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What intended to be a few hours’ stopover en route to Chilika, turned out to be a sojourn of three days and had us asking for still more ~  Bikramadittya G Roy


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18th January

Mangalajodi, we heard the name for the first time from Aditya Panda, an active member of Wild Orissa, while discussing with him our plans to visit Chilika this winter. From the telephonic and e-mail conversations, we inferred that on our way to Barkul from Bhubaneswar we would stop over at Mangalajodi for a few hours of birding.

As our vehicles cross the last settlement after Tangi, we find ourselves on a brick powder driveway atop an embankment that stretches almost straight towards the horizon. On both sides lie vast expanses of marshlands. As we prop our noses against the window glasses to grab a quick passing view of the avian denizens, Aditya chuckles, “This is just the trailer—the movie is yet to begin!”

© Nilanjan

On the left side of the embankment stands a watchtower, while on the right, a concrete jetty tries to hook itself into the numerous waterways that meanders through the reeds. To get into these marshes, which I amusingly call “The Backwaters of Chilika”, we would need boats and there are a few of them harbored here. By the time the boatmen ready themselves, we climb up the watchtower.

As we scan the swamps, Aditya narrates the history of Mangalajodi. The numerous channels that crisscross through the greenery, harbors thousands of water-birds, migratory and resident. It is a site used for foraging, roosting, and nesting by this avian population. For the human population around these wetlands, it was a goldmine of bush-meat. Trapping, killing, and subsequent selling of the birds was a ritual here, followed with religious fervor coupled with professional precision. Every night, birds were poisoned, strangled, trapped, or shot and by sun rise boatloads of the carcasses were transferred on to market bound mini-trucks. In 1997, volunteers of Wild Orissa stepped in to save the wetlands and the birds from extinction. Some of the poachers brandished knives at the volunteers, some threatened to shoot them, but ultimately wisdom won, “Glory to the God of Wetlands”, and they quit poaching to create, instead, a protection committee to save the birds and their habitat. Thus was formed the “Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samity” of Mangalajodi in 2000.

The six of us divide ourselves into two boats and start our journey into the wetlands. The water is rich in vegetation. Long reeds line up the waterways like avenue trees. Aquatic grasses and sedges form the second row corresponding undergrowths. Finally, below the water’s surface, are plants like Vallisnaria and Potamogeton—creating a glassy meadow, dotted with water lilies here and there. The boatman uses a bamboo pole to steer and row. The water is only two-three feet deep, sparkling, a little salty, and emits the sweet-acrid-humid smell of vegetation—the smell of moist grass crushed under your feet during a monsoon football game.

The first birds that our eyes can spot are the waders like greenshanks and wood sandpipers, who wade almost fearlessly. Occasionally, smaller common sandpipers fly off, undetected until flushed, uttering their shrill “kee keek” and flashing the white wing bands. All around us, the greenery is dotted with egrets—small, median, large, and cattle. A purple heron, wary of our presence, takes off gawkily uttering rasps of annoyance.

Black-winged Stilt

Ahead, the waterways open up to wide channels. The water is shallow here, strewn with small hummocks of semi-floating aquatic sedges. Black-winged stilts and black-tailed godwits vie for space. In the floating islands of water hyacinths bronze-winged jacanas of every shade (the older, the darker) tiptoe their wary ways. Often a moorhen nods its way out from the reeds and beats a hasty retreat seeing us. Different kinds of warblers dance about—in and out of the sedges and grasses. At a distance, brahminy ducks honk their highway horns. In a reed bed, very close, a golden dagger, hilted with a pair of ruby beads, gleams for a split second—the yellow bittern. A Baillon’s crake shows itself and hides again within the water hyacinths. Trying to follow it we’re waylaid by a citrine wagtail.

Whiskered Tern

Here now, the water is very shallow, with wide knolls around merging to form slice cake grassy flats. A few fishermen wait in their boats, while a few enterprising ones prod their way along the channels with a pair of long basket traps. Bamboo stakes across the channels declare the presence of fishnets. Opportunistic whiskered terns use these stakes as their hunting posts. At a distance, a pied kingfisher hovers and dive-bombs for a glistening catch. Gliding through the still waters, we proceed towards Nandakishore Channel, a wide waterway named after N. K. Bhujabal, the Tangi Governor of Wild Orissa. On our way, we flush hundreds of black-tailed godwits and stumble upon a feeding party consisting of five brahminy ducks and a pair of spot-billed ducks. As the ducks take off on our approach, we raise our cameras for a few flight shots.

Spot-billed Duck

The sun’s last rays shimmer on the falling duck downs. As we review the images in the LCD panels, behind us a pair of red-wattled lapwing keeps asking, “Did you do it?” We smile at them and say “yes”.

