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Keoladeo : Tips to travel inside park for some serious bird watching!


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Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur in Rajasthan has always been the numero uno of India’s bird sanctuaries. One of the oldest and the most acclaimed one. It is also close to hearts of all birders as it was the playground of India’s most known birder, none other than Salim Ali for more than half a century.

Visiting this park is always a thrill for serious bird watchers. Watching birds here need some good planning. I will be discussing tips for good experience of bird watching at Keoladeo in few posts. Here is the first one on means to travel inside the park and the charges associated with them.

Morning mist in Keoladeo

Firstly, it is a bird sanctuary, not a tiger reserve. Hence no safaris are needed here. Since we don’t have normal wildlife, else than deer family, reptiles and predators are very rare (unless some big cat moves in from any nearby forest), hence it is safe for tourists to roam around. Since it is all about birds, than we probably want to enjoy a closer view of them and don’t scare them away, hence no motorised noise-making vehicles are allowed inside. This is quite sensible.

Forest department has some battery operated vehicles to move inside with their work. There is also a Tourist rest house inside the gate of the park, but not deep inside and actually before the second check post of the park. This is also close to the Salim Ali bird interpretation centre. Tourists staying in that RTDC rest house might take vehicles to carry the luggage. Overall, it is in our interest to enjoy the park in as much less noise as possible. After all, we are here to listen only to the birds. Isn’t it!

Jungle Babblers

Secondly, park is open from sunrise to sunset but obviously, you won’t be enjoying birding in a glaring sunlight in noon. Best times are in the morning and in afternoon, just after the sunrise and just before the sunset. Those are the times, when bird take flight and light is best for photography. In noon sunlight will fall directly on water, making it more glaring. It also gets too hot for the tourists to enjoy bird watching. So we should adjust our time accordingly. The good thing is that, unlike other national parks, we don’t have to worry about getting out of the park in stipulated time.

Sarus made of Swarovski at interpretation centre

There are four ways to enjoy the park- on foot, on bicycle, on cycle rickshaw and on tonga. Now there is very inverse experience per each way. Walking will be tough and time-taking as well as tiring but it will take you to trails where you won’t be able to reach through a cycle, or rickshaw or a tonga. Those will be the places, where you will see most of the birds, as they will be least disturbed with tourist traffic. Inversely, tonga will be least tiring, but it has limited access to the trails. I had some close shots of sarus crane, when I was on foot, deep inside the park, where there was no access to even cycle. But problems with walking is that you won’t be able to cover the longer distance inside. And some migratory birds make their colony deep inside the park. Even the Keoladeo temple is far in the middle of the park. You need time to access all this.

Ways to travel in park

My best bet is to use a bicycle. It gives you three benefits- speed to cover the distance inside the park, second- freedom to stop and start at will, and lastly, with the bicycle you also have liberty to park it anywhere and walk inside on the trail, where it is not possible to take the bike or when you want to be closer to the birds. It gives you the option of having best of both worlds. One thing is for sure, you need time to enjoy the park as birding needs patience. Don’t move inside with a very tight schedule. Also, you need to plan for atleast two trips inside, if not more than that, so that you can move to different deeper areas inside.

Also Read:  Tall, handsome and mate for life!

Dr Salim Ali immortalised at Keoladeo

There is another way besides these four, and it is boating. Keoladeo has a few water channels, which are accessible through boats and forest department runs a few boats for tourists to enjoying birding while boating. But the problem is lack of water. The water to the sanctuary is actually the water overflown from Ajan Dam reservoir which reaches here through Ghana canal. Gambhir river feeds the Ajan Dam. Water level in reservoir is also lot dependent on rains, so is the bird life in the Keoladeo park. Keoladeo has been facing acute shortage of water for years now. This has hindered the movement of boats. For few years even number of birds had fallen because of this. So this boating option might not be available for most of times, even during the entire season.

