The birds of Bhitarkanika

Khursheed Dinshaw | Updated on March 20, 2020

Fly away home: Bhitarkanika has more than 300 avian species i   -  ISTOCK.COM

They charm visitors but also double as toothpicks for crocodiles at this Odisha national park

The leaves on the trees are not rustling. The dried fallen leaves crunch under my feet as I slowly walk ahead on a narrow path surrounded by swampy land. The exposed roots of trees have entwined themselves to create this walkway of sorts. I spot an odd mushroom hugging a tree trunk and, in the distance, a cast of scurrying fiddler crabs with prominently large claws.

The stillness in the air, rent by occasional bird calls, is something I am unaccustomed to. Nirakar Behera, a naturalist for the last 27 years, is my guide for the day. He lets me soak in the serenity of Bhitarkanika National Park, in Odisha’s Kendrapara district, without rushing me through the itinerary. It’s only been a few minutes inside Bhitarkanika’s 145 sq km core area and we come upon the mangroves.

There are 82 species of mangroves in India, including rare ones such as Aglaia cucullata. Unique to Bhitarkanika are three species: Heritiera fomes (sundari), Heritiera kanikensis (kaniya sundari) and Heritiera littoralis (dhala sundari). These mangroves thrive in the deltaic complex of Mahanadi River and at the estuaries of the Brahmani, Baitarani, Maipura and Dhamra.

Water world: A boat ride is a good way of exploring the mangroves   -  KHURSHEED DINSHAW


I am fascinated by the strong and sturdy roots. Sundari has elongated ones known as breathing roots. They have risen above the ground and resemble small mounds that are conical or flat at the top. The dhala sundari has buttress roots that lend stability. As we walk deeper into the park, Behera draws my attention to the leaves of the Phoenix paludosa — locally known as hental — which are eaten by deer, monkeys, porcupines and wild boar. Even the formidable crocodile uses hental leaves to build a mound nest for its eggs. “For three months, the mother crocodile watches over the nest to protect her eggs from water monitor lizards and wild boar,” Behera says before moving close to another tree. Its bark is oozing resin. Behera adds that the extract is used to treat skin diseases.

We hike through grassland to reach a watchtower. Atop, it is a delight to find dense green foliage as far as the eye can see. A quick snack fuels me for the rest of the hike, part of which is by boat. We come across the Cynometra iripa tree, whose bark is used by locals to clean their teeth. Further ahead is an abandoned hunting tower set against the backdrop of a lotus pond. There are also two temples in the area, where we stop to pay respect.

All this while, the conversation is mostly about Bhitarkanika’s trees, reptiles and crustaceans. It is after all India’s largest crocodile sanctuary and you have to just look at the swampy banks for proof. The gargantuan reptile is found sunning everywhere, lying as still as a statue. But it is the avian life at this national park that charms me. On the boat ride, Behera spots the white-collared kingfisher — also known as the mangrove kingfisher — perched on the mangroves.

A little ahead, a black-capped kingfisher swoops down at lightning speed to prey on a fish. A majestic white-bellied sea eagle ignores us as we try to click it before it flies away. A little egret is more accommodating. It allows us to photograph as it ambushes an unsuspecting fish. This bird doubles as a natural toothpick for the crocodile, as it cleans leftovers from the predator’s mouth.

“Almost 320 species of birds are found in Bhitarkanika. The bar-headed goose, which is grey in colour with black lines near the eyes, and the Brahminy duck are migratory guests,” Behera says, as I wait for more sightings. He adds a few more names to the Bhitarkanika inventory: Asian openbill stork, black-headed ibis, little cormorant, darter, night heron, great egret and so on. These birds, however, don’t oblige with appearances and I begin to wonder if I have run out of luck.

As if on cue, a Brahminy duck makes its distinctly piercing honking call. It is then I realise how immersed I was in the silence of Bhitarkanika. I had happily lost track of time and the bird call brings me back to reality as the boat glides back to the starting point of the hike.

Khursheed Dinshaw is a Pune-based freelance writer-photographer

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • All domestic airlines fly to Bhubaneswar. From the airport, it takes three hours by road to reach Bhitarkanika, which is in Kendrapara district.
  • Stay
  • Hotel Kanika Sundari (https://kanikasundari.in/) provides food and boarding. Guide and boat bookings for Bhitarkanika are done on request.
  • BLink Tip
  • Visit the crocodile-rearing centre and monsoon heronry at Bhitarkanika.

Published on March 19, 2020

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