Bharatpur (Keoladeo Ghana) National Park

A maharaja created this splendid and spectacular wetland bird habitat of Bharatpur (Keoladeo Ghana) National Park in the 1890s because he wanted to entertain British royalty with hunting forays more impressive than those he had experienced with them in England. It was mostly semiarid scrub then as is much of surrounding Rajasthan. Now it is a world-renowned 11-square-mile (29-km2) sanctuary of shallow lakes and marshes with huge numbers of birds of some 415 species.

Magnificent sarus cranes, year-round residents, perform courtship dances; others, like some of the 22 waterfowl species and rare Siberian cranes, fly thousands of miles, some over high Himalayan peaks, to get here from Tibet, central Asia, and Siberia.

Some 44,000 planted babul trees provide nest sites for herons, egrets, storks, and spoonbills,on islands spotted throughout the wetland. Under them breathtakingly festooned pheasanttailedjacanas and brilliant purple moorhens raise families on tremulous floating vegetation. Iridescent kingfishers excavate burrow homes in banks and dive for minnows.

The attraction and survival of so many kinds and numbers of birds in a single place is possible because the habitat is a teeming collection of food supplies, the water a veritable soup for various species with different dining adaptations. Foods range from tubers to microorganisms, beetles, toads, frogs, snakes, and fish, from minnows to freshwater sharks and saranas up to 33 pounds (15 kg). Some 50 species of fish have been identified here. Open-billed storks extract snails. Darters swim underwater and harpoon fish. Purple herons spear snakes.

Some 2,000 splashy painted storks raise offspring in an area no larger than a square mile (2.5km2), their growing families consuming up to six tons of food every day in the 30 to 40 days they are on the nest. Some nesting trees may hold as many as nine species simultaneously during the monsoon breeding season from July through September—spoonbills, ibis, storks, herons,egrets. Raucous red-wattled lapwings and stone plovers try to distract attention from camouflaged eggs on the ground.

In October, waterfowl begin to come—whistling ducks calling musically, greylag and barheaded geese more stridently. Demoiselle and common cranes float down, and, rarely, Siberian cranes which in India winter only here, and whose appearance here is irregular.

Crested serpent eagles and peregrine falcons are among 40 kinds of birds of prey, including seven kinds of owls—one of the world’s largest concentrations of raptors.

Fishing cats peer intently into the water’s edge at dusk and scoop out small fish. Otters pursue larger specimens.

Sanctuary habitat follows the original design of the Maharaja of Bharatpur: a network of dikes, sluice-gates, and canals, in and around a number of separate island-dotted lakes and marshes, fed twice yearly from a nearby impoundment of monsoon and river water also used for agriculture. (It was officially named Keoladeo Ghana when it became a national park in 1981, but is usually referred to by its creator’s designation.)

Beyond the marsh are semiarid woodlands and grasslands where dryland birds like larks, warblers, chats, and buntings, as well as short-toed eagles and black-winged kites live. Collared pratincoles call raucously at sun-up. Chital deer and elegant blackbucks graze as do sambar and nilgai.

Bharatpur was a huge success as a hunting preserve. Stone tablets record shoots when more than 4,000 birds were killed in a day by Britain’s Prince of Wales and other guests. Shooting was banned in 1964, and over the past 40 years this has become one of the world’s premier bird reserves.

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