Aparna Karthikeyan walks by the mist-laden waters of Vedanthangal to discover birds of every feather

The singing starts just before 6 a.m. “There, see, they woke up,” Sekar says, affectionately. The owner of SPS tea-stall, he’s brewed milky tea outside Vedanthangal Bird sanctuary the last 16 years. Among the migratory birds, he likes painted storks the best. “You will see them on the trees to the right. Alaga irrukum,” he says, pouring out a glass for his wife, who’s steaming idlis for sale.

We walk up to the Vedanthangal lake bund; the water is still, as dark as the deep, blue sky. In the misty middle-distance, white plumage dots treetops; the greens are still early-morning inky, but we make out black feathers streaking the air.

We walk past novel water-taps at the end of birds’ beaks; the sculptures make us smile. Bird-noises, drowning out the night screech of crickets, come from the trees, forming green islands in the lake. A cloud of night herons, flap their way back home, just as yellow, pink and blue bands the sky. Pelicans and painted storks stretch their wings; it’s accompanied by a distinctive noise, somewhere between the crackle of leather and a small motor. Over to the right, across the paddy fields, a loudspeaker belts out devotional music; on a mud-track nearby, men walk around with lungis wrapped over their shoulders for warmth.

A little way ahead, we climb a watchtower. The staircase spirals past yellow walls, where visitors have etched names, and ringed initials with hearts. As the cameras are set-up, Hemanth Kumar notes down the numbers of birds flying out and in; a census is in progress. (In the third week of every month from November to March, forest officials and NGOs conduct a bird census). “Cormorants 16; egret-la oru 12 podu,” a bird-watcher calls out rapidly.

It’s 6.23 a.m.; the sun is scheduled to rise, but the mist does instead. Mynahs and white ibis fly over the lake. Open billed storks have had babies; the extraordinary zoom of the lens comes in handy to see tiny chicks on treetops, tens of feet away. We take turns to marvel at painted storks, which, I’m told, have flown down all the way from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Craning white necks, opening orange beaks, they point and curl showy wings over arched backs. Their long-limbed beauty and delicate movements begs comparisons with the birds in the next tree — the pelicans — that move their squat bodies slowly and land heavily.

Walking by the well-maintained bund, along the water, the birds appear closer. Cormorants sit on a dead-tree, a stark picture in black and brown; pelicans, all grace while in water, glide like swans and vanish into the undergrowth.

At 6.47a.m., a pale orange sun appears. The shoving and squabbling becomes intense; birds call out to each other, and I attempt to write down sounds. But my notes (‘mee, mee’, ‘cough’, ‘honk’, ‘whistle’) clearly say that bird language has no equivalents in my limited vocabulary.

K.V.R.K. Thirunaranan, founder of Nature Trust is watching white ibis, pelicans and painted storks on a dense bamboo thicket. “At 73 acres, this is the smallest bird sanctuary in India, and the locals have protected it for 300 years. The water from the lake — rich in bird droppings, a natural manure — is let out into the agricultural fields. The rice from these parts is famous, and it’s grown with little pesticide,” he says.

Pelicans and storks collect nesting materials; the former opts for dried twigs, and the latter for fresh, leafy ones. In a couple of weeks, more painted storks are due to arrive. Crows caw for attention, squirrels dart across the path; at home, they’re VIPs; here, only the exotic or endangered are.

Its 7.30 a.m., and the sunlight fades from gold to silver; wind whipped ripples smudge the painted storks’ pink and orange reflections. A flock of spoonbills land on a tree: their flight as fluid as paper-planes. Some birds have hopped across to the fields to hunt; others, to one of the 22 nearby lakes. The walk around the bund is invigorating, and informative; I learn that fish, crabs, snails and frogs are very popular snacks and that very few birds here have signed up to be vegetarians.

Back on the tower, pelican babies are treated like celebrities; to the naked eye, they’re fluff-balls, but through the zoom lens, we spot parents hugging little grey chicks with large, waxy wings. Other adults come back, their pouches distended with food, while nearby, painted storks rub beaks amorously. School excursions and families troop in; they breakfast on sandwiches and fruits. Hunger reminds us we left home at 3.30 a.m; making our way to the car, we spot drongos and kingfishers on swaying electricity wires. And it’s time, once again, to admire the ordinary.

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Facts

Vedanthangal is about one and a half 1.5 hours away from Chennai; take the signposted right turn after Chingleput.

Visit the sanctuary between November and March, to see thousands of migratory birds, nesting and breeding.

Be there at sunrise or before sunset to see the birds at their most active.