Sunday 3rd January 2016

Bharatpur to Gurgaon, the end of the story…and a new beginning

Following our stay in the Birders’ Inn at Bharatpur and the Indian Skimmer day at the Chambal River, the final stage of Rosemary’s and my Great Indian Adventure of 2015 began. We were transported by driver Maharaj Singh to Gurgaon, a booming, chaotic new town to the west of Delhi, with enormous apartment blocks springing up everywhere, intermingled with unmade up roads and dusty vacant lots awaiting development.

Our accommodation, by contrast, was in a quiet gated community, an oasis of relative calm shut off from the maelstrom outside. I always find it strange being in such a place. On the one hand it is pleasant to be cushioned from the madding crowd outside, but if one has no vehicle, the possibilities for escape are very limited indeed. On one occasion I became a little desperate, and decided to walk out of the campus and attempt to cross the dual carriageway and visit a shopping mall on the other side. I got halfway, and then became totally trapped on the central reservation between the two streams of swirling, honking traffic. It seemed to be impossible to go forward, and impossible to return. Finally, I followed the example of two elderly pedestrians and literally launched myself into the traffic, and luckily the thundering trucks and rushing cars drove around me. It was not worth it though; the shopping mall was filled with vacant spaces and boarded up, empty lots.

After a day spent recovering from the rigours of our 3.5-month journey, the next morning saw us being driven to the nearby home of our hosts Shilpi Singh and Manish Sinha for a book reading. Although they had only started publicising this event a few days previously, there was a good turn-out, and it was again a huge privilege for me to have the opportunity to introduce a new audience to the magic of my grandfather F W Champion’s evocative writings, which clearly still have the power to enthrall even a young and urban audience. It was an honour also to reacquaint myself with Bikram Grewal, one of India’s top ornithological writers, in whose beautiful home Shaheen Bagh/Walterre near Dehradun my parents, cousin Be and I had stayed in 2006, and Rosemary and I last year.

It was a pleasure to introduce my grandfather’s writings to a new audience

One of the aspects of my grandfather’s writings that has come more and more to my attention as I do these readings is just how elegantly he always slipped in little appeals to his audience (many of whom were passionate hunters) to let the animals live and to enjoy them as living creatures, rather than as bloody carcasses or grotesquely mounted trophies.

F W Champion’s writing is still as valid today as it was in the 1920s

An example comes in an undated and apparently unpublished article of FWC’s entitled “The Jungles as a Hobby”, which in part deals with the debate that was then raging about the comparative merits of hunting with the rifle or with the camera, the hunters stating that photography was an effeminate and over-safe hobby:

So much for camera-hunting as a sport – a sport which normally is possibly a little less dangerous than the more sporting forms of big-game hunting, but which can nevertheless be made dangerous if the photographer should so desire. But there is the more scientific side of the question. India provides a magnificent field for the study of the life-histories, the domestic habits, the characteristics of the splendid array of wild animals and birds that it contains – and it is astounding how little is known about many of these creatures. The hunter-naturalist has made many valuable observations at one time and another, but his opportunities are greatly limited because, as a rule, he is interested only in dangerous game or in record heads, and further, his object is naturally to bring his quarry to bag at the first suitable moment so that, with his first shot disappears all the beauty, all the interest of the living animal. The horns will no doubt look very fine on the walls of the Mess or the skin on the floor, but no matter how well they may be mounted, they will never give any idea of the splendour and the beauty they portrayed when carried by their rightful owner.

Ironically, I could have sold a considerable number of copies of ‘Tripwire for a Tiger’ at this event, but as it had been planned at such short notice, there was no time to alert my publisher to send a consignment in time; she would also have been hard pushed to get the books into the post, as she is based in Chennai, which was experiencing the massive upheaval that followed the devastating floods that had hit that city just before. But it just shows what a huge untapped market there is for my grandfather’s writing even today, and it gives me inordinate pleasure to enable him, even though he wrote those pieces eighty or ninety years ago and he has long since departed this world, to inspire a young audience to continue the battles for India’s priceless wildlife heritage that he started so passionately.

