Sunday, March 1, 2015, Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India

Trip Map

Today we explored Keoladeo National Park at Bharatpur in Rajasthan
(Image courtesy of VENT)
(Click on images to enlarge)

We both woke this morning conscious of today’s being the tenth anniversary of the death of Lee’s wonderful father, Charles. We still miss him very much. (I remember a long-time friend saying to me after he’d met Charles, “Now I know how Lee got to be the way he is.”) Charles Varian and Lee Varian

Charles and Lee
Decorated Ganesha

Ganesha ready for a new day, Bharatpur
We met the others for breakfast and then headed through the lush gardens to the hotel reception area to turn in our passports for proper registration (and to get a wifi key, being somewhat desperate for contact with the outside world after our five nights on the train).

I enjoyed watching one of the clerks decorating their image of Ganesha for the day, with a leaf and an evergreen spray.

Gardens of the Bagh

Gardens of the Bagh, Bharatpur

Sarus Cranes at Keoladeo

Sarus Cranes at Keoladeo National Park
(Image courtesy of UNESCO)
The reason one comes to Bharatpur is its World Heritage Site, Keoladeo National Park (which is often called simply “Bharatpur”), an internationally important wetlands area, originally created to provide duck hunting for a maharaja. Though surrounded by agriculture and development and a dense human population, it provides 11 square miles of protected wetlands and forests that are critical to many migratory bird species.

It has taken great effort to preserve the land and, most importantly, its water and will continue to do so. The park now provides 5,000 jobs (including in hotels and such) for the 50,000 residents of the town. A few years ago, the wetlands were drying up because a dam in another state had cut the flow of water the park received from the river. As conditions worsened, UNESCO threatened to remove the World Heritage status of the park. People in Bharatpur staged a hunger strike to demand water for their wetlands, but farmers near the dam, who needed the water, threatened suicide if any water were diverted to the park. The matter became highly politicized and the park essentially dried up. The problem has now been resolved more or less, but it will take years for normal conditions to be restored. (And one feels safe in predicting that the battles over water will be worse in the future, both here and around the world.)

Sarus Cranes, one of the key species, returned to Bharatpur in small numbers in 2014 after an absence of five years.

Despite its troubles, the park looked quite beautiful to us, a thick acacia woodland with extensive ponds and marshes. It is obviously an old place, with a scattering of ancient buildings and old stone water channels, such as were used in Mughal gardens, those now superseded by pipes running over the ground. It is also modern in some ways, with solar panels to power the pumps that move the precious water around among the wetland areas.

When we arrived, we were introduced to the men who would be transporting us around the park by bicycle rickshaw. Lee and I were assigned a handsome young Sikh with a black turban to be our driver. He was quite soft-spoken but seemed interested in birds and identified many for us. (I noted later in the day that he uses a bird call for his ringtone.) It felt strange to be using another human’s physical labor in such a way, but he obviously wanted the work.

Birding by bicycle rickshaw

Birding by bicycle rickshaw, Keoladeo
Little Grebe

Little Grebe, Keoladeo National Park
(Image courtesy of Amy Sheldon)
Dion had promised us 100+ species for the day and we came close to that just in the morning.

We saw massive numbers of birds as well as many species. The ponds were overflowing with birds, such as this beautiful Little Grebe in breeding plumage (it had the greenest gape Amy or I had ever seen in one).

Golden Jackal

Golden Jackal, Keoladeo National Park
(Image courtesy of Amy Sheldon)
Beyond a small pool with a dozen different kinds of birds in it, a Golden Jackal was feasting on a large dead animal.

The wetland near the Jackal was covered with Purple Swamphens looking like dark lavender rocks.

Black-necked Stork

Black-necked Stork, Keoladeo National Park
(Image courtesy of Amy Sheldon)
The ponds were full of ducks and geese and many other waterbirds, including the grand Black-necked Stork and a new bird for us, the Bronze-winged Jacana.

Bronze-winged Jacana

Bronze-winged Jacana
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Black Bittern

Black Bittern
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
One of the best birds of the day for me was the Black Bittern perched in a trailside bush. We’ve seen this very secretive bird in Australia, but never just a few feet away. It was terrific.

The morning was also notable for really good raptors, the most striking being a perched Greater Spotted Eagle (Clanga clanga) and a Eurasian Marsh-Harrier hunting low over the marshes (we could see the Coots in its path all huddled together for protection).

Walking in the woodlands, we found a couple of Indian Thick-knees, a particularly handsome lifer. Other woodland birds included many small birds that were new to us, such as the Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher and several of the impossible small warblers. Ashy Prinia was quite striking and one could have thought of a prettier name for it.

