I was in my consulting rooms with a couple of colleagues when, purely by chance, one of them mentioned that the other specialised in arranging trips to Bhitarkanika National Park.
In all honesty, at the time I was only vaguely aware of its existence.
It only took a quick search over the Internet to get me well and truly hooked. The rest, as they say, is history!
Bhitarkanika – literally meaning ‘inside’ the now ancient kingdom of ‘Kanika’ – is located in Odisha (formerly Orissa) on the Bay of Bengal on the East Coast of India. It is a mangrove forest situated in the river delta of the Brahmani and Baitarani rivers. Covering an area of 650 sq. kilometres, it is second in size in India only to the mangroves of the Sunderbans.
In 1975 it was declared a wildlife sanctuary and in 1998 145 sq. kilometres of the core area of the sanctuary was declared as Bhitarkanika National park .
It is home to one of the largest populations of endangered Saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porocus) in India. This is the largest species of crocodile in the world and the largest living reptile on earth. Adults of the species can reach almost 25 feet in length.
But I was here mainly for the birds.
The nearest city by air is Bhubeneshwar from where it is a further 160Km (4 hours) by road to Bhitarkanika.
It so happens that there are no flights from Mumbai that arrived early in the morning and so I flew in on the previous day. Not that I’m complaining as it gave me a chance to do a quick trip to Mangalajodi.
About an hour’s drive from Bhuvneshwar, Mangalajodi is situated on the northern end of Chilika lake whose brackish waters are host to thousands of birds during its peak season. It is also home to the ‘vulnerable’ Irrawaddy dolphin.
This area is crisscrossed by shallow canals and the birding is done on narrow pole driven boats. To say this was a quick trip is an understatement. I reached by 4pm and had only a little over an hour of birding before the light gave out on me.
I did not get to see the dolphins but did get to see a number of bird species including the elusive ruddy-breasted crake, Billon’s crake, black-tailed godwits, ruddy shelduck, northern shoveller, northern pintails, pacific golden plover, white-throated kingfisher, pied kingfisher, small cormorant, yellow bittern, cinnamon bittern, pond heron, bronze-winged jacana, purple heron, asian pied starling, open billed stork, black-winged stints, marsh sandpiper, clamorous reed warbler, common sandpiper and whiskered terns.
Not bad for a little over an hour’s birding I would say!
The next morning, I picked up my son from the airport and drove to Bhitarkanika. Like I said before this was about birds. But this piece would be incomplete if I did not make mention of one of the highlights of the trip.
About an hour out of the city our driver pointed out to a number of roadside stalls. They were lined up edge to edge on both sides of the highway and went on for over a kilometre. The sole product on sale here were rossogollas (a round, spongy, typically walnut-sized Indian sweet that is served in a thick sugary syrup). Looking closely there must have been thousands of the sweets displayed in mouth-watering, seemingly unending piles.
To the neutral observer, the rossogolla is a bengali sweet. Our driver (who was born and brought up in Bhubeneshwar) rubbished the claim stating emphatically that it actually originated in Odisha and was way different -and vastly superior – in taste. He was willing to bet that once we tasted the Oriya version we would never ever go back to their bengali counterparts. In fact he suggested that we stop at an eating-house in Salepur, a village a few kilometres further down the road, that specialised in this particular dish.
We didn’t need a second invitation!
When we finally placed our order, the waiter asked what at the time appeared to be an incredibly stupid question: would we like a small or a large rossogolla. We did get a bit of a shock when he arrived with our tennis-ball sized orders!
Now my son and I are from Maharastra and ancestrally hail from Goa. Both states have no connection whatsoever to either West Bengal or Odisha and so, without any bias, and with our hands on our hearts we are both prepared to swear that the Odisha rossogolla beats the shit out of the Bengali pretender. By far!
And so it was onward to Bhitarkanika.
We were booked into the Sand Pebbles Resort situated just outside the sanctuary. It had twin-sharing, luxury non-AC tents with attached western style washrooms. The accommodation was basic but clean. The staff very polite and helpful and the food was typical indian fare and very, very well prepared. We especially enjoyed the country fowl curry, prawn masala, gajar halwa and of course, the Odisha rossogollas!
