A bird in the bush ...
This December, as a part of a 12 day train / bus / bike and car drive solo winter vacation, I visited the village of Mangalajodi on the shores of Lake Chilika, Odisha. I'm writing this note to let all bird enthusiasts know what awaits them if they can make the trip (I have not seen many web references to this excellent spot nor did I meet too many birders even though it was December 30th when I visited).
A bollywood story
The story of Mangalajodi is nothing short of what many a Bollywood movie (especially those from the 70s and earlier) depicted – the bad guys turn good. The entire village a decade or so ago was inhabited by bird-hunters. These poachers used to hunt, capture alive or dead the many migratory birds that visited India's largest lagoon and sell them to people nearby to keep as pets or simply use as food (shudder). Then, (I forget the exact date – it was about 10 years ago), a good samaritan and conservationist - Mr Bujabal started advising this band of poachers the on the possible downsides of the dwindling bird population. A change of heart occurred and under the aegis of Sri Sri Mahavir Pakshi Surakshya Samiti ( lit : Sri Sri Mahavir bird protection council), a registered NGO, the poachers of Mangalajodi turned into guides for the visiting tourist. It was through them that I was able to reach this unique place and enjoy an excellent morning (3 hours +) of lovely birding through the reed filled waters of the Mangalajodi creek. Also, thanks to their background (they hunted birds for the money), the guides know exactly in which spot one can expect what species …
A Unique position
My guide (Mr Sadhu Behara) as well as the person who helped arrange my stay for the night (Mr Subhash) were unanimous in their opinion that it’s the unique geographical position (its surrounded on one side by small hills and about 6 kms off the NH 5 that connects BBSR with Vizag) as well as ecology of the creek (depth no more than 3-5 feet tops – usually just about 2 feet of water and mud; plenty of reeds and algae that provide bird fodder) attract a large number of resident, resident-migratory and migratory birds.
Due to a miscalculation on my part while driving from Konark via Raghurajpur (the village famous for pattachitras) I reached Mangalajodi after a grueling 5 hour drive. I should have taken the road via pipli but some locals mis-directed me into going via Nirakarpur and Rameshwar – that road had potholes large enough to contain an entire maruti car. That ride wasn’t without it’s high-points though – such as this flock of Asian open billed storks in the field (about 50 feet from the road) and the part that was good – was very scenic indeed (below)
Thanks to this misadventure, it was about 6 pm when I reached. I ended up in the Samiti office only to learn that the nearest hotel (in Barkul) was a 42 km drive – 7 of those to get to the main NH5 and then another 35 driving towards Vizag. Due to the warm hospitality of Mr Subhash and their welcoming attitude I agreed to spend the night in their office with only a mattress and two extra-power mosquito coils burning on either side of this makeshift bed. This is a shot of the room with my beds heaped on some plastic chairs.
The hardships faced during the night didn’t go completely unrewarded – I had a headstart in the morning ahead of any visitors by an hour. A quick cup of tea and some biscuits later, guide and I were off driving on the nature trail (1.5 kms approx) till the first jetty where the small fishing boats are parked.
The photograph taken below shows the trail and a car in the far horizon. On either side are the reeds with plenty of bird life.
The first hour or so was taken up by walking around the trail and a kind of introduction to many species (I’m not very good with bird names so this part helped and any of the experts who visit this blog please do add the correct names). Here we saw a great snipe (below)
And a pair of beautiful brahminy ducks (ruddy shelduck) – these lovely creatures were to totally grab my attention for next couple hours.
Since I have only a basic zoom and the day was cloudy plus there’s plenty of grass, most of these images didn’t come out right – I’ve cropped them to show the birds as far as possible.
The trail itself is rather scenic with some lotus flowers that grow naturally in the area:
After this, by 8:00 we were off in our boat – at this time, I noticed the first batch of tourists driving down the trail. Anyways, the boats don’t make for comfortable seating but do make for great viewing as one sits on water level (the bottom of the boat actually goes a foot or so below water level) – this also allows better bird watching and photography. Finally, I was able to get some better shots. Seen below is a black tailed godwit (?)
