Bharatpur Bird Sancturary
Monday, December 23 2019
location: room 301, The Ferns Hotel, Gurugram, Haryana State, India
After an early breakfast, we all loaded into our bus and rode through the fog southwestward towards Agra. The scenes were strangely uniform for the entire distance, with urban scenes of motorcycles, cows, dogs, and people giving way to open fields of mustard, rice, or sugar cane accented with about one tree per acre. At some point we dropped through the edge of an eroding layer of vertically-tilted rock, some of which was hard enough to form thin high walls jutting a hundred feet from adjacent terrain. At some point we passed a cart being drawn by a camel, which was definitely a novelty for us gringos.
In the early afternoon we arrived at the hotel where we'd be staying for the next two nights in Bharatpur, Udai Vilas Palace. This was a "palace" owned by a local politician, though (as we were learning) it's common in India for hotels to be referred to as palaces. Soon after arriving and dragging our stuff to our room, we met in the large dining area for another buffet lunch of, well, Indian food. With the basmati rice and the various curries (as well as two condiments: mango pickle and chili pickle) it was possible to cobble together a well-tailored- meal.
This afternoon, the bus took us to the nearby Bharatpur Bird Sancturary in Keoladeo Ghana National Park. Once there, we had a fair amount of ground to cover inside the sanctuary, so those of us who wanted could take bicycles and others could choose to be conveyed by pedal-powered rickshaw. I ended up on a bicycle that seemed to perfectly clash with my dimensions, with a bar so high that I had to place it to one side of my balls when standing over it. But as I rode it, my knees came uncomfortably close to the handlebars. It also made a persistent rubbing sound from the rear tire that I was unable to correct. It was a fairly old bike, but the tubes were still wrapped in the plastic and cardboard it had been sold with. (This is, it turns out, a common practice in India). Since Gretchen still had a gimpy foot, she rode with her sister-in-law in a rickshaw, as did her parents and a few of the other older people in our contingent.
We hadn't gone far into the park before our guide directed us to park our bikes and see something. It was a tiny little owl (or "owlet") peering out of a hole in a tree. Before long he'd come out and perched on a branch while two other owlets appeared in the hole. After I'd seen enough of that, I wandered a short distance into the bush to snap pictures of other birds I could see back there. There were small flocks of green parakeets that kept flying past (similar to the green parrot airforce we'd seen in Costa Rica). There were also birds of prey circling over head and unfamiliar smaller birds that I attempted to photograph.
Further along, there were both a kind of antelope and spotted deer. And there were also a great many brahman-style cows, which functioned as wild animals but were as tame as the cows we'd been seeing in completely urban settings. In the United States, a bull cow is considered dangerous and would never be allowed to walk among people, but in India they're just another user of the street and acculturated enough not to cause the sort of problems that would lead to repercussions. Still, even in India, it seems wild cattle in a national park are not assumed to be completely safe. Our guides told us to give them a wide berth when they passed, and some encouraged them to keep their distance with clicking noises and gestures. One bull made a frisky gambol at one point, causing the gringos in our contingent to shrink back reflexively.
There were plenty of birds to see: herons, kingfishers, plovers, stilts (I think that was what they were), golden ducks, cranes, and a painted stork. As the sun neared the horizon, many dozens of cormorants selected perches for the night in nearby trees, filling them so densely that the trees looked to be under loading stress. I jokingly asked our guide J at one point if this was a sunset or a sunrise that we were seeing, and he reflexively answered that it was a sunset, so used was he to answering stupid questions from gringos.
After sunset, we quickly pedaled back to the entrance of the park so as to beat the rapidly-approaching darkness (which always comes quickly at low latitudes). Along the way, we came upon a pack of Asian jackals, which look a lot like coyotes. As it happens they behave and even howl like coyotes and are closely related to them. Like coyotes, Asian jackals have been expanding their range into places where wolves have been extirpated and can now be found as far west as Germany.
