Birding in Chilika Lagoon | Weekend Destination near kolkata | Travel Guide

Birding in Chilika Lagoon | Weekend Destination near kolkata | Travel Guide

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder….

Somebody rightly said so. Beauty of certain moments are realized after it gets framed. I got a small chance to frame some beautiful moments in this exciting lagoon which otherwise goes unnoticed.

This trip was not planned. I had gone to visit Puri, Orissa, India along with my wife, parents and in-laws for 3 days to complete some rituals. It was early November 2016 & winter was starting to set in. After completing the necessary ritual on the first day itself, I was left with 2 days straight to plan some short trips in and around Puri. Ironically, I had already visited the place 9 times & there were very few options where I had not ventured to, except Chilika Lagoon.

Wildlife lover | nature enthusiast | destination already known to be a birding hotspot | approaching winter – conditions perfectly lined up to make my decision easier. We planned to start early the next morning & leave for Chilika. Before going into the details of my trip I would like to share some facts about the whereabouts of the place.

About

The Chilika lagoon is an almost pear shaped water body in the eastern coast of India with the Bay of Bengal to its east, rocky hills of the eastern ghats to its west & south and the Mahanadi delta to its north. It has only one opening to the Bay of Bengal which is famously known as the “Sea Mouth”.

CHILIKA MAP
CHILIKA MAP 1

The adjoining map will give you an idea about its orientation. It is more than 60km long with the width varying from 18 to 5 km across its various points. The region is divided into mainly three ranges – Satapada ( to the eastern coast), Rambha ( to the south side) and Barkul in the western part. Each of these places have Panthanivas hotels run by the tourism department of Orissa.

Satapada serves as the entry point to the lagoon on the eastern side and is the nearest to the point where the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin can be spotted. These species live across various points in the lake but the largest concentration is said to be found near Satapada. Approximately near to 100 dolphins are estimated to reside in this lake.

Chilika is best explored in boats / ferries which are available at various points of the lake.

As on Nov 2016,  the boats were charging Rs.1720.00 per boat which allows 6 persons max & for an average 4 hr trip across the tourist attraction points. The rate was communicated to us by the boat association at Dolphin Ferry point ( highlighted in red box as in the second map ) & mentioned that it was according to the rule of the Government. This point is about 7 kms before Satapada boat riding point. From Satapada range the tourist attraction points mainly include Dolphin site, Sea mouth, Crab watching island, Nalabana Bird Sanctuary.

CHILIKA MAP 2
CHILIKA MAP 2 – Ferry trip route – Satapada range

It was strange to notice that even in mid November the boats were not allowed to the Nalabana Bird Sanctuary as communicated by the association here. The reason sighted was that it would be disturbing for the migratory birds who had just started to come in. A reasonable justification nonetheless. The bird sanctuary would be accessible only in Dec & Jan. This was disheartening for me as the island named Indraprasth Island a.k.a Nalabana Bird Sanctuary has been declared a Bird Sanctuary under the Wildlife Protection Act, hence it a the birding hotspot from the area.

The second map gives in details about the route we followed from the Dolphin Ferry point as highlighted in red.

POINT TO BE NOTED: If you are exclusively going on a bird watching trip it is important to get the right boatman for the journey. Usually the boats at Dolphin Ferry point have little experience on birding & therefore it can turn out to be frustrating for you at times. They are more interested in covering all the points within the stipulated time & tends to avoid even if you instruct them to halt at one place for sometime. Hence it is mandatory to make your intentions very clear to the boatman before riding the boat or else you might end up with some disturbing memories of this beautiful place.

How to reach Satapada

Puri is the nearest Railway Station about 50kms away from Satapada entry point of Chilika. The rail station is well connected to other metro cities as it is a tourist place. It is an 1 & 1/2 hrs drive from Puri. Buses also ply on this route from Puri bus stand. The road name is Brahmagiri road which is in pretty good shape & well maintained as on Nov 2016. Taxi fare to Chilika is around 1200.00 on to & fro basis. The trip from Puri starts at 7 am usually and ends around 5pm at Puri.

OTDC ( Orissa Tourism Development Corporation) also conducts package tours to Chilika which covers various points of the lake. The OTDC offices are widely present in Puri, Bhubaneswar, Chilika.

Nearest Airport is at Bhubaneswar which is around 110 kms away. busses & cars connect Bhubaneswar to the other side of Chilika i.e. Barkul & Rambha.

Journey begins…

I do not recall the name of the boatman, don’t want to either. The only thing I remember about him was that I found him sleeping in a standing posture holding the rudder of the boat when I was pointing towards a flock of gulls & instructing him to go towards it. Yes, it was really humorous at times but unfortunately the event repeated too many times. We started of from the Dolphin Ferry point & sailed through the inner parts of the lake to open up into vast expanses of the lagoon. After about half an hour’s journey the sight that caught my attention gives a small glimpse of what Chilika has to offer. From a distance it appeared to be a silver line in the middle of the water body. A flock of gulls namely Brown -headed & Black – headed were sitting on one of the deltas amid the lagoon.

