Nearly 300 years ago, the ruler of the princely state of Bharatpur constructed a bund to channelise waters from Banganga and Gambhir rivers, to a nearby depression. Thus was born the wetlands of Bharatpur, christened Keoladeo Ghana after a temple in the vicinity. With the arrival of water, came the birds. And the marshes became the favourite hunting grounds for English masters and their princely partners.
Come independence, the hunting grounds became a sanctuary and in 1985, granted the status of a World Heritage Site. A status, well deserved – for there are very few places, where one can observe such a bewildering variety of avian life, at such close quarters in their natural habitat. And for that reason, Keoladeo National Park is without parallel.
A muster of Painted Storks ( Mycteria leucocephala) rest and preen on an island in the heart of Keoladeo. They’re perhaps taking a break from the tiresome routine of feeding their young, who have voracious appetites. The park has are a favourite breeding grounds for the species, where more than a thousand pairs can be found between the monsoon and winter months.
The three stages in the life of a Painted Stork. When born, they are practically balls of white fluff (centre, in the nest) with a black beak. As they grow – they turn grey (as seen in the juveniles on the right). On reaching adulthood, their plumage morphs into the beautiful white and black with pink markings, from where they get their name.
An adult painted stork catches a snooze, having spent the afternoon feeding in the algae rich waters of the wetlands. Their primary diet consists of small fish, but they will happily gorge on frogs and snakes as well.
A Purple Heron ( Ardea purpurea) looks curiously at a visitor, perhaps with good reason. White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) are not common in these parts at all. In fact, this individual was the first to be seen in the park in 5 or 6 years. In winters they migrate south from Europe and Central Asia to Africa. But it does seem that a few strays end up in the subcontinent as well.
Purple Herons though, are permanent residents at Keoladeo. Their species is distributed across Europe, Africa and Asia. They favour densely vegetated habitats near water, particularly reed beds. They feed on a range of prey including fish, rodents, frogs and insects, either stalking them or standing waiting in ambush.
The plentiful water also attracts scores of cormorants. Seen here are the Little Cormorant ( Microcarbo niger), and its larger cousin – the Indian Cormorant ( Phalacrocorax fuscicollis). They are expert fish hunters and dive underwater to catch them. Some cultures have been known to utilize these skills for using captive cormorants for commercial fishing.
Unlike many other water birds, cormorants do not have oiled wings. This allows them to dive deeper and move faster underwater. In fact some cormorants have been recorded to dive as deep as 45m. The downside to this is that have to spend a lot of time drying their wings after each dive. They usually do so from the perch of a branch or a mound, close to the water itself.
The Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) is a relative of the cormorants, but is easily distinguished by is long, slender neck, The neck also gives the species its colloquial name of Snakebird. The body remains submerged as it swims, and the neck alone is visible above the water, giving the appearance of a snake. Like cormorants, they spend a lot of time sunning, and drying their feathers on a waterside perch.
One can spend hours in Bharatpur, watching the antics of Little Grebes ( Tachybaptus ruficollis). These tiny birds are The little grebe excellent swimmers and divers. They pursues fish and aquatic invertebrate prey underwater. They are known to use vegetation skilfully as a hiding place, before launching an attack. Colloquially known as Dabchick, they are found in freshwater bodies across Europe, Asia and Far East.
The Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus) is a striking bird to say the least, and it is easy to guess how they got their name. They have huge feet and claws which enable them walk on floating vegetation, that are their preferred habitat. They have an interesting, sex-role reversed system. The females are usually bigger and more brightly colored than their male counterparts. The females compete with each other for harems of males to incubate their clutches of eggs. Each female’s territory encompasses one to four males and their individual territories. After laying the eggs, the female plays virtually no role in the upbringing of the offspring.
In the drier parts of the park Long-tailed or Rufous-backed Shrikes (Lanius schach) can often be seen perched on shrubs and branches. From these lookouts, they tend to swoop at an angle to take lizards, large insects, small birds and rodents
Large raptors are usually winter visitors to the park, like this Greater spotted eagle ( Clanga clanga). These large birds of prey can have wingspans of nearly 2m and migrate down from Europe and Central Asia. They are increasingly getting rare and classified as ‘Threatened’, with less than 4,000 mature individuals remaining in the wild.
The Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo) is from the falcon family, found on high branches and wires on the outer reaches of the park. These elegant, dark grey birds of prey are fast and powerful in flight. Such is their speed and aerobatic skill, that they can catch fast moving birds and bats in flight.
Principal among the the scavengers found in Bharatpur are Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus). Adults have a characteristic white and black plumage, with a bare yellow face and beak. Immatures however, are darker with a greyish face. Apart from feeding on carrion, they even take vegetable matter and faeces in their diet. As a result, they are often found near landfills as well. They tend to roost communally on large trees, buildings or on cliffs.
While distributed across Iberia, North Africa, Middle East and South Asia, their populations have declined rapidly in recent years due to widespread use of pesticide, hunting and other man made reasons. It is estimated that in the 1990s, Delhi and its environs had a population of around 12-15,000 individuals. Today, they have all but vanished. Globally, they are classified by the IUCN as threatened – leading to severe stress on ecosystems.
While Bharatpur is a shining example of how a hunting ground can be turned around successfully into a sanctuary. More needs to be done to preserve these fragile ecosystems. The park’s population of herbivore mammals is now competing with scores of domesticated cows and bulls that have found their way here and are flourishing. Feral dogs now roam free, threatening the birds. High tension power lines, illegal encroachments and other human development around the parks is stressing the arrival of migrant populations. Already, numbers of many migratory species have dwindled.
So, it is up to the authorities to sort these issues out, but there seems to be a lack of will. Even the water supply, critical to the survival of these wetlands is subject to frequent political battles. Which leaves the long term future of the park in question.
One night in Amritsar Jṉ