It’s an annual ritual for me. Come February, I pack up my heavy professional camera with a heavier 500mm lens and an even heavier camera tripod, and head off to Kokkrebellur.
Tucked away inside Maddur district, 120km from Bangalore, this village gets it name from the Kannada “kokkare” meaning “stork” and “bella uru” meaning “jaggery village”.
The village cultivates sugarcane and is noted for the jaggery it produces from that cane. What makes Kokkrebellur famous however, is its large population of Painted storks. During the breeding season, the storks, in fact, outnumber the humans!
Without fail, during the third week of February, hundreds of Painted storks descend upon the village to breed. The village has several banyan and tamarind trees, and each of these trees is packed with Painted storks. Other birds like Spot-billed pelicans, Black-crowned night herons and Brahminy kites also nest in the trees, but the Painted stork is the crowd-puller.
There’s a remarkable symbiosis between the storks and the villagers. The storks are welcomed as harbingers of good fortune. The villagers leave them alone and even care for any injured storks. There’s a small clinic of sorts in the village, for any bird that needs help.
The villagers claim that the dung from the storks acts fertilises the soil and produces a good crop of sugarcane every year. I’m not entirely convinced this is true, but the storks do find a safe haven in Kokkrebellur.
The storks are everywhere in the village. You’ll find them casually strolling around, picking at bales of straw for nesting material or resting under the shade of someone’s roof.
Usually, storks avoid humans, especially pesky humans like me bearing large cameras and lenses. But here, they are perfectly at ease, mingling with humans and cattle with nary a care.
As long as you don’t get too close or make loud noises, the storks won’t pay attention to you. As for me, I went berserk with my camera, snapping away until I had to stop from sheer exhaustion.
I’ve had spinal surgery and I have a collection of eleven titanium screws and rods in my spine. Not to speak of the two stents in my heart. And not to speak of the seven strong medicines I have to take every day.
Wielding a professional camera and a huge 500mm lens and a hefty tripod, that collectively weigh about 15kg, is not the best way to treat my body!
But the sheer joy of being so close to these beautiful avians, made me toss aside my medical woes, and revel in their company for a couple of hours.
It was quite hot, although I was at the place by 8 am. And as always, I had forgotten my hat at home, exposing my balding head to the blazing sun.
I was feeling quite dizzy, when my driver yanked me back into the car. But what the heck. It was worth it.
There are very few places in India like Kokkrebellur. And I’m lucky that I live in Bangalore, within three hours’ driving distance of this unique village.
For a birder, this place is mandatory. And for a bird photographer, there’s no excuse for not visiting Kokkrebellur. Even if you are neither a birder nor a photographer, you must make it a point to visit Kokkrebellur at least once in your lifetime.
The place is an easy drive from Bangalore, about 120km away. The road is good, right up to the village. Avoid weekends. The traffic on Bangalore-Mysore highway will be awful.
Start early, by 5am or so. If you wish, halt for a quick breakfast at any of the eating houses on the highway. They are all equally mediocre and equally expensive. Based on years of experience, I wouldn’t really recommend any of them. Better that you carry home-made food, if possible.
Carry bottled water, snacks and electrolytes. You can always have fresh coconut water at Kokkrebellur or just anywhere on the roadside.
And be cautious of the children at Kokkrebellur. Some of them ask for gifts or money, in exchange for information about special viewing spots. When you have storks literally at handshaking distance, why would you need a special spot? Just smile politely at the children and keep your distance.
Best time to visit: Third week of February to mid-May.
So. Before the next covid wave hits you, get off your gluteals, make haste and get yourself to Kokkrebellur.
Cheers … Srini.