Early on a cold morning in late December 2016 we drive about 200 kilometres south of Delhi and queue up outside Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur. Although lesser known among the national parks and reserve forests surrounding the capital city, Keoladeo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country’s best birding spots. It has around 375 resident and migratory birds; some fly into Keoladeo from as far as Turkmenistan, China and Afghanistan. Formerly known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, it is famous for being the habitat of the sarus crane—the tallest flying bird in the world—that grows up to six feet in height.
The Hindi word for crane is saras, I learned in school. Now, years later, I learn that the saras, or sarus, is just one of 15 types of cranes found globally. Dileep, our guide for the day, tells us that Keoladeo was also home to the Siberian cranes migrating southwards to escape the Russian winter. However, they haven’t been spotted here since the late 1990s. Dileep promises to make up for the loss by showing us plenty of sarus cranes and painted storks.
As the early rays of the sun filter through a layer of fog, we make our way around the park, training our eyes to spot a warbler here or a wagtail there. Spread over 29 square kilometres, Keoladeo originally served as hunting grounds for the maharajas of Bharatpur. A large duck population made these marshlands popular for hunts arranged by the erstwhile rulersfor their British guests, says Dileep, while pointing out some ruddy shelducks (or Brahminy ducks) and a lone Indian spot-billed duck. A permanent resident of the park, the latter gets its name from a red spot at the base of its bill.
We spot a few rose-ringed parakeets, their plum-headed counterparts and some kingfishers as we take a detour from the straight road leading into the forest. The marshes begin a few kilometres into the park. Despite the mellow morning light, we spot a team of migratory ducks paddling around the marshes. The grey-billed tufted ducks travel all the way from central Asia and China to spend the winter in India. Surrounded by these black-and-white birds is another visitor, the northern pintail, easily distinguished by its pointy tail. Floating close by is a male knob-billed or comb duck, set apart from its peers by the unique, fleshy growth on its bill, and blue-green plumage.
Moving deeper into the forest, we catch a glimpse of an egret just before it dives into water to catch a fish. Meanwhile, Dileep has spotted something interesting and beckons us towards another swamp. We peer through bushes at the spread-eagled silhouette of a long-necked Oriental darter, better known as the snakebird. A little later, we pass by a Eurasian spoonbill clapping its spatula-like bill and prancing around in search of food.
The density of birds increases as we move towards the lakes to the left of the main road that runs across the park. This is where the crane and stork populations live. Visitors can enjoy a boat ride on these waters, but we opt to walk around instead, hoping it will increase our chances of spotting the famous sarus cranes.
Soon, we spot the first painted stork, busy preening. It has a distinct orange bill and a patch of pink below its black-and-white wings. We try to get closer, tiptoeing so as not to scare it away, but the precaution seems unnecessary. At about three feet tall when fully grown, the storks are a lot less shy than the other birds we have seen so far.
No wonder there is a crowd around the lake that we come across next. Taking its place on the branches of the trees surrounding the pond is a gathering of painted storks. I try to do a head count but soon give up and focus on taking pictures. Oblivious to the crowd growing by the minute, the storks hop from one tree to another, sit in their nests, and feed their young.
I had expected birdwatching to be a test of patience, but the trip to Bharatpur is turning out to be anything but. Still, we are yet to see a sarus crane, the park’s biggest attraction. It has already been five hours, and we decide to call it a day. Meanwhile, Dileep finishes his story. The hunting, he tells us, continued at Bharatpur until 1972 and the forest was declared a national park in 1982. By then, however, visits from Siberian cranes had already grown infrequent. Rising pollution and changes to their habitat have also driven away many sarus cranes, Dileep adds as we head out, probably to console us.
He need not have felt too bad for not being able to keep his promise, for we are in for a surprise later that afternoon. After a delicious Rajasthani lunch at the Royal Farm House, where we were staying, Solanki, the caretaker, calls us to the roof. Through our binoculars, we see a pair of sarus cranes scouting for food, far across the surrounding farmlands.
At an average height of five feet, these birds have a red nape and are famous for their mating habits—unlike most other birds, they are believed to find partners for life. Solanki tells us that the sarus cranes are believed to bring good luck, and as our car pulls out of the driveway later that day, he wishes us some in the new year.
About 200 kilometres south of Delhi, Bharatpur in Rajasthan is a 4-hr drive down the Yamuna Expressway. The best season to visit is Oct-Mar. Keoladeo National Park is open from 6 a.m.- 6 p.m. and tickets cost Rs75 for Indian nationals and Rs500 for foreigners. If walking around the 29-square-kilometre park seems daunting, hire a cycle rickshaw and the driver will double as your guide. Cars and bikes are not allowed inside the park.
There is a wide range of accommodation to choose from, including the Royal Farm House; (www.royalguesthousebharatpur.com/royalfarm; doubles from Rs2,400) and The Birder’s Inn (birdersinn.com; doubles from Rs4,000). Deeg Palace or Fatehpur Sikri, both within 40 kilometres of the park, make for good side trips from Keoladeo.
Barsali Bhattacharyya is a business writer by day and a budget traveller over weekends. One of her greatest joys is the feeling of having money left over from a journalist’s meagre salary to fund a trip at the end of the month. She instagrams at @barsali.bee.