Ok, after that confusion, this is most likely a purple heron and the one below is certainly a black ibis.
Well, the birding kept getting better and better though I should have noted down the names earlier (I was too focused on getting the shots right despite the light and the challenges with my lens)
…and I could see my beautiful brahminy duck at closer quarters ….
A pair of gorgeous black glossy ibis birds ….
Even our nearly silent boat (its human powered by a man who simply pushes the ground below to take the boat forward with a pole – its not even rowing) was enough to send many birds flying away – including this pair of brahminys ….
Mercifully the sun came out giving me some better lit shots ….. here’re some great egrets:
…and an open billed stork at closer quarters too:
The hyacinth and the reeds were mostly behind us and quickly we were into the open water – and proportionately, I could see birds only at a much greater distance – and then Subhash’s words flashed in my mind (sir, without plants the birds can’t live … so more birds here than in open Chilika lake). All I could see on this stretch was a fisherman’s boat and the tourists that had come behind us and went in another boat.
So I asked the guide and the boatman to turn around and was promptly rewarded with some better shots … including another godwit shot (and a smaller visitor below that I cant recall the name of …)
Further closer to the grassy area, we spotted a Ruff, plenty of moorhens and many bronze winged Jacanas (given below is a photo of each in the same order). I’m told the Ruffs come from Eurasian regions while the Jacana is a resident wetland bird in India …
The last shots were the best as I could get very close to a great egret – he did look at me as if something was ‘fishy’ but decided I wasn’t lunch and hurried away …
We drove back to the visitor’s centre cum office of the Pakshi Suraksha Samiti for payment of fees etc (its Rs 600/- for a boat ride) and a goodbye to them. The guides cum office bearers came across as very genuine people (I think I asked for the black tailed godwit like 11 times and I still cant remember a few small birds that I extensively shot ….). As seen below the facility where the office-bearers conduct their business is very basic and I’m sure if more people visit this wonderful place it will keep the Samiti going on the mission that they started off with. I am inclined to think this way as when the villagers were poachers they made many more times what they make now as guides.
Facts for the visitor:
How to reach:
(by road) Drive towards Balugaon via Khurda from Bhubaneswar or Cuttack end and take a turn (left) at Tangi. A metalled road leads you to Chandipur. After crossing Chandipur, a left turn at the sign for the UCO bank ATM will lead you to Mangalajodi after couple more kilometers.
(by train) The Puri Gunupur passenger will stop at Mukteshwarpuri Ph (the closest train station to Mangalajodi – literally a hop step away). There are a total of 4 passenger trains from the BBSR or Puri railway stations that all stop at Mukteshwarpuri. Please use erail.in or other website to see exact connections that work for you.
Where to stay:
If you’re adventurous and don’t mind roughing it out a bit, ask the samiti and they will place a bed for you (a knitted one with an iron frame). The other option is to stay in Balugaon or Barkul but you basically lose the morning hours. I met 4 carload full of people all arriving at nearly ten AM when I was done already asking me if the birding was any good – I had a big grin on my face and said ‘yup!’ I did ask them where they came in from and when I heard barkul I had to ask if they saw any birds. This question was answered with a huge side to side shake of the head that I took to be a ‘no’ !
Mangalajodi’s economy has taken a huge hit after all the poachers converted to tour guides. Currently, they have a tie up with Wild Orissa but I felt the people weren’t doing terribly well (apparently what they used to make in a month was several thousand rupees through killing /trapping these birds and selling them). Despite these hardships, the people aren’t wanting for anything from the visitors and it was such a refreshing change from the ‘hard sell’ that so often greets me in cities across Rajasthan – my home state. If you choose to visit, please do tip your guide as best as you can.
So, I turned around and asked Sadhu what keeps him going. His face lit up instantly and he said ‘I do this so that people know the name of my family and my village’ ….. I left the place with a spring in my step.