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5 December 2013 / leggypeggy

Keoladeo—a wetland wonderland for birds and twitchers

Cormorants

Two cormorants drying their wings and a third just sitting there being lazy

Squeamish about snakes? There’s a pic of one snake and two lizards in the mosaic at the very bottom of this post. When it comes to wetlands, India is blessed. Almost every region of the country has at least one sort of wetland, and we were lucky enough to visit the famous Keoladeo National Park near Bharatpur. I’ve added some details at the bottom about the park and wetlands in general, but first a rundown on our two days—one on bicycles and one on foot—of exploring and twitching (birdwatching) in Keoladeo.

Keoladeo in morning mist

Keoladeo in the morning mist

Enjoying the wildlife of Keoladeo I never thought much about birds (except chickens and Thanksgiving turkey) until I moved to Australia in the early 1980s. I was gobsmacked by the colour, abundance and noises of the birds there—from rosellas to cockatoos to emus to kookaburras to galahs to budgies and more.

Jungle babbler

Jungle babbler

My enthusiasm for watching these amazing collections of feathers—as well as the birds I encountered on overland trips in Africa, South America, across Asia and now on the Indian subcontinent—has certainly turned me into at least a novice twitcher. So our visit to Keoladeo was a huge bonus. I’d never heard of the place until I got to India, and then I learned that many ornithologists, twitchers and naturalists consider it to be the best bird sanctuary in the world. The park stretches over 29 square kilometres and a bike is a great way to explore. That said, it’s not necessarily a comfortable way. We took quite a bit of time choosing bikes that we thought were the right size—with a bit of adjustment—for each of us, only to learn that the park had no spanners (wrenches) so it was impossible to adjust any bike to our heights. Even worse, most of the seats tilted up rather than down. Ouch! But we couldn’t complain about the price. Poor John took the el cheapo model that cost him 42 cents for the day. The rest of us got expensive numbers that cost 67 cents. We could have taken rickshaws for a rock-bottom hourly rate, but we reckoned that after days of sitting in the van, it was nice to stretch our legs and get some real exercise. Even with bikes, we made slow progress through the park, stopping every few metres to look at yet another bird nesting, hunting, eating, sunning or flying. It was amazing to see so many species living together—often in the same tree.

biking in Keoladeo

On our bikes with Deepti, Poor John, Renae, Gary and Anand

Sarus cranes, Keoladeo

A pair of Sarus Cranes stroll through Keoladeo

Deepti’s keen eyes spotted a pair of Sarus cranes in the distance. Although we knew we were lucky to see them at all, we wished we’d been able to catch them performing one of their showy dances that involves bowing, leaping and prancing with outspread wings. At 1.6 metres high, Sarus cranes are the world’s tallest flying birds. They are also the park’s official emblem.

But Keoladeo’s flashiest birds have to be the metre-tall painted storks. These non-migratory birds love company and usually live in large colonies near water. We saw hundreds, if not thousands, of them. In fact, we saw so many, I decided they deserved their own post. Breeding along with the painted storks, and often in the same trees, are herons, cormorants and spoonbills. I especially loved seeing cormorants and darters (also known as snakebirds) drying their wings after their fishing expeditions. I will never be able to list all the different water and land birds we saw over the two days we spent in Keoladeo. They included all the ones mentioned above plus warblers, babblers, eagles, falcons, egrets, spoonbills, ibises, bulbuls, chats, hornbills, wagtails, flycatchers, Indian rollers, kingfishers, coucals and crows. Pics are of ones I was able to photograph clearly.

Our second day in the park was even more ‘productive’ than the first. Bikes get you around fast, but sometimes too fast. You notice more when you walk. And, as Poor John will confirm, you are better able to ‘sneak up’ on birds and animals when you aren’t riding an el cheapo bike that squeaks with every turn of the pedal. That said, his squeaky bike couldn’t drown out the sound of catfish splashing around loudly in the swamps and ponds. Keoladeo is home to numerous species of fish, snakes, turtles, amphibians, mammals and invertebrates (we saw so many bugs and butterflies when we were on foot, that I’ve done a separate post on them).

