SWANS OF THE TUNDRA
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). Swans of the Tundra. LMD. February 2003. Page 13. Volume 9, Issue 7. ISSN 1391-135x.
Account of the inspirational winter gathering of swans in the UK and an examination of how Sri Lanka can apply the same principles in conservation.
Wildlife Photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne witnesses the inspirational winter gathering of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans at Welney in Cambridgeshire
A heavy mist had rolled in over the flat Cambridgeshire fenlands. Visibility was down to a few hundred feet. The Sodium Vapor lamps illuminating the walkway to the bird watching hides cast the area in an eerie yellow cast. Tall Poplar Trees stood gaunt and bare, stripped of their coat of leaves by the onset of winter. The monochrome scene was reminiscent of a yellowing, black and white photograph.
A loud cacophony of honks filled the air and though the mist we observed a flight of Whooper Swans, flying in. Long winged and long necked, they were graceful in the air. Who could not feel a sense of excitement and elation, a sense of freedom, when watching these graceful wild swans, in the air. They splashed down, somewhat clumsily in the water and once again took on a graceful form, with necks arched in a sinuous curve. Soon another flock arrived, followed by another.
We were at the Welney Reserve of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), founded by the late Sir Peter Scott. Peter, famous in his own right, was the son of the famous polar explorer, Sir Robert Scott. The famous Scott, who made a tragic dash to the Antarctic. Peter Scott was a man of many parts. A naturalist, painter, marksman and Olympic gold medalist yachtsman. He has left behind an enduring legacy though the creation of the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust, which manage several wetland reserves in the UK. One of the first was the reserve at Welney, which the WWT manage for wintering wildfowl. The operative word here is ‘manage’. It is no accident that the reserve attracts tens of thousands of waterfowl. The water levels are carefully managed through a system of canals, dykes and sluices, to maintain as far as possible, optimum levels for different species of water birds. In the summer, the water is drained off, exposing grazing meadows and solid terrain for birds which will nest on the exposed pastures. These management practices are now widely prevalent in a host of reserves in the UK managed by different conservation bodies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), The National Trust and English Nature.
I was at Welney with Hiran Cooray and Chamari Maelge, both in the tourism industry, to learn and derive inspiration in our plans to develop eco-tourism in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a late entrant to eco-tourism, estimated at 25 percent of the total international travel market according to the World Tourism Organization (WTO). Coming in late, offers Sri Lanka an opportunity to study what others have done. Most importantly, it allows us to ensure Sri Lanka’s eco-tourism is underpinned by a strong support for research and conservation.
Welney, began the other way. It began primarily as conservation effort which has now become a major wildlife spectacle which every birdwatcher would want to see at least once in their life time. In the early years, a few pairs of Whooper Swans and Bewick’s Swans found the reserve a safe place to over-winter. The Whoopers breed in Iceland and the Bewick’s in the Siberian Tundra. Starting from these few pairs, over the years, Welney began to attract increasingly more of these wintering Swans. At the time of our visit, an estimated thousand plus Whoopers and a few hundred Bewick’s were wintering in the reserve.
Both species of swans have a yellow patch extending from the eye and the base of the beak, extending towards the middle of the beak. In the Whooper, this patch has a pointed forward edge whereas in the Bewick’s it is rounded. This allows the two somewhat similar species to be separated in the field. Each swan also has a unique facial pattern. This has allowed researchers to study the movements of individual birds in much the same was as Leopards are currently being studied in Yala.
Besides the swans, we could observe a few thousand Pochards, medium sized ducks with chocolate coloured heads and silver backs. Tufted Ducks striking in black and white, were also present. This extraordinary gathering of waterfowl could be observed from a long series of bird watching hides which looked over onto the main water body. The hides had long benches which could accommodated a few hundred people. Each of the hides also had a panel depicting the common birds, allowing visitors to have a stab at identifying the different species. The main viewing gallery had panels explaining the work of the WWT and the research and conservation work being done for waterfowl. It also had a bonus, it was heated! The ultimate in viewing pleasure on a winter’s day.
The visitor center, being one of the earliest in the WWT’s history, was a modest and un-ambitious affair. Nevertheless, it had a small cafe with a choice of hot and cold meals and drinks. It had clean toilets and a shop with books and souvenirs. An exhibition area was hosting a photographic exhibition. In its compact area, it had all of the key visitor amenities. A far cry from our national parks and reserves where we charge US 15 per non Sri Lankan, but show a total lack of regard for providing visitor amenities. At Welney, entry operated on an ‘honesty principle’. It was incumbent on the visitor to go to the center and pay for entry, although one could enter the reserve’s hides directly without first purchasing the tickets. In Sri Lanka there are reserves which could become eco-tourism attractions if an initial flow of visitors could be encouraged by kick starting them on the basis that you enter free, if the warden is not present. Barring access without prior arrangement only encourages potential visitors to undertake another activity to fill their time. We could also look at introducing bird hides in our parks and reserves which can accommodate fifty plus people at a sitting. The hides can have interpreters who can speak over an intercom, like at Welney, to educate people on the wildlife and ecology. At present, every visitor to Yala for example, is faced with a long drive, going round and round, in search of the, larger mammals.
The last of the light faded and shrouded the fenlands in darkness and mist. We left with our minds illuminated to the awesome potential Sri Lanka has an eco-tourism destination. A destination where research and conservation could be fostered in intelligently sculpted plans for eco-tourism.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.