Bhubaneswar: The soft gurgle of water as boatman’s oar rips through the water blends smoothly with cheep and shriek of migratory birds that descended on the vast expanse of blue water of Chilika early November.
Over the years, the brackish water lagoon spread over Puri, Khurda and Ganjam districts of Odisha has turned into a safe haven for these birds, which fly down from Siberia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan for the winter sojourn. The marshy wetlands interspersed with reeds and vegetation along with water channels provide food and shelter to these waterfowls and raptors till the end of March when they began their homeward journey.
The largest wintering ground for migratory water-birds anywhere in the Indian sub-continent, Chilika hosted 9.47 lakh birds of 176 species the last season. The enumerators during the bird census in January too had spotted a few new species. The number was 4.6 lakh birds of 161 species in 2016.
Notable places for bird watchers
While Magalajodi remains a birth watcher’s paradise that has witnessed several community-based initiatives in the past, Birds Island and Nalabana Bird Sanctuary also feed and roost a large variety of migratory birds in winter. Watching the birds in their natural habitat against the backdrop of the smudgy orange glow of the setting sun and gentle splash of water is nothing but sheer magic.
Mangalajodi: Tucked away in the northern fringe of Chilika Lake in Khurda district, this little hamlet harbours rich wetlands. The November witnesses a surge in winged activities with flocks of birds circling the skies over Malgaljodi. Lakhs of ruffs, godwits, plovers, sandpipers and migratory ducks gradually fill up the wetlands. The chirping of the birds only grows louder with every passing day. The nature trail running parallel to the main water channel terminates at a watch tower, from where one can spot the avian species.
How to reach
By Road: It is 67 km from Bhubaneswar and 72 km from Puri. Visitors can get off at Chandpur, Tangi, and take an auto to Mangalajodi. Alternately, you can hire a taxi from Bhubaneswar. Buses regularly ply from Bhubaneswar to Tangi.
Where to stay
Ecotourism projects are being run here. You can stay in any of the rustic comfortable cottages and dormitories. They also offer packages that include stay, meals and guided boating.
Nalabana Island: It is the core area of Ramsar designated wetlands of Chilika Lake and was declared a bird sanctuary in 1987. During monsoon, the entire island remains submerged under water with only few tree tops and watch tower visible to eyes. It gradually emerges with the outset of summer. It covers about 16 sq km in the lagoon area and the core area of about 9 sq km attracts around 400,000 waterfowls of different species. From a distance, the whole area appears to have been strewn with feathers. Visitors are prohibited from alighting on the island.
Birds Island: Resident and migratory birds perch on the island in large numbers. Situated in the vicinity of East Ghantasila Hill in the southern sector of Chilika Lake, it has huge exposed hanging rocks, painted white due to folic acid of the droppings of the birds. The island is accessible from Rambha. There has a vast reserve of rare herbs, trees, creepers and shrubs.
How to reach
Nalabana Bird Sanctuary and Birds Island are a two-hour drive from Bhubaneswar. Balugaon railway station is located at a distance of 12 kilometers from there. Other nearby railway stations includes Kalupara Ghat and Khallikote railway stations both less than 25 kilometres away.
Where to stay
The accommodation options here are on the shore of the lagoon. Most of these, Panthanivas, are run by the Odisha Tourism Development Corporation.
Best time to visit these places
Ideally, one should visit these places between November and February. Mid-December to end-January sees the largest congregation of birds. The wetlands are closed to visitors for two days in the first or second week of January for the Forest Department’s annual waterfowl census.
Chilika is known for its seafood – prawns, crabs, pomfret and lobsters. These are cooked in Odia style with gravy and plenty of masala. There are dhabas and small restaurants in and around Balugaon. All the Panthanivas hotels serve these delicacies.
The best guides were once poachers
Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon was a murky bird poacher’s den until 20 years ago. The turnaround was momentous. Most villagers, living along its banks, engaged in poaching and mercilessly killed these avian species every year, through nets, traps, guns and poisoning. The meat of the birds was much in demand in local dhabas and in the cities. An initiative of involving people in the mission to save these birds by a few wildlife enthusiasts and bird watchers brought about a change in the mindset of the poachers, many of whom eventually became protectors. The most feared poachers are now the best bird guides.
They are part of Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti, a bird protection committee formed in December 2000, and being supported by wildlife, tourism, developmental and government groups to organise birding trips, protect these birds and promote eco tourism.
Today, the lake and its reed islands teem with nesting birds-white bellied sea eagles, ospreys, golden plovers, sand pipers, flamingos, pelicans, shovellers, gulls, include the migratory ones flying great distances from Iran, Central Asia and Siberia.