A heronry in Danapur

The Family and I were new birdwatchers a decade back when we visited Patna one October. We were told that just east of the city, in a place called Danapur, one can see trees full of birds. Just the previous year The Family had bought a field guide to birds by Salim Ali, and I had bought my first digital camera. We drove out along the Khagaul-Danapur road, turned right near the Ganges, and almost immediately saw several trees full of storks. Today we know that such a group of trees is called a heronry. Year after year, generation after generation, herons and storks will come back to their heronry to breed.

Asian open-billed storks in Danapur, Bihar

We were amazed. My five-year old niece, who was with us, was stunned. I took photos. When we came back home, The Family brought out her field guide, and patiently leafed through it, with my niece at her shoulder, trying to identify the bird. It turned out to be the Asian open billed stork. This was what bird watchers call a lifer: the first sighting of a species. We never forgot that it is called "open billed" because there’s always a gap between its bills. We saw it many times later, but this was the only heronry of this species that we ever saw.

Crocodiles, herons and turtles

In a couple of weeks I have to fly to Odisha for work. I talked to The Family about taking the following weekend off. With a little juggling, it turned out that she can also travel that weekend. We’ve spent 40 days without seeing an animal wilder than a crow or a pigeon, so we decided to make this a quick wildlife trip.

A look at the map shows us that Odisha is full of national parks. There is a lot of choice in principle. Our main constraint is that this has to be a quick trip. The only airport in Odisha is in Bhubaneswar, and to save time we want to travel no more than three hours. This narrows our options to Chilka lake and Bhitarkanika National Park (highlighted in the map above).

We spent a day and a half in Chilka lake a few years ago, watching freshwater dolphins. We’ve also been thinking of going back there for a spot of winter bird watching. Mangalajodi has become the glam destination for birders, with articles being written about it in The Guardian and Livemint. The conversion of poachers into bird guides is certainly a very romantic story. Another reason why it is written about so much is that in winter even a novice can spot lots of birds. But this is late in the season, and the winter’s avian visitors would have begun to depart.

So we begin to think of Bhitarkanika National Park. This is a wetland protected under the Ramsar convention. The big two here are saltwater crocodiles and Olive Ridley sea turtles. These endangered turtles return to the nearby Gahiramatha beach every year to breed. The discovery and subsequent protection of this, the world’s largest breeding site for the turtles, is one of India’s success stories. A newspaper article tells us that they have already arrived this year. I can’t find any information about whether it is possible to see the nesting of these turtles.

Saltwater crocodiles are a constant tourist draw in Bhitarkanika, so there is an efficient process to visit the places where they can be seen. A little reading assures me that we will be able to see them.

The Family asks about bird watching. I find a two-year old fluff piece on bird watching in Bhitarkanika. A little more searching brings up the definitive checklist of the birds of this wetland. In a two-year long survey, conducted a decade ago, two dedicated and talented naturalists, Gopi and Pandav, found 263 bird species in the area, of which 147 were residents. I learnt from this paper that the park hosts one of the largest heronries in the world. A heronry is a tree, a group of trees, an island, or an inaccessible area where herons breed year after year. During breeding season, which is about now, it is a spectacular sight.

We know nothing about local conditions, have no contact with local experts in Bhitarkanika National Park. We might be lucky and see lots of things, or we might not. But it seems like a place worth visiting.