de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). Talangama Wetland, a Capital Asset. September 2002. Serendipity. Page 8.

Whilst 8 million pounds have been spent in London to create a wetland, Colombo has them ready made says Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

A flash of blue shot out like a bullet and threaded its way through the bushes overhanging the water. It circled around uttering a high pitched call and returned to perch on an embankment. A few meters away, people bathed. The women using the traditional village style ‘diya reddha’. A gaunt old man arrived, clicking with his tongue, guiding his small herd of water buffalos. A thin strip of paddy fields stretched to the horizon. On the other side , a sheet of water gleamed, catching the low light of a sun, beginning its descent to the horizon. Silvery, concentric circles spread out where a Little Grebe had dived, breaking the stillness of the water.

Anyone could have imagined we were in the rural nook of the country, undisturbed by the traffic and turmoil of a city. But in fact, we were at Talangama Wewa, a little secret of a wetland, on the suburbs of Colombo. Talangama together with wetlands like Bellanwila Attidiya are economically important for their role as flood detention areas and green spaces for recreation. They may also turn out to be an economic trump card with the growth internationally of eco-tourism. The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust in the UK spent 8 million pounds to create a wetland in the suburbs of London. In Sri Lanka, we are fortunate that our commercial capital has a number of these urban jewels.

My arrival at Talangama with naturalist Amila Salgado was for both business and pleasure. Ahead of us, was Naturalist Chauffeur Guide Wicky Wickremesekera with Alan and Jill Howell, two of Amila’s eco-tourist clients. Wicky had spotted a Black Bittern, an internationally endangered bird. Black Bitterns are found throughout the year in Sri Lanka, but their numbers increase dramatically during the northern winter, with the arrival of migrants. Bitterns have a strange fascination for Europeans. Perhaps it is because in some European countries like the UK, they were driven virtually to the point of extinction by mismanagement of wetlands. Talangama serves up at least two species of Bitterns, the other being the Yellow Bittern. Before long, Amila had found a Yellow. Alan and Jill were thrilled. They had not expected such good quality birding, so soon after flying in. Alan works as a reserve warden for the RSPB, the most influential conservation lobby in Europe. He agreed that Colombo had an eco-tourism trump card, which needs to be managed carefully.

A Night Heron had emerged sleepily from a clump of mangrove Wel Aththa (Anona glabra). Little Cormorants and Indian Cormorants groomed their sleek shiny plumage. Wicky set up the telescope and Amila pointed out the field characters. The Indian has a long, relatively thinner beak compared to the Little’s stubby beak. The Indian Cormorant also shows a blue eye, which looks surprisingly stark against the black head. A whinnying, sequence of notes heralded the arrival of a Stork-billed Kingfisher. All eyes craned upwards to see it on a Kumbuk Tree (Terminal arjuna). It did not seem comfortable with so many observers and flew away. The Pied Kingfisher which arrived next was not so concerned. Handsomely attired in black and white, it hovered over the water and plunged in to seize a fish. With the white of its wings glinting, it banked sharply and flew away.

As dusk began to fall, dozens of Purple Swamphens or Purple Coots emerged on to a grassy plain. They jerked their tails stiffly, exposing a white patch, a type of semaphore signaling. A Pheasant-tailed Jacana gingerly stepped over floating Lilly pads. Quarrelsome White-breasted Waterhens periodically interrupted the evening’s quietness with a harsh duet of calls. In the distance, a Spotted Dove cooed softly. Wetlands are a fragile paradise. With more and more house being built beside the lake, it is inevitable that the numbers of woodlands birds will decline. But nevertheless with careful management as a reserve, Talangama Lake could be an important recreational and economic asset for Colombo.

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 gehan@jetwing.lk with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.