de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). The little known bird paradise. The Sunday Times Plus. Sunday 11 April 2010. Features. Page 6.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne introduces the concept of day listing at a site and the use of a species discovery curve to illustrate the richness of Talangama Wetland by recording 70 species of birds in an hour.


The rising sun had begun to burn away the darkness leaving a smoldering mist hanging over the lake. It was exactly 6am when I stood on the embankment of the main Talangama Lake on Sunday 28th March. I had come on a mission. My plan was to demonstrate in a convincing manner the richness of the wetland as a wildlife refuge by coming up with a number. The number I had in mind was the number of species of birds a person had actually seen in a single morning’s bird watching or in a single day. The number I had hoped for was 70 species. The overall objective was to drive home the fact that Colombo is unique as a capital city in having such a rich wetland on its doorstep. London too now has a wetland in its suburbs. This was created by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust at a cost of eight million sterling pounds. In contrasts the Talangama Wetland is virtually free. I can’t think of any capital city which has a bio-diversity rich wetland as rich as Talangma Wetland so close to it.

Over the years the local council has recognized the value of Talangma Wetland for its recreational use. Groups such as the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) have worked with the Overseas School to raise awareness of this national treasure. But I find that still far too many people in Colombo, even amongst the wildlife enthusiasts realise how rich this wetland really is. So I needed a single, easily understood number to illustrate its richness. In the developed countries a day list of birds is often used as an easily understood number to illustrate the richness of a national park or reserve. Hence my plan was to come up with a ‘day list’ or ‘morning list’ number which can be quoted.

With hindsight, coming up with a figure like this seems and obvious thing to do. But in the last seven years I had instead been quoting that I had recorded just over 110 species of birds in Talangama and that it was possible that 40-50 species could be seen in a day. I realized that I was under-quoting this only in the week starting the 15th of February 2010. This week saw me visiting Talangama Wetland a few times to meet different groups of people including clients of Jetwing Eco Holidays. These visits were more public relations in nature and I was not chasing a bird list. But because some of the people were interested in the birds they had seen, I prepared a list and realised that I had seen 65 species of birds on three nature walks. I came out deliberately on a fourth walk to take the list up to 70 species for the week but failed ending the list on 69 species. But it reminded me that a figure for the number of species seen in a week or a day provides a more realistic and convincing picture of a site’s richness than the total site list recorded over many years which could include one off rarities.

Day lists and year lists are common amongst the birding communities in developed economies such as the USA and the UK. But in Sri Lanka no one does this and you are unlikely to attend a public lecture on a birder chasing a day list or a year list. During my time in the UK I had attended such talks and read articles and from that I knew planning was key. With regard to Talangama Wetland it means that I had to choose a period when the migrants were in. I also knew having a few more pairs of expert eyes woul help the chase. All of the professional naturalist guides were on tour. So I invited my colleague Hiran Cooray, Chairman of Jetwing to join me. I was running out of time as the migrants would soon be gone and I had made public my plans to return to the UK.

So on the 28th of March a 5am alarm set me off to Talangama Wetland to reach the main lake by 6am. I should have been here half an hour earlier to catch the waterbirds leaving the roost. They fly low over the embankment like ghosts in the dark. It is one of the most special wildlife spectacles close to Colombo. I had once come with David Gerrard the owner of the IF Villa and Tom Oen-Edmunds. David had become a convert to bird watching after experiencing the pre-dawn departure of the night-roosting waterbirds. On this day, I was worried that by being late, I may have missed something special which had roosted. For example,  a roosting Glossy Ibis, as had been pointed out to me by naturalist Wicky Wickremesekera when I had discussed my plan to set up an impressive day list. But I was still early enough to get two of my early morning target species. I got the Black-crowned Night-herons which are nocturnal birds which are turning in to roost and also a Little Green Heron (Striated Heron) which I had sometimes seen in the early mornings.

The morning is also a better time to pick up the forest and garden birds which are singing and give away their presence. From the embankment I began to scan the paddy fields and began to write down a list of birds. In as little as 10 minutes I had chalked up 20 species of birds. By 6.22am my list had climbed to 30 species. Around 6.37am golden light began to bathe me and I decided that I would walk an arc of 300 meters along the road to pick out any garden birds which by now would be fully active. My list was at 37 species and I had already got most of the common water birds that were either on the lake or on the flooded paddy fields which were lying fallow. It was the latter which was a richer habitat for birds. It held migrant species such a three Wood Sandpipers, two Pintail Snipe  and Yellow Wagtails which had assumed breeding plumage to don stunning yellow under-parts. Meanwhile Hiran Cooray texted me to say he was unable to join me leaving me to text him a regular updates so that he would be left envious as what he was missing. Being alone made the job harder but it made the value of the list even more special as it shows was a single individual could see on their own.

