Monday, May 25, 2009

Rajasthan Ranthambhore National Park History

The hot, dry climate of Rajasthan, its vast sandy areas, hilly tracts and numerous lakes, rivers and waterbodies provide diverse habitat conditions suitable for a number of species of reptiles which include crocodiles, snakes, lizards and turtles. Two species of crocodiles, the marsh crocodile and the gharial inhabit the rivers. The gharial is a fish-eating crocodile and does not attack humans. Once endangered, Rajasthan has contributed substantially in saving the inoffensive gharial  from extinction, with most of its country-wide population hatched from eggs collected from the state’s Chambal river. Of a total of 30 species of snakes found here, 26 are non-poisonous. The four venomous snakes include the Indian cobra (Naja naja), Indian krait (Bungarus caeruleus), Russell’s viper (Vipera russelii) and Pud (Ecbis caeruleus). Unless provoked or stepped upon, these snakes do not attack humans. The common rock python (Python molurus) is the biggest snake found in Rajasthan. Although pythons can be found in a number of wildlife sanctuaries, the best place to spot them during the winter months is at the Keoladeo national park, Bharatpur.

ngalensis widely spread throughout the state, and the Varanus griseus which is confined to the western part o the state. Sanda or the spiny tailed lizard lives only in the drier, western region of the state. A shy vegetarian, it uses its spiny tail for defense against enemies. Rajasthan has only one specie of land turtle, the star turtle (Geocbelone elegans). Confined to the hilly tracts of the Aravallies, it is threatened because of loss of habitat. The remaining 11 species are acuatic, found in the perennial waterbodies of eastern and southern Rajasthan. The Chambal sanctuary on the eastern boundary of the state provides a suitable habitat for highly endangered, freshwater or Gangetic dolphins, as well as for gharials, crocodiles and a number of species of turtles. The religious, cultural, social and historical traditions of the people of the state have contributed a good deal to saving its natural heritage. The ethics of conservation are a part of the state’s fabric, nurtured by saints, philosophers and religious gurus. Te desert community shards its scarce resources of food and water willingly with wild animals. Food and water is provided for birds and animals in many parts of India. However, there is no parallel to the feeding of Demoiselle cranes in Kheechan village near Phalodi in Jodhpur district. During migration (September-March) thousands of Demoiselle cranes arrive early in the morning and land in the village to be fed by the villagers. Treated like guests and addressed as friends and companions, they have found a place in the state’s folklore and folk songs.

Communities like those of the Bishnois provide protection to all wild animals in their villages because of their religious faith and belief. The blackbuck and abinkara are considered sacred and aggressively protected. Large herds of these graceful antelopes roam freely in the Bishnoi fields in the desert districts of the state. Even the powerful maharajas of pre-independent India refrained from hunting on Bishnoi lands, respecting the sentiments of these conservators. No hunter or poacher is likely to attempt to hunt in these areas for fear of the wrath of the entire community. Because of this, there are more wild animals to b found in the non-forest areas than in the forest area. The rulers of the erstwhile states contributed substantially to the preservation of wildlife. Athough they themselves enjoyed sbikar, at the same time they prevented others from the sport. Most of the state’s wildlife sanctuaries and national parks were once their exclusive shooting reserves.

Ranthambhore National park Tiger Safari booking goes online

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Sariska Tiger Reserve

his park is situated only 200 km from Delhi and 107 kms from Jaipur. Although larger than Ranthambor, it is less commercialised and has less tigers but a similar topography. It covers an area of 800 sq km in total, with a core area of approximately 500 sq km. The Northern Aravali Hills dominate the skyline with their mixture of sharp cliffs and long narrow valleys. The area was declared a sanctuary in 1955 and became a National Park in 1979.

The landscape of Sariska comprises of hills and narrow valleys of the Aravali hill range. The topography of Sariska supports scrub-thorn arid forests, dry deciduous forests, rocks and grasses. The broad range of wildlife here is a wonderful example of ecological adoption and tolerance, for the climate here is variable as well as erratic. 

It is located in the contemporary Alwar district and is the legacy of the Maharajas of Alwar. Pavilions and Temples within Sariska are ruins that hint at past riches and glory. The nearby Kankwadi Fort has a long and turbulent history.In morning and evening, wildlife in Sariska heads towards the many water holes, which litter the park, thus providing the guests with their best chance of viewing game. At some of these watering holes it is possible to book hides which are situated in prime spots for wildlife viewing. 

