de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Treasures of Kalpitiya. Living. September – October 2009. Pages 24-25. Volume 5, Issue 1. ISSN 1800-0746.
Birdwatching in search of waders (shorebirds) in the Kalpitiya peninisuala.

Most people come to the Alankuda Beach Resort on the Kalpitiya Peninusla to chill out. I could understand why. The resort on the Alankuda beach is stylish but minimalist. Some of the distracting trappings of modern hotels such as televisions and DVD players are absent. An ideal resort for those who want to deconstruct.  Sadly, Alankuda’s therapeutic effects were probably lost on me as I was here on another mission. I was here re-acquaint myself with the wildlife of the Kalpitiya Peninsula.

My search for wildlife had two strands to it. Firstly, the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin, which Dallas Martenstyn and I caught up with and subsequently branded the Pink Dolphins of Kalpitiya. The story of this search is told elsewhere. The second strand was that I was looking for migrant birds, that were still lingering on the peninsula, fairly late in the middle of April.

To be more specific the migrant birds I was looking for are what the Europeans call waders and the Americans call them shorebirds. These are nondescript, small brownish birds which frequent the muddy, water’s edge of estuaries, lagoons, salt pans and mud flats. They feed by probing the soft mud for invertebrates ranging from worms to mollusks. The waders are the archetypal LBJs or Little Brown Jobs. Serious birdwatchers or birders have a serious love affair with waders. It starts with wanting to put a name to a species of wader. It can grow into a deeper obsession where they attempt to age the wader as a first winter, first summer, etc.

Waders are the birder’s equivalent of a cricket post-match debate. Endless hours can be spent on discussing the finer points. However, I was not going to find myself in any intellectually demanding identification debates or taxonomic discussions. My family who were accompanying me were very clear that the birding was my thing. They were going to relax by the pool. So I found myself a near solitary figure heading out to the mangroves near the Nachchikalli Salt Pan, on the road which travels north through the peninsula.

My quest had a slightly technical facet to it. I wanted to photograph the waders which by now would be assuming breeding plumage before returning to their summer grounds in the far North. Good quality images of birds in different plumages, summer and winter, would help me with some of the training I do for naturalist guides. The salt pans did not disappoint me. A Grey Plover looked stunning in summer plumage. In winter it is white underneath and drab on the upper-parts. In summer plumage the under-parts turn a deep black and the upperparts are marked strongly with black. Unfortunately it chose to be shy and keep to a distance. Even with a 600mm lens mounted on a tripod and boosted with a 1.4x tele-converter I was struggling to take a good picture. I turned my attention to a small flock of Mongolian Plovers also known as Lesser Sand Plovers. Most were still in winter plumage in drab shades of brown. A few individuals had donned their vivid summer plumage. A deep black band ran across their eyes giving a bandit look and a deep chestnut band encircled the breast. Newcomers to birds are always amazed that it is the same species which has undergone this transformation.

I anxiously watched the sun which had no begun to dip low, cresting the Palmyra Palms which dotted this parched landscape. There were very few tall trees and the landscape looked thirsty. Mangrove plants adapted to the high salinity were tough survivors clinging to the edges of the brackish water. Striated Herons, Little and Large Egrets hunted through the mangroves. A Little Egret engaged in a dance as it chased fish in the open shallows. A flock of Whiskered Terns took turns to bathe. Some had their bellies turning black and the upper-parts turning a deep shade of grey. Diminutive Little Terns rested on a sand bank.

I turned my attention to waders again. A Common Redshank had its breast boldly streaked with dark stripes. I photographed the Redshank to capture the transition from nondescript winter plumage to strongly marked summer plumage. With a closer examination of its plumage and the help of expert field guide literature, I would be able to tell whether it was a first summer bird or an adult. The analysis would have to wait. The sun ray’s were turning golden as it ebbed closer to the horizon. The light filtering through the dust closer to the ground warmed its colour.

Suddenly, the sun was no more. The light was cold and dim. A Redshank called, a melancholy and lonely call which carried over a seemingly barren and wild landscape. It reminded me why bird watching has become so popular. It allows people to connect once again with what is still wild and untamed.