The Silver lining of Chilika

I had to get closer & get some good shots of these beautiful birds. I had only 3 minutes to brief my boatman about the basics of birding which included not to make noise, moving in slowly without distracting them & to finally maintain a steady distance to not scare them away. It did pay off to a certain extent. Both the gulls are winter visitors to the coasts of India. A different perspective of the flock is shown below. It also presents a typical landscape of Chilika wherein we can find domestic buffaloes grazing on the deltas during low tides & during high tides it looks as if the buffaloes are swimming in vast expanses of water. The actual depth in these areas varies from 1 ft to about 4 ft in general. Deeper inside the lagoon there is considerable depth of water.

Chilikan Landscape

I was lucky to get a close shot of the avian beauties. In one of the frames, I was able to get a clear view of the two types of Gulls. It was as if the two were having a conversation between them. A perfect picture to highlight the differences between a black-headed & brown-headed gull.

The Conversation
black-headed & brown-headed gull
Black-headed & brown-headed gull 

The bird on the right of the picture is a brown – headed Gull. The identification features are as follows:-

  • For a black-headed gull, Iris remains dark at all stages be it juvenile or adult. while in case of brown-headed gull, Iris color varies with age, juveniles show dark iris, nearing adulthood starts showing pale iris and adults have brighter pale yellow iris.
  • Brown-headed gulls are slightly larger in size compared to Black-headed gulls.
  • The black – headed gull on the left of the pictures displays non breeding & 1st winter plumage while the brown-headed gull is in non breeding plumage only.
Caspian Tern
Caspian Tern

Then came the turn of the lone member in the flock. It was sitting quietly among the gulls & had nicely blended in before I could spot & click the beauty – Caspian Tern it was in non breeding plumage.

This species mainly is found to be breeding in Gujarat, Pakistan & srilanka while during winters they are widespread visitors mainly to the coastal mudflats, tidal creeks, lagoons of India with high concentration in south, south-east India, Gujarat coast & coastal West Bengal, Orissa and with slight presence along western coasts.

Pollution has taken its toll even in this lagoon. Although its well maintained & I could hardly see any disturbing sights, still its upto us, the  tourists to not throw away plastics into the lake after enjoying some snacks. In the picture one can see plastic packets being washed up on the delta. The larger birds sometimes mistake these pollutants as food & consume them resulting in catastrophic results.

After getting a series of satisfying shots, we were perhaps a bit too closer to disturb the comfort level of the avian beauties. They flew away suddenly & sat on another delta which was more interior into the lagoon but not before presenting a wonderful view of their flight.

Lesser Sand Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
The Hide & Seek…

Further ahead on our journey, I could spot some brisk movements along one of the deltas. A winter commoner from the area – Lesser Sand Plover was hovering around in flock of 5 – 6 numbers. They usually breed in the northern Himalayas. The elevated delta helped me with some eye-level shots. Of course, there is nothing better in comparison if you can capture the flight of any bird.

 

 

Great Egret
Great Egret

Our next destination was going to be the Dolphin point where the probability of sighting the illusive Irrawaddy Dolphin is pretty high. On the way to the point, we went across various stretches of the lake where we could find fishing activity to take place & sections of lake being partitioned by bamboo & nets. It presented a beautiful pattern in itself & even more adventurous to pass through them. On one such instance I found a commoner – Great Egret, sitting inside the maze of bamboo & nets presenting a wonderful sight.

It was approaching noon and we were about to reach the point where the Dolphins dwell. From a considerable distance I could see a tourist boat like ours make a sharp turn and move in another direction. The indication was clear to us, they must have spotted something interesting. In the middle of this vast lake it could be only one thing – the Dolphin.

Fortunately, our boatman picked up the signal early & started moving at a higher pace towards the direction. This was not my first sighting of the dolphin as I had previously seen them back at the Sunderbans in West Bengal, India. The sightings at Sunderbans were not very clear as the dolphins would give short appearances above the water & we could only click the fins & tails. But here, I was about to experience a whole new level of the sighting. Upon approaching nearer to the dolphins, we saw their full length & were in heard of 4 to 5 together. I helped myself with some clicks.

After enjoying the Dolphin sightings, we moved to a spot called Sea Mouth where the Lake meets the ocean. We treated ourselves to some delicious instant made prawn dishes. The locals from the area come down to this place & sell their fishes or cook some recipies which you can enjoy on the spot. After spending close to an hour on the island, we started to head back. In the return journey, we could spot some intense raptor activity. From a distance I could see a sight which in itself is a delight to watch, specially in late afternoon time. White-bellied sea eagle perching on bamboo top & then taking off in a majestic way…

Brahminy Kite
Brahminy Kite

Honestly speaking its a playground for the birds of prey. I could find both Brahminy Kite & Black kite hovering around fishing nets & in open expanses of the lake. In one such moment, I was able to capture a Brahminy kite having a delicious feast out of its prey while still in the air.

These followed with some Cormorant, Black-winged stilt, cotton pigmy goose, Eurasian curlew & kingfisher sightings.

It was nearing the flag end of the day & it was around 3pm. We were heading back. The gulls were still there on that small delta, flying from one place to the other. I wished I could stay back another day & enjoy these beauties again next morning but time has its own constraints. I could only visualise their beauty & frame it forever. Surely, next time around I will plan a more extensive tour targeting the more elusive parts of the lake – the places which still pulls me like a magnet towards it.

I am a photgrapher by passion & strongly believe that a picture can tell a thousand words. Its a story in itself.

Hope you liked the stories/ pictures.

 

My previous Blog :-

The Himalayan Monal Saga …. a Blog on viewing the most colourful bird of the Himalayas.

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