Reading my grandfather’s evocative stories is a pleasure to do

After the event, I was interviewed by Times of India journalist Sharad Kohli, and a charming article describing the event appeared in the following day’s Sunday Times. The quote I liked most in the article was: ‘Champion, 52 (that’s me!), proved to be an engaging storyteller himself, fleshing out these tales as if the spirit of FW was in the room.’

The event was well covered in the following day’s Sunday Times

Our afternoon was spent in the beautiful garden and home of friends Ashima and Kumar, where we were treated to a buffet lunch looking out at the low range of hills that adjoins their property. It was a delight to find that 87-year-old Ann Wright, whom we had met a few weeks earlier at Kanha National Park, was also present, and her daughter Belinda Wright, one of the most tireless campaigners for India’s tigers today, joined us later.

Our hosts were proud owners of first editions, complete with dust covers, of both of my grandfather’s books, and it was nice to photograph both of these together with Tripwire. I hope to produce a second volume next year (title not yet decided), featuring the remainder of his articles, followed eventually by a coffee-table volume celebrating FWC’s astonishing wildlife photographs, but a publisher still needs to be found for that product.

A unique sight: two first editions of F W Champion’s books, complete with dustcovers, and Tripwire

The following day, my friend Prasanna Gautam took me off on a final birding bash around the area, and we started at a wetland only a short distance away from our accommodation. This area of watery ground, with patches of open water, reeds and water hyacinth, was absolutely full of birdlife, with rafts of duck, flocks of geese, waders and amazing numbers of brightly coloured Purple Swamphens foraging busily. We were treated to a star performance by a confiding Bluethroat, which hopped ever closer to us, followed by a sighting of my final new bird for the trip, an elusive Ruddy-breasted Crake, which popped out of its reedy hideaway for just long enough to allow me to obtain a few record photographic shots. This bird brought my total to 343 species for the trip, a total which could easily have topped 400 if I had had a couple of birding days in the hills during or after the Kumaon Literary Festival back in October.

Purple Swamphens seemed to particularly favour this doomed wetland

The Bluethroat hopped closer and closer

Bluethroats are not always this confiding

The Ruddy-breasted Crake popped out of its reedy hideaway for a few moments

On the flanks of this productive avian paradise huge new tower blocks were rising into the sky, and I learned that the whole area is now living on borrowed time, the land having already been bought up by developers, so it will have disappeared within a short time. I realise that people need places to live, but would it not be possible to incorporate this wonderful green patch of wildlife habitat into the city plan as an urban nature reserve, as I saw years ago at the Oi Bird Park in Tokyo, and more recently at the WWT’s Wetland Centre in London, which are totally surrounded by urban sprawl and yet attract large numbers of wintering birds, and provide much-loved green spaces for the urban masses?

Prasanna Gautam birding in the Gurgaon wetland as huge apartment blocks rise in the background

With these thoughts in mind, we drove a short distance to a much better protected wetland, the Sultanpur Wildlife Sanctuary, which is the state of Haryana’s only national park. As it was a Sunday, there were large numbers of visitors, but we were still able to enjoy what were to be my last views of waterbirds during this Great Indian Adventure.

Sultanpur really is like a tiny Bharatpur

A female Nilgai crossing one of Sultanpur’s jheels

Sultanpur is a sort of poor man’s Bharatpur, with large numbers of ducks, geese, herons, egrets, ibises and cormorants enjoying the marshy lakes, all easily viewable from the network of raised walkways that crisscross the reserve. A large nesting colony of Painted Storks seems to be thriving, and we were also alerted to a group of Common Cranes in flight above us by their bugling, croaking cries, as they banked to come in to land on the far side of a jheel (pond).

Sultanpur is a protected jewel close to Delhi

A colony of Painted Storks seems to be thriving at Sultanpur

Painted Storks at the nest in Sultanpur

A few Citrine Wagtails were pecking through the grassy lakeside vegetation. These delightful birds are even more brightly coloured than our Grey or Yellow Wagtails, and I drank in their beauty before we headed back to Gurgaon for our final night in India, at the end of what has turned out to be a highly successful tour, which will doubtless lead to many things in the not-too-distant future.

