The Keoladeo (Bharatpur) National Bird Sanctuary, India’s most famous bird sanctuary, is a mere three-and-a-half-hour drive away from Savista. A day trip from Savista is possible, combining it with a visit to the Abhaneri step well – an architectural gem – on the way back. Both blow your mind away. For different reasons.
To visit the bird sanctuary – as, indeed, to visit any park that protects diverse species of wildlife from extinction due to human greed – is to enter a living world of harmony, natural beauty and perfection, and hope and aspiration for a better planet. The Keoladeo National Park (27°10’N, 77°31’E), began its life as a hunting ground for the Maharajas of Bharatpur. In 1972 it was declared a national bird sanctuary and named after an ancient Shiva (Keoladeo) temple within its precincts, In 1985 it was recognised by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, an important habitat for “in-site conservation of biological diversity… a habitat of rare and endangered species…a wetland of international importance for migratory waterfowl… the wintering ground for the rare Siberian Crane, and habitat for large numbers of resident nesting birds ” (UNESCO).
Sadly, Siberian cranes which had been regular winter visitors for at least two centuries have stopped coming to Bharatpur for over 10 years, due to a complex of factors of which an important one is the bombing of Afghanistan that began post-9/11 (Afghanistan was a crucial halting spot on their route, before they took to the skies again for the final eight week stretch of the 2500 mile journey from Siberia to Bharatpur). Today, there are no Siberian cranes in Bharatpur, but one can sight hundreds of varieties of exotic and stunningly beautiful migratory birds and waterfowl, in addition to several hundred locally resident bird species, with the odd nilgai, sambhar, spotted deer, mongoose and porcupine, wandering around for added interest.
Spread over approximately 29 square kilometers, the park is the only spot with dense vegetation and trees in an area characterized by sparse vegetation. The principal vegetation types are tropical dry deciduous forests intermixed with dry grasslands (savannas) of tall species of grass. Part of the park is a fresh water swamp that gets flooded during the monsoon. The wetlands constitute one third of the park habitat, with varying microhabitats consisting of trees, mounds, dykes and open water, with or without submerged or emergent plants. It is here that the most exotic birds gravitate to. For the most part of the year effective wetland is only 10 sq. Km., and the rest of the area remains dry.
You can, therefore, imagine how important good monsoons are for the park and its resident and migrant visitors, and how gravely this ecosystem can get affected in a year of weak rains. As happened in 2010, when the rains failed and most of the park ran dry. Very few migratory birds chose to spend their winter here that year, and the government had to bring in water through tankers to ensure that the existing bird population survived.
The peak season for viewing migratory birds is November to March. One can either wander around the park on foot, or hire one of the very affordable dedicated cycle-rickshaws lined up at the gate. The rickshaw-pullers are soft spoken, courteous and venerable old men, who are hugely knowledgeable about the birds in the park having pedalled birdwatchers through the area for all of their adult lives. This makes them a great resource, prompting ornithologists to dignify them with the title of ‘Barefoot Naturalists”. They, therefore, can serve as excellent “guides” for novice birders, stopping every few yards to point out birds hidden in the trees. There are also professional guides at the park.
A number of the birds in the outer, thinly-wooded periphery of the park are common Indian birds that you can also sight in and around Savista. Examples are: green bee-eaters, red-vented bulbuls, parakeets, brahminy mynas, shrikes, bushchats and rockchats, treepies, cougals, red collared and laughing doves, lapwings, prinias, babblers, peacocks, robins, hoopoes and kingfishers, sunbirds, egrets, etc. One has to travel quite a bit into the interior – and its envelope of silence – to begin to see the really rare birds.
As you move forward through the tree-dense regions of the park, you begin to get thrilling ring-side views of hornbills flapping around, exquisite yellow-footed green pigeons cleaning their feathers, glowing pheasants making low swoops in the undergrowth, unbelievably – to urban eyes accustomed to the smaller house crow – huge jungle crows with wide wing spans, blue bee-eaters (larger than the more common green bee-eaters), black shouldered kites …and many more.
In shallow swamps amazingly long-slender-necked purple herons stand stock-still, probably waiting for unsuspecting prey to show up, but certainly affording humans plenty of time for admiration.
As you pedal into more extensive wetlands, a visual feast awaits you. There, on either side of the path, sitting or swimming in the water, perched on dykes or mounds, or sitting silently on low overhanging trees, are the exotic migratory birds. Colonies of teals, terns, ducks, mallards, and pintails of many kinds (many of them from China) teem in the waters. On distant banks, you can spot slow-moving ibises, including a great big-headed ibises, scouring the shallow waters for food. Lone darters, stunningly patterned snake birds with long coiled necks, and little and (large) great cormorants, stand silently on rocks or short branches looking down at the water, not moving a muscle as they wait to spot prey. You will find whole busy colonies of demoiselle cranes in classic one-legged posture, and of painted storks were going about their work. Spoonbills, black necked cranes, and great egrets (large) are other birds that lead their busy lives around the swamps and water bodies. Your rickshaw (hired by the hour) will wait for you if you choose to wander off into the undergrowth (along paths that have been created to facilitate this) where you can sight the Sarus cranes and other big birds.