de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). Wetland Wilderness. LMD. July. Page 192. Volume 11, Issue 12, ISSN 1391-135X.
Exploring Sri Lanka’s largely unvisited wetlands encountering a rich diversity of fauna.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne travels from Negombo to explore a wetland for birders and outdoor enthusiasts

A raptor soared over the paddy fields which stretched to the horizon. The horizon was dotted with Palm Trees, and we knew that they marked the coastline only a few kilometers away. It was hard to imagine that we were so close to the sea. Paddyfields stretched in one direction and in the other was a sheet of water, decorated with lotus and the invasive Water Hyacinth. The raptor banked and turned, silhouetted against the sun. The wings were long and narrow, the typical profile of one of the four species of Harrier which arrive during the northern winter. It glided effortlessly, but with surprising speed. Within minutes it was out of sight, leaving its exact identity a mystery.

Ayanthi Samarajewa, a budding birdwatcher sighed with disappointment. It was her first Harrier and she would have liked to have known which species it was. Two others with us had only recently being afflicted by the birding bug. In fact, the affliction had only struck after arrival in Sri Lanka. Fiona Harris who works with the Conde Naste Traveller Group and the Director Marketing for the prestigious Tatler magazine was on holiday with her husband Jon Ashworth, the editor of the Business Features section of the Times newspaper in the UK. They had bought a pair of binoculars at the Duty Free Shop in Dubai and arrived with a copy of New Holland’s A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. When we first met them at Villa Talangama, they had already chalked up over twenty species of common wetland birds. They had been dazzled by the variety of species of birds in Sri Lanka, bedecked in beautiful colours and so confiding, allowing a close approach.

By the time we arrived in the Annaiwilundawa Wetland, they already knew the common wetland birds such as Little Grebe, Pied, White-throated and Common Kingfisher, the irascible Purple Swamphen, the noisy White-throated Waterhen, the drab but streamlined Little Cormorant, etc. Hetti, the Naturalist Chauffeur Guide accompanying them patiently explained how to separate the Indian Cormorant from the Little Cormorant. After a bit of practice, one could discern the long slim bill shape of the Indian Cormorant differing from the stubbier bill of the Little Cormorant. “Hmm what’s that?” exclaimed Hetti, who had been scanning the Pinkattiya Lake, one of the many lakes which make up what is loosely referred to as the Annaiwilundawa Wetland. It turned out be a Common Coot, a rarity in Sri Lanka, very rarely seen in the southern half of the country. The 2002/2003 winter saw a sudden influx, with Common Coots even reported from wetlands near Colombo. I remember seeing hundreds of them at Giants Tank, near Mannar during that year. In contrast, for Fiona and Jon, the Common Coot was a common bird often seen in parks and canals in Britain. They were more enthralled by the seemingly huge Purple Herons. The Herons were in various frozen postures, as if they were playing statues. “Freezing” is a commonly employed hunting technique, so that not the slightest flicker of movement betrays their presence to potential prey. An unwary fish or frog will wind up as a meal to this beady eyed hunter of the wetlands.

A flock of Garganey took off, turning and veering in unison. The males were strikingly adorned in breeding plumage with a prominent white eyebrow. Garganey are one of the commoner migrant species of waterbirds. During the northern winter, almost every suitable water body in the dry zone seems to attract a few of them. At times they congregate in large numbers. Concentrations exceeding twenty thousand birds have at times been reported from the northern wetlands and from Bundala in the south. A few pairs of Cotton Teal also joined the fly past. The male, with a striking black and white wing pattern, was distinctive. This dainty duck becomes invisible from view when it lands on lotus covered lakes.

Annaiwilundawa was the second site in Sri Lanka to be declared a RAMSAR wetland and is now under the jurisdiction of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. At present, there are no restrictions to entry. Visitors can enter the complex of lakes on public roads which run along the embankments of the lakes. The scrub and paddy fields have a few private houses dotted around them. The Ceylon Bird Club was a key proponent of Annaiwilundawa being declared a sanctuary because of the large numbers of birds which breed here. But there is more here than just birds, for birdwatchers. Situated about 60 km from Negombo, it is an ideal location for walkers and bikers. Of course promoting such places of pristine natural beauty is not without its share of hazards. Irresponsible visitors can ruin the very beauty of places which was the source of attraction. Provided they are responsible and take their litter away, and are courteous to the locals, they are unlikely to create a harmful impact. Fiona and Jon could not understand why more hotels in Negombo did not promote the wetland as an evening or morning excursion with a picnic hamper with champagne. As a nation we are conspicuous for failing to turn our parks and reserves into revenue generating assets.

I was distracted by a butterfly which fluttered by. It was a Joker. A Common Gull was perched on an herb and permitted a close approach. Its white wings were marked in Yellow and Black, as if it was anxious to advertise its presence. In contrast the Angled Castor was a drab brown butterfly which would have escaped notice had it not flown past us. The herbaceous border on the embankments supported a thriving colony of butterflies. Plain and Common Tigers, flew side by side. The Common Tigers were easily told apart from the black veins on the under-wing. The Black stripes against an orangish background was reminiscent of the Tiger, hence the name. Lemon Pansys, basked in the sun. Crimson Roses were fluttering about, rapidly visiting one flower and then another. February is always a good month for butterflies in the dry zone. Soon the flurry of activity will die down as they mate and lay their eggs. The circle of life will begin afresh.

The write, is the CEO of a wildlife & luxury tour operator. Averaging weekly media appearances, he is a well known wildlife populariser & tourism personality. E-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.