Author: Ravi Kailas
Pulicat is India’s second largest brackish lagoon and a wintering and staging ground for numerous waders and waterfowl that use the Central Asian Flyway, with records of globally significant bird species like Asian Dowitcher and Crab Plover known from here.
Date: 27th December 2020
Having neglected birding around Chennai over the last few years, almost exclusively to avoid the drudgery of the unpleasant commute, to get to anywhere resembling a pristine natural area, I have been recently motivated to revisit some birding hotspots around the city, \’thanks\’ to the otherwise restricted travel opportunities during the pandemic. I recently picked up the courage to brave the roads, one late December afternoon, and head north from the city, in my puny hatchback, weaving my way through massive commercial vehicles, unexpected potholes, oddly placed police barriers, jaywalkers and shockingly unexpected appearances of two wheelers inches from the front bumpers – in other words, an average day on an Indian highway – to Pulicat Lake.
Admittedly, the aforementioned mayhem lasted only for the first of the two hour drive to the to eponymous town of Pulicat, located where the Kosatalayar River meets the southern fringes of the lagoon, part of the small area I explored on that day. Turning off northeast, from the highway connecting the city to the Ennore Port, from the town of Minjur, led into a countryside of villages, verdant paddy fields and myriad lily ponds (one especially large, near Kaatoor) and on a relatively empty state highway – a shockingly pleasant change from what was, until then. Bird diversity also increased, and included Ashy Wood Swallow, Grey Francolin, Tri-coloured Munia, Black-shouldered Kite and more, amidst the paddy fields and numerous Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Eurasian Coot and Barn Swallow in and over the tanks. Turning East from this road onto one connecting to Pulicat town, there was marsh on either side of the road, inhabited by species like Eurasian Marsh Harrier and Asian Openbill. The vegetation progressively thinned, while approaching the shores of the brackish lagoon, and waders, mostly Little Ringed Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Common Redshank, Ruff and Wood Sandpiper, and 1 Eurasian Curlew, all winter visitors to these parts, started showing up, furiously dipping their bills into the shallows of ephemeral pools on the fringes of the lagoon. These pools also attracted a feeding frenzy of mostly Whiskered Tern (with a couple of Gull-billed in the mix). Driving via the crowded market of the town, towards the confluence of the river and the lagoon, a couple of keen-eyed (fishing) boatmen waylaid me to offer into the lagoon, to see terns and gulls (suggesting that the water levels were too high for most waders at this time and Feb-April are better months for these migrants) – probably a decade old, alternative source of employment for these boatmen correlated with the exponential growth of bird photographers around major Indian cities, and hopefully an incentive for local fishing communities to resist large-scale, environmentally destructive projects that are knocking at their doorstep. I did, however want to explore the lagoon\’s shoreline a little northwest of here, leading to a fishing village called Annamalancheri, and given the limited time on hand, took a rain check on the boat ride
Leaving Pulicat behind (both the town and lagoon), early in the evening, I retraced back on the road the connects the town of Pulicat to Ponneri, before turning North, onto a dramatically quaint country road, towards Annamalancheri. This single-laned, and admittedly not so good for tired bones road, with verdant fields and village tanks on either side, accompanied some wholesome countryside birding. About 5KM from the destination, the lagoon appeared to the East lit up in the warm glow of the evening light. An inter-tidal patch, evidently at low tide, hosted a handful of Little-ringed (both in breeding and otherwise form), Common Redshank, Pacific Golden Plover, Wood Sandpiper and Ruff – all observed by yours truly in the most idyllic of settings and in glorious evening light. Driving towards the fishing village, the lagoon appears roadside with Common Greenshank, Ruff, Marsh Sandpiper, the relatively rare (in these parts) Bar-tailed Godwit among the commoner Black-tailed versions and Black-winged Stilt, all seemingly settling in for fast approaching darkness. The rest of the drive to the village, through scrub dominated by invasive Mesquite, while showing potential for terrestrial birds, was hastier than ideal given the late hour, as was the 2 hour drive back to Chennai, via the town of Methur, joining the National Highway 16 and its laden trucks etc, at nightfall …..