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Published: November 13th 2016
My next birding stop in Delhi was the Sultanpur National Park which is just outside the city. This is almost (but not quite) as easy to get to by public transport as the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, but it is totally worth the small effort. As yesterday, the start point was the Ravij Chowk metro station, from where I headed to the Huda City Centre station in Gurgaon (an outlying district of Delhi where the local street animal is not dogs or cows but pigs). This takes just over an hour and costs 25 rupees (there's approximately 50 rupees to one NZ dollar). From there I had to take an auto-rickshaw to the Gurgaon Bus Stand from which Mr. Internet had told me there is a Haryana bus route which passes the park. In India a "bus stand" is what any other country calls a "bus station". All the auto-rickshaw drivers outside the metro station told me that it was 100 rupees for the trip because "it is 18 kilometres" - 100 rupees and 18km seems to be the standard tourist line, no matter how close it is. I could only get them down to 70 rupees - no idea what the
real fare is.
Once at the bus stand I encountered an issue in that there was no English anywhere; every sign and bus destination was written in Hindi, and there is usually a mutual exclusion of understanding between my English and the Indian English. I chose a ticket window at random, asked which bus went to the park, then wrote down the name of the park because they couldn't understand me - and it turned out that the random window was the actual window I needed. The bus cost 20 rupees, took about half an hour (black-winged stilts seen en route
), and I was dropped at the roadside at the park gate. The entry fee for Sultanpur is 40 rupees and camera fee 25 rupees - a substantial difference from Okhla where the entry fee is 350 rupees and the camera fee 1000 rupees. (Quick note: the park is closed on Tuesdays, so luckily I didn't leave it a day or it would have been a trip for nothing).
It was about 8.30am by the time I eventually reached the park, and while the temperature was okay to start with that soon changed. There was no smoke haze
over the sky when out of the city, so it felt like the full 35 degrees. Whereas Okhla is mostly reed-beds, Sultanpur is a mix of flooded grassland and bone-dry open forest, with stretches of open marsh in the middle nearest the gate. It is fairly small and you are free to wander about on foot as you please because there are no dangerous animals there. India has all sorts of strict regulations around its national parks and reserves, and in most of them you can only enter after paying hefty fees for entry, camera, guides, and vehicles, and you cannot walk at all in many of them. As much as possible I am going to be trying to avoid the expensive parks - a lot of them are well outside my budget anyway. I will
have to visit some of the "jeep safari parks" because those are the ones with all the big animals, but I won't be making a habit of it.
I had barely even entered the park when I saw my first lifer, a common hawk-cuckoo, a species which I then saw numerous times over the day. I generally find cuckoos to be difficult to
see, so that was a nice start. A couple of minutes later my second lifer, with a knob-billed duck, aka comb duck, a black and white goose-sized duck with a big caruncle upon its bill. There were a lot of waterfowl at Sultanpur, far more than seen at Okhla, but unfortunately most were not close enough for me to ID properly except the shovellers with their oversized bills, the lesser whistling ducks with their long necks, and the spot-billed ducks like big ghost mallards. If they had all been southern hemisphere ducks I would have been fine but at a distance I wouldn't know a gadwall from a garganey. Amongst the ducks were lots of little cormorants, a few great cormorants and Oriental darters, and many moorhens, coots and little grebes. The local grey-headed purple gallinules were everywhere, looking very different to the NZ pukeko (most birders split purple gallinules into several species, but I can't be bothered). And right in the middle was a big colony of painted storks. I have seen painted storks in Singapore and Malaysia but never counted them on my lists because they are all from free-ranging birds at local zoos, so I never know
if I'm looking at real wild ones or just wanderers. These Indian birds are therefore my first official wild painted storks.
There are paths going from the gate to either side of the marshy area, I had taken the right-hand one to start with. At various points were smaller tracks heading off towards the water. On one of these I heard what sounded suspiciously like cranes bugling from the head-high grasses. At the end of the track, where the water was, I saw a black-necked stork on the far side. I turned to scan the flooded grass to the right and realised there was a group of female nilgai wading through it. I tend to think of nilgai as arid-country antelope, so it was strange seeing them acting like lechwe. Some males were visible far back, but only the females were close enough for photos. To the right of the nilgai, right on the edge of the grasses, was a pair of sarus cranes with a juvenile. I got some photos of these as well but they're pretty poor.
