Trip Start Sep 08, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of India  , Tamil Nādu,
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The experience of Vedanthangal bird sanctuary must go down as one of the most astonishing encounters with the natural world and its kingdom of animals in my life

But more of that in a moment. The journey there was just as eye-opening.

We set the alarm for 3:45 and by half four are in the back seat of the taxi, Beth squishing mosquitoes filled with the drivers blood. Darkness does not alter the Indian road-users' obsessive compulsion with advertising his presence on the road, it merely altars the avatar of its manifestation. Instead of the incessant thumping of the steering wheel to bring forth the horn, the headlights become the weapon of choice. As you approach empty bends in the road, as you spot another vehicle coming towards you along a straight, as you sneak up on a dog or a cow or a pedestrian it is not sufficient to assume your high beams (or the noise of your engine) will be enough to signify your presence. No. You must flick your lights on and off, full-beam, half-beam, full-beam, half-beam, six, eight, a dozen times to make absolutely sure no-one has confused you with an illuminated building, or a rather large firefly, or a moving lighthouse. When two cars face each other down on an open stretch of road, it is not acceptable to pass each other until both drivers are thoroughly blinded with sunspots. With the bend scenario, it is more important that you perform this ritual of light than that you actually manage to turn the wheel in time to execute the manoeuvre without straying on to the wrong side of the road or onto the verge. Of course the horn can still be used as a musical accompaniment but, what with one hand fully occupied waggling the headlight lever and the other occasionally jerking the steering wheel, it becomes difficult to press the horn whilst at the same time changing gear to increase your speed.

Anyway I digress. It is enough to say that we arrive at a dead end surrounded by chai shacks in one piece. It is just before six and the sky is still night dark as we settle onto our plastic chairs holding between thumb and forefingers our scolding glasses of frothy tea.

All is quiet, or as quiet as an Indian night can be, when the coming day still seems an age away. On the other side of the dusty track the concrete gate posts to the sanctuary appear to be shuttered closed, the ticket office locked up. Something seems to shift in the sky but looking up the darkness is complete and we sip our sweet tea in silence.

A group of men, as they always do, huddle together outside the next stall, their talk not yet infused with the effort of argument that the daylight will bring. Behind them darkness silhouettes darkness, my eyes just beginning to make out an expanse of land that organises itself into darker divisions of fields. Looking up clouds can just about be imagined, or rather fractionally lighter openings impress where clouds are not. And again something seems to stir from one patch of night to another but I cannot be sure and take another sip.

When I stand up to order a second glass there is no doubting that dawn is slowly corrupting the night, melting it away. In patches over there, beyond the shut gates, the black sky has the slightest hue of blueness that seems to swell paler as I look on it. Dropping my gaze I notice that the gates are not shuttered after all, the posts merely frame a flight of concrete steps leading up a slight bank. A movement draws me back up and now I can clearly see the silent silhouette of a soaring bird; a large, unfamiliar wingspan drifting through unpropelled though the sky.

The light blossoms with astonishing speed and as we down the last sugary milk and return the glasses to the stall holder the day - though still not the sun - has arrived. More birds fly overhead, different sizes, different wing forms, all appearing from behind the ticket office which has just opened and soaring across the fields behind us. Still, all remains muted by the pre-dawn mist that rises from the paddies and we buy our tickets preparing ourselves for a calm, quiet half hour or so sitting in a hide waiting to catch a glimpse of a few birds.

But this is India. It does not do calm very well and as we ascend the steps up to the top of the small dyke, we are confronted with he raucous chorus of hundreds, thousands of nesting birds - giant storks, heron and pelican; spoonbills and darters and ibis - waking up on their mangrove roosts, the closest separated from us by just ten metres of still, fertalised water. The noise is phenomenal; the stretching and flapping of stork wings; the slapping, clapping of pelican beaks; the chattering of heron and cormorant and egret and ibis. How could we not hear this before as we sat just down there having our tea? Have we become accustomed to such a high level of background noise here in India that it simply didn't register?

But this, this is amazing. We climb a look-out tower and... what a sight! The water body spreads for acres and acres and every clumped island of mangrove, every outcrop of bamboo is garlanded with a canopy of white, chattering birds. As far as the eye can see are birds - huge birds - each over a metre tall - building nests, pairing up, taking to the sky, wrenching nesting material from surrounding trees, fishing for food to regurgitate for the first hatch of screaming chicks.

It is estimated that thirty thousand breeding birds return to this enormous orgy/maternity ward/nursery each year. Thirty thousand birds stretched out before the rising sun.

We identified:

White (Black-headed) Ibis, Grey Heron, Black Darter, Eurasian Spoonbill (Stork), Indian Pond Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Spot-billed Pelican, Grey Pelican, Glossy Ibis, Asian Open-bill Stork, Painted Stork, Little Cormorant, Little Egret, Cattle Egret

We also identified in the surrounding fields/woodland:

Collared (?) Owlet, Lesser Coucal, Common Hawk Cuckoo, White-throated Kingfisher, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Indian Roller.

The Painted Stork and the pelicans stole the show...oh, and the ibis, and the owlet, and the bee-eater.....

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