The park is home to numerous carnivores including Leopard, Wild Dog, Jungle Cat, Civets Hyena, Jackal, and Tiger. These feed on species such as Sambar, Chital, Nilgai, Chausingha, Wild Boar and Langur. Sariska is also well known for its large population of Rhesus Monkeys, which are found around Talvriksh.

The avian world is also well represented with Peafowl, Grey Partridge, Bush Quail, Sand Grouse,Tree Pie, Golden backed Woodpecker, crested Serpent Eagle and The Great Indian horned Owl.

The park is open almost whole year-round, but for wildlife viewing and your comfort it is best to visit from October to April. Safaris are provided by jeep.


Ranthambhore National Park, before a princely game conserve is the scene where the celebrated Indian Tiger is best seen. Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve lies on the junction of Aravali and Vindhyas just 14 Kms from Sawai Madhopur in Eastern Rajasthan. It sprawls over a varying and undulating landscape. The scenery changes dramatically from gentle and steep slopes of the Vindhyas and sharp and conical hills of the Aravali. A tenth century fort also blends amicably with the background. Pure sands of Dhok (Anogeissus pendula) interspersed with grasslands at the plateaus, meadows in valleys and luxuriant foliage around the canals make the jungle. Three big lakes – Padam Talab (meaning Lake), Malik Talab and Raj Bagh – are similar turquoises studded in the vast forest that abounds with aquatic vegetation including duckweeds, lilies and lotus. is the only official web portal to offer tiger safari reservation for Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, Sariska Tiger Park and Keoladeo Ghana National Park. Choose the park below to reserve your tiger safari online.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

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The PeopleRajasthan according to the 2001 census has a population of 56.5 million. Rajasthan has a large indigenous populace Minas (Minawati) in Alwar, Jaipur, Bharatpur, and Dholpur areas. The Meo and the Banjara are travelling tradesmen and artisans. The Gadia Lohar is the Lohar meaning ironsmith who travels on Gadia meaning bullock carts; they generally make and repair agricultural and household implements. The Bhils are one of the oldest peoples in India, inhabit the districts of Bhilwara, Chittaurgarh, Dungarpur, Banswara, Udaipur, and Sirohi and are famous for their skill in archery. The Grasia and nomadic Kathodi live in the Mewar region. Sahariyas are found in the Kota district, and the Rabaris of the Marwar region are cattle breeders.

The Oswals hail from Osiyan near Jodhpur are successful traders and are predominately Jains. While the Mahajan (the trading class) is subdivided into a large number of groups, some of these groups are Jain, while others are Hindu. In the north and west, the Jat and Gujar are among the largest agricultural communities. The Gujars who are Hindus dwell in eastern Rajasthan. The nomadic Rabari or Raika are divided in two groups the Marus who breed camels and Chalkias who breed sheep and goats.

The Muslims form less than 10% of the population and most of them are Sunnis. There is also a small but affluent community Shiaite Muslims known as Bhoras in southeastern Rajasthan. The Rajputs though represent only a small proportion of the populace are the most influential section of the people in Rajasthan. They are proud of their martial reputation and of their ancestry.


Amazing legends of heroism and romance still resound from its equally amazing architecture, that still stands to narrate its tale of a bygone era. The magic of Rajasthan is unequalled in the world for its heritage, culture, safaris, sand dunes and lush green forests with its wildlife. Rajasthan is often expressed as huge open-air museum with relic so well preserved for the travelers and the curious of the day. It is action-packed with outdoors too; take a safari on horses, camels, elephants or even jeeps with the Aravalis - India's oldest mountain range in the backdrop, or caress your eyes on the sloppy sand dunes, or trail a tiger or just watch birds on wetland. Or you can choose to pamper yourself in the lavish heritage properties. Rajasthan has something for everyone, just choose your activity.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Rajasthan Wildlife is the only official web portal to offer tiger safari reservation for Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, Sariska Tiger Park and Keoladeo Ghana National Park. Choose the park below to reserve your tiger safari online.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Wetlands of the Indo-Gangetic Plains

