YALA THE UNDERSTATED BIRDER’S PARADISE

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). Yala the Understated Birder’s Paradise. Serendipity. April 2002. Page 2.

Ornithological writer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne argues that there is more to Yala than Elephants and Leopards.

“Yala for Birdwatching?” The mouth is agape with incredulity and the eyes are open so wide that I worry that the pupils will fall out. Then a slow shaking of the head, “no, no, no, Yala is for Elephants and Leopards. Bundala is the place for birds”. This is the typical response I receive when I mention that I have been birdwatching in Yala. Everyone has heard of Bundala Bird Sanctuary of days old (now Bundala National Park). The well read have even heard of Sinharaja. But the idea of birdwatching in Yala seems to catch off balance most people I meet, from the main in the Fort Bus to savvy city dudes at cocktails. Good heavens, after all, why would those good people in the Tourist Board be singing the praises of Bundala if there were birds in Yala? Most would require my firm reassurance that there are indeed birds in Yala and not just the elephants and other larger mammals occupying a few hundred square kilometers of parkland.

Most people are won over to the idea that Yala must indeed be one of the top birding spots in the country when you consider that over a hundred species could be seen in a day. Of course, the birding route must be selected with care, taking in a range of habitats during the migrant season. If this is combined with a visit to Palatupana Lewaya, a few kilometers from the park entrance, then a hundred species in a day is not a difficult task at all. I have never put this to the test as birding and maximizing the species count is a different game to Birdwatching with opportunistic photography. Any plans to see a 100 species in a day have died the minute the sun rose enough to cast enough illumination to expose a frame of film. The same fate befalls my plans to ignore birds and go in pursuit of the Big Spotted One. Sadly, there is always something in good light which must be photographed. A Stripe-necked Mongoose breaking cover or perhaps a Stone Curlew close up or the Andara Trees in flower ….. and time has flown by.

In February I visited the Yala Game Lodge with Amila Salgado the Manager for Jetwing Eco Holidays. Our goal was to prepare a checklist of birds for the hotel and for the park. We were curious to see how many we could manage without trying too hard, like say a casual birdwatcher on a holiday. This was serious business but an easy role to play. At day break we strolled across the soft sand from our chalet to the restaurant. Red-vented Bulbuls, Magpie Robins, Black-hooded Orioles, Blue-winged Leafbirds and Common Ioras were on the Welivarana and Palu trees dotted around the hotel. Green Bee-eaters twittered on the ground with a pair of Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters competing in the glamour stakes.

The restaurant serves breakfast from 05.30 am to cater for birdwatchers and safari goers. We opted for a “Birders Breakfast”, seated outside the main restaurant, so that we could keep an eye out for the airborne action. A good move as it was not long before a White-bellied Sea Eagle sailed into view. One of my favourite raptors as it combines power with grace. In the distance a straggling line of Black-headed Ibis wove across the sky. Showing more discipline was a V formation of the endangered Spot-billed Pelicans. Sri Lanka, is one of the best places in the world to see them. At times, I have seen flocks exceeding a hundred gathering at waterholes in the Yala Park.

Amila had opted for the fruit platter and I took advantage of my wife’s absence to indulge in a cholesterol rich breakfast by serving bacon generously onto a Sri Lankan breakfast of stringhoppers, katta sambol and fish. The only drawback with a birders breakfast is breakfast suffers as a result of the excellent birding around the Goda Kalapauwa, a lagoon with part of its shoreline bordering the hotel’s grounds. Across the lagoon is cluster of enormous rocks, rounded with erosion. I wondered whether the Peacock which had flown across to it, was suffering an identity crisis. It seemed out of place with the Painted Storks, Little, and Intermediate Egrets and the Cormorants and Oriental Darters. A quick gulp of my fruit juice and I thought a quick scan with the scope would be in order before starting breakfast proper. An essential cockpit drill not to miss out anything good. Rather conveniently, the café style tables were suitable for a hide clamp.

