Sunday, 3 July 2016

A week at Bharatpur - Friday 11th to Sunday 20th March 2016

Getting there
Just put "The Steve Rowland" on them". Saturday afternoon and I was in a hurry to leave the BirdFair and avoid the worst of the end of day traffic jam as thousands of my fellow birders headed home. 

BirdFair raffle tickets
The problem with a tribe gathering is that eventually it has to disperse and when that is by hundreds of cars along a narrow lane skirting the edge of England's largest reservoir this can be a slow process. So by 4.30pm on the Saturday of last year's BirdFair I was keen to extricate myself from the marquee that I was in and get back to my car and off site before the end of day rush.
Brahminy Myna, Bharatpur
But I had one last decision to make should I delay my departure and head back into a hot and crowded marquee to stop at the Oriental Bird Club [OBC] stand to buy my usual £10's worth of raffle tickets. 

At this point I should say that I normally I buy raffle tickets at the BirdFair to support the cause with little expectation of actually winning anything. The day before I'd bought a couple of raffle tickets with a first prize of an Antarctic cruise and had joked with my wife about what I would do if I won, in the sure knowledge that I never win anything, could I leave her alone for two weeks with our two small boys whilst I went off to the far end of the world birding. Or would I gracefully decline the prize.

I didn't visit the BirdFair on the Sunday, its my least favourite day most of the serious birders have visited on the Friday and Saturday meaning the chances of those accidental encounters with old friends are much reduced and the exhibitors are a little tired and have half an eye on the nightmare which is packing down.

Beer at Schipol Airport

So when after a short walk at RSPB Titchwell Marsh nature reserve I got home on the Sunday afternoon of Birdfair weekend and my wife told me that my friend Mike the OBC Chairman had called to tell me that I'd won a prize, I assumed that he was calling to tell me that I'd won a book or something. When after having spoke to Mike I told my family that I'd won a week in India, there was much excitement with the boys [age three and six] who decided pretty rapidly that they would like to come with me.

Fun as this sounded on sober reflection we eventually we decided that this was not the trip to introduce the boy's to long haul travel and that I would go with an old friend for a week of full on birding.

It had been a while since I had last organised a long haul trip and some of our decisions about when we went were driven by factors that the younger me didn't have to consider such as school holidays, work commitments etc. I quickly decided that if we could, we'd avoid the hassle of the big London airports and fly with KLM from Norwich to Delhi via Schipol. This was a good call with both Norwich and Schipol proving great airports.

Indian bureaucracy was something I'd forgotten about, but in reality applying for a e-visa was straightforward even if the queues at Delhi airport and the allied finger printing and photographing of a couple of jumbo jets worth of jet lagged tourists by an inadequate half a dozen immigration desks somewhat under mined the modern hassle free e-visa process.

Raj Singh, the owner of the Bagh and donator of our prize to the OBC, put me in touch with Savita at Exotic Journeys, who did very able job of organising our ground arrangements. These included a car and driver from Delhi to Bharatpur and back, it was quite a novelty for me to be met by someone at the airport with my name on a sign to take me to my car.

Flowers at The Bagh at Bharatpur
India a quarter of a century on
It might just be my imagination but I feel that Bharatpur used to have a higher profile in western birding circles than it does today. Maybe demise of the Siberian White Cranes that used to winter within the Park has reduced its legendary status, if Indeed my perception of it's lower profile is correct. Maybe there is just more competition for birding destinations today. But it's where back in the winter of 1989/90 I first visited Asia and where I started my first big long haul birding trip

Siberian White Cranes at Bharatpur during the winter of 1989/90
Looking back I recall my youthful self's "life plan" had been to do the "tougher" long haul destinations whilst young and then the easier (Europe and the States) as I got older. Those early trip's were done on cheap, this trip was easier, less hassle and more time efficient and a much more concentrated experience lasting just a week compared to my two previous trips to the sub-continent which lasted ten and six weeks respectively.

Frequent request on the back of an Indian truck
In some ways I was more excited about this short visit to India than I had been about those long youthful trips when time wasn't in short supply and I had a working assumption that I could always come back another time. Now the chances of getting to places like India are limited by the usual mix of financial constraints, family commitments and a busy job. So I guess I'm time poor but unfortunately not cash rich.

