Saturday, January 26, 2019

Pulicat Lake (July 2018) - Noddy in Wonderland

It's one of India's best kept wildlife secrets. And at 750 sq. kms. it is a fairly large thing to hide away as well. Pulicat Lake, straddling Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh is India's second largest brackish waterbody after the much-celebrated and obviously better known Chilika Lake in Orissa. And just like its larger sibling, Pulicat's waters, mudflats and beaches house a bewildering array of birdlife, resident and migratory. Over the last few years, Pulicat's secrets have been gradually unfolding to the rest of the world, mainly thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated birders from Chennai. Almost every season, they have uncovered a rare visitor or two, some just fleeting visitors and others who have stayed for longer. I have been fortunate to be friends with two of these people: Aravind Venkataraman and Ganesh Jayaraman; super-keen birders, fantastic photographers and gracious hosts to any birder who wishes to visit this part of avian paradise. And it is with them and their trusted, trained boatman Yuvaraj that I have made my hat-trick of trips to try and unearth some of the magical treasures of Pulicat Lake.

Rainy debut
White-bellied Sea Eagle
My first visit was with Aravind a couple of Septembers ago, with Ganesh traveling on work. Unusually for Chennai, it rained the previous night and the morning too dawned cloudy and drizzly. But that did not deter Aravind as we drove the 70 odd kilometers to Pulicat. We got on to Yuvaraj's boat as the sun threatened to break clear of its cloudy shackles. But it just never did. We got some superb sightings of White Bellied Sea Eagles, including one adult bird that was feasting on an eel, sitting on one of the wooden posts that dot the lake. It allowed us to get quite close without getting disturbed, but the light just wasn't good enough to do the pictures any justice. The trip was rounded off by sightings of Grey Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones in breeding plumages, and a Spot-billed Pelican. Magnificent sightings, they were and I left Chennai salivating for more Pulicat.

The Missing Tattler

Bar-tailed Godwit
The Indian birding fraternity went into a tizzy in September/October 2017 with the sighting of a Grey-Tailed Tattler in Pulicat, probably the first record for India. Aravind and Ganesh reached out as soon as it was sighted, but I was reluctant to go all the way for a single bird. So I hemmed and hawed for a few weeks until a family visit popped up in Chennai. And Pulicat beckoned once again. We spent a superb afternoon there, with some stunning sightings of Bar-tailed Godwits and Pacific Golden Plovers. But the tides had turned against me (literally) as far as the Tattler was concerned. The bird had vanished a few days earlier. But the other birds more than made up.

Pacific Golden Plover
Noddy-time
Lesser Noddy
The Lesser Noddy. Another of those Tattler-type rarities that arrived in Pulicat in May this year. We all expected it to stay a week or so, and so I never really planned to go. Then it stayed for a month. Aravind and Ganesh again kept offering to take me there, and I said I would come if the bird stayed till July - I had a cousin's 'big birthday' celebration then. And I really did not expect to still find the bird there. However, on the 9th of July, a day before I headed to Chennai, Aravind confirmed that the bird was still there. Not just bird, there were now 3 birds, two months after they first arrived! Did anyone say they were vagrants?

Aravind was ready as always at 4:30 a.m. for the drive to Pulicat. Once there, we got on board with Yuvaraj, a fisherman turned bird guide, handpicked and trained by Ganesh and Aravind. He confirmed that the birds were still there and that was good enough for me. The one bummer (there always has to be one!) was the weather. It was overcast and the threat of rain hung in the air. Thankfully the latter never arrived but the clouds definitely threw a spanner in the photography works.


Sandwich Tern
We scanned the lake for the Noddy(s) but they didn't seem to want to make an immediate appearance. There were scores of other birds as well. Terns, Gulls, a couple of Peregrine Falcons and the odd Osprey made for an interesting start to the morning. And then we saw it. Within a big group of terns sat one brown bird. A Lesser Noddy. Yuvaraj used all his skill to manoeuvre us as close as possible and we got a few photos. It didn't quite live up to its reputation as a willing model and was a bit skittish. But I was not complaining! Just to be able to see this beauty was well worth it. And while lining up a shot for this bird, a tern popped up in the frame. At first glance it looked larger and slightly different from the rest. And a closer look at the bill confirmed that it was different indeed! It was a Sandwich Tern, a bird I had only seen earlier through a spotting scope a fair distance away. Now it was less than 20 feet away and sitting very comfortably. Deeply grateful, I clicked a few pictures, thanked Yuvaraj and we both bid adieu to this incredible birding treasure called Pulicat.

It has thrown up a magical sighting or surprise every time I have visited. Yuvaraj's skill in spotting a rarity within the thousands of birds spread over a mind-boggling expanse is nothing short of spectacular. And a special thanks to his mentors and my friends, Aravind and Ganesh. In an increasingly competitive birding world, they are always open, always welcoming and always sharing information with other birders. Not to say always willing to drive a fair distance at an unearthly hour, just to help you see a bird that they have seen a dozen times. May their tribe increase!

We all believe that Pulicat has many more hidden treasures hidden within its watery expanse. And slowly but surely, it is opening up that treasure chest for us. As Ganesh And Aravind say, there's a Spoon-billed Sandpiper in here somewhere! 

Here's to many more trips to this incredible birding wonderland.

Pulicat Lake Trip Guide

Pulicat Lake is a 750 sq. km. brackish water body, the second largest in India. It straddles 2 Indian states - Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, with most of the lake falling within the latter state. It is also home to Sriharikota, one of the homes of India's space programme. From a birding point of view, it has been sparingly explored (not surprising given the expanse, terrain and the high-security zone it falls under) and that too on the Tamil Nadu side. Even so, the variety of bird life and the rarities it has thrown up is nothing short of astonishing.

Getting there

Pulicat is about 60 odd kms to the North of Chennai, in the direction of Gummidipoondi and Nellore. Chennai, of course, is the nearest metro and airport and a 2 hour drive on mostly good roads. Like with any big city, the drive can get much longer during peak hours.

The best way to get there is to drive from Chennai. 

Stay
Chennai should be your base for Pulicat. And it has all kinds of options, for stay and food. If you have to pick, then try and stay as close to central or northern Chennai; it will help you cut down on the drive time.

Boatman
Yuvaraj is your man for Pulicat. An ex-fisherman, he is now almost a full time bird guide and has been expertly trained by Ganesh and Aravind. He's quite in demand these days, especially when the rarities arrive, so please call and check his availability. You can reach him on 

Other Tips
Spending a few hours on an open boat is a delight but it also comes with its own watchouts.
Please carry a cap and adequate water. And sun block if you need.
And carry a snack with you, like some biscuits or fruit. You're always going to feel peckish after a couple of hours.


Ruddy Turnstone


Spot-billed Pelican



Caspian Terns

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