Akila Kannadasan spends a morning with feathered visitors and the people who have been protecting them for generations

They talk in loud voices. There’s cacophonic excitement among the birds at Vedanthangal. For, they have deemed this the right time to build their nests and start a family. As we eavesdrop on their conversations on a wet December morning, it is evident that they are too busy to be bothered by anything, let alone ogling humans.

“At present, spot-billed pelicans, grey herons, and openbill storks have started to build nests,” informs a resident bird-watcher. “Openbill storks, that we call nathai kothi naari are the first arrivals. Painted storks and ducks such as garganeys, pintails, and shovelers are yet to arrive.” He says that not every visitor that migrates to Vedanthangal nests here. “Some come only to feed themselves. They fly down here for a vacation.”

We watch in awe as homes take shape and families are formed. There are several hundreds of them — a spot-billed pelican carries a long twig onto a tree to his/her waiting partner. Only one of them leaves at a time; someone has to be there at the nest. A couple of black-headed ibises mate atop a tree — it lasts only a few seconds. A moment later, they merge into the white haze of bird plumage. Spoonbills roost in clumps on a tree nearby.

Various species co-exist like neighbours on nodding terms. The bulky spot-billed pelicans that swoop in one fluid motion into the water and paddle gracefully moments later, darters that poke their snake-like heads from the water surface, pond herons that sit solitary on floating logs of wood, grey herons that fly low with twigs held between their orange beaks…they share the lake mutually like families in an apartment complex. Of course, tiffs are bound to arise. Two pond herons fight it out for their territory — the stronger one chases away the other. But in the end, the birds carry on their business as usual.

Neighbours all

There’s unrest in the village of Vedanthangal. An agitation is gathering strength near the entrance of the bird sanctuary; angry men arrive there on bicycles and bikes; village elders loudly discuss the situation: a local youth has been arrested for fishing in the lake the previous day. The people feel violated. “It’s all because of the birds!” hollers a woman. “All our problems are because of them.” Agriculture flourishes, but not without its problems. The farmers have to deal with hungry ducks that stop by to feed on their paddy.

But despite it all, no one in Vedanthangal holds a grudge against their bird visitors. They might chide them for the misfortunes they sometimes bring; but deep down, every one cares for the birds. “They are like our children,” says Sundaravaradhan.

The 55-year-old has been born and raised in the village. Birds to him are like family with whom he shares his home. He spent his leisure time during his youth lounging in the tea-shop by the sanctuary. As a result, bird behaviour is recorded in his mind without the slightest effort. “They leave for the day at 4 a.m. and come back at 6 p.m.,” he says. His favourite is the karandi vaayan (spoonbill). “It looks beautiful. I like the beak — it reminds me of a dosai karandi,” he grins. He also likes to observe the mother birds feed their young. “They spray water like a sprinkler into their tiny beaks,” he observes.

Selvam likes the grey heron. “They are considerate. When they walk in our fields, they avoid stepping on our saplings. They place their feet with care,” he says. Selvam says the farmers have devised ways to deal with birds that come to feed on their produce. “When the kiluvai (common teal) flies into our fields, we clap to chase it away,” he says. There have been instances when the villagers apprehended poachers. “We once rounded up poachers when they were about to make away with the birds they had hunted down,” recalls Selvam. “We can make out if people trespass into the sanctuary at night; the birds will tell us through their disturbed calls,” he adds.

No one can describe a bird’s appearance as beautifully as the children of Vedanthangal. Nine-year-old Rajesh paints a vivid picture of a bird. “It is a big bird. The beak is brown and the body is white. There is a little bit of black at the edges of every feather.” Then there’s five-year-old Dinesh Kumar who claims to have seen a bird with a green beak at the lake! The kids, most of whom walk to the primary school close to the sanctuary every day, are keen observers of the features of the birds that visit them between November and March. Erattai vaayan, paambu thara, karandi vaayan…they reel off the names of birds in Tamil like the names of their pets. As we leave, Rajesh comes to see us off at the door of the classroom. “When I grow up, I want to do an aaraichi (research),” he says — “On birds.”

Ace advice

Here is veteran wildlife photographer and naturalist late M. Krishnan’s advice for those who intend to visit Vedanthangal:November, December and January are the best months to visit the sanctuary. If the visit cannot be planned for a whole day, it is better to plan it so that one can be at Vedanthangal by about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and stay on there till sunset. Though the skies are often overcast during the earlier part of the breeding season, one looks at the colony from the bund, and in spite of cloud-filtered light, the view is distinctly clearer with the sun behind one — in the mornings the sun is almost right opposite the watcher on the bund. Moreover, the big return flights are to be witnessed only in the evenings, shortly before sunset.

Source: The Vedanthangal Sanctuary for Water-Birds