Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary

The oldest bird sanctuary in India

This is one wonderful scene I will never forget.
I am in Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary near Chenni.
The sun is just about to set.
The trees are dotted with birds.
At a rough estimate, there are about 75,000 birds.
There are numerous nests.
Some nests contain fluffy little chicks - some a few days old, others older.
Other nests contain eggs.
There are several species of birds - most of them migratory.
You can easily identify some of the birds.
Pelicans, the heaviest bird (each weighing upto 10 kilograms), have enormous heavy flat bills with an elastic pouch on the bottom.
They fly from one tree to another.
They look clumsy.
Yet, they take off the water effortlessly and can easily fly long distances.

I remember reading a story about a Japanese fisherman and his pelicans.
He would tie a twine around the necks of his pelicans.
They would fish in the rivers.
They would store the catch in their pouch.
When they returned to the fisherman, he would take out the fishes leaving one or two for the pelicans.

The spoonbills have peculiar spoon shaped bills and black legs.
The Open Bill Storks can be identified from the tell-tale gap between the two bills.

Several species of ducks from Canada are swimming.
Every now and then, they dive into the water and come up with a fish or tadpole.

Suddenly, the snake like head of the snake bird or darter pops out of the water.
It swims with its body submerged under the water.
The neck and head move like a snake and as suddenly disappear under the surface.

The herons and egrets patiently wait at the water’s edge for an unfortunate fish.
The sun dips down the horizon.
The western sky turns a beautiful soft red - the dream of any painter.
The tropical dusk wraps up the entire vista.
Thousands of birds are returning to their nests for the night.
If there are eggs or chicks - one of the parents goes out in search of food, while the other looks after the eggs or chicks.
If the birds have chicks, they bring back food in their beaks.
As they delicately land in their nests, the little impatient chicks start clammering for food.
They insert their tiny beaks into the mouths of their parents and try to snatch whatever is possible.

There is a lot of noise. Different kinds of bird sounds.
Birds flap around.
Singles. In small groups. And in larger groups.
It is difficult to believe that there can be so many different kinds of birds in one sanctuary.
In spite of all the noise, there is an unbelievable oneness.
The din is soothingly pleasant.
One simply forgets that he is very close to Chennai.
For a few hours, peace and tranquility take over and one becomes a child.

There are a number of large boards carrying sketches and details of different birds.
Request some one from the forest department to accompany you.
He could give you your first lessons in bird watching or ornithology.
He could bring out the traits of Salim Ali in you.
He will teach you how to identify the birds from the way they fly, the formations in which they fly and the way they land on their nests.

The oldest bird sanctuary in India

The Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary is the oldest bird sanctuary in India.
It is situated in the Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu (90 kilometres from Chennai (Madras)). For over two hundred ago - long before the days of modern day wild life conservationism - the villagers around have zealously protected the winged visitors to this sanctuary.

They knew that the large numbers of birds translate into droppings which turn into a lot of guano - one of the finest natural fertilizers known to mankind.
The birds also devour a lot of insects, pests and rodents which would otherwise harm the crops.

The villagers recognize the symbiotic beneficial relationship with the birds.
The fertility of the land is very high.
The yield of the crops is also very high.
And the crops are free of artificial fertilizer and insecticide.
True conservation means recognizing the mutual benefits to us.
Archival records show that towards the end of the 18th century, local villagers complained to the then Collector Lionel Place about indiscriminate shooting of the birds by British soldiers.
The Collector issued a ‘firman’ (order) - prohibiting any shooting of the birds in the entire village.
The East India Company recognised the villagers’ rights and renewed them in the year 1858.
The lake was first recognised as a sanctuary in 1936.
In 1962, it was accorded the legal status of a reserve forest under the Madras Forest Act.
Ten years later, in 1972, the entire lake was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary under the Wildlife Protection Act.

Today generations later, the villagers still protect the birds with the same zeal which their fore fathers showed.
They avoid any noisy activity near the sanctuary.
During the months the winged visitors use this place for breeding - the 3,000-odd villagers even make marriages and festivals a silent affair.

The forest officers told me that a bird census had been taken recently.
There were more than 75,000 birds.

The sanctuary comprises of a grove of Barringtonia Acacia nilotica trees in a large tank.
In addition, there are dry evergreen scrub and thorn forests.
Boating is not allowed here.
As a result, breeding birds do not have any disturbance.
During the monsoon, rain water accumulates not only in the main lake, but also in the 60 and odd ponds and adjoining paddy fields resulting in proliferation of aquatic prey for the birds - such as fish, tadpoles, frogs, water insects and snails.

115 species of birds have been recorded in this sanctuary.
I have compiled a list of a few migratory birds I could see and identify:
Garganey Teals, Glossy Ibis, Grey Heron, Grey Pelican, Open-billed Stork, Painted Stork,
Snake Bird, Spoonbill and Spot Bill Duck.
In addition, I could spot Cormorants, Darters, Grebes, Large Egret, Little Egrets, Moorhen, Night Herons, Paddy Bird, Painted Stork, Pintails, Pond Heron, Sandpiper, Shovellers, Terns, White Ibis, etc.

As summer sets in, the water in the tanks starts receding.
By this time, the chicks become old and strong enough to fly.
The migratory birds start leaving in batches.
The villagers bid them adieu……only to welcome them back after six months or so.

General Information

Best season to visit
The nesting season commences late October.
The birds are through with breeding and start returning to their feeding grounds around March. The best time to visit the sanctuary is from November to the middle of March.

Best time to visit
When the birds have eggs or chicks, only one parent will remain in the nest.
The other will fly to the surrounding areas in search of food.
Therefore, the best time to visit the Sanctuary is during the early mornings or late evenings when you can see more birds.

Reaching there

Nearest airport is Chennai - 58 kms away.
Railway station
Nearest railway station is Chengalpattu - 30 kms away.
90 kms. from Chennai.
There are regular and frequent bus services from Chennai, Tambaram and Chengalpattu.

You can stay overnight at the forest rest house at Vedanthangal close by.
For reservations, contact :Wildlife Warden’s Office DMS Compound, Anna Salai, Teynampet, Chennai – 600 006Tel : (044) 2432 1471

All types of accommodation are available in Chennai.

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