Trip Report: Keoladeo N.P. (Bharatpur), India, February 27 - March 2, 1998

Clive Harris, New Delhi, India;

After several months here, I got in my first bit of concentrated birding in India. With my family (wife, one son aged 2 1/2 and the other 9 months) and the in-laws we set off on a four day trip to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal, and Keoladeo National Park (better known as Bharatpur), to see the birds. I'm the only birder, although the other adults have an interest in seeing nice looking or large birds.

We drove from Delhi to Agra on Friday February 27. Not very far, but it takes a long time. Although we never stopped, I have to mention that roadside birding is pretty good here. You often pass smallish stagnant pools which are packed with waders (BLACK-WINGED STILTS, TRINGIDS, egrets etc.) or fields where pairs of stately SARUS CRANES are feeding.

Our first stop was the Taj Mahal, very crowded on the Friday afternoon (all monuments are free on Friday) but quiet on Saturday morning. Although we did spend a lot of time admiring the buildings, I am afraid to say that I am one of those fanatical birders who have spent time at the Taj admiring the birds on the Jamuna River at the back of the building. This really is quite a good birding spot, and you could quite profitably spend a few hours here with a telescope. I am far too self-conscious for that, but did bring my binoculars. Most of the white egrets were present, as were the Tringids. I picked out a few RIVER LAPWINGS (a life bird) feeding and flying about amongst the RED-WATTLED LAPWINGS. There were plenty of RIVER TERNS around, as well as four RUDDY SHELDUCKS (the only ones I would see on the trip). No luck with Great Thick-knee, but plenty of birds to see.

Saturday afternoon we headed off to Bharatpur, and checked into the Forest Lodge (inside the park) at around 4:30 pm. Decided not to check out the reserve, but we sat in the garden instead. Not a bad spot for checking out soaring eagles and vultures, and there were also GREATER COUCAL and INDIAN ROBIN around.

On Sunday, I packed the family off to see the deserted city of Fatepuhr Sikri, while I headed off for some concentrated birding. Perhaps I am beginning to sound a bit of a philistine. I should explain that I have been to Fatepuhr Sikri before, and with limited time I wanted to pack in some solid birdwatching by myself.

I was in two minds as to whether to hire a rickshaw guide. In the end I did, because an extra pair of eyes is always helpful, and because I wasn't that familiar with the layout. These guides have phenomenal eyesight (especially in picking out distant cranes) and certainly know the larger, more distinctive birds very well. I think the information they provide on some of the more-difficult-to-separate birds (e.g. eagles) is probably a bit off, but this is not surprising (as they can be very difficult to separate).

In the end it was a good job I was on a rickshaw as we managed to outdistance a group of noisy German tourists who were on foot. Passerines were active in the trees in the first kilometer or so. I found my first GREY-HEADED CANARY FLYCATCHER, which was in a tree with some elusive leaf warblers. A little further on I found a BROOKS'S LEAF WARBLER, and actually managed to get a scope on it for about 10 seconds (usually well-nigh impossible with leaf warblers but this was one was being a bit sluggish). Also around were many HUME'S and (a single) GREENISH WARBLERS. Pretty soon we got to more open areas where it was easier to see the waterbirds feeding. I imagine that many ducks had already set off north. None the less, there were plenty of BAR-HEADED and GREYLAG geese (latter had bright pink bills, really living up to the rubrirostris name), all of the white egrets, EURASIAN SPOONBILL, ibis, all three cormorants and DARTERS, GREY and PURPLE HERONS, PHEASANT-TAILED and BRONZE-WINGED JACANAS and many duck species.

There were plenty of eagles sitting in trees in early morning. By mid-morning more were up in the air. I have to say I underestimated how difficult it would be to separate the various aquila species. Over the course of the day I saw birds that were definite LESSER SPOTTED, GREATER SPOTTED and STEPPE EAGLES, but for most I just was not sure. More preparation and practice required. The guide seemed to think every eagle was a Lesser Spotted; I'm not sure if he was doing this on a percentage basis or not. He was sharp however at spotting small herons sitting in low branches over the water, and we found both LITTLE HERON and YELLOW BITTERN this way. Heading down to the temple area, we came across CLAMOROUS and BLYTH'S REED WARBLERS, both of them lifers for me. Not great views of either, but sufficient to see the relevant field marks. Also caught up with a beautiful male BLUETHROAT, with a shining throat patch.

About mid-morning we headed off on foot to explore the areas south and east of the temple area. We soon came across a group of three SIBERIAN CRANE, including one young bird with extensive rusty-brown markings on the head and neck. These were apparently the wild wintering birds (I had seen two before in Keoladeo in 1990). Further on, I came across a BOOTED WARBLER, a life bird (not nearly as exciting or magnificent as a crane, but I am in a bit of a warbler phase at the moment). These areas had more grass and less open water, and there were plenty of TRINGID sandpipers, WHITE-TAILED and RED-WATTLED LAPWINGS and flocks of RUFF. This type of habitat also held wagtails, and during the morning we came across all five species (WHITE, WHITE-BROWED, YELLOW, CITRINE and GREY). On the other side of the path, on the impoundment I picked out a male FERRUGINOUS DUCK. WHISKERED and RIVER TERNS were flying out over the water.

