de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). The Moulting of Many Gulls. LMD. February 2004. Page 164. Volume 10, Issue 07, ISSN 1391-135X.
The treasure trove of avian fauna which Mannar offers the avid Birdwatcher.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is enthralled with the Gull flocks in Mannar
November 2003, it was time to return to Mannar having done our last visit in March 2003. Our previous trip had got off to a shay start with a friend in the Navy advising us to call it off due to suspicious LTTTE movements. The movements turned out to be as a result of a meeting called in the Vanni and at 6.00 am we received the go ahead. The second time around, domestic political issues once again threatened to scupper our plans. A few days ago, the President had dismissed key cabinet ministers and vested in herself the portfolios for media and defense. Anxious e-mails had started arriving from clients and Tour Operators overseas. At the same time, my Manager, Amila knew he had to send out our naturalist chauffeur guides on two long birding tours which included Mannar. They were starting the next week and a recce and a brush up on the local specialities was in order.
We could not delay and left a team behind to continue with reassuring our overseas clients and headed off with Wicky, Sam and Nandana for a two night training session to Mannar. In eco-tourism, training is a funny business. It means driving up to military check points and tumbling out, bedecked with optical gear to examine a rare Spot-billed Duck. By now the army personnel were used to the drill. A quick word that we were birdwatchers and they allowed us to set up telescopes and examine the pond outside the Thalladi Army Camp. One Spot-billed Duck was present, but otherwise it was disappointingly bare. Our drive had been fairly fruitful. An Eurasian Otter had surprised us by nonchalantly crossing the road in Medawachchiya and a few Grey Mongoose had scampered across the road. Near Nochchiyagama, Amila spotted a red phase, female Plaintive Cuckoo which played hide and seek. Chasing her was worth it as a quizzical Blue-faced Malkoha popped out to see what we were doing. A Jungle Prinia, hopped around quite tamely, offering us good views and we wondered whether we would ever reach Mannar.
Water levels were up and we scanned the water besides the Mannar Causeway with anxiety and increasing disappointment. We had hoped to see at least one Oystercatcher, a black and white bird, with a long red bill. No luck. Not even a Whimbrel or Curlew was in sight. The water was too high. Surprisingly, the gulls were absent as well. On our last visit, our first look at the Heuglin’s Gull was in the causeway. But today, there were none.
The skies were overcast and rain seemed likely. We decided to explore the mud flats around Periyar Kalapuwa to see if the migrant flocks of ducks had arrived. The rains had converted the plains besides the B 420 into a wetland with mud flats on either side of the road. This are dries out surprisingly quickly. Last March, it was a dust bowl, but only a month earlier it had been a wetland teeming with waterfowl. As we drove slowly, a Whiskered Tern in winter plumages dived repeatedly into the water to catch fish. A flock of 500 or more Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a marshy area. Several hundred, perhaps a few thousand, waders were present. They were mostly Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers. They were joined by a few Common Redshanks, Wood Sandpipers, Grey Plover etc. Black-winged Stilts called nosily and flew past with their long red legs trailing behind.
Where were the ducks? Wicky examined the horizon anxiously towards a perennial water body which last year had held near a thousand of Wigeon and Garganey. With his sharp eye he confirmed that they were back. Through our binoculars and telescopes, we could make out the males of the Garganey with their cream buff foreheads. The females were dowdy. A raindrop or two fell, increasing to a flurry. It was time to check in, at the Manjula Inn, where Sam and his wife would welcome us to a another birding visit to Mannar.
The rain ceased eventually and after dinner we drove down the main road towards Talaimannar. Our key target species was the rare Indian Courser. A rare bird, it is confined to the coastal strip from around Mannar to the Jaffna Peninsula. We had not gone far when the headlights picked up a bird actively foraging on the road. Wow, it had been easy. The shape looked like a Courser and it was clearly nocturnal in behaviour. As we got closer, we realized what Amila had already decided with his more powerful Leica. It was a Great Thick-knee. Usually, when seen during the day, it is quite lethargic. By night, it was a different animal altogether.
Wicky drove along slowly and every time we encountered an open plain, he would turn the vehicle around allowing the headlights to sweep across the plain. Anyone observing us would have been intrigued by this behaviour. What were these people up to?
Lesser Sand Plovers, Red-wattled Lapwings, Yellow-wattled Lapwings all fell under the glare of the lights. But there was no sign of our target species. In the overhead wires, we found Jerdon’s Nightjars. They are bigger and more contrastingly marked than the similar Indian Nightjar.
The next morning was a Gull watching session and we headed to Talaimannar where the fishing boats come shore. Predictable, a large flock of gulls were present. We counted a flock of over five hundred Heuglin’s Gulls and in the distance, was another flock, containing perhaps another five hundred. The Brown-headed Gull, which is relatively common was present in only small numbers. To our surprise, the Pallas’s Gull, was totally absent.
The Heuglin’s Gulls were moulting. A process which they undergo in their winter quarters to gradually replace their feathers. Juvenile birds will engage in what is known as a post juvenile moult and shed some of their body feathers. Birds who are a year and older will commence what is known as a compete moult They will shed not only body feathers but also their wing and tail feathers. A bird like a Heuglin’s Gull will take three years to acquire the full adult plumage. This creates birds in all sorts of plumage permutations which make gull identification a challenging task. The Heuglin’s Gull breeds in the Russian tundra between the White Sea and the Kola Peninsula, West Taimyr and the Yamal Peninsula. They winter in the Black Sea and Indian Ocean to East Africa.
In Mannar, we had ‘dipped’ on some key birds, to use birding jargon. Pallas’s Gull, Oystercatcher, Caspian Plover and oh yes, the Indian Courser. But the few hours in the morning at Talaimannar had been worth it. Where else in Sri Lanka would one see a thousand Heuglin’s Gulls? Bar-tailed Godwits, Terek Sandpipers, all scarce in the south, were side by side in front of the gulls. In time to come, Mannar will become a magnet for more and more birdwatchers who will recognise it as a migrant hot spot.
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 with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.