de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). Living Life on The Edge. LMD. January 2005. Page 183. Volume 11, Issue 06, ISSN 1391-135X.
In search of the frisky sanderling, and watching it flirt with the waves by the shoreline.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne discovers the birdlife on the shoreline of Chilaw Sand Spit
The wheels hummed furiously shrieking in protest and with a heave the vehicle lunged forwards overcoming the soft sand. Despite the reassurance of four wheel drive, I remained anxious whilst Gunasekera steered the vehicle through the soft sand on the sand spit at Chilaw. Memories of being stuck on the sand dunes in Mannar were still fresh on my mind and I gestured for him to pull over beside a fisherman’s hut. I would play safe and walk from there.
Stepping out, I was greeted by a thunderous roar from the surf breaking on the rocks and the shore. The sea seemed angry and moody. The attractive blue, at times of calm was now a muddy brown. Tons of silt had washed down into the sea with the inter-monsoonal rains in November. The rains in the south west in the months of November and December had become heavier and heavier in the last three years. White scaly edges marked the surface of the sea indicating a light breeze. By late afternoon, the wind would rise and heavy winds would accompany rain, thunder and lightning. The sky was grey and foreboding. Not an inspiring day to be out in the field. I had come to look for life on the edge.
The edge of land and sea. A boundary that was changing, weaving and dancing, minute by minute with every wave that broke. I was looking for life on the shoreline. On this edge, live thousands of tiny invertebrates. The larger ones, crustaceans such as crabs are visible. But a few millimeters or centimeters deep, live a vast number of invertebrates which make these sandy beaches richer in protein than the causal eye would expect. Every year, from around September, Sri Lanka is visited by tens of thousands of winged visitors who thrive on this rich larder of invertebrates. A favourite amongst birdwatchers are the Sanderling, a diminutive species of wader.
Sanderling epitomise the shoreline being found mainly on the gently sloping sandy beaches. In winter, they don a plumage which is whitish overall, offset by short black legs. Something about their appearance gives them a certain cuteness. Their behaviour is distinctive. Most species of waders, wade, as the names suggests that they do. In fact many wade with a deliberate and measured air about them. Sanderling do not. They scurry like little mice, chasing the edge of the wave as it breaks on the beach and runs along with it. They run back towards the sea, chasing the receding wave, which disappears like a genie, withdrawing into the sand. Sanderling literally live life on the edge, the edge of the ceaseless ephemeral waves which pound the shoreline, shaping and re-shaping the coastline.
I settled down with my camera, at a safe distance to watch and photograph them. There was no need to risk putting them up by attempting a close approach. Occasionally, a large wave would break, pushing the wave front deeper onto the beach. Thrusting and searching for room to run. The Sanderling, totally preoccupied with feeding on the edge would dart in, coming closer to me, for a few moments, before racing back down with the receding wave.
I scanned the shoreline to see what else was around. A flock of Lesser Sand Plover, numbering around thirty were huddled on the beach. Sandy beaches are not their usual habitat and I thought they were perhaps part of a late wave of migrants arriving from northern Asia . Perhaps they had arrived during the night and were recuperating from a long flight over the ocean. Once they had gathered their strength they would probably push southwards, looking for tidal flats or salt pans or even lightly grassed meadows. Perhaps I might meet this flock again at Kalametiya or the Palatupana Salt Pans near Yala. Without ringing them or marking them with colour dyes, there would be no way of knowing.
A close cousin of theirs was also on the beach. Two Greater Sand Plover, noticeably bigger were feeding. The two species look very similar and can be hard to tell apart by other than experienced birdwatchers, unless a size comparison was available. In the distance I noticed a larger wader, threading its way around the seaweed encrusted rocks. A distinctive down curved beak, betrayed it as a Whimbrel. Another bird for which the Sand Spit at Chilaw is a good location.
At the end of the spit, men were packing sand into bags and loading them onto a boat. “See how hard we have to work” boasted one of the men to me. Perhaps it was a preemptive comment in case they received a reprimand from me. Across the spit, was a salt marsh and mangrove fringing the tidal rivulets which criss crossed the area. Part of my motivation for the visit was to think again at the prospects for bringing birdwatchers in from hotels in Negombo, such as The Beach. For serious birdwatchers, a visit was quite a viable option. But for the general visitor, the sand spit had lost its charm. There were too many unsightly dwellings of fisherfolk who had spread out along the sand spit. In Europe , places such as this would be conserved as sites of outstanding natural beauty and humans settlements discouraged. It is still possible to do that here if suitable alternative accommodation is provided to preserve the sand spit as a wind swept stretch wild coastline.
In Sri Lanka you are never far from somewhere which will appeal to eco-tourists and outdoor enthusiasts. Negombo might seem an unlikely place for eco-tourists to use as a base, but is can work as a base for a number of sites. The Chilaw Sand Spit is within range of a birdwatching session and to be back in time for a late breakfast. There were other sites further afield such as the beautiful network of freshwater lakes at the Annaiwilundawa Sanctuary. A Lesser-crested Tern flew past uttering a raucous call. The rising light glinted off the white wings of a Brown-headed Gull inscribing tight circles in the air. I decided to forgo breakfast and head to Annaiwilundawa.
The writer, the CEO of a wildlife & luxury travel company, has written and photographed several publications on wildlife. With weekly appearances in the media, he is one of Sri Lanka ‘s most visible wildlife & tourism personalities. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.