Originating from the eastern edge of the Aravalli hills in Alwar and Jaipur, and bounded by the northern end of the Vindhyan ranges in Karauli, the fertile, alluvial plains slope gently towards the east and north-east. The Chambal, a tributary of the Yamuna, originates from the Vindhyan ranges in Madhya Pradesh and forms their easter boundary in Rajasthan. The almost imperceptible slopes consist of sand, silt and mud washed down over millions of years from the Arawalli and Vindhyan hills.
This flat, almost featureless region is a part of the great Indo-Gangetic plains. Satellite pictures of the terrain indicate that the area once formed part of the river bed of the Yamuna before it changed its course. The region continues to be watered by the Banganga and Gambhiri rivers that originate in the Aravalli and Vindhyan hills respectively and flow into the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh. The terrain is so flat that these rivers cease flowing, spread out, merge and disappear into the flood plains. During a good monsoon, most of the area is inundated. Travelling by train through this area on one such occasion. I was amazed by the vast expanse of the water spread. It felt as though the train was moving through a vast body of water. Because of the annual flooding, even the railway track is land a few metres above ground level.
Historic as well as mythological associations with this region abound. A part of the regions is known as Brij-bhumi and is believed to be the land where Lord Krishna spent his early childhood. Mathura, where he was born, also forms part of Brij-bhumi though it falls in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. Legends make mention of the richness and variety of animal, bird and plant life including the lofty kadamb (Mitragyna parviflora) trees on the banks of rivers and swamps infested with snakes and reptiles, and the babul (Acacia nilotica) and kareel (Capparts deciduas) trees that grew in the pastures, where Krishna grazed his cows.
When the 16th century battle of Khanua was fought between Babur and Rana Sangha, the area was covered with jungles and dry prairie lands that sheltered a large population of antelopes and other wild animals. Later, the forests were cleared for cultivation and human settlements. Late in the 17th century, with the decline of the Mughal empire, Bharatpur emerged as an independent Jat state and remained so for over a hundred years. After two sieges in the early-19th century, the state came under British rule.
The soil is highly productive, and farming of mustard, wheat and gram is widespread. The region now provides support to a number of villages and town making the flood-plains of Bharatpur among the most thickly populated parts of the state. Most of the natural vegetation of the region has been lost. Despite this, the region also harbours among the world’s best known and most valuable wildlife protected areas. The Keoladeo Ghana national park, Bharatpur, where both vegetation and wildlife are protected by the state government, is now an acknowledged World Heritage site. And the contribution of the National Chambal sanctuary in coming to the rescue of the once highly endangered gbarial and marsh crocodile is known to conservationists around the world.
The opportunities for developing the potential of the shallow depressions of Ghana were first felt by Prince Harbhamji of Morvi, Gujarat, when serving as a regent to the infant Kishan Singh of Bharatpur, in 1899. during his education in England, the prince had taken a fancy for duck shoots. In order to attract wildfowl in the area, he increased the water holding capacity of the depressions by constructing bunds and dykes. These newly created, shallow lakes were filled with water released from Azan bund.
The first big shoot was organized in December, 1902 when the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, along with Lord Kitchner and their party shot 540 birds using 17 guns. Following this, duck shoots became a regular feature that were organized in honour of important British and Indian guests. Enormous numbers of birds were slaughtered, a record of which is engraved on stone plaques near Keoladeo temple. The largest number of birds (4,273) were bagged by Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy and Governor-General of India, in November, 1938. The party consisted of 39 guns. Hundreds of thousands of ducks were shot before the sport was stopped in 1972. Although the Maharaja had handed over the area to the state forest department on independence, and the area had been notified a sanctuary by the state government in 1956, the royal family had retained shooting rights over the area under the special privilege granted by a covenant. These rights and privileges were withdrawn in 1972 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
On a visit to the sanctuary, Indira Gandhi found that a busy road connecting Bharatpur with Agahapur passed through it. A naturalist herself, she suggested that traffic be diverted away from the sanctuary, and provided the appropriate funding for the purpose. It was also at her initiative and persuasion that the sanctuary was raised to the level of a national park in 1982. The marshes of Bharatpur that had been created as shooting reserve by the rulers of Bharatpur, now had the appropriate infrastructure for a potential world Heritage park.
