Off to see seabirds

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne explains why the Kalpitiya Peninsula is Sri Lanka's top spot for pelagic birds

The setting sun had sculpted a vast sea monster edged with fire over the horizon. Pink candy floss clouds were engulfed by the encroaching darkness. Flashes of lightning illuminated a seemingly primordial world and as light was about to be extinguished, Rohan Susantha, the Alankuda Beach boatman opened the throttle and we sliced through a rising swell to return from another session at sea.

I had been out with my colleague Riaz Cader to develop pelagic tours for seabirds and marine mammals. We had a good session with a hitherto rarely seen Lesser Noddy (a kind of tern) making three abortive attempts to land on the canopy on our boat.

The next morning's session, five hours out at sea, was the stuff of dreams. Over five hundred Spinner Dolphins cavorted around our boat, as we headed out to the Sperm Whale hunting line, the 400m depth isocline at E 79 36. They spun and raced and bow rode for thirty exhilarating minutes before I asked Susantha to peel away in case our presence caused stress. In deeper water, at E 79 35, N 08 17, for me an area that is a seabird hot spot, I motioned Susantha to pull over to photograph a Persian Shearwater, a rare pelagic bird, perhaps seen by less than half a dozen Sri Lanka birders and possibly the third record from Sri Lanka. "Whale" yelled out the hawk-eyed Susantha distracting Riaz and me from the Persian Shearwater.

The Blue Whale slipped into the water and we circled around looking for it. After it slipped into the water for a third time a bird with a pale head and a black cap floating in the water at a distance caught my eye. I knew it was something very special and I told Susantha much to Riaz's dismay we must abandon the Blue Whale for the bird in the water.

It turned out to be a Long-tailed Skua, possibly the second record for Sri Lanka (if another previous record is accepted) and the fourth or fifth record for the Indian Sub-continent. The show by the Spinner Dolphins, a Blue Whale with Persian Shearwaters flying over it or the record of a Long-tailed Skua are three things of which a marine biologist or enthusiast would have settled for just one. We had all three in one amazing pelagic session in one morning on Sunday, April 11.

On April 1, I had sailed out of Mirissa with Jetwing Lighthouse naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu. Also with me on the boat were my colleagues Hiran and Shiromal Cooray who were hoping for Blue Whales. My thoughts were, however, on pelagic seabirds. Pelagic refers to the open seas and pelagic seabirds are species of seabirds which do not come to land unless bad weather forces them close to shore or to the shore to rest when exhausted.

Rare birds: The Long-tailed Skua (Top Right) Lesser Noddy (Below Right) photographed off Kalpitiya and a Persian Shearwater (main picture) skimming the waves

My thoughts on how to go after the pelagic seabirds had been influenced on my time out at sea from Mirissa with British marine biologist Dr. Charles Anderson. It had been documented, perhaps for 20-30 years that the south-west monsoon brings in these rare seabirds. But conversations out at sea with an experienced scientist like Dr. Anderson somehow added the extra ingredient to make me realise that it may be possible to pursue the pelagics rather than leave it to chance. But from Mirissa, the sightings of pelagics were random and improved only when conditions started to become rough. When it was really rough we could not go out at all and the continental shelf although close to Dondra only pinched in there. Elsewhere it widened out again and shore-based watching did not seem attractive.

By April 2009, I had already honed in on what could be the site for the commercial development of pelagic tours. This was the Kalpitiya Peninsula. Once again there was a link with Dr. Charles Anderson who had led me onto the story that southern Sri Lanka was the best for Blue Whales. I had followed one of his leads to photograph the Pink Dolphins (Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins) in the Puttalam lagoon.

On March 7, 2010 in the Sunday Times, following another lead by Charles, I had explained why Kalpitiya will be the third apex of a whale watching triangle with Trincomalee and Mirissa. A key factor for its potential for whale watching and pelagic birds was the location of the edge of the continental shelf being close and running along a north-south axis, practically parallel to the Kalpitiya Peninsula.

Kalpitiya had other factors which would make it ideal for pelagic seabirds. The north-south axis of the continental shelf created a natural linear flyway, close to land for rare seabirds. The peninsula also had a reef which broke the force of the open ocean and which may at times allow pelagic seabird watching boats to go out when the open seas was too rough.

There were records of exhausted pelagic birds (Sooty Terns photographed by Howard Martenstyn) resting on the beach which meant when the seas were really rough, shore-based pelagic seabird watching would be possible. I had also noticed that I was seeing anything from 5 to 10 times more seabirds off Kalpitiya as I was off Mirissa. I was seeing that many times more flying fish once I reached the 400m depth isocline (at E 79 36). The presence of large flocks of Spinner Dolphins and birds such as Little Terns suggested that it was a very rich feeding ground. I was sure that when the south-west monsoon began to blow Kalpitiya would be the place to go in search of seabirds.

It is not that others had not looked here before. On April 12 the day after my Long-tailed Skua sighting I chanced upon an article by Rex de Silva which I had first read when it was published in the Oriental Bird Club's Sri Lanka special bulletin in 1997. In it he mentions Talawila in the Kalpitiya Peninsula.

Early pioneers such as Rex were handicapped by certain constraints. Most significant of these was the cost of going out to sea. There were no mobile GPS units available for navigating out of sight of land and for recording accurate coordinates of sightings. Further with specific reference to the Kalpitiya Peninsula, the location and shape of the continental shelf was a guess until exploration for oil resulted in the first sea depth contour charts in October 2009.

Access to the seas off Kalpitiya Peninsula changed dramatically when boats became available for leisure thanks to Dallas Martenstyn and his co-investors who set up Alankuda Beach, a barefoot luxury resort in Alankuda.

