de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). Capturing Nature’s Rare Cocktail. LMD. August 2005. Page 188. Volume 12, Issue 01, ISSN 1391-135X.
Discovering the avian wonder of a lake-side vigil.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne discovers the rewards of a lakeside vigil

This morning the game plan would be different. I would no longer be driven by the fear of a leopard. To be more precise, the fear of missing a leopard sighting. Wildlife photographers visiting Yala are struck by an awful affliction. Plans are pre-mediated before a game drive to engage in some good old-fashioned wildlife photography. To park beside a water hole and watch the life of the jungle unfold in front of your eyes. To use the old fashioned tool of patience and to allow the animals to come to you. As they pass through the entrance gate, a demon enters and corrupts the mind. Doubt enters and clouds the thinking.

The photographer is driven with misgivings that a leopard sighting would be missed if he plays the waiting game. Even worse, just imagine the ignominy and humiliation of waiting beside a waterhole to be told the tale of a leopard cub on a tree with a dozen photographers parked near it. It can be worse. There could have been two leopards. No, three. Well actually there were four, the three cubs and the mother. Another jeep would claim that they briefly glimpsed a male suspected to be consorting with the mother. Good heavens, that would make it five. Panic sets in as the mind feverishly churns scenarios in a flash of time. Fear takes grip, the fear of missing out an awesome leopard sighting. Barely a few hundred meters from the gate, the game plan is abandoned and the wildlife photographer instructs the driver and tracker to take him to Meda Para, deep inside Block 1, abutting the other blocks where visitors are not allowed to visit. Poachers are subject to special exemptions.

But this morning the game plan would be different. I had promised to be back at the Yala Village hotel by eight in the morning to be interviewed by a foreign film crew on an assignment for Discovery Channel. I was beginning to regret it, but I had no alternative but to honour my promise. Stuck for time, I knew I could not penetrate deep into Yala, where the reigning favourites, the leopard cubs of Handunoruwa were active. We sped past Patti Wala the first water hole near the gate, shrouded in darkness. We pulled up at the next water hole, Wilpala Wewa, a large freshwater lake, bordered by grasslands and sea and scrub forest. A perfect edge for ecologists, where a confluence of different habitats result in a high diversity of species.

I aligned myself along an axis where I knew the sun would peep above a line of Maliththan trees. A Greenshank, a migratory wader, weaved among some reeds on the shore line. The scene was monochrome. The reeds stood out like dark lines scribbled by someone on a blank canvas. The Greenshank, a pale bird, was silhouetted dark and looked like a point of interest introduced on an otherwise graphic canvas of lines. Click. It was time for somewhat creative photography without the fatal obsession for leopards. An Openbill purposefully walked by, the gap between the mandibles clear at the close range. This gap is an adaptation for it to break the shells of land snails. It walked around slowly, but yet too fast in the dim light, before dawn.

A shimmer of pink began to dance on the surface of the lake as the sun god came out to perform the miracle of life on another day. Plants began to synthesize complex molecules which would stiffen cells and pull open flowers which had closed during the day. Cells which would perform the work of muscles in animals. More birds began to stir. A Little Egret arrived and began a peculiar dance. Click click. It was mainly a waltz, a dancing run up and down, with wings open. Occasionally a sharp movement, like from a Bollywood movie, as it lunged and slashed at fish. A Large Egret joined in. There was spat between the neighbours and the smaller of the two flew away, skawking harshly in protest. A Pond Heron flew in, with something dangling from its mouth. A large frog. Click. Another Pond Heron got greedy and intercepted the former. An aerial fight developed, the frog fell off into a thicket. Both flew away empty handed. I thought a taxonomic revision was necessary to change the name from Indian Pond Heron to Sri Lankan Pond Heron.

The sweet, half tuneful half melancholy call of a Black-headed Cuckooshrike drew my attention to this woodland bird. A jeep functions like a mobile photographic hide. Many animals will come within frame filling view, if you move carefully inside a vehicle. I took a few frames as it foraged on the bushes. A Peacock came strutting by and sat down on a bed of dust. Suddenly plumes of dust engulfed it in a mist of chocolate powder. A blur of iridescent blue with hints of turquoise and mint green smothered in chocolate. What a delicious cocktail of colours. Click click click. Leopard fever no more.

Something interrupted the peacock. What could it be? It had to be a predator. Something large, something that would eat a peacock wrapped in chocolate powder. Surely it could not be … No it was not a leopard. But I was happy to settle for the jackal which arrived. No, two jackals. These animals are rarely seen alone. Usually a dominant pair would hunt, often accompanied by other helpers. The Peacock hurriedly moved itself away from the breakfast menu and the two Jackals trotted past in their quest for a suitable breakfast. Not even a backward glance for me.

The topical sun allows only a short window of opportunity before it climbs high up into the sky and pours down a stream of harsh light. The light was running out and time was running out. Promises had to be kept, interviews had to be done. The tripod folded and the seasoned Amarasiri took his cue. The engine coughed into life and grew into an angry rumble as we drove off. Why don’t I do this more often?

The writer is the CEO of a wildlife & luxury travel company. Averaging weekly media appearances, he is a well known wildlife populariser & tourism personality. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.