Keoladeo Ghana national park covers an area of 29 sq km. The marshy portion varies every year depending on the availability of water, though the dry spread is usually at least twice that of the marshes. The vegetation of this dry region too varies considerably. The beautiful kadam (Mytragyna panifolia) groves provide nestling sites for cotton teal, comb duck and parakeet, while the babul woodlands are home to the babul (Acacia nilotica), ronj (Acacia leucopbolae) and beens (Capparis sepiaria). The babul trees provide nesting material for painted storks and open-billed storks. The change in the dry land vegetation to bushes and mid-sized trees consisting of ber and beens is favoured by white-breasted water hens, doves and shrikes. In the Keladhar area, the vegetation changes to dry prairie with its few groves of trees favoured by larks, chats and buntings. The short-toed eagle and black winged kite are also seen here. It is also a good habitat for blackbuck and nilgai.
Water is drawn for the marshy eco-system from Ajan bund through Ghana canal. Ajan bund is a flood control dam. Water is allowed to stand here for some time before being drained into the park. This allows the soil to absorb water so that the crop grown on it does not need subsequent irrigation. With the harnessing of the waters of the Gambhiri at Panchana in Karauli, the flow of water in the river has reduced and is likely to adversely effect the water supply of the park. Against a total requirement of 540 million cubic feet of water, the park now gets about 350 mcft in a normal rainfall year. Even this quantity is likely to be reduced because of the Panchana dam.
In years of scanty rain, there isn’t enough water in Ajan bund to fill all the blocks, resulting a a shrinkage of the aquatic habitat. Drought years like 1979, 1986 and 1987 saw the habitat barely kept alive by pumping water from tubewells specially commissioned to meet the situation. Most migratory birds dispersed to other waterbodies but it proved a particularly hard time for the Siberian cranes that found tubers difficult to pull out from its dry feeding sites.
Storks, cormorants, egrets, herons, darters and spoonbills come here to breed during the monsoons. In 1983, when grazing was disallowed in the park, the decision was criticized by some conservators who though the excessive growth of paspalum grass would adversely effect the efficiency of the birds in catching fish, and therefore effect their breeding. The birds proved them wrong. A count of the nests in the park that year revealed that over 12,000 nests had been built by the different species. The largest number were built by shags, followed by painted storks, little commorants, medium egrets, little egrets, white ibises and open-billed storks, large egrets etc.
An abundant and assured supply of food for their young chicks, who are voracious eaters, is considered necessary by the birds. I have observed, in 1986 and 1987, that in drought years these birds do not breed, even though they may arrive in the park and some of them even start the construction of the nests and then not breed. The birds, it seems, are able to sense the failure of the monsoon, and the consequent shortage of food.
The open-billed storks arrive in the second or third week of June and take possession of the crown of the babul trees. These are grayish-white birds with some black on the wings. Their peculiar bill with its arching mandibles that have an open gap is a diagonostic feature of the species. Their curiously shaped bill is best suited for their main diet of large mollusks. With the onset of the rains, these birds start building their nests. The males begin to court the females. The breeding plumage turn the dull grey portions of the bird’s body into a shining white. By the end of July, hundreds of open-billed storks have made their nests on the babul trees. By the end of July, eggs become visible in the nests, each bird normally laying three-four eggs coloured a dull white. During this period, the storks feed on mollusks, snails and frogs, searching for them in small puddles in the woodlands.
With the release of water from Ajan bund, an enormous quantity of fish enter the lakes of Keoladeo. It takes four-six week to fill the lakes. Water lilies spread and bloom. The spread of this lily is most extensive in a normal rainfall year that immediately follows a drought year. The lily, Nypbea boucbeli, is called kumudini in Hindi: its tender white flowers open in the cool of the night but close in the morning, after sunrise.
The open-billed storks induce the other birds to start building nests too. Soon, the egrets, grey herons, night herons, little cormorants, Indian shag, darters and others begin their nest building activities. Thought the site and location of the nests may differ from tree to tree, depending on the availability of space, a loose pattern of preferred sites becomes obvious. My observations is that cormorants and egrets make their nests in the lower branches of the babul, darters occupy the next level, while open-billed storks take the highest branches. All trees are fully occupied by different species of birds without any colour bar. The nesting of egrets, cormorants and darters on the same tree attracts the attention of visitors because of their conspicuous black and white colours. Some trees are fully covered with nests. I have seen over a hundred nests comprising of eight species of birds on a single tree. However, white ibises, painted storks and large cormorants tend to nest in more exclusive breeding colonies. The white ibis builds its nests close to each other’s making them look like a common platform.
Nest building is a tedious task, particularly in view of the perpetual shortage of nesting material. With over 12,000 nests to be built in a short span of 30-40 days, this is understandable. Fierce quarrels break out between neighbours when one is found stealing a twig or some other nesting material from another.