Whistling ducks at Keoladeo

As about charges, for walking you just have to pay the entry fee. It is 75 Rs for Indians and 500 Rs for foreigners. Sale of tickets is generally stopped one and half hours before the sunset. Cycle charges are 20 Rs and 40 Rs for two different categories of cycles. That charges are for day. Rickshaw charges are 150 Rs per hour and Tonga 300 Rs per hour. Sometimes you might even find a battery operated electric van for the charge of 300 Rs per hour. If you are lucky enough to wind some water in channels and boats running than boating charges are Rs 75 per person per hour. You can hire an entire four seater boat for Rs 300 per hour and an eight seater boat for Rs 600 per hour. There are also handy cam charges mentioned, as high as 600 Rs but in these times of advanced smartphones capable of recording HD videos, these handy cam charges look pretty ridiculous and actually discriminatory. There can be argument for hefty charges of professional video or movie camera charges but handy cam charges are just unnecessary.

Guide charges are 250 Rs per hour for a group of 5 people and 400 Rs per hour for groups bigger than that. Guide is essential for group bigger than 10 people. Most authorised rickshaw pullers and tonga persons also double up as guides (unofficially) owing to their experience and some training that they get. That is the point, where you can bargain on guiding charges. But an official guide or naturalist what they are called as will always come with a powerful binocular to show you the distant birds, unofficial guides won’t have that. Actually, I have experienced both the things. Once we have used the services of our rickshaw puller as a guide and next time took a naturalist with us on bicycle. With no disrespect to the rickshaw pullers and their efforts, there is a marked difference between two experiences. Obviously, the naturalist guides are better trained and have more focused vision, better communicating skills.

Also Read: Perfect host for a birding trip!

Welcome to my territory!

Have you been to Keoladeo? How was your experience of travelling inside the park? Please share your views in the comments section below!

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The tall, beautiful and a mate for life!


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They are the true ‘love-birds’. Always found in pair and always remain loyal to each other. Hardly we recognise bird species with these qualities but our guide or naturalist- as they liked themselves to be called as, was more than beaming in explaining Sarus Cranes to us in this manner. But it was really so amusing to hear all this, though we had already heard about crane couple ‘singing’ and dancing together and seen some amazing photographs earlier too.

Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur has been one of the favourites to watch this amazing bird, although they can be found in Gangetic plains. There number is decreasing constantly everywhere, including Keoladeo, due to various threats. Hence it was on top of my bucket list while going to this amazing bird sanctuary. Our naturalist cum guide Gajendra Singh told us that there were hardly around six pairs left in the park.

We weren’t that lucky on the first day. We could see a pair but it was quite far in the fields (pic above) and due to a stream flowing in between, there was no way to get closer to them. I was still able to get a slightly closer view through my telephoto and look of its dark orange head was exciting enough.

Its an amazing bird without any doubt. It is the tallest flying bird in the world, standing at six feet (taller than me). Its wingspan is bigger at almost eight feet. How fascinating it would be to watch this bird fly!

Also Read: The giant turtles of Keoladeo National Park

We were luckier next day morning. Early mornings are always the best time to watch birds. Company of an energetic guide helped. What helped more was the fact that we were on cycles and hence were able to go to interiors of the park where a cycle rickshaw or a tonga wouldn’t have been able to. We were able to locate a pair at a distance. I will always suggest to go inside the Keoladeo National Park on a bicycle.

Since it was a dry patch, it was possible to go closer. Another benefit of going to a bird sanctuary is that you can dare to go closer to the birds for nice close-ups. Although there is always a fear that they might fly away, but then that’s a chance you need to take. Something you are not allowed to do in a wildlife sanctuary.

Our naturalist Gajendra Singh was busy telling us about Sarus crane, as how they will mate for life with a single partner. They are always found in pair and rarely in large group. He also told us that if any one in the pair dies, the other one will stop eating food and thus give life too- something which we were not able to corroborate factually, although I have heard of this from various people.

I left others behind and started moving in the field closer to the pair. I was clicking while moving forward and also taking care of the ground below- small pools of water, marshy area, thorny bushes and any chance encounter with an unwanted reptile.

