A Winter Odyssey: Experts share guide to Chennai's migratory birds
With the season of migratory birds at its peak, birding experts share a tell-all guide to find these guests in the underrated pockets of the city for an epic spectacle.
In April 2018, a White-throated Kingfisher pulled me out of a deep, dark pit. Then, every time I was distraught, it would appear before me, uncannily, to a point when I thought I was hallucinating. But turns out, I wasn't. The phenomenon continued even after I moved to a new address, a few kilometres away from my previous residence. So, it’s not without reason that the bird is a personal, close-to-magical, and unexplainable part of my life.
Even though it is the most habitual Kingfisher in urban pockets, spotting one isn’t an everyday affair for most city dwellers. KV Sudhakar, president of Madras Naturalist Society, says, "Finding a White-throated Kingfisher in Chennai shouldn’t be that hard. Chennai is one of the most ideally located cities for birding. We are located near the coast, we have a river that has an estuary (Adyar River), and we also have marshlands (like Pallikaranai, Sholinganallur), swamps (like Ram Nagar Swamps), scrub jungles, a national park (Guindy National Park), and even a reserved forest in the city (Nanmangalam). So, different species that prefer different types of vegetation, landscape, and living conditions grace Chennai."
Perhaps this is why birding as an activity has seen rampant growth, especially during the 2020-2021 Covid era, which persuaded Chennaiites to turn to it as a pet pursuit. Sudhakar agrees, but also points out that ample free time may not be the only reason.
"Lots of webinars were conducted during the pandemic. Similarly, the boom of social media is another major reason, because I see so many young people clicking pictures of birds to post on Instagram," he shares.
Additionally, the advent of platforms like E-bird and ease of access to information have also made birding a common man’s activity. "Twenty years ago, birding was considered an elitist hobby. In those days, only English books were available for birding, which restricted it from reaching different strata of society. However, now we have books in almost all languages, and so we have some excellent bird-watchers who hail from remote places," points out Sudhakar.
But this increase in the number of birders is not without cons. For one, the rise in population has snatched open spaces, rues Sudhakar. Hence, it becomes necessary to identify the lesser-known birding spots that are easy to access, and to take the pressure off the frequented ones.
Poochi Venkat, a naturalist from the city, insists that word of mouth is needed because public enthusiasm will help in conservation. "For this to happen, the locals must know that they have something extraordinary, which they should visit and protect," he shares.
Taking this message forward, and with the migratory season underway, Chennai's expert birders recommend a few lesser-known spots for budding birders - all within the Chennai Metropolitan area, in a 40-km radius from Central Chennai.
Follow the chirps
Let’s begin with the lake near Puzhal Central Jail in Red Hills. We presume there would be no reason for us to visit the prison, but Elangovan Viswanathan, an avid bird-watcher, suggests exploring the north-western shore of the Puzhal lake, as the trees here are home to Little Cormorants and Black-crowned Night Herons.
Though Cormorants, Herons, Spoonbills, Pelicans, and Shrikes are a few of the common groups of birds that can be spotted here, he cherishes the time when he witnessed the migratory Eurasian Wigeon ducks. "It was a big flock of more than 50 birds, swimming at the centre of the lake. I wish I could have photographed it," he reminisces.
Elangovan’s next pro-tip is in the northwest, where the Krishna Water Canal road that stems from the Outer Ring Road leads to the village of Melpakkam. For a hassle-free sighting experience, park your vehicle near the ORR-Krishna Water Canal intersection and walk along the KWC road towards the village, he says. The areas along the road, especially some small pockets of water, seem to lure a wide range of species.
"I have seen Paddifield Pipit, Citrine and White-browed Wagtails, Ashy and Plain Prinias, Jerdon’s Bush Lark, Eurasian Skylark, Glossy Ibis, and more here. I have even spotted a Black Bittern (a rare bird) here," says an elated Elangovan. These are just a few of the 160 species of birds that have been spotted in the area by birders.
Further down south on the ORR, towards the Pattabiram Rountana, the Thandurai lake and Vilinjiyambakkam lake offer a peaceful birding experience. While raptors like Brahminy Kite, Black Kite, and Red-necked Falcon are spotted at the latter, Thandurai lake is a birding sanctum you wouldn’t want to miss.
Elangovan's long list of bird sightings here includes Zitting Cisticola, Brahminy Starling, Pied Bush Chat, Indian Roller, Asian Openbill, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Asian Palm Swift and Blue-faced Malkoha. "Ducks like Lesser-whistling, Spot-billed, Little Grebes, and Grey Francolin can be seen effortlessly here," he adds.
Having spent a fair bit of time at Thandurai, you can then head to Nayapakkam Eri in the southwest, which has recorded visits of more than 120 species of birds including the Red-whiskered Bulbul, Red Munia, Blue-tailed Bee-eater and Eurasian Coot.
"The southern side of the lake is brilliant. I have even seen the migrant Lesser Whitethroat here. Do look out for duck species like Cotton Pygmy Goose, Northern Pintail and Garganey here," informs Elangovan, adding that some birders have even claimed to have spotted the rare Bonelli’s Eagle.