Going through those woodlands, we had to learn to avoid “Nilgai latrines,” piles of Nilgai poo to which they return regularly to deposit more. (We saw Nilgai, Spotted Deer, and Wild Boar in the woods.)

Indian Thick-knee

Indian Thick-knee
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The big treat for the morning came when we found a pair of Sarus Cranes. We heard them before we saw them, but then our path gradually converged with theirs until they were only about 20 yards away from us. They were so beautiful! And it was so wonderful to watch them interacting with one another.

This may have been the same pair that are shown in this video of a pair of cranes dancing and doing unison calls, which was made at Bharatpur in January. (Those are Nilgai behind them in the video.)

We were so close that I could appreciate the beautiful gradations from red to black in the coloring on their heads and necks. What magnificent creatures!

Amy, who has been passionate about crane conservation since she was 13, got some very good photos.

Sarus Crane

Sarus Crane, Keoladeo National Park
(Image courtesy of Amy Sheldon)
After seeing the cranes, we were pedaled about three kilometers back to the entrance of the park and our bus. That gave me time to think about the crane we didn’t see but should have, the Siberian Crane. If we had been here in 1968, we might have seen the 86 Siberian Cranes that the great Peter Jackson saw then. Even as recently as the winter of 2001-2, we could have seen a pair of them. In Mughal days, they were all over India in the winter, but as human populations grew, Bharatpur became their last refuge. Today Siberian Cranes are no longer found in India at all. Siberian Cranes at Keoladeo, 1968

Siberian Cranes at Keoladeo National Park, 1968
(Photograph by Peter Jackson)

There used to be three wintering populations of Siberian Cranes. Those that breed in eastern Siberia spend the winter in China, and there are at least 2,000 of them still alive today. Those that bred in western Siberia used to split into two populations over the winter, some going to Iran and some going to India. Sadly, their flight paths took them across lands where they were hunted. It is particularly unfortunate that one of their best “refueling” stops was in the Amu Darya wetlands, east of Kabul. The International Crane Foundation says of the “central population”, the one wintering in India, “There is a high probability this population has been recently extirpated.”

Even if Keoladeo’s water problems were completely solved (and the Siberian Cranes require more and deeper water than other species of crane), it is unlikely that a reintroduction of the Siberian Crane into India would succeed unless the birds could be trained to take a safer migration route.

Siberian Crane migration routes

Siberian Crane migration routes
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Omid in Iran

Omid in Iran
(Image courtesy of Mehr News Service)
As for the western population, which used to breed along the south coast of the Caspian Sea, it, too, has failed in recent years. Omid, the last remaining Siberian Crane of the western population, made it to Iran for the winter at the beginning of November, 2014. He was alone, his last two companions having been shot. (This was his seventh trip from Siberia to Iran.)
We were soon back in the hotel, where we rushed to the dining room and had another Indian buffet lunch, quite a reasonable one, though the dishes have begun to blur together in my mind. We then had an hour and a half in our room before we had to go out again. I got Lee set up to use the Mac with the limited Internet access available. He was obviously tired and aching, so had decided to stay in for the afternoon.
Main street of Bharatpur

Main street of Bharatpur
I somewhat reluctantly joined the others going out for the afternoon, as I was much in need of sleep, but in the end I was glad I’d gone, though I thought Lee had made the right decision for him (except for the giant turtles).

As we drove through town, Dion told us that the huge sewer pipes that are being buried down the main street of the town have been sitting there waiting to be installed for twelve years now, but it is finally being done. Having been left there for so many years, these concrete pipe sections have been put to all sorts of uses as temporary buildings. I noted that some of them are also being used for drying cowpats.

We had our same rickshaws in the afternoon, which meant that I rode alone in mine, a bit of a break for our nice driver.

We started out with the sort of “snark hunt” that tends to make Lee grumpy, all of us standing staring into a dark corner hoping for an Orange-headed Thrush to run across an opening. The guides were surrounding the bushes to pressure the poor thing to head in our direction. Amy finally got a good look at it, and a few others saw a flash of orange. I blinked and missed it entirely.

Orange-headed Thrush

Orange-headed Thrush
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Things went better after that as we wandered around collecting woodlands birds, including a Red Collared-Dove, a Dusky Eagle-Owl adult and fledgling, an Ashy Drongo, a Long-tailed Shrike, and a Brahminy Starling (among others):
Long-tailed Shrike

Long-tailed Shrike, Keoladeo National Park
(Image courtesy of Amy Sheldon)
Brahminy Starling

Brahminy Starling, Keoladeo National Park
(Image courtesy of Amy Sheldon)
The male and female Small Minivets both revealed gorgeous flashes of orange when they flew:

Female Small Minivet

Female Small Minivet, Keoladeo National Park
(Image courtesy of Amy Sheldon)
Male Small Minivet

Male Small Minivet
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Indian Scops Owl

i-scoped Indian Scops Owl

There were many macaques running about in the courtyard and brawling with one another. They seemed to be aware that they own the place.

