WADER WATCHING – WINGS OF OPPORTUNITY
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). Wader Watching – Wings of Opportunity. Serendipity. May 2003. Page 8.
Gehan argues that the annual migration of waders is an under-stated tourism opportunity.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne argues that the annual migration of waders is an under stated eco-tourism opportunity.
For a small island, Sri Lanka is remarkably well endowed to attract tourists in search of big game. Contrary to expectations of island bio-geography theory, this small island has large terrestrial mammals such as Elephants and Leopards. What is more it is the best place in Asia to see both animals, a fact which seems to have been lost in the tourism industry until lately. Elephants and Leopards are big and glamorous. But there is another group of animals which have a dedicated following amongst birdwatchers, the waders.
Waders are birds of the shoreline, frequenting mud flats, estuaries, freshwater wetlands etc. Basically almost anywhere where it is wet and muddy, but not too deep. Our coastal wetlands and man made salt pans attract waders by the tens of thousands. On the face of it, they are nondescript birds in drab colours, or at least drab most of the time when they are in winter plumage. So what makes them so special?
A number of reasons. First of all, birdwatchers who make a sizable fraction of eco-tourists have a fascination with them. One reason being they are difficult to identify. Examine any field guide to birds and the un-initiated will give up trying to tell apart a Little Stint from a Long-toed Stint. Throw in juvenile, summer and winter plumages to add to the confusion, and most people soon conclude that waders are tricky. Birders delight in this trickiness, hours of post mortem analysis and debate can fill a winter gloom, debating on might have been a rarity.
Another reason why waders are special is that they undertake long migrations. The Greenshanks and Green Sandpipers seen in the Talangama Wetland or Palatupana Salt Pans, would have travelled from the Arctic Circle. They will return each year to breed on the Taiga. For migratory birds such as waders, thanks to plate tectonics, Sri Lanka has inherited a uniquely important position. Sri Lanka is at the southernmost point on the migratory flyway for many birds reaching us from Asia and Europe. Beyond Sri Lanka is only the inhospitable icy vastness of Antarctica. This makes our wetlands of tremendous conservation value, internationally. If we don’t look after our wetlands, other peoples birds will suffer heavy winter moralities. Fewer birds will return each spring to begin the breeding cycle anew. From a scientific perspective as well, Sri Lanka is very important. Efforts to obtain bird migration data by scientists in Asia and Europe will not be complete without data capture inn Sri Lanka.
How does all this fit into eco-tourism? Sri Lanka has an important place and an important story to tell in the biological phenomenon known as bird migration. This itself lends it well to creating publicity for the island through visiting printed media journalists as well as film crews. But we are also in a strong position to appeal to birdwatchers, to spend a few extra days in Sri Lanka for wader watching. It is only natural to question why Europeans who see waders in their home countries as summer visitors would want to see them on holiday in Sri Lanka. Would they not be pre-occupied with the endemics? Yes, there is no doubt that the endemics would be a priority. However the fascination with waders is such, the opportunity to study them in winter plumage and subsequently moulting into summer plumage will be of interest to birders. The other advantage with wader watching in Sri Lanka is that the waders are so close, unbelievably close. In Europe, most wader watching entails studying the birds at a distance through a telescope. In Sri Lanka, at many places the can be seen at very close range. In February, Amila Salgado and I visited the Palatupana Salt Pans with David Rosair. David is one of the few people in the world who has seen in the wild all 200 plus species of waders in the world. He authored the Hamlyn Photographic Guide to the Waders of the World and is an authority on them. As the sun set over the Palatupana Salt Pans, we watched hundreds of Curlew Sandpipers mixing with Little Stints, Marsh Sandpipers, Redshanks and Greenshanks. I asked him whether he agrees that Sri Lanka has the potential to become one of the top wader watching sites in the world. David had no doubts. This was a sentiment also echoed by David Okill, who also visited the southern wetlands with us in February. A Deputy Warden of Fair Isle Bird Observatory, he has been engaged in Bird Ringing for nearly two decades. Sometimes in eco-tourism, good things come in small fluffy brown packages.
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