This Citrine Wagtail was one of my last birds of this Great Indian Adventure

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Wednesday 23rd December 2015

Chambal and the Skimmers

On one of the days that we were staying in Bharatpur, Rosemary and I had requested a visit to the Chambal River, a must-see location these days for any birder visiting this area of India.

We set off, Sumantha, Bablu and myself crammed into the back seat, and Rosemary and driver Maharaj in the front of our Tata Indica car, for the 60 km journey through some truly grotty Uttar Pradesh towns – one positive factor was the fog, which meant that the litter-strewn environs were not so shocking, but the fog did threaten our chances of spotting wildlife along the Chambal.

A brief stop to check a wetland area on the way turned out to be less brief than we had anticipated. Maharaj dropped Sumantha, Bablu and myself on an elevated flyover which should have afforded good views of the wetland below, and he then drove off into the mist with Rosemary. As it was, we could see virtually nothing, and it was not a pleasant place to stand, with traffic thundering past and the flyover trembling with every passing truck. It seemed ages before the car returned; Maharaj had been unable to find a turning point!

Finally we arrived at a huge bridge over the Chambal at Dholpur, and after crossing it in thick fog, we descended along a muddy track to the riverbank. Here there was a landing stage, and several large signs advertising the area’s wildlife highlights, with exhortations to protect the river’s endangered species, but with large amounts of plastic trash floating by. I always find it so sad to see Black-winged Stilts or other birds picking their way through rubbish discarded by humans.

Initial hopes of good visibility on the Chambal River looked distinctly, or indistinctly, limited!

‘Save Gharial, save Chambal’, exhorted the signs, while plastic trash floated by in what is supposed to an unpolluted river

Although one group of observers did set off in a boat, we were advised to wait a while in the hope that the fog would clear, until finally it was decided that the visibility had improved sufficiently to give us some chance of seeing our main target bird…and we set off.

Rosemary fully prepared for her Chambal excursion

The Chambal River is a tributary of the Yamuna (Jumna), which flows in turn into the Ganges, and it is seen as being one of India’s last great pollution-free river systems, although that did not immediately strike me as being the case. A large section of it is protected as the National Chambal Sanctuary, mainly with the aim of providing a safe habitat for three of India’s most vulnerable wild creatures, the Gangetic Dolphin, the Gharial and the Indian Skimmer.

As a birder, the latter of these three was high on my wants list, and it was not long before some birds on a muddy bank in the distance caused our hopes to rise. We drifted closer, and the fog became thinner, allowing us to gain a better look through the binoculars…and indeed, there they were, three Indian Skimmers perched on the shore.

Were those Indian Skimmers next to the cormorant?

Skimmers are extraordinary birds. Related to terns, they have evolved to exploit a unique feeding style. The lower mandibles of their bright orange bills have become much longer than the upper ones, and they literally skim along the surface of the water, the lower mandible actually in the water, slicing its surface in the hope of scooping up small fish and other aquatic prey. No other bird has a bill like a skimmer, making it one of the World’s great ornithological sights.

Indian Skimmers by the Chambal River, a sight to savour and one that one must hope will still be viewable in the longterm future

There are three species of skimmer, the African Skimmer, a near-threatened species which occurs sparingly from Senegal to Angola and the Zambezi, but is nowhere common, the critically endangered Indian Skimmer, whose population may not far exceed 1,000 birds, and the far more numerous Black Skimmer, which occurs in the Americas and which I had seen in considerable numbers on the Pacific coast of Guatemala in 2011.

As our boat came closer, we were able to drink in the sight of these bizarre birds. Two were asleep for much of the time, although they did wake up briefly, giving us a splendid view of their bright orange bills, which were translucent towards the tip. The third bird, which was standing slightly apart from the others, was engaged in a very heavy bout of preening, scooping up water in its lower mandible, and using it to clean its feathers. I had noticed this behaviour in the Black Skimmers in Guatemala; the birds have to keep their feathers in tiptop condition, as they actually touch the water at times while skimming, and they must not become waterlogged, so they seem to be fastidious in their attention to cleanliness.

