Brilliant birding in Bharatpur, India
By David Tomlinson
Is Bharatpur the best bird reserve in the world? So asked the late John Gooders, former Bird Watching contributor, author of the iconic Where to Watch Birds and a much-travelled birder. I have been lucky enough to travel widely, too, and I have found that Bharatpur offers the easiest, most spectacular and most exciting birdwatching of anywhere I’ve ever been. It is one of those places that will not fail to excite and surprise you, however many times you have visited it.
Though everyone knows the reserve as Bharatpur, that’s the name of the nearest city, for its officially called Keoladeo Ghana National Park. It’s in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, and is about 85 miles south of New Delhi, or an hour and half’s drive west of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Surprisingly, the reserve isn’t natural, but was the creation of one of the Maharajas of Bharatpur. He was a keen sportsman, and during a visit to late Victorian England he enjoyed the duck shooting.
He returned home inspired to create his own duck shoot where he could host both British and Indian nobility. The shoot was created by deepening and extending an area of marshland, and making it accessible by building a series of dykes and tracks.
The new duck marsh was a great success, attracting huge numbers of birds. The first official shoot was in December 1902, when his guests were the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, and Lord Kitchener, then Commander in Chief, India. Seventeen people shot 540 ducks between them.
This, however, was nothing compared to the bags made in later years. The biggest was in 1938 when a shooting party headed by the then Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, shot no fewer than 4,273 birds in one day. These prodigious bags are remembered in stone plaques still standing in the heart of the reserve today.
Big and spectacular birds of India
Care for the area and its wildlife was assumed by the Rajasthan Forest Department in 1956 and the last shoot was in 1964; in August 1981 it was declared a National Park. Despite its protected status, it has (and still has) serious problems to contend with, ranging from lack of water (it virtually dried out in the drought years of 1979, 1987 and 2007) to local people grazing their cattle within its boundaries.
Go to any African wildlife reserve and you are likely to see more overseas visitors than locals, but this isn’t the case at Bharatpur, for it is very popular with Indians, and many thousands visit every year. Most carry cameras, often with long lenses, but binoculars are few. However, even without binoculars there’s a lot to see, for many of the birds to be found in the park are big and spectacular. On my most recent visit in March this year I was using the latest Leica Noctovid 10x42 binoculars, enabling me to watch the birds and other wildlife with unrivalled clarity and brilliance. As the Noctovids were new on the market, I suspect that I might have even been the first birdwatcher to use them there.
Though it may be primarily a wetland reserve, its 29km2 includes areas of semi-arid woodland, open savannah, scrub, groves of mature trees and swamps and reedbeds. It’s a diverse mixture that ensures you can see a great variety of birds in any month of the year, but it is the so-called winter months when the park is packed with migrants from the north that the birding is at its best.
(L-R) Painted Storks by John T.L/Alamy
Indian Grey Hornbill by Manjeet & Yograj Jadeja/Alamy
Sarus Crane by Sanjay Shrishrimal/Alamy
Ferruginous Duck by Arterra Picture Library/Alamy
Human visitor numbers are at their lowest during the monsoon, though this is the breeding season for many of the resident or locally migrant birds. One of the park’s great charms is that it is forbidden to take a motor vehicle inside, and nearly all visitors travel by either bicycle rickshaw or bicycle or on foot. The ideal way to explore the reserve is a combination of bicycle rickshaw and walking: many of the rickshaw drivers know where to find the more elusive birds.
On my most recent visit, I was introducing the delights of the park to four friends, one English and three American, while we also enjoyed the services of a local professional bird guide, Gajendra Singh, so we hired three rickshaws. Birdwatching is always at its best early in the morning: we were staying in a hotel within a couple of hundred yards of the reserve, so enjoyed a 6.30 breakfast, and were inside the park at 7am. It was cool first thing, but shorts and a T-shirt were fine, as it soon warms up.
Exciting birding finds
Almost at once, we were seeing good birds. Several Spotted Owlets were pleasing, for this common Indian species is not dissimilar to our Little Owl, and often sits out during the day. Rather more exciting were an adult and two juvenile Dusky Eagle Owls that peered down on us with dull yellow eyes. This is a seriously big owl, slightly larger than the Eurasian Eagle Owl, that also occurs in India.
