Visit to Keoladeo Ghana National Park

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Travel Features >> Visit to Keoladeo Ghana National Park

Visit to Keoladeo Ghana National Park

March 14, 2012

Rajasthan’s Keoladeo Ghana National Park, is where Bachchu Singh has worked for the past twenty-two years. Bachchu Singh is forty-something. Dark, gaunt and with a voice just a wee bit too high for comfort. He’s a village man, and readily admits that he can’t even read English. Unprepossessing, to say the least.

Bachchu Singh also happens to be a brilliant naturalist. Every inch of the 29 sq km which make up this World Heritage site is known to Bachchu Singh and it holds few secrets from him; every one of its resident- and migrant- species are easily identified by him. All he does is look at a kadamb tree 100 mt away, and say, in his characteristic loud voice, “See there? About ten feet down from the top of that tree- there’s a dusky horned owl sitting there.” We peer and peer, look through our binoculars too- but all we can see is a dark smudge which may be a bird. On the other hand, it may be a clump of leaves.

“It’s looking towards us now,” Bachchu Singh says. “Can you see it?” This hopefully.
We nod dutifully, and try hard to believe that we’re actually looking at a rare bird.

“Come along,” he says, when he realises we really can’t see the owl. And we go off after him, trudging through coarse grass and scrubby babool trees. En route he tells us how he and a colleague nearly ran into a tigress here the other day (a freak, actually; Keoladeo Ghana is not tiger country- this one’s probably wandered in from Ranthambhor).

We do see the owl, finally- and hundreds of other birds too. Keoladeo Ghana is without doubt India’s premier bird sanctuary, and there’s plenty to see. Raptors like the crested serpent eagle and the black-shouldered kite; warblers, wagtails, tailorbirds, babblers, and a mind-boggling collection of water birds. Much of the sanctuary is marshland, with hundreds and thousands of aquatic birds wading, swimming and nesting in the area: droves of night herons roosting in a single tree; jacanas, trotting delicately over the lily-pads; brahminy ducks, teals, pintail ducks, spoonbills, darters, cormorants, cranes, egrets, storks, bar-headed geese- the entire gamut.

Among the most gaudily dressed are the deliciously colourful purple moorhens, shimmering amethyst and deep green with bright red beaks- beaks so bright, in fact, that the local rickshaw-pullers call them `lipstick birds’. The rickshaw pullers of Keoladeo, incidentally, are pretty good guides- many of them have undergone special training, and are usually capable of identifying most of the birds around. Usually- although they do refer to some species by names which would make any ornithologist cringe (brahminy mynahs, for instance, are called `Sunil Dutt mynahs’, as the patch of black on top of their heads is supposed to resemble the distinctive hairstyle of the Hindi filmstar of yesteryears!).

We’d reached Bharatpur sometime in the afternoon, having driven down from Delhi, a five-hour ride which was fairly rough over the last 30 km or so. A room had already been booked at one of the many hotels which swarm around the entrance to the Bird Sanctuary- a brisk three minute walk, and we were at the main gate. From there, warding off the many rickshaw pullers clamouring for business, we’d opted for a naturalist-guided tour instead. A walk of about seven km, at a leisurely pace, through marshes, grasslands, thick thorn forests- and loads of birds. Up above us, a V-shaped flock of rosy pelicans circled, surveying the ground below for a suitable place to land. Vivacious little magpie robins, in stark black and white, sat on roadside branches and trilled the sweetest of songs; white-breasted kingfishers swooped across the waters in a flash of bright blue wings, and a sudden twinkle of vibrant yellow in a ber tree announced the presence of a golden oriole. On the bare crown of a thorn tree sat a soot-black drongo- the `jungle kotwal’, as it’s known locally, for the vehemence with which it guards its nest.

Three hours later, we were a tired but happy lot- birdwatching is definitely good for the soul. The sun was setting, and a pair of nilgai in a meadow next to the path looked up from their grazing and watched us warily as we strolled past. We were headed back for the main gate, when a cheetal crossed the path ahead, and suddenly a cacophony of weird howls broke out in the distance. “Jackals,” said our guide. “Once the sun sets, they get going. They’ll keep howling through the night.” Early next morning, we were back at the sanctuary, escorted now by Bachchu Singh, the local expert- as far as we’re concerned, at least. He had the entire trail chalked out for us- with all the star attractions featuring on it. Sarus cranes, of course- the stately grey-white-and-crimson birds which are so typically `Indian’; rock pythons, spotted owls- and the very rare Siberian cranes, which are Keoladeo’s biggest draw.

Every year, Siberian cranes migrate south for the winter, flying hundreds of miles from their nesting grounds in Siberia to warmer climes in China, India and Iran- and in India, Keoladeo Ghana is where they come. Till about two decades ago, about forty-odd Siberian cranes would come to Bharatpur annually; today, the figure has dropped to a lone pair- and some years even that doesn’t turn up. Bachchu Singh tells us all about the Siberian Crane conservation programme organised by the WWF at Keoladeo some years ago. “We got two cranes from abroad,” he tells us. “One from Russia, called Billy (after Bill Clinton) and one from the US, called Boris.(-Yeltsin; it seems whoever named the birds had a penchant for political personages!).” The birds were used for captive breeding programmes, with Bachchu Singh dressing up in a crane costume and acting foster mother to the chicks- but the plan was doomed; the birds didn’t survive.

But there’s a ray of light in the gloom; for Bachchu Singh tells us that a Russian conservationist friend of his has just reported spotting 17 pairs of Siberian cranes- of the same group which traditionally winters in India. Perhaps the next time we come to Keoladeo, we’ll see more than just the single pair we’ve ogled at on this trip. Perhaps some day the clear, flute-like call of the Siberian Crane will again resonate across the wild marshes of Bharatpur…someday.

- This article has been contributed by Madhulika Liddle

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