WADERS OF THE SALT PANS
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). Waders of the Salt Pans. LMD. May 2003. Page 138. Volume 9, Issue 10. ISSN 1391-135X.
Wading birds give Sri Lanka wings in international conservation and research waters.
Wading birds give Sri Lanka a prominent role in the international conservation and research arena. Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne believes that it can also generate eco-dollars
Last year, we had nearly been arrested by plain clothes navy personnel. They had received reports of suspicious strangers armed with unusual equipment. Local villagers had reported a group of people were walking on the Kalpitiya peninsular, across which was a chain of islets and Wilpattu National Park across on the mainland. In the past, the LTTE were rumoured to have been gun running in the area. To avoid another ‘near arrest’, my fellow Ceylon Bird Club member Lester Perera and myself, thought it would be prudent to report our intentions to the local navy camp. The navy personnel we spoke to listened to our plans to undertake field work for an annual waterfowl census conducted in Sri Lanka by the Ceylon Bird Club. With peace in the air, they felt that this was a ‘civil matter’ which need not need the attention of their Commanding Officer. As directed, we proceed to the Kalpitiya Police Station, to forewarn them of our intentions.
The day had begun with us driving down to the Puttalam Salt Pans which teems with waders. At the time we arrived in mid March, many migratory birds had either left or begun to form into tight flocks to commence their return journey. Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see a group of small nondescript coastal birds known as waders. In places such as Palatupana Salt Pans, six kilometers away from the Yala Safari Game Lodge, waders literally step out of the way of birdwatchers. The diversity of species and the proximity of the birds make Sri Lanka a fantastic destination for birders, who are fascinated by waders. David Rosair, author of a photographic guide to waders published by Hamlyn agrees on this. In February, David visited Palatupana with Amila Salgado and myself. David is one of the few people in the world, if not the only person who has seen all of the world’s 212 species of wader. Having been to some of the most famous wader sites in the world, it was reassuring to have his concurrence.
Why are waders so important? There are three key reasons. One is eco-tourism. Birdwatchers are an important component of eco-tourists. If Sri Lanka’s can be publicised as a top wader watching destination, this will translate into important economic revenues for the country. Each little fluffy brown bundle of feathered flesh, is also a dollar revenue generating asset for the country. The second key reason is research. Beyond Sri Lanka, there is only the icy, inhospitable vastness of Antarctica. For many birds from Europe and Asia, Sri Lanka is at the end point of a long migration. Some birds have travelled thousands of miles from the arctic circle to be in Sri Lanka. The scientific study of this marvelous biological phenomenon, will be incomplete without studies undertaken in Sri Lanka. Scientific data from Sri Lanka will help scientists to understand flight times, flight speeds, body metrics, plumage moult, energy budgets and so on. The third key reason is conservation. Despite the southern half of the island being ravaged by unplanned coastal developments and prawn farms, the island still retains a number of wetlands. These are crucial for the conservation of ‘other people’s birds’, who are visiting us from Europe and mainland Asia. Therefore from both a research and conservation view point, Sri Lanka has inherited an important place internationally, by virtue of its geographic position on the migratory flyways.
Our mission in Kalpitiya was to help the CBC furnish data to the Asian Wetlands Bureau who collect data from Asia to help scientists understand the population dynamics of these birds. Changes in populations are an indicator of the health of wetland habitats, some of the most productive eco-systems in the world, in terms of bio-mass productivity.
A fishing family looked at us suspiciously as we put up our telescopes on tripods. To put their minds at rest, we walked over and explained what we were engaged in. Across the water, a motorised fishing vessel roared past, heading out to the open sea. A dug out canoes floated by slowly with two fishermen who were fishing in the mangroves. They waved at us and we waved back. A flock of twelve Terek Sandpipers, disturbed perhaps by the wash from the first boat, took off and wheeled past the dugout canoe. They veered around in unison and came back to the shoreline. Terek Sandpipers are usually solitary birds, although at times two or three individuals can be seen on a mud flat, well spaced out to avoid competition for food. We reckoned they must be gathering for their return to the northern latitudes of Europe or Asia. This was one of the largest flocks we had seen. Earlier in the day we had witnessed another unusually large flock of Great Knots. These birds visit Sri Lanka in small numbers. Usually one or at most a small cluster of two or three birds are seen. At the Puttalam Salt Pans, we observed a flock of fifty two Great Knots with three Red Knots, another rarity. Other waders were also gathering in numbers. Over a thousand Lesser Sand Plovers were present, some in flocks exceeding a hundred.
To non birdwatchers, this fascination with waders is somewhat odd. For experienced birders, part of the appeal lies in the challenge to identify them. Superficially, they are all confusingly similar. But there are subtle differences, made harder by different plumages for juvenile, winter and summer plumages. Debates can occur in the field over the identity of a bird in the same vein as cricketing enthusiasts will debate the selection of players into the national side. Whilst we studied broad-billed Sandpipers and Curlew Sandpipers, Sri Lanka was batting against the Australians in the semi finals of the World Cup. Regrettably, as I had anticipated, wader watching yielded a more satisfactory result.
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.