Slowing down on the kerb, I lift my feet off the pedals and plant my toes on the tarmac. Following Ashish’s outstretched arm and pointed finger, we crane our necks—at first with squinted eyes, and then through a pair of binoculars, I watch a colony of Red-naped ibis roaming the marshy shores. I pull out my phone and jot down one more bird, and as the checklist grows, so does my amazement; I’d never have imagined stumbling upon this rich birdlife in an inconspicuous corner of Uttar Pradesh. But for anyone who has been to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary countless times and wants to explore other birding opportunities near Delhi, Haiderpur is the answer.
Until I reached Mansurpur, I was not even aware of the existence of the Haiderpur wetland. And it was pure chance that I found out about it at Namaste Dwaar, a property where I was breaking my journey on my way to the hills, on the Delhi-Haridwar highway. From the stopover turning out to be a wellness centre, to the fact that there was this little-known birding site close by, my cup of pleasant surprises is brimming over.
Sitting in the balcony of my suite with a snack of crisp jalebis and kulhad chai typical of a UP welcome, I contemplate squeezing a birding trip to Haiderpur into my schedule. The sun setting across the fields and a host of sparrows aid my decision—I don’t need much convincing.
Early next morning, I am in the car with fellow traveller Diksha on our hour-long drive to the wetland, situated within the Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary. We are met by Ashish Loya, a self-taught birding expert along with a young guide whom he has trained, also called Ashish. A sweeping expanse of the Ganga is before us, the playground of Gangetic river dolphins. Visitors can go down the river on a boat and also get up close to the feathered flocks on the banks. We are fortunate to catch the tail end of the annual winter migration, says Loya, who recounts facts about the place and its winged populace as we begin our walk down the main path that runs by the river offshoots.
Spread across 6,908 hectares, the Haiderpur wetland formed in 1984 on the Muzaffarnagar-Bijnor border in Uttar Pradesh after the construction of the Madhya Ganga barrage on the Ganga’s floodplain. The male smew, a vagrant duck species, has been seen only here in India. The wetland also offers sightings of the very rare Indian grass bird, and the white-tailed eagle, the largest and most ferocious of wetland birds. After prolonged efforts of environmental activists and conservationists including Loya, Haiderpur was recognised as a Ramsar site (an international accreditation designated to wetlands of importance as per a 1971 UNESCO environmental treaty) in December 2021.
We climb a watchtower and watch grey hornbills in flight, Asian open bills loitering on mud, colossal painted storks and black-headed ibis going about their business, and the state bird Saras crane in the distance, among other large birds that are a wetland birder’s delight. After a long birding session and an informative exchange on human-wildlife conflict and cohabiting (fishing has a negative impact on the wetlands but local employment alternatives are limited), we get back on our bicycles to continue to the next spot, home to a multitude of duck species. As we gear up, I ask Loya what brought him here.
Ashish’s story is as astonishing as the sanctuary’s. A former wall street professional, Loya used to live in New York before deciding to answer his spiritual calling and returned to India as Art of Living faculty. He picked Bijnor as his outpost as it was close to a region rich in avifauna, an association that would help him revive his dormant interest in birding. Little did he know that he would get this involved with the park, its setting up, training youngsters such as Ashish Gujjar and educating kids from villages around about their natural wealth, and end up living here since 2013. Located on the Central Asian Flyway, a route taken by migratory birds that fly to this part of the world all the way from Mongolia and Siberia, Haiderpur has turned out to be an important stopover, but for more than just winged creatures.
When the designated time at the sanctuary nears its end, I head back to my cocoon that has played a key role in my discovery of this wilderness. From among Namaste Dwaar’s Ayurveda wellness programmes, I choose acupressure and reflexology therapies, which work wonders on my fatigue. Recharged, I make my way back to the main restaurant Machan, but take my time as handmade tiles, lakhori bricks, lotuses and mynas, and bright walls adorned with photographs of pre-independence India by Raja Deen Dayal, lead me unhurriedly to my dining venue. The last project conceptualised by the late Pradeep Sachdeva who designed Dilli Haat and other prominent public spaces, this place is an amalgam of colours and designs that reflect the radiance of the rural heart of India. With an entire food court outside as befits a highway stopover, I am spoilt for choice. I settle for the in-house thali though, for the UP hinterlands have found a way into my heart. Whether it is through my surroundings or the winged utopia I stumbled upon, is something I’m blissfully unaware of.
Mansurpur is 130 km from the New Delhi airport, and Haiderpur Wetland is another 48 km from there. The sanctuary is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; entry is ₹50 per person.
Namaste Dwaar is the best place to stay in the area, and Haiderpur makes for a great day trip. Premium double rooms start at ₹8,999 plus taxes, inclusive of breakfast and one wellness treatment namastedwaar.com.