As I walked on the surfaced road bordering the paddy fields on one side and a canal on the other, I had a marvelous close up of an endemic Ceylon Small Barbet, White-browed Bulbul and a pair of Black-rumped Flamebacks. Scanning the paddy fields, I had a bonus bird in a scarce Kora (Watercock) which flew across. Walking back along the canal which joined the lake, a guttural call alerted me to a Yellow Bittern. Retruning to the embankment I could hardly believe that I had a Black Bittern which came winging over. I suspect the two bitterns I had seen were from a migrant population and not delaying my day listing was clearly a good call. It also helped to pick some of the commoner migrants such as the Barn Swallow, which was present as a lone individual. Rather worryingly the migrant Blue-tailed Bee-eaters were still missing. If I had delayed by even one more week, some of the migrants I were to see that day may have left.

One hour in by 7.00am I had a distant view of White-backed Munias giving me the 43rd entry to the list and by 7.32am I had 52 species. The embankment allowed me to pick up species from the main lake and the paddy fields and the gardens. It was a superb vantage point. But after one and a half hours I was hitting diminishing marginal returns and I set out to my private One Acre nature reserve. There were three shade loving species I was especially after. It held a resident population of Dark-fronted Babblers and a pair of migrant Forest Wagtails and at least one migrant Indian Pitta. This site was my best chance of seeing these three species. Soon after arrival I found the Dark-fronted Babblers collecting nesting material and the Forest Wagtail on my second circuit within the reserve gave itself away with a call. The Indian Pitta would be tough. I could not afford to mis a bird as I was now within sight of chasing 70 species. I did a third circuit along the jeep track peering into the forest floor. Twenty five minutes had now lapsed since I had last added a bird to the list. The pressure was mounting on me. Suddenly this magical bird flew across the path and alighted on the leaf litter strewn forest floor in clear view. The green upperparts, red vent, dark crown broken with stripe remain etched in my mind. It was typical of the views sometimes offered by Indian Pittas at Victoria Park in Nuwara Eliya. A migrant Asian Paradise-flycatcher had also offered itself and my list was doing remarkably well at 59 species by 8.45am.

I looked for the migrant Black-winged Stilts at the Aluth Wewa hoping to take the list over 60 species by 9am, but failed. I has set myself the rather modest target of seeing 50-60 species in a morning’s birding, the kind of number the serious birding clients of ours have on occasion reached. The ‘listing’ had been going better than expected. I scanned the tall trees for an Imperial Green-pigeon, but I could only see Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys. I pulled over in front of Villa Talangama by the beautiful marshy area of one end of the main lake when a flock of Indian Swiftlets came into view. They are scarce here. Even better, I had a clear view of a Little Swift with its white rump. They are quite scarce in Talangama. The endemic Ceylon Swallows were present as expected and so were the hoped for Black-winged Stilts. A few more waterbirds like a Painted Stork and Common Moorhen took the list up to 65 species by 9.44am. I walked a wooded path and heard Green Imperial Pigeon and a flock of Blue-tailed Bee-eaters at last flew into view. I had been missing birds of prey and I was looking out for Shikra and also hoping to hear a Serpent Eagle or a Honey-buzzard. A Shikra obliged taking my list to 68 species. The wetland was filled with water after recent heavy rains. It looked more like a lake than the marsh it usually looks like. I scanned repeatedly for the flock of Golden Plover which had been there five weeks ago. Walking towards the far end for a better look I came across a migrant Brown Shrike. My list had climbed to 69 species, what I had totted up in the entire third week of February. I needed it to cross 70 species.

I had an evening engagement and it was unlikely I could come that evening. So it was crucial that I had my 70th species. The sun was up now and my last addition to the list had been at 9.54am. I was now beginning to struggle. I ran through the list of possible birds I was missing. The best chance lay in the sky for a sighting of a Serpent Eagle, Honey-buzzard or an Ashy Woodswallow. In the open areas Black-headed Munia, was a slim possibility. The wooded areas could hold a scarce Emerald Dove or a Black-headed Cuckooshrike. If there were fruiting trees even the endemic Ceylon Green-pigeons were a possibility.

I repeatedly scanned the water logged marsh which held Little, Intermediate and Cattle Egrets with Black-winged Stilts. How nice it would be if a Common Sandpiper or Greenshank would only drop in for a few minutes to take my list to 70. Twenty more minutes went by since the Brown Shrike with nothing new. I repeatedly ran through the list of possibilities in my mind and realized that my best option lay in the sky, for something to fly though, an Ashy Woodswallow or a bird of prey. As I glanced up a soaring raptor caught my eye and through my Swarovski 7 x 42 I had a very good viewing of an Oriental Honey-buzzard. Hooray! I had chalked up 70 species in four hours and 15 minutes (well sixteen to be exact). At 10.16am I had completed my mission to come up with an impressive tally of birds seen in a single day or as was the case in a single morning’s bird watch.

