IMAGES IN FLIGHT. MONTAGE
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Images in Flight. Montage. February 2007. Pages 24-25. Issue 02.
The Purple-swamphen and conflict resolution.
It is February. The north-east monsoon has begun to tail off. The dry lowlands of the north-east are now clothed in green. But not for long and soon it will don its dusty brown cape again. In the south-west, the evergreen green has become greener. The north-east monsoon has blown over the mountains and shed any remaining moisture. The paddies and wetlands are covered in ephemeral pools of water. Wetlands birds such as the Purple Swamphen (also known as the Purple Coot) began to spar for mates.
The Purple Swamphen is a bird in the family of rails. Fowl-like birds with long outstretched toes which helps to distribute its weight as it clambers amongst aquatic vegetation. Most rails are shy, secretive birds. Some are crepuscular, emerging at dawn and dusk. The Purple Swamphen and the White-breasted Waterhen are bold rails active during the day. The swamphen has every reason to be bold. It is gaily painted in blue and red as if a child was given free reign to colour it. It is probably one of the most beautifully coloured birds on the island. However its beauty is not matched by its personality. It is a combative, quarrelsome bird. During the mating season, frequent clashes break out amongst groups of these birds which become conspicuous for a lack of grace and tolerance. The closest parallel is in the Sri Lankan parliament. It is symbolic that the quarrelsome swamphens were photographed within sight of the parliament where the behaviour of the birds is matched by people.
I wanted to photograph the territorial battles of the swamphens to photograph the daily struggle for life, to win a mate, to guard it against intruding males, to hold territory, to raise offspring. In 2004, when a precarious ceasefire was holding and I was not likely to be seen as a threat, I spent several mornings with a long lens to capture the action. Fights are intense but over in a flash. It happens too fast to react, track, focus and shoot. The only way was to observe behavior and look for the tell tale signs of an imminent fight. Two birds squaring off, one walking with an exaggerated gait, would give a few seconds fore-warning before the birds rushed into combat. Prolonged fights can be fatal and the birds back down after a brief show of strength. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt from the birds, on conflict resolution.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (email@example.com) is a writer, photographer and tourism personality on a mission to create a million wildlife enthusiasts. E-mail him to subscribe to his quarterly wildlife e-newsletter.