Summer Road Trip – National Chambal Sanctuary, Morena

In May 2013, we undertook a driving holiday to Uttarakhand from Bhopal. It was rather a long journey therefore the report is going to be long… but hopefully not tiresome.

National Chambal Sanctuary is headquartered at Morena (near Gwalior) and spans three states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. We were driving from Bhopal to Uttarakhand, we decided it was very much on to visit this sanctuary especially since we are very keen bird watchers and this place is most famous for the threatened Indian Skimmer. May I add that this was one bird I had wanted to see for a long time!

A little background on the National Chambal Sanctuary …
Ancient Indian texts refer to the Chambal as the Charmanyavati – originating from the blood of thousands of cows sacrificed by the Aryan King Rantideva. Its ‘unholy’ origins have certainly helped the Chambal survive and thrive untouched and unpolluted, and it remains one of India’s most pristine rivers.

National Chambal Sanctuary, also called the National Chambal Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary, is a 5,400 km2 (2,100 sq mi) tri-state protected area in Northern India along roughly 400+ Kms of the Chambal River for the critically endangered Gharials (small crocodiles), the red-crowned roof turtle and the endangered Gangetic River Dolphin. Chambal supports the largest population of Gharials in the wild. The National Chambal Sanctuary is one of the few places to spot the Gangetic Dolphins. In fact, it is one of the last surviving habitats for it!
Chambal supports 8 of the 26 rare turtle species found in India.

The Indian Skimmers

The Indian Skimmers



The National Chambal Sanctuary is listed as an important bird area (IBA) and is a proposed Ramsar Wetland site. Vulnerable bird species here include the Indian skimmer, Sarus Crane, Pallas’s Fish Eagle and Indian Courser. It is the only known place where nesting of Indian Skimmers is recorded in large numbers.

Skimmers are social birds, which nest in colonies and roost communally on sand islands in rivers. Food is caught by skimming the water surface in flight with the lower mandible submerged to catch the fish, which are then swallowed either in flight or after landing. Breeding occurs between February and May, producing clutches of three to five eggs. The major factors which affect Indian skimmer hatchlings is reduction in water levels in river, which allow cattle, dogs and other predators to reach nesting colonies and destroy eggs and chicks.

The trip begins…
We leave Bhopal early since we mean to make it to Devri, near Morena by early evening where we will check into the Forest Rest House. This place is roughly 40Kms ahead of Gwalior and just 12Kms short of the Chambal River and the boat safari facility. It has been chosen so we have the least distance to travel in the morning for the safari.

We travel on the state highway from Bhopal towards Guna which is a fairly good road but narrow. We see the terrain changing from the very green around Bhopal (due to the huge water bodies there) to the brown and arid looking spaces further out towards Guna. Excitement bubbles up when we have the first sighting of the trip of two rather large looking birds near a little pond on the roadside.

Egyptian Vultures

Egyptian Vultures

Doubling back, we see what turn out to be a juvenile and a sub-adult Egyptian Vulture! Click, click go our cameras… On sensing our presence they lazily amble off towards the fields. We take the bypass for Guna saving time and drive on. Here we join the National highway and the road gets broader.

A packed breakfast and lunch means we are free to stop where we please to have our picnic lunch. We halt under a tree in a vast expanse of nothingness for lunch. In fact, very big trees are also hard to come by in this scrubby area. Skirting Shivpuri we also bypass Gwalior where the truck traffic is mad and all we want at that time is to leave this behind!! Gwalior to Morena is a fabulous stretch of road, wide and well surfaced, a real pleasure to drive on.

Ahead of Morena, the Forest Rest House and Tourist Information Centre, Devri comes on the right hand side but it is so nondescript that we overshoot it! We turn around and finally reach our destination… the Rest House looks pretty neat for an obscure destination such as this.

FRH Devri

FRH Devri

Entering the rooms we find no power… the first alarm bells ring since it is absolutely sweltering hot here. The beds are spewing fire and the air is still. We are told that this is a one off and the power will come on soon. Otherwise, we are assured the genset will be switched on.

Walking around to the back of the Rest House is the Gharial Breeding Centre where we see separate enclosures for the Gharial hatchlings year wise. At the age of four, they are released into the wild. Snaps duly taken, we head back.

A young Gharial in the breeding centre

A young Gharial in the breeding centre

We take a turn around the gardens which are alive with bird calls. The abundant peafowl with their splendid trailing tails compete with the woodpecker, kingfisher, parakeets and the babblers for our attention. Everything else takes a back seat as the children are uncomfortable in the heat of the day. When the situation does not improve till late evening and after nightfall (the ACs are not working in spite of the gensets!), we have dinner at the FRH (which is very good) and fall back to Morena for the night.

