Visiting the flamingos of Pallikarnai

Lakshmi Sharath
Lakshmi Sharath
Flamingos at Pallikarnai, Chennai
A flock of Greater Flamingos at Chennai's Pallikarnai wetland.

It had rained a bit and the night had wrapped the skies in a thick blanket of darkness. Even as I waited for the dawn, the skies refused to part with their comfortable cloak while the moon shone through the bare branches of the trees. Standing in my garden in Chennai, I was taking in the scene, waiting for the birds to announce a new day. The sun strode through, eclipsing the moon, spreading its rays over the dense canopy of trees. The Asian Koels were the first to take centre-stage as the others followed and within minutes, an orchestra broke out from the trees. I was, however, heading to another birding hotspot, one of Chennai’s last wetlands, located right in the heart of the bustling IT hub adjacent to the Bay of Bengal.

There was nothing beautiful about the Pallikarnai marshes. I was standing right in the middle of the IT corridor and the buildings have sprung up like giant beanstalks from Jack’s magic beans. The traffic was slowly picking up on the road as we parked our car and stood near a garbage dump overlooking the marshes.

The only surviving wetland in the city, Pallikarnai is a natural freshwater swamp, but today it has largely shrunk owing to toxic waste being dumped along the way and real estate development around it. Pallikarnai marshes may be barely 20 km from the city centre, but it is right at the centre of the IT sector, with new suburbs surrounding it. Fires have ravaged it and sewage has plagued it, but the marshlands are home to over 100 species of birds, most of which flock here during the migratory period and also breed here.

I was visiting Pallikarnai well after the migratory season, in the peak of summer, to greet new visitors who had flocked around the marshes. Earlier, my annual visit used to be to Pulicat Lake, located on the border of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, to see the Greater Flamingos. This time, I was told that a huge flock had found their way here and had decided to settle here for a few months. It was probably not the first time that the flamingos had made Chennai their home, but the sheer size of the flock – apparently around 300 – was a welcome sign.

When I reached the marshes, there was barely any sign of the flamingos. A Pied-Crested Cuckoo called as it rustled around in the dry branches, while a few Ashy Prinias were hopping around in the shrubbery. We spotted a couple of Red-wattled Lapwings, some Purple Swamphens, a brooding Egret in breeding plumage, a pair of Pheasant-tailed Jacanas. A small flock of Common Coots were swimming in the water. A sandpiper was grazing the edge of the swamp, poking around for food. We looked around the marshes and could not see the flamingos.

We continued our journey, going a little further as the marshes formed into various catchment areas and connected different suburbs. However, the flamingos still evaded us. As we returned we stopped on the main road and saw a path covered with dense foliage overlooking the marshes. And then, as we walked along, we saw a small opening in the wilderness that took us across the barbed wires to the edge of the swamp. And there we saw in the smog, a picture-perfect postcard that stood out in colours of black and white. Against the grey backdrop of the waters was one row of dazzling white flamingos, having their morning breakfast, while the second row was filled with glossy ibises and black winged stilts digging their beaks deep into the marshes, looking for their food. The sun was veiled in the clouds and smog filled the landscape, but the birds dazzled in their coats.

We met another birdwatcher and photographer and for hours, it was just the three of us, observing the birds in silence and waiting for the sun to brighten the atmosphere a bit. I was told that the marshlands were home to migratory birds like Fulvous Whistling Ducks during winters while sightings of Ruddy Shelduck and Comb Ducks have been recorded here as well. Several raptors flock here as well while one can spot mammals, varieties of fish, butterflies, frogs and reptiles in these wetlands as the biodiversity hotspot is known to support over 300 species of flora and fauna.

But the wetland is on its last legs. While the marshlands are given a protected status by the government and the undeveloped areas around it are tagged as reserve forests, local bodies are also working on conservation measures here. Campaigns like Namma Pallikarnai and Save Pallikarnai have gained momentum. However, the fragile wetlands are being threatened by rampant real estate development in the region.

The birds, however, seemed oblivious to the threat. As the sun rose beyond the bordering buildings on the horizon, I spent a few last minutes watching flamingos flapping their wings, getting ready to fly, while the others probably enjoyed the solitude of the marshes.