The birding is predominantly done in a motor boat. I was offered a private boat with the advantage of having to stop whenever I wished for photography. On the advice of a birder from Bhuveneshar I also got in touch with and hired birding guide Bijaykumar Das who was excellent; not only for spotting and identification but also for guiding the boatman on how to position the boat so as to get the best possible angle for the camera shot.
Incidentally, at Bhitarkanika my son and I took turns with the camera – thankfully I may add as my back was killing me. And so all the images here are an equal mixture of his and mine!
Kingfishers are most active at low tide when the receding water expose tiny creatures on the muddy banks. They are ideally photographed when perched on the branch of a tree that is partially submerged in water. This allows the boat to go incredibly close, often resulting in full frame photo opportunities of these spectacular birds.
The main species to see here are kingfishers.
Of the 12 species of kingfishers found in India 8 can be found in Bhitarkanika. Of these the Brown-winged kingfisher was the one I was after. I must say I was more that satisfied with my sightings of this bird. In fact I’ll admit by the final session we were almost fed up of seeing it!
The other kingfishers that we saw were the black-capped kingfisher, pied kingfisher, white throated kingfisher and common kingfisher.
We missed out on the stork-billed kingfisher and the ruddy kingfisher although I have been fortunate to see and photograph these in Goa and the Andamans respectively.
There were plenty of other birds as well.
Wimbrels dominated the sandy banks and far outnumbered most of the other birds including their look-alike species – Eurasian curlews.
Apart from the kingfishers one other species that was on my bucket list for this trip was the mangrove pitta.
Several articles over the internet (a fact that was later corroborated by Bijay) suggested that February was not the best time to sight them. The best month to see them was April. April is their breeding month and during this period not only do they call regularly increasing the chance of sightings, they are also in breeding plumage and at their colourful best.
Be that as it may, I did get a couple of good sightings of this beautiful bird so I really have no reason to complain!
A large bird walking on the banks turned out to be a juvenile lesser adjuvant stork that is classified as a ‘vulnerable’ species.
Crocodiles abound here. Both on the banks and in the water. Some of them were really large and looked close to touching the 20 foot mark.
Apart from the crocs and the birds other animals seen on the banks were spotted deer, monitor lizards and rhesus monkeys.
In fact the deer were often in alarmingly close proximity to the crocs and I had the camera ready expecting a predator vs prey incident to occur at any moment but it was not to be.
If the crocodiles were the predators on land and water, the sky had its share of raptors as well…
The mosaic below is a collection of some of the other bird images we got while on the boat. You can click on an image for a larger viewing.
Boating down the canals and waterways was a unique experience.
Whenever a bird was spotted the engine was shut off and the boat was allowed to drift slowly towards the subject either on its own momentum or assisted by the current. The adrenaline rush as the subject got closer coupled with the soothing sounds of the jungle unhindered by roar of the engine are to be experienced to be believed.
The video below was taken at dusk while we were returning back to the jetty.
There are a number of jetties along the way that one can get off and explore the surrounding mangroves. One of them is at Dangmal and leads to some forest rest houses within the park about a kilometre away from the water’s edge.
From the jetty to the rest houses is an avenue of palm trees whose trunks are full of holes excavated by goldenback woodpeckers.
Droves of rose-ringed parakeets were everywhere and took full advantage of nesting holes in the tree trunks that had been deserted by woodpeckers.
We saw a number of birds in the heavily wooded area around the Dangmal forest guest houses.
It was here that I got a pair of fulvous-breasted woodpeckers and the grey-headed woodpecker as well as a tiga flycatcher and a green-billed malkoha – all ‘lifers’ for me.
To say that it was a great trip is putting it mildly.
The mangrove forest of Bhitarkanika are unique and, what’s more, they are still relatively untouched. The novelty of being able to explore it by boat and the homely hospitality of the Sand Pebbles Resort made it a trip for the memory banks.
For me, however, the icing on the cake was the fact that I had the company of my son who shared the load by taking many of the images. As my late Dad would say: I ask you in all fairness, who could ask for anything more?!