December is the month when the musically inclined make their annual pilgrimage to Chennai for the month-long classical music festival or kutcheris. It is also the time when numerous birds chime at their own sabhas as they fly in to breed and spend winter in and around the city.
While most people find big game sightings at far-flung wildlife reserves magnetic, birdwatching is an equally fascinating activity that may require just a day’s trip and can be practised even around one’s home with just a pair of binoculars.
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The natural wonders of Chennai, as with any urban sprawl, are under threat because of pollution and concretization. So, award-winning wildlife film-maker Shekar Dattatri zooms in on precious pockets around Tamil Nadu’s capital that are hot spots for various winged beauties offering a glimpse into the city’s beautiful past.
Situated in the southern suburbs of Chennai, this freshwater swamp is home to several birds that cannot be spotted within the city. The Pheasant-tailed Jacana is one of them. Jacanas are also called lily-trotters because their unusually long toes allow them to distribute their weight evenly and effortlessly walk on lily or lotus leaves without sinking. Then there is the domestic chicken-sized purple moorhen that stands out because of its red beak and dark blue-green body. Sadly, the marsh is so polluted with the toxic waste of the city that these innocent winged visitors are exposed to heavy metals and other poisons in the food they eat here.
Entry to this forest reserve in south Chennai requires a special permit from the forest department. But a trip to this dry evergreen forest is well worth the red tape because it is one of the last of its kind in India’s coastal belt. The park is home to all sorts of forest birds, including the rare Black Baza, a migratory bird of prey with attractive black and white plumage and a little crest on its head. The many-hued Indian Pitta passes through here during its winter migration. The park is also an interesting place to spot a range of mammals, such as spotted deer, blackbuck, mongooses, jackals and fruit bats; and all this right in the heart of the city.
The mix of seawater and freshwater at river mouths creates a nutritious and safe environment with little wave action for crabs and fish to spawn. The abundant food makes estuaries attractive hunting grounds for numerous migratory birds. Sandpipers of various kinds, golden plovers and black-winged stilts throng the Adyar estuary in winter. Twenty years ago, I remember seeing flock sizes of 5,000-6,000 birds. Today, you can count yourself lucky if you can see more than 1,000. Unfortunately, the Adyar estuary has turned into a cesspool because of the city’s raw waste being dumped into it.
An hour north of Chennai by road, Pulicat is the second-largest saltwater lake in India after Chilika in Orissa. The winter months are a great time to sight flocks of greater flamingos. Adult flamingos have a bright pink tinge on their wings, which is a result of beta-carotene in their diet from the brine shrimp and other crustaceans they eat. Pelicans from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh’s Nelapattu sanctuary also come to Pulicat to feed. Sometimes you can see a flock of pelicans cooperatively herding a school of fish towards the shore and engulfing them in their large throat pouches.
One of India’s oldest bird sanctuaries, Vedanthangal is just an hour’s drive from Chennai. This large irrigation tank, rich with nitrogen and phosphorous from bird droppings, has served as a great source of fertilizer for surrounding farmlands. The most spectacular sight in the winter months are nesting painted storks in their magnificent breeding colours—pink wing coverts and bright yellow beak. The “magic hour” at this sanctuary during December-March begins at dusk, when thousands of ibises, cormorants and other birds return to roost after feeding in the countryside. So what you see during the day is just a fraction of the population.
Your city has treasures you pass by without ever taking notice. In this fortnightly series, experts help you discover these gems.
This is the concluding part.