While we never saw any of the many species of native cat living in Keoladeo, we did encounter spotted deer (chital), blue bull (nilgai), jackals, monkeys and feral cattle. Poor John got caught in the midst of a mini cattle stampede. A lot of people were milling around at the end of a long path, including some over enthusiastic photographers (no not me) who may have spooked the cattle. Suddenly they bolted around Poor John and into a nearby pond. Fortunately their spatial awareness was as good as most motorists’ and they managed to avoid knocking him over. In addition to enjoying all the wildlife, we stopped by the small temple, after which the park is named, and the Salim Ali Visitor Interpretation Centre. Dr Ali first set foot on the Keoladeo wetlands in 1935. He promptly became its guardian angel and was instrumental in ensuring that it was designated a national park. The centre is well set out and informative, and certainly a fitting tribute to a man who was obsessed with birds and this wilderness haven.

Keoladeo wetlands

Keoladeo wetlands a haven for resident and migratory birds

A bit about Keoladeo Keoladeo, a bird sanctuary, is an official Ramsar site or ‘wetland of international importance’. India is party to the intergovernmental treaty—Convention on Wetlands—signed in Ramsar Iran in 1971. Wetlands are the kidneys of the earth, absorbing chemicals, filtering pollutants and sediments, and cleansing million of litres of life-bearing water. They are a source of medicines, food, fuel and building materials. Above all, they provide a home for thousands of species of birds, mammals and other animals, and plants. More than 40 per cent of endangered species depend on wetlands to live.

There are more than 1500 Ramsar sites worldwide, and participating countries commit themselves to actions that recognise the planet needs wetlands not only for their species richness, but also because they are vital to sustaining the water systems that support human life. Keoladeo has been important to India since long before Ramsar, but not always for conservation reasons. Around 1850, the park’s natural depression was converted into a site for deer shooting parties. Fifty years later, work began to transform it into a duck-shooting reserve. Dykes were constructed to increase the area’s water-holding capacity, and the reserve was flooded for the first time in 1901. The newly created wetland also helped to protect Bharatpur from annual flooding.

The water brought the birds and the birds brought the hunters. A couple of shocking statistics stand out on the concrete pillars that recount past hunting expeditions. Those were times when more than 4000 birds were shot in a single day. The most disturbing tally was from 12 November 1938, when the then Governor General of India, His Excellency the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow, and his party bagged 4273 birds using just 39 guns. Luckily Keoladeo Ghana (as it was then known) was declared a bird sanctuary in 1956. For another decade, the Maharaja of Bharatpur retained hunting rights for himself, his guests and a few state guests. But for the most part, the guns were abandoned. The last leopard was shot in 1965. Several other official designations were made over the years, until 1981 when Keoladeo became a national park and a Ramsar site. Four years later, UNESCO recognised it as a World Heritage site.

birds nesting

About 130 species of bird use Keoladeo as their breeding ground

Today the park draws visitors from all over the world. Things are pretty quiet, tourist-wise, during the monsoon months of June to September. Throughout the monsoon, the insects, plants and fish prosper and multiply (up to 65 million fish fry and fingerlings per year) in preparation for the deluge of visitors who start to arrive in mid-September. That’s when all kinds of two-legged guests turn up—from tour groups to migratory birds that are often escaping harsh winters in Tibet, Siberia, Europe and China. Birds numbers reach a peak in December–January. While the park has some water year-round—thanks to the Gambhir and Banganga Rivers, Ajan Reservoir and Ghana Canal—levels subside drastically and birds begin to depart in March–April.

More than 370 species of bird have been sighted in Keoladeo, including five critically endangered, two endangered and six vulnerable species. About 230 non-migratory species remaining resident year-round. Up to 130 species use Keoladeo as a breeding ground and it is not unusual to see as many as 17 species and as many as 100 nests sharing the same tree. But the park isn’t just about birds It’s mosaic of dry grasslands, woodlands, swamps and wetlands also supports 45 species of fish, 13 of snakes, seven each of amphibians and turtles, five of lizards and 27 of mammals. In addition, there are almost 400 floral species, as well as countless butterflies and other invertebrates, which provide plenty of food for the birds and other residents.

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