I'd been enjoying the tour so far, but I'd been finding the American staffer on the tour a bit overly-solicitous. I suppose that made sense when Gretchen was in the hospital. But this evening when I decided to take a little weight off my ass and peddle intermittently while standing up, he asked me "Are you okay?" There's something about my various mental setpoints that makes this variety of unnecessary concern not just grating but also infuriating. Why the fuck wouldn't he just leave me alone? "I'm fine!" I said curtly, returning to the style of bicycle riding less likely to cause him concern. But now I also felt oversurveiled and unnecessarily limited in my range of action.
Back at the hotel, the six of us in Gretchen's family (more than a quarter of the tour) met in her parents' room to light candles to mark the occasion of the first night of Hanukkah. Lacking a menorah, Gretchen's father had brought over a pound of Playdough in his checked luggage for use as something to stick candles in. Most of the conversation after the baruch atah adonai'ing concerned a gentleman whom Gretchen and I will be hosting in our house after he gets released from prison, which could happen as soon as May.
During dinner, I found myself sitting with Kirstin and Lee, the latter a tall bro-ish-looking guy in his early 40s with short greying hair. He'd come with his wife and two kids from New Mexico. I noticed they'd both been drinking beer, and I was interested in knowing how they'd come by it on what was increasingly seeming like a dry adventure. It wasn't long before Lee was making extremely opinionated statements about beer, saying that there was no beer like New Mexico beer and that this swill he'd managed to obtain was certainly not New-Mexico caliber. I soon learned that Lee works in finance, the sort of profession that attracts strongly opinionated alpha males. His views about liquor were similarly black-and-white. For him, bourbon was the only brown liquor worth drinking; scotch was nasty and Irish whiskey was an affront. I politely disagreed at the risk of being punched in the face. It turned out that the palace had a bar and that was where he and Kirstin had gotten their beers. Lee invited me and Kirstin to join him for another beer after dinner, and I happily agreed, not knowing how soon another chance for alcohol would present itself.
The bar was a smallish room off the central courtyard and was reasonably stocked with hard liquor, though the only beer appeared to be massive (~1 litre) bottles of Carlsberg. We were joined by J, the son of our main Indian guide (J was the guy who picked up Gretchen and me at the airport).+
It didn't take long before our conversation to turn contentious. It started with Lee issuing overly-definitive statements about how liberals are all for women's rights until it come to Islam. But then J, who is Hindu, stated a familiar third world 9Eleven conspiracy theory about how the planes that hit the World Trade Center had been empty and that all the Jews had been cleared out of the buildings before the attack. Lee, who said he actually knew five or six people killed in the attack, was appalled to hear such a thing, and came back with a "fuck you!" But there didn't seem to be any lingering hard feelings. It turned out that J was not just antisemitic, he was anti-Muslim too, even though his wife is Muslim. He supported the new anti-Muslim immigration rules being pushed (despite violent protests) by the present Hindu-nationalist prime minister of India, Narenda Modi, arguing that the Muslims in India don't want to obey the laws of India, demanding to be governed by sharia law on such matters as divorce. Both Kirstin and I were mostly content to hang back and let J and Lee go where they wanted to go with their rhetoric. Perhaps we appeared to be reserving judgment, but I know in my case I was not.
All photos taken this evening at Bharatpur Bird Sancturary
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Two owlets appeared in the same hole that other one had hopped out of. Click to enlarge.
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A spotted deer.
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A species of antelope. Click to enlarge.
A monitor lizard in a hole in a tree.
Some sort of white heron or egret.
A painted stork (with a slumbering cormorant).
An Indian pond heron.
Oriental darter (what we would call an anhinga). Click to enlarge.
Grey heron, all scrunched small. Click to enlarge.
Birds flying across the sunset. The bird perching in the tree at the bottom is supposedly an eagle. Click to enlarge.
Gretchen, Connie (Kirstin's mother) and Kirstin admiring the cows as they walk past. Click to enlarge.
Gretchen took this amazing picture of cows entering the water with her smartphone.
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Cormorants (and some storks) filling the trees in preparation for darkness. Click to enlarge.
The best photo I have of a jackal.
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