Many years ago, in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary...
It all started in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. Our bird love. I think I will have to go back a few years to explain this…
We first visited Bharatpur in May, 2010. Our marriage was just a few months old then and the husband and I were still getting to know each other. I was still in the process of getting adjusted into the four member household after spending 8 years as a single girl in Delhi and Mumbai. I think I was doing rather well, to the surprise of my parents and relatives.
One fine day, the husband asked me out to any place I fancied. Alone, just the two of us.
I could have jumped for joy, for all I had been doing since reaching Delhi after our marriage was to search for weekend getaways. But I was a bit apprehensive since all the places were rather non-touristy ones without any historical significance. Would the family be interested to visit such places? The dormant wildlife lover in me would sometimes make its presence felt. It had been just too long that I have been away from jungles, while I was always in the midst of a concrete one.
But I took a chance with my husband.
“Would you want to go to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary?”
He didn’t flinch as he said yes. That was a good sign.
And so, on a warm and sultry May morning, we boarded a fast train to Bharatpur in Rajasthan, from Delhi. It took us around 4 hours to reach Bharatpur station. I had already looked up some hotels in Bharatpur on the net and booked one. (For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the hotel.) It was noon by the time we reached Bharatpur and a cycle rickshaw took us from the railway station to our hotel.
The hotel turned out to be a comfortable place and after lunch, we were at the gates of Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. Would he get bored here? I wondered nervously looking at my husband.
Apparently, we had to hire cycle rickshaws to go around the sanctuary and the rickshaw driver doubled up as the birding guide as well. As we dithered about whom to approach, Sheru Singh appeared on the scene, the man who agreed to be our guide. We learnt that we could walk around the park, too, within the limits assigned. Since there were only three and a half hours to 6.00 pm when the gates shut down, we asked Sheru Singh to drop us off at a particular point and pick us up from the Keoladeo temple point at 5.30 pm. He was quite an amiable fellow and agreed.
Sheru Singh narrated to us the history of Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary succinctly, along with his own experiences over the years. Although an illiterate, he knew a smattering of French, Italian and other languages, courtesy bird enthusiasts from abroad. He lamented over the fact the area had not seen good rains for over a decade*, notwithstanding light drizzles, thus depleting the water bodies and impacting the migratory birds’ population. We could see a lot of dead trees on both sides of the road. In some parts water had been pumped in, but green algae had taken over those water holes. Yet, the forest was beautifully dark and green and we could not wait to start walking.
It was off-season in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, and I didn’t know whether to rue the fact or be thankful for it. On one hand, there was just a trickle of tourists in the park, while on the other hand, the migratory birds had not arrived yet. Besides, those days we did not have a DSLR or binoculars with us, nor a bird handbook. Remember we had not discovered our latent love for birding then? We just had our tiny Canon IXUS digicams with us. Thank god, there were no birders in sight with bazooka lenses! But we did meet a few disinterested, disappointed-looking people on rickshaws who asked us forlornly “Kuch dikha?” (Seen anything?) I had a good mind to say, “Haan, dikha. Sher!” (Yes, a tiger!)
We enjoyed a leisurely walk, stopping now and then to observe birds. Well, to be fair, I did have a little knowledge and showed off a bit to the husband. Plenty of peacocks, laughing doves and Indian rollers presented themselves to us. There were small ponds and suddenly, in one of them, we saw a ripple spread across the water. As we stood and stared, a few bubbles came up the water, followed by a gigantic turtle! We were quite startled to see the creature and wondered if it could gobble up birds. Later, we realized that even smaller pools of water held at least 2-3 turtles. And we had thought only that pond held the monster!
