Posted: 07 Jan 2017 09:46 AM PST
The first travel story in 2017 is about bird watching in a little village in Odisha – Mangalajodi on the banks of Chilika Lake where poachers have turned conservationists.
It was a huge challenge to find Mangalajodi, a tiny little hamlet on the banks of the Chilika Lake, in Odisha, Asia's largest brackish lagoon. But I wondered how the 100 odd species of birds from all over the world had found this ecological hot spot years ago. Did they map the route in their tiny brains as they flew for days to get here?
There are birds from Russia and Mongolia that have flown here. Water birds from the Caspian Sea have migrated here to Chilika lake. Some have come from the colder climes of Ladakh to reach this little spot at Mangalajodi.. And they find this destination year after year. It took me almost a couple of hours from Puri to reach this small village but I wondered how many days it would have taken them from their homes.
Bird watching in Mangalajodi
Arriving here on a hot and dry afternoon, I found that they birds had discovered this village long before the tourists, which was probably why there were just three boats on the freshwater swamp. The first birds that I saw in Mangalajodi on the backwaters of Chilika lake were open billed storks.
Thousands of them had descended on the fields near the water body as I saw them like specks in the horizon, their white bodies standing out in the greenery against a pale sky. And then I saw a dark cloud moving towards us and I realized that it was a swarm of black tailed godwits flying in the sky.
My boatman and naturalist were waiting for me. Boarding a small sail boat, we slowly began our journey pausing by the reeds and observing the birds. In the silhouette, lit by the evening light were black winged stilts. Most of them seemed to be in a ruminative mood, standing and staring. Some of them stood out in the light, their pretty pink legs reflecting in the waters.
We sailed a bit closer and from the reeds emerged yellow wattled lapwings. In a few minutes, we were surrounded by wetland birds at Chilika lake. There did not seem to mind our intrusion, occasionally pausing by in their activity just to glance at us .
The freshwater swamp slowly diversified into a network of canals and we choose one of them. And in a moment, we were amidst a huge flock of black tailed godwits, foraging for food in the water. Some of them posed for us, while others buried their heads and beaks immersed in the waters.
Birdwatching is not all that relaxing and soothing an experience. It is rather demanding, requiring every moment of one's attention. My naturalist pointed to the right showing us a flock of glossy ibis and even before we could get a good look at them, he gestured to our left where we saw the "Chilika chicken" or the purple moorhens by the dozen.
All of a sudden we craned our necks to sight a northern shoveler above our head, only to realize that there was the elusive brahminy shelduck right in front of us, rushing into the reeds. It was a constant battle between our reflexes and theirs and they seemed always quicker than us.
We continued our journey into the innumerable narrow channels – my boatman told me that there were at least 30 of them, to see huge flocks of northern pintail than had almost occupied an entire channel.
We were right behind them and they did not mind us following them around; occasionally a few would fly away to give us way but they would soon join the flock. Some whiskered terns flew past while the noisy Asian pied starling kept hopping about the reeds.
Different species of egrets ignored us as we sailed past, while the bronze winged jacana looked really pretty in its colourful coat of feathers.
The story of Mangalajodi
However Mangalajodi had not always been a safe haven for the migratory birds. Having flown massive distances, these birds were blissfully unaware of the dangers lurking around in the form of poachers. Until a few years ago, birds were killed virtually every year almost like a ritual, poisoned in the death of the night.
It took a few wildlife enthusiasts and bird watchers led by Nandakishore Bhujabal who formed an organisation called Wild Orissa to create the change in the minds of the poachers. Some of them joined forces with the organisation and the predators eventually became protectors.
My boatman and guides were once poachers as well but today, they proudly showed me around the habitat, showcasing the birds. Part of the organisation called the Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti , they are supported by several wildlife, tourism, developmental and government groups to organise birding trips and to protect these birds.
The wetlands at Mangalajodi are watched over by these very men who used to stealthily hover around here at one time to poach the birds. Spending more than a couple of hours with these men, I was touched by the passion with which they speak about their village and the birds.
The guides may not know all the names of the birds and they may struggle to get the English pronunciation right, but their heart is in the right place. As the sun set over Mangalajodi, I left the little village feeling secure that the birds had indeed found a safe home in India.
Mangalajodi – How to reach
Mangalajodi is in the northern end of Chilika lake and is in Khorda District . It is 67 kms from Bhubaneshwar and 72 kms from Puri by road.
Mangalajodi – Where to stay
There are eco tourism projects here and they have consciously tried to control poaching and protect the birds here. You can stay in any of the rustic comfortable cottages here. They will also arrange for your birdwatching experiences
There are stories about a tree in Mangalajodi that is believed to be haunted and a prophesy that it will kill 21 people. Although the tree had been felled by the time I visited, there were stories of how it still claimed lives and no one would dare go near the place where the tree once stood. As I heard the stories, I wondered if the birds knew
More stories on Odisha
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