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Twitching Along The Mahanadi

Twitching Along The Mahanadi

Satyesh Naik, Dr. Anup Nayak and Anshu Pragyan discover that the hills along the course of ‘The Great River’ are a treasure trove of avian delights.

A flock of Indian Skimmers fly low over the water, opportunistically snapping up aquatic prey when they can, using their long lower mandibles in their signature ‘scooping’ style. Photo: Satyesh Naik, Dr. Anup Nayak and Anshu Pragyan.

As the sun rose from behind the hills of Tikarpada, it seemed to set the river on fire. Fine threads of mist had engulfed the surface of the chilled, pristine blue waters of the great Mahanadi at the magnificent Satkosia Gorge. The place derives its name from ‘Sata’ meaning seven and ‘Kosa’ meaning two miles (3.2 km.), indicative of the length of the gorge – 14 miles (22.5 km.). Winter had arrived in the Satkosia forests, Odisha’s second tiger reserve, spread over 963 sq. km. and comprising the Satkosia Gorge and Baisipalli sanctuaries. We were there for our regular bird diversity count as part of checklist-updating for the reserve. This is where the Eastern Ghats meet the Deccan Plateau and naturalists rightly believe this is probably one of India’s most vital and biodiverse ecosystems.

As our boatman Narendra guided his motor launch through the azure waters of the Mahanadi, we looked out for our regular ‘friends’ of the sandbars. As expected, the River Lapwings were there, dotting the shoreline, greeting us with their shrill ‘diddi-di-diddi-di’ calls. But we were even more excited to see our winged winter guests, a group of Indian Skimmers that we spotted from quite a distance. Easily identifiable by their gleaming red bills and characteristic black caps, three to four groups of the endangered Indian skimmers visit the Satkosia Gorge sandbars each year.

We estimated their numbers to hover around 250 individuals. Our experienced boatman shut down his motor and we coasted for a bit before approaching closer, helped along by the skillful use of a bamboo pole. We could see the skimmers were a touch wary of our presence, but they did not fly away.

Watching their black mantles glisten in the sun, we agreed there could not have been a better welcome on that cool winter morning.

Having noted their numbers, we then moved downstream scanning the river for Falcated Ducks, which are a rarity for the region. We had once recorded these ducks in the backwaters of the nearby Samal barrage. All along the golden sandbars in the gorge we encountered large numbers of Great Thick Knees and Small Pratincoles. Over the last couple of months, an extraordinary effort has been made to create a serene, protected environment for the birds of the gorge and their large numbers seemed to suggest they have responded well to such protection. Fishing with nets has also been banned in the entire gorge and this has resulted in a large number of Great Thick Knees and River Lapwing nests being discovered on the sandbars. Additionally, there had been a marginal rise in the gharial population - from one in the last census to three individuals in the latest one. That two gharials released by the department, actually survived the whole year is reason for hope and a testament to the fact that carefully planned conservation measures and stricter enforcement can work to the advantage of Satkosia.

Handsome members of the raptor family, Changeable Hawk-eagles are so named after their varying colour morphs in some sub-species. Mating pairs will occupy the same territory but prefer not to hunt together. Photo: Satyesh Naik, Dr. Anup Nayak and Anshu Pragyan.


Apart from the Skimmer, there was something else we saw that delighted us. A series of loud, hooting screams were echoing in the gorge. Unmistakably, these were calls of Malabar Pied Hornbills. Both sides of the gorge harbour a decent population of these prehistoric-looking birds, largely on account of the kuchila Strychnos nuxvomica trees found in the riparian forests. Their preference for the kuchila figs gives them the Odiya name kochilkhai meaning ‘fig eaters’. With their huge wingspans, a pair offered us a magnificent sight as they flew in from Angul in the north towards Nayagarh to the south. The pair perched on a distant tree towards which our boat was silently cruising.

We have documented birds in many forested parts of Odisha, but if there is a place where one is virtually assured of Malabar Pied Hornbill sightings, it has to be Satkosia. The best place to observe them we discovered was at Tikarpada and Kuturi, post-dawn and pre-dusk. We anchored our boat at Marada, a small, sleepy village in the core of the tiger reserve and sat back to listen to the calls of the hornbills.

We decided to walk the forest road that ran along the gorge, festooned with thickets of riverine forest and bamboo brakes and were rewarded with sightings of thrushes and a mix of flycatchers. High-rising hills on one side, a narrow strip of forest and then the Mahanadi on the other side… what could be more picture-perfect?

With the sun beating down on our backs, we parked our vehicle and began our birding walk. Within a few yards of the village, we chanced upon a mixed hunting party comprising a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, a group of Brown-cheeked Fulvettas, a pair of Fulvous-breasted Woodpeckers and some Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers, busy scanning the leafy branches for insects and termites. Of the party, the Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers were the most animated, calling in all directions and causing mayhem in the otherwise silent forests. A Brown Fish-owl remained a mute spectator in the canopy below and chose to fly off almost exactly as we became aware of its presence. These large-sized owls were spotted by us on most of our bird-documentation exercises, in all the ranges.

As we walked, our discussion turned to the old Jagannath road which we were traversing. This stretch of forest finds mention in one of the chapters of Valentine Ball’s book, Jungle Life in India. The famous British geologist describes this old forest road of Satkosia thus: “The road is a pleasant one through well-wooded hills. Here and there it overhangs the Mahanadi, affording glimpses of beautiful little bits of scenery.” Very few notes are available on the forests of Odisha from the British era and officers like Valentine Ball, H. F. Mooney and J. W. Nicholson must be credited for whatever little information we have. We soon met our staff from Kuturi, who dropped us off at the Chamundia range office 10 km. away.

With a grey, square-shaped head and a yellow belly, the Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher lives up to its name! These insectivores will often join mixed-species foraging flocks. Photo: Satyesh Naik, Dr. Anup Nayak and Anshu Pragyan.


In the Range Office compound just 500 m. from the Mahanadi river, we stopped at the typical, tiled rest house, surrounded by staff quarters. A quick lunch and then a spot of birding in the shade of the teak plantations in the campus saw us drawn towards what we presumed was a female Small Minivet. Suddenly an entire flock arrived, with members hopping busily from branch to branch. Something about the birds looked different. There were no bright orange shades to the underparts of the males as one would expect to see. On closer examination they turned out to be the rare Ashy Minivets. Totally unperturbed by our presence, they swarmed all over the place, busy grabbing insects and flies in the afternoon heat. Very few individuals have ever been recorded in peninsular India, the species being winter migrants from the Northeast, China, Korea and Amur region. Clearly, that day the stars favoured us. It was an important record, and a new addition to the checklist. The hills along the Mahanadi are an avian aficionado’s delight and we are confident that the wilderness holds many more hidden treasures that will be discovered in the years ahead.

The Chestnut-headed Bee-eater is a gregarious little passerine that nests in colonies along sandbanks, building deep tunnels in which the female safely lays her eggs. Photo: Satyesh Naik, Dr. Anup Nayak and Anshu Pragyan.

Authors: Satyesh Naik, Dr. Anup Nayak and Anshu Pragyan, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 12, April 2016.


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