Go birding at Punchakari wetlands near Vellayani, in time for migratory season, and come across many native species of birds and a number of winged visitors too

Our excitement soars as we catch our first sight of Punchakari. Blanketed in mist, with the first rays of the sun giving it a golden, even magical, shimmer, these wetlands near Vellayani stretch out as far as the eye can see. It’s hard to imagine that such a serene spot exists so close to the heart of the city, but Punchakari is one of the only handful of sites in the district that is a haven for birds, and now that the migratory season has begun, for birds from far off places too. Today we’re tagging along with a few seasoned birders (bird enthusiasts) of the Travancore Natural History Society, a city-based NGO working in biodiversity conservation and education, for a spot of birding.

As we set off down the dirt road that runs through the expansive wetlands, trusty binoculars (don’t even think of going birding without one) and cameras in hand, the silence is refreshing. Save for the faint sounds from a temple, the sporadic putter of motorbikes navigating the road, the quiet murmur of the stream where, the occasional villager is performing his daily ablutions, there is nothing really that disturbs merry birdsong.

The first birds we encounter are Purple Moorhens, playing peek-a-boo from among the reeds, their bluish-purple coats dazzling in the sunlight. It soon becomes a game, all of us trying to spot these native birds. We count 10 in one go. In between, we also spot a Bronze-winged Jacana that has blackish-purple chest-feathers. Meanwhile, birder Kalesh Sadasivan, a trainee plastic surgeon, has spotted a Brahminy Kite (Krishnaparunthu). Up go the binoculars and we see the bird of prey with its white-feathered head, perched regally atop the lone tree in the middle of a marsh.

Soon others in the group begin pointing out various native birds and butterflies – Indian Tree Pie, White-breasted Kingfisher (we see it just as it’s about to swoop into the stream), a Little Comorant that’s gregariously dunking in and out of the water, a couple of colourful Small Blue Kingfishers and grey-white feathered Pied Kingfishers, all perched on overhead cables. There are also a handful of Egrets circling a herd of cows grazing on the grasslands, a few Darters (a bird categorised as ‘near threatened’ on IUCN Red List), a Chocolate Pansy butterfly hovering in a bush, a brilliant orange-red coloured Ditch Jewel dragonfly and its yellow-ochre coloured female mate…

“Once you start observing fauna, that’s all you see in such situations,” says Kalesh, cautioning us not to step on a yellow caterpillar that’s inching along the median. “It is one of a moth,” he says. Anil Natarajan, another birder, interrupts, to point out Blue-tailed Bee-eaters – our first sighting of a migratory bird! These green plumed birds with bright blue rumps and tails, possibly from North and North Eastern India, are apparently common visitors to the area during the season. “Notice how it flies like a pterodactyl from the Jurassic Park movies,” says Kalesh.

As the sun rises up and we begin to wilt from the heat (even though it’s barely 8 a.m.!), we keep sighting other winged visitors. A flock of Barn Swallows that have travelled all the way from continental Europe, seem to be at home hovering over a vegetable patch, in competition with the Blue-tailed and Small Green Bee-eaters to catch insects. A Whiskered Tern, hailing from Assam or Kashmir, flies overhead as does a Yellow Wagtail that has come all the way from Manasarovar lake in the Himayalas. We also spot a Gery Wagtail also from the Himalayas, a Brown Shrike from the Northern parts of Asia and a Paradise Fly Catcher from the sub-Himalayas.

Just as we approach ‘Kireedam’ bridge (where prominent scenes from the film 1989 Kireedam were shot) that connects Punchakari to Vellayani lake, we get a call from birder M. Ramesh, saying that he has spotted a flamingo! Unfortunately, by the time we rush over it has flown away.

“It was a Lesser Flamingo, which can be distinguished from the Greater Flamingo by the shape of its beak. The breeding grounds of these birds are in the Kutch peninsula in Gujarat. This one is possibly in transit for a day or two, before proceeding towards Koonthakulam bird sanctuary, where there is a significant migratory population,” says Ramesh, a naturalist with Club Mahindra Resorts. Ramesh also tells us that a pelican has been sighted in the area recently. “There are several breeding populations of pelicans in irrigation tanks in Tamil Nadu, and perhaps they came from there,” he explains.

Birds are plenty in Punchakari, however, even to the untrained eye, it’s obvious that their population is sparse; especially considering it is migratory season. The birders cite lack of agriculture, specifically paddy cultivation, as the key factor for the decline.

G. Prasad, associate professor, Department of Zoology, University of Kerala, who is along for the trip, says: “Till around six years ago, paddy used to be cultivated in Punchakari. In those days, if you made a sound, literally hundreds of birds would soar into the air. In fact, I recall a bird count where we actually had to divide the participants based on each khandam (field)!”

Ramesh adds: “Once, we counted 8,000 birds at Punchakari. Actually, this time last year we had better sightings. There was a huge flock of Golden Plovers (from Siberia/ Alaska) then. This year, the Bee-eaters are here because insects are available in plenty. Save for a Wood Sand Piper, we’re yet to observe many waders. Hopefully, more birds will fly in as the season progresses.”

Warrants for another trip to Punchakari…