India is a bird watcher's paradise, particularly in bird sanctuaries where the critical habitat has been preserved. Winter is generally the best time for birding, as many places receive migratory birds that are attracted by the warmer weather of India's subtropical climate. In order to maximize bird sightings, go very early in the morning and/or around sunset. Read on to discover the top sanctuaries for bird watching in India.
Formerly Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, this vast and famous national park was once a duck hunting reserve of the maharajas and the British. Keoladeo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and has more than 370 species of birds, including a large congregation of non-migratory resident breeding birds. Most notably, it's one of only a few of known wintering habitats of the Siberian Crane. Keoladeo is open all year round, although a third of it is often submerged during the monsoon season. There are well-defined trails inside the park. It's possible to walk, ride bicycles (recommended), or take a cycle rickshaw or boat (when the water level is high). The cycle rickshaw pullers have been trained in bird watching and double up as excellent guides. Stay at Royal Farm guest house and enjoy delicious home cooked organic food, or splurge at the heritage Chandra Mahal Haveli.
- Location: Bharatpur, about an hour west of Agra.
- Cost: Entry fee is 75 rupees for Indians and 500 rupees for foreigners.
- Open: Sunrise until sunset.
- When to Visit: August to November for resident breeding birds and November to March for migrant birds.
The serene wetlands at Mangalajodi are an important flyways destination for migratory water birds. However, what's really exceptional is how unusually close-up you get to see them by boat! Mangalajodi is also an inspiring success story of community-based eco-tourism. Villagers used to be expert bird hunters, in order to make a living. Now, the former poachers have become protectors, using their formidable knowledge of the wetlands to guide visitors on bird watching trips. Plan your trip there with this Mangalajodi travel guide.
- Location: 1.5 hours southwest of Bhubaneshwar, on the northern edge of Chilika Lake in Odisha.
- Cost: Varies depending on duration of boat hire and time of year. Expect to pay around 1,200 rupees for two hours.
- Open: Always.
- When to Visit: Mid December to February.
Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, Karnataka
Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, the largest in Karnataka, can be visited on a day trip from Bangalore or Mysore. This sanctuary is made up of a series of islands and islets on the Cauvery River. Acclaimed Indian ornithologist Doctor Salim Ali noticed that the islets formed an important nesting ground for birds and convinced the Mysore king to declare the area a wildlife sanctuary in 1940. Take a ranger-guided boat tour along the river to spot the many migratory birds (and crocodiles!). Alternatively, it's possible to walk though a section of the park.
- Location: Near Srirangapatna, 30 minutes north of Mysore in Karnataka.
- Cost: Entry fee is 70 rupees for Indians and 400 rupees for foreigners. 15-20 minute group boat safaris cost 70 rupees per person for Indians and 400 rupees for foreigners. Private boats can be hired (recommended to see the birds). There's also a camera fee that ranges from 100 rupees to 500 rupees, depending on the length of the lens.
- Open: 8.30 a.m. until 6 p.m.
- When to Visit: January to March. Peak nesting time is February.
Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, Uttarakhand
One of the last remaining patches of natural oak forest in the Himalayas of Uttarakhand, Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is said to be home to 200 species of birds (animals are rarely seen) and offers some spectacular mountain views. There are several treks and walks that you can do. Stay inside the sanctuary at KMVN Rest House, Khali Estate, Idyllic Haven Homestay, or Binsar Forest Retreat.
- Location: About an hour north of Almora, in Uttarakhand. It's located atop the Jhandi Dhar hills.
- Cost: Entry fee is 150 rupees for Indians and an expensive 600 rupees for foreigners. Plus, 250 rupees for a small vehicle.
- Open: Sunrise until sunset.
- When to Visit: October to February. Although it's cold in winter, this is the best time for birding as some species descend from higher altitudes and migratory birds arrive.
Sultanpur National Park, Haryana
What Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary lacks in size, it makes up for in convenience as it can easily be visited on a day trip from Delhi. However, this means a lot of people go there for picnics moreso than bird watching (don't go on weekends if you want to avoid the local crowd). The picturesque park has about 90 species of migratory birds, with some flocking to its lake from as far away as Siberia. They can be seen from a circular walking trail and watchtowers. Depending on water levels, the birds may be quite far off though. It's worth hiring binoculars there. Unfortunately, park maintenance needs to be improved.
- Location: 30 minutes west of Gurgaon in Haryana.
- Cost: Entry fee is 5 rupees for Indians and 40 rupees for foreigners.
- Open: 7 a.m. until 4.30 p.m. Closed on Tuesdays and usually during breeding season (from June to August or September).
- When to Visit: December to February.
Tranquil Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary is situated on the north bank of Kerala's Periyar River. It has a dense canopy populated with over 300 species of migratory and resident birds. In fact, Doctor Salim Ali once described it as “the richest bird habitat in peninsular India, comparable only with the eastern Himalayas”. Unlike most parks in India, the birds are in the forest, rather than the water. You can spot them by going on a two to three hour trek along a nature trail. The rare Sri Lankan Frogmouth is a highlight. Butterflies are an added attraction. Stay at Jungle Bird Homestay, riverside tented Hornbill Camp, or the more luxurious Soma Birds Lagoon Resort.
- Location: 15 minutes from Kothamangalam, in the Ernakulam district of Kerala. It's about two hours from Kochi airport.
