Sunday before last, I went on a half-day trip to Vedanthangal and Karikili. To the uninitiated, they are two bird sanctuaries located about 60 kilometres south of Chennai. There were three of us: Vasumathi Sankaran, geographer and all round nature specialist, veteran of hundreds of sanctuary visits, the one who, along with Theodore Baskaran, initiated me into the mysteries of birding and wildlife watching. Recently, her age and health have prevented her from visiting as many places as she would like to, but it was a great experience going birding with her again. The other person who made up our party was Deepu, who has proved to be an enthusiastic companion for any birding trip, and a reluctant one for any other! Vidya was too zonked from the previous night’s party to do anything, so she gave it a miss.
We made an early start, for a change, leaving home at 5:20 a.m. Deepu had stayed over and that was helpful, and we had picked up Vasumathi and were on our way by 6:00 a.m. The drive was quite enjoyable – good roads and almost no traffic. Crossing the Palar Bridge was quite eerie – there was thick fog and we couldn’t see more than fifteen feet ahead of us. It looked like the bridge across forever, and only when we reached the other side did we breathe easy! We finally reached Vedanthangal at about 7:00 a.m.
Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary is a largish irrigation tank with a lot of Barringtonia trees, which provide a lot of nesting spots for pelicans, herons, storks and ibises. The south western shore of the tank is a raised bund on which is a paved pathway and several viewpoints from which one can see the nesting birds. At one point there is a watchtower, whose top is gained by a dizzying spiral staircase. From the top, there is a fantastic panoramic view of the tank, and you can look right into the nests of the birds. At times when there are a lot of people, a forest department staffer usually stands there with a pair of battered but powerful old binoculars fixed to a pole mounted in the concrete. Those unfortunate souls who do not carry binoculars are condemned to a quick peek through them. The fellow manning it is usually a firm socialist, and will insist that you give up your place once you have seen through the binoculars for whatever length of time he believes is appropriate for each person.
Anyway, since we were carrying our own, we were spared the hassle. The trees were crowded, but the waters were well nigh empty – and with good reason. The morning sun was unforgivingly scorching, and almost blinded us with its reflection off the water. All the ducks, garganeys, shovellers, coots and all others of their ilk had taken shelter in distant shades. On the trees however, it was a different story. Every little perch had been taken – painted storks, grey pelicans, spoonbills, white ibises, grey herons, night herons, paddy herons, egrets and open-billed storks crowded around noisily. Every now and then one would step on some other’s toes and there would be a cacophony, fluttering wings and clattering bills. Presently, order would return, and all would be calm. We could make out painted storks patiently incubating their eggs, while their partners stood silent guard by their sides.
On the other side of the bund were rolling green paddy fields. In the sea of green, we could spot glossy ibises, walking around slowly and picking out worms, frogs and small fish from the flooded rice paddies.
After some time, we walked back to the entrance for a tea, and that was when we met Murugan, the Bird Tracker!
From Vedanthangal, we drove to Karikili, about ten kilometres away. It’s a smaller tank, and the walkway is still not built. There were no birds because of the sun, but the breeze made it quite pleasant. We could make out a few birds on a distant shady shore, but that was all.
We made it back to Chennai in time for a late lunch at Dhabba Express – the sixty rupee buffet was just right!