A lark turns its tail on Velachery village

A Sykes' Short-toed Lark at Mamandur. Photo: Sivakumar Shanmugasundaram  

There is a piquancy to nostalgia that whets our appetite for it. Amidst the recollection of “what was”, the tanginess arrives with the realisation of “how different it was”, quickly followed by a wistful “how wonderful it was”.

In odd moments, there could be a tinge of disappointment as “what could have continued” flaps into focus.

As ornithologist V. Santharam looks back on birding around the Pallikaranai Marsh in the 1980s, such a moment arrives on the wings of the Sykes’ Short-toed Lark.

Those were times when, during winter, sizeable flocks of the Sykes’ Short-toed Lark would be a quotidian feature of birding on the Velachery section of the Marsh.

“At this patch, the Sykes’ Short-toed Lark, a winter visitor, would be generally seen in flocks of 50 to 100,” says Santharam, adding that the bird is by nature gregarious, and flock in large numbers. “At Rann of Kutch, I have seen it in flocks of 200 to 300.”

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For contrast, he points out, “The Jerdon’s Bushlark, a resident in and around Chennai, is usually seen alone, in pairs or in family parties. The same goes for the Oriental Skylark, also a resident.”

In the 1980s, this patch — actually an expanse marking the approach to the Pallikaranai Marsh — was just what the ‘lark-doctor’ ordered.

“It was an open area with grass that would be short because it was continually grazed upon by cattle. Of loamy soil, it would be slushy during the monsoon, and harden up after the rains had stopped,” Santharam describes. “The Jerdon’s Bushlark prefers somewhat of an open scrub environment where there is more vegetation. In contrast, the Sykes’ Short-toed Lark prefers grassy open land.”

On this patch, Santharam would be unfailingly treated to sights of the Oriental Pratincole, the Indian Courser, and also the Yellow-Wattled Lapwing, now hardly seen even within semi-urban sections of Chennai.

Santharam identifies this section: “Not too far from where the MRTS station stands now, there used to be something called the VOR Station, where radio systems to gather aviation-related data had been established. To access this patch, we would take a bus from Ice House to VOR Station, At that time, Velachery was a village.”

From just a quick bus ride away, the Skyes’ Short-Toed Lark has receded considerably, its winter visits now marked in areas far removed from Chennai.

Sivakumar Shanmugasundaram, a birder, says: “In the early part of this winter-birding season, I saw the Sykes’ Short-toed Lark in flocks at Kaveripakkam in Vellore. In earlier seasons, I had seen it at Mamandur in Kancheepuram. From a distance, one may mistake this bird for a pipit or a Jerdon’s Bushlark. On closer inspection, you cannot mistake it for anything else. One clear giveaway is that it would be found in huge flocks, often in the range of 100 to 200”

“The bill would be shorter than that of the Jerdon’s Bushlark,” says Santharam.

And of course, as the name suggests, the “baby toes” is another clear giveaway.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 7:51:16 PM |

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