As the birds busy themselves with courting, next building and incubating of eggs, the nesting colonies fall silent. The only sounds to be heard are the flapping or wings or the clattering of bills. The atmosphere in the heronry changes with the hatching of the eggs. The air is now charged with the sounds of the perpetually hungry nestlings. The fishing activities of the parent birds increase manifold. In the community feeding by egrets and cormorants, large flocks of egrets can be seen fishing together, while the cormorants actually drive the fish collectively when moving in the marshes.
In the early stages of courtship, the breeding plumage of the egrets looks splendid. The males display their lacy, filigreed plumes to attract the females. All egrets, with the exception of the cattle egret, are white, but the arrangement of their plumes and the colour of their faces and legs, are useful indicators in the identification different species. The large egrets, which are comparatively less gregarious, have flowing mantles of long delicate plumes which are raised and fanned by the breeze. A salient feature of the large egret is tht their breeding plumage appears only for a short time and starts disappearing once the courtship is over. Observing the courtship display of these birds is interesting. The male fans its plumes to arouse its mate. The birds exchange greetings, touch each others bills, and entwine their necks.
Median egrets have plumes on their throat and back. During the breeding phase, the irises of the make bird are a dark orange red compared to the female’s orange. The facial and orbital skins of both sexes are lemon-yellow with a greenish tinge on the area immediately in front of the eye. There is more green in the female’s facial skin than in that of the male. Their breaks are black.
Little egrets come next to them in the order of their breeding. These egrets court by bowing, their plumes become erect, and their facial and orbital skins turn coral pink. After the display the colour of the skin return to a pale grayish one. During courtship, their feet are a shining yellow, as if nature intended them to wear yellow socks.
Cattle egrets resemble the little egrets but a distinctive feature in the non-breeding season is their yellow bill. Cattle egrets do not have long plumes but the additional colours add to their finery. Their head, neck and back glow an orange gold, while the facial skin and eyes become blood red during courtship. Their nest on the lower branches of the babul seems an untidy structure of twigs. By the first week of August, the eggs have been laid in the nest. A normal clutch is of three-five eggs, a pale skimmed-milk in colour. After laying the eggs, for 17 to 22 days, the male and female alternately incubate them. The chicks are cream coloured. After hatching, the adults discard the empty shells by dropping them over the side of the nest.
Darters, large cormorants, little cormorants, Indian shag and white ibis, all build their nests on the babul. A cluster of four-five darter nests can be seen at distances of a foot or two from each other. An interesting feature is that the young of these black birds are downy white when they hatch, changing to light brown as they grow older, and a darker brown by the time they start flying. Cormorants and Indian shags are also black, like the darter, but their young are also black. Their nests are untidy platforms made using sticks. The snake bird or darter is recognizable by its slender, snake-like, velvety brown neck, narrow head and pointed dagger bill. Although it spends much of its time in water, its plumage, unlike the ducks, is not water proof. After swimming in the water, it needs to dry its bedraggled feathers. The darter is a perfect swimmer and it is an experience watching it hunt its prey. It lunges out for a fish, raises its bill above the water surface and tosses the fish up in the air, catching it as it falls perfectly down its beak.
Many people find it difficult to differentiate between the three species of cormorants. The little cormorant has a small, white patch on its throat and a crest on the back of the head. The large cormorant is the size of a domestic duck with a grayish-white patch on the head and neck in the breeding season. The Indian shag could easily be confused with these two. In the breeding season, it has a tuft of white feathers behind the eyes and some white speckles on the head and neck.
The white ibis is white in colour except for its bill and legs which are black. It prefers to nest in colonies. During the breeding season, an appealing red colour appears on the side of its wings.
Herons locate their nesting sites in colonies, along with cormorants. Herons are recognizable from a distance because of their long, slender S-shaped neck. During the breeding season, the grey herons develops a bright, orange-red beak and orange-yellow legs, and a black occipital crest develops on the head. Similarly, purple herons wear a brighter plumage during the breeding season. Both herons favour aquatic areas with grassy patches but while the purple hereon establishes a separate colony away from the other birds, the grey hereon proves itself less fastidious, building its nest on trees along with other water birds. The comparatively smaller, more beautiful night hereon nests with colonies of other water birds but make its own nest in the thicker, inner parts of the trees. A long crest appears on its head during the breeding period, and the eyes turn a deeper red.
