de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). In Search of a Skulker. LMD. May 2005. Page 174. Volume 11, Issue 10, ISSN 1391-135X.
Searching for an elusive migrant-the slaty-legged crake- in the cool climes of Nuwara Eliya.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne goes to Nuwara Eliya in search of an elusive migrant

A faint wisp of bad odour drifted in, on the breeze. Of all the places to be in Nuwara Eliya, I had chosen to spend my time next to a canal full of dirt. Although it was only around 4.00 pm, it was very dark where I was. Around me, huge, introduced conifers cast a shade. Adding to the shade cast by the conifers was the shade cast by the thicket I had taken position under. Patiently waiting with me was Mohamed Fariz, in charge of the beautiful gardens at St Andrews Hotel in Nuwara Eliya. Fariz was a wildlife enthusiast as well and was working towards a PhD in wildlife conservation. But this was his first introduction to what serious birders engage in. I could not help feeling amused at what his thoughts would be. Incredulous as it may seem, each year, over a hundred serious birdwatchers from all over the world make a bee line towards the compost heaps of Nuwara Eliya, which unfortunately sit beside a lot of other rubbish and foul smelling waste.

Victoria Park is usually the venue of birders who stand and wait patiently next to rotting heaps of vegetation. There are reasons for this unusual behaviour. The compost heaps are rich in invertebrates, such as those usually found in the understorey of highland forests. These are an attraction to two species of birds from the Himalayas, which winter in the highlands of Sri Lanka. One is the magnificent Pied Thrush. The male is very striking, adorned in highly contrasting patterns of black and white. The female shares the pattern, but is browner. Another is the Indian Blue Robin. The male is breathtakingly beautiful with blue upperparts and orange on its belly. The female is once again drabber. Both species like to skulk in the undergrowth, where a combination of low lighting and dense vegetation make them difficult to see. Observers patiently waiting at the edge of the shrub entangled canal edges, may be rewarded with glimpses of the birds as they emerge fleetingly into the open.

A third Himalayan specialty, the Kashmir Flycatcher, makes Victoria Park, a ‘must visit site’, on the itinerary of birdwatchers. The entire population of Kashmir Flycatchers in the world is believed to winter in Sri Lanka. Fancy that. This makes this bird very special to us. Its future depends on how we fulfill our responsibility to conserve our remaining wilderness areas in the highlands. Fortunately, the Kashmir Flycatcher is more discerning in its choice of habitat. Seeing it does not entail long vigils besides compost heaps or smelly canals. It seems quite comfortable hunting for insects on the tall conifers, which dot the gardens. A walk around the park will usually reveal a bird, at eye level or higher. Wintering birds will stake out a territory and have a habit of performing a regular circuit around a cluster of trees, when it is feeding. On one visit in February 2005, I spent some time photographing a bird with members of my team from Eco Holidays. After a while, we could predict the sequence of trees it would visit.

On this visit, I was after another bird that Victoria Park has become famous for. I was after another skulking bird, which is more likely to be seen in the early hours of the morning and the late hours, as dusk falls. It was the Slaty-legged Crake. Some members of the Crake family are furtive and difficult to see in the wetland habitats they occupy. A part of the difficulty is that as the birds are small, they are quite often obscured by the grass and reeds, as they carefully pick their way though the vegetation. The Slaty-legged Crake is even harder to see as it chooses forested habitats. Being a migrant, there is also a time window in which resident and visiting birders in Sri Lanka can see it.

The Slaty-legged Crake is unlikely to be mistaken for any other crake provided one gets a view of its slaty coloured legs, very prominent black and white bands on its chest and brown upperparts. The Slaty-breasted Rail shares the slaty legs, but its chest is a bluish, slaty colour.

Time ticked by, and we waited motionless. I sensed Fariz, who would rather be walking around looking for lizards, was getting restless. A movement in the undergrowth caught my eye. A dull Robin like bird, flitted around. I strained my eyes in the gloom. It vanished. An Indian Blue Robin I thought. I had heard a bird calling on and off from deep within the thicket. A Rat scurried along a slender branch which curved over from one side of a faint trail to another. It then scurried back. By waiting motionlessly, the rodent’s confidence had been won and it kept going about its daily foraging activity.

An hour had gone by. I was glad that I had not persuaded Fiona Harris from CondeNaste Traveller and her husband Jon Ashworth, of the Times, UK, to join me. Much to my surprise, in the company of Hetti, they had taken to birdwatching enthusiastically. When I first met them at Villa Talangama, they had begun to keep notes of the birds they had seen. By the time they had reached Nuwara Eliya, they had an impressive tally for beginners. But, a vigil for the Slaty-legged Crake may have been too much for recent converts.

Soon the light would be gone, another failed attempt. But no, a movement in the shadows caught my ‘low light’ adjusted eyes. A Slaty-legged Crake gingerly stepped through the knot of dense, tangled vegetation. Fariz nudged me and whispered that there were two, a pair. The female is a bit duller, but this was not apparent in the dim light. In another few weeks, both would return to India. I will look for them again, next winter.

The writer is the CEO of a wildlife & luxury tour operator. Averaging weekly media appearances, he seeks to popularise wildlife. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.