Saturday, February 5, 2011
THE BIG CROC STORY
I was conducting a training in Bhubaneswar and suddenly due to a scheduling anomaly found myself with a free day midweek. I had read about this amazing croc and kingfisher haven called Bhittar Kanika Crocodile reserve where the estuarine crocodile is reared and released into the wild and decided to pull out previous evening. A friend of a friend gave me a clear contact to the relevant forest officer and he was very welcoming, so the die was cast. Only hassle was how to get there. its only 120 km said the DFO and should take 3 hours or little more, see you for dinner! Yeah yeah right!
First set back!!
The bus to Bhittar Kanika leaves at 6 am Sir!
There is no direct bus Sir. You have to go to Cuttack Sir.
It took one hours 20 min to over the 22 km to Cuttack, compliments of a BJP rally in Bhubaneswar.
Oh this bus takes you till Kendrapara but Rajnagar is 40 km further. No bus goes there in the evening!
Stood in the Kendrapara bus for about 1hour till I got a seat. Got dropped off at Kendrapara with the sage advice to stay till morning. but morning is when I wanted to get a boat and go down the river or is up the river. So standing on the crossroads of decisions and life and Man Mahini bus stop I was in a fix.
Gotta find a macho auto driver who will drive me in the dark on the district road in the rather chilly night for 40kms, at the right price.
I stopped a few autos and a few came up to me eagerly. Hearing my errand they walked off to a man and decided that they wanted nothing to do with Hindi speaking fat guys telling them to drive in the dark for hours in the cold. I was really at wits-end corner. Looked like all was lost but then the fairy god mother of bird watchers sent an auto with two guys in the driving seat. This happens often in India. So I told them and they said Ok 500rs. It was a bit higher than I wanted to pay but birders cant be choosers esp. in my situation with only one day at my disposal. I agreed and we set off pell mell down the little village road. About 500 yards down the auto stopped and the driver turned around and asked plaintively Sir cant you just go tomorrow its so cold... very cold. I had about had it by then and I told them off for being such wusses. “Cant you guys have the guts to drive in a little cold once in a while? What a big scene about a little drive my Lord” I said. Shamefaced they turned around and set off in earnest and did not say a word till we reached the forest lodge an hour or so later. 11.00 pm. In fairness to them it was a cold night and the breeze off the marshes did nothing to help.
The 3 hour drive had turned out to be a 6 hours marathon from Bhubaneswar. Hats off to the DFO he had hot food waiting and his khansama took good care of me. I was bushed from all day working, then standing in buses and all that. I just hit the sheets and was gone before you could say kingfisher.
Morning around 6.30 I was up and about and found traces of a birder in the room where I was accommodated. Gorgeous Manfrotto ball head tripod heavy duty. looked a good 20k had gone into that and you don’t do that unless you are into birds. Bingo! it was the DFO's assistant Raj. Completely passionate lens man! Runs a stable of 4 Digital DSLRS, cameras from both sides of the fence, I mean Nikon and non-Nikon! ha! Favors the Nikon D300. nice!
I had gotten lucky from my room window and got a beautiful shot of a Striated Babbler which he ID'ed for me. Gave me some good advice on birding and told to look out for the 8 varieties of Kingfisher they have and the 7 alpha male crocs who are 7+mtrs long. I was like what... say what ... how many meters.... yeah you heard 7+mtrs. Mother of God! Big bad ugly dudes!
Of course crocs that size show the health of the eco system and that’s a good thing. When you fall in the water cuz the croc banged the boat that is a bad thing. All things are relative says Einstein. Ain't it the truth! And these are the famous Mugger crocs salt water estuarine crocs who can jump 1/3-1/2 of their body out of the water.
So I was a meditative pensive man as I got on the jeep that took me the 20 km to the Bhittar Kanika forest reserve guest house to get me on a boat to go look at crocs and kingfishers. Somehow I felt I had too much information to work with.