As we were ambling along, a noise in the bushes made us take a peek and there stood a beautiful nilgai (blue bull) staring back at us. It flicked it ears, then its tails and the next instant it had galloped out of our sight in apparent disdain. So did a couple of cows! I had never seen cows behave like nilgais! Bharatpur was turning out to be quite interesting. The mystery was solved when we met Sheru Singh on our return journey and he told us that villagers would release cattle in the sanctuary so that they could graze around freely. When the cows yielded calves the villagers would return to collect the calves back to their village. The cattle, in time, would turn somewhat feral and hence their aversion to human beings.
While we saw numerous nilgais, we did not see any spotted deer, although Sheru Singh did take us to a part where they generally grazed. We called it a day and returned to our hotel, promising to meet Sheru Singh early the next morning. We were scheduled to leave for Delhi by the late afternoon train, so it was decided that we would be there in the park till around noon and then visit the famed Lohagarh Fort before heading home.
We woke up early and were at the park’s gate before dawn at 6.00 am. There had been a light shower during the night and Bharatpur looking fresh and green in the morning. Sheru Singh was waiting for us with a pair of binoculars that we had requested for. More history lessons followed as we drove down the road in his rickshaw. In the days of yore, the park was a hunting ground for the maharajas of Bharatpur, a tradition dating back to 1850, and duck shoots were organized yearly in honor of the British viceroys. We were pained and horrified to see a board listing out the duck shoots. In one shoot alone in 1938, over 4,273 birds were killed by Lord Linlithgow, the then Governor-General of India.
Sheru Singh also told us about the nuisance led by the invasive juliflora plant and that many of the rickshaw drivers periodically did ‘shram daan’ (labour) to remove the weed.
We decided to let Sheru Singh lead the itinerary. He had a sharp eye and showed us a couple of camouflaged sleeping collared owlets, a nesting woolly necked stork and a pair of Sarus cranes, amongst other. He was himself delighted to see a few partridges run into the bushes, having seen them after a long time. We also saw a wild hare sitting motionless for a few seconds, before leaping away, as well as huge monitor lizards basking in the sun. Sheru Singh then showed us a walking trail and said he would wait for us near the temple.
I remember seeing a jackal by the side of the trail and realized that I had seen the area’s only predator. It was a beautiful morning and the air was filled with the koel’s sweet songs, as well as the raucous calls of hundreds of rosy starlings. We saw several lesser whistling ducks, spot-billed ducks and a few black necked storks strutting royally about. There was a watch tower situated near some flat plains and it provided a panoramic view of the fields. There were more cows moving about there than birds. Perhaps the area used to be a vast wetland before the rains decided to stay away. As we stood on the watch tower, the husband told me about the time he had gone on a birding tour in the famed wetlands of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Assam with a forest official, who turned out to be my father’s junior and someone I had known as a child in Manas. Common grounds, indeed!
It was nearing noon and we decided to turn back. It was with a heavy heart that we bade goodbye to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. The short trip had brought us close together and provided a beautiful backdrop where we learnt a lot of things about each other. Now that I look back, the trip to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary was certainly the turning point in our lives. I knew then that I had met my perfect match, with whom I could share my love for birds and wildlife. A partnership was sealed in Bharatpur and every time we go birding today, Bharatpur comes up in our conversation at least once. It would always remain our most treasured birding trip.
Note: Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, known today as Keoladeo Ghana National Park, is located in Rajasthan and plays host to thousands of birds. It was declared a protected sanctuary in 1971. It is also a declared World Heritage Site.
It is primarily a man-made and man-managed wetland. The 29 sq km reserve comprises dry grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps, and wetlands. These diverse habitats are home to 366 bird species, 379 floral species, 50 species of fish, 13 species of snakes, 5 species of lizards, 7 amphibian species,7 turtle species, and a variety of other invertebrates. Every year thousands of migratory waterfowl visit the park for wintering breeding. The Sanctuary is one of the richest bird areas in the world. It is known for nesting of its resident birds and visiting migratory birds including water birds. The rare Siberian cranes used to winter in this park but this central population of Siberian Cranes is now extinct. (Wikipedia)
* The water situation improved in 2012 and it was reported to the best year in a decade.