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Birds of a Feather
By Thomas King
10 January 2011

It's has neither the fame of the former QE2 nor the prestige of the mighty Queen Mary 2.  No, the M.L. Spoonbill - seating just seven passengers - could never be compared to those two mega ocean liners.  I'm thankful that the creaky craft even floats and just hope this short venture will not be a titanic type voyage.  The boat man starts the engine of the veteran launch and we set off across Chilka Lake.
I'm more than 1200 km north of Chennai in the eastern state of Orissa.  Early yesterday I was enjoying the southern delights of the capital of Tamil Nadu State, an easy gateway to India.  The overnight train has comfortably brought me up the eastern coast to Orissa, a land blessed with remarkably untrammelled beaches, exquisite temples particularly the World Heritage listed Sun Temple at Konark, the outstanding dance festival organised annually at the same locale, national parks where tigers make fleeting appearances, vast tribal tracts that are home to tradition wielding indigenous people and Asia's largest brackish lagoon.  And the latter is the reason I have come to Chilka Lake.

I'm not alone.  There are a few others with me in the Spoonbill and a handful of equally water worthy boats laden with passengers setting off from the protected jetty at Barkul.  Still waters are soon behind us as we motor past breakwater barriers and into a massive body of water.  Chilka is a geologic anomaly. For starters, the lake expands and contracts.  Year end when it's at its peak, the shallow body of water spreads over 1100 sq. km.  Next to the Bay of Bengal, a 60 km sandbar divides the bay from the lake with only a small channel connecting the two.  As the state - indeed India - really heats up in April and May Chilka diminishes in size to a mere 600 sq. km.

The cooler months are the best times for visitors as well as birds.  Chilka's inviting environs are bird central from October to February when up to 150 species of migratory birds descend upon lake-located isles for an extended break from winter.  Geese, herons and even flamingos are the stars of winter.  With luck visitors might even see Irrawaddy dolphin also frolic in these waters.

The Indian winter is far warmer than the places where the birds came from.  Departing Siberia, Iraq, Iran and  Kazakhstan without visas or even passports the high fliers will stay and feast on prawns, moss and other lake delicacies for three months until advancing heat heralds a mass departure.

I see a few flapping wings as we progress farther into Chilka Lake.  A half hour has elapsed and I can no longer see the shore.  Only the odd tree-tusselled isle is visible.  Another 30 minutes passes and it's the same story.  Waves are now seriously bobbing the boat and I welcome the chance for time out on an island topped with a tiny temple.  Pilgrims come here to pay their respects and there are many doing just that as our little launch pulls up at the makeshift jetty.  After peering into the venerated sanctuary I trot around the pocket book size parcel of land.

Only a few minutes elapse before the boat man calls out that it's time to cast off to the next island where bird life abounds.  I look at the sky.  It's overcast and threatening.  I gaze at the increasingly ominous waves.  I make an instant decision to head back to shore.  Cranes and flamingos by the truckload may await but this is one chicken who knows when the weather is too foul to enjoy seeing fowl.

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