Two of the Indian Skimmers were asleep for much of the time

The third Indian Skimmer was scooping up water in its outsized lower mandible to preen itself with

The main threats to the Indian Skimmer are pollution of its riverine habitat, and disturbance on its nesting areas. All large rivers in the Indian subcontinent are under extreme pressure from mining/dredging for sand and gravel, which is used for construction. Trucks rumble around in the riverbeds, and dogs accompany the dredgers. Even the decrease in vultures that I described two posts ago has led to an increase in House Crows, which prey on the eggs and chicks of Indian Skimmers and other riverine birds.

In this area, nests are apparently protected from dogs, roving cattle that trample the nests, and trucks, by being surrounded with cut thorny branches during the nesting season. The authorities are clearly aware of the plight of these vulnerable birds, and such measures do undoubtedly help, although a ring of thorny branches will not prevent crows from raiding the nests.

Villagers’ cattle are a threat to nesting Skimmers, frequently trampling their nests

Having savoured the experience of watching the Skimmers, we headed on, shortly afterwards sighting an Osprey and a Laggar Falcon perched in a tree high on the bank. The Laggar was also a life-bird for me, although it could have been classed as what birders sometimes refer to as an “NBV” – Need Better View!

The impressive sandy cliffs that line this section of the Chambal River

Our focus was then diverted towards what had initially looked like logs on the bank; the first turned out to be a large Gharial, another bizarre creature with a very specific adaptation. Unlike other crocodilians, the Gharial has evolved to eat exclusively fish, and its snout has become elongated and narrow to allow it to grasp the slippery fish in its jaws. It also has a bulbous growth on the tip of its snout, and sometimes only this and its eyes protrude above the surface of the water.

A Gharial, showing its unusual snout with the bulbous growth on the end

Gharials are critically endangered, and it was estimated that the global population was only 235 individuals in 2006, occupying less than 2% of the species’ original range. Major threats are pollution, fishing with gill nets, stealing of eggs by tribal people who consider them a delicacy, and the young being swept out of the protected areas by monsoon floods. We were lucky to see a few individuals here, accompanied by their cousins the Mugger, or Freshwater Crocodile.

An impressively sized Mugger was also on the bank

A distant view of another rare bird species, the Black-bellied Tern, added that species to the ‘NBV’ list, and we were treated to closer sightings of Egyptian Vultures, Bar-headed Geese and Lesser Whistling Ducks, before our two hours were nearly up and we had to return to the jetty.

An Egyptian Vulture by the Chambal River

A small group of Bar-headed Geese resting on the Chambal shore

A flock of Lesser Whistling Ducks enjoying the morning sun

Self feeling pleased to have seen the Indian Skimmer after many years of waiting

It had been a privilege to observe these special creatures, but as with so much of what I have observed during this journey, I felt concerned that I was watching the endgame for so much of India’s wildlife. I often try to console myself with the thought that the country has done wonders to preserve anything at all with its 1.2 billion people, and it is heartening to see how many people are dedicated to wildlife, and no other country in the World has such a marvellous Forest Department (of which my grandfather F W Champion OBE IFS and great uncle Prof. Sir Harry Champion CIE IFS would still be proud), and yet the sight of that trash in what is supposed to be a shining example of an unpolluted river made me sick.

The Chambal is supposed to be an unpolluted river, yet it is lined with trash

After a sandwich lunch by the river, we drove into Dholpur, stopping briefly to look around the impressive Raj Niwas or Dholpur Palace Hotel, a magnificent stately home full of Dutch ceramic tiles, Belgian glass, Victorian bathtubs from the UK, and countless treasures from India and Europe. From here we made our way back through those same grotty towns, this time without the fog to shield us from the grime and plastic filth, until we eventually arrived back in Bharatpur…where we deliberately stopped by another filthy ditch.

