For a bird lover, a visit to Chennai is incomplete without a trip to Pulicat Lake and the nearby Nelapattu Bird Sanctuary.
I decided to visit these places on a trip to Chennai this Feb 27th. Though the peak season for seeing migratory birds is from November to January end, I decided to try my luck with Pulicat. I was also encouraged by Sabyasachi's recent visit to the lake and some interesting images of pelicans.
The month before, I had visited a similar ecosystem in MangalaJodi near Chilika Lake; which is a brackish water lagoon like Pulicat Lake. Both have extensive mudflat systems, which make them ideal for avifauna like egrets, herons, storks and flamingos that prefer swallow waters to deeper water. No wonder, both Chilika and Pulicat are amongst the best places in India to sight the flamingos (Rann of Kutch being equally spectacular).
After a quick meet, we decided to start early morning on February 28th to Pulicat. I roped in my cousin and his two friends for the trip.
Before moving on, I would like to talk about birding equipment. Bird photography is equipment intensive. The challenges of photographing birds are numerous; you have to contend with the birds’ small size (they do not always fill the frame), unpredictable movements, at times wide contrasting body colour, focus distance etc. Other challenges include finding a clear line of shooting (often the line is blocked by twigs, branches etc), water bodies and the sky! How often have we seen less than desirable exposure as the camera sensor gets confused with the metering for the sky or water bodies!
Hence, if bird photography is your cup of tea, buy the best you can afford at present (but remember, photography is not the end of the world). Sabyasachi’s equipment for the trip were a Canon 400 f2.8 lens mounted on Canon EOS 1D Mark II. The stabilization unit were a sturdy Gitzo 3530 LS Series 6X Carbon Fiber tripod and Wimberley V2 head. I was carrying my Sigma APO 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 mounted on a Canon EOS 400D. My support was a Manfrotto 681B monopod and head. Additionally we were also carrying a fantastic bean bag – rather a rice bag; Sabyasachi cryptically informed he had shoved around 5 KG of rice inside the bag! Looking back, I feel a good pair of binoculars and a polariser would have helped, especially to get some vivid colors while shooting birds against the sky.
The trip kicked off as per schedule. I did not require the alarm clock to get up so early, which was surprising as I am not an early morning person. The house was already bustling with activity by the time I awoke. Except for my cousin who was wearing a shirt as spectacularly colourful as a peacock in its prime, and a deodorant which could be detected from Timbuktu, most of us were properly dressed in muted colors for a jungle rendezvous.
After having a pipping hot cup of tea prepared by Bhabi, we piled into the Tata Safari at 5:00AM and navigated to NH5. A heavy fog greeted us, but we raced on. Our aim was to reach Pulicat early morning to do photography in the golden light. The first 10-15 minutes were rather quite, till my cousin decided to play some new Hindi romantic songs. The music had a soporific effect and soon we became comfortably numb in the speeding Safari.
Pulicat is around 100KM from Chennai. Trick is to reach NH5 through Koyambedu and drive nose straight, till it takes you to Tada, Sulurpet. This stretch is usually a busy highway as was evident from the maniacal reflex induced driving we witnessed while returning. But early in morning, you can press on the gas and can comfortably cruise at 100-120KMH. Pulicat Lake is just 5- 6 Km from Sulurpet. In case of any doubt, look out for SHAR road or Sri Harikota.
Timing is everything & wildlife enthusiasts should time their visits well, especially to bird sanctuaries. Any bird sanctuary has its share of endemic and migratory birds. Migratory birds visit due to unique weather or landscape conditions created in that area. In hindsight, we could have timed the trip much earlier for better birding.
When we reached Pulicat, we were greeted with dried mudflats that stretched as far as the eye could reach. It was surrealistically like a desert. I was mentally cursing myself for mistiming the trip, when my cousin screamed out. We soon saw the reason! We spotted two pelicans and an open billed stork dawdling near a small pool. I smirked at the coincidence of finding the birds besides the first watch towers at Pulicat Lake!
Hopes were now high and we drove on. The landscape did not change much. In the distance, we could see a flock of birds. They were standing in a formation very similar to the flamingos. As the flock was a KM into the lake, I improvised with my 120-400mm lens for a binocular. I was a tad disappointed. They were a flock of herons mimicking the flamingo formation.
After much off-road driving, we still could not see the “flock” that we wanted. But, nature never disappoints! We did some good bird sighting besides the road itself. Bush birds are an agile lot. It was difficult to create their images. Still I did click on a laughing dove, pond herons amongst others.
Wildlife trips always have lighter moments, and ours happened while we were driving to Nelapattu. Just when we were about to leave Pulicat, we spotted two pelicans walking on the dried mudflats. Sabyasachi suggested I try getting some shots. I duly obliged and undertook my version of stalking! Unfortunately I was not very successful. With nowhere to hide, the pelicans had no problem in spotting me and wickedly hopped away each time I inched closer.
When stalking a bird, it’s important that the stalker create record images at intervals; for who knows that point might be the closest you got to the subject. Also, try taking picture or moving before the bird sees you. Stop when the bird is looking at you. It’s also best to approach the bird from the back.
Though I couldn’t get close enough to the Pelicans, I did capture their foot print.
A tad disappointed, we drove to Nelapattu Bird Sanctuary, which is some 10KM from Pulicat. Take the a U-turn beneath the flyover and follow the directions to reach Nelapattu.
We reached Nelapattu in about 10 mins. The lady manning the sanctuary gates was really charming. She recognized Sabyasachi as a regular visitor and soon gave our entry tickets. I chuckled when I saw the entry fee for foreigners, which was a massive INR 400 compared to a paltry INR 2 for Indians. "Jai Ho" for that!!
Soon we disembarked from the Safari and went in. Immediately, I fell in love with the place. It was obvious, the place was built with lots of affection. Most trees were labeled with their botanical names. There was a huge board which had diagrams of the endemic birds and their names.
We had a quick picnic lunch under the shades after setting the tripods and equipment. Bread, boiled egg and potato bhaji never tasted better!
After the "pet pooja" we set out on image creation.
Again, the sanctuary was only a pale shadow of its peak glory. Sabyasachi fondly described of the place filled with pelicans, ibis and cormorants. Still I had a good time clicking on the pelicans taking flight.
Though most people are serenaded by the pelicans, the bird enthusiast should also probe into the thick bushes. I found a host of interesting birds. I did manage to capture an interesting thrush too, thanks to a cormorant which lead me to a gap in the fence.
After some 2 hours at Nelapattu, we returned to Chennai.
Though we visited off-season, the experience was enriching. We spotted a lot of birds which are usually not the cynosure in peak season. Lastly, in both the places, we had the entire sanctuaries to ourselves. I definitely felt close and proud of the bountiful nature.
Birds to Watch out for:
Flamingos, pelicans, kingfishers, herons, painted storks, spoonbills and ducks, Spot-billed Pelican, seven species of herons and egrets, Painted Stork, Greater Flamingos, ducks, 20 species of shorebirds, gulls, terns, Little Grebe, Indian Cormorant, Little Cormorant, Asian Openbill Stork, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Lesser Whistling Teal, Spotbill Duck, Great Thick-knee and Stone Curlew, wintering waterfowl have been noted including Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Common Teal, Northern Pintail, Garganey, Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Brown-headed Gull, Black-headed Gull, Whiskered Tern, Gull-billed Tern and Caspian Tern.
Birds of prey which appear in winter are the: White-bellied Sea Eagle, Osprey, Harriers and Peregrine Falcons.