Another grassy open area held two SARUS CRANES and several of the released SIBERIAN CRANES (part of a population expansion program). We decided to walk the whole way along the south end of the impoundment and soon came into drier countryside. We spotted a flock of COMMON CRANES (my guide said they had been pretty rare at Keoladeo this winter) and, further on, a soaring RED-HEADED VULTURE amongst the more common LONG-BILLED and WHITE-BACKED VULTURES. Heading back, had a great view of what I presume was a fulvescens form of GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE.

Met the family after their trip. We headed out to the reserve at around 3 pm. I was a bit nervous about how it would go, but the boys took to the rickshaws very well. No new birds, but better views of the SIBERIAN CRANES and, at the end of the day, beautiful views of two perched GREATER SPOTTED EAGLES, close in.

Monday morning, I headed off early to explore the areas around the Forest Nursery, hoping to see some more passerines. The area was very quiet indeed; perhaps it is more lively earlier in the winter. I did get the scope on a singing TAWNY PIPIT in a field behind the Nursery. We also stumbled across a pair of DUSKY EAGLE-OWLS, but otherwise there was not much around. The open woods in this area held a lot of empty large stick nests, indicating that vultures, owls etc. must nest there in season. There were calling LESSER WHITETHROATS in the brush, but never got a good enough look to see which subspecies (or species, if you prefer) they belonged to.

After a couple of hours there, I went back to the hotel and picked up everyone else. We set off again on the rickshaws, a jackal running across the road in front of us. Plenty of perched eagles. I finally found a group of half-a-dozen COMB DUCKS resting on a muddy mound; attractive birds, despite the odd protuberance above the bill on the drakes. We also came across a RUDDY-BREASTED CRAKE, again courtesy of the sharp eyes of our guide. The other new bird for the day was a PADDYFIELD WARBLER. The python was out basking in the sun near the temple again, my eldest son being greatly impressed when it moved its head to a more comfortable position.

And that was it. Nowhere near enough time, but even so I notched up 148 species. There are so many birds, even in March, that you could spend 4-5 days just going round the impoundments and wooded areas within Keoladeo itself. However, we will make it back -- hopefully one time during the breeding season, when there will be greater variety in storks, and during mid-winter. A few days later, back in Delhi, we read that the three Siberian cranes had left Keoladeo for their breeding grounds, so we only just caught them.

A word on the field guides I'm using. The Ali/Ripley Pictorial Guide is OK for the larger and more distinctive species. I also took with me the Guide to Warblers of Europe, Asia and North Africa (Baker), very good for separating the warblers, as well as Jonsson's guide to European birds (very good for the pipits). I have heard there are better field guides to Indian birds coming out. All I can say is, the sooner the better, I won't have to carry around five books with me whenever I go on a trip.

List of Birds

Species/scientific name taken from Oriental Bird Club's Annotated Checklist of the Birds of the Oriental Region.
Bird with a * are life birds. 'Agra only' means the bird was seen on the Jamuna River behind the Taj Mahal.

