Watching Water Birds and Water People in Maguri Beel, Assam

Whilst on a recent trip to Arunachal, watching us go bananas over the birds, our driver boasted about a water body near his town in Tinsukia, Assam that has “all sorts of birds.” “Uske saamne yeh to kuch bhi nahin hai,” he continued. This is nothing compared to what you see there. We took his words seriously and spent the last evening of our trip exploring the Maguri Beel, watching its water people and birds, enjoying a sunset on a boat with a guide.

Turns out, it is not an unexplored remote corner as I expected it to be. Maguri Beel is quite popular among birders not only in this part of the country but from all over. Jeevan Dutta, who is the resident guide at the Kohua Eco-camp resort that borders the beel told us that he is getting two groups of Bangaloreans just the next day. Maguri Beel is located just south of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and attracts migratory birds in thousands every year other than quite a number of residents.

Pigeon Tailed Jacana, Ruddy Shelduck, Yellow Wagtails, Purple Swamphens, Asian Open Bills, Northern Pintails, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Coot, Stonechats are the commonly found birds in the beel. We hired a boat and went on a sort of a sunset cruise watching fishermen getting back home with their daily catch. Fishing nets across the beel fluttered in the sunset and Ruddy Shelducks took flight watching our approaching boat framed by the sunset. Swamphens, Wagtails and Egrets were a constant presence too. It was quite an experience and a perfect way to end our trip to the North-East India.

Some pictures from the trip.

Fishermen rowing back after a day's work
Fishermen rowing back after a day’s work
A yellow wagtail
A yellow wagtail
Fishing nets in Maguri Beel
Fishing nets in Maguri Beel
Spreading the net
Spreading the net
Could this be a White-tailed Stonechat?
A Common Stonechat

How to reach: Nearest town, Tinsukia, is just 9km away. Dibrugarh is 50km away and taxis are easily available for a day trip. It would probably be better to stay in the Kohua resort that overlooks the Beel (call Jeevan for rates at +919954135613) to enjoy the ecosystem of the Beel.

A Purple Swamphen
A Purple Swamphen
An Asian Openbill in flight
An Asian Openbill in flight
A Ruddy Shelduck
A Ruddy Shelduck
A flight of birds against the sunset at Maguri Beel
A flight of birds against the sunset at Maguri Beel
The blue house, Magari Beel
The blue house, Magari Beel
An egret in flight
An egret in flight
Boats at Maguri Beel
Boats at Maguri Beel
Could this also be a White-tailed Stonechat?
A Common Stonechat
Row boats are also a way to navigate these waters
Row boats are also a way to navigate these waters
A fisherman in Maguri Beel
A fisherman in Maguri Beel

Have you been to Maguri Beel? Have you blogged about it? Leave a comment and let me know. I would love to read it.

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Kali river chronicles – offbeat in Karnataka

Hanakon: I have very clear memory of articulating the word to the mini-bus conductor in Karwar before boarding the rattling mass of automobile that is somehow, clutching its life in its hands, speeding down the narrow main road. I see signboards for Canacon and not of Hanakon and I suddenly grow wary – is it Canacon the bus is heading to? The dreary youngster of a conductor proves fractious, maintaining a sullen expression as if to avoid conversation with strangers. It could be the heavy-eyed, foggy morning on which he is forced to work when the entire world is still wriggling inside its sheets.

mongrove walkway
mongrove walkway

I call Diwan, chief instructor at the Riveredge where I am headed and confirm my navigational orientation.  The bus drops me off at Hanakon, so infinitesimal a village wedged somewhere along the Karnataka – Goa – Maharashtra border, even Google maps chose to ignore it. As I try to make sense of my coordinates to reach the resort, I – a seemingly lost, lone stranger become a subject of curiosity for the villagers on that uneventful morning.

the cottage

But they are friendly, suggesting shortcuts. “Look for Rajesh’s house. He works for the resort, he will take you,” the shopkeeper says. Rajesh and his house prove elusive but I continue walking and increasingly meet with head bobbing and lip pouting signifying lack of information. A middle aged man working on his field helpfully hands me a staff warning of stray dog nuisance. After about fifteen minutes of ambling around, I stumble upon a neglected wooden pathway built across the mangrove bushes leading to what seemed like civilization.

