Around 65 km from Chennai is the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary — a haven for bird watchers and bird lovers. The first time at the entrance here, we chanced to look up and got to see dozens of birds circling overhead. As we went further inside, we managed to see some of those birds at close quarters. One species caught our eye — it was big and beautiful with lovely colouring. It was the painted stork.
These birds belong to the stork family — a family comprising several wading birds with long legs, long necks and bills. Mycteria leucocephala is its scientific name.
Spread throughout south Asia and south-east Asia, they are found in large numbers in the Indian subcontinent, favouring freshwater marshes, lakes and reservoirs, flooded fields, rice paddies, freshwater swamp forest, river banks, intertidal mudflats and saltpans.
With orange-red dominating its head, a yellow and reddish beak, black tail with greenish shine and distinctive pink patches near its tail, the painted stork is a colourful, beautiful bird.
The male and female look alike except that the males are larger. Weighing 3.5 kg, they are 100 cm tall with a 160 cm wing span. Their life span is 25 years.
As we watched from a 30-foot high semi-circular watch tower, we were treated to a panoramic view of the painted storks, often with twigs in their beaks, landing on numerous trees in the swamp-like place within the sanctuary.
Another place where we had an enjoyable experience was a place called Kokkare Bellur, a small hamlet along the Bangalore-Mysore highway. Here, every year with unerring precision, the painted storks which are migratory in nature make their way during October.
Why Kokkare Bellur? Only these birds can tell. The villagers here and the birds share a warm and loving relationship. The villagers and even the children await their arrival and the birds have never been known to disappoint. Once they arrive every child knows their nesting trees. It would seem as if from time immemorial these winged creatures have made the village their home. The birds were found taking refuge or nesting on trees like tamarind, peepal, banyan or gulmohar.
It is indeed wonderful to stand and watch them reducing their flight speed, stretching their long legs and landing slowly one after the other on the tops of these trees, bringing with them small twigs and leafy green branches to build their bulky nests. Some cover their nests with their wings spread out like an umbrella to protect the eggs and the young ones from the hot sun.
Every tree is covered with as many nests as possible and the painted storks appear hidden in the canopy. The bird droppings make rich manure too.
At our village near Mysore, I saw them fly across a lake in the glowing sun in a V shape with their beaks, necks and legs stretched. Often, I see them fishing together in a group of eight early in the morning near the shallow waters of the lake. They walk together stooping low with open beaks scanning water bodies in search of fish and sometimes submerging their heads. Some of them catch small fish or frogs and some even very large fish which remain in their beaks for a long time.
Many times we see old ones solitary in the lake or on boulders in the river, standing for a long time. Here these birds live in harmony with pelicans, cormorants, gulls, terns, grey herons and purple herons.
The one scene that stayed in my memory is that of the storks on a winter evening, lined up along a paddy field, waiting for the sun to set and darkness to take over.