A variety of birds including the chunky spot-billed pelicans and pretty pink flamingos flock to Pulicat Lake in great numbers
The placid lake was absolutely flat but captivating in the morning tranquillity and it was a delight driving on the 17-km. straight-as-an-arrow road that was covered by endless sheets of water on either side. Having started much before daybreak from the capital of Tamil Nadu, the intention was to check out some of the contours and corridors of the Pulicat Lake. It is reckoned as the second largest brackish lagoon on the Indian subcontinent after the Chilika Lake in Orissa. Both these mammoth water bodies happen to be on the east coast of India and even though so far apart, they have many similarities with respect to their peculiar water quality that is rich in tiny versions of shrimp, lobsters, crabs. Covering an area of over 700 sq. km. the Pulicat Lake is extremely shallow in most places and that is the advantage for the migrating waders. Waders are nothing but specific water birds that love wading through knee deep or leg deep waterbeds persistently dunking and hunting for morsels.
Located in the proximity of a large island on the East Coast of Andhra Pradesh, Pulicat Lake is only 100 kms. north of Madras. Very few people are aware of this beautiful blue lagoon that plays host to a multitude of wetland birds in the winter months. The lake waters very often ebb and flow dictated by nature and one could be lucky to see rose-line of greater flamingos bobbing in the horizon. If you are plucky you can hire a fisherman's boat to get closer to the fabulous pink flamingos that migrate nearly 2000-kms. from the west coast of India leaving the harsh dry lands of Gujarat.
Pulicat Lake has been identified across the globe as one of most Important Bird Area (IBA) as it sprawls lavishly across the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Copiously fed by river water from four rivulets of the River Pennar, two spells of monsoon rains and also the seeping of sea water from Bay of Bengal helps Pulicat Lake throb with millions of micro-organisms. This is possible because of the amalgamation of the sea water and fresh water that helps breed tiny aquatic creatures. The blue lagoon of Pulicat is supposedly the second largest wintering ground for migratory waterfowl found anywhere on the Indian sub-continent. It is one of the hotspot of bio-diversity in the country, and some rare, vulnerable and endangered species listed in the International Union for Conservation of Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List inhabit the lush lagoon for at least a part of their life cycle.
For many years Pulicat Lake was pristine brimming with rich marine life, supporting innumerable birds on voyage and also fisherman folk. It remained untouched until the 16th century when the Dutch found the large spindle shaped island of Sriharikota perfect for a settlement and having trade with far-off countries. For nearly 100 years they utilised the fairly calm waters of the sea bay east of the Sriharikota for anchoring ships laden with merchandise. By the time British came after the Dutch as successors, Pulicat Lake could not be used as a natural harbour because of the changing water dynamics and formation of marshland. Pulicat Lake, despite having a number of islands often changed shapes and sizes. Only Sriharikota spread across 170 sq.kms. withstood the vagaries of nature. Some of the islands are now connected by road to one another and to the mainland by roads bisecting and dissecting into the pristine Pulicat Lake.
Since the 1970s the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has taken over Sriharikota Island as the largest secluded spaceport of India for launching of satellites and rockets into space. Just imagine the thundering sound and astonishing firepower being used to launch rockets against the gravitational force. In spite of all these activities over the years, nature seems to be resilient. A study conducted by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) indicated that more 100 species of water birds are known to be occurring in Pulicat Lake. The prima donnas of Pulicat Lake are however the chunky Spot-billed Pelicans and the pretty pink flamingos that always occur in considerable groups.
Nature lovers can visit the Environmental Education Centre (EEC) after spending a few hours leisurely walking or driving up and down the long straight road. The 17-km. road ends at the entrance of ISRO located on the Sriharikota Island where visitors are a strict no-no. On the way you will encounter a few double storied watchtowers special built for a better view of the birds and to enjoy the 360 vistas. A small museum is in the tree lined EEC campus that makes a good picnic spot to sit out under shade of tall trees. A pocket size booklet containing the total checklist of 115 birds is available for ticking off instead of jotting down. The bird names are listed with common names, scientific names and also in Telugu for the benefit of various visitors. If you are persistent, one can easily encounter 50 species in a single day from dawn to dusk. Obviously telescopes, binoculars or cameras with long lens will help identifying the feathered friends, rather than the naked eye.
Keen birdwatchers can even attend the “Flamingo Festival” that is held every year and is being celebrated in the second week of January on the fringes of this massive lake. The two-day colourful festival will be organized on the banks of Pulicat Lake. For more details you can also contact the forest department located close to the Pulicat Lake or Madras Natural History society based in Chennai, the Pulicat Lake Bird Lovers' Society (PLBLS) operating from Sullurupet, Nellore or the Birdwatchers Society of Andhra Pradesh based in Hyderabad.