Veteran birder Dr. Thosatiratne Sri Upendra de Zylva who has just released a new book ‘Cradles on the Sand’ recalls his many trips to the wild to Kumudini Hettiarachchi It was a photograph taken surreptitiously, with the scene “captured” being an operation under the scalpel of legendary Surgeon P.R. Anthonis at the General Hospital (now [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

A doc with an eye for birds


Veteran birder Dr. Thosatiratne Sri Upendra de Zylva who has just released a new book ‘Cradles on the Sand’ recalls his many trips to the wild to Kumudini Hettiarachchi

It was a photograph taken surreptitiously, with the scene “captured” being an operation under the scalpel of legendary Surgeon P.R. Anthonis at the General Hospital (now the National Hospital) in Colombo.
The photographer was a medical student and the medical fraternity believes that it may have been the first medico in the history of Ceylon to take a photograph in the operating theatre. The surgery was to repair an aneurysm of the femoral artery.

Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Although fearful of the consequences, when the medico hesitantly handed over the photograph to Dr. Anthonis, he had been surprised not only to be commended on the “shot” but also to be presented with a gift of 300 rupees, a princely sum considering that a roll of film was just three rupees then!

Passionate about both photography and biology, it was none other than this medical student who in later years used the same ability to blend into the surroundings for hours in not so comfortable positions to click numerous photographs especially of birds, the subject of many books. The latest is ‘Cradles on the Sand – In a bygone era’. (See box)

Lauded as the “best birder” of current times, when we arrive at his Kurunegala home strewn with photographic gear, octogenarian Dr. Thosatiratne Sri Upendra de Zylva is seeing patients a few doors away. 
While we await his arrival, his wife, Upamali whom Dr. T.S.U. says in the book organized a week’s sojourn in Mannar in mid-June every year which coincides with the breeding season of the ground-nesting birds, chats with us how “life was a picnic” those days. They used to bundle their children into the car to proceed on their forays into the wilderness.

What she fails to tell us in her reticence is that June is also the month of her birthday, while April is that of his. Hosting us to a delicious lunch with numerous dishes, the easy and perfect rapport between the couple is evident.

The memories are rich and varied. The children among the gunnies with the provisions, the camera equipment, the “tea-cozy”, the canvas tents, the “hide” and the luxury of an L.P. gas cooker and water on tap!

Yes, those were the good old days of the 1960s, when they would all jump into the vintage Morris Oxford car, with their caravan rumbling behind them to lewayas (salterns), kalapuwas (lagoons) and wew (tanks) all over the country, to many off-the-beaten track beauty-spots abundant in Sri Lanka. Fondly known as the “ge arang ena mahattaya” (the gentleman who brings his house along) among the villagers who befriended him, hours and hours he would spend in his “hide-igloo” awaiting the movements of birds at close range to photograph them.

With their family faithful then, Martin being the driver-cum-cook who used to make hot, hot rotti with bacon and eggs now the task has fallen on Ranjith, whom Dr. Upendra says would suddenly slow down the car and reverse carefully having spotted a bird.

It is reminiscence time for Dr. Upendra who even as a wee lad would stare intently at the birds around Kurunegala. Getting his early education at Maliyadeva College, the next stint was at Royal College, Colombo, leaving for the hills of Kandy and Dharmaraja College when World War II broke out and Royal was turned into an aerodrome with the British military occupying buildings in the Race Course area.
Being allowed to sit the last Matriculation Examination, although he was still in the pre-Matriculation class, he had passed that and sat the university entrance examination from Ananda College in Colombo, going into the Medical Faculty.

“I kept my interest in biology although concentrating on the human body,” says Dr. Upendra. It had been during a vacation in India that his mother had bought him a Zeiss Contax camera, spurring his love of photography and making him come up with colour-slides of Indian scenes, architecture and people.
When he qualified as a doctor, it had been his father who gifted him with a 16mm Bolex Cine camera which made him venture into movies on nature such as ‘At the water’s edge’, ‘The world is my garden’ and ‘The Dry Zone Wilderness’. With his first appointment being the first House Officer in Chilaw (there were only a District Medical Officer and a District Medical Assistant before him, smiles Dr. Upendra) it was there that he met Herschel Pandittesekera, although a snipe-shooter, well-known in bird circles who fuelled his voracious appetite for bird photography.

