Birds In just under an hour K. Jeshi spots nearly 20 species of birds at Periyakulam

At a distance, stand a row of tall slim birds with long yellow curving beaks, white, black and grey wings with a splash of pink. They are painted storks that have come from Andhra. On the islands dotting the tank, white specks shift around. They are spot-billed pelicans. Little cormorants dry their feathers before taking off, and a number of palm tree swifts create a flutter in the air as dusk falls over the Ukkadam Periyakulam Lake. “The swifts are forever in flight,” says birder R. Mohammed Saleem. “They have small legs that cannot balance the body weight. They breed and feed in flight. The only time they rest is while nesting. They build their nests on palm trees, or like the owls, inside dilapidated buildings, or caves.”

Winter visitors

We are at the newly rejuvenated tank and there are many birds around. A pied wagtail, a black-bodied bird with a white brow, takes off. Common sandpipers feast on the worms. These have flown here all the way from Europe and Russia to escape the harsh winters there. They will remain here till January. Saleem points out a Eurasian spoonbill and the black-winged stilts make a splash as they move swiftly. “Stilts have long red legs proportionate to the white body, and black wings. They always move together in groups and it is a fascinating sight. When sanderlings fly together, they do acrobatics in the sky. When one turns right, the entire group follows. It’s a wonder how they communicate so quickly and so beautifully,” he says.

We listen to the call of purple moorhen hidden somewhere among the weeds; A little egret comes into view and feeds on worms from the slush and a flock of little cormorants take off.“Cormorants have unique webbed feet and as in the case of an aircraft, they have to pick up speed before flight. They move fast on the water, gathering speed, before flying. These black birds have a white chin while the Indian shag, which resembles a cormorant, is fully black. Male shags have two white plumages on the head during breeding and they are also called the double-crested cormorant in the U.S.”

Saleem says while the pelicans prefer deep waters, waders such as painted storks laze around in the medium shallow waters. Common coots, wagtails and moorhens prefer vegetation. They feed on weed, insects, worms, fish and snails. “While most of the big birds are local migrants from Andhra and the northern region, a number of smaller birds have flown from Europe and Russia. Garganey ducks and black-tailed godwit have come from Central Asia. White ibis and oriental darters can be spotted too.” Pointing to the painted storks Saleem says: “They stand still for hours together as they wait for their catch. Birders should learn to be patient like them!”

The Periyakulam Lake is also home to a number of resident birds such as the spot-billed ducks, egrets, and herons. Saleem says a cleanliness drive at the lake can make a lot of difference to the birding activity. But already, there is faecal matter, liquor bottles and plastic bags strewn around. And, in a corner of the lake the water looks black like sewage.

As we walk back braving the rains, the swifts and swallows follow us; ashy prinia (a warbler) calls out, and a shy white-breasted water hen peeps out coyly from behind the green weeds.

Spotted

Spot-billed pelicans, Oriental darter, White ibis, Garganey duck, Painted stork, Blue-tailed godwit, Wood sandpiper, Pied wagtail ...