Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bird watching in Bharatpur

Bharatpur is not on most people’s Rajasthani itineraries but it appeals to me for two reasons; it’ll serve as a base for exploring the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, some 22km away, and it’s right beside the Keoladeo bird sanctuary. That’s right, birds. I have come to Bharatpur to be an ornithologist for a day or at least to pass myself off as one. Bird watching has to be up there with train spotting and stamp collecting in the nerd alert stakes and yet I‘m very excited about the day ahead which proves one of two things;

(a) Bird watching is not as nerdy as I had imagined or

(b) I am a nerd

I’ll go with (a). The best way around the park is by bike and there are several bikes for rent by the ticket desk. What you need above all when bird watching though are binoculars and, in a typically Indian twist, there are none to be had because of some form of contractual dispute between the suppliers and the park authorities. I’m assured at my guest house that I’ll be able to rent a pair from the guides but they aren’t having any of it as I don’t want to employ their services for the day. And so, binocularless, off I go into the park, feeling somewhat naked, a nerd amongst nerds.

One of the more fascinating species I immediately spot and have no problems recognising is the classic bird watching type - a bespectacled and pot-bellied Englishman in his mid to late 50’s with a plummy BBC voice (“And to the left you can see the black-necked stork who over-winter here on a 2,000km round journey from north eastern Siberia”) contemptuously disagreeing with an equally nerdy American counterpart over the identification of a stork they’ve spotted at a distance. He’s kitted out in full bird watching regalia; combat pants, fisherman’s vest, notebook and pencil and a pocket reference guide just to confirm that he’s right whenever he and the American disagree. The man is a walking cliché but he’s knowledgeable as hell and it’s from him I gather some idea of what it is I’m looking at. For much of the day though I feel like the guy at the Trekkie convention who asks “So which one’s Mr. Spock?”

Sure I could have employed the services of a guide - at least then I could name some of the birds I’m ignoring - but it’s 400 INR to get in and then 100 INR an hour for a guide’s services beyond that. One hour barely gets you inside the park and all of the avian heavy hitters lie much deeper inside the park and so I plan to follow the bird man of BBC for the day. Not really. In truth I can’t be arsed identifying the scores of different birds, it’s enough being in here amidst the occasional din of nesting storks and spotting the vivid multi-coloured plumage of what I assume aren‘t parrots. I’m just happy being here and cycling around having finally escaped from Delhi for the next month or so at least.

There’s a remarkable monument in the heart of the park which details the amount of birds killed in a day and the guns used to do so back in the days when the park was a duck shoot reserve. One number towers above all others - that of the venerable Viceroy Lord Linlithgow whose party bagged a staggering 4,273 birds on one day using a mere 39 guns. I have no idea how the bird man of BBC will feel about the actions of his fellow countryman but I enjoy the thought of the American bird watcher exacting some small measure of revenge by giving him a hard time over it.

And yet by the end of the day, in spite of any misgivings I may have about bird watching, it is a stunning park and I can’t help but be impressed and drawn in by what I see during the day. For instance I manage to see my first python which I had been happily cycling past until a passing local drew my attention to it. Shit, I love snakes, and so I stood transfixed until the snake grew bored of where he was and slithered away. Birds? Pah.

There are also nesting storks looking ridiculous high in the trees and two beautiful wading birds who’ve got everyone’s attention and all of the long lenses out. I stand there in the midst of them with my point and shoot camera and feel like the kid at school who showers with his underwear on. There are deer, cows, chital, nalgai, snakes, wild boar, monkeys and jackals to be seen at various stages throughout the day. There’s also a solitary tiger roaming in the park - great for hunting, not so good for reproduction - and there are signs warning the public to stay on the main roads once inside the park boundaries. I don’t see the tiger but he’s left his mark behind as I see a freshly killed cow’s carcass being eaten by wild boars whilst some equally hungry jackals lie in wait for the boars to have their fill.


  1. Definately A: Nerd but don't worry because as you have seen, you are not alone