relatively-small park, and many of them are truly spectacular in appearance. Take the red avadavat, also called the red munia or strawberry finch. This tiny bird looks as if it has been dipped in a can of crims on paint and air-brushed with delicate white dots and a dash of black. Found in dry grasses, these birds stand out against the greenish-yellow backdrop of the drying grass. Or take the black shouldered kite, whose white breast is contrasted by jet black wings. It hunts by hove ring high in the sky and swooping down in a vertical dive. It can sometimes be spotted sitting on dry branches or soaring through muddy skies.

Another regular resident of Bharatpur is the white breasted kingfisher, which swoops down faster than the eye can see if it spots a tiny fish and, after grabbing its prey, never returns to its vantage point. It prefers a bigger branch of a shady tree, hurls the fish on the branch and then swallows it whole.

One of the most breathtaking sights in Bharatpur is to watch whistling ducks fly against the orange glow of the setting sun. Tens of these birds rise from the wetlands, come in from sharp angles against the sun, and make several rounds of flight before settling down in the water again, all the while making a whistling sound in chorus. You also won't forget the sight of painted stork parents teaching their chicks to feed on fish. These large birds bring fish, drop them amidst their chicks and watch the little ones fight to grab the fish in their beaks. The young will drop the slippery fish several times on the nest floor, before they get a hang of it.

No mention of the India Birding Tour would be complete without writing about the rickshaw pullers who double as guides. These hard-working souls ferry tourists up and down the sanctuary, imparting knowledge about birds and their habitat. They can tell you the names of birds in several languages, including English, French, German, Russian, Spanish and Arabic, and also whether it is a migratory bird or a local resident, its feeding and breeding habits and its predators or prey. All for a paltry 70 an hour.

We have been visiting the park for over 20 years and can remember that the rates were around 30 in 1994. That's an increase of just 2.3 times in 20 years! The rates are fixed by the forest department and the logic is that the rickshaw pullers get an assured clientele and earn more than what they would make if they were working outside, but an increase may be on the cards. The idea to have them was the brainchild of noted ornithologist, Dr. Salim Au, who hit upon the idea of ​​allowing only cycle rickshaws inside the sanctuary to keep the area free of vehicular and noise pollution, as also to provide employment to the local populace.

One visit to the park and it doesn't take you long to know that this is an idea that has succeeded beyond expectations, much to the benefits of the park's winged citizens and feathered visitors.

With greenery now widespread inside the bird sanctuary and two nesting seasons gone by uninterrupted, birdlime is sure to increase in the coming months. The best news? Bird-life may prosper not just at this sanctuary but at nearby water bodies formed by the Chambal river, which are seeing birds flying in from Bharatpur.


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