I amble further along the thicket of mangroves, lined on either side with stilted cottages and Diwan appears from his quarters with a loud call of welcome. I was shown my cottage whose bedside window opens to the mangrove duplicating a tree-house effect while the front door to the backwaters. In the following nights, I would wake up listening to the nocturnal movements of the forest – a falling twig, scampering of some animal, a cat or a snake may be – but too cagey to peep out into the darkness. The distance to my cottage from the dining area and access to it in the night also ensured that I constantly fear of accidentally stepping over a snake earning its wrath and a resultant swipe – or worse – a mouthful meal for a python.

Kayaking by the kali
Kayaking by the kali

Now though Diwan insists I take a kayak ride. He also adds that the water is very deep in some places and thinks I should not carry my camera. I persist. I slip into the kayak, with the help of Avinash, an ex-manager at the property, who spiritedly agrees to kayak with me. The ebb and flow of Kali’s backwaters has created a smattering of habitable islands with fields of paddy and vegetables cultivation.

The heaviness of the sunless, hazy day weighs down on me and I fall back on my paddling. Avinash is a spot in the distance framed by the huddling peaks of Western Ghats and the low, sluice gates of the river. Tiny kingfishers, cormorants and terns dart across looking to catch the fish leaping out of the still water. I slowly tire myself out and let the kayak bob in the water. That hard slog is thankfully supplemented with a meal that constitutes of fish fry and spicy pepper chicken.

The horizontal depletion of my resources is only complemented by the vertical ones, just the next day. On an extended trek through dense forests, Diwan takes me rock climbing. He comes equipped with sturdy shoes but omits the crucial detail about the shoes to me – I am in my hiking sandals designed for flat surfaces. ‘It’s ok sir, I have taken women for rock climbing with children in hand,’ he tells me as a way of assuaging my concerns. ‘Yeah but I am sure they had their shoes on,’ I think in my head.

At the sight of the steep precipice that was once a waterfall, my heart falls skipping several beats. I tell him I am not very fond of heights, sugar coating my acrophobia. But he is not around to respond. Rubbing climbing chalk in his hands, he is free-climbing with the orange rope hanging from his waist that he drops to me as a climbing rope, scaling the rock and fastening the rope in a tree. I wear my harness on with the help of the assistant, hook myself to the rope and begin my ascent clumsily.

Kayaking in the Kali river (pic: Diwan Singh)
Kayaking in the Kali river (pic: Diwan Singh)

‘Don’t use your knee, hold on to the rock,’ I hear instructions from above and below. My sandals threaten to slip me up but I scramble, hold on to dear life and tiny rock faces. In this manner, after what seems like hours, I reach the summit amid much encouraging hoo-ha. I can only feign a smile. Cautious to not look down, I rapidly oblige to Diwan’s instructions on rappelling down.

rock climbing
rock climbing

Are you still scared of heights, sir? Diwan asks me after the entire process is over. I do not bother to explain that one threatening ascend is not enough to ward off my fear of heights. Despite its non-existence in my imaginary bucket list, rock climbing (or scrambling) becomes the one thing I can easily add and tick off in quick succession. Soon after though, as we trek back to the main road over stories of bear attacks amid cackling of hornbills and the whoosh of breeze that rips the forest’s hush, my mood shifts; I gamely listen on.

The River Sutra of Olaulim – Offbeat in Goa

When we reached the guidebook-extolled, purportedly the most scenic spot in Mobor beach in South Goa where the river Sal meets the sea, the sun was at its peak. Almost blinding were the rays as they fell on water, reflecting back making the water simmering in golden hues. Goa’s popular beaches are heaving under pressure with commercial establishments and tourists jostling for space and competing with each other – former for seasonal business from the latter and the latter, for the proverbial relaxing beach holiday despite the chaos. Thus India’s favorite beach destination is overrun with holiday makers the instant season commences but all is not lost if you look to travel off the beaten path.

