A unique photo assignment landed on my desk this January. But, I was reluctant to take it up. The trek was neither inside a deep jungle in the Western Ghats nor through the vast expanse of the Himalayas. There is hardly any wildlife here in this huge water body. Two other things bothered me: I can’t swim or speak Hindi to save my life! Regardless of all this, I took up the assignment for one reason- it involved the largest wintering ground for migratory birds in India. This is the Chilika Lake in Odisha, the largest brackish water lagoon in Asia.
It took us two days to reach the lake by road. Multiple thoughts circled my head while driving 12 hours a day. They mostly revolved around my inability to communicate in Hindi. I thought about all possible conversations with the all-important boatman and planned a slew of interesting hand gestures to communicate with him. The person who assisted me used this chance to show off his broken Hindi. “Ram, worst case, just say, boat bandh karo”.
We reached Chilika Lake. My countdown had started. I had a month to photo document major aspects of the lake. First on the agenda was to photograph the Greater Flamingos. Well before sunrise, we started on a two-hour boat-ride to an island where they were usually spotted. The island plays a vital role in sustaining the health of the lake. Livelihoods of thousands of fishermen depend on it.
My wish came true when we arrived and I was surrounded by lakhs of migratory birds. Birdcalls of all kinds reverberated in the air. The golden light dragged me to shoot less shy birds that were close by. But I had made up my mind. We spotted a flock of flamingos pretty far. These birds are very shy. Approaching them by boat might be a disaster as they are likely to be disturbed. The researcher, who knew the place like the back of his hand, suggested I approach the birds by foot.
In no time, I was knee-deep in water and just a kilometre from the flamingos. With a camouflage net, I made sure I looked like a pile of floating leaves. I slowly crawled the distance so that the birds were not disturbed. The final movement came after a few hours of inching back and forth. The proximity was perfect. The light was good. When I thought I had to be contended with an empty sky, a flock of ducks flew and completed the shot!
Walking on slushy ground, carrying a few kilos of camera equipment and camouflaging like a pile of dry leaves floating aound, may seem a bit intense. But, like a wise old man once said about creativity and art, ‘It’s the process that’s more enjoyable than the end result’.
(The author is an award-winning nature photographer and co-founder of Youth for Conservation. In this monthly column, he talks about his passion for nature, photography and conservation.)