High and Dry in Bharatpur


Ever since I attended an inspiring talk on the Birds of Bharatpur at an Oxford Ornithological Society meeting some years ago, this near-legendary site, the former hunting grounds of a Maharajah and the wintering grounds of the last remnants of the western population of the endangered Siberian Crane, has loomed high in the list of sites I've dreamed of visiting. My chance to achieve this long-standing ambition came earlier this month when my non-birding partner (a seasoned traveller) suggested we spend a couple of days there during a two-week trip to India. However, unfortunately, my dreams were only partly fulfilled and it seems I'll have to make another trip some other time to experience the real Bharatpur.

We'd originally aimed for a flight-only deal to Delhi, but the costs proved prohibitive. However, we found a two-week package deal to Goa which offered sufficient savings (even with accommodation included) that we decided we could afford to take an internal flight to Delhi. The flight-and-accommodation deal to Goa cost around £360, and an internal one-way flight to Delhi via Mumbai was around £140 (slightly less for under-30s).

Thus we arrived in Goa on 29th November, spent a day exploring the salt pans around our hotel in Arpora (close to the well-known beach resorts of Baga and Calangute), then caught our delayed two-hour flight from Dambolim Airport to Delhi (with an hour or so stopover at Mumbai airport following a missed connection).

After two nights and the intervening day sightseeing in Delhi, we took a train for the 3-hour journey to Bharatpur Junction. En route I saw a few waterbirds in trackside fields, including Black Ibis and various storks, egrets and waders, but I didn't worry too much about identifying them from these fleeting views as I assumed I'd get much better views in the famous Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur. However, I was to regret this laziness. We arrived in Bharatpur town at lunchtime, had a bite to eat (during which a Crested Serpent Eagle drifted over), then hired a rickshaw to the reserve, a kilometre or so from the edge of town. The first thing we were confronted by was a sign at the gate warning visitors that due to the almost complete failure of this year's autumn monsoon, the number of waterbirds was well down on the norm. This proved to be something of an understatement. I'd already been warned that the Siberian Cranes had yet to put in an appearance this season, but I wasn't prepared for the acres of bone-dry grassland and scattered trees where there should have been wide jheels (shallow monsoon lakes) carpeted with gallinules, jacanas, storks, egrets, ducks, geese and cranes.

Photos: Dave Dunford

Only in one small area where water was being pumped into a shallow lagoon, and in a few stagnant livestock watering holes, were there a few waterbirds — but a handful of Black-necked Ibis, one Intermediate Egret, a few Indian Pond Herons and White-breasted Waterhens was not the feast of waterbirds I'd been anticipating. The only geese and ducks we could find were a small flock of Greylags and a group of Shoveler with two Teal on a stagnant cattle pool (though the basking turtles, high temperatures and accompanying Red-wattled Lapwings and Greater Coucals at least reminded me that I wasn't birding a winter reservoir in Britain!)

Nevertheless we made the best of it with the help of a talented local "naturalist guide" (70 rupees, or approximately £1, per hour) and picked up a number of landbirds I'd probably have missed otherwise. Highlights included a solitary Plum-headed Parakeet among the much commoner Rose-ringed (Ring-necked) Parakeets, a pair of Spotted Owlets, another cracking Crested Serpent Eagle and roosting Indian Nightjar, Grey Nightjar and Collared Scops Owl. Needless to say we didn't encounter the solitary tigress which our guide assured us was present (see below).

Fortunately this was my first trip to Asia, so most of the birds I was seeing were new to me — thus we still enjoyed our day and a half in and around the desiccated reserve. For all that, the highlight was an 8- or 10-foot Indian Rock Python which we found sunning itself beside its trackside burrow at a range of a few feet (after a visit to a known burrow with our guide had revealed only a skein of shed skin to indicate the presence of its erstwhile resident).

Indian Rock Python
Indian Rock Python (photo: Dave Dunford)

Although there appeared to be sufficient water in the local wells and "tanks" (reservoirs) following the failed monsoon to support the needs of the local population and their agriculture, the lack of birds has had a serious effect on the local tourist trade this year. This had the minor advantage for us that the Park was not thronged with visitors and accommodation was easy to come by, but did mean that the smaller pool of tourists suffered more intensely the incessant hassle one gets from rickshaw drivers, hotel touts and the like in all touristed areas of India.

