It is not just chillness that winter brings us every time, it invites countless birds from elsewhere to India. More than 100 species of birds from several parts of the world travel to the Indian subcontinent on the onset of this coldest season of the year- many from Palearctic countries like Mangolia, Russia and Siberia.
Among several birds that winters India, two class – ducks and waders – are plenty. Although both of these species are water-dependent birds, they differ anatomically and in the way they feed. Ducks are web-footed, broad-billed, and can swim; while waders are tall-legged, long-billed, and can wade.
Unlike humans, the needs of birds in the touring country are simple: Safe habitats for feeding and roosting. Upon arriving the wintering grounds, first they look for suitable places to dwell. Once it is picked and chosen, they settle in that region until the time they fly back to their breeding grounds. It is a widely accepted phenomenon that if birds feel a place or region is safe, they revisit the same place or region year after year and perhaps generation after generation.
In the far-flung lands of Indian sub continent, the migrants visit almost all parts of the country. They even go up to the southernmost part of mainland India – the Kanyakumari region in Tamil Nadu – where reasonably good numbers of waterbodies exist. Here, almost every inland village has either a lake or a pond or both, and most coastal hamlets have canals or backwaters. These water bodies attract a huge population of winter migrants like ducks and waders. While the deep water wetlands like ponds and lakes harbour swimming birds like ducks, the wading birds like stilts and sandpipers rely on shallow waters.
In 2008, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) which runs the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) in southern Tamil Nadu conducted a study on wetlands and waterbirds in and around Kudankulam to create a database on birds and waterbodies in the region as a part of its Environment Stewardship Programme (ESP).
It was carried out in association with one of the countries’ premier conservation institution, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), at 18 wetlands of different sort during the peak monsoon season.
The study painted a broad picture about the condition of wetlands and the kind of birds dwell in these habitats. In the study, it was found that the area lacked dedicated habitats especially for wintering birds, albeit the region has several water bodies. Many of the freshwater wetlands were used for irrigation and fishing, while most of the saline wetlands were used for salt cultivation. This caused an incessant disturbance to the birds and made them wary at times.
During the post-study data analysis, the Deputy Director of BNHS Dr. S. Balachandran suggested the creation dedicated habitats for the winter visitors and resident waterbirds. It was then the idea of making mudflats born.
When the Site Director of KKNPP Mr. R. S. Sundar heard this idea, he had no second thought on it. “We are producing electricity in an environmentally benign way. Besides, we are also taking good care of the environment around us. A full-fledged green belt development programme of KKNPP has transformed this once-barren land into a lush green environment”, said Mr. Sundar. “And, the idea of making wetlands for birds sounds really great”, he then added.
With the nod from the Kudankulam nuclear power plant management, both KKNPP and BNHS swung into action towards actualising the idea of creating dedicated habitats for waterbirds in the former’s premises. In 2013, a preliminary study to find out a suitable place for the creation of micro habitats like mudflats was pursued in the Anuvijay Township (located in Tirunelveli District, Tamil Nadu) where the families of KKNPP employees reside.
A team of experts led by Dr. S. Balachandran studied the area and zeroed in on two remote locations in the Anuvijay Township. These places, one with an area of 2000 sqm and the other with 840 sqm, were close the Uppar River Canal that flows through the Township.
“Both the locations were ideal for developing intertidal mudflats”, said Dr. Bala in his feasibility study report.
Besides providing land space, KKNPP adopted the project under its Corporate Social Responsibility Programme and decided to fund it fully. “We were looking for environment conservation projects around our site. When the idea of making mudflats came up we instantly accepted to implement it and fund the project”, said Mr. M. S. Suresh, the then Chairman of KKNPP CSR Programme.
The sea mouth where the Uppar Canal meets the Bay of Bengal is only few hundred meter away from the mudflats. Usually, the canal drains fresh water (over flown from the nearby lakes) in to the sea. But sometimes the reverse flow happens. During high tides, the sea water enters the canal and makes it brackish. This slightly salty water was essential for the mudflats. And that was why the places close to the canal was chosen to make use of this salty water to maintain the natural estuarine and marine characters. It was planned to make passages between the canal and mudflats for the water to traverse freely.
In August 2015, the mudflats establishment work was kick-started. The selected locations were surrounded by the exotic prosopis juliflora like most other places in the region. Clearfelling of this invasive thorny bushes in the proposed mudflats area was first step. Eventually, excavation upto 2 feet deep was carried out so as to maintain the water level in the mudflats.
“It is made in a way that periodic flooding and receding of water happen in the mudflats. This is crucial for the waterbirds to replenish the food resources in the mudflats”, said Dr. Bala.
By the end of 2015, the pair of mudflats were almost ready. Soon after, these wetlands started attracting birds. At least 25 species of birds like Spot-billed Duck, Grey Heron, Cormorants, Sandpipers, Stilts, Plovers and Stone Curlews visit this twin wetlands. Besides common birds, some of the rare birds like Darter, Painted Stork, Spoonbill and Spot-billed Pelican too visit here often.
“With a fund of Rs. 11.8 lakhs by KKNPP, we have developed these dedicated habitat exclusively for birds on experimental basis. We have plans to expand the area of these wetlands in near future”, said Dr. Bala.
The Anuvijay Township, which is home to the families of KKNPP employees, is now home also to waterbirds and winter migratory birds too.
*Author is Senior Manager (Public Awareness and Press Relations) at Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project. He writes about nature, energy and communication.