In the thorn bushes around us were many small passerines, and at times it was difficult to know where to look. Green Bee-eaters are one of India’s commonest birds, but with their graceful flight and cheerful trilling calls they are always a delight. A fine cock Siberian Stonechat must have been a wintering bird, while the sparrow-like Chestnut-shouldered Petronias proved to be very common. India has several handsome species of starlings but none are better looking than the Brahminy, a bird that reminds me of a Waxwing.
Next we ventured into an area of woodland with big, mature trees. In the past I’ve seen nightjars here, but no luck today, while the resident Orange-headed Thrushes also proved elusive, but there were plenty of compensations. Outstanding among them were the exquisite Red-breasted Flycatchers, such challenging birds to see on their breeding grounds in eastern Europe, but so easy here. Brown-headed Barbets called, while a pair of Grey Hornbills allowed themselves to be admired.
Within a short walk were a couple of large, shallow lagoons. Here there was a feeding flock of Spotbills, the resident duck that is in many ways the Indian equivalent of the Mallard. They are big, handsome birds. There was also a selection of familiar Palearctic waders feeding around the margins, with three sandpipers (Green, Wood and Common), plus Greenshank, Ruff and Common and Spotted Redshanks, all seen in wonderful light. It is the quality of the morning and late afternoon light that adds so much to the birding experience at Bharatpur, as you see the birds so perfectly illuminated.
The rest of the day was a blur of birds, with an abundance of wildfowl and a fantastic assortment of herons and storks. Woolly-necked Stork is an aptly named bird, but even more impressive is the giant Black-necked Stork, a bird you normally see only singly or in pairs. We saw a pair. The only bigger bird you will encounter is the Sarus Crane – the Park has several resident pairs and you are unlikely to miss seeing at least one of them.
There are plenty of other impressively big birds to be found, and we saw both White and Dalmatian Pelicans, two birds I know well from Greece. The latter were in full breeding condition, with improbably orange beak pouches. Painted Storks nest here in large numbers, and there were a number of lanky grey juveniles flying around.
As for herons, we saw nearly every one possible, from the Grey we know so well from home to the secretive Black Bittern, a bird that you have to work for even at Bharatpur.
I’ve always been a wildfowl enthusiast, so I delighted in searching the great flocks of Shoveler, Pintail and Teal, the most numerous wintering species, for other ducks mingling with them. You can get by at Bharatpur without a telescope as many of the birds are remarkably approachable, but I used my Leica APO-Televid 65mm spotting scope with 25-50 eyepiece to good effect, finding many Garganey, with the drakes in full breeding plumage. I never found a drake Red-crested Pochard, only ducks, but there were a few pairs of Ferruginous Ducks, as well as small flocks of resident Cotton Teal, the smallest of all the world’s wildfowl, and thousands of Bar-headed Geese, the bird that has been seen migrating over Everest.
We all enjoy seeing raptors, and the Park has a rich variety. The Spotted Eagles I saw would soon be heading north to breed, while the Crested Serpent Eagles and Oriental Honey Buzzards were both residents. In contrast, the two Booted Eagles were migrants. Both were dark-phase birds: In Europe I see far more pale-morph individuals. It’s quite usual to go to Bharatpur and see something you haven’t encountered before, and my lifer of the day was Little Pratincole.
There was a flock of about 40 of these dainty, almost swallow-like waders. Though it wasn’t a lifer, the Baillon’s Crake our rickshaw driver spotted in the late afternoon was also a real bonus.
Impressive bird tick-list
Rickshaws and visitors have to be out of the park by 5.30pm, and we made it just in time. Sitting over dinner that evening, exhilarated but excited from a great day’s birding, we added up our score. Without trying particularly hard, and always giving ourselves time to enjoy each bird, we had seen a total of 126 species. That was without using any motorised transport all day.
Add in great sightings of Nilgai, the largest Asian antelope, plus Chital and Sambar deer and even a Golden Jackal and you can understand the irresistible attraction of this wonderful park. I can’t wait to go back.
David’s kit box
Leica Noctovid 10x42 binoculars RRP: £2,210
Leica APO-Televid 65 W spotting scope RRP: £1,530 + £680 for eyepiece
More info on birding in Bharatpur, India
To find out more about tourism in the Bharatpur area, including places to visit and things to do while in the area, including seeing temples and museums,
This article was first published in Bird Watching's October 2017 issue