Self, Sumantha Ghosh and Rosemary in the magnificent Raj Niwas Palace, in Dholpur

One of my abiding memories of my 1988 visit had been observing another unusual bird, the Painted Snipe. Not a snipe at all, the Painted Snipe is a wading bird in which the normal sex roles are reversed. The female is the brightly coloured one, and she has a harem of males, mating with several and then taking no part in the raising of the chicks. We had seen them in a pristine marshy area outside the park, I remembered, but this time the experience was totally different.

Carefully avoiding stepping into human excrement, Bablu and I picked our way towards the edge of this stinking ditch, which despite (or perhaps because of) the filth that it contained, and despite the loud honking of passing traffic, seemed to be full of birds, mainly Black-winged Stilts, Wood Sandpipers and Pond Herons. It was not long before we had spotted two pairs of Painted Snipe, and although the circumstances were far from ideal, it was a pleasure to reacquaint myself with this delightful species of bird. And the ironic thing is, if all the filthy places with which India abounds were cleaned up, birds like the Painted Snipe would probably suffer.

A Painted Snipe in what was in fact a filthy ditch in Bharatpur town, although it looks quite clean in this picture

A Painted Snipe accompanied by a plastic bag in the Bharatpur ditch

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Tuesday 22nd December 2015

Bharatpur, a hunting reserve come good

At the end of our Gujarat trip, Rosemary and I had two sad Goodbyes to endure: Yogi Bisht, of Rural Traveller, who had looked after us so well in Nagzira Tiger Reserve (where he had even entered the kitchen of the filthy canteen and cooked our meals himself!) and throughout our Gujarat trip was due to depart by train that afternoon for Delhi and then home to Ramnagar, and our excellent and trusty driver Bhawani Singh, who had driven us all over Gujarat, showing us the best birding sites of the state (he had also driven for Paul Holt, of the UK bird tour company Sunbird, and knew the birding sites of Gujarat like the back of his hand), was due to drop us off at Ahmedabad airport and then Yogi at the station. Our heartfelt thanks go to both of them; we will certainly meet again, hopefully when I have put together my own tour programme (with the elusive Crab Plover as a key target bird!).

Rosemary and I then flew to Jaipur, where we were picked up by our new driver Maharaj Singh, who spirited us to Bharatpur, our home for the coming five nights. We checked into the Birder’s Inn, situated close to the entrance of the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, one of India’s smallest but ornithologically richest protected areas.

Originally set up as a private hunting reserve, Bharatpur hosted some of the largest duck shoots ever recorded, with the maximum daily bag of 4,273 ducks being claimed at a shoot hosted by Lord Linlithgow, then Viceroy of India, in 1938. The Maharaja retained the shooting rights until 1972, when Indira Gandhi’s Wildlife Act outlawed all forms of hunting in India (as far as I know, India is the only country that has placed an outright ban on hunting). It is now a World Heritage Site, and Peter Scott once called it the World’s best birding area.

The plaque commemorating Lord Linlithgow’s bloodbath

For me, too, this wonderful reserve held a nostalgic significance. I had visited the park in 1988 while on a tour with Ornitholidays, led by Simon Boyes. I was living in Japan at the time, so I had flown in from Tokyo and my parents from London; my father had just retired, and that tour was intended to ease his adjustment to a life of leisure. It led to my parents doing at least one major bird tour per year, either with Ornitholidays or with Sunbird, every year from 1988 to 2009.

The most poignant difference I noticed from 1988 was the absence of the most emblematic of Bharatpur’s bird species, the stately Siberian Crane. We had witnessed the last family, two parents and one young, that wintered in this park, or anywhere in India. The western population of the Siberian Crane was decimated by hunting, mainly on migration in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and now the species winters only at Lake Poyang in China, where virtually the entire World population of around 3,000 can be found, but they are vulnerable to the as yet unquantified effects of the Three Gorges Dam, which will alter the seasonal flood patterns on which the Siberian Crane and other wintering species depend.