In the last week of august, painted storks start looking for trees on which to build their nests. The painted stork shares its trees with spoonbills. Though painted storks have no special breeding plumage, the new arrivals look specially colourful and bright. During this period, the black band across the breast and the striking, delicate rose pink feathers near the tail combine with its white colour to enhance its beauty. Once the birds choose the nesting sites, they stand there almost constantly. Both male and female share the work of nest making. The male brings babul twigs and hands them to the female who places it on the platform. The nest is a large platform made of sticks, and has shallow depression lined with stems and leaves of water weeds or grasses.
This is also the time when the spoonbills shed their cream colour and turn white, and wear the shaggy crests. Although both male and female spoonbills develop crests, that of the male looks slightly bigger and heavier than that of the female. Besides, a red spot appears in both of the lower foreneck, just below the bill. In males, this spot is darker and brighter. The spatula shaped, distinctive bill of this bird is its salient feature, it is black and yellow, broad and flat, and ends in a widened spatula.
After mid-September, young chicks are visible in the nests of the painted storks and spoonbills,. Little activity is observed while the eggs are being hatched, but once the chicks start growing, their demand for food increases. Both parents bring fish for the chicks, regurgitating the half digested meal on the floor of the nest where it is greedily devoured by the chicks.
By the end of October, all the young birds, with the exception of he painted storks and spoonbills, have started flying By November, the young spoonbills have also taken flight, while the late-breeding painted stork can be seen looking after their young even up to the last week of November.
One August morning, I pushed a boat with the help of a long bamboo through a shallow, weed-choked portion of the lake, when I sported a bronze-winged jacana with two chicks. On seeing the boat, the jacana first hid the chicks under its wings, but as the boat kept moving ahead, the bird walked away holding its chicks pressed between its wings, their long legs and toes dangling below the mother’s wings. The jacana had used an unorthodox way in avoiding danger to its chicks.
Jacanas are peculiar birds that have evolved a life of their very own in the marshes. With their enormously long legs and almost equally long, straight toes, they walk freely over the thin floating vegetation and even over the lily leaf pads. Inconspicuous from a distance because of its metallic green colour, it is not easy to spot even when running around over the floating vegetation. It makes its nest in high, thick grass. The nest is a pad of twisted weed stems placed on floating, aquatic vegetation. The ordinary looking nest is a marvelous example of the engineering skills of the bird,. It is well anchored to help it stay in place, even in flowing water. The floating mass helps to retain the nest above water when the water level rises after heavy rains. If, at any stage, the nest is found unsuitable or unsafe, the male transfers the eggs using its beak, to another nest built by him. The female of the species is larger than the male, and is polyandrous. She usually lays four bronze eggs and stays with the male only till the eggs are laid on a floating nest. As soon as the eggs are laid, she moves off in search of another mating partner. In one season, she may mate with three to four males in a row. The entire responsibility o incubation of the eggs and parental care for the chicks is the sole responsibility of the male bronze-winged jacana.
The other species of jacana in the park is the pheasant-tailed jacana, a handsome brown and white bird with a golden velvet neck and an elegantly curved long tail. It also makes its nest on floating vegetation. The female jacana is polyandrous and leaves the eggs in search of another partner while the previous male partner incubates them.
The purple moorhen, Indian moorhen and white-breasted waterhen, prefer thick aquatic vegetation to build nests in September and October. The purple moorhen is identified easily by its purple-blue colour, bold red forehead and long bare red leg. The bird is very noisy during the breeding season. The male goes through a ludicrous courtship display, holding water weeds in its bill and bowing to its mate to the accompaniment of loud chuckles. Its nest is a mound of grass, sedge or reed with a slight depression in the centre. A normal clutch consists of four to five eggs, cream to reddish buff in colour. The eggs hatch after 26 to 27 days of incubation.
With water overflowing from the Ajan dam, the tallest of the Indian wading birds, the sarus crane also starts nesting. A remarkable feature is that once a pair is formed, it stays together and breeds for years. The ritual of courtship is a formal activity. Sarus cranes, lonely nesters, build their nests away from the breeding colonies of other birds. I have spent hours observing these birds in their nests. Generally, the nest is built on a slightly raised area surrounded by water. Both sexes participate in the nest building exercise. The birds pluck grass and other small plants and pile them up into a rough mound. They do not carry the material to the nest but collect it at the site itself. Both sexes incubate the eggs and regularly exchange duties at the nest. At every change of duty, they show their devotion to each other by exchanging greetings. They bow their heads, arch their necks and then point their beak towards the sky accompanied by a flapping of wings and trumpeting in unison, occasionally jumping and turning around. The young ones take about 32 days to hatch. The newly-born are about six inches in length but grow rapidly at the rate of 2-2.5 cm per day, and soon gain the size of their parents.