Picking up our guide at Devri, we are at the boat pool on the river by 0530hrs. The much anticipated safari is underway with all of us on the edge of our seats, craning for the first glimpse of wildlife. At that point, the sun has just risen and is casting a golden glow on the ragged ravines on the banks and the tranquil waters of the Chambal. Suddenly, the calm breaks and a gentle giant breaks the surface with an elegant roll… the Gangetic Dolphin! It is a blind creature which does all its hunting and navigation by sonar located in the bump on its head. Cameras are ready but shots are very elusive since the dolphins are very erratic sightings.

Magar crocodiles are pretty common and we see a couple of Gharials also along the banks and in the river.

Magar crocodile

Magar crocodile

We see numerous turtles bobbing up out of the water only to submerge before we can get a good enough look for identification. We are happy that we see so many at all! Early morning is not their time of the day apparently! And then suddenly….

Skimmers in formation flight

Skimmers in formation flight

Skimmers

Skimmers

Skimmers

Skimmers

Skimmers

Skimmers

Skimmers

Skimmers

we see this pair of Indian Skimmers! In formation flight no less! We spend the next half hour just absorbing their flight, their squabbling for space with River Lapwings and the enigmatic way they hunt. Their lower mandible is longer than the upper one and is used to ‘skim’ the surface of the water for food. Hence the name. Cameras have their fill… creating magical images and lasting memories.
[Pic: Skimmers]

The safari is more wonderful than we have imagined it. We are a very satisfied lot as we come back.The next leg of our journey continues in the following post…

19 Comments

  • Amitava Chatterjee says:

    A warm welcome here.

    Enjoyed the post and pictures of Skimmers are really good, including capturing Egyptian Vultures – a surprise catch on the way.

    This sanctuary seems not very far from here (~ I guess within 300 km from Delhi / Gurgaon), so a weekend trip can be planned.

    Bhopal to Uttarakhand is a long trip and we look forward to read them. As Archana just said a day before, the month has started with a great beginning.

    Thank you for introducing this place to us.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Welcome aboard Naturbuff.

    I didn’t know that such a habitat exisit, not too far from Delhi/NCR where I live. Not only that, we have driven through this belt many times. So many thanks for sharing this. This is a FOG (First on Ghumakkar) entry so congratulations.

    What are the charges for Safari and how long does it take to complete one session ? What is the best time in a day to do this ?

    Look forward to next leg of your long drive.

  • Naturebuff says:

    Hi Amitava and Nandan,

    Thanks for the welcome!

    The National Chambal Sanctuary is definitely worth a visit… any time though winter would be the best considering it gets a lot of migratory birds also. In the summer, the migratory birds are gone and the area is extremely hot so the boat safaris HAVE to be really early to avoid the heat of the day.

    All the same, it is an absolute pleasure to see the Skimmers, Lapwings, Terns, the Gangetic Dolphins and the Turtles, Magars and Gharials…. many more wild animals and birds in their natural habitat.

    The Safari charges were around Rs 1500/- I think and the camera charges another Rs 100/- per camera. This is for a 2 to 2 1/2 hour safari including a guide.

    The mornings (as early as dawn!) is the best for birds, dolphins and the late mornings/evenings are better for the magars and gharials since they need some sunlight to get their lethargic selves going.

    I’m happy you all enjoyed the blog. Watch out for more!

    Cheers!

  • Sandeep Gupta says:

    Hi Naturebuff,

    Howdy! A very warm welcome.

    A very informative post with nice photographs about the place very many do not know about. I have no doubt that you will continue to be an active contributor in times to come.

    For the benefit of other Ghumakkars, it would be nice in case you agree to publish some of your other much applauded and talked about Blogs also : Okhla Bird Sanctuary, Srinagar Birding, Goa Birding, Tour of Uttarakhand – Auli – Tapovan – Kanchula Kharak, Badrinath and the list goes on an on.

    With Best regards,
    Sandeep.

  • Naturebuff says:

    Thank you Sandeep! You and your writing both have been the motivating factors for me to travel and then pen down my experiences!

    Will write about my other trips soon as this series is over… look forward to reading more posts in your inimitable style for us to enjoy (vicariously) your journeys and inspire us to travel as well!

    Warm Regards,

    Naturebuff

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Hi Naturebuff,

    Great find! The photos of the flying Indian Skimmers are nicely taken.

    My view is that the eco points situated in middlle of jungle should have no power and absolutely no gen sets. when we go into nature we should not be leaving any carbon footprints.

