Fire at Perumbakkam wetland: Ground-nesting birds bear brunt

As the breeding season of ground-nesting birds is still in progress, they would have borne the brunt of it 

June 06, 2022 01:31 pm | Updated 01:31 pm IST

An Indian roller at the section of Perumbakkam wetland that was recently consumed by fire; image taken on June 2, 2022.

An Indian roller at the section of Perumbakkam wetland that was recently consumed by fire; image taken on June 2, 2022. | Photo Credit: PRINCE FREDERICK

A folk legend originating in the rugged Ural range of Russia has it that when the fire-fairy lands in a place and sweeps across it in a swirling dance, it is an indication that the ground holds gold. Last week, the fire-fairy twirled across a section of Perumbakkam wetland — not once, but thrice — and in striking contrast to the story from the Urals, the ground she danced on was suddenly robbed of its “gold”.

It is the season for ground-nesting birds to raise families and the eggs they lay are worth their weight in gold, as they broaden the perception about the Perumbakkam wetland.

It is a perception that is often grotesquely skewed in favour of waterbirds. The wetland does accommodate a staggering variety of other avian life, and a striking aspect of this hospitality is the expanse it offers ground-nesting birds when summer sets in well and truly.

The fire that raged on the western section of Perumbakkam wetland, first on May 28, and then afresh on May 30 and June 1 would have dashed these birds’ efforts to raise a family, as this patch is reportedly pregnant with their “golden” eggs.

KVRK Thirunaranan, founder of The Nature Trust, which works with the Conservation Authority of Pallikaranai Marshland, reveals that the breeding of ground nesting birds had begun and an impressive number of species have been using this section as their breeding site.

The most remarkable name on the list is the yellow wattled lapwing.

At the Perumbakkam wetland, this bird’s more public-loving cousin, the red-wattled lapwing, is a haunting presence. The red-wattled lapwing would be in the face ticking off bystanders with its panic-stricken calls delivered in perfect coordination with its frenzied sorties. The excitement is accelerated if the bird has a nest to defend on the ground.

The yellow-wattled lapwing, as regularly seen as a recluse and considered to be checking out of Chennai and its surroundings, apparently also has some precious ground to defend at the Perumbakkam wetland.

“Yellow-wattled lapwing was once found in good numbers in Pallikarani. It dwindled, but has raised hopes of a comeback. This patch at the Perumbakkam wetland is part of its comeback trail. Last year, we noticed nesting activity of the species, numbering four nests,” says Thirunaranan. “Other ground-nesting birds that prominently make use of the patch include the ashy-crowned sparrow lark and the Jerdon’s bushlark. The ashy-crowned sparrow lark used to nest in the interiors, and has been moving closer to the more prominently seen spaces in recent times. The zitting cisticola is also a prominent sight on this patch, where it chooses to have its nests.”

The typha that once dominated the western patch and now reduced to a lifeless char, would quiver with the raucous calls of the clamorous reed warbler. It has also been home to the streaked weaver.

Integral to the Pallikaranai marsh, the Perumbakkam wetland however bestows upon the nature lover a largesse that no other section of the Marsh can match, not even the patches of it as seen from the 200-feet Thoaipakkam-Pallavaram Radial Road.

While the interior sections of the Pallikaranai Marsh could be richer in biodiversity, access to them is subject to various pre-conditions.

Says Thirunaranan: “The Perumbakkam wetland is poor man’s Pallikarani, as one just has to stop by to take in what it has to offer.”

In that sense, the Perumbakkam wetland is an open living museum of natural history, and a major prop in promoting knowledge about bio-diversity and ecology. And no exercise should be spared to prevent it from being ravaged by irresponsible human behavior.

‘People’s movement on mud road is a vexatious problem’

An official of the forest department notes that the movement of people on the kuccha road — a mud road — on this section is at the root of this problem.

Workers use this road to access constuction sites further up, and it is common for them to smoke and throw the burning stubs in the wetland area, the official notes. As the land on the other side of the kuccha road is patta land, it is difficult to prevent people from using it, he adds.

“The Forest Department has asked for the kuccha road to be given to it, and the request is pending for a long time. Once a bund is raised on this patch, disturbances and damages caused by human movement can be minimised,” the forest official notes.

Anti-poaching workers of the Forest Department, more specifically those working with the Conservation Authority of the Pallikaranai Marshland (CAPML), had been actively engaged in work relating to putting out the fire.

“As there is not considerable dew at night, fire got rekindled a couple of times following the outbreak,” the official reveals.

‘Perumbakkam wetland is part of the Marsh’

When the garbage pile-up at the Pallikaranai marsh caught fire, the news about it raged on for a period outlasting the duration of the fire itself. It was obviously a major fire, one entailing significant health implications for residents of neighbourhoods nearby.

The fire at the Perumbakkam wetland might be light-years behind it in terms of impact. Yet, it certainly required the attention of the wider world. But the mishap at the Perumbakkam wetland went largely unregistered beyond the immediate stakeholders.

KVRK Thirunaranan, founder of The Nature Trust, which is associated with the Conservation Authority of the Pallikaranai Marshland, says: “Seeing the Perumbakkam wetland in isolation is erroneous, an error that can have implications for the level of attention extended to it. The Perumbakkam wetland is integral to the Pallikaranai marsh, not only ecologically but also administratively, and proclaiming this link would help expedite processes that can reduce the risk of such occurrences. If the revenue department marks the boundaries on this section, and include the kuccha road in the Perumbakkam wetland, and a bund is raised soon, these problems can be reduced. Even last year, there was a fire at Perumbakkam wetland. There is no alternative to securing this side of the wetland with a raised bund.”

"It is part of the seven hundred hectares of the Pallikaranai Marsh."

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