The mangrove forest of Bhitarkanika

When India joined the Ramsar convention for protection of wetlands in 1982, Bhitarkanika National Park was not the among the first places listed. The 65,000 hectares of this park was listed under the treaty twenty years later. The mangrove forests of the Sunderbans are larger in area, but Bhitarkanika has more species diversity: only three of India’s 58 species of mangroves have not been seen here.

Mangrove forests stabilize the coastline, reducing erosion from storm surges, currents, waves, and tides. The intricate root system of mangroves also makes these forests attractive to fish and other organisms seeking food and shelter from predators.
NOAA website

When you pass through the tidal creeks which thread the wetlands, the mangroves appear as a dense forest wall surrounding you. There are designated trails through the forest. If you take these, you find that the forest is thin, and hides open wetlands. Interestingly, there is freshwater very close to the sea here. The sparse villages around the region have a tradition of creating ponds around each home, so recharging the groundwater that they draw. Unfortunately, this traditional conservation measure has been undone recently by the increased shrimp farming in this area.

Boat in Khola creek in Bhitarkanika national park, Odisha

The mangroves are drowned by the tide surging up and down the creek twice a day. Most trees which stand with roots in water would die. Mangroves have solved this problem in two ways. First, they have evolved unique physiologies which allow it to filter out salt from the water and excrete it. Second, some of them stand in an interlocking mass of prop roots to hold them out of the water while others have snorkels called pneumatophores (photo below: the spikes amongst which the whimbrel is foraging). This area is the delta of a complex of muddy rivers. The mangrove roots hold back the soil and slowly build up the land. Bangladesh is said to have created 120,000 hectares of new land in the Bay of Bengal by planting new mangrove forests.

Whinbrel among mangrove roots in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

As temporary refugees from a city, we breathed in the clear air of the forest. The Family was reading a study which claimed that mangroves lock up more than a 100 kilograms of atmospheric carbon per hectare per day, and is one of the most efficient ecologies for soaking up greenhouse gases. The three decades-long conservation effort in Bhitarkanika started before the Indian Ocean tsunami taught coastal countries the wisdom of replanting mangroves. Now this may serve as an ark which repopulates the disappearing mangrove forests along the coast of India.

The mangrove pitta

We were very lucky with our sighting of the Mangrove Pitta. As soon as our boat docked at the jetty in Dangamal, Amar, the boatman, jumped off the boat and asked us to hurry. Bijaya had called him to say that two Pittas had been sighted very close to the jetty. We hurried after Amar and saw Bijaya with a couple of people with the cameras and large lenses typical of wildlife photographers. One of them pointed out the bird. It was sitting in a bush, facing us, as you see in the featured photo.

It turned, hopped down to the ground, and offered many different views to the camera. You can see examples of these views in the rest of this post. The two photographers, Bijaya, Amar, The Family and I watched the bird foraging on the floor of the jungle. Several large groups of crocodile watchers passed by. Some stopped to examine us, and left when they found nothing of interest to them.

Mangrove Pitta in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

The origin of the colourful plumage of the Pitta has been a matter for speculation for long. It builds an open nest on the ground. Darwin and Wallace sparred for many years over the selective reasoning behind coloured birds with open ground nests. The argument was about the visibility of these nests to predators. Today we understand that their argument was important but premature, because the vision of birds and their major predators are not like human vision. Mangrove Pitta in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha Human eyes became red sensitive fairly late in evolution. Avian vision switched to ultraviolet sensitivity in many independent events (but not in the Pittas).

The Mangrove Pitta is called the Queen of Bhitarkanika on tourism posters. Humans seem to find its brilliant colours very attractive. It is the species on the cover of Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp’s field guide. Do Pittas also see the brilliant plumage that we are attracted by? I have seen no argument or study that clinches the issue one way or the other. However, it seems to me reasonable to assume that if the plumage was not under selective pressure in some way, it would change more easily over time, and one would be able to see races of Pittas with different colours. On the contrary, many species of Pittas have similar colouration.

We didn’t see a Pitta again, although we heard their distinctive call several times. Inside the forest it was hard to imagine that these lovely birds are on the decline. IUCN classes this as near-threatened due to habitat loss. Bhitarkanika National Park, with its protected mangrove forest, plays an important role in the conservation of this species.

On a dinosaur hunt

As our boat made its way down a tidal creek in Bhitarkanika, we spotted a monitor lizard on the mud bank and halted. The meter long lizard was well aware of our presence, but did not judge us to be a threat. As it made its slow way along the bank, I asked Amar whether he had ever seen it move faster. He said that he had seen it run. I later found that it can crank up its speed to a little over Usain Bolt’s!

