The National Chambal Sanctuary – A Must Visit for Birders and Wildlife Enthusiasts

Bordering the rich states of Madhya Pradhesh and Rajasthan, the Chambal river is a labyrinth of ravines, scrubland and vast expanse of water. It is also home to a wide array of species including the some of the Earth’s most endangered species, the Indian Skimmer, Gharial and the Gangetic Dolphins. It hosts close to 330 species of birds including residents as well as migrants which has led to its reputation of being a conglomeration when it comes to birding in India.

History

With most rivers in Northen India being a subject to heavy polluting, who would’ve thought being labeled a ‘cursed river’ would spring about the Chambal’s preservation. For years, revered rivers such as the Ganges and Yamuna have been at the receiving end in the name of Industrial Development and Religion. These rivers over time have lost countless species due to human disturbances, while on the other hand, the Chambal is a teeming habitat that has reaped benefits from being feared. Legend has it that the river originated from the blood of a thousand slaughtered cows which is probably why it is considered ‘unholy’. Ironically, this dark myth has kept the ecosystem so pristine that it now one of the few sanctums in India that supports the iconic Gharials and the Indian Skimmer (An indicator of a healthy river ecosystem). The land is also well known for being at the peril of dacoits in the recent past. Although, this phenomenon didn’t favour the locals, it did stop Industrialists from setting up shop which allowed the ecosystem here to swarm with life.

Boating and Birding

The Chambal no doubt is one of the cleanest river systems of northern India which is why a plethora of avian and reptilian life gravitates towards this ‘miniature Grand Canyon’. It is one of the best places in northern India to do a boat safari which ideal for a birding experience. While walking towards the boat, one can see pastured hills are lined with the lapwings such as the River and the Red Wattled. Overhead, there are Dusky Crag Martins, Wire Tailed and Barn Swallows and hawking for insects. Afloat, you can experience the vast expanse of the river itself with Terns such as The River and the uncommon Black Bellied bouncing about. Watching the landscape unfurl as you drift away from the wake of the boat, Pied Kingfishers present themselves in splendid cameos, shuttling back and forth looking for prey. Further down the river, the mudflats host a variety of birds like the Black Winged Stilts, Little Ringed Plovers, Sandpipers probing in the shallow waters. You can also see the ochre kissed Ruddy Sheldducks, and the Bar Headed Geese (One of the highest flying birds in the world) bathing and preening themselves in sun. As you move along, the steep ravines etched along the river has hidden life here. The cracks and corners are preferred roosting sites for the Owls like the Barn and the Dusky and Indian Eagle Owl. Higher up, sitting along the ridges, keeping a watchful eye on the world below are falcons such as the Peregrine and the Laggar. Riding the hot thermal vents in the sky are the Indian and Egyptian Vultures, scouring for any carcasses that they may find. Besides them, one can even see raptors like the Long-legged Buzzard, Kestrels, Black Shouldered Kites, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Booted Eagle, Tawny Eagle. The sanctuary is paradise for any birder to witness such spectacles.

Chambal Sanctuary Highlights

  1. Indian Skimmer

The park is a reliable destination for any birder who wish to see the endangered Indian Skimmer. With its lower mandible twice as big than its upper, it can be seen gliding across the river, cutting its surface to catch fish. There’s always a certain thrill and exuberance watching their attempts to hunt. Although, there is also a certain sense of amusement in watching these individuals perched together at the top of mudflat, looking like gentlemen wearing tuxedos, preparing for a gala. The presence of this beings in fact is good indicator of a healthy river ecosystem. Although, there are very few of these birds left in the wild which is why it serves as a great destination for birding and photography.

  1. Gharials

A specialist fish eater, the Gharial have known to be around since the prehistoric era. They are the last known of their kind with their closest cousins being in the Malayan islands. Their height is similar to 3 – 4 tall men stacked up together. Giving specifics, that is around 5- 6 Meters (16-20ft) which makes them one of the largest crocodilians on our planet. Chambal is a stronghold for these fascinating beasts. It is again one of the few reliable places to surely see them. With almost 75% of their population residing here, you get an incredible chance to see their bulbous ‘gharas’ or their snouts (from which they get their name from) emerging just above the water as they skim the surface. You can even see them basking at the edge of the mudflats looking like glistening swaths of armored lizards on the sandy banks.

  1. Gangetic Dolphins

Although, one of the best places to see the Gangetic Dolphins, it is by no means an easy mammal to see. The slow moving murky waters is what these freshwater dolphins prefer to hunt fish using echolocation while the long snouts of these dolphins (strikingly similar to that of Gharials) help them interlock the fish that they catch. Spending most of their time underwater, it is the guides here who are aware of the certain pockets where you have a good chance getting a glimpse of these mammalians as they occupy deeper reaches of this river. Switching off the engine and keeping your eyes peeled out for these elusive creatures is the way to go. You will know you’re in luck once you notice disturbances on the surface of the water, as this is a good sign that they might emerge for a breath of air.

  1. Other Mammals and Reptiles

The scrublands and the rocky outback of this habitat favours scavengers such as the Striped Hyena. If one is lucky, they might get the opportunity to see them cautiously move close to the shore to quench their thirst. Jungle Cats and Golden Jackals too inhabit the land looking for their fair share of food while antelopes like Chinkara and Nilgai (Blue bull) can be seen roving to establish territories. Smooth Coated Otters are also known to navigate this river.

When it comes to reptiles, it is quite evident that due to their sizeable stature, Gharials and the Marsh Crocodiles exert their presence. However, the sanctuary is on this list for most herpetologists to observe and study turtles such as the Crowned River Turtle, Three Striped Roof Turtle, Red Crowned Roof Turtle, Indian Roofed Turtle, Indian Tent Turtle, Indian Flapshell Turtel, Narrow Headed Softshell Turtle and the Indian Softshell Turtle. Apart from thee, you can even encounter the Bengal Monitor Lizard.

The Best Time to Visit (Winter)

October to March is an ideal time to visit. However, the winter months between December to February are more fruitful as the conditions is more conducive for a myriad of migratory birds that visit the place. The temperature during this time is pleasant as the mercury remains at range between 30 to 10 degrees Celsius. The wetlands close to the river also become a major hotspot brimming with bird life as many waterfowl species and the majestic Sarus Crane (The tallest flying bird in the world) occupy these small pockets for sustenance.

How to Get There (High Accessibility from Major Cities)

By Air

Gwalior Airport (GWL) (106km approx. from National Chambal Sanctuary/ 3-hour drive via NH719) is the nearest airport. There are regular flights from Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad.

Delhi International Airport (IGI) is a 5-hour drive via the Agra-Lucknow Expressway, which is another airport where most flights from major cities frequent.

By Rail

The nearest railway station is in Agra, just 70km away. Gwalior can be considered as well, which is approximately100 km from the sanctuary

By Road

On the edge of NH45, National Chambal Sanctuary is well connected to all the major cities of Northern India like Delhi, Agra, Gwalior, Lucknow, Jaipur. Even Ranthambore and Keoladeo National Park are in close proximity which is a major boost for any wildlife enthusiast/birdwatcher as all of these encompass for an ideal Indian birding and photography tour.

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