Usually, getting to bird sanctuaries in Tamil Nadu involves a lot of teeth-rattling road time, but pleasantly, the drive to Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary is nothing like that. A quick afternoon’s drive along the newly polished NH45 from Chennai gets you to the oldest water bird sanctuary in the country, also a delightful retreat from the grime and the noise of the city.
As we enter the Vedanthangal Sanctuary, through a gate guarded by monkeys, no less, there is the thrum of satisfied birds eating, swimming, diving, homemaking and squawking. They seem to be happy doing nothing, enjoying their last few days of rest before starting on the long flights home. They are accustomed to visitors, and some of the birds venture quite close to the tourists. Beyond the islands full of mangroves, they perch on the trees that line the banks and reach out to the water.
The Barringtonia mangroves of the sanctuary create a floating habitat for a variety of migratory birds. We walk along a shaded stone pathway around the mangroves to view the birds on our left. On the other side are extensive chartreuse paddy fields and a gorgeous sunset — luckily, we are visiting at the right time. The setting is so beautiful that I feel the sanctuary extends beyond its watery boundaries. We try to guess the number of birds by counting how many there are in the trees. It proves to be a futile exercise, as the mangroves extend far into the distance and the horizon seems to rustle with white wings. Official reports claim there are anything between 10,000 and 20,000 birds per season, resting, sheltering and breeding on what is apparently 2,000 partially submerged trees.
We climb one of the watchtowers and watch a trio of painted storks gather twigs from a tree to build their nests. Their delicate balancing act on the thinnest of branches reminds me of the gravity-defying scenes in a martial arts flick, where a dexterous fight takes place atop bamboo reeds. The painted storks are by far the most expressive species in the sanctuary, with milky wings that rise to fuschia at the tips. That said, there is considerable pleasure watching birds that are not involved in any balancing act, but are merely resting. We notice many villagers in the sanctuary; they wield considerable influence in the running of the sanctuary. Village boundaries and that of the reserve’s meld together, and in fact, the 73-acre sanctuary and its surroundings were only deemed a protected zone after the complaints of villagers about the intemperate hunting of the birds by the British. It is a suitably impressive history for a park that is a great example of a well-managed protected area. At dusk, you can watch young goatherds returning home with their flocks or the brightly painted oxen preparing to doze off — all an integral part of the typical evening scene in villages. The pace of life suddenly seems slower, and coupled with the pacifying landscape and the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature that we see around us, life’s harsher realities seem a world away — if only for the time you actually spend in the park. Vedanthangal is close to both Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram and therefore makes for a good late afternoon trip. It is great for people of all ages looking for the romance of the countryside and the excitement of wildlife, but with little of the attendant difficulties of early morning treks or crouching in the underbrush. The sanctuary is a bit like a park, open to everyone for a lazy evening stroll, but with very many birds flocking around. And in the fading golden light, it seems much more than the sum of its parts.
About Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary
Said to be the oldest water sanctuary in India, the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary was granted legal protection in 1798. Spread over 30 hectares, the ecosystem of the tank is made up of islands of Barringtonia mangroves, evergreen scrub and thorn forest. The area was recognised as a sanctuary in 1936. The 1962 Madras Forest Act accorded it the status of a reserve forest and, subsequently, the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act pronounced it a Wildlife Sanctuary.
State: Tamil Nadu Location Off NH45 from the state capital Chennai, close to the small town of Padalam in Kanchipuram District
Distance: 86 km SW of Chennai Route from Chennai NH45 to Padalam Junction via Chengalpattu; district road to Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary
When to go: The sanctuary season is Nov to Mar. Breeding season lasts from Oct/ Nov to March, peaking in Dec-Jan when about 30,000 birds nest here
Go there for Painted storks, Oriental darters and ibis
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