A bollywood story
The story of Mangalajodi is straight out of a movie – the bad guys have a change of heart. 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 Chilika, India’s largest lagoon and sell them to people nearby to keep as pets or simply use as food (shudder). Then, in the early 2000s , a good Samaritan and conservationist started advising this band of poachers the on the possible downsides of the dwindling bird population. So, under the aegis of Sri Sri Mahavir Pakshi Surakshya Samiti ( lit : Sri Sri Mahavir bird protection council), a registered Not for profit organization, the poachers of Mangalajodi turned to 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 at 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 remote geographical position (its surrounded on one side by small hills and about 6 kms off the National Highway 5 – approximately 1000 kilometers south west of Calcutta) 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 – the site of the Sun Temple- 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 head-start 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 these small fishing boats were moored.
I had walked for a kilometer perhaps on this red gravel path below – if you squint, you may see my borrowed car. On either side are the reeds, water hyacinth and algae that hide and support the birds.
Sadhu didnt rush me to ride a boat – instead we spent almost an hour walking around the trail and an introduction (for my sake) to many species. I’m not a birder so this part helped and any of the experts who visit this blog please do add the correct names. Here we saw a snipe (below) – I was told this is a painted snipe but later, I understand this is most likely a swinhoe’s snipe (or could be pintail).
And a pair of beautiful brahminy ducks (ruddy shelduck) – these lovely creatures were to totally grab my attention for next couple hours. I believe these birds winter in India from their home in central asia.
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 ….
I understood from Sadhu that the birds have identified this as a safe spot and are somewhat used to human presence now. Even then, they are cautious and if we got any closer than about ten feet, they’d fly away. They certainly are very sensitive to sound as our nearly silent boat – 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 scare this pair of brahminys ….
Mercifully the sun came out giving me some better lit shots such as this open billed stork at closer quarters.
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 think is a sandpiper…)
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 …
By now, it was almost 10 am and the previous night’s erratic sleep, the drive and the early morning had all left me somewhat tired – the 3 hour guided tour window was over as well. Hence I politely declined the offer to do another 3 hour tour with the guide and we headed back for the trail. 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 center 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 second option is to stay in Ecotourism huts – but there are only two of those. Last option is to stay in Balugaon or Barkul but then you 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’ !
I wrote 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). I wrote this post on a blog i used to have, but abandoned it. This is a substantially rewritten account.
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’ ….. and that made me smile too.
[This is not a new post, but the tale of Manglajodi is so heartwarming, that I’ve linked it today to the daily prompt Sanctuary]