What did we want
So what did we want from the trip? We'd both been to India and Bharatpur before, but neither for many years, both had spent many months birding the subcontinent. So not many lifers on offer during this trip and we wondered if we were going a little late in the season for "northern migrants". We both wanted to see Indian Skimmers and my friend Adam wanted Indian Courser, whilst I was particularly keen to see Gangetic River Dolphin and to do some photography. With time tight we decided to not try and stay anywhere other than the Bagh at Bharatpur for our seven nights in India. We wanted to "Bird" for ourselves for the first few days and so didn't hire a guide initially, although we did get a little help from rickshaw drivers. We then hired a guide for a day trip to the Chambal River and for another day in the countryside around Bharatpur looking for grassland and open country birds. This worked well. On our way back to Delhi we had four or five hours at Okhla on our own which was great and the site felt like a great birdy patch on the edge of a big city. So in essence we were two middle aged blokes with busy jobs and young families, normally short of birding time looking to maximise our time in the field and enjoy the experience, learn a little and get occasionally confused by our memories of the Bharatpur we had both visited separately a quarter of a century ago.

Five Striped Ground Squirrel trying to blag some food.
But it was not just about Birding (but it was mainly about the birds) I think we'd both forgotten about what an assault on the senses India can be and even with the modernisation of Delhi in particular it is still very different culturally to the UK. During my first visit in the winter of 89/90 western brands like Coke were still banned, on this visit global brands were much in evidence particularly on the roads in the form of motor cars.
Indian Road user
Other changes that impacted on us more than they would your average tourist were the names of Indian birds and I spent many hours in my home office ahead of the trip cross referencing the names in the old Pictorial Guide and my 25 year old field notebooks with Inskipp, Inskipp and Grimmett's modern field guide.

The first thing that struck us as we left the airport was the chaotic road culture and the vast developments of high tec industries in the Gurgaon district around Delhi. As it got light, through a jet lagged fug we started to pick out the first birds of the trip. We experienced a surreal moment as we left a service station and drove out through the gates back onto the highway there were two macaques wearing dresses and lipstick which saluted us. I never did take a picture of this to share with you, my travelling companion insisted that would only encourage this reprehensible behaviour, but hey monkeys in dresses.

The Bagh at Bharatpur

Hibiscus at The Bagh at Bharatpur
When we got to the Bagh we received a warm welcome from Raj and his manager and after a buffet lunch we had our second wind and spent our first 500 rupees a day foreigners entrance fee [about £5] to get into the Keoladeo National Park aka Bharatpur and spent the afternoon in the park birding and were enjoying the delightful Little Green Bee-eaters that fed by the side of the road. You can find out more about the Bagh here http://www.thebagh.com/  

Flowers at The Bagh at Bharatpur
Vignettes
There are many stand out moments from our week and rather than write a chronological account here are a few snapshots in words and pictures from our visit.

Pied Kingfisher, Bharatpur
Smyrna, Bharatpur
Sarus Cranes 
We had our first, fleeting, view of Sarus Cranes from our car as we drove south from Delhi to Bharatpur. In the park initially we saw little of these magnificent birds with our best sighting early on being of a pair in a small Marsh beside a path which was a long walk from the busy central paved road through the middle of the Park.

As the week went on we had more and more sightings, a few of which etched themselves in our memories. I stumbled upon one pair in the grassland by the edge of a path. I was able to sit down and watch, film and photograph them from a few tens of metres. The male bird doing a very measured and ornate display dance to the female, whilst in the background carried the sound of another bugling pair of Cranes.


Sarus Cranes, Bharatpur
Shortly after this encounter one evening as we were slowly trudging out of the Park at dusk we came across a group of seven Sarus Cranes bugling to each other and feeding close to the main track through the centre of the park, these had attracted a small crowd of admirers enjoying the Cranes and the Orange ball of the sun setting behind them. A wonderfully evocative moment.