From Bharatpur we took a bus to Agra, with a stopover to view the famous palaces of the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri. The Yamuna River flows right behind the Taj Mahal in Agra and despite being heavily polluted (one report claims it is incapable of supporting any life-forms) produced Avocet, Ruddy Shelduck, River Tern, Egyptian Vulture, Painted Stork and Eurasian Spoonbill (plus the ubiquitous Black Kite and Ring-necked Parakeets to be found in most Indian cities).

From Agra we took a gruelling 36-hour train trip to Goa via Bhopal and Pune (Poona); we realised later that the route took us over the bridge that crosses the Dudhsagar Waterfalls (the second-highest in Asia) which we were to visit later by road, but unfortunately even if we'd realised and set our alarm clocks we'd have seen little of these spectacular falls in the darkness.

The second week of our trip, back in Goa, was much more relaxing and the quality of birding much more satisfactory. The poor monsoon does not seem to have been so severe in the south of India and water levels seemed normal. Kingfishers (we saw Common, White-throated, Pied and Stork-billed) were everywhere, as were Little Cormorants, Indian Pond and Green-backed Herons, various Eurasian waders and four species of egret (Cattle, Little, Great White and Intermediate). For a wider range of less familiar waterfowl I took a trip to Carambolim Lake near the former Portuguese colonial city at Old Goa, and was rewarded with Spot-billed Duck, Lesser Whistling Duck, hundreds of Purple Swamphens (Gallinules), Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacana, a flock of Asian Openbill storks, 50 or so Small Pratincoles coming in to roost, and much besides (including a Marsh Crocodile or Mugger), though I missed a reported Comb Duck lurking in the middle of this large lily-covered lake.

Carambolim Lake
Carambolim Lake (photo: Dave Dunford)

However, probably my most rewarding outings were the couple of times I ventured alone at dawn into the jungle along the ridge that separates Baga from Anjuna (as recommended in Kazmierczak and Singh's excellent A Birdwatchers' Guide to India (Prion)), a short walk from our hotel. It was great to get away from the hustle and bustle of the resorts into the relative cool and stillness of the early morning jungle. At first glance the dense undergrowth seems almost devoid of life, but sit quietly and wait and you become aware of numerous rustles and flutterings around you. Sometimes the cause of the noise never resolves itself into a firm sighting but with patience, glimpses of various species, almost all new to me, could be had. Sometimes I was not even sure to which family the bird I was looking at belonged, but it was nevertheless hugely entertaining scrabbling through the 1300-odd species in my field guide (Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent (Helm)) trying to match what I was seeing. I encountered nothing in the least bit unusual, as far as I can gather, but each trip was a joy as I scratched the surface of the huge number of new species there to get to grips with. The highlights that stick in my mind are a stunning Tickell's Blue Flycatcher devouring a large caterpillar with obvious relish; a bold and endearing White-rumped Munia that came so close to me as it nibbled at weed seeds on a jungle trackway that I thought it was actually going to perch on my boots; a party of characterful Tawny-bellied Babblers scrabbling through the leaf litter; and a stunning Black-lored Tit, a delightful life tick minutes before I reluctantly decided to head back to the hotel to pack for the flight home on our last morning.

For all the disappointments of Bharatpur, this won't be my last visit to the subcontinent. With last-minute deals to Goa available for as little as £99, I'll certainly be back — and hopefully so will the monsoon on which the birds of the Keoladeo Ghana reserve and the local tourist trade so heavily rely.

Bird list

A full bird list for the fortnight follows. It only goes to show how prolific the avifauna of India is, as I should stress that this was not a dedicated birding holiday and these 164 species were seen during a day and a half at Bharatpur in unproductive conditions, a half day at Carambolim Lake, three or four short strolls from our hotel and casual birding while sightseeing. I've omitted lots of "probables" and I'm ashamed to say a lot of hirundines, warblers, pipits and raptors went unidentified. A further hundred species would probably be possible with a little more experience, more effort and some dedicated site visits (particularly to the forest reserves such as Bondla or Molem in the Western Ghats, two or three hours south and west of the main Goan beach resorts). Species order and bird names follow that in the Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent.

