BIRDING AROUND JAFFNA – 1
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). Birding Around Jaffna – 1. Daily News. Date Mihisara Text, 2003. Page.
Gehan discovers that the northern peninsular is teaming with birds and beautiful landscapes.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne discovers that the Northern Peninsular is teeming with birds and beautiful landscapes
Rohantha engaged the four wheel drive of the Land Rover Defender, before it plunged into a deep pool of water, on the jeep track. On our right was perhaps one of the largest un-spoilt stretches of mangrove in the country. We were returning from a visit to Nagarkovil. The road, now reduced to a jeep track would eventually join the A9, connecting the south to Jaffna.
“Coot” I called out motioning Rohantha to pull over. Rohantha pulled over and we peered over the thatching. “Before the peace”, the LTTE would fire at us, when we were on this road” Rohantha commented dryly. I had hoped for a Common Coot, but the call I had heard was of a Purple Coot. There was also a Yellow Bittern and a Common Kingfisher flashed by. Samantha Dassanayaka leapt out with the ProDV camera whilst Mahinda Madawala wired up for sound. Because of the sensitivity of this military zone, we were being careful not film any of the military infrastructure. But by now, Rohantha and our host Ravi Weerapperuma had learnt that this TV crew was different. Samantha zeroed in on the Yellow Bittern whilst I searched for the rarer Black Bittern. I was in the Northern Peninsular with Tharindi Fonseka and her crew from YATV. Our plan was to film the wildlife, especially the migratory birds.
The northern peninsular has received a rush of journalists, not surprisingly concerned with reportage of the peace process. We were strangely different. Rohantha walked over to Ravi Weerapperuma to get more gen’ on how his day had ended up with a strange TV crew. Ravi, a naval officer, was our host and had been trying to persuade me to visit the northern peninsula for over a year. I had so far deflected the invitation citing a heavy workload. On his last call, Ravi played the emotional card. “It would be good for peace” he said “if you do one of your wildlife stories, to introduce a different perspective to the North’. To clinch it, he added the magic word “waders”. “There are a lot of waders about’ he had said before finishing what he must have thought was another unsuccessful effort at peresuasion.
Waders …. hmmmm ……. just what I needed to persuade me to fly north with a TV crew. Waders are nondescript birds which only serious birdwatchers get excited about. They are amongst the millions of migratory birds which spend the winter in Sri Lanka. The migration of birds is a fantastic biological phenomenon. Plate tectonics have ensured a pre-eminent role for Sri Lanka in this marvel of nature. For many birds reaching Sri Lanka from Europe and Asia, we are at one extremity of their migration. Beyond Sri Lanka lies only the icy vastness of Antarctica. This means, for scientific study of bird migration and for conservation of birds, Sri Lanka assumes a global importance. The welfare of ‘other peoples birds’, depends on how well we mange ‘our wild areas’, especially our wetlands. After the North East monsoon, the northern peninsular is like a vast wetland, a paradise for migratory shorebirds. These birds could become a valuable asset in developing Sri Lanka as a leading destination in Asia for eco-tourism.
The story began to take shape. Sri Lanka is a crucial end point in the migration of birds. Our wetlands are internationally important for the conservation of birds. Many of these birds arrive in Sri Lanka in the north and many journey down south using a number of staging posts. For science, conservation and eco-tourism the story of these migratory birds and their connection with the northern peninsular was important. I soon got on the phone to Tharindi Fonseka to propose a shoot. It fitted in well with plans I had already discussed to highlight the value of the Palatupana Salt Pans for migratory shorebirds. The salt pans are six kilometers from the Yala Safari Game Lodge and had been used as a site for bird ringing under the DWLC-FOGSL-Jetwing National Bird Ringing Program. In addition to the research work, I was also keen to highlight its potential as an eco-tourism asset. The migratory birds would allow us to weave in the northern peninsular into the thread of a wider story.
The facility to arrive fresh, with just an hour’s flight time, make return flights from Colombo to Palali, priced around Rs 4,500, very good value. We flew with Expo, who have ex Sri Lankan Airlines flight crew, providing a warm and friendly in-flight service. Somaratna and Ratnayake, two naval personnel collected us and provided us with interpretation, a tad different to what we were accustomed to in eco-tourism. We paused to examine barrels sunk besides the road where LTTE snipers would lie hidden in, to shoot or detonate land mines. Closer to our remit and more exciting was a seasonal wetland near the Arali Bridge (Pannai Causeway). Black-headed Ibis, Black-winged Stilts, Whiskered Terns and a dozen other species of waterbirds waded, swam or flew, hunting their prey. A few kilometers on, beside an estuary we encountered a flock over a hundred Black-tailed Godwits. They were all huddled together. Caspian Terns, Gull-billed terns, Little Terns and Brown-headed Gulls competed for space on little islets of sand, near the shoreline.
Ravi suggested we start by filming the Flamingos he had seen from Kayts Island. We had not gone far along the causeway when we had a flock of over 300, surprisingly close to the road. The causeway was lined with barbed wire and army checkpoints. Interestingly, the birds seemed comfortable, being close to the army checkpoint. During our visit we noticed time and time again that some of the best concentrations of birds were close to checkpoints. This is presumably because the birds have learnt that they are least likely to be disturbed at these places manned by personnel from the armed forces. We began filming and the Greater Flamingos, gracefully stepped away, adding more distance. There was no haste, but a quiet and dignified retreat.