But trumping all these Crane encounters was what is perhaps my favourite memory of the week. We were sitting in our boat on the Chambol River happy that we had seen the Gangetic River Dolphins and Indian Skimmers the reasons for our visit to this site. As the boast gently bobbed in the river a family of three Cranes wading through the sandy dun coloured shallows on the wild Chambol River whilst a flock of Bar Headed Geese flew in behind them and a pair of Black Winged Stilts consummated the elaborate courtship dance that they had treated each other and us to on the flat topped sand bank to the side of our boat.


Sarus Cranes, Chambol River
Siberian Rubythroat
Many of the long distance migrants had already left the park, but a male Siberian Rubythroat was still showing well around the edge of a gloomy pool in the bushes by a checkpoint in the Park.

Siberian Rubythroat, Bharatpur, 
The Sibe Rubythroat shared the pool with some large frogs whose croaking filled the silence as we waited for the bird to appear. This bird would magically reveal itself appearing out of the tangle of vegetation in low light a plain brown Song Thrush sized bird which would turn and in doing so hit you between the eyes with its vivid scarlet throat. Here we came across an Indian Twitch and perhaps a sign of how an emerging middle class has taken up enjoying nature as a leisure pastime. Multi-coloured clothes, across ages & genders gathered to stare at a gloomy little pool.

Macaques
One of my aims [apart from squeezing a quart of birding, photography, travel, banter and eating into a pint pot of seven days] was to spend time with a troop of Rhesus Macaques and getting some decent images of them.

What I'd forgotten about Rhesus Macaques is what lairy buggers they are and what a pain they must be to live with. One lesson I quickly learnt was that the big males don't like eye contact and that seemed to include the 'eye' which is a telephoto lens. Once by the temple inside the park a male aggressively warned me that it didn't like me taking its picture and again on the entrance drag as I videoed a troop passing me a male made a lunge for me and was fortunately chased off by our rickshaw driver.

Rhesus Macaques, Bharatpur
But having said all that, I did enjoy my time with them, their dark intelligent eyes, comedy pink bums, social groups and all round adaptability.

We did come across one troop of Langur's outside the park and these were certainly on this occasion more timid than the Macaques, keeping their distance and staying in the trees and ruins of  an old factory.

Greater Coucal
The Bagh [which is Persian for Garden] is a complex of accommodation buildings set in well vegetated grounds, not a garden in the European sense of flower beds but a wonderful tranquil oasis and we would spend time at the start and end of the day quietly wandering the paths through the trees and shrubs birding and photographing. The highlight of these walks was a Orange Headed Ground Thrush [the only one we saw all trip] that bounced out onto a wall one morning.


Greater Coucal in the Bagh Garden
But my most memorable encounter here was a Greater Coucal that I saw eating a small snake that it had caught. It had been a long hot days birding and I had low expectations of my walk around the garden and was in a bit of a daze when a Coucal flew up from the path that ran alongside one of the buildings. When it landed I noticed that it had a snake in its bill and I was able to carefully stalk it take some pictures of it disembowelling and eating the snake whilst a Taiga Flycatcher called in the background.

Chambol boat trip
A key species for me to see was Gangetic River Dolphin and I knew that we could do a day trip from Bharatpur to try and see these on the Chambol River. So on one of the two days that we hired a guide we asked him to take us to the River and sort out a boat trip. We drove down to the jetty in the shadow of a giant road bridge and to a car park by the jetty and reception hut that was surrounded by brightly coloured flags. On the wall of the hut the copious rules of the river trip were written in Hindi and English. River Lapwings fed on the edge of the river which looked low.

River Lapwings and Gharial, Chambol River
We got aboard our boat, the only passengers and turned right to search first for Dolphins. As we headed downstream we saw our first Gharial and Marsh Muggers hauled out on the sandy river bank, more River Lapwings and some Greater Thick-knees. I missed the first Dolphin and was starting to get a little agitated that I might not see one when a Dorsal broke a few times in front of us, not the greatest of views and no photos were possible but good to see this enigmatic creature.

Having seen the Dolphins albeit briefly we turned around and passed under the road bridge past some low islands on which Spoonbills and Gharials loafed and River Lapwings fed. This area felt a little wilder but even so there were still folk on the river bank. We came to some small low sandy islands where we counted 34 Indian Skimmers which gave great views, even if none of them flew around and did any skimming whilst we were there.