The boat was about 25 ft long and I remembered the crocs and fitted myself a little tighter into the seat I was in. The serene river and the upstream ride was just beautiful. The only sounds that I heard was the diesel engine of the boat thudding away. More on that later. Its a two hour drive up the estuary of the Mahanadi (?) and the entire area is a reserve with mangrove forests along the river. a long languid boat ride and lots to see and comment on. I was alone so the boatman was the guy who had to endure my wise cracks and my ignorance. He was an amazing croc spotter. He could see them in the water swimming or on the bank sunbathing and I was hard pressed to find one. the first one was one of the big guys. Really big. It was then I realized that the 7 alpha males who are 7 mtrs long are the varsity, but there are others who are 6+ and 5+ who are dangerous enough and more than enough for me. It was not an encouraging thought. With the local croc population at 1650 there are a lot of crocs there.
The crocs started to appear more and more as we entered the parts of the river further away from human habitation and some really big and some quite small shared the space. A fair number of water birds were to be seen. herons in abundance, kingfishers all over the place. The handsome black capped Kingfisher makes his home there and we saw about 10 of these smart looking guys. It was a nightmare trying to get a shot though.
Madan Lal my boatman introduced me to the principle of perpetual motion. The boat does not stop! He cant stop it cuz he has no neutral gear for the engine. What a disaster! My telephoto lens is manual focus and all the time I am focusing on the bird the boat gets further or nearer and messes the shot. The cool serene beautiful boat ride became a nightmare. He has a yellow thread tied to the gas and with this quaint device he guides his boat through the waters of Bhittar Kanika with aplomb. He said "no fishing Sir" in answer to a question I had and then ruefully explained that there were bhetki and catfish among other fish in there weighing 10-15kg but off limits.
Well hello no wonder we got 22 foot crocs dude! that explains it.
Well, I saw a lot of amazing birds I had never seen before. the brown winged kingfisher I think tops the list. Amazing bird. gorgeous orange body with brown wings. If I had seen a drawing of it I would have said its a fake. It looks like a surreal image. you gotta believe its a bird. The white bellied sea eagle was also a really cool bird to find. Really powerfully built, the eagle seems to fly in from the sea quite literally, he comes in across the swamps. I was really fortunate to find some of the really big crocs basking in the sun and get a couple of them despite the problems I was facing vis a vis the boat. A series of black capped kingfishers kept me company as I traversed the river and despite getting about 30 shots at them I just did not score. At least not well. so though I spotted 5 species of kingfishers that day I got only one picture that was ok.
At lunch at the Dungmaal forest camp out in the middle of nowhere I was able to visit the hatchery. The croc hatchery where these 22 footers start life is a simple little place with a lot of bird life. I saw coconut trees hollowed by woodpeckers all through the campus. The wildlife dept is actually raising croc babies from eggs. Apparently in the season the rangers go out and collect croc eggs and incubate them in the hatchery so the loss to predation is at a minimum. Hairy job but someone's gotta do it.
The walk in the core area of the forest reserve was a beautiful experience. I was so cramped from sitting in the boat the whole morning, it felt good to stretch my legs. The woods were full of jungle fowl calling to each other and other bird and animal life was stirring as I walked along the path. A skittering sound and I turned to see several deer disturbed by my presence dashing off behind the shrubbery. I could not have seen them but they obviously have better hearing and sight than me. The mangrove forest has a different feel; to it and the swamp sort of feeling never leaves you.
Met a few other tourists and honeymooners but no serious birders who would have perhaps explained something more about the forest to me. Walked into the core area for about 30 min before deciding that I was tired and needed to head back to the boat. In the mean time spotted a collared kingfisher, rufous woodpecker, black jungle fowl, paradise flycatcher and a grey hornbill. This is of course in addition to doves by the dozen and other common waders like the pond heron, black winged stilt, little and greater egret, blue rock pigeons and the ubiquitous raven.
On the river heading home we saw herds of chital along the banks getting there drink before bed. a beautiful day came to end in a long river boat ride home. The chug chug of the engine lulling me to sleep I curled up in my bunk with my camera back pack for a pillow and slept.
Bhittar Kanika till we meet again. I know I will be back to this idyllic river, where time stands still.............. and the boat keeps moving.