- Cost: Entry fee is 45 rupees for Indians and 190 rupees for foreigners. Boat trips are possible for 150 rupees per person. Rates vary for guided birdwatching walks.
- Open: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- When to Visit: November to February.
A top side trip from Chennai or Mahabalipuram, small but spectacular Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary is the oldest water bird sanctuary in India (it was formally established in 1936, during the British Raj era, but existed much earlier). The sanctuary is an important breeding ground for the migratory water birds that come to nest in its open mangrove habitat. The birds can be seen from the river bank or watchtower, and binoculars are available for hire. Common species include storks, pelicans, and ibises. Locals rely on bird droppings in the water to increase its nitrogen content and create a natural fertilizer.
- Location: About two hours southwest of Chennai, in Tamil Nadu.
- Cost: Entry fee is 25 rupees for adults, 5 rupees for children. This is one of only a handful of places in India where the price is the same for Indians and foreigners. Camera fee is 25 rupees.
- Open: Sunrise until sunset, between November and March.
- When to Visit: December and January, after the monsoon season.
Bhigwan Bird Sanctuary, Maharashtra
Bhigwan Bird Sanctuary is often referred to as the "Bharatpur of Maharashtra". The sanctuary is the perfect day trip from Pune for birding and nature enthusiasts, and is a popular destination for wildlife photography tours. It sits along the backwaters of Ujani Dam and attracts migratory birds such as flamingoes, spoonbills, osprey. It's also home to the world's fastest animal, the remarkable Peregrine Falcon. Stay at Agnipankh Home Stay, owned by Sandip Nagare (an avid bird guide, conservationist and photographer). He also makes tour arrangements for visitors. Phone: 99606 10615.
- Location: About two hours east of Pune on the Solapur Highway, near Kumbhargaon in Maharashtra.
- Open: Sunrise to sunset.
- Cost: Boating is about 800 rupees for an hour.
- When to Visit: October to February. The best month to see flamingoes is February.
Namdapha National Park, Arunachal Pradesh
If you like adventure far off the beaten track, there's no better place to go bird watching than vast Namdapha National Park. A biodiversity hot-spot, it covers an astonishing 1,985 square kilometers (766 square miles) and has 500 species of birds, along with an unparalleled array of other wildlife. There's a forest rest house and campsites inside the park, and porters and guides can be hired. Kipepeo also runs guided treks and tours there. Do note that permits are required to enter Arunachal Pradesh.
- Location: The park lies along the Noa-Dihing River at the border between India and Myanmar, in Arunachal Pradesh. The access point is Miao, although the park headquarters are located further in at Deban. It's best reached from Dibrugarh in Assam. The nearest railway station is at Tinsukia.
- Cost: 50 rupees for Indians. 350 rupees for foreigners. Ordinary camera 100 rupees. DSLR camera with zoom lens 500 rupees.
- When to Visit: November to March.
This well known bird sanctuary is a popular attraction along the Kerala Backwaters (there are some lovely hotels and resorts in the area too). However, a common complaint is that it's difficult to find many birds there. The sanctuary can be explored on foot or best by canoe, hired from local fishermen at the entrance. You'll need to walk quite far inside the park to reach the watchtower where birds can be seen.
- Location: Vembanad Lake, near Kottayam in Kerala.
- Open: Sunrise to sunset.
- Cost: Entry fee is 50 rupees for Indians and 150 rupees for foreigners. One-hour boat ride is 650 rupees.
- When to Visit: Between June and August, the breeding season for resident wetland birds. The migratory bird season is from November to February.
Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Goa
Goa's Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, named after the famous ornithologist, is the only bird sanctuary in the state. It's covered in scrubby estuarine mangrove forest and has a paved trail through the jungle, great for walking and cycling. Boat rides through the mangroves are also possible. The swampy ecosystem is a breeding ground for many types of local and migratory birds. You can find out about them and their ecology at the Nature Research Center there. Serious birders should call the "Birdman of Chorao", Uday Mandrekar , a private boatman and guide. Phone: 98225 83127.
- Location: Western tip of Chorao Island on the Mandovi River, near Panjim in Goa. To get there take the ferry from Ribander.
- Open: Sunrise to sunset.
- Cost: Entry fee is 20 rupees. Boating, conducted by the forest department, is 750-900 rupees.
- When to Visit: Between November and February for migratory birds.
Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat
Substantially-sized Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary is made up of Nalsarovar Lake, surrounding marsh wetlands, and islands. About 200 different types of migratory birds can be found there including moorhens, spoonbills, pelicans, flamingos, storks, bitterns, cranes, grebes, ducks and herons. Unfortunately, it's not set up very well for tourists though. Facilities are poor and boat operators are not properly regulated, resulting in them charging outrageously high rates. If you're serious about birding, you'll need to go out further into the lake than the standard trip to Dhrabla Island and pay much more. Unfortunately, foreigners may want to skip visiting Nalsarovar because of this, and the exorbitantly high new entrance fee and camera fee.
- Location: Just under two hours southwest of Ahmedabad, in Gujarat.
- Cost: Entry fee is 75 rupees for Indians on weekdays, 85 rupees for Indians on weekends, and 800 rupees for foreigners. Camera fee is 200 rupees for Indians and $20 for foreigners. The cost of boat trips is additional (be prepared to haggle hard with the boatmen).
- Open: Sunrise until sunset.
- When to Visit: December to February. If you want a peaceful experience, avoid weekends and holidays.