For, one has to count them with diligence; one can’t afford to stop midway, distracted by a playful flock of ducks or by a lonely pair of black-winged stilts happy in each others’ company. However, as K. Gnanaskandan of Madras Naturalists’ Society and his team keep count of the birds on the Western side of the Pallikaranai marsh, she is glad to be distracted many times over…
The black-and-white blanket with a pink border
The flock of black-winged stilts — Gnanaskandan counts almost 3,000 — stretches like a blanket on the water. Flaunting delicate pink feet, needle-sharp bills, deep black eyes, and white body with black wings, they dip their heads neck-deep into the water. Dip-lift-pause, dip-lift-pause… the pattern recurs with the exact timing. We cannot see the tiny aquatic creatures clamped in between their bills when they lift their heads. The action, hence, looks like a group dance movement performed with practised perfection.
There she comes, run for your life!
They might seem at peace with the world, happy wading away in their stretch of water, their home for the winter. But these stilts are in a constant state of panic. For, danger could strike any moment, and they would be feasted upon by the sharp-beaked marsh harrier. The flock is being watched by a female, her sharp eyes widen at the sight of her kill. She is a beauty; her wide wings whoosh as she swoops down into the flock, eager to take one to feed herself and perhaps her young one too. The very sign of her sends the stilts on a frenzy. They fly from the water in unison. It is a flight / sight to behold. For, nothing is more beautiful than a thousand stilts flapping their wings against the wind.
The lonely bunch of flamingos
We count some 10 greater flamingos, far from the chattering stilts. They prefer to keep off the smaller waders. Gnanaskandan explains that their feeding habits are different. The birds’ preferred food is algae while the waders feed on small aquatic creatures such as frogs and tadpoles.
Is that a ruddy shelduck?
For once, the serious Gnanaskandan gets excited. “Yes! It’s the ruddy shelduck,” he exclaims, lifting his head from the spotting scope. It is a rare sighting, and the rest of the birders is as excited. There are five of them, amidst the stilts and the common teals. They look gorgeous — the fact that there are only five makes them even more special. The ducks are a brownish-orange with cream-coloured heads and jet-black bills.
More special birds
The birders jump again as they catch something on the spotting scope — it’s the peregrine falcon, the fastest bird in the world. He / she sits too far for us to see the sharp features. Gnanaskandan also shows us an osprey through the scope. This one too is quite far. We can see them, but not clearly enough. This is my ‘lifer’ — a term birders use to describe their first sighting of a bird.
Their sheer diversity is the biggest distraction of them all — grey-headed lapwings, pied avocets, marsh sandpipers, Northern shovellers, black-tailed godwits, spoonbills… The way they peck at their food, their delicate feet, their fights, their politics… how does one concentrate?
According to south-asia.wetlands.org, “Every January, thousands of volunteers across Asia and Australasia visit wetlands in their country and count waterbirds. This event is called the Asian Waterbird Census (AWC), which is part of a global waterbird monitoring programme, the International Waterbird Census.”
The Madras Naturalists’ Society is the State coordinator of the programme. So far, 16 wetlands have been covered in the city. The data collected is used to study bird population trends, using which Important Bird Areas — globally recognised bird habitats, can be identified. Volunteers also record the threats posed to wetland birds, which can help Wetland International speak to governments for actions to rectify them, explains Gnanaskandan. The census is being carried out in places such as Coimbatore, Madurai, Theni and Erode. In Chennai, the counting began in the first week of January. Significant observations include the presence of fewer ducks in “Chembarambakkam and Sriperumbudur lakes, since the water level was low — a result of failed monsoon”.