de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). Of Birds and Butterflies. LMD. August 2004. Page 186. Volume 11, Issue 01, ISSN 1391-135X.
Rediscovering a variety of fauna in Wasgomuwa National Park while on the trail of the nightjar.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne re-discovers the magic of Wasgomuwa National Park
It was June and the dry Kachchan winds had begun to blow, relentlessly. I was seated in the dining area of environmental architect Sunela Jayawardene’s Dunuvila Cottage. The cottage was built on the traditional principle of village houses. It was deliberately understated, in earthen colours, constructed in wattle and daub with a thatched roof. The cottage had been built around a old brick laid house, plastered in clay. But any resistance to the wind from the building was borne by the strength of the earthen materials used in construction and the timber. A deliberate departure from traditional design was that the wood used in construction was not wild wood. It was farmed timber. The cottage was open on three sides and the wind howled through on and off having gathered speed across the lotus covered Dunuvila Lake . The Kachchan winds in the coastal areas such as Yala and Kumana can be very dry. Here, there was a hint of moisture. This was probably due to the northern slopes of the Knuckles massif, sloping down on to the north central plains, within sight.
The roof was low slung, deliberately to keep the hot sun out, casting the inside of the cottage into a deep shadow, which brought with it a refreshing coolness. I looked out and saw a ominous gray ring in the horizon around the lake. Was rain imminent I thought aloud, wondering whether I should abort my plans for an evening game drive. Sunela laughed and pointed out that I was seeing the lower slopes of the Knuckles, shrouded in mist. I bent down and peered out, Lakegala, a prominent peak was just about discernible. There was no risk of rain. But I was comfortably settled with a mug of coffee and in the midst of pleasant conversation. Comfortable enough to be prepared to sacrifice a game drive.
It was already getting late, nearing five in the evening and I thought we should head out. I was keen to see Wasgomuwa National Park which I had not visited for over two years. Also, there was a nocturnal animal I was after. The animal was to be more precise a bird. It is also found in the other low country dry zone national parks such as Yala. But because of the low number of vehicle in Wasgomuwa, the chances of photographing it, were much better. I was after Jerdon’s Nightjar, also known as the Long-tailed Nightjar. Just as the sun ebbs away and darkness arrives, nightjars often emerge onto the jeep tracks. They may call for a while to establish their territories and attract mates and then the begin the night’s hunt. They fly around like ghosts, silently, swooping and inscribing circles in the air. Long, thin wings hold them aloft and yet give them enough aerodynamicity to perform tight turns. Many species have white markings towards the tips of the wings, in the fashion of World War 11 aircraft which carried a logo of their nation.
The dryness had bleached the mana grass which had turned into a sea of yellow melting in the horizon into the smoky blue of the distant hills. A Barred Button-quail interrupted our drive though a grassland. In this bird the role of the sexes is reversed. The female is more brightly coloured and larger. After laying her eggs, she leaves the male to incubate and look after the young, whiles she goes in search of other mates.
Driving along we encountered another vehicle with a family unit of elephants, who had approached within a few feet. Amongst them was a young male, perhaps no more than five or six feet at the shoulder. But it had beautifully shaped long tusks. As it grows, it will become a star in the park. Elephants get bigger with age and when bulls reach around fifty years of age they are an awesome sight.
The driver of the vehicle in front decided to move the vehicle, perhaps he had got nervous at the elephants milling around the jeep. The start of the engine panicked the herd. Immediately some of the older cows gathered the babies in their midst and marched them across the road. Some of the adult cows raised their trunks, pounded their legs and glared threateningly. Having retreated to the safety of the cover of the tall grass, the family slowly edged away. But the oldest cow was clearly agitated and kept rumbling, like the distant peal of thunder. Elephants in Wasgamuwa have to be handled carefully. They are not as habituated to vehicles as in Yala. They are also used to coming into conflict with humans and are less trusting. I learnt subsequently that the young tusker is seen far away in Minneriya National Park , during the annual movement of elephants in the Minneriya Lake bed. This seasonal movement is one of the most awesome sights in the natural world with up to three hundred elephants gathering on the drying out lake bed. A phenomenon which I have dubbed “the gathering”.
There is more than elephants to Wasgomuwa National Park . The park itself is quite beautiful and worth a visit in its own right for simply experiencing the joy of wild places. In two game drives I encountered a variety of wildlife. Spotted deer, Hanuman Langur, Toque Monkey, Giant Squirrel are the mammals which visitors are most likely to see. Leopard and Sloth Bear are present, but are largely nocturnal and are seen infrequently. The road leading to the Sudu Kanda area, has forest which is intermediate zone in character. It is lusher and more densely wooded. On drive here I encountered over fifteen different species of butterflies. The highlight was the dazzling Indian Sunbeam. Its undersides are white and the uppersides are a fiery copper. Competing with it for attention was a Great Orange-tip and a male Blue Mormon. As I drove I observed Chocolate Soldier, Common Sailor, Chestnut Streaked Sailor, Common Baron, Peacock Pansy and various other species of “whites and yellows” and “blues”.
With dusk approaching we began the journey out of the park. A few dark shapes began to settle on the road. The Nightjars. The smaller Indian Nightjar and the larger and more contrasting coloured Jerdon’s Nightjar was at times perched no more than a few feet away. Back at Dunuvila Cottage, I hoped that the Fishing Cat would make an appearance. I was sleeping on a clay platform atop which was a mattress, with a mosquito net suspended above. Perhaps I had had too much red wine, because if the Fishing Cat did visit, I was too fast a sleep to hear it.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife & luxury travel company who has written and photographed several publications on wildlife. With weekly appearances in the media, he is one of the most visible wildlife & tourism personalities. To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.