  • Vipin says:

    Hi Naturebuff Ji, welcome to ghumakkar family! Nice write up to start with…your way of writing is pretty impressive, so is your photography, loved the article…I don’t think it’s ‘unholy’ origins would have ever helped her flourished (if the mythical story is believed to be true)…don’t think killing thousands of mother would help flourish a mother…:(

    I was in this area recently searching for gharials…we did a safari in just Rs. 10/- per person for nearly 45 minutes…haha…we actually crossed Chambal from Ater (MP) to Nadgaon (UP) where the sanctuary is located. We however could not locate any gharials (after all what all you can expect in Rs. 10 except the mesmerizing views of Chambal) , but boatmen would always threaten us…”don’t play with water, crocs can attack you”…:)…as per locals, since this area (where we were changing borders) is always frequented by people, so gharials don’t come here often…but you go 2/3 kms backwards (near Pihahat) & you will see plenty of them lazing around on the beaches…:)

    Since you are a birder, it will be great hearing & learning from your t-logs about birding. I guess the last article that i read on birding here was by Jaishree Ji (http://www.ghumakkar.com/2012/04/22/bb/)…read it if this interests you…:)

  • Naturebuff says:

    Hi Nirdesh and Vipin,

    I’m glad you liked my pictures! Thank you!

    I completely agree that gensets have no place in jungle rest houses…most definitely!! But this one at Devri is not in the jungle, also it is a breeding centre and a tourist information centre with a little MP tourism restaurant attached. Therefore the expectations of power!

    Either it is the folklore of it’s ‘unholy’ origins or the dominance of the erstwhile dacoits in the areas around it, the Chambal is one of the last clean rivers of India today!

    The boat safari we undertook is run by the forest dept. therefore their guides are also quite knowledgeable. We had a good time.

    I’m happy to be getting so much positive feedback from you al.l Thank.you very much!

    Cheers!

  • abheeruchi says:

    Welcome to Ghumakkar.
    Nice post and beautiful pictures.
    It would be a long series.so waiting to read next parts of series.
    Keep travelling, keep posting

  • Giriraj Shekhawat says:

    Hi Nature Buff
    Today i opened up ghumakkar homepage and thinking of winding up by seeing the stories in a brief glance.. But ur post made me pause for a little while ..then drew me in little more and finally drenched me with an amazing experience reading ur wonderful narration …. Nice to see such an amazing write up after a long time on ghumakkar .. and that egyptian vulture is such a rare treat … i am seeing that it is your first post … Nice pictures and a good write up makes u earn 500 marks/100 …

  • Naturebuff says:

    Thank you Giriraj, you’ve made my day!!

  • Rumjhum says:

    I go to Bhopal once in every 3-4 months, since my in-laws are based there. Never knew that such a place even existed so close to it!

    The photographs are beautiful, especially of the Skimmers’ flight.

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Hi Kranti,

    I was in the area today and got to see what I like most visited Ater Fort about 80 kms east of Morena. Due to limited time I missed seeing the ghariyals.

    Vipin, you are a diehard Ghumakkar. I saw the terrain and the state of roads in that part of the country. Travelling from Bhind (an armpit of a town), going to Ater Fort and then on to Chambal river all alone takes b….s. Today my ribs got unhinged travelling from Porsa to Ater in car with a driver. The road is a horror story. And then this group of people break into the fort (supposedly revellers on Ganesh Visarjan day) and I am like what will I do if they run off with my beloved camera. Though the people in general are helpful.

    From now on give me some heads up when you dig out a fort in the wilderness of Chambal. But what a hoot man you divulge the fort presence yesterday and I see it the today. I guess you returned the Chanderi favour we are even!

    I arranged for the Bhopal Shatabdi to stop in Lalitpur from 21st you can thank me later.

    Thanks Guys!

  • Naturebuff says:

    Hi Nirdesh,

    Wow! To see a place at such short notice… good ghumakkadi!!

    We had heard about the fort too and that it warranted a visit. But due to a shortage of time, we skipped the Ater fort!! But we certainly plan on it sometime when we are in the area. I certainly hope the roads are resurfaced by then :-)

  • KS says:

    Hi,

    Great travelogue! I plan to visit the Chambal National Sanctuary with my wife in December. Is it safe? Do you have contact details of the Forest Rest House? What are the timings of the morning and evening safari? Are taxis locally available? Can we take a taxi onwards to Agra?

    Regards,
    KS

  • Naturebuff says:

    Hi KS,

    The place seem very safe… we went as a family with two kids and never did we feel insecure.

    I got the contact details off the net…. don’t seem to have saved them but simple enough to get it online.

    There are no fixed timings I think. Just speak with the office at the FRH and they will guide you. Earlier in the morning the better though.

    I think taxis will be troublesome since the FRH is in the back of beyond. But then, Morena is just 15 Kms or so away therefore one could stay there and tie-up for transport there.

    Hope you enjoy your trip.

    Regards

  • Manju says:

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