The backwaters beside SHAR Road gleam golden in the light of the setting sun. It is clearly a battle against time. Before the shadows lengthen, we have to capture images of greater flamingos — in hordes and pairs, and in any other way that sets off their languid charm. Among our props are: a Nikon D3, a D800 and a Nikon 600 mm lens with a 1.7 converter. As we begin our walk on this road which leads to the Satish Dhawan Space Centre — Sriharikota High Altitude Range (SDSC – SHAR), we realise that our anxiety is needless. The birds, not just flamingos, appear to be willing partners in our mission. Birds of various stripes fly into the range of our fixed focus lens as if to coax us into taking pictures of them.

Flocks of glossy ibises put up an aerial display as spectacular as a Republic Day air show. A parade of painted storks touches down after a glide as smooth as the movement of butter in a skillet. Black-headed gulls hover over fishermen in the hope that the piscatorial effort will expose small fish. Our hearts warmed by this unexpected luck, we leave the well-laid SHAR Road (around 70 km from Chennai, and a part of the northern section of the Pulicat Lake) and turn into a muddy stretch. A kilometre down this parody of a road, we see a blur of birds in the distance. Peering through the lens, we notice a legion of greater flamingos. It has to be mentioned here that small numbers of lesser flamingos have been reportedly sighted. For example, during his visit to Pulicat Lake and Anamalaicheri that preceded ours, T. Murugavel of Environment Monitoring And Action Initiating reported the presence of a small flock of lesser flamingos.

“From the SHAR Road, large flocks of greater flamingos are seen. To put a conservative number on the horde, around 15,000. Lesser flamingos must have been present, but lost in the sea of greater flamingos. Later in the day, when I visited Anamalaicheri, a fishing hamlet, I saw a flock of around 50 lesser flamingos there,” says Murugavel.

The naturalist believes the presence of huge numbers of flamingos proves the effectiveness of conservation efforts, such as the annual Flamingo Festival, which involves the local community. “Often, it is outsiders who incite the locals into mischief such as removing the eggs of birds. I recently witnessed one such act,” he says. Balaji, a photographer from Vallur, 16 km away, visits Pulicat more than a dozen times a year. He says, “The people of Pulicat seem to carry a sense of responsibility for the birds.”

“The sustained awareness campaign has done the sanctuary a world of good. But there are problems elsewhere — many of the small water bodies on the route to Pulicat are gone, due to real estate activity. These water bodies were visited by birds such as white ibises, terns, open-billed storks and egrets,” says Murugavel.

The picture is not blotch-free, as this naturalist tells you. But, watching thick flocks of birds silhouetted against a darkening sky, while heading back to our car, we can’t help thinking that the picture is still arresting and can get better with timely action.LOCATION: Around 70 km from Chennai

BEST TIME: From October to March (a lot, however, depends on the North East Monsoon)