Bharatpur is at its best towards the end of august. The plant growth is still fresh and green. The bushes lining the shores of the lakes are lush with climbers blooming with attractive flowers of red, pink, white and purple. There are more butterflies, beetles and dragonflies than at any other time of the year. The park appears to be readying itself to welcome its winter visitors.
The rosy starlings are the first migratory birds to arrive at Bharatpur from their nesting grounds in Eastern Europe. These birds will spend the entire winter here and return to their breeding grounds only in March-April. Along with the rosy starling, the first waterfowl to reach Bharatpur is the Garganey teal. This small duck is forerunner of the thousands of migratory waterfowl that arrive here for wintering.
By the last week of October, almost all varieties of migratory waterfowl, shore birds and other birds that visit Bharatpur have arrived at the park. The clamour of their voices fills the park. This is the time when the extremely rare Siberian cranes normally come to the park. With their arrival, the atmosphere becomes charged as bird-watchers rush to have their first glance of these VIP birds.
The bill and legs of this white crane are pink red while the eyes are yellow. The tip of the inner wings are black and become visible when the birds is in flight. Its main diet consists of tubers of aquatic vegetation. It also feeds on aquatic incects, mollusks, worms and probably fish. Only one sub-adult accompanies a pair. The immature young ones have a chestnut colour. The cranes usually live in pars or family groups. Within a week of their arrival, the family selects its territory where it does not welcome others.
Siberian cranes have been visitors to the wetlands of northern India over many centuries. The early paintings by Ustad Mansoor, the famous 17th century painter in the Mughal court of Jahangir, depict the Siberian crane. In the past, these birds were seen in about a dozen different places in India. Well-known ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali has also observed these birds in Prayagpur lake in Uttar Pradesh. But the habitat of the bird has been drastically reduced over the years. Siberian cranes in India are now found only in Keoladeo national park. Hero too, their population is declining rapidly. In the winters of 1964-65, over 200 Siberian cranes had come to Bharatpur, while this year their number is down to just three. No definite reason for the decline in their numbers can be given, but the shooting of these birds during their migration appears to be an explanation. Another reason could be inbreeding because of the very small population. Whatever it be, it remains a matter of concern.
I initiated a programme for supplementing the population of the wild cranes in the park at Bharatpur by introducing captive bred cranes from the other population in Russia that migrates to china. The programme was started with the International crane Foundation, USA, with the help of the Government of India, Russia and other international organizations. Efforts, though not successful, are being continued.
Besides the Siberian crane, the eastern common crane also visits the park during the winters. The black head and neck of these cranes, and a red patch of bare skin on the crown, makes their identification simple. A shy bird that does not permit human intruders to get close, it starts trumpeting noisily to frighten them away.
The bar-headed and greylag geese are common winter visitors, whereas the white-fronted geese can be sighted only occasionally. The bar-headed geese breeds in the Himalayas, in Ladakh and Tibet, on islands in marshy lakes or on rocky outcrops along the margins of swamps. As safe nesting areas are limited, the geese nest together in colonies. They have been observed flying at altitude of 27,000 feet over the Himalayas. In Keoladeo, they settle on the open grasslands and feed on grasses, greenforage and gram fields. They roost during the day.
Greylag, another common geese, can usually be seen baking in the winter sun, their necks twisted and heads tucked into their bodies. When disturbed, the geese produce a honking sound, and the flock takes off honking noisily. Its pink beak and legs help in the identification of the bird. The greylag’s large head and bill stand out in silhouette, and in flight. It is also distinguished by its pale grey forewings. The adults sometime have small patches of white on the forehead and frequently have black markings on the belly. The loud call is often trisyllabic, sometimes with extended notes. One flock’s calls are acknowledged by the other flocks.
The number of surface feeding and diving ducks visiting the park is somewhat equal. The pintail is the most distinctive of the common ducks. The male’s white chest and the white stripes extending on both sides of its chocolate coloured head, long, long, thin neck and pointed tail stand out when the bird is on he ground or in the water. The female, like most female dabbling ducks, is brownish and dull in appearance. The pintail devours small water insects along with aquatic vegetation. The wigeon made with its distinctive chestnut head and a broad buff stripe on the crown is easily recognized from a distance. In flight, the patch of white on the upper wing is striking. The wigeon has a short neck and its bill is ideally suited for grazing.
