It was still dark when we headed out of Chennai hoping to have a date with the flamingos on the lake. It had rained the previous night and the day wore a white-washed look. The roads were quiet, and so were the birds. We stopped at a lake en route only to find the waters bathed in a thin fog. The silence was even more pronounced. We walked around the fields, hoping to see some wings flitting around, but it looked like the day had not yet dawned for the birds. The sun was still hiding behind the clouds and we were musing aloud, whether it was a bad idea to bird on a rather foggy day.
We continued our journey and stopped by a marshland. Openbill storks and Painted Storks filled the marshes with their bright colours and broke the jinx. A Black-shouldered Kite perched on the wire, looking anxiously on either side for breakfast. An Indian Roller soon joined in a quest for food. The marshlands were full of life. Pheasant-tailed Jacanas were swimming with coots and moorhens. A flock of Barn Swallows were flying low as we spotted a Common Kingfisher. There was some activity in the bushes and we spotted a pair of Pied Cuckoos in the branches. Within minutes, we had spotted almost 30 species of birds as the entire landscape was abuzz with avian life.
Small dusty towns interrupted our journey until we reached Pulicat, a coastal town and ancient port that was ruled by the early Tamil kingdoms and the Vijayanagar kings. It had also been ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.
A ruined Chola temple lies adjacent to the Dutch cemetery, guarded by skeletons. Ask for the fort and the locals point to another marshland dotted with shrubs and trees. You can squint through the wilderness and spot some broken walls.
Walking aimlessly through the streets of Pulicat, we saw old ruined houses that still smack of colonial rule. The town was once known for its slave trade practiced by the Dutch, but it was also a flourishing port home to migrant Arab traders. Our interest, however, was in a different variety of migrants – the flamingos who visit the lake here every year.
Straddling Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, Pulicat is a vast saline lake that beckons several birds, prominent among them flamingos, every year. As we entered from the Tamil Nadu side, we weren’t ready for the drama. A mongoose crossed the path, while an oriental honey buzzard was chased by a protective Red-wattled Lapwing, which was probably nesting. And then, all of a sudden, the sky was filled with millions of plovers, which created a pattern of their own.
The marshlands around the lake were dotted with waders – common sandpipers, wood sandpipers, little ringed plovers, little stint, redshanks and greenshanks and Eurasian curlew among others.
The fishermen crowded around us offering to take us into the water. As we bargained, we were disappointed to hear that there were no flamingos. You could try your luck in the Andhra waters, they said, but refused to take us there by boat, citing local issues. They promised us sightings of terns and we were tempted.
The afternoon sun stroked the skin, burning it, but the sea breeze instantly lowered the temperatures. As we waited for our boats, we saw the catch hauled by the fishermen being weighed. Crabs, prawns and local fish were sorted out and thrust into baskets. A reef egret caught our attention, followed by whiskered terns. The waters were so clear that we could almost see the depths below.
As we sailed towards the Bay of Bengal we saw in the distance small specks dotting the horizon. Out came our binoculars as we collectively heaved a sigh of excitement. They were flamingos. The boatman refused to change course, citing that it was lowland and the boat would get stuck. We started negotiating with him in the middle of the ocean and he finally agreed. We sailed towards the flamingos with the sea behind us and then the boat was pushed physically as we came close. There were millions of birds, some juveniles as well.
We stopped, stared, photographed, and spent moments in silence. And then, as the boat inched closer to them, the birds flapped their wings collectively, displaying their bright orange-and-pink hues. In a moment, it all happened. A giant leap and there was such drama in the waters. Water splashed, wings fluttered and calls echoed loud as the entire sky was abuzz with orange, pink, white and black – the entire flock of a million birds flew above our heads to another shore.
We stood there for a long time, watching the spectacle in silence, awestruck at the rainbow of colours painted by these birds. It was one of those inexplicable moments, defying all words and expressions.
Pulicat Lake is about 60 km north of Chennai
Best time to visit: November to February
Lakshmi Sharath is a media professional, traveler, travel-writer, photographer and blogger.