Keoladeo National Park – An overnighter from Delhi!

This was the place birders put up a tripod on a cold winter morning and sat hours in the hope of spotting a Siberian Crane – the birding equivalent of spotting a tiger. Alas Siberian Cranes have given India a miss since their last visit in 2002 when the lake in Keoladeo National Park went dry and remained so for 4 years. In 2006/7 water was sourced and while the rest of the park has got its mojo back, the Cranes are yet to be return for their annual winter migration. The park still attracts a lot of migratory birds, is home to a wide range of native ones and also supports a good number of pythons and animals.

The park entrance is bang on the Agra-Jaipur highway, though the actual sanctuary starts after about a km of walk from the entrance. There are a number of hotels all around the area with prices ranging from under a 1000 to about 7000 a night. My experience at Udai Vilas Palace has been good, though it is a little far from the entrance. I stayed at a different one across from the gate several years ago and it was not very good, but things could have changed. There is also a government run hotel inside the park, but it does appear quite run down and is a long rickshaw ride from the parking lot.

The park itself is a straight road that goes on for about 4 km before turning left and ending in a temple another km down the line. The main park rea starts about 1 km from the road, at a point where there is a very old government hotel, a temple and a museum dedicated to Salim Ali, one of the most well known Indian ornithologist. A little further down the dry bushes on the sides turn into a lake and the species of birds you see changes dramatically. Since you are always walking with lake on both sides, it is always possible to get good close up shots, though the wetlands extend quite a distance away from the road and lot of rare bird sightings tend to be far from the road.

Due to the large distances to walk and the fact that you have to walk back all the way on the same route, not many choose to walk. The common mode of transport is the rickshaws and there are hundreds of them to rent. Last I went, a rickshaw could be hired for 100 rupees an hour, tips not included. The rickshaw pullers are usually quite knowledgeable about the birds and unless you are doing some serious research, you wouldn’t need a guide to add on. Most of these pullers have worked in the park for over a decade and won’t just help you identify the birds but also know the locations of some nests and where some rare ones can be spotted. I highly recommend to hire one. There is also a boat ride that is seasonal and is only available December onwards, if there is sufficient water in the lake. That is a good way to spot the pythons who come out to bask in the sun and warm their bodies.

It would take at least 3 hours to do justice to the park but I could spend a lot more time there, given the choice. The first bird you will see when you enter is likely to be a peacock or a laughing dove. As you get deeper inside there is more water on the sides and then appear kingfishers, cormorants, egrets, herons, parakeets and a large variety of ducks. There are spots where owls are often spotten and the regulars as well as the rickshaw pullers can point those out – sadly most are quite far from the road. There are a lot of eagles to be seen but they also don’t perch close to the road very often. Just before the turn left is a set of trees where the painted storks nest and they have look stunning in the breeding seasons as they can be just full of white at the time. Across the road is also a small rest area and a lot of people will usually turn back from here. Post the left turn are just better views of some of the birds and the only new species you will see, with some good luck, is the spoonbills.

There are two activities worth considering. First is the boat ride which can get you closer to some of the birds and in the right season some pythons. This is closer to the entrance so might be the first thing you do, especially because the second one has to be the last thing you do. The second one catching a glorious sunset with a lot of birds flying back home in the foreground. There is a spot with a small hut and a clearing of the trees somewhere in the middle of the walk. As the day comes to a close you will find a number of photographers collect there to catch a perfect shot of a bird flying past the orange disc of the setting sun.

Once darkness sets in, the park closes very quickly and there really isn’t much to do in the area except to go back to the hotel, have dinner there and crash in to be ready for the birds early next morning.

If you are visiting, there are two forts nearby that are worth checking out. The famous Fatehpur Sikri is about a 20 minute drive away from the main gate, not including the crazy parking there. This was the main citadel and home for Akbar the mughal king and includes some amazing architecture in red sandstone. The Buland Darwaza is the famous and massive gate to the glorious fort of the great king. There is also the dargah of Salim Chisti and many other structures showcasing his lifestyle – including the palace of his famous queen, Jodha, as well as a harem that could house several hundred women. The fort is very well maintained as is a huge tourist draw for people visiting Agra too.

The second fort is the poorly maintained one of Deeg. This is about an hour away and completely lacks the fanfare associated with the Sikri. It is mostly neglected but has a lot of potential. The several empty water channels and dysfunctional fountains tell a story. The lawns would have been so stunning if it got any maintenance at all. The star attraction for the fort is not really the architecture but about 4 trees that have bats hanging on them all over, hundreds of them. One of the rare places where you can find bats sleeping in a well lit area. With a good birding lens, some of the pics can be amazing. I would never go to Deeg by itself, but it is a great combination with Bharatpur.

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