Whistles of teals, calls of the pheasant-tailed jacanas, the shrill cry of the red-wattled lapwing and the cacophony of painted storks, flamingos and coots. Akila Kannadasan listens to the avian orchestra at Pallikaranai

We are in their terrain. The shrill cry of a red-wattled lapwing announcing our arrival to the rest of the bird-gang, tells us so. We inch closer into the marshland, nevertheless. The previous day’s rain has bathed the Pallikaranai marshland and woken up the reeds and water-plants chased away by the sun.

What birds has the rain brought? We plod into the marshy waters on the western side to find out.

Pallikaranai is full of surprises — it is surrounded by tall buildings on all sides, a Corporation dumpyard sits on the north, roads with endless honking vehicles cut across its surface… and yet, birds seem to have taken a liking to the water.

On a small patch of land, several feet from us, we see a massive flock of birds lounging in the mild afternoon sun. The birds seem to be relishing the after-effects of the rain. It’s amazing how each species sticks together — painted storks with their pink flight feathers, creamy-pink greater flamingos, slate-black common coots…

Hundreds of magnificent purple moorhens mill about beyond the congregation. The cerulean blue birds with bright red beaks look on smugly as little common coots wade on the water. The birds look up one moment, and the next, they swiftly dunk their heads into the water — they repeat this exercise at regular intervals.

A couple of pheasant-tailed jacanas fly past on song. One bird calls out and the other diligently follows. A lone grey heron, with its long neck and searching eyes, walks by the water’s edge looking for something — food, perhaps, or a friend? Little egrets add a dash of white to the mossy-green terrain. And then there are the tiny grebes that flit playfully between the big guys.

On the northern and southern side, we spot open-billed storks, spot-billed ducks, glossy ibis and pied avocets.

It’s another world out there — we are aware of the communication among the birds. One instant, their cacophony rises to a crescendo, but falls to a pin-drop-silence the next. But the silence is short-lived — one bird or the other breaks into song, to be joined in by others. Brown-bodied whistling teals, hundreds of them, ensure that there’s always music for the ears…

Why we must protect it

Pallikaranai is among the 94 wetlands identified under the National Wetland Conservation and Management Programme. K.V.R.K. Thirunaranan of The Nature Trust says that the marshland acts like the kidney of Chennai. “It is even shaped like one! It drains flood water and impure water into the sea. Also, it helps maintain the ground water level of the surrounding regions. Our ancestors have connected 31 tanks to Pallikaranai so that surplus water from them will flow into it.” The birdlife that the marshland attracts gives it aesthetic value. “We have recorded 130 bird species throughout the year in Pallikaranai,” he says. All of which give us plenty of reason to protect the marshland — 317 hectares of which is currently reserve land.

Interpretation centre

The Forest Department has set up an interpretation centre at Pallikaranai, open to the public. It has 66 displays of the commonly seen birds of the area. The displays, which come with backlighting, consist of a photo of the bird, its scientific name, Tamil name, details on distribution and a brief. There are eight mechanised scrolls about the flora and fauna of the marshland. The highlights are the two video booths that explain the Tamil and English names of birds, to the accompaniment of their calls. An 11-km walkway that will allow birdwatchers to walk around Pallikaranai is under construction. Viewing decks with spotting scopes and more are on the cards.

(The Nature Trust, as part of the activities of the Conservation Authority of Pallikaranai Marshland, regularly conducts free awareness camps for school children at Pallikaranai. For details, call 94444-77358)