My article of May 2008 which positioned Sri Lanka for Blue Whale watching concluded with the following. "The success of whale watching will be closely parallel to the development of pelagic cruises for seabird watching. This will also contribute a wealth of ornithological data. At present most Sri Lankan birders have not seen a Pomarine Skua. One morning we saw over 40. The development of pelagic cruises for seabird watching will have to be another story".

This is the 'another story'. April 2010 would be my last chance to research Kalpitiya as a site for pelagic seabirds. On April 4, 2010, four days of rough seas had mellowed into a calm morning where the sea was as flat as a pancake. I stood in the mid-section of the 18 foot speed boat scanning the sea intently for the blow of a Sperm Whale. I was running a transect on a North-South axis parallel to the Kalpitiya Peninsula on E 79 37 which is on the 400m depth isocline. This is the typical hunting depth of Sperm Whales although they can dive to depths of between 1-3 km. I was also looking for seabirds.

The timing for watching pelagic birds, was just before the onset of the monsoon. In April 2008, whilst looking for whales on the Spirit of Dondra, I saw how increasing numbers of Pomarine Skuas, Flesh-footed and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters began to come in, ahead of the monsoon. The shearwaters which skim the waves, sometimes just inches above the water are enthralling to watch. They ride the waves like a surfer, but with no contact and with hardly a wing beat.

During several trips to sea in February and March I had noticed that the seas off Kalpitiya had much greater numbers of seabirds than Mirissa. I would regularly see hundreds of Little Terns and dozens of Brown-winged Terns. On the beach, I would see Gull-billed Terns patrolling the tide line for crabs and Large-crested, Lesser-crested and Common Terns perched together, occasionally in the company of Sanderlings, Lesser Sand Plovers and Whimbrel.

During my 15 years in the UK, I had been on a number of sea watching trips ranging from Cley to Dungeness in the south. I had noticed how in rough weather birders could observe many seabirds from the shore using telescopes. The beach at Alankuda Beach ( would be an ideal location for watching seabirds during rough weather. In slightly rough weather, it may even be possible to head out to sea into the area in-shore of the reef for closer and richer encounters. In terms of physical topography (especially the proximity to the edge of the continental shelf), the presence of a rich marine fauna and the year round presence of seabirds, Kalpitiya seems to have all that was necessary for a rich showing of rare pelagic birds when the south-west monsoon brought them in.

On Sunday, April 4, I was to have one such encounter which provides very clear evidence that Kalpitiya Peninsula has all the ingredients to be Sri Lanka's top spot for seabird watching. I came across what is probably the largest flock of shearwaters ever seen off the seas of Sri Lanka by a birder and what is more, it was sprinkled with rarely seen seabirds.

I had taken out Shiromal Cooray, the Managing Director of Jetwing Travels to acquaint her with my plans to brand Whales and Wilpattu, and Anne Shih, a keen photographer. Much of Sri Lanka's 'sellable bio-diversity' lies left of the 'The Diagonal'. This is a line connecting Mannar Island on the south-west to Ruhunu (Yala) National Park on the south-east. Trincomalee with its whales and Minneriya and Kaudulla and Lahugala with its elephants are the only big wildlife stories to be on the right of 'The Diagonal'. In terms of wildlife tourism, almost everything a traveller could want is to the left of 'The Diagonal', (see map) especially with regard to the endemic rich lowland rainforests and the cloud forests. "The Diagonal' had been bottom heavy with Blue and Sperm Whales in Mirissa and Elephants, Sloth Bear, and Leopards in Yala. However with the re-opening of Wilpattu National Park on February 27, 2010, 'The Diagonal', could now be balanced with Sperm Whales and Dolphins in Kalpitiya and Leopards, Sloth Bear and possibly Elephants in Wilpattu.

We travelled over 14 nautical miles (26km) north from Alankuda Beach to N 08 19 at which point the Kalpitiya Peninsula which arched inwards was no longer visible. We began to head back south the Sperm Whale line of E 79 37 when I spotted a flock of seabirds. There were by a conservative estimate at least 25 Persian Shearwaters and some Noddies with Brown-winged Terns and Little Terns.

I motioned Susantha to slow down and pull up slowly towards the flock. Flocks of terns are not disturbed by boats and will often follow and mill around fishing boats. Susantha moved the boat gently under the flock. A number of Persian Shearwaters were floating on the water and vocalizing loudly with each other. Some would fly up and join the terns in the air and then land back in the water. At one point I counted 18 Persian Shearwaters, close to the boat on the water and spaced out a few feet apart. Coming across this many shearwaters was extraordinary.

Four very rarely seen seabirds were in this flock - Persian Shearwater, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Brown and Lesser Noddy with a more regularly seen pelagic, the Brown-winged Tern. We spent over half an hour with the flock which accepted us.

The Kalpitiya Peninsula also offers long, relatively inhabited stretches of coast line which seabirds and waders use to feed or perch on. There are also traditional fishing villages which attract seabirds to offal and these birds stray near properties such as the Alankuda Beach. In stormy weather, rare seabirds will be pushed close to shore and may even settle on the beach. In good weather, during the south-west monsoon, the seas may be calm enough to rare seabirds, relatively close to the shore because of the close proximity of the continental shelf and the rich web or marine life which is present close to shore. The richness of the marine life off Kalpitiya is evidenced by the sightings of marine mammals and the presence of seabirds and waders throughout the migrant season from October to April.

For many years I had thought of finding a location in Sri Lanka as a hot spot for watching rare seabirds. The Kalpitiya Peninsula in Sri Lanka seems to be the top site in Sri Lanka for sea-watching from on-shore or out at sea. Being able to do so in warm weather and the prospect of a chilled beer close to hand, adds another attractive wildlife tourism trump card to the Kalpitiya Peninsula and another wildlife attraction to the left of "The Diagonal'.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays. He is on, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.
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