Tuesday, 24 May 2011


These aren’t pictures from any exotic holiday that I went to. On the contrary, they were taken virtually in my backyard! Who would have thought???

A trip home to Bombay in May: The sweltering heat was too much to bear after the relative cool of Bangalore. I was enjoying my holiday, catching up with friends & the Bambaiyya food that I miss so much. A fellow birder from Bangalore mailed saying that she’d seen Flamingoes in Bombay the week before. Tempting as it was to not venture out in the heat, I decided to go….egged on by my new-found love for birding & shamed by the fact that despite spending my entire life in Bombay, I’d not seen the Flamingoes once! After getting detailed directions from my friend & coaxing my brother to join me (I was told by many people not to venture there alone), I landed at Sewri station one humid morning.

Flamingoes are typically best seen a couple of hours before & after the high tide. I checked the tide calendar for the day which told me that high tide was in the evening. That meant that I’d have to visit in the afternoon, when the sun would be overhead…..too harsh to photograph or even see clearly. I decided to take a chance & visit in the morning, a couple of hours before low tide.

We got out at Sewri station on the East side. Taxis refused to ply to the mudflats, citing bad roads as the reason. We had no choice but to walk. The walk from Sewri station took us 25 minutes each way (I’m sure it can be walked faster in better weather but we trudged along in the heat). The locals are very helpful & guide you if you tell them that you’re off to see the birds. After what seemed like eternity walking through tree-less paths, slush, dusty truck parking lots & a slum, with only desolate factory compound walls as landmarks, we reached the mudflats near the jetty.

I saw the Flamingoes from a distance & with a whoop of joy, ran the last few meters to get a closer look at them. At low tide, the water recedes & hence, the Flamingoes were a little further from the shore than they would have usually been. Thankfully, my zoom lens allowed me to see them clearly. After some time photographing them, we walked over to another side, where there were huge junk ships anchored, which blocked most of the view to the mudflats. The workers there allowed us to climb aboard to get a much closer, if elevated view of the Flamingoes. The slightly scary part was climbing these ships....the deck was at quite a height from the ground & there was a rusty ladder leading up, with the rungs spaced apart & a flimsy handrail to only one side. 

There are 5 species of Flamingoes in the world, of which 2 can be seen in India: the Greater & Lesser Flamingoes. The bright pink or ‘Lesser Flamingoes’ get their colour from a diet that is high in Carotene. They have reddish beaks & red eyes. The ‘Greater Flamingoes’ are larger & less pink. They have a pink beak with a black tip & black eyes. Flamingoes, among other food, eat Blue-green algae, Crustaceans & Mollusks. That day, we saw only the Lesser Flamingoes – both adults & sub-adults (who had not quite turned pink).

 It was fun watching them scoop the mud with their beaks, looking for food. A few preened themselves, yet others flew around. Sometimes they hopped from one leg to another & some stood on one leg to take a break. Flamingoes scoop with inverted beaks, unlike other birds. Their beak is so unique, allowing them to filter out the water & mud after they scoop in the food. Their light, webbed feet allow them to walk in the mud, without sinking into it. 

At the distance, closer to the sea, stood a large group….necks craned in one direction, comically looking like they were waiting for a ship or a boat to pick them up! I later learnt that Flamingoes, before they fly back home, huddle in a group & do a little jig by tapping their legs & flapping their wings and then take off. And take off they did, with a precise & smooth movement. I only wish I had my binoculars to take a closer look at their flight!

I came back home sweating profusely & dehydrated, but, supremely happy…..and apparently also smelling quite foul, as indicated by my grandma crinkling her nose at my arrival.  A cold shower later, I fell asleep, happy & content.

Link to the entire set of photos (best viewed in slide-show mode or large format):

When & where to go:
Flamingoes are thought to arrive from the Rann of Kutch. They arrive in Nov / Dec and stay till April / May. Go a couple of hours before or after high tide. Factories line the shore at Sewri (like Colgate-Palmolive and BPCL & HP refineries). Apparently, closer views of the birds can be had from the Colgate-Palmolive factory & the Sewri fort than from the Sewri jetty (where I went). Sewri is also supposed to be good for birding & is home to a variety of birds. For this, early morning (around 6-7 am) is a good time.A quick Google search yields a lot of information: from maps & detailed directions to tide timings for that day.

About the mangroves & mud-flats:
The coastline of Bombay used to have mangroves & mudflats in many areas. Unfortunately, they have rapidly deteriorated thanks to many reasons, a few of them being peoples’ apathy, land reclamation & illegal dumping. The high Mercury content in the water too affects Flamingoes. Despite such seemingly poor conditions, it is surprising to see Flamingoes arrive each year. There is a proposal mooted for a sea link from Sewri to Navi-Mumbai. This will definitely wipe out all remaining traces of this fragile ecosystem. Environmentalists are fighting to save it, but I wonder who will win that battle!