Odisha Diary: Guideless and guileless in Bhitarkanika

When the local bird guide of two decades vintage turns out to be a shimmering dud, Jennifer Nandi takes control of the rest of her birding trip at Bhitarkanika

Early morning at Bhitarkanika – eagles in the trees harry the waterfowl
Birding guides are, at the best of times, difficult to come by. Our unequivocal request directed at the ground operators at Odisha for an able birding guide with a real sense of the park and its bird life was received with understanding. When time is at a premium, it’s essential to have an efficient bird watching strategy. This is greatly aided by the local guide whose ample knowledge of his park takes you exactly where we might see interesting birds. 

Shivering with cold and excitement, we wait and wonder whether the promised expert would actually turn up. Our foreheads furrow as we fight off a rising chorus of doubts; our eyes squint in the inky blackness that is only just beginning to fade. And we struggle with the impotence of restlessness. But all seems well – we see Tapan, our guide, accompanied by a large plum of a man. His hands hold a stick or lathi; binoculars are strung around his neck. This is for real – our designated local birding guide with 20 years experience behind him, strides out of the morning darkness to meet us. We are thrilled. On our wish list are such precious items as the Mangrove Whistler but we do not want to get ahead of ourselves. 
A Monitor Lizard on a mid-morning walk
This spectacle certainly throws a warm halo over matters at once as we head off in dead earnest to board the boat, walking rapidly to mitigate some of the excitement. We cruise for a short while until majestically our birding guide signals with his lathi for the boat to stop. He strides off the one-foot wide gangplank and imperiously summons us. Obediently we follow him into the lightening gloom. 
Up and down the canals by boat
Sadly, this is his brief spasm of importance. That he is useless to the point of embarrassment is evident from his first identification. He points excitedly to an Orange-headed Ground Thrush, misidentifying it as a Mangrove Whistler. I am stupefied that anyone could make such a grievous error. For the uninitiated, an Orange-headed Thrush matches its description – it really does have an orange head. The peninsular race has vertical black head stripes. Striking, wouldn’t you say? And the Mangrove Whistler – it is a drab grey-brown bird! 

Eyes puckered in bewilderment, I turn to the Orange-headed Thrush page of Inskipp’s field guide to birds and simply point; and then to the Mangrove Whistler page, and point again. I am stunned into silence and robbed of my vowels! His ponderous self-image permits no embarrassment — he nods, smiles and says yes, it’s the same bird, only younger! Soon he is misidentifying the eagles flying overhead, the ducks, the waterfowl… 

Twenty years! To be out in the field for twenty years and not know your own backyard birds is unforgivable especially since you tout yourself as an experienced professional birder! To remonstrate with such deafening dumbness would be a waste of very valuable time and energy. So we just give him a very wide berth. 
A marsh crocodile, one of many that are bred at Bhitarkanika, basks in sumptuous sun
Filled with a kind of melancholy gaiety, we focus on the fecund riot of plant and animal life that must await us. Once we get over the shock of having to find the feathered gems on our own, we have quite a good time. We seem to have the park to ourselves – there isn’t another human being in sight. So we walk unobstructed into the early morning mist, surprising the preening water birds. Short-toed Serpent Eagles fly low overhead. Lesser Spotted Eagles harry the waterfowl and rest in the tops of nearby trees. This is breathtakingly beautiful country. Behind me teal take off sending a bright shiver down my spine which in an odd way reveals to me a secret concerning myself. Watching excites me. 

Ken signals for coffee and we cup our palms around steaming hot cups of Lavazza made in our very own percolator! A boar rooting aggressively in the leaf mould catches our eye. He moves out of sight and we set off along a drier path walking alongside each other. I am closer to the bushes on the right. While our vision is focused intently on birds that might hop onto the path ahead to glean for food, we hear an excited shout from behind. We turn to see our guide pointing at a 10-foot King Cobra that permitted us to walk within two feet of its magnificent presence. It raises its head to give us a once over and then serenely, without fuss, slithers away. It occurs to me that I had chosen the very bushes along that path for what I took to be a very private answering of nature’s call. How wrong I was! 
This 10-feet King Cobra made the answering of nature’s calls a little less private
This morning has been most wonderful and we steer ourselves in the direction of returning to the lodge for a much needed breakfast. A scrumptious fare awaits us and we do immense justice – but we are in a hurry to get back to the water. We wander up and down all the channels by country boat. Mugger crocodiles – some measuring over 20 feet – are on most banks. Bhitarkanika breeds freshwater marsh crocodiles and then releases them into the channels. The ride relaxes us – the mid-morning sun warms us to a point where we make up our minds to do an early morning walk the following day before our departure to Konarak. We fix a time with the boatman who is only too happy to navigate his beloved boat while we watch with meditative alertness. 

Text and photos by Jennifer Nandi
All rights reserved

Previously in this series:

Other travelogues by Jennifer Nandi
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