My first birding experience happened in June 2013, so next birding had to wait for a few months as monsoon period ensured no activity in between. In first week of Dec 2013, I set about exploring Bharatpur and Ranthambhore. This was my first bird watching trip, alone.
Bharatpur (62 kms from Agra) has been the mecca of birding in India and one that was most visited and spoken about in media. So anytime one speaks to a common man about birding, invariably a Bharatpur reference would come (either the person has been to Bharatpur or its the only destination that one can relate to bird watching).
The overnight train (Rajdhani Express) from Mumbai reached Mathura by 8 AM and I was at Bharatpur by 10 AM. It was onset of Winter and even at 10 AM there was a nip in the Air. My trade connections ensured that Birders Inn offered me a discounted priced stay. I picked Birders Inn because it was right next to the park gate and it did not pinch pockets much. Birders Inn turned out to be a positive surprise (Great food, good room).
Some research had told me that Cycle Rickshaw are available for moving around the Park and as I was still pretty naive in bird watching, a guide would be a must. The guide / cycle rickshaw guys Birders Inn gave me turned out to be quite ok.
My first safari was scheduled at 3 and I started at about 2:30. Bharatpur (Official name is Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary) is set in about 29 sq kms and its unique because it offers grasslands, woodlands and marshlands, therefore attracting wide ranging bird species (actual numbers vary but about 400+ species have been spotted here over the years). Entry is quite easy, the park does not have a limit for number of people getting in.
The guide had his own binocular and he soon realised that I wanted to see everything and was a novice at spotting and recognising. So we went about photographing anything and everything. Whats amazing in Bharatpur (and I learnt much later that its unique to Bharatpur) is that on any given day within a couple of hours one can easily spot 30-40 species without much effort. With a little bit more effort over 2-3 days one can get 100-120+ species. First couple of hours yielded us with lot of usual suspects like Indian Roller, Glossy Ibis, Cormorants, Common Myna, Oriental Magpie Robin, Moorhen, Jungle Babbler alongwith some prized ones like a large Painted Stork Colony, Black Redstart, Lesser Golden Backed Woodpecker, Night Heron, Spotbilled duck, Yellow Footed Green Pigeon, Bar headed Geese and a set of three Jungle owletts.
Very soon I realised that having a Cycle Rickshaw is no use for someone like me who wants to take photographs and is ok to walk around as much as its required. The guide however was priceless as without him I would come back with less than half of what I saw.
The Park experience itself was ordinary. It was a Saturday and many schools had come for day picnics. Lot of day visitors who were actually not really wildlife or bird savvy and did not observe any kind of discipline or demonstrated any kind of restraint. So bird watcher in me was over the moon having to see so many birds but the traveller in me was disappointed that a supposed UNESCO world heritage site experience was reduced to such mediocre level.
Next day morning was again a morning safari. Nobody told me that if its cold and foggy birds will not come out. The cycle rickshaw person and guide, both were billing me by the hour so both were happy to turn up at 6. I spent first 2 hours in futility in freezing cold and very low visibility. After 8 it started to get better so extended the whole safari by 2 hours much to the delight of the guide and the rickshaw guy. More species were seen. We went deeper in the woods, encircled the lake and did a lot of walking. Bharatpur may have lost its old glory when rare Siberian Cranes used to arrive here every year for nesting, but the old birding lady still packed a lot punch for a beginner and I would recommend that every beginner birder to start off with Bharatpur as getting a lot of birds in a couple of hours is something no other park can guarantee.
In term of use of Camera, I was where I started. I was operating in Auto mode leaving everything to Luck. So in low light and bright light I struggled and did not know how to make photos better. I was consumed with seeing sheer quantum of birds and enjoying overall experience to worry too much about the Camera.
Bharatpur was on the only destination I was visiting and my next stop would be Ranthambhore, a tiger sanctuary with some hidden birding options that I would discover. With relative success of Bharatpur, I was quite enthused about Ranthambhore as I left for Bharatpur at about 12 noon (after delayed safari) towards Ranthambhore. The drive was through some of the most pristine countryside and authentic villages. Never knew east of Rajasthan of late 2013 still offered the authenticity or the “Real and Original India”.