The monitor lizard can be spotted in various parts of India, but the only previous photos I had were in zoos. I was happy to keep clicking, and even happier that I managed to get a photo of it flicking its forked tongue (featured image). This enables lizards and snakes to sample chemicals which are not volatile enough for a nose to pick up. Monitor lizard in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha It is believed that the forked tongue allows these animals to follow a chemical trail. One of the components of the diet of a monitor lizard is bird’s eggs. Kingfishers lay eggs in holes in the mud near a creek. Maybe this creature was trying to locate such a nest. The next day we came across a monitor lizard being harried by a flock of green bee eaters. It crept slowly across an open patch in the ground and disappeared into a bush. I couldn’t figure out whether the birds had driven it away from nests, or whether it had created a diversion while its mate raided the nest.

Popular literature and movies portray dinosaurs in the shape of these giant lizards. But monitor lizards are not the descendants of dinosaurs; they are distant cousins. In 2012 the rediscovery of a new fossil along with molecular and fossil phylogenetic studies concluded that monitor lizards arose in Asia by the late Miocene epoch, and evolved along with mammalian competitors. The dinosaurs had by then evolved into birds. In India, the Himalayas had already risen, and the monsoon had set in.

What we saw on both occasions was a lizard on a dinosaur hunt!

A very confusing bird

We crept up to the small pond which you can see behind the trees in the photo above. There were about twenty birds in the water, a mixture of species. I took a few photos while we were still far away, just in case the birds noticed us and flew away. But the trees shielded us from view, so we could get in reasonably close and get a good view.

One of the common water birds which I would have liked to see is the common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia). It winters in India, China, and southwards, all the way to Australia as well as South Africa. In summer it moves far north, to Scotland, Norway and Siberia to breed. It used to be common in the waters around Mumbai, Marsh sandpiper or common greenshank? Bhitarkanika national park but I’ve not seen it for some time. The pond had something like it, but our guide peremptorily said "Marsh sandpiper". I’d not seen this closely related bird, Tringa stagnatilis, before. The Family had no opinion. I took a record shot (alongside) and moved on.

The fun started after we opened our field guides much later. It turned out that the two birds can be easily confused. Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp told us that the Marsh Sandpiper is "smaller and daintier" with "proportionately longer legs". The bit about the legs is repeated in the Wikipedia article. Since the bird had not moved at all while we watched, we had no idea about the length of its legs. What about the range? The greenshank is definitely found in Bhitarkanika National Park, whereas the Marsh Sandpiper is "known to be occasional, scarce or erratic". Could we decide by the fact that it was the middle of March? No, since the northward migration does begin in March (at least in Africa) but apparently continues up till the middle of May.

The only possible resolution came from The Family, who noticed that the greenshank has a slightly upturned beak, whereas this one seems to have a completely straight one (hard to see in the photo). We found a good online field guide, which made us look harder at the photo: the pale streak along the eye and the bright white underparts, both of which are characteristic of the Marsh Sandpiper. So perhaps it is that after all, and we have just added some weight to its "scarce" sighting in this region.

What do you think?

Home, beautiful home

In visits to Odisha in the past we noticed the beautifully hand painted fronts of buildings. A lovely custom is that a marriage is announced by a painting on the front wall of a house with the names of the bride and groom. In the Cuttack-Puri-Bhubaneswar area these are often written in the Roman script and easy for travelers to read.

Poverty has declined by 24.61 percentage points from 57.20 percent in 2004-05 to 32.59 percent in 2011-12. The reduction of poverty by 25.11 percentage points was higher in rural Odisha than that of 20.31 percentage points in urban Odisha.
—Economic Survey of Odisha 2014-15.

We drove far outside this urbanized area on this visit to Odisha. A three hour drive took us to the east, into Kendrapara district. Odisha is one of the poorer states in India, although it has made tremendous progress in the last decade. Rural India has poverty twice as high as urban India, and Odisha is no exception. This was clear even from the windows of a speeding car when we moved out of the urbanized Bhubaneswar-Cuttack area.

Even in this region, the tradition of decorating a home with paintings can be seen. We passed many villages where there were only structures made of mud, but each of these was beautifully decorated with patterns in white. After about half an hour of driving I asked myself why I wasn’t stopping to take photos. So I did, and the result is the featured photo. The lady in the photo was working in a road development gang next to the thatched mud hut where you see her. The decoration is fairly typical.

Forgotten kings

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley

My Ozymandian moment came as we walked through the mangrove forests of Bhitarkanika. We passed a shallow swamp with dead trees standing in them. Then we crossed a field where a monitor lizard was being harried by green bee eaters. The huge lizard crawled into bushes. We skirted the bushes, and as I looked at the little rise, I saw an abandoned building. It wasn’t too old, but disused and fallen into ruin. Bijaya said it belonged to the Rajah.