1. Grey Francolin Francolinus pondicedrianus Frequently seen and heard at Keoladeo Ghana NP
2. Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatus Presumed feral pair at Arpora, Goa and feathers found in Keoladeo Ghana
3. Greylag Goose Anser anser Small flocks at Keoladeo Ghana
4. Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea Several on R. Yamuna from Taj Mahal
5. Spot-billed Duck Anas poecilorhyncha Several on Carambolim Lake, Old Goa
6. Common Teal Anas crecca Two at Keoladeo Ghana
7. Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata Seven at Keoladeo Ghana
8. Rufous Woodpecker Celeus brachyurus One at Arpora
9. Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos nanus Pair at Keoladeo Ghana
10. Yellow-crowned Woodpecker Dendrocopos mahrattensis One at Keoladeo Ghana
11. Black-rumped Flameback Dinopium benghalense Common: Arpora, Delhi, Keoladeo Ghana
12. Coppersmith Barbet Megalaima haemacephala Bharatpur, pair in jungle near Baga
13. Indian Grey Hornbill Ocyceris birostris Relatively common at Keoladeo Ghana
14. Common Hoopoe Upupa epops Relatively common, including at Red Fort in Delhi
15. Indian Roller Coracias benghalensis Relatively common on roadside wires and in Keoladeo Ghana
16. Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis Extremely common in Goa
17. Stork-billed Kingfisher Halcyon capensis Three sightings in Goa
18. White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrensis Ubiquitous (even in central Delhi)
19. Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis Common in Goa
20. Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis Widespread in Goa
21. Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus Several at Carambolim Lake
22. Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopacea Several at Arpora and Baga
23. Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis Common in Keoladeo Ghana and elsewhere
24. Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri Ubiquitous
25. Plum-headed Parakeet Psittacula cyanocephala One in Keoladeo Ghana; pair at Baga
26. Asian Palm Swift Cypsiurus balasiensis Arpora
27. House Swift Apus affinis Several at Carambolim Lake
28. Alpine Swift Tachymarptis melba Two over Baga Ridge
29. Collared Scops Owl Otus bakkamoena Three at Keoladeo Ghana, roosting in coconut palms by day
30. Spotted Owlet Athene brama Two in tree hole in Keoladeo Ghana
31. Grey Nightjar Caprimulgus indicus One roosting by day in Keoladeo Ghana
32. Indian Nightjar Caprimulgus asiaticus One roosting by day in Keoladeo Ghana
33. Rock Pigeon Columba livia Ubiquitous
34. Laughing Dove Streptopelia sengalensis Fairly common; e.g. in Red Fort at Delhi
35. Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis Common at Arpora
36. Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto Several in Delhi
37. Yellow-footed Green Pigeon Treron phoenicoptera Delhi, Keoladeo Ghana
38. Sarus Crane Grus antigone Two or three pairs in Keoladeo Ghana and from Delhi–Bharatpur train
39. White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus Common at Bharatpur; a few in Goa
40. Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio Large numbers at Carambolim Lake; NONE in Keoladeo Ghana
41. Common Moorhen Gallinula choropus Common at Carambolim Lake; NONE in Keoladeo Ghana
42. Common Coot Fulica atra Common at Carambolim Lake; NONE in Keoladeo Ghana
43. Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago One at Arpora
44. Common Redshank Tringa totanus Common in Goa
45. Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis Several at Arpora and on paddies at Carambolim Lake
46. Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia Common in Goa
47. Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus Several at Arpora
48. Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola Common on paddies at Carambolim Lake
49. Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos Common in Goa
50. Eurasian Thick-Knee (Stone Curlew) Burhinus oedicnemus Pair at Keoladeo Ghana
51. Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus Common in N. India and Goa
52. Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta One on R. Yamuna from Taj Mahal
53. Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus Several at Carambolim Lake (less common than Bronze-winged)
54. Bronze-winged Jacana Metopidius indicus Good numbers at Carambolim Lake
