Painted Stork landing

This past February, when I first heard that we’d be visiting a bird sanctuary, I thought to myself, “Oh, we’ll probably see half a dozen water birds, they’ll be beautiful, and we’ll have a nice time.”

So I was little prepared for the mesmerizing sight of tens of thousands of extraordinary birds, mostly Painted Storks, perched in every tree over countless islands as far as the eye could see!  The most amazing view of birds I’ve ever seen.

“Vendanthangal” means “the hunter’s resting place,”  but, despite the name, there are no hunters, and the people are very protective of the sanctuary and the birds.

Painted Storks, Black-headed Ibis, White Pelican, and others

Vendanthangal Bird Sanctuary, in the Kanchipuram District of Tamil Nadu, in southern India, is a 30 hectare (74 acre) sanctuary, 75 kilometers (47 miles) south of Chennai, and if you have even a passing interest in birds, it’s really a captivating place.

An overview

It’s a very large, shallow lake, filled with many, many islands where the trees are nesting sites for the birds.  As we walked along, on the pathway beside the lake, there were spectacular views of the birds.  There was also a tower for a more elevated view.  The birds were a comfortable distance away, close enough to be seen, yet far enough not to be disturbed by our presence.  And stretching into the distance were thousands of white dots of birds on more distant islands.

The most dramatic and the most numerous are the Painted Storks, who seem designed to make a big impression – with a deep orange head, a lighter orange beak, and splashed onto their white bodies are black wings with white polka dots, and  pink tail feathers.  They look like they’ve just gotten dressed up to go to a prehistoric party as they stand on their long skinny legs in the water or in the trees, chatting with each other. They fly with their legs stretched out behind and land with their black and white wings spread out.  The babies, who as fledglings are the same size as the adults, are gray, and perch in the trees too.  There is no advantage in the natural world for babies to have bright colors, since being inconspicuous protects them from catching a predator’s eye.  So they sit and wait for mom and dad to come back to them with dinner.  They stand around three feet (one meter) high.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Originally, Painted Storks migrated all the way from the Himalayas, arriving in India in the fall, breeding in the winter, and then returning back north each spring.

The Painted Storks at Vedanthangal do not travel all the way back to Siberia. They migrate locally, moving with the seasons to nearby lakes, traveling at most within a range of 100 kilometers (60 miles).

They are also found in Andra Pradesh and near Delhi.

The Little Cormorants, who are small, around 55 centimeters (21 inches) elegant, slender black birds, like to perch together in the trees.  They do not migrate, but stay here year round.  Found throughout south Asia, they have webbed feet though they perch in trees.

Among other birds we saw at Vendanthangal were the Black-headed Ibis (or Oriental White Ibis), Cattle Egret, Grey Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Intermediate Heron, Indian Darter, Cinnamon Bittern, Great White Pelican, and several ducks.

A March 1, 2001, Times of India article “Twitchers in a flap over rare sightings” by D. Madhavan, TNN,  reports than a team of forest officials and other experts conducting a two-day survey on February 21 and 22 spotted a number of rare birds, many never seen here before.  Among them a pair of Comb Ducks and fifteen Shovellers may have come from Pakistan. Also found in Pakistan and in southern Japan too, were ten Spot-billed Ducks. Twenty Pintails had arrived, ducks that are found farther north in Europe, Canada, and Russia.  Fifteen Garganeys, a dabbling duck that breeds in Europe and parts of Asia, were also spotted. Garganeys are strictly migratory and their entire populations relocate for the winter, especially to India.

We did see a few ducks, but they were quite far away and whether or not they were rare species was impossible to tell.

A wading bird, the Black-headed Ibis, walked along in shallow water, sometimes feeding with her head submerged under the water.  We saw several flying and a few perched in the trees.

Cattle Egrets seemed to enjoy the company of other species and were perched in the trees near Little Cormorants and Black-Crowned Night Herons.

Grey Herons

The Grey Herons looked remarkably like the Great Blue Herons we see in Utah, but without the blue.  They are large gray and white herons.

Intermediate Heron and Common Bitterns

The Intermediate Herons have long black legs and are larger than the Cattle Egrets.  We saw one in a rice paddy near the entranceway to Vedanthangal, along with one adult female, and several juvenile, Cinnamon Bitterns.  All were happily searching through the water for food.

A few Great White Pelicans flew overhead or swam in the water.  One Indian Darter, also called a Snake Bird was perched on a branch in the company of dozens of Little Cormorants, recognizable because his neck was a golden color, and he (or she) held it in a curved position, rather snakelike.  They are actually anhingas and not cormorants at all.

Indian Darter and Little Cormorants

At sunset, along a road off to one side of the sanctuary, on a lower level, cowherds began to lead their cows back from grazing in nearby fields, leaving the night to settle peacefully over the roosting birds.

The Wikipedia article “Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary” says that the local people have always understood the benefits to their crops of having the birds nearby.  The birds’ droppings act as fertilizer.  Around the end of the 1700’s, they complained to the British Collector about British soldiers who were shooting the birds, asking that a proclamation be issued to protect the lake, which was done.  In 1936, it was legally recognized as a sanctuary.  Now the Venganthangal Lake Bird Sanctuary falls under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.  For at least 250 years and probably for eons longer, the people have been protecting this beautiful place of peace and refuge.

Photos: Sharon St. Joan