Birders often have their eccentric wish lists before they set off on a pursuit. Some may want to see a peregrine falcon hunt, some may want to chance upon their favourite—and hitherto jinxed—warbler. Others may wish to see that ever-elusive Himalayan wood owl. I had mine as well. I wanted to see a Pacific golden plover in the golden light. It was with this desire that I found myself on a boat one evening, exploring the languid waters of Mangalajodi this February.
My journey through this freshwater wetland, situated to the north of Odisha’s Chilika lagoon, the largest brackish water lagoon in Asia, started when I stepped on a boat rowed by a local. Long, slender and made of wood, this is the kind of boat I’d believe to be a thing of the past. And yet there I was, perched on its partitioned body, waiting to explore the treasures of marshland wildlife. Roughly a 1.5-hour drive from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, the Mangalajodi wetland hosts a stunning diversity of birds—native and migratory—almost 230 species.
In my quest I wasn’t alone. Along with my friends and our boatman, I was accompanied by a guide, also a local from the neighbouring village. It was amazing how much they knew about the birds and their nuances, about the features that separate one species from another. As we steered as close to the birds as possible, slinking up without alarming them, the locals, with their alert vision and hearing, ensured that we did not miss out on any bird that crossed our path.
You would know what I’m talking about if you have had the good fortune to cruise through a calm water body. Gliding through the shallow waters of Mangalajodi is a joy in itself. There is a pleasant silence, broken only by the oars sploshing under us, and the call of birds. Add to that the evening sun, slowly slipping down the horizon, bathing the marsh water and the birds in its warm, golden rays. The iridescent hour seemed to me to be the perfect time to be in the company of the birds. My senses were already sharpened by the quietude, when the boatman stopped rowing to point at a group of waders and ducks nearby. While some of them took off in unison almost immediately, crowding the skies, others stayed put, foraging or resting. The northern pintails, northern shovelers, garganays, and ruddy shelducks maintained a respectable distance, while smaller waders such as the little stints, bar-tailed godwits, ruffs and sandpipers allowed us intimate sightings, often to the point where we were worried about the boat knocking them over. But fret not, the good boatman of Mangalajodi saw to it that this never happened.
For us, one of the highlights was seeing the ruff—a migratory wader that breeds in far north Europe and Siberia—in its breeding plumage. While the bird sports a greyish-brown colouration in winter, it undergoes a complete makeover during its breeding season in summer, with fluffy white and reddish brown feathers replacing its usual jacket. The boatman had us covered when we wanted more stories. A frenzied flock of ducks and waders taking off in a rush, he said, can mean only one thing—a raptor (bird of prey) is on the prowl. The harsh harrier, a migratory raptor, follows ducks in its quest for food and swoops down on any bird unfortunate enough to be singled out from the flock.
Mangalajodi, however, is not just about the migrant avians. Winters provide a chance for some enviable sightings of the skulkers—a birding term for birds that largely remain within vegetation, and hence are difficult to spot. Visiting in the month of February, we knew we stood a fair chance of sighting some of the residents, who usually come out in the open for food and sunlight. And right we were, for among the typha grassbeds, we found lurking ruddy-breasted crakes, the yellow bittern, the greater painted snipes as well as the slaty-breasted rail, just 10 metres from the boat. Having gone bird-watching in several parts of the country, I must confess that never have I seen these birds with such ease, or at such close proximity—luxuries that most birdwatchers would be envious of.
Back from the boat ride, I headed to a small tea stall by the road for a steaming cup of chai, marble cake and chingudi bhaja (fried prawns). The owner, a local fluent in Bengali, Hindi and Tamil, made for interesting company. We chatted about how locals who once relied heavily on poaching for sustenance are now protecting the birds. The fame of the wetland as a birding destination has opened up new livelihoods for them. So now they take tourists out on their boats, help them identify birds, and even rustle up delicacies for the ones who put up in the local eco-cottages. The future, one might hope, will be promising for both the birds and the birders.
And in case you were wondering, I did see my Pacific golden plover in the golden light.
Mangalajodi is 70 kn/1.5 hr southwest of Bhubaneshwar, off NH-5. Khudra Road Railway Station (50 km/1 hr) is the nearest convenient railhead to Mangalajodi. Buses ply from Bhubaneshwar to Chandpur Tangi, the nearest well-known settlement. One can take an auto-rickshaw from Chandpur Tangi to Mangalajodi. Bhubaneshwar is well connected by rail and air to major Indian cities. Boat charge for a 3 hr-ride is Rs850, with the guide charging an additional Rs250 (guide Madhu Behera and boatman Hajary, 96921 22456, 97775 53283).
Sutirtha Lahiri is a Master’s student at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. He is always in search of birds and birdsong, good food, a cup of tea, and a reason to ditch transport for long walks.