55. Small Pratincole Glareola lactea Flocks of 40–50 at dusk to roost at Carambolim Lake
56. Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius Two or three on paddies at Carambolim Lake
57. Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus One or two on tideline at night on Baga beach
58. River Lapwing Vanellus duvaucelii R. Yamuna, Taj Mahal
59. Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus Very common
60. Pallas's Gull Larus ichthyaetus Several on dolphin-watching trip from Baga
61. Brown-headed Gull Larus brunnicephalus Several on dolphin-watching trip from Baga
62. River Tern Sterna aurantia One along R. Yamuna, Taj Mahal
63. Whiskered Tern Chlidonia hybridus One over paddyfields at Carambolim Lake
64. Osprey Pandion haliaetus One over Arpora
65. Black-shouldered Kite Elanus caeruleus Several at Keoladeo Ghana
66. Black Kite Milvus migrans Ubiquitous
67. Brahminy Kite Haliastur indicus Common in Goa but absent in N. India
68. White-bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster Common along Goan coast
69. Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus Several at Taj Mahal and elsewhere
70. Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela Two at Keoladeo Ghana
71. Eurasian Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus Several at Carambolim Lake and elsewhere
72. Shikra Accipiter badius One at Keoladeo Ghana
73. Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga Several sightings at Keoladeo Ghana
74. Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus One over Baga Ridge
75. Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus One at Keoladeo Ghana
76. Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus One at Carambolim Lake
77. Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis One or two at Carambolim Lake
78. Little Cormorant Phalacrocorax niger Common in Goa
79. Indian Cormorant Phalacrocorax fuscicollis Relatively common in Goa
80. Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo Seen occasionally in Goa
81. Little Egret Egretta garzetta Common
82. Great (White) Egret Casmerodius alba Relatively common
83. Intermediate Egret Mesophoyx intermedia Relatively common
84. Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Very common
85. Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii Common
86. Grey Heron Ardea cinerea Fairly common in small numbers
87. Purple Heron Ardea purpurea Two or three in various sites in Goa
88. Little Heron Butorides striatus Fairly frequent in Goa
89. Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus Several flocks at Keoladeo Ghana and elsewhere
90. Black-headed Ibis Threskiornis melanocephalus Small flock at Keoladeo Ghana and from Delhi–Bharatpur train
91. Black Ibis Pseudibis papillosa In fields from Delhi–Bharatpur train
92. Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia Feeding flock in R. Yamuna, Taj Mahal
93. Painted Stork Mycteria leucocephala Two on R. Yamuna, Taj Mahal
94. Asian Openbill Anastomus oscitans Flock of 40 settled briefly on paddies at Carambolim Lake
95. Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus Fairly common at Keoladeo Ghana
96. Bay-backed Shrike Lanius vittatus Keoladeo Ghana
97. Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach Fairly common
98. Rufous Treepie (Tiger Bird) Dendrocitta vagabunda Common at Keoladeo Ghana and also at Baga Ridge
99. House Crow Corvus splendens Ubiquitous
100. Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos Less common than House Crow
101. Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus Common in Arpora/Baga area
102. Black-hooded Oriole Oriolus xanthornus One male on Baga Ridge
103. Black-headed Cuckooshrike Coracina melanoptera Female at Carambolim Lake
103. Small Minivet Pericrocotus cinnamomeus Flocks in Keoladeo Ghana and at Baga Ridge
104. White-throated Fantail Rhipidura albicollis Common on Baga Ridge
105. Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus Common
106. Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus Less common
107. White-bellied Drongo Dicrurus caerulescens Two at Baga Ridge
108. Common Iora Aegithina tiphia Baga Ridge
109. Malabar Whistling Thrush Myophonus horsfieldii One at Dudhsagar Waterfall
110. Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica Baga Ridge
