Asia » India » Rajasthan » Abnaheri » Keoladeo National Park - 25 to 28 February 2013
25.02.2013 - 28.02.2013 30 °C
Okay, I know it's a corny title and I'm aware that a 'Bird of Paradise' doesn't exist here in Rajasthan*, but a man and his blog have to start somewhere!
Today, we were making the long journey from a disappointing Ranthambore Tiger Reserve to the Keoladeo National Park and the promise of a paradise for birds and birders alike.
However, unlike the Grey haired nomads, who have binoculars which cost a king's ransom and who put them to good use at the drop of a floppy beige hat, I'm not a birder. Until I came on this holiday, I didn't know a Purple Swamphen from a White-eared Bulbul - but, as the nomads will tell you, I was keen to learn and to take pictures of them, providing they posed nicely!
*The Asian Paradise-Flycatcher doesn't count!
The journey from Ranthambore northeastwards to Bharatpur, across-country on notoriously poor roads, could take anything up to six hours. Instead, we opted to drive due north for three hours on a half-decent road with only a few small towns along the way. We would also make a stop to see an ancient step-well - and to buy a few tasty guavas from a roadside seller - before continuing east on a national highway for two hours to our eventual destination.
The step-well to which I refer was in the village of Abnaheri, just ten minutes off the main Jaipur to Agra road near Bamanpura. It's worth making the detour if you're passing that way. Tourists doing whistle-stop Golden Triangle tours (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur) with the more-enlightened coach operators sometimes make a brief cultural stop here (and the loos are not too bad either). Today, we had the place more or less to ourselves.
If you've never seen a step-well (called a 'baori' in these parts), I should explain that it's more like a deep pond or reservoir, usually storing rain water rather than ground water. The water's reached by descending flights of steps, which makes it relatively accessible, and the whole thing is easy to maintain and manage too. A baori often serves other purposes - a place for social gatherings and religious ceremonies, for example. Remnants of stone carvings, some retrieved from the walls of the baori and some from the ruined and even more ancient Harshat Mata Temple close by, confirm this and are now stored under cover in buildings around the perimeter. At the bottom of the well, the air is several degrees cooler than at the top, making it an ideal place for locals to gather during periods of intense heat.
This particular step-well, called Chand Baori, was built during the 9th century and it's the deepest and largest one I've seen in my travels around India. The mind boggles as to how it could have been constructed by hand all those years ago. A sign near the entrance says it's 19.5 metres (64 feet) deep, although I've read somewhere that it's much deeper; whatever, it's a long way down 13 storeys and 3,500 narrow steps to the unpleasant green weed at the bottom. Chand Baori's clearly no longer in use, but I imagine it would have been darn hard work carrying water back up all those steps!
Next stop was Keoladeo National Park, formerly known to birders worldwide as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and formally known as the Keoladeo Ghana National Park (Keoladeo is another name for Lord Shiva and is the name by which he's worshipped at an old temple in the park, and ghana is a local word for the thick forest once supported by the area).
To help understand how the park gained its enviable reputation as one of the finest bird sanctuaries in the world you need to know a bit about its history. Initially, a natural depression was flooded after a dyke was constructed by the ruler of the princely state of Bharatpur in the mid-18th century. The area became home to huge numbers of waterfowl and later a hunting ground for the maharajahs, then for large duck shoots during the time of the British Raj. The last big shoot was held in 1964, although the maharajah retained shooting rights until 1972. It was eventually designated as a bird sanctuary in 1976, became a protected site in 1981 and was declared a national park a year later, when grazing within its boundaries was banned. It's now enclosed by a high boundary fence to minimise the possibility of encroachment. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
These wetlands are not entirely natural, so remain dependent on monsoons and a regulated water supply, mainly pumped in from a reservoir outside the park boundary. There's a system of dykes and sluices, some now powered by solar panels, to provide areas of varying water depths and, as the park is strategically located in the middle of the Central Asian migratory flyway, it attracts large congregations of birds of all kinds during the winter months. We looked forward to making acquaintance with at least some of them during our three-night stay.
We stayed at an excellent small hotel, one of several grouped together just minutes by cycle rickshaw from the park's entrance. Yes, I said 'cycle rickshaw'. You see, while you can take a car just a mile or so into the park, you then have to choose whether to walk, hire a bicycle, or take a cycle rickshaw with seats for two. You can arrange for one of the rickshaws to come to your hotel and transport you around the park for a few hours, or for a whole day, if you wish. The rickshaw wallahs displaying a yellow plate are authorised to double up as guides and have a good knowledge of the birds and mammals and of their whereabouts. The two we employed had been doing the job for more than 20 years, but still only charged Rs.100 (£1.25/US$2/€1.50) an hour.
The best locations are through the dry scrub area to the verdant shallow lakes, about an hour's rickshaw ride from the entrance on rough but bearable tracks. If you'll excuse the pun, for the best bird-watching opportunities you have to be an early bird. The park opens at sunrise. Entry costs non-Indians Rs.400 (£5/US$8/€6) per visit. If you want a naturalist to guide you, as we did on our first day, this can be arranged through your hotel and will cost about Rs.1500 (£18/US$28/€21) for the whole day - a very worthwhile extra.
We saw only a fraction of the hundreds of species of birds and mammals which call Keoladeo home. Although we still saw absolutely loads, we were able to photograph only some of them, like bulbuls, owls, ducks, storks, monitor lizards and monkeys. Enough words - take a look at the pictures that follow. The very small birds that true birders call LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) refused to pose nicely!
Lesser-floating Flipflops - probably a male and a female, but certainly not a pair!
One bird, a rare Rubythroat (Luscinia pectoralis), usually found only in the foothills of the Himalayas and apparently blown off course, proved particularly elusive - see the picture of the nomads peering into the bushes on our first morning in the park. Next morning, while I had a lie-in, they hired mountain-bikes and ventured into the park alone, twitcher-like.
One of the park wardens played a recording of the Rubythroat's mating call in the area where it had last been spotted - and hey presto...! Alas, it was only a fleeting glance and they failed to get photographic evidence!
We thoroughly recommend The Birder's Inn, conveniently located close to the park entrance in pleasant gardens.
It has 24 simply-furnished, well-equipped rooms, all with shower & wc (some have a bath tub too). There are overhead fans and air-conditioning for when it gets warmer than it was during our stay.
There's Wi-Fi in a few of the rooms and in the lobby.
The restaurant serves good Indian food and the service is outstanding.
We paid per night, including all meals: Rs.4,000 plus taxes (£51/US$79/€61) for a standard double and Rs.2750 plus tax (£36/US$55/€42) for a standard single room.
As the name suggests, the hotel is very familiar with the needs of birders. The manager very ably arranged our rickshaw transport and birding guide - he was particularly caring and attentive and even upgraded the nomads to the honeymoon suite without extra charge!