Many years ago, on our first visit to Chilika lake, we stopped at a small and unremarkable looking eatery on a side road. Our guide and driver was clearly looking forward to the meal. One of the three tables was occupied, and we parked ourselves on one under a tree in the little yard. The lobster and crab were the freshest I’d ever had, and cooked lightly and with a delicate touch. I went back on every visit to Odisha which took me near Chilika, and it remained wonderful. The single soft-spoken owner-cook-waiter was later joined by a couple of assistants to wait on tables, but the kitchen remained the exclusive domain of the old man.
In early March, on my last trip before the lockdown, I passed near Chilika again. This is a huge lake, with a surface area of over a thousand square kilometers. This time I was on the end near Berhampur, not Puri. But I was told that there was a Chilika dhaba nearby. Late in the evening we dropped off the highway and detoured into something quite different. This was one of the large productions which cater to busloads of tourists.
Fortunately, in rural Odisha, freshness is a fetish, as a result of which I’ve seldom had bad food on the roadside. The dhaba was out of lobster, but crab and two varieties of fish were available. We decided to share one of each thing on offer. The ingredients were as fresh as I’d expected; they can’t be otherwise next to one of the biggest fishing grounds in this part of India. Although the cooking was uninspired, the freshness of the crab was good enough to keep us plodding through the meal. I resolved to go back to the other dhaba as soon as possible. Now this is a promise to oneself which seems hard to keep.
On the way out I passed this large image of Kali painted on one wall. I find the simplification of this image wonderful. In Odisha it is enough to draw the eyes to signify Kali, time, the goddess of death. Every other piece of this image is dispensable. The dhaba had emptied out, and it was time to hit the road again. Kali stared at us as we climbed into the car.
We had a bit of a drive ahead of us and our driver pulled into a petrol pump almost as soon as we got on to the highway. I looked out of the window at the truck filling up next to us. I’ve written about art work on Indian trucks many times before, but this looked different. At eye level with me was some of the usual kitsch (featured photo), but it was executed perfectly. None of the distortions of naive art. This was a master at work.
I got off and walked around the truck. No amateur, the artists who worked on this truck. Stencils had been used. This medium is becoming commercial! But just look at that swan: wonderful lines. Never seen something like that on a truck. This could be a well-trained commercial artist, one who could as easily design a logo.
Around another tyre-well, more kitsch, this time from some cartoon. But look at that repeating motif that arches around the tyre. It is not only executed flawlessly over and over (see also the featured photo), but has been designed to be easy to execute.
An elegantly executed Hanuman was spray painted on with a stencil elsewhere on the truck. There were numerous small pieces rather than a single overall theme which I’ve seen before on trucks. Is this good or bad? Am I seeing the beginning of the commercialization of truck art? Is this the end of King Rat? By all accounts small businesses have given way to large conglomerates over the last three years. Perhaps in future large fleets of trucks will be decorated by one commercial artists’ firm, instead of one truck one artist.
I had dinner in a small town in Odisha. The restaurant was very full when we walked in, but emptied out before we finished. One of my colleagues had to catch a train later. So we took a short walk through the town. It was about nine, and most shops were shutting down. The wide street was lit by dim lights placed along the divider. This meant that most of the illumination came from shops, and once they started closing, the street began to get much darker. It was enchanting in its own way. We saw a line of bright yellow doors separated by blue walls; little kiosks which had closed.
Further along the row one kiosk was open for business. The vegetables on display were extremely fresh. A long cold chain is not needed to bring these to the town. The chopping boards are big and solid pieces of wood; seemingly cross sections of the trunk of a small tree. Banana flowers and jackfruit are two of the things that I would not normally find in a shop in Mumbai. There were also some long beans which I’d not seen before.
Next to the fresh vegetable stall was this tiny “supermarket”. Any grocery store with open access to the merchandise now calls itself a supermarket no matter how small it is. This was an interesting contrast to the vegetables. While that only stocked food which was fresh and had to be cooked, this had nothing which was fresh. Everything came inside a plastic package and was ready to eat. This was also much costlier per helping than fresh food, but the very price makes them an aspirational thing in these small towns.
