This birding season, walk down Chennai’s Akkarai wetland

It is early morning, my senses must be playing tricks.

Water flowing in a broad ribbon towards the bridge in front of me, and snaking underneath it, is clean, fresh, colourless and odourless. We are walking along the Buckingham Canal — a waterbody that isn’t usually described in these terms.

But this is Akkarai, where the canal overflows into wetlands.

We are on a kilometre-long trail here. There are two approaches to the kutcha path, with the streaming canal-water on one side and the still expanse of wetland on the other. You reach the Sholinganallur check-post, turn right to enter the tarred OMR-ECR link road and just ahead of the bridge, turn right and descend into the trail. We take the second route, and instead, go under the ISCKON arch on ECR, drive into open country till we spot the canal-bank. The track bifurcates the Buckingham canal into sheer water and shallow wetland. The wetland extends visibly beyond the houses that border the canal on the far side.

“This is a biodiversity hotspot in the middle of an extended city,” says my companion TD Babu, a marine biologist. He is right: we feel the cool breeze on our skin, and in the large marshes, the early birds are catching their worms. A long stone wall here forms a convenient perch. My untrained eyes catch kingfishers, egrets, swamphen, cormorants and egrets. “Soon, there will be tailor birds, lapwing, coots, myna, coucal, ibis, bulbul and flycatchers,” adds Babu. The marsh is covered by mixed flora — shrubs where birds perch, reeds where they nest. On the far side, keerai is cultivated in the dry season, on the river bed.

We walk up to the link road and turn into the parallel path with a board announcing space for a music college. For about 300 metres, the wetland is blocked by a wall; a driving school operates at this stretch. But soon the wall opens to reveal a vista of fresh water, lilies, birds, and wild flowers — the vast area of wetland we saw from the canal-side. There are natural ponds near the path with crystal clear water. The hydrilla proclaim that this is still a healthy, fresh-water eco-system.

Taking over

Alas, to our right, construction activity is going on at a frenetic pace — rows and rows of villas at various stages of completion. Garbage is dumped on the canal-side trail. We climb the roof of the nearest buildings to take pictures. We see larger birds now: egrets, jungle crows and pond herons.

We explore the interiors of the road from the ISCKON arch. The main road is soaked in water, though it has not rained for days. One empty plot looks like a pond. All surrounding areas retain water, proving the wetlands extended to the north as well. We identify ponnanganni, karisalankanni (false daisy), mudakathan (balloon vine), karunelli (black Indian gooseberry), white sangu pushpam (bluebell vines) and mini passion fruit in the bylanes. The road climbs to ECR making it clear that underneath are sand dunes, a natural barrier to sea intrusion.

This birding season, walk down Chennai’s Akkarai wetlandThis birding season, walk down Chennai’s Akkarai wetland

The marshland extends beyond the completed villas. This is a feeding-and-breeding ground for fish, says Babu. Fish nests are clearly visible underwater. We climb down wondering if those who occupy these villas will realise the importance of this waterbody and fight for its preservation. Or complain of the swarms of tiny white mosquitoes and demand the wetland be filled. We will hear about its fate if the villas are flooded in the next heavy rains. On the way back, we stop to admire the clear water flowing out of the construction area to the marsh. “Rainwater,” says one of the construction workers.

But there’s hope for this mini paradise. “The wetland covers an area of some 43 acres,” said B Rajesh Kumar, a long-time resident of Akkarai. “A year ago, Madras High Court stopped the construction of an RTO office and the music college here. More of the occupation of the wetland may be stopped. We hope the Government will declare this a bird sanctuary with four-five islands and ensure its protection.”

Let’s say amen to that.

In this column, we find oases in the city for you to explore.

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