Someone else may have to attempt a day list which may provide the time for a few more waterbirds and forest and garden birds to be added to the tally. A full day session will also allow nocturnal birds such as the Collared Scops-owl and Brown Hawk-owl to be added. 75 species is a possibility on a good day when everything goes well and I hope there will be others who attempt this. It won’t be me as the clock is ticking for my return to London.

There are only a few sites in Sri Lanka where in the course of a day one can see over a hundred species. These would be sites such as Yala which provide a matrix of habitats. In the endemic rich rainforests, seeing that many species is almost impossible. Given that, seeing 70 species of birds in a site is a good tally and given Talangama Wetland’s urban location it demonstrates how rich wildlife refuge it is and how precious it is as an educational and recreational resource for Colombo’s growing population. I hope this article will inspire people to pay more attention to wildlife closer to home.

Whilst I was bird watching I could not also help being distracted by the dragonflies. As the sun came up, a large Blue-eyed Pondcruiser (Epophthalmia vittata) menacingly patrolled the edges of the lake. Several Rapacious Flangetails (Ictinogomphus rapax) also patrolled the lake. I was surprised to see at least two female Sombre Lieutanents (Brachydiplax sobrina) females in the open. Spine-legged Redbolts (Rhodothemis rufa) and Scarlet Baskers (Urothemis signata) in bright red added colour. An interesting observation was a Green Skimmer (Orthetrum sabina) which had grasped the female of another species by its head and was flying in tandem. It let go and as the female flew over the water it attempted to ‘mate guard’. This is the first time I have seen a male of one species holding in tandem another species. Sadly I had deliberately left my camera in the car to concentrate on birds and I could not photograph the female which had a bright yellow abdomen with dark barring. Its possible it could have been a female Sombre Lieutenant (Brachydiplax sobrina) or even a female Blue Pursuer (Potamarcha cogener). Other dragonflies out and about were Elusive Adjutant (Aethrimanta brevipennis), Yellow Waxtail (Ceriagrion coromandelianum) and Painted Waxtail (Ceriagrion cerinorubellum). I had a glimpse of a Sapphire Flutterer (Rhyothemis triangularis) which is very scarce here.

It also surprises me that Talangama Wetland is not used more by the University of Colombo and University of Sri Jayawardhanapura as a field laboratory for theses by their Masters students. The wetland is less than half an hour away by tuk tuk from both universities. It can provide rich seam of material for field research on a variety of taxonomic groups for students who may not have the time and resources to do field research further afield.


Encounter List of birds seen on Sunday 28th March 2010 at Talangama Wetland

Main Lake Embankment
1. Red-vented Bulbul
2. Asian Koel
3. Red-wattled Lapwing
4. Oriental Magpie-robin
5. Asian Openbill
6. Cattle Egret
7. Indian Pond Heron
8. White-throated Kingfisher
9. Common Drongo
10. Common Myna
11. Ring-necked Parakeet
13. White-breasted Waterhen
14. Black-headed Ibis
15. House Crow
16. Greater Coucal
17. Black-crowned Night-heron
18. Little Egret
19. Pintail Snipe

20. Little Cormorant
21. Common Iora
22. Lesser Whistling-duck
23. Black-headed Oriole
24. Brown-headed Barbet

6.15 am
25. Spotted Dove
26. Large-billed Crow
27. Barn Swallow
28. Purple Heron
29. Common Tailorbird

30. Little Green Heron
31. Scaly-breasted Munia
32. White-browed Bulbul

33. Yellow Wagtail

34. Yellow-billed Babbler
35. Wood Sandpiper
36. Pheasant-tailed Jacana
37. Purple-rumped Sunbird

6.37 am golden light falling on embankment, walking away from embankment on surfaced road towards paddy fields
38. Black-rumped Flameback
39. Ceylon Small Barbet

6.41am beside water logged paddy fields
40. Plain Prinia
41. Purple Swamphen
42. Kora

7.00am strong light
43. White-backed Munia
Wlaking back to embankment
44. Yellow Bittern
45. Asian Palm-swift

On embankment again
46. Little Grebe
47. Alexandine Parakeet
48. Intermediate Egret
49. Black Bittern
50. Whiskered Tern
51. Pied Kingfisher

52. Stork-billed Kingfisher

Aluth Wewa
53. Pale-billed Flowerpecker

54. Zitting Cisticola

8.00am At One Acre private nature reserve
55. Loten’s Sunbird

56. Dark-fronted Babbler

57. Asian Paradise-flycatcher

58. Forest Wagtail

59. Indian Pitta

Parked outside Villa Talangama after checking Aluth Wewa again

60. Indian Swiftlet
61. Black-winged Stilt
62. Ceylon Swallow
63. Little Swift

64. Common Moorhen
65. Painted Stork

66. Blue-tailed Bee-eater
67. Green Imperial-pigeon

68. Shikra
69. Brown Shrike

70. Oriental Honey-buzzard