de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). For Pallas’s Gull. LMD. June 2003. Page 150. Volume 09, Issue 11.ISSN 1391-135X.
Gehan visits Mannar Island to photograph the elusive pallas’s gull and encounters a treaure trove of other species.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne visits Mannar Island to photograph the elusive Pallas’s Gull
The Montero gathered speed across the north central plains, on flat roads that cut across the scrub jungle. Army encampments behind barbed wire fences, guarded by sniper posts and trenches floated past the windows. Behind us, a dark column of mist, rose up into the sky. Lighting crackled across the sky as a thunderstorm bore down on us. It was mid day, but the skies had gone dark as the rainstorm gathered behind us in chase.
Wicky, at the wheel kept his eyes on the road as Amila Salgado, Lester Perera and myself anxiously scanned the sky. We were approaching Mannar, a hot spot for birds. We had hoped for a drier welcome. The A14 skirted Giants’ Tank where thousand of Common Coot, an extreme rarity in the south, had been reported. With a thunderstorm on our heels, we sped on towards the Mannar Causeway. The thunderstorm seemed to give up the chase and the skies began lightening up as we approached the high security zone around the Thalladi Army Camp. A mud flat besides the road held hundreds, perhaps a few thousand waders. The waders were safe from disturbance behind a wicked looking rolls of barbed wire, which ran beside the road. A large sign in English, Sinhala and Tamil issued a dire warning against attempts to film or photograph. Reluctantly, we decided not to alight with our optical gear. An agonizing decision as ‘scoping’ the waders may have yielded a rarity or two.
The Mannar Causeway looked grim and un-inviting. Contrary to appearances it held a treasure trove of special birds. An Oystercatcher was spotted in the distance. A handsome bird decked in black and white, with a startlingly conspicuous red bill. “Whimbrels, oh and a Curlew ..” called out Amila who was scanning the mud flats with his ‘bins’ (as binoculars are known to birders). A flock of Brown-headed Gulls were on the water. One of my key targets was one of their cousins, the Pallas’s Gull also known as the Great Black-headed Gull. In relation to the other gulls it is enormous. In breeding plumage the male assumes a black head and a red-tipped yellow bill. It is occasionally seen in the southern half of the island, but its stronghold is in the northern peninsular. A few weeks earlier I had come across a flock of eighteen in the Jaffna Peninsular. But they were at a distance and had vanished over the horizon with their hauntingly anxious cries spreading over the flatlands of Kayts Island. I was hoping for a closer look this time.
“Check that gull out” yelled Lester as a large gull with gray upperparts sailed across the causeway. Wicky pulled over and we tumbled out with tripods and telescopes. The gull banked and came flying towards us. A white leading edge contrasted against the clear gray upperparts, a yellow beak and yellowy flesh coloured legs showed up clearly. “Heuglin’s” we shouted in unison. Heuglin’s Gull was another one of those birds that the team were after. Although its strays in to the southern parts of Sri Lanka, the north is one of the best places to see it in. An old fort guards the entrance to Mannar Island. It now houses an army garrison, continuing to fulfill its role, centuries later. Army personnel from its garrison who were manning a checkpoint accompanied by some policemen came around to speak to us. Other birdwatchers and photographers had been here before and they acquainted with the eccentricities of this strange tribe of people. They gently extricated themselves as Lester and Amila delved into the eccentricities of separating adult winter Heuglin’s from juveniles. In the distance, a pink patch on the water was just visible on the haze. Wicky and Amila wondered whether it was an algal bloom and checked it through the scope. At forty times magnification, the pink haze resolved itself into long legs and long necks. A flock of hundred plus Flamingos were feeding in the distance. Their bills are equipped with fine lamellae through which they sieve the estuarine water, rich in microscopic animal matter, which they feed on.
The mudflats, estuaries and mangroves around Mannar Island are very rich in nutrients. Contrary to popular belief, these coastal wetlands are not barren, infertile wastelands. They are one of the richest eco systems in the world in terms of bio-mass productivity. They are at one end of a complex food chain which extends out into the open sea. Destroy them, and the food chain is damaged with disastrous consequences. After a few years, the fisheries will collapse which will result in a loss of livelihoods and tremendous social strain on communities which are dependent on the harvest of the sea. It would be tragic if in the race for short term economic gains, if the north’s coastal wetlands were to be destroyed for prawn farms. The economic consequences will not be restricted to the north.
We drove on, in the direction of Talaimannar for about four kilometers and came upon the dried up tank bed of Kora Kulam, near the 89 km post of the A14. A white carpet of flower heads seemed to be bobbing in the haze, amongst the lilies. Something did not seem quite right and we examined them through binoculars. At the edge of the lake bed, were a flock of Gulls. A few of them were coming into breeding plumage and had that unmistakable dark head. There were over a hundred of them, Pallas’s Gulls. As the light faded, I could only admire them through a telescope. Small groups broke off and flew out to sea. We surmised they were flying to the safety of a night time roost, in an offshore island. With two days ahead of us, to enjoy the bird life of Mannar, we were confident that we would meet Pallas’s Gull again.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.