Species Name                    Scientific Name
Grey Francolin                  Francolinus pondicerianus
Indian Peafowl                  Pavo cristatus
Lesser Whistling-duck           Dendrocygna javanica
Greylag Goose                   Anser anser
Bar-headed Goose                A. indicus
Ruddy Shelduck                  Tadorna ferruginea              Agra only
Comb Duck*                      Sarkidornis melanotos
Cotton Pygmy-goose              Nettapus coromandelianus
Northern Pintail                Anas acuta
Common Teal                     A. crecca
Spot-billed Duck                A. poecilorhyncha
Gadwall                         A. strepera
Eurasian Wigeon                 A. penelope
Garganey                        A. querquedula
Northern Shoveler               A. clypeata
Common Pochard                  Aythya ferina
Ferruginous Duck*               A. nyroca
Tufted Duck                     A. fuligula
Yellow-crowned Woodpecker       Dendrocopos mahrattensis
Black-rumped Flameback          Dinopium benghalense
Indian Grey Hornbill            Ocyeros birostris
Common Hoopoe                   Upupa epops
Indian Roller                   Coracias benghalensis
Common Kingfisher               Alcedo atthis
Pied Kingfisher                 Ceryle rudis
White-throated Kingfisher       Halcyon smyrna
Green Bee-eater                 Merops orientalis
Greater Coucal                  Centropus sinensis
Rose-ringed Parakeet            Psittacula krameri
House Swift                     Apus affinis
Collared Scops-owl              Otus sunia
Dusky Eagle-owl*                Bubo coromandus
Spotted Owlet                   Athene brama
Rock Pigeon                     Columba livia
Spotted Dove                    Streptopelia chinensis
Eurasian Collared Dove          S. decaocto
Laughing Dove                   S. senegalensis
Yellow-legged Green Pigeon      Treron phoenicoptera
Siberian Crane                  Grus leucogeranus
Sarus Crane                     G. antigone
Common Crane                    G. grus
Ruddy-breasted Crake*           Porzana fusca
White-breasted Waterhen         Amaurornis phoenicurus
Purple Swamphen                 Porphyrio porphyrio
Common Moorhen                  Gallinula chloropus
Common Coot                     Fulica atra
Common Snipe                    Gallinago gallinago
Spotted Redshank                Tringa erythropus
Common Redshank                 T. totanus
Marsh Sandpiper                 T. stagnatilis                  Agra only
Common Greenshank               T. nebularia
Green Sandpiper                 T. ochropus
Wood Sandpiper                  T. glareola
Ruff                            Philomachus pugnax
Pheasant-tailed Jacana          Hydrophasianus chirurgus
Bronze-winged Jacana            Metopidius indicus
Black-winged Stilt              Himantopus himantopus           Agra only
River Lapwing*                  Vanellus duvaucelii             Agra only
Red-wattled Lapwing             V. indicus
White-tailed Lapwing            V. leucurus
River Tern                      Sterna aurantia
Whiskered Tern*                 Chlidonias hybridus
Black-shouldered Kite           Elanus caeruleus
Black Kite                      Milvus migrans          None in Keoladeo!
White-rumped Vulture            Gyps bengalensis
Long-billed Vulture             G. indicus
Red-headed Vulture*             Sarcogyps calvus
Egyptian Vulture                Neophron percnopterus
Eurasian Marsh Harrier          Circus aeruginosus
Hen Harrier                     Circus cyaneus
Shikra                          Accipiter badius
Lesser Spotted Eagle*           Aquila pomarina
Greater Spotted Eagle*          A. clanga
Steppe Eagle*                   A. nipalensis
Crested Serpent-Eagle*          Spilornis cheela
Common Kestrel                  Falco tinnunculus
Little Grebe                    Tachybaptus ruficollis
Darter                          Anhinga melanogaster
Little Cormorant                Phalacrocorax niger
Indian Cormorant                P. fuscicollis
Great Cormorant                 P. carbo
Little Egret                    Egretta garzetta
Grey Heron                      Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron                    A. purpurea
Great Egret                     Casmerodius alba
Intermediate Egret              Mesophyx intermedia
Cattle Egret                    Bubulcus ibis
Indian Pond Heron               Ardeola grayii
Little Heron*                   Butorides striatus
Black-crowned Night Heron       Nycticorax nycticorax
Yellow Bittern                  Ixobrychus sinensis
Glossy Ibis                     Plegadis falcinellus
Black-headed Ibis               Threskiornis melanocephalus
Eurasian Spoonbill              Platalea leucorodia
Great White Pelican             Pelecanus onocrotalus
Painted Stork                   Mycteria leucocephala
Black-necked Stork*             Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus
Bay-backed Shrike               Lanius vittatus
Long-tailed Shrike              Lanius schach
Rufous Treepie                  Dendrocitta vagabunda
House Crow                      Corvus splendens
Large-billed Crow               C. macrorhynchos
Small Minivet                   Pericrocotus cinnamomeus
Black Drongo                    Dicrurus adsimilis
Common Woodshrike               Tephrodornis pondicerianus
Red-throated Flycatcher         Ficedula parva
Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher   Culicicapa ceylonensis
Bluethroat                      Luscinia svecica
Oriental Magpie Robin           Copsychus saularis
Indian Robin                    Saxicoloides fulicata
Pied Bushchat                   Saxicola caprata
Brown Rock Chat                 Cercomela fusca
Brahminy Starling               Sturnus pagodarum
Asian Pied Starling             Sturnus contra
Common Myna                     Acridotheres tristis
Bank Myna                       A. ginginianus
Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch*      Sitta castanea
Barn Swallow                    Hirundo rustica
Wire-tailed Swallow             H. fluvicola
White-eared Bulbul*             Pycnonotus leucotis
Red-whiskered Bulbul            P. jocosus
Red-vented Bulbul               P. cafer
Plain Prinia                    Prinia inornata
Oriental White-eye              Zosterops palpebrosus
Paddyfield Warbler*             Acrocephalus agricola
Blyth's Reed Warbler*           A. dumetorum
Clamorous Reed Warbler*         A. stentoreus
Booted Warbler*                 Hippolais caligata
Common Tailorbird               Orthortomus sutorius
Common Chiffchaff               Phylloscopus collybita
Hume's Warbler                  P. humei
Brooks's Leaf Warbler           P. subviridis
Greenish Warbler                P. trochiloides
Yellow-eyed Babbler*            Chrysomma sinense
Common Babbler                  Turdoides caudatus
Large Grey Babbler              T. malcolmi
Jungle Babbler                  T. striatus
Lesser Whitethroat              Sylvia curruca
Purple Sunbird                  Nectarinia asiatica
House Sparrow                   Passer domesticus
Chestnut-shouldered Petronia*   Petronia xanthocollis
White Wagtail                   Motacilla alba
White-browed Wagtail            M. maderaspatensis
Citrine Wagtail                 M. citreola
Yellow Wagtail                  M. flava
Grey Wagtail                    M. cinerea
Tawny Pipit*                    Anthus campestris
Baya*                           Ploceus philippinus

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