Indian Skimmer, Chambol River
As we watched the Skimmers our attention was distracted by Small Pratincoles and a pair of courting and mating Black Winged Stilts. A family party of Sarus Cranes picked their way through the shallows whilst a flock of Bar Headed Geese flighted in to land in the water around them. The Cranes elegant birds on a wild river cutting through a dun brown landscape, the Geese about to head north to Tibet over the high Himalaya, a wonderful snapshot of wild India.

Shrikes
Whilst I don't have a favourite bird or even family of birds I do like Shrikes, a lot. On this trip we had good prolonged views of two Species Long Tailed and Bay Backed, although we had to wait till late in the trip to see the latter species which prefers the drier parts of the Park. These shots were digi-scoped by hand holding to the eyepiece of my Kowa 883 Scope my Panasonic Lumix TZ30 which I set to max on macro zoom. This arrangement seems to work well in locations like northern India where there is great light and birds sitting up gagging to have their picture or video taken. It is not as sure fire a method back home in north Norfolk when the light is so so, the wind is blowing and the birds are less cooperative. Still in my book any day with a Shrike in it is a good one and I don't need much of an excuse to share these pictures with you.

Bay Backed Shrike, Bharatpur
A Flutterer
Whilst our main focus was birds followed by mammals and the odd charismatic Herp, we did look at the more eye catching insects that we came across including the dragonflies. Perhaps the most striking of these was this beast which I have since found out via my friend Phil Benstead at http://www.odonatours.com/  is a  female Common Picture Wing also known as  Variegated Flutterer or Rhyothemis variegata. We spent a enjoyable half an hour trying to photograph this very active individual as it patrolled an open area by the side of a ditch. Looking on the web it is said to have a weak flight and to be easily mistaken for a butterfly but my mind was more drawn to memories of Owlflies [Ascalaphidae]that I had seen in the Spanish Pyrenees. Either way it was very exciting to have one of those what the hell is that and whatever it is doesn't it look great moments, followed by the frustration of trying to get a picture of an active insect for both identification and aesthetic reasons.

Female Common Picture Wing, Bharatpur
Okhla

Bluethroat, Okhla
The plan all along was to maximise time in the field, so that the fact that travelling by road at night in India is best avoided was a bit of a problem as it meant getting to and from the airport in daylight and using up valuable birding time. Whilst this was unavoidable the plan was on the way back to break the journey on the outskirts of Delhi at Okhla. I felt rather at home here, a marsh on the edge of a big city by the side of a river, it reminded me a bit of some of the places I've birded around London and the Thames estuary over the years. It was also pretty devoid of people compared to Bharatpur, we passed a few folk walking along the tarmac road that runs along the side of the river and then when we walked into the marsh proper there were just a couple of young lads messing about with a camera. It was great to be able to bird without being interrupted and to feel that you had the place to yourselves. It was also a great place for birds and we had some brilliant views here of Bluethroat  and added Striated Grassbird to our trip list.

Okhla view
Trip list?
I have an Excel file with our trip list on it, when I'll get a minute I'll work out how to add it to this blog.

End
Looking back we probably left our visit as late as was comfortable, already the temperature was rising and many of the northern migrants had left for their breeding grounds, another week or two and I think we would have had to stop birding in the middle of the day and birds like that splendid male Sibe Rubythroat would have departed. I haven't done the maths but of the 198 species that we recorded between us a good number were records of a single individual, both a testament to the hard work that we put in but also to the fact that many species were on the move and we were picking up the last odd individuals.

Indian Courser near Bharatpur
So I am left now with a wonderful mish-mash of memories of this short and intense trip; the luck of buying the winning raffle ticket, the friendship and good humour of Adam my travelling companion, the chaos of Indian roads, birding in hot sunny weather, marshes filled with birds, aggressive macaques, that wonderful trip along the Chambol river and of course loads of stunning birds. As Kipling wrote "If you've heard the east a calling..." and as Arnold Schwarzenniger said "I'll be back".


The Bagh at Bharatpur

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