Off to Jaffna to see the birds

By Malaka Rodrigo

“Look.. that is a Black Kite.. It is a bird unique to this Northern Peninsula, so you have to visit the North to see it,” said Prof. Sarath Kotagama pointing out the bird soaring in the sky to 14-year-old Namesha, the youngest member of the birdwatching group. It was Namesha’s first visit to the Jaffna Peninsula as it was for the majority of the 29 birdwatchers of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL)’s maiden field excursion to Jaffna last month.

Flying high in the Jaffna skies
Gliding in unison: Pintail duo
Looking for a bite: Striated heron. Pix by Vimukthi Weeratunga
Grey Partridge male and female take a sand bath in Mandathivu Islet, Jaffna. Pic by Chaminda Jayaratne

“The northern part of the country can be considered a special avi-faunal zone with several birds like the Black Kite found only there. The Black Drongo, Grey Partridge, Long-tailed Shrike, Golden-backed Woodpecker, Indian Courser are few other unique representatives of the region,” Prof. Kotagama, a veteran ornithologist and founder member of FOGSL said.

During their recent Jaffna trip, the group mainly focused on Jaffna’s coastal areas dotted with wetlands which are magnets for waders, both migrant and resident. The team also visited Delft Island, Mandathivu, Kayts and other wetlands rich in birdlife. To reach Delft they had to take the one-hour ferry ride, which helped them to enjoy the sea birds of the area.

“The Striated heron was the first bird we spotted on the shores of the island. It was interesting to watch its antics as it got ready to pounce on its prey as it’s known to place bait such as feathers or leaves on the water surface and pick fish that come to investigate,” said Nishanthi Perera. During the few hours spent in the island, the birders observed 64 bird species.

At Mandathivu, they had seen a Grey Partridge pair, basking in the sun. Migratory ducks were plentiful in the area, but they missed the star migrant Flamingos during this tour.

Chunndikulam, Thirukkovil, Konda manaru and Sarasalei are some of the best birding sites in the north. The area is also the entry point for many migrants who travel through the Indian sub-continent landmass. The observers say it was fascinating to witness large numbers landing on these special sites – the scene looking like a busy airport. Some 262 species migrate to Sri Lanka during the migratory season that starts from late August and continues upto March/April, so this would be the best period to schedule your birdwatching trip to Jaffna region.

However, the facilities are still not star-class. It is possible to book a house for accommodation and travel to the more remote areas. During their visit to the Delft Island, the FOGSL team used the normal mode of transportation on the island -small tractors. Some of the remote areas are still not cleared of land mines, so one needs to be wary of the dangers and always take precautions not to step out of the cleared areas. But the birding rewards may compensate for any such drawbacks

Dr. Devaka Weerakoon, president of FOGSL also invites those who have an interest to join similar birding field trips to join the society which is also the local affiliate of BirdLife International that celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. “Jaffna is only the first trip FOGSL organized for 2011.

The society has planned its trip calendar for this year and anybody interested in birdwatching can take part in them by enrolling as a member of the society based at University of Colombo,” says Dr. Weerakoon. Prospective members need not be experts on birding he adds.

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