Winter play for migratory birds at Chilika

Chilika is one of the milestone places in India. It is the largest brackish water lagoon. Now what is brackish water? It is the water which is saline or salty but not as salty as the sea water. It happens when the fresh water mixes with sea water. There are 52 rivers and rivulets that fall in the lake. Secondly, Chilika is also a lagoon, and it is not just largest coastal lagoon in India, it is also second largest lagoon in the world. As if it was not enough, it is the largest wintering ground for migratory water-birds anywhere in the Indian sub-continent.

A early morning boating on a local boat in Chilika lake.
A early morning boating on a local boat in Chilika lake.

Chilika is spread in three districts of Odisha- Puri, Ganjam and Khurda. Puri side is mainly popular for Dolphin tours from Satpada. Satpada is around 50 kilometres from Puri. It is on northeast of Chilika lake. Tourists can book dolphin tours from Puri itself. Once you do that you can be transported from Puri to Satpada by bus or you can go to Satpada by any public or private transport and than take boats for a ride in Chilika. OTDC organises connected tours as well. Once you reach Satpada, you can go to jetty to take up boat.

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Tourists on Satpada jetty

Chilika lake also has biggest population of Irrawaddy Dolphins in world. Every year in February a census is done to determine the number of Dolphins in the area. In 1997 the process of counting started. Firstly it was a broad estimation than it was done systematically every year. The number has been increasing constantly and it is around 160 at this time. Environmentalists say that increase in number of dolphins is an indicator of improvement in the ecosystem and quality of water.

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A sea gull and a Irrawaddy dolphin

Boats from Satpada will normally take tourists to a island called Rajahamsa (राजहंस). Its while going to this island and coming back that we have chance to see the dolphins. This island is 18 kms from Satpada and it is actually located at the mouth of the Chilika lagoon. Rajahamsa is actually a narrow strip of land with one side towards lagoon and another towards Bay of Bengal.

Rajahamsa island
Rajahamsa island

Island has developed into a small business hub for various tourism related activities. Locals will even try to sell ‘original’ pearls extracting them from shells live.

A cruel way to get 'pearls'
A cruel way to get ‘pearls’

But this Satpada side of Chilika is known only for dolphins. Migratory birds often don’t come here.  Migratory birds are mostly located o other side of Chilika. Their base is at Nalaban island which is located in 15.5 sq km area. Nalaban is a sanctuary area. It is estimated that among the 9 lakh waterfowls coming to Chilika every year, almost half put base in this sanctuary area.  Birds also reach to areas like Mangalajodi and Bhusandpur.

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Tourists at Nalaban island and the watch tower on the back

Most of the migratory birds coming to Chilika make their winter homes at various islands in the lake. Besides Nalaban there are Krushnaprasad, Kalijai, Somolo, Honeymoon, Breakfast and Birds island. One can see  Dolphins in this area as well.

A pair of dolphins with fishermen boats in the background
A pair of dolphins with fishermen boats in the background

Most interesting part is that one has to go deep inside the lagoon through a boat to watch the migratory birds. There are country boats but they won’t take you much far so you need a mechanised boat. You need time to enjoy the birding at Chilika. Since islands are scattered in the lake, therefore it is not possible to see all of them in one go. One can watch birds on the way. But you need few days in hand to enjoy the birds and the beautiful ecosystem of Chilika.

Chilika lake was the first Indian wetland to be included in the Ramsar Convention in 1981. Later, due to poor conservation it was included in Montreux Record which is a list of threatened Ramsar sites, but in 2002 it was removed from the Montreux list after lake was rejuvenated and restored. Chilika is also known for its fish farming due to rich fish, shrimp resources.  Locals are lot dependent on fish produce from the  lake. It is estimated that around 1.5 lakh fisherfolk live around the lagoon.

A fisherman adjusting his net
A fisherman adjusting his net

How to reach: For watching Irrawaddy Dolphins, one has to go to Satpada, 50 kms from Puri and than take a boat ride from the jetty. For watching birds, there are three places to go inside the lagoon- Barkul, Balugaon and Rambha. All these three places are located between Bhubaneswar and Berhampur.  Hence these can be accessed by road and rail connectivity between Bhubaneswar and Berhampur. Balugaon and Rambha have railway stations on South East railway. Nearest airport is Bhubaneswar. Balugaon is 96 kms, Barkul is 105 kms and Rambha is 130 kms from Bhubaneswar.

Local people going places in Chilika
Local people going places in Chilika

Best time to visit is obviously November to February as for most of the birding sites in India. Barkul, Balugaon and Rambha have Odisha Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC) guest houses for stay. Few other hotels have also come up in the area in recent years. At all these three places you can hire boats run by OTDC as well private operators. Private operators will always bargain.

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