My idea was to get as closer as to get a good close-up shot using my telephoto lens and also not too close to scare them away. They indeed noticed me coming close, but didn’t fly away. Just kept moving further.

For a layman like me, it was tough to distinguish between a male and a female. Another interesting thing about this bird pair is that they both (female as well as male) incubate the eggs for a period of 26 to 35 days.

Sarus Cranes are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red list, mostly because of the loss of habitat, i.e. destruction of wetlands due to human population pressure, expansion of agriculture, ingesting pesticides and lot more.

There are said to be 25,000 to 37,000 Sarus cranes globally with there population limited to Indian sub-continent, south-east Asia and northern Australia. It is sad to know about their reducing numbers as they are known for their ability to live in closely with humans. They live in open, cultivated, well watered plains, marsh lands and lakes. Such areas suit them well for foraging, roosting and nesting.

Going closer to the pair and returning back to others and our bicycle took too much of time. But I was still content, wanted to go more and more closer, but didn’t want them to fly away hence marked my limit and turned back.

It wasn’t like I didn’t want to go further, but having spent two hours already and now after watching a pair of Sarus crane so closely, I knew I could call off the visit without any regrets. And in any case, in any wildlife trip you can’t see everything in a single visit. I already had two.

Where: Home to a host of migratory birds and large number of domestic birds, Keoladeo Ghana National Park is located in Bharatpur district of Rajasthan. Park is on the outskirts of Bharatpur city. Park gate is right on the Agra-Jaipur national highway about 20 kms from Fatehpur Sikri and 65 kms from Agra.

Park is open from sunrise to sunset. Unlike other national parks there are no safaris, no motor vehicles allowed inside. We can walk inside the park but that takes too much time and one won’t be able to see big area while on foot. There are cycle rickshaws as well as tongas. Best option is to take a cycle. Also take a guide as they will be able to tell you about the park and its birds. Guides also come with a high powered binoculars to watch birds at far off places. Rickshaws, tongas and guides have per hour rates while cycles can be hired for the day. There is also an entry fees for every visitor.

Also see: Perfect host for a birding trip

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Lot more than flamingos at Sambhar

Though flamingos were my primary interest and they were who actually pulled my all the way to Sambhar, but wintering at Sambhar is not all about flamingos. Flamingos might be very high in count and attraction but there are many other birds coming for winter migration. As I said in my last post, there are more than 70 species of birds coming here every year.

Pied avocet at Sambhar Lake
Pied avocet at Sambhar Lake

So while I was busy admiring flamingos at Sambhar lake, I couldn’t have failed to notice and try to click few other migratory birds. Pied avocet (pictured above) was the among the first one to come across and was quite attractive because of its distinctive beak and black & white appearance.

Northern shovelers and gadwalls at Sambhar lake
Northern shovelers and gadwalls at Sambhar lake

Though there were some northern pintail and pochards as well, but I could manage to get close view of only these northern shovelers and gadwalls.

Black-tailed godwits in flight at Sambhar lake
Black-tailed godwits in flight at Sambhar lake

Black-tailed godwits gave me some very nice shots while  flying as above and some wonderful reflections like below. It was indeed one of my favourite photos.

Black tailed godwits make a good reflection
Black tailed godwits make a good reflection

Among the pink glare of flamingos, these migratory birds also had their marked presence. Actually besides the lesser flamingos, eurasian curlew and black-tailed godwits have also among the threatened species of birds of Sambhar.

other migratory birds at Sambhar
other migratory birds at Sambhar

Among the common birds often found on backyard shorelines to be seen here were black-winged stilts (below). This thin legged bird is often considered to be cutest among the waders.

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a pair of black winged stilt at Sambhar lake

And, then when I covered whole distance from ramp (where I parked my bike) to the railway track, then across the railway track on a high tension power line, I suddenly saw this crested lark (below). It looked so fascinating and keen to give me some cool poses.

