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Crocs and Kingfishers – Bhitarkanika

“Let’s go to LRK, it will be fun” said Raghu
“Sure, I love the place” I replied

Three weeks later

“Dates for LRK are not doable, thanks to unplanned work that I have no control over” I informed Raghu

A few weeks later while making yet another futile plan, the idea of visiting Mangalajodi and Bhitarkanika came up. These were the places I had long planned on visiting but never got around to visiting them. Raghu took it upon himself to plan all logistics of the trip. That included ground transportation, FRH bookings and finalizing naturalists at both places. Very soon he got back with interesting info about what will be the optimal time to visit. I must say, he did an impeccable job of planning everything out to every minute detail.

A trip to Bhitarkanika was dependent on tidal movements so the dates had to be planned just after full moon. Then there was a matter of hiring a boat, booking FRH as well as accommodation in Mangalajodi. Every detail of the trip (that we could plan from B’lore) was planned to the very last detail by him. I just had to tag along. That’s exactly what I did. We booked 3 nights in Bhitarkanika and 4 nights in Mangalajodi. We were fairly confident that we should be able to soak in both the places in this time span.

An early morning flight from B’lore saw to it that we were in Bhubneshwar by 9:30 am. First order of business was to grab some breakfast before we start for Dangmangal, our base for staying in Bhitarkanika. Ajit, who was driving us to Dangmangal, took care of it. We quickly finished our breakfast and loaded up with some supplies for days to come. Took us about 4 hours (slightly over 4 hours me think) to reach Dangmangal. Quickly finishing our formalities, we settled in our cottage. It was a clean basic cottage with aircon and fan. There was plenty of room in the cottage and couple of charging points. Staff at FRH consisted of local guys from the village and they were quite helpful. Soon it was time for our first boat ride.

Kingdom of kingfishers

A long walk through FRH campus bought us to the jetty, where our boat was waiting. It was a largish motored boat, with some cushions arranged on the top of the cabin. Plenty of space for 2-3 photographers. However, I did not think shooting with a tripod on top of the boat would be a great experience. One thing to keep in mind is that water is not still, so you will end up with a moving platform. Also, tripod will lead to one missing the grab shots of the subjects that are constantly moving about. A long boat ride into the creeks ended up with us getting an audience with the king of Bhitarkanika, the brown-winged kingfisher. Seeing this KF in real life was way different than seeing images on the computer. The orange(ish) body with brown wings would charm you such that you will almost fail to take note of the charming blue patch on it’s back. Only when it takes off from the perch, you will notice a brown and blue streak passing by. The reason I am calling BWKF as king is that it truly rules the mangroves. With it’s large size and relaxes posture, it will be the invariably the most frequently encountered KF for you while traversing those creeks.

The other, comparatively shy KF we saw was black-capped kingfisher. I had missed making images of this fellow while boating with Kamath uncle in Goa (Zuari river). In Bhitarkanika this guy was a lot more approachable. We got to make a few decent images although it would not let us approach as close as brown-winged kingfisher. It was during one of the sighting of the black capped kingfisher, we heard a cackling laugh. Lo and behold, there was yet another type of KF on the opposite side of the bank. The stork-billed kingfisher. You end up hearing the stork-billed more often than seeing it in Bhitarkanika. Even the one we saw was constantly being chased off by a black-capped kingfisher. However the laughter of this bird would be something that I could recognize very early in the morning. We encountered the stork-billed kingfisher a couple of times, but unfortunately did not get a chance to make images that would do justice to this beauty. I think this is why I would have to go back there.

 

One of the most sought after kingfisher is the collared kingfisher. We saw this one twice during our three night stay, but generally away from the activities of other kingfishers. The iridescent bluish green color of this mid-sized kingfisher is something to admire in good light. Both the times we found this guy, it was always sitting on the low hanging branches and in shade. However, the reflecting light from the water below was good source of diffused light there.

To emphasize on the kingfisher numbers in Bhitarkanika, in each morning session, we were able to see at least 4 types of kingfishers if not more. We did have a couple of brief encounter with Collared and Storkbilled KF during one such morning. Also we saw pied, white breasted and common kingfishers regularly. In fact, common kingfisher still remains my favorite bird without me having a a decent frame of it says a lot about my shooting prowess. Anyhow, I will mention a few challenges of photographing in Bhitarkanika in a little while.

 

 

It’s not only the kingfishers that will keep you on a lookout, we found whimbrels, sandpipers, red and green  shanks,  herons, pacific golden plovers to keep us busy. Besides plovers, we came across four raptors i.e. booted eagle, white bellied sea eagle, Short toed snake eagle and peregrine falcon. We also encountered (kind of, sort of.. more heard than seen) with Chestnut Caped Babbler. Unfortunately this beautiful but shy skulker did not trust us enough to give us good views.

 

 

I almost forgot the crocs. Those huge, saltwater crocodiles. Pppfff.. They are a treat to watch out there. While we encountered many yearlings, juveniles and sub-adults, we also had a few sightings of those giants that Bhitarkanika is famed for. These per-historic looking reptiles come out to bask in sunlight and can be seen everywhere on the mudflats. Some of the adults we saw could easily have been over 12-15 feet. This is not a creek you will fancy a skinny dip in I assure you. Not while Kalia (largest salt water croc in the world, apparently weighing close to 2 tons) is looking for snacks. Despite the thriving croc population, the news of human animal conflicts are not common. Our boatman did not recall any such incident from his memory.

One disappointment I had was with food. Considering proximity to the sea, I was expecting some awesome variety of seafood. What I ended up was with Rohu fish for all meals. It can get monotonous after the first few times. Towards the end of the trip, my body was craving for a simple McChicken. Apparently good ol’ Mc is yet to make a debut out there. However this was a minor gripe and does not take away anything from the visit. I would visit this place again in a heartbeat. One the fourth day, Raghu and I bid our goodbye to Bhitarkanika and started our long journey to Mangalajodi. More on that in next part.

Now the challenges:

1. Shooting from a boat is not as easy as shooting from a jeep. Boats does not have breaks or maneuverability like a ground vehicle. Shooting with a tripod is perilous as you may end up dropping your equipment in the above mentioned creek. That is not to say that you can not use tripod, you can use one with extreme caution.
2. Mangrove forest around the creek is dense. So you will need to align your shots and boats in a way that you get you desired background. Not all boats and boatmen are equal and most are not used to photographers. You will have to interact a lot with them to ensure they understand your needs. There is a language barrier that you will have to overcome. If you know hindi, oriya or bangla you can get by relatively easily.
3. While the mornings in the creeks are very pleasant, it gets very hot once the sun is up. I was seriously tanned (never knew that was possible) and probably sunburned.
4. You boat rides are dependent on tides. Too much water and you will see no activity at all. Too little water and you will not be able to go to a lot of areas.
5. Handholding your camera setup for extended period will take a toll on your body. You have been warned.

Tips:
1. March-April are breeding time for the elusive mangrove pitta. During this period, this bird is very active and vocal, making it easy to spot.
2. Morning boat rides are much more productive than the evening rides in general.
3. You should not miss out the prawns masala while you are there. Dear vegetarians, you will never know what you missed.
4. You should safe offline maps for Bhitarkanika. Internet service will taper off once you are off the highway. Airtel had very spotty service, which was fine by me.
5. It takes about 4-5 hours to reach Dangamala by road. You can also stop your car at Khola creek and take a boat from there. There are no boats available from Dangamala. You either hire a boat from Khola or from Gupti.

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