Nearby a roadside eatery had served its last customers and was busy shutting down. The helper was carting the last chairs from the pavement into the shop. The counter was definitely closed. As I took this photo, I heard the sound of running water from the kitchen. I suppose the cookware and plates were being cleaned. There was much animated consersation between the cook and the helper, as I quietly took this photo and moved off.
I don’t know what this interesting looking stall was for. The man you see in the photo looked at us curiously as I took the photo. He spoke only Odiya, and none of us counted that as a language we could express ourselves in. My best guess is that this stall serves ready-made food of some kind. Perhaps things that supplement the food made in the home kitchen, but maybe largely aimed at labourers and other immigrants who have been drawn to this region by the large amount of construction under way. If this were so I think the stall would also have some of the wonderful local sweets.
This was the second of the odd juxtapositions. Right next to that temporary stall was this more permanent structure with ice cream and cakes. Even as the town wound up for the night there were customers here. A savvy sweet shop does not miss a trick. There was also a counter with the local Odiya sweets; that’s what the lady in the sari is looking at. The cold drinks and the toffees in bottles in the front counter would have attracted children a couple of hours before I took the photo. I liked the expectant look of this shop.
This junction of two major local roads was more typical of the time in this town. Once the lights went off, the town was generally dark. A couple of open shops provide the only light in the place. Everyone hasn’t gone to sleep yet. Parked motorbikes show that there are some people who still come to the shops at this hour. After all a major railway station is less than ten minutes away. We went there to drop my colleague, and that place was brightly lit and bustling with traffic.
We were in Bhitarkanika National Park on 19 and 20 March. Everyone said that it was pretty late in the season and our sightings would be minimal. It was true that most of the winter migrants had left. Still the area is so rich in bird life that in three outings in the small area between Khola and Dangamal villages we saw eighty two species. Eighty one of them are listed here. The one I haven’t yet been able to identify is the slate and red bird in the photo below.
Contrary to the advise of some experienced birdwatchers, I’d expected this. My confidence was based on the comprehensive checklist published a decade ago which was a result of G.V. Gopi’s thesis work. This work listed a very large number of endemic species. Gopi put me in touch with the people whom he met during his field work, and that helped us enormously.
We had several lifers (marked in bold) and saw a few of the species which are globally threatened (marked with a star). Some of the birds I have written about in other posts; they are linked. Interestingly, every species we saw is included in Gopi’s checklist!
Little Cormorant: Phalacrocorax niger
* Darter: Anhinga melanogaster
Little Egret: Egretta garzetta
Purple Heron: Ardea purpurea
Large Egret: Casmerodius albus
Median Egret: Mesophoyx intermedia
Cattle Egret: Bulbulcus ibis
Indian Pond Heron: Ardeola grayii
Striated heron: Butorides striatus (formerly Little Green Heron)
Rufous Treepie : Dendrocitta vagabunda (formerly Indian Treepie)
Eastern Jungle Crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
Common Crow: Corvus splendens
The list leaves out birds which we heard but did not see. These include not only the ubiquitous Indian Koel and the Common Hawk-Cuckoo (more widely known as the Brain Fever bird, due to its call), but also a couple of owls and a nightjar.
Bhitarkanika has several avian habitats. The area that we visited (coloured red in the map here) is reputed to be best for kingfishers and the pitta. Closer to the sea one should see the gulls and terns which we missed completely. There are also multiple viewing season. The time we visited is the leanest. Soon after the end of the monsoon one should be able to see herons nesting. The winter months will bring in the migrants, so loved by bird watchers in India. All this is in addition to the views of saltwater crocodiles, sea turtles and monitor lizards which this place is famous for.
I end this post with a mention of the most unlikely sight we saw: a monitor lizard being harried by a flock of Green Bee-eaters. The monitor lizard was probably interrupted in its search for eggs in the nests which the Bee-eaters build on the ground. These birds do not usually flock. They came together to harry the lizard, and successfully drove it away. I was so taken up by the events that I forgot I had a camera. You see wonderful things when you are in a forest.
When I talked to people in Bhitarkanika and heard about boats I imagined little things like the one above. My imagination was influenced by photos of birders in Mangalajodi, which is the hot birding destination in Odisha. Imagining an open boat, I was little concerned about the weather. The temperature had started reaching record highs across the country even before Holi. As it turned out, it was only moderately hot when we reached Bhitarkanika. That, and the fact that bird-watching avoids the hot afternoon, meant that we had fairly comfortable weather.
