Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 February 20: Muthurajawela – The Marsh of the King's Pearls

Friday was our first real bird watching outing. We went to Muthurajawela Marsh, a 6000 hectare wetland at the south end of the Negombo lagoon. Relatively unknown by tourists until the 2012 edition of the Lonely Planet Sri Lanka Guide, it is becoming a popular tourist attraction, and is currently rated as the #4 (out of seventeen) must-see Negombo attractions on TripAdvisor.com.
Before the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in the early 1500s, the area was a rich basin filled with rice paddies. The Portuguese constructed a canal - now called the Hamilton Canal - that ultimately flooded the fields with seawater, and over the ensuing centuries, the basin has become Sri Lanka's largest saline wetland, home to many different species, including one hundred ninety-four plants, forty fish, fourteen reptiles, one hundred two birds, twenty-two mammals, forty-eight butterflies, and twenty-two dragonflies. Of these, fifty-two species are on the nationally endangered list, and one - the Grey Slender Loris – is on the globally endangered list.
"Slender Loris" by Kalyan Varma (Kalyanvarma) - Own work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slender_Loris.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Slender_Loris.jpg
Despite the importance of the Marsh with respect to biodiversity, there is constant pressure on the wetland from encroaching industrial development, prompting a study of the economic potential of the area in 2003.
We traveled by tuktuk through the non-tourist side of Negombo, an area with many traditional homes interspersed with grand luxury houses probably owned by wealthier fishermen and businessmen. We passed by the fish market, reminiscent of my childhood home....the smell of salt water in the air, seabirds wheeling and diving for savoury bits of rejected offal, the revoltingly comfortable odour of fish left too long in the blazing sun, the call of fishermen comparing their catch, the quick hand movements as nets are repaired.

Steve spots all four species of egrets of as we make our way through the port, then grey herons and a Eurasian spoonbill.

We arrive at the Visitor's Centre, described by more than one guide book and travel site as “moth-eaten” or worse. While a little rundown, it basically houses posters of some of the more common flora and fauna that one is likely to see. For a mere 1000 rupees per person ($7.81 US) we enjoy the cool shade of the visitor's centre, its restrooms, conversation with three centre personnel, a personal guide for our boat ride through the marsh, a boat operator, and the two hour ride itself.
The tour begins in front of the visitor's centre, where we spied white-breasted waterhens on the road,

and an Indian robin drinking from the Canal and then preening in the branches of a tree hanging over the water. That little bird can certainly shake a tail feather or two!


Rose-winged parakeets and Indian mynas fly overhead, and in the trees we can hear a coucal calling. A brown-headed barbet flies past. A juvenile Brahminy kite sits in a tree. 


We spot it a few seconds after we pass chasing a rose-winged parakeet. The parakeet flees and escapes – good news for the parakeet, but the kite is still hungry.
Barn swallows and long-billed sunbirds and blue-tailed bee eaters are everywhere. Pale billed flowerpeckers eat the seeds of the Penjamic tree and drink from the flowers of the parasitic plants that grow on it.
The ever present crows – both Jungle or Long-Billed and the House variety – are present but in small numbers. We see a total of five, in sharp contrast to the flocks of thousands that fly south along Negombo's beaches every evening.
A white-bellied drongo watches us motor underneath the bare branch upon which it sits, its deeply forked tail pointing the way we must follow along the canal. Poisonous Eve's Apple trees - also know as the Forbidden Fruit - are abundant. A bright red dragonfly hurries to join a horde of hundreds that flits through the forest. 


Our guide turns the boat around and we head back the way we came. There on the concrete bank of the canal lies a two or three month old crocodile, basking in the warm sun. 

Our guide tells us to watch the holes along the muddy banks. 

There! We see them! White breasted kingfishers leaving their cool earthen nests. 

Striated herons and cormorants and red-wattled lapwings watch our progress from their front row seating on the shore. 

Steve spots a crimson flameback woodpecker and a spotted dove. 

Our guide becomes excited. There, on the antenna of a house under construction on the left bank of the canal we have spied a rarity for this area – an Indian roller. It watches us carefully as we approach, flits away as we draw near, then returns to its perch. 

We approach the mouth of the canal where it enters into the lagoon. Whiskered terns feed on a school of fish directly in front of us.

Little egrets and intermediate egrets join the many terns feeding in the shallow waters.


We drift close to a tuft of vegetation to see purple sea holly up close. Traditionally it is used to treat asthma and rheumatism.

Wait! What's that? Steve and our guide start frantically flipping through our bird book while I catch a few seconds glimpse of a mottled yellow and brown bird before it dives into the plants and can no longer be seen. It's a yellow bittern, somewhat common in the marsh but rarely seen due to its habit of hiding and seclusion.

Ahead – fishermen spreading their nets in a lotus patch. We watch as two of them wade through the water, setting the net in a semi-circular shape. Two others wade towards the net, pushing leafy palm fronds ahead of them. As the school of little fish enters the net, the first two walk towards each other, trapping the fish inside.

Lesser whistling ducks watch carefully nearby. 

Among the weeds, purple swamp hens and a lone moor hen join the ducks.

As we approach the mangrove swamp, pond herons, purple herons and little cormorants make their appearance. 







Acrostica ferns grow in large mounds throughout this side of the Marsh. The tender leaves can be eaten and are considered to be good for treating diabetes. 

A darter, rare for the marsh, makes it appearance. A white-bellied sea eagle soars overhead. Our guide is excited once more – they are very hard to find in the marsh, due to a spectacle which we observe just a few moments later - two Brahminy kites drive the eagle away. 

Water hyacinth abounds. In old times, water hyacinth was a weapon, with the people using it to trick their enemies. When the enemy alighted, ready to fight on what they thought was dry land, they sank and drowned, entangled in the long roots. Once found only along marshy shorelines, as in Florida this beautiful but invasive plant is spreading rapidly through the marsh and other wetland areas, choking out indigenous species. The Sri Lankan government has passed an ordinance requiring landowners to destroy the plant if it shows up on their property, and for conservation officers to do the same on government owned or communal land. It has also introduced an African beetle that feeds only on the water hyacinth to help curtail its spread. 

Surrounded by dozens of whiskered terns, we approach the entrance to the canal once more. A greater egret soars by. In the distance, we spot an open billed stork, another rare bird in the marsh.
We wind our way through the canal. A stork-billed kingfisher displays its brilliant blues and yellows.

Two Oriental magpie-robins watch from an overhead wire. A rare forest wagtail flits by.
On the bank we see a small monitor lizard atop a recently burnt garbage heap, scrounging for food, not minding the heat of the coals underfoot. Another attacks a bag of garbage in the river. A dead one is spotted near the shore. 

Back to the Visitor's Centre, where a young guide excitedly surveys our list, identifying the species that are rare and rare to the marsh. Our meager entrance fee helps pay his salary and that of the others, basic upkeep on the building, boat maintenance, gas.
One last sighting – Steve spots two lowly rock doves.

Back we go in our little three-wheeled tuktuk, through the port, along the sleepy streets of the real Negombo, back to the fast pace of Lewis Place, that tourist hot spot where we are currently staying.