Thousands of black-tailed godwits rise to fly towards their night roosts, appearing black now and gold the next moment. As we row towards the jetty, a bluethroat welcomes us with its dance. Packing up for the day, we look at the other side of the watchtower. A marsh harrier tries to quarry a moorhen, which quickly melts within the sedges. Disappointed, the harrier chooses to fly off in the direction towards which our vehicles also head.

19th January

Last night, at our accommodation in Barkul, we decided to cancel our visit to the other parts of Chilika and concentrate on Mangalajodi instead. Accordingly, we take the NH -5 and drive towards Tangi.

The sun is still in its mellow self when we begin our journey towards the wet and wild. A bronze-winged jacana packs off with his children, leaving the waterway for us. A flock of black-breasted weavers whirrs away from the reeds. We scan the distant knolls and flats with our binoculars. Apart from the now-familiar egrets, godwits, greenshanks, redshanks, wood sandpipers, and purple herons, a lonely grey heron sits hunched up—half hidden among the reeds. Blackwinged stilts spread out their awkwardly long legs and land in the shallows.

Today, our boatman is Kishore, christened ‘Veerappan of Chilika’ for his erstwhile dynasty of poaching. His teeth almost blackened by betel-juice and roasted tobacco, Kishore smiles shyly when we talk about his hunting days. The fun with Kishore is whenever he tries to describe a new bird that he intends to show us, he measures it in grams or kilograms, “chhota bidesi choroi—pochis gram hobo (little migratory bird—about 25 grams).” I know, the Wild Orissa volunteers are trying to teach the poachers-turned-guides the English names of the birds, but old habits die-hard.

We veer away from yesterday’s route and find ourselves in a channel avenued by cattails. Blue-tailed bee-eaters flit around. A cinnamon bittern jumps out of a cattail thicket and hides again. A black drongo perched atop a stake tries its luck at the flying insects. Somewhere among the knolls, lands a spotted dove. A common kingfisher leaves its perch—disturbed by our arrival. A flock of whiskered terns performs synchronous air manoeuvres. Kishore signals us for silence, lowers the bamboo pole, and crouches down as we stealthily approach a mass of boggy flats. Ahead, a few brahminy ducks walk about in their royal gait. A pair of white ibises prods the grasses with their tong like bills. A lonely Eurasian widgeon sits on a hump of dried grass. Closer to us three grey-headed lapwings burst into a short flight alarming the others with their sudden calls. The ducks and the ibises fly off. Along the channel, a few Indian cormorants cavort after their preys. A few hours later, we are out in the open again. Small grassy knolls, fishnet on stakes across shallow channels, and fishermen on boats. A female pied harrier hovers above some potential prey. Unfortunately, a whiskered tern flies in from somewhere and drives it off. Out on a knoll, a pipit lands and bounces back to flight again. A white-throated kingfisher bobs on the wicker-traps laid out for the fish.

Afternoon; Our three boats meet at Nandakishore Channel. The sun is harsh. We jostle for a patch of shade beneath the tall reeds. On the largest boat, Madhav gives final touch to the egg curry. Who’d believe that Madhav, adoringly called mother for his culinary skills and caring attitude, was once a synonym for terror and destruction? The knife he uses today to slice onions might have once been used to slash the throats of unfortunate bidesi choroi (migratory birds). Facing the sky, it’s nice to watch the terns fly across the cobalt, to hear the distant honk of the brahminy ducks, and to feel the gentle rock of the brackish waters against the boat’s flank. The trance is broken by a familiar “tchk” above— a plain prinia clockworks its tail.

It’s nearing sundown. Kishore tries to lead us to somewhere, to show something we haven’t seen yet. We guess he’s talking about some big birds. Steadily he rows a kilometer to the embankment and signs for us to get down. Once atop the spine Kishore points to the other side. There, beyond a hundred grazing buffalos, forage a large flock of greylag geese, with a few white ibises and egrets sprinkled in between. A few members of the flock take off—their wings gleaming in the golden light. With the hills as a backdrop, the flight of the greylag seems a fairytale.

Greylag Geese

21st January

Yesterday, we gave Mangalajodi a break. We were off to Bhetnoi in Ganjam district enjoying the grace of blackbucks against a rugged, dusty landscape. And, today is the last day of our trip.

As we reach Mangalajodi for the third time now, we decide not to bird in the marshes today. Instead, we venture out on a power-boat towards the region where the marsh meets Lake Chilika. Luckily, Mr N. K. Bhujabal is accompanying us today. As we take the waterway through the long reeds, a black bittern, looking for fish, loses its balance and wobbles in our strong wake. Gray herons and cormorants carry on their usual activities. Clamorous reed warblers dart in and out of the reeds as they have been doing forever.