A poignant reminder that came too late for the Siberian Crane

The huge change for Rosemary and myself here compared with the rest of our trip was the means of transport used to get around the protected area. On the Central Indian leg of our journey, we had become used to being bounced around in a Maruti Suzuki Gypsy on very rough tracks; here we were each assigned a cycle rickshaw, Rosemary being driven by the dignified Mr Raju Singh, and myself by Harish, “Mr Snake” (I was later to discover why he had this nickname). Our birding guide was Ikrar Bablu, who rode alongside us on his white bicycle, occasionally darting off to check the presence or absence of some particular bird.

Rosemary and Sumantha Ghosh with their rickshaw driver Raju Singh

Entering the park through the main entrance brought the memories flooding back. The main roadway stretches ahead into the mist, after a while leading into a tunnel of tall trees, beyond which the route is lined on either side by wetlands that teem with birds. In recent years the monsoons have brought less rain than in earlier years, and in some winters the park has been completely dry, a disaster not only for the birds but also for the rickshaw drivers, guides and hotels that depend on the tourists that flock here to see the flocks of birds. Now, however, a system of pumps and a pipeline brings water from the Chambal River (what effect this will have on the river has not yet been ascertained, but there will doubtless be some consequence, as there always is), meaning that the park is adequately supplied with fresh water.

The entrance road in the Keoladeo Ghana National Park is wonderfully atmospheric in the early morning mist

There were so many species of bird, and so many individuals, that it would be hard to list them all here. Most prominent were the larger wading birds including 11 species of heron, 4 of stork (including loud colonies of Painted Storks, whose young have an eerily childlike cry, and the occasional magnificent Black-necked Stork, which one booklet I saw described as “the daddy of them all), 3 species of ibis plus Spoonbill, 3 of cormorant plus Darter, plus 16 species of duck, 4 gallinule and 2 jacana, and 14 of plover and sandpiper.

Painted Storks are beautiful but quarrelsome birds at the nest

The Black-necked Stork, ‘daddy of them all’

The Darter or Snakebird dries its wings like a cormorant

Owls too were present, although the smaller ones such as Spotted Owlet and Collared Scops Owl usually required a local’s knowledge of their regular roosting sites to find them. Much more impressive, however, was the huge Dusky Eagle Owl, of which we saw three individuals.

The Dusky Eagle Owl is a monstrous bird

Small birds too were not under-represented, with numerous Bluethroats and at least three Siberian Rubythroats hopping out onto the roadways, ten species of warbler seen skulking in the reeds, bushes and trees, three species of shrike perching prominently in search of prey, and three species of kingfisher waiting for their catch of small fish or crickets. It was truly a birdwatcher’s bonanza.

Bluethroats were quite numerous and conspicuous along the tracks

A Long-tailed Shrike provided outstanding views

Our daily routine involved entering the park early(ish) in our two rickshaws with Bablu beside us on his bike, and then spending the days in a leisurely (for us, though not for our drivers) way, checking first the wetlands and then the drier forest and scrubland areas, gradually narrowing our search down as the number of target species dwindled, again the sort of birding I love, where rather than becoming bored, one builds up towards a highly focused quest for a few more difficult species.

Bharatpur is a magical place

Bablu seemed to have an uncanny ability to spot the highly elusive Black Bittern, which hides in the darkest recesses under bushes, but his sharp eyes and a knowledge of how and where to look allowed him to show us at least ten of these cryptic birds, which I had only seen the odd individual of on previous Asian birding trips. He and Harish also made a good team in the hunt for the less numerous but equally elusive Yellow Bittern, of which we eventually saw three, Bablu making a long detour around a deep channel, and Harish waiting to spot the bird if Bablu disturbed it.

An unusually conspicuous Black Bittern

Here the Black Bittern seemed to be observing us rather than vice versa

The Yellow Bittern was even more elusive than the Black

Harish also had extremely sharp eyes, and I came to realise this when my rickshaw suddenly came to a halt, and he pointed out a snake. It took ages for him to explain to me precisely where it was, and in fact it turned out that only a tiny portion of it, its head and a section of its back, were above water. How he spotted it as we were cycling along, I cannot imagine. He informed me that his name, Harish, means snake, which I cannot find any reference to on the internet, but I am willing to believe it given his ability to spot that snake!

