The little known bird paradise

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne chases a bird list of 70 species in just one morning to demonstrate the richness of Talangama Wetland, close to Colombo. Pix by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

The rising sun had begun to burn away the darkness leaving a smouldering mist hanging over the lake. It was exactly 6 a.m. when I stood on the embankment of the main Talangama Lake on Sunday March 28. I had come on a mission -to demonstrate the richness of the wetland as a wildlife refuge by coming up with a number.

The number I had in mind was the number of species of birds actually seen in a single morning's bird watching. I had hoped for 70 species. The overall objective was to drive home the fact that Colombo is unique as a capital city in having such a rich wetland on its doorstep. London too now has a wetland in its suburbs- created by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust at a cost of eight million sterling pounds. In contrast the Talangama Wetland is virtually free. I can't think of any capital city which has such a bio-diversity rich wetland so close to it.

Over the years the local council has recognized the value of the Talangama Wetland for its recreational use. Groups such as the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) have worked with the Overseas School of Colombo to raise awareness of this national treasure.

But still far too few people in Colombo, even amongst wildlife enthusiasts realise how rich this wetland really is. A single, easily understood number would illustrate its richness. In the developed countries a day list of birds is often used as an easily understood number to illustrate the richness of a national park or reserve. Hence my plan was to come up with a 'day list' or 'morning list' number which can be quoted.

Day lists and year lists are common amongst the birding communities in developed economies such as the USA and the UK. But in Sri Lanka no one does this and you are unlikely to attend a public lecture on a birder chasing a day list or a year list. During my time in the UK I had attended such talks and read articles and from that I knew planning was key. With regard to Talangama it meant that I had to choose a period when the migrants were in. I also knew having a few more pairs of expert eyes would help the chase. All of the professional naturalist guides were on tour. So I invited my colleague Hiran Cooray, Chairman of Jetwing to join me. I was running out of time as the migrants would soon be gone.

So on March 28, a 5 a.m. alarm set me off to Talangama Wetland to reach the main lake by 6 a.m. I should have been here half an hour earlier to catch the waterbirds leaving the roost. They fly low over the embankment like ghosts in the dark. It is one of the most special wildlife spectacles close to Colombo. I had once come with David Gerrard, the owner of the IF Villa and Tom Oen-Edmunds. David had become a convert to bird watching after experiencing the pre-dawn departure of the night-roosting waterbirds.

On this day, I was worried that by being late, I may have missed something special which had roosted. For example, a roosting Glossy Ibis, as had been pointed out to me by naturalist Wicky Wickremesekera when I had discussed my plan to set up an impressive day list. But I was still early enough to get two of my early morning target species - the Black-crowned Night-herons which are nocturnal birds which are turning in to roost and also a Little Green Heron (Striated Heron) which I had sometimes seen in the early mornings.

The morning is also a better time to pick up the forest and garden birds who give away their presence with their singing. From the embankment I began to scan the paddy fields and write down a list of birds. In as little as 10 minutes I had chalked up 20 species of birds. By 6.22 a.m. my list had climbed to 30 species.

Around 6.37 a.m. golden light began to bathe me and I decided that I would walk an arc of 300 metres along the road to pick out any garden birds which by now would be fully active. My list was at 37 species and I had already got most of the common water birds that were either on the lake or on the flooded paddy fields which were lying fallow. It was the latter which was a richer habitat for birds. It held migrant species such as three Wood Sandpipers, two Pintail Snipe and Yellow Wagtails which had assumed breeding plumage to don stunning yellow under-parts.

Hiran texted me to say he was unable to join me leaving me to send him regular updates so that he would be envious as what he was missing. Being alone made the job harder but it made the value of the list even more special as it shows what a single individual could see on his/her own.

As I walked on the surfaced road bordering the paddy fields on one side and a canal on the other, I had a marvellous close-up of an endemic Ceylon Small Barbet, White-browed Bulbul and a pair of Black-rumped Flamebacks. Scanning the paddy fields, I had a bonus bird in a scarce Kora (Watercock) which flew across. Walking back along the canal which joined the lake, a guttural call alerted me to a Yellow Bittern. Returning to the embankment I could hardly believe that I had a Black Bittern which came winging over. I suspect the two bitterns I had seen were from a migrant population and not delaying my day listing was clearly a good call.

It also helped to pick some of the commoner migrants such as the Barn Swallow, which was present as a lone individual. Rather worryingly the migrant Blue-tailed Bee-eaters were still missing. If I had delayed by even one more week, some of the migrants I was to see that day may have left.

One hour in by 7 a.m. I had a distant view of a White-backed Munias giving me the 43rd entry to the list. By 7.32 a.m. I had 52 species. The embankment allowed me to pick up species from the main lake and the paddy fields and the gardens. It was a superb vantage point. But after one and a half hours I was hitting diminishing marginal returns and I set out to my private One Acre nature reserve. There were three shade loving species I was especially after. It held a resident population of Dark-fronted Babblers and a pair of migrant Forest Wagtails and at least one migrant Indian Pitta. This site was my best chance of seeing these three species.

Soon after arrival I found the Dark-fronted Babblers collecting nesting material and the Forest Wagtail on my second circuit within the reserve gave itself away with a call. The Indian Pitta would be tough. I could not afford to miss a bird as I was now within sight of chasing 70 species. I did a third circuit along the jeep track peering into the forest floor. Twenty five minutes had now lapsed since I had last added a bird to the list. The pressure was mounting. Suddenly this magical bird flew across the path and alighted on the leaf litter strewn forest floor in clear view. The green upperparts, red vent, dark crown broken with stripe remain etched in my mind. It was typical of the views sometimes offered by Indian Pittas at Victoria Park in Nuwara Eliya.

