Saving the world while you wait

Encounter: White Storks wintering in Polachira

White Stork amidst the green paddy fields

In the Polachira wetlands of Kollam, southern Kerala, the sight of a White Stork, a winter visitor increasingly hard to come by in the subcontinent, fills the mind with memories seen and imagined

On a birding trip long ago, Sahastra had remarked about the unforgettable sight of the fetching White Stork (Ciconia ciconia). I later chanced upon a Chinese painting of one that arrested me instantly: A snow-white bird with black tips to the primaries, its eyes dark as if lined with kohl, and deep red mandibles that imparted it a feminine beauty. The picture was cemented in my memory. Even now, when I hear the White Stork’s name mentioned, it is this picture, this painting, that flickers to life in my mind’s eye. Years later, I had my first glimpse of this delicately beautiful bird.

A white stork in flight
A White Stork takes off from the grass. You can see how much larger they are than the cosmopolitan cattle egrets

I was on a stroll at Polachira wetlands near Kollam, Kerala, with a couple of friends when I noticed the outline of a stork flying in — neck outstretched, slow wingbeats interspersed with glides. My first guess was that it might be an Asian Openbill Stork  (Anastomus oscitans) as they were the only storks I have spotted in these parts. As the bird landed, however, its body looked whiter – as if an Openbill had just emerged from a washing machine. My friend Nandan had said the day before that four white storks had been spotted in the area. Careful examination through the telephoto lens confirmed the bird’s identity. This was indeed the white stork that visits Africa and India in the winter from its famous rooftop and chimney-top nesting grounds in Europe and Kazakhstan.

The glide
Though not very fast, White Storks are powerful fliers, spanning continents in their migratory paths

Fifteen minutes later, we were in the middle of the wetlands, having walked along the bunds between the marshes about a hundred metres away from the bird. Hoping to get closer, I put my foot in a pool of water and it sank  two feet inside the clay that sucked at it like quicksand. By the time my friends hauled me up, sans the sandal on my foot, the bird had flown. My sandal was stuck in the now rapidly closing hole in the clay, and my first instinct was to leave it and return home. But another instinct overruled it; one that told me something else was in store for the day. I shoved my hand in all the way to the shoulder and extricated my sandal from what would have been a mucky grave. By then the bird was nowhere in sight.

Amidst the greens
Another White Stork stands amid the freshly planted paddy


We had walked along the ridge for another kilometre or so when we saw the White Stork again. It was now in the company of three others digging their beaks deep into the muck, pulling out fish dying in the shallows, and this time we got close enough to observe them at length. A few kites frolicked around, but birds of the storks’ size had no reason to be intimidated. As we approached closer, they began walking further. And after observing them from the constant distance that they put between us, we walked back.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that sandal I nearly lost to the muck.


Life and death in Kaliveli’s salt pans