A news clipping in a Chennai daily announcing the arrival of myriad migratory birds to the nearby sanctuary of Vedanthangal caught our attention. We excitedly planned a day trip to the Sanctuary, setting out at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning. Speeding through near empty roads we quickly arrived at the fork on NH 45 past the bridge over Kovalai Lake where the road to Chingleput takes off. We kept to the Thiruchi leg of the six lane highway and passed the Bukkathurai turn to the State highway 118 and slowed down to take the turning for Paliyanur. The road from here on was uneven and broken in many places restricting our rapid progress. Jostling along without a clue as there were no signboards in sight, we were reassured when we reached the forest rest house. One kilometre later we parked our car by the levee of the lake.
The Vedanthangal Sanctuary is one of the oldest in India. About 250 years ago the locals noticed that this area comprising several lakes and ponds attracted a large number of birds. The landlords used it as a hunting ground, but the farmers observed that the water from the lake helped to increase their agricultural yield as the bird droppings contributed to the urea content. The farmers then teamed up to protect the birds. Responding to repeated complaints about hunting expeditions by British soldiers, the Collector granted legal protection to the birds in 1798. The area was recognised as a Sanctuary in 1936 and was named a Reserve in 1962 by the Madras Forest Act. It was upgraded to a wildlife sanctuary in 1972 by the Wildlife Protection Act. Till date the local community holds low key functions and marriages during the breeding season of the birds marking their exemplary link with the ecosystem.
The best time to visit the Sanctuary is between November and mid March. During these months it abounds in migratory and breeding birds including pelicans from Australia and painted stork from Siberia among others. Last season there were as many as 75,000 birds in this 30 hectare Sanctuary. Karikili Lake, situated 9 km away towards Uttaramerur is best visited at sunrise and many people stay overnight at Vedanthangal to see the birds at Karikili the next morning.
We arrived at about 8 am, to find people including a group of school children already leaving. Arriving early, like the archetypical phrase gets the worm – making it possible to see both bird parents tending to the chicks. During the day one partner leaves to forage for food.
The Interpretation Centre sells entry tickets at Rs 5 per person and collects Rs 25 per camera. Binoculars are available for hire, though not always in the best of conditions. As we ascended the few steps up the levee we were greeted by a booming whirr emanating from the lake. Lo and behold everything was dotted in flapping white – as far as the eyes could see, with the wings and calls of the countless birds building up a beautiful crescendo.
A mesmerising picture emerged. The nearest clump of trees, about 30 ft away inlaid with spoonbills and Asian openbills, coots and the common moorhen swimming in languid grace, the darter (snake bird) breaking the silken water with its long neck and most of its body submerged, all came together in a singe memorable frame. A huge rhesus macaque spied upon us through the corner of his eyes as we started walking along the paved path which stretches for a kilometre around the lake’s edge. Trudging up the watch tower, to see the panorama through the installed fixed focus binocular was a disappointment, as it was defunct.
A raptor flew overhead and caused a clutch of little cormorants to fly up in unison and then land again after circling the skies. The delicate large white pelicans with creamy yellow beaks and the grey spotted bill pelicans with pink spotted beaks were resting on the tall trees. Their short flights were ungainly, opposed to the perfect landings on water. Painted storks were preening themselves beside the nests of their young on a huge clump of trees. We also spotted sandpipers, pintails, grey herons, pond herons, egrets, white throated kingfishers and night herons in the lake. On the other side of the lake we saw farmers ploughing the fields well attended by a clutch of pond herons and openbills trying to get worms out of the loosened soil.
The blazing sun was shining through the foliage and we decided to call it a day. An earthen mound with snake burrows was seen on the way, it was strewn with kum kum (vermilion) and flowers left behind by worshippers. As we drove back to Chennai we vowed to return to Vedanthangal soon, for more than just a fleeting visit.