India: Plenty of ducks but no shooting

By Suzanne Middleton

Suzanne Middleton finds that her memories of India's Keoladeo National Park is dominated birds of all stripes.

Juvenile painted storks in the Keoladeo National Park. Photo / Suzanne Middleton
Juvenile painted storks in the Keoladeo National Park. Photo / Suzanne Middleton

Commonplace in New Zealand and hunted by duck shooters at this time of year, Mallard ducksare a rare migratory visitor to this world renowned bird sanctuary in Rajasthan. In our two days visiting the park we saw many other kinds of duck but no Mallards. When I asked Prem, the cycle rickshaw rider who pedalled us around on our second day in the park, to name his favourite bird, he astonished us with his answer. He loves the Mallard duck, a rare and exotic visitor which breeds in northern countries then migrates south in winter to avoid the ice and snow.

But the Mallard wasn't always rare at Keoladeo. From the 1850s what's now a UNESCO World Heritage site was the Maharajah's hunting ground and duck shooting continued here until 1972. On a single day in 1938 the British Viceroy Lord Linlithgow's shooting party shot 4273 birds in the park.

Nowadays its 29 square kilometres are strictly protected, and the sanctuary attracts bird and human visitors from all over the world. Four-hundred different kinds of birds have been seen here, the majority resident all year with many others visiting for the winter. The nearby city of Bharatpur welcomes tourists, and hotels and guesthouses line the road to the park.

In 10 weeks of travel in Rajasthan we've goggled at heaps of unfamiliar birds - the elongated jacana in a Bundi lake stepping carefully on lily pads like an avian Jeremy Fisher, the birds of prey circling overhead then swooping dramatically to catch food hurled three stories up to them in Station Road Bikaner, the demoiselle cranes fed tonnes of wheat every winter by the villagers at Kichan. But in Keoladeo we're about to experience a concentration of birds per square kilometre virtually unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

When we arrive at 8am the guides and cycle rickshaw riders besiege us at the gate. We take the cheapest option and choose Balbir Singh who speaks excellent English and knows all the birds. Like many of the cycle rickshaw men he's a Sikh, his long hair hidden under a pirate style paisley scarf.

We set off, the rickshaw creaking as Balbir picks up speed along the dusty road, and he points out little birds as we go - a white cheeked bulbul, magpie robin, nightingale, little dove. A jackal slinks out of sight. Small birds sit in trees and on the ground, water birds wade, swim, dive and fly. Juvenile painted storks squawk in rough nests waiting for their parents to regurgitate fish into their open beaks. Balbir points out an owl in a tree in broad daylight. Herons, cormorants, egrets and a few other waterfowl are the only birds we know from New Zealand. Everything else is exotic to us.

The environment of the park itself seems to be exotic to the many Indian visitors we encounter. The women in beautiful saris holding tiny children travelling in sedate cycle rickshaws, large families in rickshaw convoys, young couples on bicycles, and groups of animated men, all appear to be blissed out by the peace of the place. It's like the trees, ponds and fresh air are the thing for them, a sanctuary from the crammed streets, blaring horns and close living conditions that characterise India.

The foreign tourists all carry heavy pendulous cameras and exhibit a concentration worthy of the most fixated of herons, poised to capture the elusive perfect shot, while their twitchy guides plan the next manoeuvre.

We trundle along, taking in what Balbir has to tell us. Then we get out of the rickshaw and explore a stopbank where we're confronted by a group of rhesus macaque monkeys strung out along the narrow path as far as the eye can see. We've encountered these monkeys before and they're not good monkeys at all. In fact they are so menacing they remind me of the Winged Monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. We retreat and continue our journey by rickshaw.

An area of tiny islands reveals new delights - a large mud tortoise, rosy pelicans and bar headed geese which fly here from Mongolia. We spot a white breasted kingfisher, a handsome fellow with feathers of brilliant turquoise, chocolate brown and white. India has five different kingfishers and they're not shy like the European ones.

When you live in the top half of the North Island you know the yellow eyed mynah as a loud and confident bird. Think about this. India has seven different mynahs and six different thrushes. It's a country where you see birds everywhere in the cities, towns, waterways, farms and villages. Even the laziest birdwatcher will encounter a vast number of new birds daily.

Keoladeo is the perfect place if you can't be bothered crouching in undergrowth or spending hours in a hide. Sitting on the back of a cycle rickshaw you will see literally hundreds of different species of birds, plus blue bull antelopes, wild boar, the odd mongoose and monitor lizard and maybe even the rare sarus crane, the tallest flying bird.

We loved our first day in the park so we returned the next day. Prem Singh who's done 38 years on a cycle rickshaw in the park takes us under his wing. A call goes out that the resident pair of sarus cranes has been sighted and we race to the spot. There they are, close together, heads down feeding. Mating for life, they're a symbol of marital fidelity in India. Prem is so pleased for us and we're thrilled. Now that the extremely rare Siberian crane no longer comes here, this pair are the royalty of the Maharajah's former hunting ground.

Keoladeo has swallowed the dictionary of birds, no argument there. As we head back to the gate we hear an eery whistling bird call. Prem stops pedalling. It's his mobile's ringtone, the crested serpent eagle. We have a good laugh. As always in India it's the people who constantly surprise us.

Checklist

Getting there: Many airlines fly to Singapore. From there catch a flight on hugely popular budget airline Indigo to Delhi. Bharatpur is half a day's train trip from Delhi.

What to do: It's easy to visit the Taj Mahal as a day trip by bus from Bharatpur and avoid the hype of Agra.

Where to stay: Budget family guesthouses are clustered on the Keoladeo side of Bharatpur which also has its share of hotels, including one inside the park.

- nzherald.co.nz

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