Rhesus Macaque

Rhesus Macaque in Hanuman Temple
We were given permission to enter the courtyard of a Hindu temple devoted to Hanuman, the monkey god. We wanted to see the Indian Scops Owl roosting in a hollow in one of their trees. We got lovely looks, and Dion even used my iPhone to take some photos of it through his scope, so I could show Lee, which pleased me very much, but Amy’s photo came out much better:

Indian Scops Owl

Indian Scops Owl, Keoladeo National Park
(Image courtesy of Amy Sheldon)

Indian Flapshell Turtle

Indian Flapshell Turtle, Keoladeo
We were about to leave when the priest asked if we would like to watch him feed the soft-shelled turtles in the adjacent lake, which he does every day. (Dion says these are Indian Flapshell Turtles.) The priest walked down some stairs to the water carrying a bucket of a sort of porridge and began calling to the turtles, who showed up immediately. I was amazed that turtles can learn to come to being called, but these clearly had. They came in many sizes, including enormous.

I took a bunch of photos to show Lee, who surely would have enjoyed being there. Dion had never before seen the turtle feeding, though he has been to this park many times. If you would like to see and hear it just as we did, this video, though taken another day, is exactly like what we saw and heard.

Hindu priest feeding turtles

Hindu priest feeding the turtles
Painted Stork

Painted Stork, Keoladeo National Park
(Image courtesy of Amy Sheldon)
We ended the day back at the wetlands seeing wonderful birds, including a breeding-plumaged Common Redshank, but especially the Painted Stork, a bird I had been longing to see up close. And Amy got a lovely photo of an Intermediate Egret displaying the yellow-green lores of courtship plumage.

Intermediate Egret

Intermediate Egret, Keoladeo National Park
(Image courtesy of Amy Sheldon)
It was dusk by the time we had made the trip by rickshaw and bus and were finally back at the hotel. I found that Lee the news-junkie had managed to download the Times during the day despite the low bandwidth here and had had a good nap. I went with him to the dining room to do the checklist but then left when the others started dinner, so I could have some time to work on my journal. As Amy and Zach, sadly, must leave us tomorrow to start their journey home, she kindly brought me her three remaining granola bars, two of which I ate for my dinner as soon as I got back to our room. (Replenishing our supplies assumes increasing importance the further into the trip we get.) Lee stayed to have dinner with the others, but we were able to get to bed reasonably early.

My birds for the day included a dozen lifers (I didn’t make it to 100 species for the day, but the group as a whole certainly did):

Lesser Whistling Duck Greylag Goose Bar-headed Goose Comb Duck Ruddy Shelduck
Gadwall Indian Spot-billed Duck Northern Shoveler Northern Pintail Garganey
Green-winged Teal Indian Peafowl Little Grebe Black-necked Stork Painted Stork
Indian Cormorant Great Cormorant Little Cormorant Oriental Darter Black Bittern
Grey Heron Purple Heron Eastern Great Egret Intermediate Egret Little Egret
Eastern Cattle Egret Indian Pond Heron Glossy Ibis Black-headed Ibis Eurasian Spoonbill
Black-shouldered Kite Egyptian Vulture Oriental Honey-Buzzard Greater Spotted Eagle Eastern Imperial Eagle
Eurasian Marsh-Harrier Shikra Black Kite White-breasted Waterhen Purple Swamphen
Common Moorhen Eurasian Coot Sarus Crane Indian Thick-knee Black-winged Stilt
Red-wattled Lapwing White-tailed Lapwing Bronze-winged Jacana Common Redshank Rock Pigeon
Red Collared-Dove Laughing Dove Greater Coucal Indian Scops Owl Dusky Eagle-Owl
Spotted Owlet White-throated Kingfisher Pied Kingfisher Green Bee-eater Indian Roller
Eurasian Hoopoe Indian Grey Hornbill Brown-headed Barbet Coppersmith Barbet Black-rumped Flameback
Rose-ringed Parakeet Small Minivet Long-tailed Shrike Black Drongo Ashy Drongo
Rufous Treepie House Crow Grey-throated Martin Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher Red-vented Bulbul
White-eared Bulbul Dusky Warbler Hume’s Leaf Warbler Greenish Warbler Ashy Prinia
Lesser Whitethroat Jungle Babbler Indian Robin Oriental Magpie-Robin Bluethroat
Black Redstart Common Myna Asian Pied Starling Brahminy Starling Purple Sunbird
Indian Silverbill

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