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Crested lark

I finished with the flamingos and was on my bike again on way back to the main city. I crossed the salt fields and deserted railway stations. Just when I though that I had finished everything at Sambhar for this trip, then suddenly few metres before the railway crossing I noticed another marshy area to my right and there were more birds and in fairly good numbers.

a flock of marsh sandpipers flying over the Sambhar lake
a flock of marsh sandpipers flying over the Sambhar lake

A flock of flying marsh sandpipers caught my notice and in a flash my bike was parked and camera was out. They looked so fascinating in their flight.

a group of Bar headed geese
a group of Bar headed geese

Also with them was a small group os bar-headed geese. I had recently seen them in Kankwari Lake in Sariska and it was easy for me to recognise them. I tried to go closer but they were quick to avoid and flew away at a distance (below). So cute! Isn’t it!

bar-headed geese in flight
bar-headed geese in flight

In the same group of bar-headed goose, I was also able to notice two Brahminy shelduck. This distinctively beautiful bird migrates from south-east Europe and central Asia and winters in Indian sub-continent. But I could see only two of them.

a pair of Brahminy Shelduck
a pair of Brahminy Shelduck

With this shot of marsh sandpipers, I reluctantly switched off my camera and was back on my bike.

marsh sandpipers
marsh sandpipers

It was indeed a great mini photo-tour. Quite satisfying for me in terms of number of birds as well as number os species, that I was able to capture in my images. The feeling made the return journey a bit less tiring.

Winter play for migratory birds at Chilika

Chilika is one of the milestone places in India. It is the largest brackish water lagoon. Now what is brackish water? It is the water which is saline or salty but not as salty as the sea water. It happens when the fresh water mixes with sea water. There are 52 rivers and rivulets that fall in the lake. Secondly, Chilika is also a lagoon, and it is not just largest coastal lagoon in India, it is also second largest lagoon in the world. As if it was not enough, it is the largest wintering ground for migratory water-birds anywhere in the Indian sub-continent.

A early morning boating on a local boat in Chilika lake.
A early morning boating on a local boat in Chilika lake.

Chilika is spread in three districts of Odisha- Puri, Ganjam and Khurda. Puri side is mainly popular for Dolphin tours from Satpada. Satpada is around 50 kilometres from Puri. It is on northeast of Chilika lake. Tourists can book dolphin tours from Puri itself. Once you do that you can be transported from Puri to Satpada by bus or you can go to Satpada by any public or private transport and than take boats for a ride in Chilika. OTDC organises connected tours as well. Once you reach Satpada, you can go to jetty to take up boat.

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Tourists on Satpada jetty

Chilika lake also has biggest population of Irrawaddy Dolphins in world. Every year in February a census is done to determine the number of Dolphins in the area. In 1997 the process of counting started. Firstly it was a broad estimation than it was done systematically every year. The number has been increasing constantly and it is around 160 at this time. Environmentalists say that increase in number of dolphins is an indicator of improvement in the ecosystem and quality of water.

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A sea gull and a Irrawaddy dolphin

Boats from Satpada will normally take tourists to a island called Rajahamsa (राजहंस). Its while going to this island and coming back that we have chance to see the dolphins. This island is 18 kms from Satpada and it is actually located at the mouth of the Chilika lagoon. Rajahamsa is actually a narrow strip of land with one side towards lagoon and another towards Bay of Bengal.

Rajahamsa island
Rajahamsa island

Island has developed into a small business hub for various tourism related activities. Locals will even try to sell ‘original’ pearls extracting them from shells live.

A cruel way to get 'pearls'
A cruel way to get ‘pearls’

But this Satpada side of Chilika is known only for dolphins. Migratory birds often don’t come here.  Migratory birds are mostly located o other side of Chilika. Their base is at Nalaban island which is located in 15.5 sq km area. Nalaban is a sanctuary area. It is estimated that among the 9 lakh waterfowls coming to Chilika every year, almost half put base in this sanctuary area.  Birds also reach to areas like Mangalajodi and Bhusandpur.

