As the state government showcased Sultanpur habitat as part of its tableau in the just held Republic Day parade at the Rajpath in New Delhi, I thought of writing about this ever popular bird-watching destination located within the confines of NCR. The birding destination, I always held, is already very popular but a few interesting thoughts and queries after conclusion of the 2015 RD celebrations have brought me to share my experiences at the sanctuary. Owing to the birdlife, facilities and mostly the ease of access to this sanctuary, it remains to be one of the most organised bird-watching winter-destinations in the region.
Located just 15km from Gurgaon on the Gurgaon-Farrukhnagar-Jhajjar highway, the brackish waters of the low-lying marshy tract is just a suitable habitat to attract as well as support a large variety and quantity of birdlife especially in the migratory season. The sheer richness of the biodiversity in this swathe of semi-arid vegetation appealed the distinguished guests and participants – at the IUCN General Assembly held in Delhi in 1969 – including Dr Salim Ali, Peter Scott, Dillon Ripley, Luc Hoffmann as well as Prince Birendra from Nepal who visited the site at the initiative of Peter Jackson, then a journalist and a wildlife enthusiast. Later representations sent to the government by Dr Ali and Jackson saw the destination declared as a Bird Sanctuary in 1971 which was subsequently upgraded to a National Park in 1991.
Before Sultanpur was declared protected, the marshy lake was either frequented by bird-watchers, a rarity in those days, or the elites of the capital region who flocked the site to bag a “precious” game trophy. Records highlight that not only the British but the local nawabs were equally fond of hunting to please their “adventure”-tastes. Much before that, the expanse was once famed for the quantity of salt it produced. The Imperial Gazetteer of India mentions that the trade died due to extra taxes imposed by the British. Today, the doyen of Indian Ornithology, Dr Salim Ali, is largely credited for bringing awareness and transforming the 359 acres of this region from hunting grounds to a protected bird sanctuary.
Every season a large number of waterfowls visit the sanctuary including Pelicans, Cormorants, Cranes, Herons, Egrets, Storks, Flamingos, Geese and Ducks, etc. A number of endemic territorial birds reside here round the year. Breeding of Saras, Storks including a rare Black Necked Stork have been recorded in this park. It is estimated that every winter season, the park is visited by over 30,000 birds. The official checklist confirms sightings of over 250 bird-species in the sanctuary, however, the quality and size of the habitat has deteriorated from what was originally observed as claimed by Jackson in a recent interview. A detailed checklist published by the Haryana Forest Department could be accessed here.
Some of the frequently spotted resident birds include Common Hoopoe, Paddyfield Pipit, Purple Sunbird, Little Cormorant, Eurasian Thick-knee, Gray Francolin, Black Francolin, Indian Roller, White-throated Kingfisher, Spot billed Duck, Painted Stork, White Ibis, Black headed Ibis, Little Egret, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, India Crested Lark, Red vented Bulbul, Rose ringed Parakeet, Red wattled Lapwing, Shikra, Eurasian collared Dove, Red collared Dove, Laughing Dove, Spotted Owlet, Rock Pigeon, Magpie Robin, Greater Coucal, Weaver Bird and Mynahs, etc. The common winter visitors at the Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary includes Cranes, Geese, Greater Flamingo, Ruff, Black winged Stilt, Common Teal, Common Greenshank, Wagtails, Northern Shoveler, Rosy Pelican, Gadwall, Sandpipers, Eurasian Wigeon, Black tailed Godwit, Spotted Redshank, Starling, Bluethroat and Long billed Pipit, etc. The sanctuary also accommodates a Blue Bull couple and a few jackals.
Just as every bird-watching destination, the best way to observe birdlife at Sultanpur will be to take a walk. A walk along the lake, at a leisure-pace, wouldn’t take more than a couple of hours unless you want to wait to take those special shots with your camera. Four tall watch-towers have been placed to assist you in observing birds and their habits. The pathway offers plentiful of options to sit with a camera hide. The library and the interpretation centre at the park houses over 70 portraits of birds along with films, slides and some memorabilia left by Dr Salim Ali. The staff at the park is full of information and experience to initiate a novice into the calmer realms of bird-watching. Bharat Lal, the forest guard at the sanctuary is full of anecdotes and incidents about the celebrity birders from the NCR region. “Demoseel Krane ke liye subah paanch baje tayyar rehna”, he retorted to my queries when I last stayed there. Despite myself getting ready at the agreed time, I failed in my attempts to locate the elusive pair of Demoiselle Cranes that season. And that’s the beauty one has to live with in a wildlife zone. It’s not a zoo, remember!
An additional inlet of canal-based water has partly bolstered the water supply to save the water body and the refreshing greenery surrounding it that attracts diverse birdlife round the year. The lake is dotted by reeds, aquatic plants and some recently created mud pits in the water. The boundary-wall of the sanctuary is surrounded by agricultural lands. Geographically, the park is surrounded by Sultanpur village towards West, Chandu village towards East, Sadhrana village towards South East and Kaliwas towards the North; all within the confines of Gurgaon district. The park boasts of almost every facility a visitor could possibly think of at a bird-watching destination. This includes accommodation, decently appointed cottages or rooms, restaurant as well as a bar, conference room and a forest rest house where ex-PM Indira Gandhi was held captive after her arrest in 1977.
Best time to visit: Winter season
Travel Lure: Bird watching, Picnicking
How to reach: 15km from Gurgaon on the Gurgaon-Farrukhnagar-Jhajjar highway