A migrant Asian Paradise-flycatcher had also offered itself and my list was doing remarkably well at 59 species by 8.45 a.m.

I looked for the migrant Black-winged Stilts at the Aluth Wewa hoping to take the list over 60 species by 9 a.m., but failed. I had set myself the rather modest target of seeing 50-60 species in a morning's birding, the kind of number the serious birding clients of ours have on occasion reached. The 'listing' had been going better than expected. I scanned the tall trees for an Imperial Green-pigeon, but I could only see Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys.

I pulled over in front of Villa Talangama by the beautiful marshy area of one end of the main lake when a flock of Indian Swiftlets came into view. They are scarce here. Even better, I had a clear view of a Little Swift with its white rump. The endemic Ceylon Swallows were present as expected and so were the hoped-for Black-winged Stilts. A few more waterbirds like a Painted Stork and Common Moorhen took the list up to 65 species by 9.44 a.m. I walked a wooded path and heard a Green Imperial Pigeon and a flock of Blue-tailed Bee-eaters at last flew into view.

I had been missing birds of prey and I was looking out for a Shikra and also hoping to hear a Serpent Eagle or a Honey-buzzard. A Shikra obliged taking my list to 68 species. The wetland was filled with water after recent heavy rains. It looked more like a lake than the marsh it usually looks like. Scanning repeatedly for the flock of Golden Plover which had been there five weeks ago, I walked towards the far end for a better look and came across a migrant Brown Shrike. My list had climbed to 69 species, what I had totted up in the entire third week of February. I needed it to cross 70 species.

It was unlikely I could return that evening, so it was crucial that I had my 70th species. The sun was up now and my last addition to the list had been at 9.54 a.m. The best chance lay in the sky for a sighting of a Serpent Eagle, Honey-buzzard or an Ashy Woodswallow. In the open areas a Black-headed Munia, was a slim possibility. The wooded areas could hold a scarce Emerald Dove or a Black-headed Cuckooshrike. If there were fruiting trees even the endemic Ceylon Green-pigeons were a possibility.
I repeatedly scanned the water logged marsh which held Little, Intermediate and Cattle Egrets with Black-winged Stilts. How nice it would be if a Common Sandpiper or Greenshank would only drop in for a few minutes to take my list to 70. Twenty more minutes went by since the Brown Shrike with nothing new. I realized that my best option lay in the sky, for something to fly through, an Ashy Woodswallow or a bird of prey. As I glanced up a soaring raptor caught my eye and through my Swarovski 7 x 42 I had a very good viewing of an Oriental Honey-buzzard. Hooray! I had chalked up 70 species in four hours and 15 minutes (well sixteen to be exact).

At 10.16 a.m. I had completed my mission. Someone else may have to attempt a day list which may provide the time for a few more waterbirds and forest and garden birds to be added to the tally. A full day session will also allow nocturnal birds such as the Collared Scops-owl and Brown Hawk-owl to be added. 75 species is a possibility on a good day when everything goes well.

There are only a few sites in Sri Lanka where in the course of a day one can see over a hundred species. These would be sites such as Yala which provide a matrix of habitats. In the endemic rich rainforests, seeing that many species is almost impossible. Given that, seeing 70 species of birds in a site is a good tally and given Talangama Wetland's urban location it demonstrates how rich a wildlife refuge it is and how precious it is as an educational and recreational resource for Colombo's growing population. I hope this article will inspire people to pay more attention to wildlife closer to home.

It’s surprising that the Talangama Wetland is not used more by the University of Colombo and University of Sri Jayawardenapura as a field laboratory for theses by their Masters’ students. The wetland is less than half an hour away by tuk tuk from both universities. It can provide rich seam of material for field research on a variety of taxonomic groups for students who may not have the time and resources to do field research further afield.

Close encounter with dragonflies

Whilst bird watching I could not help being distracted by the dragonflies. As the sun came up, a large Blue-eyed Pondcruiser (Epophthalmia vittata) menacingly patrolled the edges of the lake. Several Rapacious Flangetails (Ictinogomphus rapax) also patrolled the lake.

I was surprised to see at least two female Sombre Lieutenants (Brachydiplax sobrina) females in the open. Spine-legged Redbolts (Rhodothemis rufa) and Scarlet Baskers (Urothemis signata) in bright red added colour.

An interesting observation was a Green Skimmer (Orthetrum sabina) which had grasped the female of another species by its head and was flying in tandem. It let go and as the female flew over the water it attempted to 'mate guard'. This is the first time I have seen a male of one species holding in tandem another species.

Sadly I had deliberately left my camera in the car to concentrate on birds and I could not photograph the female which had a bright yellow abdomen with dark barring. It’s possible it could have been a female Sombre Lieutenant (Brachydiplax sobrina) or even a female Blue Pursuer (Potamarcha cogener).

Other dragonflies out and about were Elusive Adjutant (Aethrimanta brevipennis), Yellow Waxtail (Ceriagrion coromandelianum) and Painted Waxtail (Ceriagrion cerinorubellum). I had a glimpse of a Sapphire Flutterer (Rhyothemis triangularis) which is very scarce here.

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