Chennai's eastern coast is also a fortune for birders, and as Venkat points out, many of these are located along the water channels that begin from Pallikaranai marsh, like the Okkiyam Maduvu water channel, which eventually drains into the Buckingham Canal.
Though the road that connects Old Mahabalipuram Road and East Coast Road near Akkarai is filled with bird buzz, Venkat says that Muthukadu, located further south, is the treasure to look out for. "While Muthukadu is popular for its boathouse, the stretch from the Muthukadu backwaters that goes under the Muthukadu bridge and joins the ocean is a haven for birding. I have even seen Ospreys and River Terns here. You will also find a lot of Pelicans."
Though Storks might avoid Muthukadu because they do not prefer human movement, Venkat is hopeful about spotting Drongos, Bee-eaters, Coucals and other small birds on the bushes along the way.
The magic doesn't stop at Muthukadu. Cruise further down the ECR till you reach the intersection of the Kelambakkam-Kovalam road to see the rarest of birds like Blyth's Pipit, White Wagtail, Black-headed Munia, and Chestnut-tailed Starling. "I have seen an Osprey near the marshlands and backwaters along the Kelambakkam-Kovalam road," shares E Arun Kumar, an avid birder and surveyor.
Go further south through Thiruvidanthai and look for a road that connects Thiruporur and Nemmeli. Venkat points out that while the road itself is a famous route to the Thiruporur temples, bird detectives can have a field day watching waterbirds like Terns, or raptors like the Honey-buzzard, or smaller birds that live in scrubs and bushes like Coucals and Bee-eaters.
But, if your heart seeks a bigger prize, Arun recommends driving by the road along the Buckingham Canal behind the Hiranandani Township in OMR, where he spotted the migrant Peregrine Falcon - the fastest bird on planet Earth.
Taking a rain check
"The rains have played a major spoilsport this season, so we couldn't venture out as much as we wanted to," says Ranjani Narayanan, a birding enthusiast.
Echoing her sentiment is Venkat, "When the water level drops, birds that feed on insects are more visible. Shovelers will prefer such swampy areas since they use their beaks to shovel or sift the mud and eat insects underneath. However, Kingfishers need enough depth to dive and fish. Most birds can’t have water in their wings and they settle under trees or shrubs for shade. But more water is good for birds like Pelicans and Stilts."
This could be a reason why Puzhal might become a make-or-break situation for birding, especially after water was released from the Puzhal lake in November. The freshness of water can also play a major role, adds Venkat.
"For example, if the water in places like the Sholinganallur marshlands is putrid, birds won’t come often until it rains," he says.
Availability of food sources like insects is another factor, according to Dr V Santharam, director of Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History. "Dragonflies can move in large congregations to places as far as southern Africa. And when they do, birds like the European Roller, European Bee-eater, and Amur Falcon follow them," he says.
On November 17, when Chennai was on red alert due to incessant rains, a local birder witnessed a historic sighting at the Nanmangalam Lake area. "Along the lake, in a bush, I saw a Flycatcher. I thought it was just any other, but after sending the pictures to experts, I realised that it was the Korean Flycatcher," shares Jithesh Babu.
This was the first-ever sighting of this bird, not just in Chennai, but the entire state of Tamil Nadu. "These birds are native to Korea, and they usually travel to southern-eastern countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Western Japan," he informs.
The Andaman Islands is the farthest these birds have flown to. "This bird shouldn't have been here, but we believe the heavy winds we experienced last month might be the reason. Sometimes, extreme weather conditions can blow even pelagic birds into the land due to heavy winds," says Santharam.
Binoculars first, camera next
But the good news is that the birding season isn’t dead as a dodo. Arun, who surveys the birds at Pulicat Lake for the Tamil Nadu Forest Department shares, "Birds should come back soon. In fact, as of December 4, the birds that come regularly to Pulicat are back."
Regardless of what these pockets can offer, the best place to start birding is still our home, reminds Ranjani. "Begin with identifying the common birds that frequent your area," she says. That's where expert birders like Madhumita Rajkumar began. "I fell in love with the Pied Avocet near my house in Pallikaranai," says the independent wildlife researcher.
Venkat advises, "It's important to learn about the birds than just click pictures of them. Go to a particular place repeatedly. Observe how a bird flies, nests, grows from juvenile to adult, and so on. Analyse and inquire why a bird comes to a place repeatedly, why it lives at a particular place, and more. Ask if the climate change displaced it and if that has, in turn, displaced another species that exist there."
During all my conversations with birders, the mere mention of the White-throated Kingfisher stirs my memories and search. "You can find them anywhere. This beautiful bird is unique because, unlike other Kingfishers, they can travel to dry places, urban areas, and so on," says Santharam. For the darling that saved me, I will go anywhere.
Twenty years ago, birding was considered an elitist hobby. In those days, only English books were available for birding, which restricted it from reaching different strata of society.
eBird -Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Merlin -Cornell Lab of Ornithology
BirdNET -Stefan Kahl
The Book of Indian Birds - Salim Ali
A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent - Krys Kazmierczak
Birds of the Indian Subcontinent - Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp
Birds of Prey of The Indian Subcontinent - Rishad Naoroji