The Olaulim creek
The Olaulim creek

The tiny river Sal flows into the Arabian Sea forming one of the tiniest estuaries where fishing boats are moored and fishermen go about their daily lives – some preparing their boats to set out for the day, some constructing the boats painting the strips of wood with black varnish and some taking a leisurely bath dowsing themselves in buckets of fresh water under the feisty green awning of the cashew trees. We draw curious looks and they suggest unfamiliarity of tourists wandering into their territory. We persist and find a very inviting spot surrounded by a canopy of trees – however, on the other side of the river bank.

It is a cove, a semi-beach, while the rocky surface renders it incapable for easy navigation and the river-meets-sea corner makes it perfect for saline water fishing. But the huge driftwoods that are washed ashore, the laterite-concrete parapet wall along the ridges of the shore and the amply shaded tiny patch of sand engender a feeling that it is a hideaway with a difficult access to get to. Turns out, there is no way to cross over to the other side and the fishing boats that are setting out into the sea are not conducive to get a lift. The only other access is to ride down for a few kilometers and get to Covalessim and take a ferry to cross over to Betul village.

The 10-second ferry ride at Covalessim brings us to the Betul village and we ride along the backwaters in the acrid smell of fish being left out in the sun to dry. Betul’s roads have no signboards and Google maps is the only trustworthy aid to reach any nook and cranny since everything is extensively covered. Betul wears the signature look of a Goan village – children play on the road, local bars announce fish curry meals, a front yard of the church is being cleared up by volunteers for an upcoming feast and just as you steer into a tertiary road, the crowded living quarters constrict your navigation.

At the bay, as the day progresses, the number of men who gather for fishing multiplies. They angle in bunches and as individuals and share their small catches with each other as bait for bigger ones. Many of them good heartedly holler at each other’s jokes in their alcohol-exalted congeniality. One tells us how today was not a great day and brags about his big catch just the previous day.  We take it all in and saunter cautiously to avoid slipping or worse, getting slashed by the sharp edges of the rocks that had dead shellfish stuck on their surface.

We spot a huge jellyfish in the waters, a recent phenomenon that is a cause of concern for the tourism industry in Goa. Though Jellyfish related incidents have not been reported in the country or in Goa, spotting of these fish has been reported in recent times. Bites can vary from toxic to non-toxic so we stay away. We sit around, while away time listening to the banter of men fishing and watching the constant stream of fishing boats heading into the sea.

If you care to make inroads into Goa’s somnolent villages, you will discover numerous water bodies in the form of ponds, backwaters and rivers. Many of these are rich, monsoon fed, self-sustaining ecosystems and host to numerous birds, plants and fish. We saw ponds thick with water lilies in white and pink holding their chin up amid mossy vegetation of aquatic flora. We also spotted the migratory purple heron, tufted duck, fulvous whistling duck and Indian pond heron in these water bodies. Ducks and water fowls putter about in the company of fields on both sides where men till the land in preparation of the winter crop.

Ferries cut across Mandovi, the omnipresent factor of Panjim city, carting hordes of people throughout the day.  We savor lunch at Terrys, overpriced albeit worth for the views of Mandovi and its goings-on, on the banks of Mandovi enroute the recently renovated Reis Magos fort.

To get to Olaulim and to Savio and Pirkko Fernandes’ homestay, it is crucial to first place the tiny village on the map. Because no amount of careful enunciation of the name will yield any result from the locals if you chose to seek and find Olaulim using traditional approach. They simply haven’t heard of it. Though it is in close proximity with Panjim and Mapusa, the village has a truly fallen-off-the-map feel to it. But we have the map and Olaulim is on it. Follow the river, Prikko had earlier told us while sending us directions to reach her. And so we did. We also passed the stately Salvador do Mundo church and other villages to reach the Fernandes’ eco-homestay. Located in a 3-acre property with a charming infinity pool built around a coconut tree and overlooking a creek, this is just where you will go if you want to get lost in your travels, as it were.

Bird calls persist throughout the day, river terns dive into the creek for fish, a lone kingfisher perched on a stump of a dry tree peers into the water for its prey.  The creek is perfectly safe for swimming, Pirkko tells us because the catchment area is controlled by sluice gates and the water level never goes up. But we are already hooked to the kayaks invitingly floating around their tiny jetty. We strap our cameras on, land precariously into the kayaks and row away into the sun.

This appeared in The New Indian Express and can be accessed here.