Due to my preconceptions, the first sight of the boats of Bhitarkanika (photo above) was shocking. They are large, with a two person crew, and capable of carrying more than ten passengers. They have a passenger cabin and an upper deck. Interestingly, they also have a head. We decided that sitting in the cabin would restrict our view of the birds, so we climbed up to the deck and leaned on the cabin. The crew handed us cushions and told us to sit on the roof of the cabin. We did that, and can certify that it is a very comfortable way to navigate the tidal creeks of Bhitarkanika while looking out for birds.
Small boats like the one in the featured photo are used by the locals to travel short distances. Occasionally we saw a man standing in one of these boats, poling himself along a stream. We also saw, once, two men in such a boat, letting out a fishing net.
This part of Odisha is poor. While great strides have been made in the last decade or so in bringing schools and primary health care to the people in this region, their income levels have not risen much. Direct employees of the forest department, even temporary workers, are much better off than those who are not government employees. The crew of the boat we were on (one of them is in the photo above) spent time foraging at the edge of the forest, but our wildlife guide did not bother to. This low level of income results in poorly maintained boat engines. There must be expertise out in the wide world on cheap and easy to maintain boat engines with low emission. I would definitely love to hear about it.
Two of my early memories merged together very strangely. One is that of the boy who could not keep up with the Pied Piper of Hamelin and spent his life trying to find the place where the piper was leading his friends to. The other is Bob Dylan’s song from which the title of this post is taken. When I hear a woodpecker knocking madly at a tree, they trigger this little chunk of memory in me. As I sat after lunch under a tree in the jungle in Bhitarkanika, I heard the drumming sound of a woodpecker, and came out to look. I saw this wonderful flame back woodpecker searching for its version of paradise.
If I were to hit my face rapidly and at high-speed against a tree, I would knock myself out in a few tries. The reasons that a woodpecker survives are visible in the photo. They have to do with modifications to the spine and the way the head is attached to it.
The most visible adaptation is the shape of the head. The elongated wedge shape of the head is due to two factors: first the bones at the front of the skull have thickened, and the muscles at the front, which anchor the beak, are immense and serve as shock absorbers. It seems that there are also adaptations in the way the brain is attached to the skull which prevents it from slowly being battered.
Another easily observed adaptation is the wide shoulders. This is due to the enlargement of the first set of ribs. The expanded ribs anchor very strong muscles which serve to hold the neck steady. The woodpecker strikes only at right angles to the surface, so that the beak and neck muscles can damp the recoil. A sideways strike would twist its neck.
A third adaptation is visible in the photo: the stiff black tail feathers. These balance the woodpecker in its vertical stance on a tree as it drums away. Apparently the last few spinal bones are fused to stabilize the woodpecker. The toes are also adapted to hold on to trunks of trees.
All of these features are generic to woodpeckers. The shape of the head, the wide shoulders, the stiff black tail feathers, just a glimpse of these is enough to tell you that the bird you are looking at is a woodpecker.
Woodpeckers may have begun to evolve about 40 million years ago, when the shifting of continents began to create today’s weather. The resulting spread of angiosperms and the conversion of sub-tropical forests to deciduous forests created the conditions which we see today. This opened up the ecological niches which the woodpeckers fill today. So many changes are required to adapt to a lifestyle based on digging insects out of the bark of a tree!
One of the most striking things about wild animals is how easily they adapt to circumstances; a fancy term for this is behavioural plasticity. When I saw a group of Cheetal, apparently grazing in the mud next to the tidal creek, I was a little surprised. These animals are grazers, mostly dependent on grass. But the individuals I saw were eating fallen mangrove leaves. You can see them feeding in the photo alongside. In the featured photo you can see its whole body aligned along the tide line where fallen leaves have gathered. The strong reliance on a leafy diet struck me as an adaptation.
Another odd fact was that there were so many Cheetal near brackish water. These deer drink a lot of water, and I could not imagine them drinking sea water. It gradually dawned on me that there must be fresh water inland. Amar, our boatman, and Bijaya, our guide for the day, told us about ponds and wells which give sweet water. Around these there are also grassy meadows where we saw some deer.