Harish spotted this snake while cycling along

The Siberian Cranes may have been long gone, but at least their even larger cousins the Sarus Cranes were still present, and to see and hear the greeting dance, accompanied by that evocative crane bugling call, as the pair came together after a spell spent foraging separately, was touching to observe. We saw at least three pairs with at least two young, so clearly they are still having some breeding success.

Sarus Cranes must be among the most elegant of birds

Birds were not the only interesting creatures to be seen, and in addition to the considerable numbers of Cheetal (Spotted Deer) and Nilgai antelope, Sambar Deer were also present, as were Jackals and Rhesus Macaques, as well as the ubiquitous Palm Squirrels, one of which even ventured onto Rosemary’s lap to feast upon the crumbs she had dropped.

An atmospheric morning shot of a Cheetal in the mist

This male Rhesus Macaque had his eyes on Rosemary!

How many times has a Palm Squirrel been observed being fed by a Fox?!

But more impressive still were the Indian Rock Pythons that we encountered. Our first was unexpected; Bablu and I were on foot in an area unsuitable for rickshaws, and a large stick on the track ahead of us suddenly moved, revealing a large and bulky Python, edging its way slowly towards us. We remained still while it gradually turned towards a sunny patch, where it eventually settled down to bask in the last rays of the afternoon sun. It was amazing to watch its ribs moving in a wave motion under its glistening skin; unlike other snakes, pythons move straight along rather than twisting, making them look purposeful and determined.

Our first view of the Rock Python as it started to cross the track

The Python then settled down to enjoy the last afternoon rays of sunshine

How snakes manage with no eyelids is hard to imagine

Once we had edged our way past the snake, which was fully aware of our presence but did not seem concerned, we were able to admire the perfect tracks it had left in the sand, its weight having created what looked like highways in the dirt. Its hole was just by the track too, and we could see precisely which routes it had taken on its recent excursions.

The Python’s trail could clearly be seen

Although pythons do not seem to be directly persecuted in the park, they are nonetheless sensitive to undue disturbance, and the following day when we returned to try to show the snake to Rosemary we were again to witness some inconsiderate behaviour by photographers. We relocated the python and observed it quietly through my telescope, but it was not long before a group of loud and brash photographers arrived, crashing their way down the side of the roadway and approaching the basking snake extremely closely from the other side. Not wishing to witness another case of animal harassment for the sake of a better photograph, we left the area.

One evening, Rosemary, Bablu and I took a short boat trip, which allowed us to view one section of the park from a different perspective, as we quietly drifted along a channel before heading into the flooded forest, at times literally gliding over the submerged aquatic vegetation. The highlight of this tour was a beautifully camouflaged Indian Nightjar, which we would never have seen if our boatman had not known precisely on which branch it regularly roosted. Knowing the roosting sites of nightjars and owls is one of the key advantages that local guides can bring.

The Indian Nightjar was peacefully roosting on its branch

However, despite having astonishing local knowledge, Bablu’s efforts to find one of my main targets, the Spotted Creeper, came to nothing. I had long wanted to see this strange-looking bird, which is restricted to the drier forest areas of Central India, and which used to be relatively easy to locate in the acacia woodland of certain areas of the park. But try as we might, the Creeper was nowhere to be seen. Bablu suggested that the recent increase in numbers of Rhesus Macaques could be responsible, as another hole-nesting bird, the Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, has also recently disappeared. It could be that the monkeys are raiding the nests of these birds.

Former Creeper habitat – where have they gone?

A Spotted Creeper photographed at Thal Chappar by a friend of Sumantha Ghosh

Even without the Creeper, however, and minus its Siberian Cranes, Bharatpur is a magical place, and one to which I shall certainly return. Our thanks go to Bablu for his excellent guiding, to Harish and Mr Singh for pedalling us around the park so valiantly, and to Sumantha Ghosh of Rural Traveller for organising the logistics behind our stay. We did venture out of the park on one of the days, to the Chambal River, but that was so exciting that it warrants its own blog post, which will appear soon.

Our entire Bharatpur team: Harish, Bablu, Rosemary, Sumantha, Raju Singh and self

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