With his father, a doctor himself, wanting him to join the family practice, Dr. Upendra had come back to Kurunegala to work with his brother-in-law, Dr. Ananda de Silva. There followed the tragedy of his father passing away, a few months after his mother’s death.

Life got into a routine at Kurunegala, with him as ‘the reluctant starter” and his brother-in-law giving him the liberty of taking every other weekend off, while he covered up for him, he says.

The rest followed naturally – joining the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, having his work published in the Loris, becoming close friends with Swedish inventor and photographer Dr. Victor Hasselblad, on his death setting up the Trust in his name and establishing the Turtle Hatchery at Kosgoda and, of course, publishing numerous books on birds, ‘Birds of Sri Lanka’, ‘Wings in the Wetland’, ‘Sinharaja Rainforest’ to name a few.

There are still no fancy digital cameras for Dr. Upendra and wife Upamali recalls how he would signal them with a white handkerchief to move his “hide” placed on clods of baked mud, leaving only about three to four inches for air circulation in some instances, to get closer shots of his “subjects”. Sometimes it would be an electronically-operated Hasselblad camera with a tea cozy as an improvised “blimp”.

What next, we ask him. Smilingly he says that “it’s end of ‘curtains’”. He concedes that he is “no longer a young buck” able to travel much and his perspective has changed.

But, adds Dr. Upendra, there is another book in the pipeline. “Yes, there’ll be birds and other wildlife but the focus is water,” he says, as wife Upamali grumbles that he has been making many trips to Hunnasgiriya to photograph the terraced paddy fields.

Every photograph will have water, says Dr. Upendra, adding with conviction that Sri Lankan scenery is even better than Switzerland, with the only thing missing being snow.

And his next book will be ‘Sri Lanka Aqua Portfolio’, the journey of a raindrop until it reaches the sea, bringing to the fore once again his ease with nature and the camera.

Flipping through sounds and places from the past
‘Cradles on the Sand – In a bygone era’ is not just a book of bird photographs.  With photographs aplenty, it’s also a beautiful narrative of a bygone era, leaving the reader yearning to see the sights and sounds of those places it takes you to through its pages.

The doctor in him also takes over and as with clinical precision in detailing a patient’s case history and diagnosing an illness, Dr. Upendra has portrayed the family life of the ground-nesting birds belonging to the two main orders of Galliformes and Charadriiformes. 

Although he says that the glossy, easily handle-able book is not a treatise on ground-nesting birds, he covers the behaviour of many — from the Painted Snipe to the Little Ringed Plover, from the Roseate Terns to the Large Pratincole. While giving the reader a peek into birds, their breeding habits and nests, he also gives a glimpse of exotic areas like Kalametiya, the “Trio of Lagoons” and Embilikala Kalapuwa with maps, for the uninitiated to locate them.

Tiny nuggets of information keep the reader wanting to flip through the pages……..“I saw one of the Black-winged Stilts leave its nest and stride towards the water with a measured tread, like an elderly gentleman doing a constitutional evening stroll………After wading a short distance, the stilt dipped his belly in the water a couple of times and with water dripping, strode back to the nest…………I had a close look at the eggs and found them slightly wet. Would the water-cooling of the eggs in that hot environment interfere with incubation? I never found out……though I believe it would not affect the hatching of the young.”

Finally sharing his vast knowledge through a lesson on ‘Photography Of Ground-Nesting Birds’, Dr. Upendra gives a timely warning: “Tears must be shed, not only for the memories of days gone by, but also for the future generations who have had their heritage stolen from under their feet.

“We really must have an overall strategy with some of the more evocative places left inviolate. It is still not too late,” he urges. ‘Cradles on the Sand’ priced at Rs. 2,300, printed by Unique Graphics of Maradana will be available at bookshops shortly.

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