Through the scope I picked out a Large Egret, its tibia turned flesh in breeding plumage. A few Pintail Snipe probed furtively on the edge of the Kalapauwa. Over the water, Gull-billed Terns hawked for fish. The White-winged Terns, their underwing coverts turning black as they assumed breeding plumage, were now easily distinguished from the few Whiskered Terns who were also present. The presence of the sea nearby meant that occasionally sea birds like the Lesser Crested Tern would also perform a flyover. With their bright, orange red beaks, they could be easily told apart from the Large Crested Terns with their greenish yellow beaks. The seabird I enjoy most is the Caspian Tern and the stretch of coastline from Yala to Bundala is one of the easiest places to find one. They make any other tern look small and stand out a mile with their strong, bright red beak. In flight, they are strong and purposeful and look the part of an airborne hunter. If Pterodactyls flew well, I would like to imagine that they did so like Caspian Terns. Goda Kalapuwa always turns up some Caspian Terns as it does with Little Terns and almost every possible sea and shore bird.

Upali Weerasinghe, the General Manager of the hotel came around for a chat and to enquire whether the ‘arm rests’ he had put up in front of the benches around the lake were up to the mark. They certainly were and it is not only birders using bins and scopes on hide clamps, I noticed other guests had discovered the flat ‘arm rests’ were convenient for resting their drinks or the holiday novel. A mixed flock of swallows whirled into view and we had House Swift, Red-rumped Swallow and Barn Swallows joining the Crested Tree Swifts that had been inscribing circles in the air. In a few moments, they were gone.

We decide to walk the short birding trail which goes along the lagoon and curves across to the entrance road, bringing us back to the hotel through scrub. After the first bend of the shoreline, the lagoon has a deep finger and you have the impression of looking across a channel. This place is a feast for shorebirds. Common Sandpipers, Marsh Sandpipers, Greenshank, Little Stints and Black-wined Stilts were in shallow water. On the shore busy Lesser Sand Plovers and Kentish Plovers scurried around. Amila thought he had picked out a Greater Sand Plover through his Leica. With its long tibia, standing tall over the other plovers, and different jizz, it was not too difficult to be sure without even seeing the leg colour. Standing apart and looking aloof was a Great Thick-knee. On the mud we could see tracks of Spotted Deer and Wild Boar. Elephants wander around occasionally and Amila had seen one on his last visit to the hotel. We continued walking around upsetting some Turnsones and Pintail Snipe and reached the scrub near the road. We had seen so many seabirds and shorebirds in one walk, there did not seem to be many more left to mop up at the nearby Palatupana Lewaya, six kilometers away. However, Palatupana was on the cards to look for Broad-billed Sandpiper, Saunders Terns and who knows, a Red-necked Phalarope perhaps.

An endemic Brown-capped Babbler called from the undergrowth and the musical medley of a Shama wafted over. We edged over the scrub and found the author singing from an exposed perch. We listened and moved off. A few yards away, Blue-faced Malkoha found itself as surprised as we were to find it a few feet away from us. It shot off before I could say telephoto. An Imperial Green Pigeon purred from a tree. The soft whistling emerging from the canopy disclosed its cousins, the Pompadour Green Pigeons, which were also in the tree. A Grizzled Giant Squirell chattered from a tree and a Common Birdwing butterfly wafted over us. The whole forest was awake and the sun had climbed high in an impossible short time. It was still not too late to attempt a game drive or should we go to Sithulpahuwa, 45 minutes drive away, and look for a Blue Rock Thrush amidst the ancient ruins of a forest monastery. Palatupana Lewya was best done in the evening when it was cooler and perhaps a visit to the ancient Kirinda Temple and fisheries harbour, 14 kilometers away should be done the following morning.

Sithulpahuwa seemed like a good way to build in some variation to our stay in the hotel. Scenically it is magnificent. Panoramic views of the Ruhunu forests can be seen with jagged ridges breaking through the forest as one looks inland and the sea in the distance on the other. The area is strewn with massive boulders against which meditating kuttis were constructed centuries ago. The two stupas on two hillocks are still visited by pilgrims. A giant recumbent Buddha at the vihara on the base of one rock face is always perfumed with the fresh flower offerings of pilgrims. For birders, Sithulpahuwa can serve surprising bonuses like a Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, more typically a wet zone bird and on an early morning visit the endemic Sri Lanka Junglefowl.

We returned to the restaurant for some freshly made fruit juice and to work out how many birds we had see around just the hotel, based on two visits. To our surprise we had recorded over a hundred species, just around the hotel. If it were not for the Big Spotted One, I may not need to go into the Park at all.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is an Executive Director of Jetwing Eco Holidays (gehan@jetwing.lk, www.jetwingeco.com) which specializes in Birding and Wildlife Holidays. He is the lead author of A Birdwatchers Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). Contact him to receive his free, wildlife e-newsletter.