Waterbirds of Vembanad Wetland

The largest lake in Kerala: Vembanad Kayal

Vembanad lake and adjacent wetlands form the largest water body in Kerala.  It is also one of the longest and largest lakes in India.  It stretches beyond 1500 sq. km and separates the districts of Kottayam, Alapuzha and Ernakulam.  The great rivers of Kochi and Travancore unite to form this unique wetland ecosystem.  River Periyar, Muvatupuzhayar, Meeachil, Manimalayar, Achankovilar and Pampa drain their waters to this estuarine system that is situated at sea level.

A lone migrant: A Spotted/wood Sandpiper in Kumarakam paddyfields

It has been the cradle of human culture and cultivation (below sea level) for many a millennium.  All the relics and reminiscences of ancient Kerala are found from the Kuttanad region that encircles lake Vembanad.  Mavelikara Buddha statue, Ambalapuzha Karumadikuttan (partially demolished 8th century granite Buddha), The old Buddhist temples of Kiliroor, Nilamperur, Thakazhi etc. (Hinduized after the 10th century) are still found to the south of the lake.   Place names like Thottappally and Bhuthapandy point towards the Buddhist and Tamil pasts of Kerala.

Dwindling Numbers: Whiskered Terns and Barn Swallows in Pallikayal

According to local oral narratives  and historians the place got the name of Kuttanad (literally the land of Kuttan) from the black Buddha idol called Karumadi Kuttan that represents the true cultural tradition of Kerala and its people, especially the subaltern, that was obliterated in the Brahmanic conquest that took place after the 5th century AD.

A Darter on a Driftwood in Vattakayal, Kumarakam

The Kottayam Nature Society lead by Dr B Sreekumar and supported by youngsters like Ajay Nilamperur, Prasanth Narayanan and others, has been organizing the annual waterfowl count in Vembanad for more than ten years now with the support of Kerala Forest Department.  They are also producing the reports in book form after each survey.  Their contributions and interventions in the field of conservation are extremely valuable and commendable.

A 'Punna' tree in Kavanatinkara, typical of the Neythal landscape associated with the Thina eco-aesthetics of Sangham age, the ancient Tamil cultural phase of Kerala

I have been part of this endeavor for the last couple of years.  But this time I was not an official participant of the count for being away from Kottayam, working in the real margin of the state in Kasaragod.  Still I was able to do a bit of parallel birding at the margins of the survey.

Water hyacinths and plastic bottles are becoming real threats: A View of Pennar

There is a drastic decline in the number of birds and number of species this year.  The ducks and waders are specifically missing.  So  are the terns and gulls in the lake.  Perhaps the changed rain pattern and climatic change in general have altered the migratory routes and frequenzy.  We are all eagerly awaiting the official report and the analysis by experts.

From all over Kerala: Vembanad Waterfowl Count Team 2011 at KAU campus, Kumarakam

In a few hours in the morning I could see small groups of Lesser Whistling Teals, a few Cotton Pigmy Goose, Egrets, Little Cormorants, Indian Shags, a few Whiskered Terns, Barn Swallows, Darters, Starlings and Common Mynas near Vattakayal and Thollayiram Kayal.  A Snakebird was seen in breeding plumage to my surprise.

A Darter in breeding plumage in Thollayiram Kayal, Kumarakam

The decline in migrant population must be addressed immediately by the experts and conservationists on an emergency basis.  The various implications should be studied and brought to light.  The analyses are vital for the sustenance and conservation of this key Ramsar site in Kerala and the neighboring human community.

Darter fishing in the lake like a snake

Kumarakam: The Winged Visitors are Still Here!


The Green Haven

Kumarakam paddy fields

Kumarakam, a lagoon like village on the eastern banks of the Vembanad lake in central south Kerala  is a traveler’s paradise.  This picturesque land in Kuttanad is well connected by road to Kochi and Kottayam.  Its green paddy fields, meandering canals and waterways, vast stretches of water lilies, long and fading rows of coconut groves and the blue glittering waters of the backwaters  form a perfect refreshing retreat for human tourists as well as migrant birds.  Tourists and migrant birds from all over the world flock to this rustic haven in search of fresh air, water and a taste of Kuttanad.

The blues and greens of Kumarakam

The Eco Crisis

I was in Kumarakam on 16 and 17 January 2010 to participate in the annual Vembanad Waterfowl Count organized by Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department and Kottayam Nature Society.  This year I was assigned the Thanneermukkam bund to survey.   The bund or rather barrage  is a cause of a huge environmental catastrophe in Kuttanad for the last few decades.  It was designed exclusively for the doubling of paddy yield, but unfortunately it had blocked the natural flow of water into the sea and

Sunrise at the barrage in Thannirmukkam

contaminated the whole region.  Now the government has made a decision to open it for a whole year, so that the toxins accumulated could be purged.  Let us hope for the best.

Waterfowl Count 2010

Since I was given the barrage area to survey there was little birds apart from a few whiskered terns,egrets, cormorants and Brahmany kites.  We could see a pair of white-browed wagtails at the western end of the barrage.  The count done in ten locations confirmed a marginal drop in the number of birds in the winter migration season.  The survey also brings to notice the extend of pollution that is increasing day by day as a result of irresponsible tourism.  The destruction of natural habitat and contamination of water bodies are detrimentally affecting the migrant waterfowl.


Westend Lakeside Home Stay

A place to repose: Lakeside Homstay

But the day before the survey I was lucky to spend my evening at the lake side in a beautiful  home stay retreat called Westend Lakeside Home Stay.  It is a small but well designed getaway in the traditional wooden architectural style of Kerala at the edge of the backwater from where you have a great view of the Vembanad.  Here you can enjoy the sunset from your balcony or the courtyard soothing yourself in the cool gentle breeze that caresses you all the time.

As this place is so calm and close to the lake you can also watch the birds that come to the shore and the lake.  Plenty of marsh and spotted sandpipers were near the shore.  I saw plenty of whistling ducks coming to feed in the lake in the evening.  A flight of cotton teals was also seen in between.  Egrets and pond herons were plenty.  A

Vembanad Lake: A view from the balcony

huge purple heron was seen at the edge of the water.  A few black kites and an Osprey were also seen at a distance in the horizon.  The breezy and quiet sunset here is a trans experience that will linger in our mind for so long.

Purple heron at the water’s edge

Once it was dark I could here the whistling of ducks coming in large flocks to the lake.  The dark silhouette of night herons in flight was also interesting.  I spend a lot of time at the lake shore just in front of the cottage experiencing the wonderful sounds, sights, smells and touch of mother nature in all her glory and subtlety.  It was a really refreshing evening for me.  After it was dark the calls and responses of jungle owlets and barn owls were coming form the adjacent palm groves.  Paul my host informed that pond herons and little cormorants regularly nest and breed in a small heronry on the tree that is near to the cottage every year.

Sunrise Cruise in the Lake

This Lake Side Home Stay is  near the MRF training centre slightly to the west of Pallychira between Kumarakam Jetty and Kavanatinkara Tourist Complex.  They also provide simple Kumarakam delicacies including Karimeen and prawn.  They could also arrange a country boat cruise in the lake at sunrise or sunset.  If you are interested to watch birds, sunrise cruise is ideal; if you want to enjoy nature and simply unwind in the breeze set sail at sunset.  Paul can be reached at:  +91 9447569895 or +91 9249411167.

The misty sunrise in the Vembanad

Blue tailed beeeater: A wetland bird