Kayts is still relatively un-spoilt and feels like a vast nature reserve. Beside the road we had several Curlews, conspicuous with their long down curved beaks. Black-tailed Godwits, Wood, Common and Marsh Sandpipers occupied water puddles and ditches besides the road. A Kestrel hovered over the seasonally, fresh swathe of grass. A large, ephemeral pool had over a hundred Common Teal, a rarity in the north. A few Northern Shoveller, another rarity in the south kept them company. Pools of water besides the road held Pintail and Garganey. I could not but be struck with the similarity of a birding spectacle during the migrant season in Bundala National Park. The difference here was that we were on public roads and not inside a national park.
With so many birds and so much to film, we arrived several hours later than scheduled to meet Hasantha. He led us to a wetland adjoining the camp. A Little Green Heron watched us from nearby. In the distance on the far shore was a flock of Painted Stork. A few Common Coot and Wigeon, two rarities in the south were on the water. There seemed to be birds everywhere.
From there, we turned onto the coastal road again, near the turn off to Suruvila. In the distance across the estuary was a long pink streamer. Flamingos, again. We wondered whether these three hundred birds had flown in from the causeway. However we gathered from a subsequent visit next evening, they were two separate flocks. Whilst the Flamingos strode gracefully on long legs, a few thousand Pintail and Garganey, weaved in and around them on the water. The muddy edges of the estuary had a host of small waders. Greenshanks, Redshanks and Curlew Sandpipers, Gray and Little Ringed Plovers thronged the mud flats.
Mudflats are one of the most productive eco-systems in the world with a very high bio-mass productivity. This is unfortunately not apparent to humans who do not find the worms and mollusks in the mud palatable. But they are very important and support a large variety of animals which are part of a food chain which extends out into the open ocean. If we destroy these remaining salt marshes, mudflats and mangroves, the consequences will be dire. In years to come, our fishery stocks will crash due to the interruption in the food chain and the lack of spawning grounds for fish and crustaceans. After peace, whoever controls the northern peninsular will have to learn the lessons from the south and ensure that prawn farming do not render these productive areas desolate. The south could have learnt from well publicized ecological overseas disasters from prawn farming. But we did not and have devastated a stretch from Chilaw to Puttalam. The northern penisular with its wetlands may hold the key to the success of our fisheries. What is more, it is a significant eco-tourism asset. Combine the peninsular with the scrub jungles of the Wanni, the whale watching waters off Trincomalee and it is clear that the LTTE control large swathes of the country’s last great areas of wilderness. Fortunately, the bio-diversity rich rainforests of the south west and the magnificent Yala and Uda Walawe national Parks gives us southerners an eco-tourism trump card. Otherwise I would be sorely tempted in the future to emigrate permanently to Jaffna on account of the wildlife in the north and east.
At Ravi’s insistence we visited a large freshwater lake near Madagal. To our delight it held a large mass of ducks. Pintail and Garganey were present in even numbers, totaling perhaps 2,000 to 3,000. A Curlew called from a small island, its eponymous notes wafting across the lake. Little Grebes in breeding plumage with red necks and faces, created whirling eddies of ripples with each dive. A male Shoveller, sieved the water with its outsized bill.
The next evening saw us back at Kayts, to film the Flamingos in the evening light. I left the YATV crew, to investigate another flock in a seasonal freshwater lake on a grassy plain. About eighty Spoonbills were clustered in the water. They were in breeding plumage with yellow breast bands and crests. On the water’s edge were a mixed flock of Terns. Lesser Crested Terns with orangish beaks and Caspian Terns with red beaks, thronged the waters edge, sharing it with Little and Gull-billed Terns. About eighteen Pallas’s Gulls, a scarce visitor to the south, were also present. They were noticeably bigger than the Brown-headed Gulls and the birds in breeding plumage had acquired a dark hood. They flew away, their calls ringing anxiously over the plains.
The scrubby areas also had its share of special birds. Gray Partridges called regularly and could occasionally be seen scurrying into cover. Black Drongos hawked for insects from an aerial vantage. Black Kites, also known as Pariah Kites soared on the thermals. A pair of Collared Doves made a brief entry. These species of birds are rare in the south but seen easily in the north of the island. About a kilometer from the Ponnalai checkpoint towards Jaffna, we pulled over to film Golden Plover and Yellow-wattled Papwing, which were on the grassy meadows. The sky was filled with the song of Skylarks. One pair we observed at close range, seemed to be nesting amongst the succulent stems of slat marsh plants, which edged an estuary.
Most of our filming had been in the strip between the causeway to Kayts and Vadukoddai and on Kayts Island. This mainland strip, is just a few kilometers out of Jaffna town. With the emphasis on filming, one would expect a fairly low number of birds to be recorded. But yet, we managed to record 97 species of birds.
A stones throw away from Jaffna town lies a beautiful landscape of grassy meadows, estuaries, mudflats, ephemeral freshwater pools and palm studded scrub land. The northern peninsular is still a relatively unspoiled area of countryside, a haven for birdlife. With peace, the north may blossom as a destination for eco-tourists. But only if in the rush for economic development, the mistakes of the south are not repeated.