Under the thick cluster of trees, the damp ground was dappled with little buttons of sunlight that danced and swayed rhythmically. But sunlight was not all that fell on the ground. The ground also had a haphazard pattern of white blobs and a sharp smell that tickled the nostrils — it was a combination of wet earth and copious amounts of bird droppings. Above, the tree canopy was speckled with nests and filled with dozens of painted storks (Mycteria leucocephala). The air was thick with the sound of wings whooshing overhead and young ones croaking. It was a surreal moment.
And yet, this sight was not within a national park, but in the most unlikeliests of places – just inside the sprawling premises of the gigantic factory of Coromandel International on the outskirts of Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh. Both the birds and the steady stream of people going in and out of the factory hardly seemed to notice each other. For food, the birds headed to the resource-rich mangroves nearby, a majority of which are demarcated as the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary (CWLS).
Essentially a water bird, the painted stork is found near wetlands, marshy areas, waterbodies, and even near flooded agricultural plains. It is a largish bird that is easily recognised by its long, thick and brilliant yellow bill, which curves slightly inwards towards the tip. The face is a slightly darker yellow-orange, but contiguous in colour with the beak. It has fluffy white plumage which ends in jet black or black-striped feathers. The tips of its feathers towards the tail and legs are usually pink.
As I took in the dreamlike sight above me, I kept my head in a swivel watching birds fly in and out of their nests from every direction. The painted storks looked most dramatic in flight. Though they appeared large when perched on the trees (approximately one metre tall and weighing up to 5 kg), in flight they seemed both massive and incredibly graceful. With wingspans upwards of 1.5 m, the birds flew with their head and neck almost in a aligned with the body, in a sleek aerodynamic line.
Classified as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List, the painted storks are found across Asia. They are resident birds that are largely non-migratory, but do local and seasonal movements in flocks numbering upwards of 100. Their mating season has been observed to be slightly different in north and south India. While it begins around mid-August in the north, in south India it typically lasts from November to March. Painted storks are monogamous birds and breed once a year, laying 3-4 eggs at a time. They are colonial nesters, with tree tops that may hold several dozen nests, a fact that I observed inside the Coromandel premises.
Towards evening, I headed into CWLS and sat on the pier at the end of the long walkway leading to the creek. The evening stillness was broken by the muted flapping sounds of painted storks. At low tide, I watched a group of them stand absolutely still in the distance, and forage for fish in the shallow water. I was told they also fed on insects and crustaceans, and occasionally on reptiles and small amphibians. They seemed to keep a wary eye on me, while they pecked the creek bed and scooped up fish with open bills.
Having had their fill, one by one, they lifted off and elegantly flew off. Against a sky awash in the golden colours of the setting sun, they soon became mere black specks, much like a lingering image from the ending credits of a movie. As endings go, it seemed apt.