Gadwall ducks are seen in large numbers. Its male has grey flanks and a brownish-grey back, and the bill of the female has conspicuous orange edges. The duck prefers to spend most of its time in water, eating floating vegetation and sometimes diving upended to a depth of 12 inches to feed on aquatic plants.
Shelducks are a rare sight in the park. Both sexes appear similar in colour but the male has a conspicuous red knob at the base of the gill. The female is smaller and lacks the knob. The ruddy shelduck can be identified from a distance by its bright colours. The body of both sexes of this bright coloured duck is rusty brown and the primaries black. There is a narrow band of black around the middle of the neck of the male, and the head is lighten than the body. It breeds in Tibet, Ladakh, Mongolia an central Asia.
The shoveller’s patterning too is distinct. The male has a white chestnut body. It can be distinguished from the other ducks by its long bill. It usually feeds swimming in open waters with the bill half-in and half-out of the water.
Garganey ducks are medium-sized. In the breeding season, the drake’s white eye stripe on its reddish-brown head is conspicuous. It resembles common teal. Using the park as a passage, the duck migrates to southern India. Its numbers in the park are therefore largest in October-November and February-March.
The common or green-winged teal is the smallest of the birds visiting the park. It can be distinguished from other species by size along. The male has a bright chestnut head with a broad green eye stripe that is very distinctive, but the female is drab in colour. It can be sighted feeding in small ponds and ditches or in shallow waters.
The mallard visits Bharatpur in small numbers. The male’s head is green with a white neck ring, the chest a purplish brown, whereas the female’s head is a dull orange with a variable amount of black. Soon after its arrival in Bharatpur, the males begin to display their breeding plumage, and the hectic activity for pairing begins. There is considerable competition for courting females at this time, and three-bird-flights are frequent with two drakes pursuing a flying duck.
All remaining ducks are diving ducks. Evolutionarily, these are considered the most advanced among the wild-fowl, being adapted to an almost wholly aquatic existence. They have large feet and short legs set well back on the body to allow maximum propulsion under water.
The red-crested pochard is a diving duck that behaves like a surface feeder. The male has a bright orange-red crested head, which is a peculiar feature and shines from a distance. Less vocal, this shy duck prefers the farther, quieter open waters. Mostly seen at Mansarovar lake in the Bharatpur, where its number reach 3 to 4 thousand, it is an accomplished diver and submerges for about 25 seconds, reaching a depth of seven-eight feet. It frequently feeds upended and occasionally dabbles n the surface or in mud. The pochard and the tufted duck are other diving ducks that visit the park.
The abundance and variety of wildlife in the Chambal was vividly described by the great Sanskrit poet, Kalidas, in his legendary work, Meghdoot. In the compilation, he urges his messenger to continue to move along the clear stream of the river Chambal and not to get scared of the wild animals and reptiles living there. The poet also mentions a number of terrestrial and waterbirds such as the sarus cranes and egrets, still found in the area.
The Chambal is a tributary of the Yamuna that originates in the Vindhyan hills in Madhya Pradesh. It is one of the few rivers of India that flow from south to north. Dams and barranges like Gandhi Sagar, Rana Pratap Sagar, Jawahar Sagar and Kota barrage have been built on the river to make use of the enormous quantity of water that flows in it. Although several human settlements are located along the banks of the river, the Chambal is among the least polluted of the country’s rivers. The construction of these huge dams has converted, at least in parts, a fast flowing river into a deep, still waterbody. The impact of the creation of these large bodies of water on the flora and fauna of the river has not yet been fully assessed.
The river provides shelter to a large number of rare and highly endangered species like the gharial (Gavialis gangfticus), marsh crocodile (Crocodilus porosus), fresh water dolphins (Plantista gangetica), and otter (Lutra perspicillata) besides a number of species of turtles. Because of excessive hunting and other reasons, the gharial and crocodile were of the verge of extinction during the ‘70s. These species had disappeared from many major rivers of the country. A special programme to save them with international assistance was launched in 1975. The programme could be successfully implemented only because the eggs for captive rearing and release of the gharial and mugger could be collected from the sandy banks of the Chambal. Gharial eggs were taken from Chambal to various centres in the country and hatched. The young gharials were reared till they attained a length of a metre and a half. These reptiles were later released in different rivers of the country.
The riverbed of the Chambal along with a kilometer wide strip of land on both banks has been notified a wildlife sanctuary by the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in their respective area. The Chambal is rich in aquatic fauna as well as birdlife. /Crocodiles and gharials can be seen basking along its banks during the winters. On a boat ride on the river near Rameshwaram, Sawai Madhopur, I had seen flocks of migratory birds including bar-headed geese, ruddy shelduck, pintail and gadwall. I also saw a number of skimmers near the junction of the Banas and Chambal rivers.