Who was this? He had no explanation, but it seemed that it was the local zamindar. The system of zamindars was abolished by the state of Odisha in 1952, so my guess is that the structure is about a hundred years old or less. As I walked around it, I saw a lotus pond where two bronze-winged Jacanas walked on the lily pads pecking at the water delicately. An Indian pond-heron sat apart from them on another lily pad, seemingly withdrawn into its inner landscape. From the pond one could see little slits along the walls of the structure. It was clearly a blind where the zamindars of old could sit and decimate birds which came to the pond. Much research was needed to excavate the names of the family. In sixty years the Kanika family which owned this forest once is almost forgotten.

We skirted the pond and walked into the next clearing. A small plaster Nandi shows that this is a Shiva temple A simple temple in the Odisha style stood under a mango tree (featured photo). Amar tried to bring down a couple of mangos, and was fairly satisfied by the unripe green fruits he got. The temple was not much older than the blind; the two structures used the same kind of mortar. But whereas the hunting blind was like Ozymandias’ statue, the small temple was kept alive by the traditions of neighbouring villages. I walked around it to see a little mortar Nandi facing the niche where a diya burnt in front of a tended shiva-linga inside a little locked screen door.

We walked on past these little remnants of a history now forgotten. The forest was alive with birds, and our hour’s walk was over too soon.

Clades of Kingfishers

After reaching the Bhitarkanika National Park, we learnt that the brown-winged kingfisher is called the king of the forest. It was abundant. The flash of its orange and blue colouration easily visible, and often, in the green of the mangrove forest. This was one of the seven species of kingfishers we saw in a day.

So many species gave me some pause. How did they evolve? How are they connected? The current understanding of the evolution of kingfishers is that they probably radiated from southern Asia, speciating rapidly as they filled new niches in Australia and the Pacific islands. The Americas are likely to have been populated through two independent migrations from the Old World landmass. Studies are incomplete, and especially in the biogeographic ranges of Asia and India there is much that remains to be discovered.

There are three major clades of Kingfishers: Alcedininae (river kingfishers), Halcyoninae (tree kingfishers), and Cerylinae (water kingfishers). All three are present in Bhitarkanika national park. As far as we can tell today, the river kingfishers diverged from the base of the evolutionary tree. The branching between the other two clades came later. The small blue kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), the white-breasted kingfisher and the pied kingfisher, representatives of the three clades are widespread in India. Somehow I didn’t have a good photo of pied kingfishers before, and I managed to get a fairly good one on this trip (below).

Lesser pied kingfisher, Ceryle rudis, in Bhitarkanika National Park, India

Here are the seven species we saw, listed in the three clades. The name in italics is the genus to which the different species belong.

  • River kingfishers (Alcedininae):
    • Alcedo: Small blue kingfisher
  • Tree kingfishers (Halcyoninae):
    • Halcyon: White-breasted kingfisher, Brown-winged kingfisher, Stork-billed kingfisher, Black-capped kingfisher
    • Todiramphus: Collared kingfisher
  • Water kingfishers (Cerylinae):
    • Ceryle: Lesser pied kingfisher

We’d seen stork billed kingfishers during our trip to Andaman in December. They did not seem to be particularly common there. They seemed to be even more rare here. We saw one briefly sitting with a pair of brown-winged kingfishers. They have similar bright orange coloration, with long red beaks, and it takes a moment to realize that the stork billed does not have a brown wing. I did not get a photo here at all. The ruddy kingfisher is seldom spotted here. One of the cooks at the hotel we stayed in was very interested in birds, and kept asking us whether we’d seen this. He told us that he has never managed to spot it. This agrees with Gopi’s checklist, which states that it is a vagrant. We never saw one.

Collared kingfisher, Todiramphus chloris, in Bhitarkanika National Park, India

I’d first seen the collared kingfisher in Andaman. They are quite common here, and I managed to get a better photo than I’d got in December (above). Black capped kingfisher, Halcyon pileata, in Bhitarkanika national park, India It took me some time to spot the black-capped kingfisher. Our boatman, Amar, kept pointing them out to us, and I couldn’t see them at all for a while. Then I realized that they flit between the dipping branches of mangroves and the water. After that I caught sight of many. Eventually, the best photograph was of one which sat on a mooring pole for boats (alongside). The splash of lilac near the base of its tail is barely visible when it is perched, but is a beautiful sight when it flies.

Which part of Bhitarkanika is best for sighting of kingfishers? We found that the backwaters between the jetty in Khola village and Dangamal is a great place for these birds. We spotted all seven species in a single one hour boat ride between these points. You can also see them almost anywhere near the waters.

