Easily, winter is prime time for Sultanpur. If you live in New Delhi, or nearby towns, a monthly visit from November through March will be extremely rewarding. Though our migratory guests begin arriving as early as the end of July and beginning of August, the big squadrons turn up a little later, in October and November. Then, the arrowhead formations of gargeny (amongst the first ducks to arrive) whistle overhead, ‘whiffle’ heart-stoppingly and literally tumble topsy-turvy down on to the water. Other duck species that follow include shovellers, pintails, common teals, mallards, wigeons, and if the water is deep enough (because they are ‘diving’ rather than ‘dabbling’ ducks) pochards — the common pochards and, if you’re lucky, the ferruginous ones.
Both species of geese — greylag and bar-headed — seek sanctuary here, especially after having raided the fields in the surrounding areas at night. The big ‘bomber’ battalions consisting of cranes and great white pelicans may also choose to hide out here, and, watching the squadrons arrive every evening at around sunset is unforgettable and evocative. (If you get up early enough, you can watch them depart just before dawn too.)
At the water’s edge, scuttling about on the mud or hidden by the grasses, are salt and pepper waders, difficult to identify. Little stints enjoy the company of redshanks (reedy red legs), sandpipers and white-tailed lapwings, while European lapwings, with their kohl-lined eyes and iridescent green plumage, add a bit of class. Large flocks of ruff (marked in brown and beige) seem to use the jheel as a transit halt on their way further south and then again north in spring. In years of good rainfall (few and far between sadly), Sultanpur has given sanctuary to headcounts of 20,000 birds, while in years of scanty rainfall (as in the period 2000- 2003), the figure has not exceeded 3,000. In the grasslands towards the south, larks and wagtails abound, scuttling hither and thither after insects. The marsh harrier sweeps low and menacingly over the grass and water, while a Bonelli’s eagle keeps watch from a favourite stump. Other raptors you can spot include the greater spotted eagle and (again, if you’re lucky) the lesser kestrel and the osprey. The acacia woodlands here play host to grave black redstarts, red-throated flycatchers, greyheaded canary flycatchers and longtailed minivets in scarlet and black, as well as lesser whitethroats, ‘tch-tching’ disapprovingly as they hunt insects.
Spring is short (March-April), sweet and very busy. There is an air of urgency and the waterfowl practice sorties overhead, preparing for the journey back north. On the lake bed, the red-wattled lapwings and black-necked stilts (both resident) begin to suffer from the first bouts of the paranoia that will plague them (and everyone else in earshot) for the next three months! In the woodlands, other residents start looking for partners and accommodation; sleekly tuxedoed magpie robins take part in a mellifluous concert to compete for the attention of sloe-eyed females. Thundercloud grey bank and earnest-looking pied mynahs, brown-faced barbets and coppersmiths busily excavate nesting holes, wren-warblers and tailorbirds shout from the bushtops as if they’re electioneering, and even the deadly grey shrike, with its bandit mask and executioner’s bill, warbles mushy love numbers!
Small green-bee-eaters, elfin-lined and grass green, float on sharp triangular wings, trilling musically, and, even the bristly muscular Indian rollers leap about, emitting guttural whoops of delight. White-throated kingfishers in electric turquoise let loose their ringing ‘ki-lil-lil!’ warnings from treetops before rushing after some unfortunate frog or gecko.
The blowtorch summer commences in April and lasts till the end of June. The time for song and dance is over, and the stern business of raising families is on. Orioles sing ‘pee-lo-lo’ as they flit between the trees, guarded by black drongos who knife about like blades thrown by the devil. The woodlands may see a sudden influx of red-turtle doves, which construct their skimpy nests in the acacias — and hope for the best. The lapwings and stilts become certifiably neurotic — get close and you’ll be subjected to a dive-bombing attack.
July to September are Sultanpur’s most important months, for the amount of rain will determine the extent to which the lake remains filled in winter. (This dependency has been sought to be reduced by bringing water from a nearby canal via a pipeline, but even this supply is at best erratic.) Soon after the first downpour, a silvery mantle of new grass covers the cracked hard-baked mosaic of the lakebed. In the woodlands, the ethereal paradise flycatcher flaunts its snowy streamers, while in the grassland areas, the little zitting cisticolas (caramel with chocolate chip markings) leap and call out for someone.
At the grassy fringes of the lakebed, the little grebes or dabchicks, trilling like animated alarm clocks, construct nests that stand at water level. The big grey sarus cranes is infected with the mad romance of this season. At this time, flocks of blue-cheeked and blue-tailed bee-eaters show up, calling out in their deep contraltos, accompanied by the chorus of sleek wire-tailed swallows dressed up like sailors! The acacia-clad islands turn into busy nesting colonies, as egrets (in white lace), cormorants (in black satin), darters (in ebony and silver) and pond herons (all maroon taffeta no less) get surrounded by bumbling black headed white ibises (always appearing late) and goofy-looking painted storks. The gimlet-eyed black-necked stork too may be spotted, sometimes a pair accompanied by a tardy adolescent. (They nest on big trees, outside the park.) Comb ducks, in iridescent purple and with ink-spattered faces, and resident spot-billed ducks (with kohl around their eyes), fly urgent sorties over the lake, quacking hoarsely. By the end of September, the skies are blue once more and the first of the migratory arrivals splash down.
About Sultanpur National Park
Spread over just 1.42 sq km, Sultanpur has been attracting birds for over 100 years. Over 320 species have been listed here (almost one third of the species in the country). Its potential was only highlighted in 1969, at the Conference of the IUCN (World Conservation Union) in New Delhi thanks to the efforts of Peter Jackson (journalist turned conservationist who works for the IUCN). It was declared a Sanctuary in 1971, and upgraded to National Park (the only one in Haryana) in 1991. The ‘lake’ in the park is caused by a natural depression in the ground, which is filled up by rainwater as well as the water overflowing from the surrounding areas. It is highly saline.
Due to fencing, and the mushrooming of ‘farmhouses’ in the surrounding areas, the ingress of water has all but stopped and the water table has dropped considerably. After a long dry and barren period during the 1990s, water is now being brought via a pipeline from a nearby canal, but even this supply is not assured as problems of one kind or another keep cropping up. However, Sultanpur was always a seasonal and not a perennial water body.
State: Haryana Location Close to the national capital of Delhi, past the lush expanses along the Gurgaon-Farrukhnagar Road
Distances: 45 km SW of Delhi, 15 km W of Gurgaon Route from Delhi NH8 to Gurgaon; Farrukhnagar Road to Sultanpur NP
When to go: Open year round but Oct- Mar for migratory birds and good weather Best sightings are in Nov-Dec, provided there’s water in the jheel
Go there for; Great white pelicans, cranes, large flocks of ducks and geese
About the Author
For Delhi based writer Ranjit Lal, the triumphs and traumas of the world of birds is the world closest to his heart.