The beauty of Chilika is beyond an artist's brush and a poet's pen. There have been many poets, artists, musicians and nature lovers from all across the globe who have been mesmerized by the exotic beauty of this lagoon. Not only the homo-sapiens but also the waves and dolphins who have crossed miles to experience the ecstatic presence of this mighty gorgeous water body.
One Friday afternoon, right in-front of a laptop in Bangalore, around thousand kilometers south of Chilika, I found an advertisement about Chilika Birding Festival from 27th to 28th January, 2019, organized by Odisha Tourism Department. That really caught my attention as I had started birding quite recently then and it was a chance to discover the bird's paradise in the winter, when there are thousands of migratory birds in the largest lagoon of Asia. With no questions asked to my mind, I took the leave approval from my reporting authority and booked the tickets to Bhubaneswar.
Based on the hydrological characteristics, Chilika is divided into four sectors. They are : Northern Sector, Southern Sector, Central Sector and the Outer Channel Sector. All these sectors are accessible from Bhubaneswar by road and some through rail too. The roads in Odisha are excellent and the distance from Bhubaneswar to any of the gateway towns to Chilika can be reached within an hour. Since I was a delegate in the Chilika Bird Watching Festival, all my travelling and accommodation facilities were taken care by Odisha Tourism Department.
My alarm quaked at 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning (27th Jan, 2019) and I rushed to prepare myself for the long journey on the water. On a cold Bhubaneswar morning in the last week of January, we had to report at Panthanivas (Odisha Tourism Hotel) at 5:30 a.m. I had a feeling that I would be among the first few to reach the reporting point and to my embarrassment, it was the other way round. After standing in a queue to collect the delegate goodies, I had to rush to my allocated bus. As a sign of early morning delight, we were provided with some really good breakfast packets along with a bottle of water. The journey started right on time at 6 a.m. and we were heading towards Managalajodi, situated in the Northern sector of Chilika. It took us around forty five minutes to reach at our destination and the scenic beauty of the small village was refreshing. There was a small inaugural function and we had few sessions wherein we learnt about the ecological importance of Chilika along with various associated topics. The sessions were followed up by a delicious Odia style lunch with a lot of fish, prawns and local delights.
As the tummy was filled, the energy was high and the delegates could not wait for longer but to navigate onto the pristine waters of Chilika in Managalajodi. The boatmen were ready and the time was perfect for some great birding experience. There are no motor boats in Managalajodi in order to maintain the serenity and the tranquility of nature which the birds love. Oh God! Some really gorgeous waves and I had to switch repeatedly between my binoculars and camera. It was for the first time where I could witness those rare birds from such a close distance. I was shocked by the knowledge of those boatmen, who could identify almost all the birds and got even more surprised when I heard that the boatmen were previously engaged in poaching activities. A nice story which I keep on telling to my friends in Bangalore is the way community managed Eco-tourism in Managalajodi has turned poachers into conservationists. There were few delegates from outside India who have documented the course of events that brought a change in the minds of the people in Mangalajodi and their present eco-friendly attitude is phenomenal to notice.
The list of birds is quite long but there are few threatened and vulnerable birds which are found in Mangalajodi and I am mentioning those names here. They are: Oriental Darter, White Ibis, Ferruginous Pochard, Black tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Great Knot, Indian Skimmer, Common Shellduck and Sanderling. From our guide, I found that there are around two lac waterbirds, over seventy two species , which are present in Mangalajodi. It is a Ramsar site of international importance located in the Northern sector of Chilika.
After a long day and a classic sunset in Chilika, my bus headed towards Barkul Panthanivas (Odisha Tourism Hotel), near Balugaon (a business town). The rooms were spacious; I parked my bags and rushed towards the restaurant for a cup of tea. Odisha tourism department made it more special by arranging some evening snacks which was an icing on the cake for my hungry tummy. Over the tea and snacks, we networked with nature lovers, photographers, bloggers and conservationists from across India and abroad. Such occasions are always special but rare. Not so long after the evening tea party, we had a sumptuous dinner feast with many Odia delicacies. The arrangements were so good that we felt it was always beyond our expectation since the morning.
Soon after the dinner, I rushed to my room and had a beautiful time with my bed. Some good sleep enabled me to get up early in the next morning and be ready for our journey to Nalabana Wildlife Sanctuary. From Barkul, we made ourselves comfortable in the boat and it was roughly an hour journey on the water of Chilika. I had researched that Nalabana witnesses close to 4 lac birds annually and is open for public visits only during the Chilika Bird Festival. The extended mudflat was adorned by hundreds of Flamingos, Painted Storks, waders and many more. It is a paradise for photographers and bird watchers and we spent huge amount of time in and around the mudflats. It was a delight to have a glimpse of the birds from the Chilika Bird Protection Watch Towers through telescopes. The intricacy was redefined by next level of minute observations through high power gadgets.
With a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment, we returned to our boats towards our base at Barkul. On our way back, we were astonished and filled with joy to watch the dives of Irrawady dolphins. This took our journey to another stage and the dolphins were kind enough to do this in the last part of the two day long fest. It was a treat to our eyes to see so many dolphins diving high and low near our boats.
As they say, all journeys come to an end, but this proved to be an initiation within me to move more towards birding and wildlife. The great portrayal of community management to the several stories of conservation, my journey was filled with tales and memories to cherish. I would appeal to all the readers to book their calendar every year on 27th and 28th of January for the Chilika Bird Festival and enjoy the great hospitality of Odisha Tourism.
By Anshumaan Mohapatra
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