111. Red-throated Flycatcher Ficedula parva Several at Keoladeo Ghana
112. Tickell's Blue Flycatcher Cyornis tickelliae One at Baga Ridge
113. Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher Culicicapa ceylonensis Two or three at Keoladeo Ghana
114. Bluethroat Luscinia svecica One (!) at Keoladeo Ghana
115. Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis Common
116. Indian Robin Saxicoloides fulicate Fairly common
117. Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochrurous (race phoenicuroides) Common at Keoladeo Ghana
118. Common Stonechat Saxicola torquata Arpora; Carambolim Lake
119. Pied Bushchat Saxicola caprata Common at Keoladeo Ghana and elsewhere
120. Brown Rock-chat Cercomela fusca Fatehpur-Sikri
121. Chestnut-tailed Starling Sturnus malabaricus Carambolim Lake
122. Brahminy Starling Sturnus pagodarum Common at Keoladeo Ghana
123. Rosy Starling Sturnus roseus Carambolim Lake and Mandovi River
124. Asian Pied Starling Sturnus contra Common at Keoladeo Ghana
125. Common Myna Acridotheres tristis Common
126. Black-lored Tit Parus xanthogenys One on Baga Ridge
127. Plain Martin Riparia paludicola Common in Goa
128. Wire-tailed Swallow Hirundo smithii Common around Goa
129. Red-rumped Swallow Hirundo daurica Common
130. Red-whiskered Bulbul Pycnonotus jocosus Widespread in Goa
131. White-eared Bulbul Pycnonotus leucotis Common at Keoladeo Ghana
132. Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer Common at Keoladeo Ghana and in Goa
133. White-browed Bulbul Pycnonotus luteolus Fairly common at Baga Ridge
134. Plain Prinia Prinia inornata Fairly common at Keoladeo Ghana
135. Ashy Prinia Prinia socialis Fairly common in Goa
136. Blyth's Reed Warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum Keoladeo Ghana
137. Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca Common at Keoladeo Ghana
138. Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides Common
139. Tawny-bellied Babbler Dumetia hyperythra Baga Ridge
140. Large Grey Babbler Turdoides malcolmi Keoladeo Ghana
150. Jungle Babbler Turdoides striatus Common at Keoladeo Ghana and elsewhere
151. Plain Flowerpecker Dicaeum concolor Baga Ridge
152. Purple-rumped Sunbird Nectarinia zeylonica Fairly widespread in Goa
153. Purple Sunbird Nectarinia asiatica Common
154. Crimson Sunbird Aethopyga siparaja Fairly common in Goa
155. House Sparrow Passer domesticus Fairly common
156. Chestnut-shouldered Petronia Petronia xanthocollis Common in Keoladeo Ghana
157. White Wagtail Motacilla alba Fairly infrequent
158. White-browed Wagtail Motacilla maderaspatensis Common in Goa (e.g. Arpora, Carambolim Lake)
159. Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola Common (Keoladeo Ghana, Carambolim Lake)
160. Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava On paddyfields at Carambolim Lake; one of the dark-headed races
161. Paddyfield Pipit Anthus rufulus Common at Keoladeo Ghana and elsewhere
162. Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni Common at Keoladeo Ghana
163. Baya Weaver Ploceus philppinus Small flock on overgrown paddies at Carambolim Lake
164. White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata Common
Addenda: Subscriber Jeff Higgott adds: "I read with interest the write-up of your Indian trip. Not sure whether the tigress is still present but it was certainly around when we were there (February 2001). We saw plenty of pug marks but didn't see the animal. Our guide took us into the area beyond the "tigress - do not go beyond this point" sign birding. He said that he once slept in the area overnight and awoke to find the tigress only 30m away. Given their natural avoidance of people and the number of locals who happily walk through Bandhavgar (where we saw 4 tigers in 5 days) I can believe it. Bharatpur has had three dry winters in a row now."

Adrian Royle adds: "I visited in February 1999 when still wet, a fabulous way to celebrate my 40th birthday. No tiger about then, but a Siberian Rubythroat put on a nice show. I returned in November 2000, very dry. Water was being pumped up from underground. Quite a disappointing visit, although the Siberian Cranes were in residence and viewed from very close up. The highlight was a Greater Adjutant stork."

For an update on the monsoon situation for autumn 2003 see Water (and Birds!) at Bharatpur by Mike Prince.
Written by: Dave Dunford