Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary
Life in the air
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Life in the air
Our driver Mahesh says he thinks that the driving in Kerala is the worst in all of India. Having closed our eyes several times that day as a petrol tanker or bus headed straight at us on the wrong side of the road I am inclined to agree with Mahesh. Despite its mechanical hazards, Kerala is a very beautiful state.
It was with some relief that we arrived in the pretty lakeside settlement of Kumarakom, mostly intact, us that is, but with a slightly nervous disposition. An immediate Kingfisher at the hotel bar was required to put us in a slightly more peaceful mood. After a couple of days of catching up with work matters here, the plan is to travel by boat across the Vembanad Lake to Alleppey.
While in Kumarakom we wanted to visit the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, the land of the Night Herons. So it is very early in the morning, it is still dark, that we arrive at the sanctuary. The sanctuary is important to both endemic and migratory species and is part of the Vembanad Kol Wetland, a wetland of international significance, a Ramsar Convention site.
The Vembanad Kol Wetland is the largest wetland system in India covering more than 2000 square kilometres.The Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary itself is a modest 14 acres or so at the edge of the lake. Although the lake is very large it is not without its environmental problems of pollution, rubbish, exploitation of resources and oxygen depletion, but this is a story for another time.
We set off as the sun is rising, the temple close by making its noisy presence apparent in the still morning air. We are met by local naturalist T K Mohan and we want to get some sense from T K about what wildlife is out there.
This place, once a rubber plantation, now returned to nature by its former British owner. We walk along pathways covered in fallen leaves close to the small rivers and inlets that surround the lake.
Through the trees the shady forest around us, we can see the houses at the edge of the park. There are other people out this early, but not many. A noisy group of Indian holiday makers and a family with noisy children, not the best circumstances in which to go bird watching. The temple now falls silent.
We come across an old and rusting sign in the forest that shows the direction of towns on the lake, showing the size of this lake, Ashtamudi 101 Km, in the opposite direction Amritapuri 81 Km, Kochi is 48 Km from here by water. T K tells us that once everybody travelled by ferry (not without its disasters) but since the roads were built, it is road transport that is used.
This was not the best month to choose for bird watching, the highpoint in the breeding season is mid year, still some months off. None the less T K tells us that 88 different bird species have been recorded here, eleven species of water birds breed in the sanctuary including the two endangered species, the Darter, Anhinga melanogaster and the Black Headed Ibis, Threskiornis melanocephalus. This place is also the largest Heronry in Kerala.
We walk the paths of the bird sanctuary, T K knows what to look for and spots a range of bird species, herons, drongos, egrets and there, through the trees, a kingfisher darts at speed. T K spots a water snake swallowing a frog, we watch for a moment before the snake decides to slither down the bank and into the water. All this time, as the sunrises higher in the sky, the butterflies, there are 45 species here, fill the dappling light with their colourful wings.
We climb one of the sanctuary’s bird observation towers, now at tree canopy level we see a bird of prey fly past us. In June the scene below us would be alive with breeding waterbirds. Another time perhaps.
We thank T K for spending time with us and we head back to where we are going to meet our boatmen for our water journey to Alleppey.
We load our luggage, which unfortunately is considerable, into the cabin of our houseboat. Apart from our crew, Joseph our captain and Venu the cook, we have arranged to have the boat to ourselves. This journey will entail spending a night on the boat. Mahesh our driver has the weekend off and will meet us at Alleppey.
We set off at lunchtime, out over the lake's treacle waters, Joseph suggests we stop so that Venu can purchase some Kingfisher beer. Beer on board, we head out across the lake.
It is as if we are watching a 3D cinema. The lake and its adjoining waterways with their raised pathways, lined with coconut palms and the occasional small settlement or single house, dividing the stretches of water, all sliding past in animation. It is possible to see across one pathway to a distant next. The effect, as our boat moves slowly across the water, is like a slide show of trees in multiple-layer gliding by. Where there is not water there are paddy fields. These are the rice lands.
There are fishermen on small boats, there are more houseboats. There are busy times on the water and then quiet again, this is the timeless rhythm of Vembanad Lake. Sometimes we are in a narrower channel, suddenly broadening out to vast lake again.
It is sometimes hard to find a quiet place in India, with its noisy crowds, its enterprise, traffic and colourful activity. This is a contrast, only the chug of the engine, the plop of a fish rising and the occasional bird flying past, leaving the air their sound.
Venu has in mind that we need a lot of food – curries and breads and fruits arrive in profusion as lunch is served. We sit at a large table, the food is great, the problem is that there are only two of us.
Full, we spend a peaceful and happy afternoon taking photos of the scenes unfolding around us. As the sun begins to set it is time to head to shore to leave the fishermen to set their nets. In the ever hazy sky we watch the sun touch the lakes surface, melting its light across the water as it does so.
We head for shore and tie upon a pathway bank. As the darkness falls it is time to feast again, Venu will make sure of that.