Just past here was the start of the really dry open forest, and this was alive with birds including
some lifers like the appropriately-named large grey babbler, Hume's leaf-warbler, black redstart, and red-throated flycatcher. Then there were house sparrows (looking somewhat not like the English variety of house sparrow), Indian ringnecks, yellow-footed green pigeons, plain and ashy prinias, and lots of hoopoes.
Once I'd reached the end of that path I reversed direction and went round the other side of the park where as well as pretty much everything I'd already seen I added coppersmith barbet (curiously I never heard any calling, but they were certainly around), several shikras, blue peafowl, rufous treepie, common woodshrike, and a couple of larks which remained unidentified. At a broken tree branch I spied a spotted owlet, which when I looked through the binoculars turned into two owlets, then three owlets - wait, four, no six. It was actually a pair with well-grown chicks tumbling out of the nest-hole onto the branches.
Next to the park is a small resort called the Rosy Pelican, so I popped in to the restaurant there for some food before I left. Getting back to Gurgaon was a little trickier than arriving - I stood on a shadeless roadside for almost an hour. No buses.
Luckily it's a dry heat here and not a humid heat. Eventually I picked up a ride in a shared-rickshaw for 20 rupees. Auto-rickshaws are the same as tuk-tuks. If you haven't seen a tuk-tuk, imagine a three-wheeled motorbike with a little cab over top, about the size of a Volkswagen I'd say, and that's about it. They are fine with two people in the back, but when used as shared-rickshaws (i.e. acting as longer-distance taxis) they squeeze eight people in the back, two or three in the front, and then sometimes a few more on the back. It was, to put it mildly, a really uncomfortable ride back to Gurgaon wedged against a metal support on one side, and my head banging off the metal bars in the roof with every one of the hundreds of bumps and potholes and judder-bars along the way. One girl who got in yelled at me for not moving over more. I literally couldn't go any further over. It's not my fault they're only the size of twelve-year-old boys and that I don't fit inside their tiny toy vehicles!
Back at the Gurgaon bus stand another auto-rickshaw driver told me it was
100 rupees to the metro station. I told him (not entirely truthfully) that it only cost me 50 coming here, to which he replied (equally untruthfully) that it is 50 to the bus stand but 100 going the other way. Whatever, I found a city bus which went past the M.G. Road metro station which cost 10 rupees (this station turns out to be closer to the bus stand than the Huda City Centre station, so would be a better choice to get off at for anyone else going there; also the metro fare would only be 23 rupees so you could save yourself about half a cent.). I'll be back in Delhi in mid-November so I may even return this way myself - there are a lot more birds at Sultanpur which I did not see, and hopefully more winter-migrants will have turned up by then.
EDIT: I wrote the above post about three weeks ago, then went to Ladakh. Yesterday I got back to Delhi and discovered that I'm completely screwed.
India is in meltdown mode. In an apparent split-second decision (as far as any tourists are concerned, and I think the locals too)
India just got rid of its 500 and 1000 rupee notes, so the money I had on me is worthless. There have been multiple deaths of babies because the ambulances and hospitals won't accept the old currency.
I only found out about this on the day I left Leh (yesterday). I got what I had changed at a bank in Delhi for the old 100 rupee notes - all the banks have queues of several hundred people outside because everyone is having to change their old money. Some tourists are waiting in the lines for hours - locals probably for days - and being India it is complete chaos. But, more crucially, now none of the ATMs in the entire country work because they need to be re-calibrated to give out new notes. And that won't be done for two to three weeks. Apparently the government just threw out the old currency without any of the sensible pre-development options like ensuring there was any way at all
for people to get money!
So I have literally no way to get money, and all I have in my wallet is about 2000 rupees (i.e. about NZ$40).
I have no clue what I am going to do.
I think my only real (albeit last-minute, hence expensive) option is to just buy a flight online to Sri Lanka and come back in a month's time, perhaps working my way up-country from Kerala instead of down.
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