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Tourists at Nalaban island and the watch tower on the back

Most of the migratory birds coming to Chilika make their winter homes at various islands in the lake. Besides Nalaban there are Krushnaprasad, Kalijai, Somolo, Honeymoon, Breakfast and Birds island. One can see  Dolphins in this area as well.

A pair of dolphins with fishermen boats in the background
A pair of dolphins with fishermen boats in the background

Most interesting part is that one has to go deep inside the lagoon through a boat to watch the migratory birds. There are country boats but they won’t take you much far so you need a mechanised boat. You need time to enjoy the birding at Chilika. Since islands are scattered in the lake, therefore it is not possible to see all of them in one go. One can watch birds on the way. But you need few days in hand to enjoy the birds and the beautiful ecosystem of Chilika.

Chilika lake was the first Indian wetland to be included in the Ramsar Convention in 1981. Later, due to poor conservation it was included in Montreux Record which is a list of threatened Ramsar sites, but in 2002 it was removed from the Montreux list after lake was rejuvenated and restored. Chilika is also known for its fish farming due to rich fish, shrimp resources.  Locals are lot dependent on fish produce from the  lake. It is estimated that around 1.5 lakh fisherfolk live around the lagoon.

A fisherman adjusting his net
A fisherman adjusting his net

How to reach: For watching Irrawaddy Dolphins, one has to go to Satpada, 50 kms from Puri and than take a boat ride from the jetty. For watching birds, there are three places to go inside the lagoon- Barkul, Balugaon and Rambha. All these three places are located between Bhubaneswar and Berhampur.  Hence these can be accessed by road and rail connectivity between Bhubaneswar and Berhampur. Balugaon and Rambha have railway stations on South East railway. Nearest airport is Bhubaneswar. Balugaon is 96 kms, Barkul is 105 kms and Rambha is 130 kms from Bhubaneswar.

Local people going places in Chilika
Local people going places in Chilika

Best time to visit is obviously November to February as for most of the birding sites in India. Barkul, Balugaon and Rambha have Odisha Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC) guest houses for stay. Few other hotels have also come up in the area in recent years. At all these three places you can hire boats run by OTDC as well private operators. Private operators will always bargain.

Calling on friends! To be in the company!!

Who likes to be alone! Whether it is a human being or birds, everybody looks for a sweet, cute, like-minded company!! Isn’t it.. As is a line of a popular hindi Bollywood song… एक… एक से भले दो. दो… दो से भले तीन (One… two is more better. Two… Three is still better than two), और मैं जोड़ रहा हूं- तीन… तीन से भले चार! (Three… four is far better than three).

So here is one little bird, all alone…

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Looks around for some company… Anybody there?

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…or on this side?

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Here one comes to join the friend! Now they look for the third one… Hello there!

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Isn’t there anybody else?

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Oh hi! How are you folks! Nice to see you. I am here too. Let’s call our fourth friend…

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So that completes our quartet. Lets now start the chorus!

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“In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.” – Khalil Gibran

(All the images were taken at same time in single sequence at The Fort, Neemrana, in Rajasthan. The wire is incidentally the zip line of flying fox.)

 

Eyes firmly upon you!

With you under watch every time, everywhere; your all actions under scrutiny, questionable; its interesting to see that how these little birds react under constant gaze of the camera. Birds at a neighbourhood lake in east Delhi, a few of them migratory, few rare…

All in the Act – Photo of the Day

Although they are not classified as migratory birds, because they are native to south of Himalayan region and spread well into south as well as south east Asia, still in my neighbourhood lake painted storks will be visiting only in winters. Most common, still most beautiful of the storks, painted storks have been recently added to near threatened list because of there decreasing population. Their total number is estimated around 25 thousand.

This year to my pleasant surprise, the number of painted stork visiting this lake in eastern Delhi has dramatically increased. Earlier there used to be hardly a couple. But this season, when they arrived in mid of October, I spotted five of them (See: We are Back). And then suddenly… few days later I was thrilled to see a flock of almost thirty. Here are a few of them, busy in their favourite act- catching fish!

All in the act