Birding India: Okhla Bird Sanctuary

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India is a fascinating country, diverse, multicultural, and intense. It assaults your senses. From the flavorful, spicy food to the bright colors, honking cars and trucks (it’s considered polite to let others know you’re there), and constant motion of both pedestrians and traffic, it’s easy to overload. I love India, but it wears me out!

We landed in Delhi after an uneventful flight from Bangkok, collected our baggage, and piled into a taxi for the ride to the hotel. Because we were there primarily for my husband to attend some meetings, any birding I managed to fit in would have to be local. Would I find any birds in a city of 25 million?

Worried about a clueless westerner wandering around Delhi on her own, some kind friends had arranged companions for me— a delightful young college student named Sherrin, and her family’s driver. Sherrin had never been birding, but was up for the adventure. I was thrilled to have company.

Surprised at the number of sanctuaries and preserves in and near Delhi, of course I wanted to visit all of them, but when we figured in travel time (the traffic makes progress painfully slow) and the fact that I only had a couple of days, we had to be practical. For the first day, we decided to try Okhla Bird Sanctuary, situated along the eastern bank of the Yamuna River. We had a bit of difficulty finding the entrance, but eventually reached the gate, parked, paid our entrance fees, and headed off down the wide path.

okhlabirdsanctuary-india_lah_8247We had only gone a few steps when we came to a sign advertising the conservation efforts of a local builder—and the bird they were concerned about was the House Sparrow! Since House Sparrows are considered invasive pests in the western hemisphere, it had never occurred to me that they might be endangered in their home range. Too bad we can’t simply ship them all to where they belong!

On our right was the edge of the sanctuary, buffered by a strip of trees and shrubs from the traffic on the other side of a tall fence. On our left was a broad expanse of shallow water. Ducks (including Northern Shovelers, looking just like the ones at home), cormorants, and other waterfowl dotted the shore. Gulls and Black Kites wheeled overhead.

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On the far bank, some large herons posed among the aquatic plants, but it was difficult to make out details in the murky air. (It turned out we’d arrived in Delhi during a particularly bad spell of air pollution, reducing visibility to a few hundred meters. Ugh.)

I alternated between checking the shore and peering into the foliage. Sherrin was clearly captivated by the brightly colored birds we were finding. She had thought that the only birds in Delhi were pigeons, mynas, and House Crows. (I can see why—they are by far the most abundant birds.) By the end of the first hour, she was adept at spotting movement in the branches. I loaned her my binoculars, as I was primarily using my camera with its telephoto lens.

After strolling along for several kilometers, we reached a pair of observation towers, accessible by a “boardwalk” of bamboo poles laid crosswise on some support beams. As we dared the unstable walkway, I spotted a gorgeous Purple Swamphen.

I’m sure the towers are helpful on a clear day, but visibility was so bad, they just gave us a better view of the smog. We climbed down and headed back to the car and our patient driver. I felt confident that we’d seen what waterfowl there was, so I focused more on the foliage, and was rewarded by a number of additional species we hadn’t seen earlier, including my first wild peafowl. I know they aren’t considered rare birds, but I was astonished to find a peacock wandering around in the middle of a huge metropolis!

A troop of monkeys greeted us as we neared the entrance, hoping for a handout. Striped Indian Palm Squirrels dug through the fallen leaves. Some free-roaming cattle, a common sight in India, had settled down in the shade. They ignored us as we passed.

Sherrin and I were pretty worn out by the time we got back to the car, and we’d only seen a fraction of the sanctuary. It was time for a late lunch and a nap. I was eager to try a different spot—tomorrow.
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Birds, from top: House Crow, Spot-billed Duck, Darters, Brown-headed Gull, Indian Cormorant, Greater Coucal, Asian Pied Starling, Green Bee-eater (2), Purple Swamphen, Rufous Treepie, Purple Sunbird, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Black Drongo.

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