We also saw small bands of rhesus monkeys on the muddy banks of creeks. Strangely, they seemed to be grazing in the mud. Bijaya said they were eating grass. Possibly, because they were certainly not picking up fallen leaves. I never came across them inside the forest, so I don’t know what fruits they eat. Mangrove fruits are unlikely fare for monkeys, but maybe they have adapted. Animal behaviour is so plastic that every niche yields delightful surprises.
Walking through the mangrove forest of Bhitarkanika was amazing and humbling. I did not know a single tree or plant. The flower that you see in the featured photo was widespread. I’d first seen it in Andaman, where it had confused me a lot. I photographed one at night and thought it was pink. Then I saw a bush in the morning with yellow flowers. I thought maybe the pink I saw at night was a trick of the light. Now I saw both pink and yellow flowers on the same bush. Bijaya, who was guiding me through the forest, said that the flowers are yellow when they bloom, and then gradually turn pink before they fall off. He didn’t volunteer the name of the plant, and I did not ask.
I had read nothing about mangrove species and the trees inland of them. Bhitarkanika is a diversity hotspot, even more so than the Sunderbans. I walked between the colourful trees that you see in the photo above, knowing nothing of why they grow together, what they are, and how they are used by villagers nearby. Still, it was a restful walk, and a great respite from the city.
We got off the boat on a rickety jetty badly in need of repair. Behind it the trail disappeared into the forest. As walked through the mangrove forest in the morning, we noticed tracks (featured photo). The ground was unevenly wet, and there was a small section of the path along which there were a few pug marks.
It looked like a small cat had walked by. It couldn’t have been very heavy if one was to judge by how deep the marks were. One way to gauge the weight in mud like this is to push your fingers into the ground. The amount of effort it takes to push in your fingers to the same depth gives you an idea of the effort you would make to hold the dead weight of the animal in your arms. The marks could not be very old either, since it had rained quite heavily at night.
In any case, Bhitarkanika National Park is not known to hold large cats. It could have been one of the three smaller cats: the jungle cat, the fishing cat and the leopard cat. I haven’t seen any of these. They are shy creatures, like all wild cats, and their small size makes them harder to spot than their more famous relatives: tigers and leopards.
Bijaya was certain that it was a fishing cat. But I was not certain that my luck would take me so close to one. A recent census of wildlife inside the park had spotted three fishing cats to eleven jungle cats. Although the census was very likely to be incomplete (it had counted a single hyena) it perhaps can be taken as an indication that there are about four times as many jungle cats as fishing cats in the forest. Unless someone can tell me something about the shape of the pug marks which identifies the species, I think it unlikely that we saw a fishing cat.
In my days as a couch potato, I’d read an unlikely book by Douglas Adams, who, in collaboration with Mark Carwardine, went round the world looking for species on the verge of extinction. Not only do I still have Last Chance to See on my bookshelf, I go around the country now with a mental list of endangered species which I want to see. The Lesser Adjutant Stork is one of these, and Bhitarkanika is its only known nesting site outside north-eastern India.
The IUCN Red List classifies it as vulnerable (to extinction) because it is “rapidly declining as a result of a variety of threats including hunting pressure, loss of nesting trees, conversion and degradation of wetlands and agricultural changes”. It is thought that the disappearance of this species from the Sunderbans is due to degradation of mangrove diversity in the region.
It is one of the most spectacularly ugly birds I’ve ever had the opportunity to see. It is also huge. As we crossed the Brahmani river, The Family spotted some huge birds in a field far away. We stopped to look. They were these ugly storks. The Lesser Adjutant (and its cousin, the Greater Adjutant) is called হাড়গিলে in Assamese and in Odiya (meaning bone eater). When I consulted older people in my family, they remembered the name and the bird. At one time it was probably common in Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. It can now be seen only in protected forests and wetlands, where it eats small animals and crustaceans. Its local name probably comes by association with the Greater Adjutant, which often scavenges around human habitation.
We saw these birds several times in the protected forest. They were wary of our boat, and tended to fly whenever we came within camera range. Eventually I caught a juvenile sitting on top of a tree. The juvenile has much more down on its bare neck and head than the adult. Apparently these birds have extremely sharp vision, and this one could have been sitting there to scan the area for food.
One never knows which sighting of this bird could be the last.