Winter birding

Winter is naturally the best time for birding, with all fliers deserting the colder regions and flocking closer to the equator. You not only get the wintering birds, as they put on holiday weight, but you also get the nesting local birds. I missed this season this year, because I was not quick enough in the dip between waves of the pandemic to make the January and February forays. So I’ll spend a day of nostalgia about one of the best winter birding destinations in India: Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur. Whether you just want to try out birding or are a serious birder, or like me, are somewhere in between, don’t miss this. The wetland (photo above) has something for everyone.

Dalmatian pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) took off through the air, shedding drops of water as they flew, while I stood by the marsh with my camera. The afternoon’s air was hazy with moisture, and a shower later would freshen it up. These are the world’s largest pelicans, with an average body mass only slightly less than that of condors from the Andes, and their wingspans are twice a man’s height. As the world’s climate warms, their habitat is spreading. Hopefully this might compensate somewhat for the enormous loss in habitat during the 20th century.

That photo of painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala) flying overhead recalls my first attempt at birding. The Family had always wanted to start birding, and in the last year of the previous century we took a trip to Bharatpur. Just inside the gate, on a side path next to a marsh, we stopped and looked at a stork flying overhead. “Painted storks,” a voice told us. It belonged to one of the naturalist guides who gave us a gentle introduction to birding, although we hadn’t hired his services for the day. We tried to look him up on our second visit, but twenty years after he must have changed as much as the three musketeers.

We were in the company of one of India’s most well known popularizers of the art of bird watching, luckily. As we watched these unfledged chicks of the painted stork, he pointed out the dead bird stuck to the bottom of the nest; an egret. Painted storks eat frogs and snakes. Could this smaller bird have been a meal for the chicks? Some of the locals have taken on the combination job of a rickshaw driver and bird guide. The ones we talked to hadn’t noticed. The park is large, and hard to walk through. You can hire bicycles at the gate, or the services of one of these local guides. They are good at their work, and, unless you are already a competent birder, worth taking along.

Later Adesh spotted an Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo). I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between that and the Indian Eagle-Owl (B. bengalensis) in the field; I need to look at photos and compare them closely with field guides. But the call and the generally larger size and lighter colour of B. bubo are sufficient for an expert to tell the difference. Nearby there was a nest, and after a wait we saw two chicks looking out from it. It was really hard to get a shot through the intervening branches and twigs. I guess the owls did not want to nest in a clearly visible spot.

Bharatpur is wonderfully located. You can easily drive to Fatehpur Sikri, and, if you are interested, to the National Chambal Sanctuary. Apart from the gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) which are the main species under protection here, you can also see Indian skimmers (Rynchops albicollis), also known as scissor-bills for their remarkable crossed beaks. Since I’ve written about them before, I’ll end this post with a shot of rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) braking to a halt in their flights near a nest inside the supporting pillar of the bridge on the river Chambal.

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