The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land. - G K Chesterton
That morning we were visited by two of Durgesh’s friends from Bhubaneswar presently working out of Odisha. They stayed for lunch and during this time we planned to make a quick trip to Mangalajodi in the afternoon. After having a quick lunch of rice, chicken-egg curry & cucumber-onion-yoghurt salad we started from our place by 2 pm.
Mangalajodi is a birders paradise located an hour & half away from Bhubaneswar on the north western side of the famous Chilika Lake in Odisha. Once an active area for bird poaching, it’s now a community run setting to conserve the birds where the once bird-poachers have turned into bird-protectors. They now engage themselves in guiding and ferrying tourists on the boats across the wetlands of Mangalajodi. Essentially a fishing village where many families depend on the day’s catch, the villagers have an added source of income now. This has become possible thanks to tourism initiatives taken by the state and local wildlife authorities. Increase in ecotourism also ensures reduction in over exploitation and unsupervised fishing activities.
We reached the wetlands by 3.30 pm and after crossing the Mangalajodi village drove through the single road which leads to the jetty. On both sides are the wetlands which are formed by draining of rivers into the nearby Chilika Lake. Birds are found in large numbers in these wetlands and one can hire boats with guides to journey through this wetland. You can also choose to walk on the narrow embankment which connects the bird watching towers for a peaceful sighting of birds as well as the landscape.
After parking our car near the watchtower, we met our friend Madhu Behera. An ex-poacher turned bird guide, he now manages some boats & guides in the area. He sent us with his friend as guide for the afternoon excursion. Armed with our hats, binoculars and cameras we got on to the boat and began to move through the wetlands of Mangalajodi. The winter sun was soothing, while the breeze was calm. Air was filled with the smell of fishing activities and the birds feeding in the channels. Our boat followed a water channel with a wide variety of aquatic vegetation stretched on both sides of the boat, from afar I saw a flock of Purple Swamphens feeding in the wetland. Within a few minutes, I spotted my first bird near the boat, standing still in the water, probably waiting for its prey. Its legs were so thin; it almost looked like it was standing on a stick, resembling some sort of yoga asana. After checking with Durgesh, I got to know that it was a Black winged Stilt.
The further we went into the Mangalajodi wetlands, more and more bird species began to appear. Swamp hens, Little Egrets, Cattle Egrets, Indian Pond Heron, Great Egret, Whiskered Terns and Black tailed Godwits were dotted all around the wetland and among them I spotted one tall Purple Heron. It’s distinctly long neck stood out from the rest of the bird crowd. As the boat moved forward I spotted a lone duck with a chocolate brown head and white body. It was a Northern Pintail male! It is a migratory duck from Central Asia and Siberia which travelled this far to escape the harsh winters. Chilika Lake is one of the important wintering grounds for a lot birds and Mangalajodi gets a good share of these winged-visitors during the winter months.
Our boatman & guide were quite good in spotting & identifying the birds around the place. While Durgesh was clicking away pictures, the guide helped me spot many birds and shared stories of his experience with them. I had with me a field guide but I did not feel the need to take it out; the scenario was too fast for me to check & remember the species. In these ever changing surroundings the presence of a guide is invaluable. After a few minutes we came across a patch where two Ruddy Shelducks were sitting near the water. As the boat approached they flew away making loud noises. Later on I also spotted Little Cormorants and Bronze winged Jacanas. It was lovely to see a White throated Kingfisher perched on a bamboo pole and waiting for its prey.
As the sun began to set, the birds were less bothered when we approached towards them. They were also enjoying the last hour of daylight as much as we were enjoying watching them doing so. This was evident when our boat began moving through a channel and just a few paces ahead a flock of Purple Swamphens did not even took notice of us. Our boat moved along and came across a group of Pintails and Shovellers wading through the channel. Actions of the birds were clearly signaling the end of another day. I loved it when flocks of Ruddy Shelducks flew away above the water reflecting the setting sun in its surface. On the way back, I spotted a Pied Kingfisher sitting on a bamboo pole next to a Black Drongo sitting on another pole.
This afternoon spent at Mangalajodi went beyond my expectations. It was such a rewarding experience and left me wanting to return here once again, which I did back in the month of January 2020. Though my second visit was for a brief walk and not a boat ride, I still want to do an early morning birding trip to the wetlands of Mangalajodi.
After getting off the boat, we had tea at a local shop. A fisherman was selling his fresh catch of the day near the tea-stall. He was also selling fried Kou (Anabas or Climbing Perch) fish. Tempted, we decided to taste it. This made for an unusual evening snack on a very unusual yet satisfying day.
We then decided to leave the place to return to Bhubaneswar but via Chilika Dhaba to have an early dinner. Thinking it would have been a sin not to enjoy a meal at the famous Dhaba after coming this far. The closure of an overall good day came with our stomachs full of delicious Crab Masala and Prawn Chilly enjoyed with flaky Butter Naan. The experience was made special by our enthusiastic server at the restaurant.
With a happy tummy and happy mind we bid adieu to another day of our lives only to fondly remember in times like these.