Akila Kannadasan joins a group of nature lovers, who sail deep into the Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary to spot the elegant Greater Flamingo, and returns with fascinating tales

I train my eyes on a pink haze by the horizon. At first sight, it looks like a play of light on water. But, a view through field glasses proves otherwise — the haze is alive.

The sun is nowhere in sight as Annamalai lugs his boat into the lagoon at dawn. He skipped fishing today to row us to a treasure trove. Jayaraman, another fisherman, spreads a plastic cover on the boat for us to sit on. There is excitement in the air as our boat cuts through the shallow waters of Annamalaicheri, a lagoon that’s part of the Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary.

Will we see them? With hope in our hearts and cameras in our hands, nature-lovers K.V.R.K. Thirunaranan, K. Sriram and student K. Thiyagarajan form The Nature Trust and I set out for an early-morning adventure.

We sail in silence, each of us scanning the water surface for a trace of pink. “We sometimes see them from our homes,” says Jayaraman, pointing towards the hamlet we left behind. “There will be so many that the pink colour can be seen kilometres away.” We peer longingly into the blue when Annamalai announces: “Adho avunga nikkiranga” (There, they are standing)

Greater Flamingos, over a hundred of them, wade ahead of us with their curvy necks in the water. Long, pink legs carry them gracefully; their necks bob rhythmically with every step they take. Some birds glance at us down their pink and black beaks; but fleetingly so. The flamingos have their backs turned towards us. But they know they are being watched — they move away from us at a pace that’s barely visible.

Flamingos stop by every year from April to October at Annamalaicheri. The birds do not breed here — the Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat is their only known breeding ground in India.

Known as ‘Poonaarai’ in Tamil, flamingos are called ‘Garva’ by the people of Annamalaicheri. The pink beauties are looked upon with respect by some fishermen — Annamalai and Jayaraman, for instance, refer to them as ‘avunga’ (them) and maintain a distance from flamingo flocks when in the water. “We consider a flamingo patch an indicator of shrimps in the area,” says Annamalai as he manoeuvres the boat cautiously away from a flock. But it’s too late; one of them decides to fly elsewhere and flaps its wings.

Magic unfolds

That’s when magic unfolds in that deserted patch of water. One by one, the flamingos open up their wings. The birds are beautiful when they wade in water; but they are something else when in flight. The wings, a combination of orange-pink and black on a creamy-white body, look like an artist’s stroke of genius. It is a sight that has to be experienced, not just seen.

We are greedy for more — Annamalai rows us further towards another busy bunch dining at a distance. We follow them all afternoon as if possessed. We even eat our lunch, a kingly meal of tomato rice and fried shrimps that Jayaraman made, on the boat by a flock some distance away. A calm that only the sea can nurture envelops us as we bob on the shallow waters. Before we leave them, some of our bird-hosts sing for us. Similar to that of a goose, the sound is a perfect closure to our great flamingo adventure.

Where else can they be found?

Greater Flamingos can also be found at Pallikaranai, Mudaliyarkuppam and along Kelambakkam-Kovalam link road. However, there is a difference between the birds spotted at these places and Annamalaicheri, according to Thirunaranan. “The flamingos we saw in Pallikaranai in November last year were juvenile, their beaks were not pink,” he says. He regularly takes his student volunteers to these locations to show them the physical changes in flamingos during their various stages of development. “I also want to show my students that there is a good population of flamingos on in the Tamil Nadu side of the Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary and not just in Sriharikota, on the Andhra Pradesh side,” he adds.