The Pulicat Lake - Satheesh Muthu Gopal

I was fortunately in Chennai when my ornithologist friend, Mr Raveendran, phoned me and asked if I could join him to visit the Pulicat lake the next day. Pulicat was one of my dream locations since I started birding, and I immediately agreed. The next day we met before sunrise and reached the spot, and hired a boat and sailed into India's second-largest salt lake. It was mid-March. The perfect weather welcomed us with gulls, terns, and waders flying around. Plovers and stints were foraging on the shores. Ten minutes later, we were thrilled to see a long pink horizontal line, floating in the lagoon. We sailed towards this wonderful sight and came to a mass of hundreds of Greater flamingos and Lesser flamingos busy foraging in the shallow waters; from a distance it looked as if they were floating.

The Pulicat Lake - Picture [Satheesh Muthu Gopal]

Some centuries ago the Pulicat Lake was covered by mangrove forests. Due to the destruction of mangroves, and industrialization, the biodiversity of this brackish water was badly impacted. As many marine species use mangroves as nurseries during spawning and breeding phases, the destruction of this habitat impacted marine species like the tiger prawns and mud crabs. The local people are dependent on these species for their livelihood. Despite some restoration efforts that have been happening over the years, there are increasing threats. The proposed expansion of the Kattupalli port will destroy the marsh wetlands which drain the excess fresh water into the Bay of Bengal and the Pulicat salt lake. Also, the expansion will encroach into the sea due to the dumping of sand. All this will lead to the erosion of the natural barriers of Pulicat and impact biodiversity on a large scale.

Greater Flamingo - Picture [Satheesh Muthu Gopal]

During our visit, we were able to find many water birds. We were lucky to spot the Greater Flamingo and the Lesser Flamingo together in the lake. Unlike Greater Flamingos, the Lesser Flamingos are very rare to be seen in Tamil Nadu. These are the smallest flamingo species in the world and make a stopover in Pulicat lake, though not every year. They are very beautiful with a darker color compared to the Greater Flamingos. The dark bill and gleaming red eyes are their distinguishing features. The Lesser Flamingos breed in the Rann of Kutch, in Gujarat, and can be seen in thousands in Mumbai.

Lesser Flamingo - Picture [Satheesh Muthu Gopal]

When we approached the seashore, we saw birds foraging on the sand. The Eurasian Oystercatcher can be identified unmistakably due to its unique colors. This migratory bird travels from the northern hemisphere to Africa and India for the winter. These birds are very skilled in picking the mussels from the seashore and taking the flesh out of the shell to feed, thanks to the well-evolved broad bill tips to open the mollusks. We saw three of them on that day along with other waders. The Pulicat lake is suitable for many bird species as it has shallow water, mudflats, mangrove trees, and also the seashore. This perfect lagoon welcomes the winter birds with abundant food sources.

Eurasian Oystercatcher - Picture [Satheesh Muthu Gopal]

The sand barriers and small islands of the lagoon are the prominent places for birds like terns and gulls to gather. We were able to identify several tern species like Lesser Crested Tern, Greater Crested Tern, the Common Tern, and the Caspian Tern. Also, in the same location, along with terns, we sighted the Pallas Gull, the Brown-headed Gull, and the Slender-billed Gull. The terns kept on flying together above the sand spits and landed together. These activities went on for quite awhile. We stopped the boat in the shallows and switched off the motor to avoid the noise. The boat swayed gently in the water and there was no other sound in the mid-afternoon, except bird calls.

LittleTern - Picture [Satheesh Muthu Gopal]

When the terns flew together we heard a fluttering sound which stopped when they landed together. We were amazed to see the activity for some time and moved from the place.

Terns and Gulls together - Picture [Satheesh Muthu Gopal]

The Eurasian Curlew was foraging along with Flamingos in the shallow water. The thick long curved bill is easily noticeable. The majestic bird found a perfect lowland coast to search for food. 

Eurasian Curlew - Picture [Satheesh Muthu Gopal]

When the Eurasian Curlew was feeding on invertebrates, the Flamingos were feeding on algae. We also found a Western Reef Heron with slaty grey plumage. Though the bird has a differently coloured plumage, the slaty grey is helpful to identify the species. When they are white in color it looks like the Little Egret. While coming back to the shore we sighted many waders like Common Redshanks, Plovers, Sandpipers, etc. The fishermen were busy drying up the fish on the shore. The lagoon is a livelihood for fishermen and a perfect habitat for the birds.

Western Reef Heron - Picture [Satheesh Muthu Gopal]

However, the future of Pulicat lake relies on the policymakers. Whether they protect the Lake or help to expand the Kattupalli port for Adani is a big question mark.

Article Published in Leaf Litter Magazine March 2024. ©Satheesh Muthu Gopal

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  1. Wonderful write up ❤️ Thanks for sharing your experience and lovely pictures 😊

    1. Excellent narration Sathis , though I could not understand and differentiate flamingos, your pictures made me clear. I am still amazed how you got such time to do all these activities.... Happy to read your articles ....All the best .... Expecting more from you and you please write more ...Let the people like me atleast come to know about the ornithology . Thanks a lot...

    2. Thanks a lot Vijay. 😊
      I visited Pulicat in 2019.
      But it took 5 years for me to write.. I do whatever on my little time.✍️
      There are people who work on the ground. We should support them..
      Thanks for reading 😊

  2. Great work Satheesh :) keep sharing such wonderful experiences :) regards, Harsh

  3. Excellent narration Anna!!

  4. Very readable and informative article. Keep writing on nature related topics like this. All the best. Theodore Baskaran.

  5. Nicely written... Keep writing
    More like this...

  6. Nice narration Satheesh. Nice article......

  7. Wonderful narrative article and beautiful pictures 😍👌🏼