Walking past Odisha’s oldest temple

On every trip that I make there are things really worth seeing that I miss. But perhaps nothing could be as bad as walking past the oldest temple in Odisha, noticing that it is different from the rest and beautiful, and not stopping for a close look. This was the Parasurameshwara temple. There seems to be a consensus that it was built in the late 7th century CE, although variant opinions place it as early as the early 6th century or the middle of the 8th century.

I walked past this temple to take photos of the Mukteshwara temple in the last golden light of the day. I saw that the temple had the two parts of most Odisha temples: the outer room for people to gather in, called the jagamohan, and the spire of the main temple, called the deul. The jagamohan was low, and seemed flat-topped to my quick glance, without the usual pyramidal roof. The latticed window caught my eye first. The carvings that I saw on the southern outer wall of the jagamohan (see the featured photo) were beautiful and different. Later, I realized that the sculptures of figures seated in meditation were of an aspect of Shiva, but modelled after the iconography of the Buddha. If I’d paused to think, this would have told me that the temple must be ancient. The wall also had representations of what seemed to be Shakti, the goddess of power.

The colour was fading from the sky, and the golden light was beginning to bleach out of the air. East-facing walls were already looking grey. I took a record shot of an empty niche (photo here) and hurried on without examining the sculptures in detail. Now, looking at the form just above the niche I realize that it shows Shakti in one of her aspects. She is two-armed, and rides a fierce tiger. Could it be an early representation of Parvati? Probably, since the figure just above seems to be of her consort, Shiva. The temple is eclectic: named after an aspect of Vishnu, with sculptures depicting aspects of Shiva and the Shaktis in the exterior. I made a mental note to come back, and I did. But then it was quite dark, and I did not walk around the 1400 years old temple. I will just have to leave this for another trip.

Crocodiles of Bhitarkanika

It had rained in the night and the air was distinctly cooler. When we set out on the boat in the morning we had our first sighting of a fully grown salt water crocodile: about 5 meters long. This is Bhitarkanika National Park’s flagship species. It had pulled itself out of the muddy water into the bank. Its colour merged perfectly with that of the mud around it; only the long shadow of the morning gave it away. As our boat drew near, I could see that its eyes were open and tracking us. When we drew too close for its comfort, it darted across the mud, into the water. A quick swirl of mud, and it had disappeared into the murky depths. The calm creek we were on suddenly seemed treacherous. We had no idea how many dangers lurked beneath us.

Through the day we saw adults basking in the sun, always alone. Each disappeared rapidly into the water if we approached too close. These two facts seemed to suggest that these crocodiles are highly territorial. Very likely, stretches of the river "belong" to one individual. This would also make them extremely wary of creatures larger than them: possibly dangerous rivals.

Yearling crocodile in Bhitarkanika, Odisha

The previous day had been sweltering warm, and we hadn’t seen any adults. However, the banks of the creek were full of immature crocodiles: from the 30 cm long yearlings to meter-long three-year olds. The youngest ones are the lightest in colour and easy to see against the mud on which they rested: as you can see in the photo above. I call them yearlings, but they are more likely to be about 8 months old, since the breeding season starts in about two months.

I doubted that the young could hold their own against the monsters which ruled the creek. What could these young eat? I had my answer the next day. A carcass of a cow had been lying by the river for a day, and I found three young crocodiles feeding on it. The boatman told me that a carcass like that could feed a very large number of yearlings. I guess that even the adult crocodiles eat more or less anything that they can find. We saw deer and monkeys by the creek, and only the youngest seemed to venture close to the water. Perhaps the crocodiles are opportunistic feeders on these unwary young.

The crocodile is a star attraction in the protected area of Bhitarkanika. However, its speed and size probably means that one has to be extremely careful around them. There are signs everywhere which even the usually unruly Indian tourists follow. I hope accidents are very rare, otherwise the good job of conservation which this forest area does will be in danger.

Palm leaves and cloth

In front of the Kedar Gauri temple we found a stand-alone shop with a painter at work on the porch. He was painting on cloth with poster paint and a fine brush. He pointed out work by him and his wife. He said she was away for a month’s training in a school run by the government. Those who go to such a school every now and then are paid ten thousand rupees for the month. Those who do not eventually lose their licence as a traditional artist.

Paper and canvas are historical imports to Odisha. Traditional surfaces for painting were cloth (called pata), palm leaf, and wood. These surfaces were prepared using chalk and vegetable glue. The colour palette was limited to red, yellow, white and black: all made from natural colours. Today the surface and colours are more varied: vibrant blues and greens appear. My grandmother bought a pata in vivid black, red and blue on white long before I was born. It hangs on our wall now, and inoculates me from the passing charms of mediocre patas.

This man was intent on showing us his work. The Family took a look, and politely waved away offers to show us more. We walked away, convinced that the government is doing its job the best it can, by training large numbers of people. After that the market will take care of winnowing the good.