“This is Mangalajodi in full glory!” says Mr. Bhujabal, humble pride hovering in his sunny smile. “I would like more and more people to know about this wetland. My only prayer is that conscious eco-tourism takes off here. Otherwise, these people will have no choice but going back to poaching.” We ask him about the plans ahead. He tells us about the different agencies, government and private, that are collaborating with Wild Orissa to keep Mangalajodi surviving against the odds. He talks about the funding that has been organized, with which rest houses will be built 15 km away at Dhani, about the plan of planting trees along the embankment to enhance nesting possibilities of arboreal water-birds like egrets and storks. “In near future we are going to arrange rickshaws to take you along the trails, where the rickshaw-pullers will also double up as your naturalist guides.”

With the warmth of the sun on our shoulders, the narrow passage opens out to the lakefront. The wide waters are covered with red and green vegetation. Large fishing-boats dot the waterscape. In the floating vegetation cotton pygmy geese and pheasant-tailed jacanas forage for their breakfast. Mr Bhujabal directs the boatmen to steer left. Ahead, we can see black dots in the silver haze. Binoculars reveal pintails, gadwalls, garganeys, shovellers, and red-crested pochards. We try to get near them—they fly off to land a little further. The more we move inside the open waters the more ducks seem to be around. We can hear them cackle. Now, we can see tufted ducks also in the crowd.

We are now one and half hours into the lake. Time is at premium today. We must get back to the jetty before the evening or else we miss our train. We decide to take an about turn. As we make our way through fishing boats and laid out nets, an intermediate egret flies in from nowhere and performs a feat that is more harrier-like and less egret-like. It hovers low above the waters surface, dangling its dainty legs and stabs the water with its bill in an attempt to fish. None of us have ever seen an egret hunting in this fashion.

Back towards the domain of pheasant-tailed jacanas and cotton pygmy geese, a handsome brahminy kite greets us. It lands on a stake, preens itself, and again takes off to embrace the blues above. The majestic rufous wings flash through the blue haze rising from the afternoon water.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana

Back in the boat “mother” Madhav is busy distributing lunch. As the migratory birds return every year to their warm wintering grounds, so shall we— to Mangalajodi, our Bharatpur in making. We pray that Kishore, Madhav, and their brethren would be able to sustain themselves through conservation efforts and would not have to take up their knives once.

The Team: Shamim Akhter, Sajal Bar, Dhritiman Mukherjee, Aditya Panda, Nilanjan Das, and Bikramadittya Guha Roy.

The Birds:

  • Greylag goose

  • Ruddy shelduck

  • Lesser whistling duck

  • Cotton pygmy goose

  • Spot-billed duck

  • Northern pintail

  • Northern shoveller

  • Gadwall

  • Garganey teal

  • Red-crested pochard

  • Tufted duck

  • Eurasian wigeon

  • Common kingfisher

  • White-throated kingfisher

  • Pied kingfisher

  • Blue-tailed bee eater

  • Spotted owlet

  • Laughing dove

  • Spotted dove

  • Baillon’s crake

  • Purple swamphen

  • Common moorhen

  • Common coot

  • Common snipe

  • Black-tailed godwit

  • Common redshank

  • Spotted redshank

  • Common greenshank

  • Common sandpiper

  • Wood sandpiper

  • Marsh sandpiper

  • Black-winged stilt

  • Pheasant tailed jacana

  • Bronze-winged jacana

  • Oriental pratincole

  • Pacific golden plover

  • Grey-headed lapwing

  • Red-wattled lapwing

  • Brown-headed gull (?)

  • Whiskered tern

  • Brahminy kite

  • White-bellied sea eagle

  • Eurasian marsh harrier

  • Pied harrier

  • Little grebe

  • Little cormorant

  • Indian cormorant

  • Little egret

  • Great egret

  • Intermediate egret

  • Cattle egret

  • Indian pond hereon

  • Grey heron

  • Purple heron

  • Yellow bittern

  • Black bittern

  • Cinnamon bittern

  • Asian openbill

  • Large-billed crow

  • House crow

  • Black drongo

  • Blue-throat

  • Common myna

  • Pied myna

  • Bank myna

  • Jungle myna

  • Barn Swallow

  • Oriental skylark

  • Pipit (ID needs to be confirmed)

  • Citrine wagtail

  • Baya weaver

  • Black-breasted weaver


Bikramadittya G Roy
Kolkata, india


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