We were no less excited than a bunch of schoolkids on the day before their class picnic, a time which all three of us had left behind long back. But what did that matter? We were to go on a sort of picnic too the next day, and the fact that we were a lot senior than the average school kid had no relevance whatsoever. Excitement or not, an early night was called for as we had to leave at the crack of dawn, yet we only just about managed to fall asleep an hour before midnight. Well, a sleepover is no less thrilling an experience for the not-so-young. And as the alarm went off……
Wait a minute. This seems all wrong. No mention has been made of who the ‘we’ are or where ‘we’ were headed. I better start all over again and at the beginning this time.
I had been all set to go to Chennai to visit an old friend from Army days when I happened to read this post by Sandhya, about her trip to Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary. Eyes popped out of my head. Gorblimey, birds! Birds, that had flown halfway across the globe, and were now in the neighborhood where I was to visit (what’s a one and a half hours drive anyway?!), just waiting to be photographed by the Shutterbug Lady which is me in case you were wondering. All I had to do was make plans on how best to go about doing that.
It is rummy how people diss Facebook for anything and everything. If the rice got overcooked it is Facebook’s fault, if their kajal stick broke, it is Facebook’s fault, if it rained it is Facebook’s fault, if the new dress they bought ran colors on its first wash, it is Facebook’s fault, if a mosquito bit them while sitting in the lawn, it is Facebook’s fault. You get the drift, right? Well, I am not dumb that way, so I don’t blame Facebook for human frailties. Besides, Facebook has its uses, just like everything else. It was on Facebook that the egg of our idea was gently laid (“plop”) and lovingly hatched; it was on Facebook that it grew its first baby wings and then, voila! One day those wings were strong enough to be spread wide and carry us along as it flew.
Sandhya is one person who revels in nature, just like me, if not more. She loves birds too and was game to make a second trip (or third or fourth or fifth… Eh, Sandhya?). By then Uma was also in, as excited about our plans. Things had fallen into place with a smooth click. Sandhya graciously invited Uma and me over to her place so we could start our trip together. After a yum dinner of ada dosai, Sandhya went about getting the iddlies dipped in podi ready, while Uma and I did some real hard work helping her, with incessant chatter. I am kidding of course. We were all chattering, quite like magpies.
As the alarm went off the next morning, we got up, though not as fresh as daisies, having gone to bed late, but fresh-eyed to watch winged friends in their habitat. Anyway before the morning could dawn bright and clear, we were out of the door at precisely 4-30 a.m. as planned, cameras with batteries duly charged, iddlies resting cheek by jowl inside the container, fruits in bags and water all sparkling in bottles, speeding along the highway to Kancheepuram.
James, the driver made good time, and at exactly 6 a.m. we were at Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary. The bird community was already up and about. We could hear the cries and the flap of wings. And the awesome sight that met our eyes as we stepped in was tree after tree with white fluffy flowers on top of them! Well, at least that is how it looked to us in the early morning light, but they actually were huge birds sitting on top of trees. There were so many of them though of course I am told the number of birds is much less this time than is usual.
What do you do in a bird sanctuary? Watch birds of course. That’s what we did, walked up and down the path, climbed the watch tower, looked and looked, and marveled at the birds, tried to identify each, clicked them to our heart’s content. There were Ibises, Pelicans, Painted Storks, Eurasian Spoonbills, Little Cormorants, Darters, Grey Herons, Asian Open-bills, Pond Herons, Egrets…..They were all on trees separated from the visitors by a body of water, which prevented them from being disturbed. Then there were other birds of the garden variety we saw like Rufous Treepies, Golden Orioles, Sunbirds, Greater Coucals, Bulbuls, Kingfishers and Woodpeckers on the trees on either side of the path we walked. We even saw a White-breasted Waterhen that ran for its life when it saw us. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know.
We watched the sun rise from far behind the trees, a beautiful sight. As sunlight grew brighter the birds also could be seen more clearly. Many of them rose at frequent intervals, made circles above the trees and landed back on their perch. It is a mystery how the huge birds sat on the tips of branches that looked so fragile. We saw one tree was full of Black Cormorants and another with just Painted Storks. We couldn’t help joking that it looked like even birds practiced racism. But of course all other trees had a variety of them together, mixed colonies in fact.
Black headed Ibises were a delight to watch their white wings spread out against the blue sky. We saw a parent and two ‘children’ on a tree in the middle of the water body. A Darter and also an Asian Open-bill were watching them keenly. Like Sandhya said, it looked like the adults wanted to chat and the kids were bugging Mom for attention.
The Spot-billed Pelicans have an awesome wing span and from beneath, the light tinge of green and the markings on their spread out wings were a beautiful sight to behold. They frequently got up flew around and came back to perch. Many of them were sitting motionless, probably hatching eggs. A few of them put up a show for us, diving into the water, scooping water with huge beaks and then draining the water off to eat whatever it was they had caught. Pelicans have a really comical look that makes you smile on seeing their antics.
Painted Storks could be seen diligently tending to nests. One of them was busy collecting leaves and grass and even pulling at a creeper for all it was worth. When it had collected enough materials in its long beak, it happily landed on a tree-top, only to be promptly chased off the premises by a rather paranoid Momma Stork who already had a nest there. The first one unwilling to take on the aggressor went off to find a more suitable spot on a different tree. Many of the Painted Storks were sitting still in their nests. Though we could not see any of eggs with the naked eye, when I returned home and enlarged the pictures, I actually found a couple of Painted Storks standing over nests with eggs in them. That was quite a thrilling moment of discovery for me. By the way, the sound their flapping wings make has to be heard to be believed!
The Cormorants and Darters are experts at sitting still, same as the Pond Herons. Some of them hadn’t moved from the time we stepped into the sanctuary to the time we left, at least it seemed so. I love how they spread out their wings and sit still, as if to dry them, which gives you an excellent opportunity to click.
We only managed to spot a Eurasian Spoonbill a little later in the day and that too quite a way off. But there were many of them around. They merged with the Pelican crowd on top of trees, the same was the case with Grey Herons. But, the black bar on the Grey Heron’s head made it easier to identify them even from a distance. A couple of them also flew close enough for me to take a shot.
The good thing about Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary is that the villagers take an awful lot of interest in conserving the area and its occupants. It has apparently been so from time immemorial. The villagers are said to have complained to the Collector of Chingleput against the British soldiers for shooting birds, then demanded, and obtained the status of sanctuary for the lake and surroundings in 1936. (Info from Wiki).
After spending almost 4-5 hours there, we reluctantly decided to leave. In between of course we had our breakfast and munched on fruits. It had been a wonderful time. On the way back we stopped at Karikili sanctuary. The water had all but dried up there. But the first sight that met our eyes was a Pied Kingfisher hovering in the air before diving. In the distance I could see some ducks frolicking in a pond. It was impossible to identify them from where I stood, but I clicked them for the heck of it. After returning home I found they were migrants called, Northern Pintails. Oh wow.
Need I say we had a wonderful time? May be not. 🙂
©Shail Mohan 2014