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The abundance of Bharatpur

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

4273.


The agitated, noisy flutter of a dozen wings taking off in alarm broke the stillness of the cold, foggy morning.


I was walking down a path, water bodies on either side, camera and tripod balanced on my shoulder and my footsteps might have set off the coots that had assembled slightly closer to the path.


And, as it almost always happens, the noise triggers my thoughts only to one number.


4273.


Once you are inside Bharatpur and you have taken the straight road in, without roaming off on any of those tempting side roads, you will reach the central area of the sanctuary. On your right is a small canteen and some seating space to have your meals, a water body lies on your left, with, in all likelihood, a darter sunning itself on a branch. It is here that all the cycle rickshaws would be assembled, the owners catching up with each other in small groups. Continue a little further on the gently curving path, you will see a large board, on your right.


This board is what bureaucratic dreams are made of.


Bharatpur started as a royal hunting area in 1850 and both the Maharajas and the British loved to come there to hunt. Someone would have started the tradition of jotting down the number of birds killed. And it continued to be followed by one diligent clerk after the other.

On one chilly and foggy day in November, in the year 1938, it has been noted, I fear, in a phlegmatic manner by a clerk solely focused on doing his job, that the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow, presumably along with his cheerful band of friends, had shot 4273 hapless birds.


4273 birds.


With grim bureaucratic precision, this number has been further broken down – 3044 were shot in the morning and 1229 post lunch. 


4273.


Those were the days when, I think , mostly single shot guns would have been used for shooting birds. Imagine the number of birds that would have been there for 4273 birds to be killed.


Shoot. Reload. Shoot. Rinse. Repeat.


I try to imagine the sound that would have been created when all those wings started flapping in fear. Would the noise have been louder than the sound of the gunshots ?


4273.


In one single day. And, going by the precise splits, maybe not even over an entire day.

Not for the first time, I wondered about the bottomless cruelty that man possesses.

4273 😦

But, of course, these numbers thankfully belong to history and, even if rather late, from 1972, hunting was banned, Bharatpur got declared as a World Heritage Site in 1985 and today, it is a lovely little place. Yes, the locals tell us every year that the number of birds are reducing and the dreaded words ‘climate change’ gets thrown around far too easily and comfortably, but it still is such a lovely place.


You go past the entry gates and its as if you are entering into another world.


A world where life just seems to be at a slower pace. The fastest way to commute would be the ubiquitous cycle rickshaws. Mostly, however, one just walks around on paths that wind their way under a canopy of trees. Or you sit in a place waiting for an interesting moment to come up. Or sometimes a startled deer or a nilgai. Things just slow down wonderfully. 

Its a fairly common experience to surprise a deer or a nilgai as you walk around the winding paths

You could wait at one of those clearings in the shrub lined paths next to a water body and wait for a Pochard or a Ruddy Shelduck. Or you could sit by another water body waiting for the kingfisher to dive and catch a fish. Or watch a cormorant fish.


You have the entire day ahead of you. There is no hurry. 


Time. Slows. Down.

The Shy Assassin. Its fascinating to see a pied kingfisher fish. It hovers over a spot for quite some time before it dives in.

You can also make straightforward images 🙂

A pair of juvenile painted storks seen through the bushes…couldnt create the image I wanted to tho !

A hoopoe appears to be in a pensive mood

The Sentinel. Keeping an eye on the morning sun

Patience is, of course, key here, like anywhere else. And nothing needs more patience than photographing the cormorants fish.


The cormorants dive under water at one spot, surface at another spot which could really be anywhere in the water body, and if it is successful (mostly it isn’t ) then the fun begins.


Especially if it is a greater cormorant.


The fish it catches is usually rather large and the cormorant throws up its catch in the air and if the fish falls vertically, then it is simply gulped down. But, it doesn’t always fall vertically. So, not only does it have to throw it up repeatedly, but since cormorants by nature are shameless little thieves and have no compunction at all in snatching the fish off its original owner, one cormorant just has to surface with its catch for all the others to start a noisy little chase. 


Its all good fun and the moment a cormorant catches a biggie, there is excitement all around. There is a lot of splashing of water, fluttering of wings and it usually gets over rather quickly. However, if it’s a really big catch then the chase can go on for quite some time. The chase then goes on around the lake and sometimes the hapless fish gets tossed around four or five or even more owners before it is swallowed by a lucky bird or it is given up as being just too large.


But photographing this isn’t easy. Far from it.


You get ready when a greater cormorant enters the water. As soon as it dives into the water, you are alert, peering through your camera, waiting to spy it the moment it surfaces, which could be just anywhere. And, if it surfaces with a catch then go click crazy !

However, they might surface far away from where you are. The first toss itself could result in the fish escaping. Or getting swallowed. Add to that the usual photographers’ fussiness about clean background, eye level shots…phew…


Nope…not easy, to get that ideal shot.


Crouching down, waiting for the fun to start and to catch some good truly memorable shots, needs truckloads of patience. And luck. And a strong back ! Each time I get up, stretching my much abused back, I once again promise to myself greater discipline in the gym !


I have caught a few interesting action images. But I am still waiting for that signature shot 🙂

Gotcha !!

Oops…!

The chase continues….

Bharatpur is naturally totally different from all the usual famous jungles in the country. But there is one similarity. Especially in the mornings.


You enter the sanctuary ( and, of course, you are inside at the crack of dawn, shivering in the cold, hands burrowed deep inside your pockets, head bowed down ) and you meet other similarly crazy photographers and you look questioningly. Eyebrows arched. Or a simple – Dikha ? ( Did you see ? ) or ‘Call suna ? “ ( could you hear any call ? ).


Meet the Bharatpur version of the tiger in a jungle. The admittedly much milder version here is – the sarus crane.


The sarus crane is the tallest crane in the world, usually taller than 5 ft. It has a lovely grey coloured body which breaks briefly into a white colour around the neck before suddenly bursting into a deep red head and matching eyes. The striking red head further has a break as the crown is once again grey. Its such a lovely mix of a few colours !


The sarus cranes are believed to mate for life, stories abound about it pining to death at the loss of its mate and quite naturally stand for marital fidelity in many parts of the country.


To capture this beauty on a foggy, misty morning as the sun breaks out can be magical. And if these lovely birds break into their customary dance, then its pure magic to watch them.

But, well, it ain’t easy.


They don’t necessarily appear daily. They might appear but might be far away and just don’t come near. They might come near but might be too focused on feeding and don’t strike that memorable pose.


Or one of them might, but the other one might not be in the mood. My wait to capture both continues 🙂

The Sarus Crane…its indeed a lovely bird !

Finally. And, maybe next time, I shall catch them both together dancing !

However, the real joy of being in Bharatpur is to use the mist and the lovely light that the sunrise and sunset throws up.


You will need to time your visits well. There are months where it just becomes too foggy and there is hardly any sun. But, during a brief period in February, you could luck out on just that brilliant bit of sunshine, that lovely thin layer of mist and everything looks ethereal.


And the result is magic.

The Faraway Tree.

A cormorant looks around in wonder as the sun shows off its magic !

Watching the sun set…and the birds flit past

A lil grebe on a morning stroll

A pair of lesser cormorants dare to step into the cold waters


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