Colombo sleeps in late on the weekend, resting after a night of revelry the city’s many clubs and casinos afford. When I wake at dawn, the air is still sticky from the previous night’s pre-monsoon showers. Venus still glows in the azure eastern horizon but all too soon the tropical sun will burn away the darkness. Such mornings are when Sri Lanka’s renowned protected areas, the likes of Yala, Wilpattu and Sinharaja, beckon people like myself, people who are drawn to the island’s biodiversity. Of them, a fair chunk comprises twitchers, or individuals who travel long distances in search of rare birds, and Sri Lanka is indeed a haven for them. There are 33 endemics species and a host of difficult-to-see others that make a birding holiday truly rewarding. What a few people also appreciate is that some of the best birding sites on the island are not in remote jungles but are hidden away in a series of urban wetlands, nestled amongst Colombo’s dense neighbourhoods and commercial zones.
This spring morning, in a leafy suburb in Colombo, I am itching to go birdwatching and I am taking a counter-intuitive approach and heading, not away but, into the urban heart of the city. Gathering up my gear and rousing my teenage son Lenny from slumber, I set out in search of enigmatic water birds. Bitterns, uncommon winter visitors, have been recently sighted; three of them. They are our holy grail species. I have been trying in vain to photograph them in outer Colombo for the last few years but I have been rather frustrated with fleeting views and no decent photographs thus far.
Our destination today is the Urban Wetland Park in the densely populated suburb of Nugegoda. A few years ago this was a marshy, flood-prone site, derelict due to illegally dumped solid waste. Today it is one of several urban wetland parks with tree-lined walking trails juxtaposed amongst a congested conglomeration of small buildings, tight residences and commercial establishments. It is one of almost half a dozen designated areas that city planners have set aside as urban wetland parks.
The drive to the park is the most challenging part of the morning. Motorcycles weave in and around us. Buses stop in the middle of the road to deposit and pick up passengers. Flashy SUVs whizz past, disregarding speed limits. On the side of the road women sell kola kenda, a Sri Lankan herbal drink much sought-after by the many people out cycling and walking. Lenny has not yet picked up an appreciation but for me no early outing is complete without a tall glass of this green, garlic- and rice-infused nourishment.
I am thinking about black and cinnamon bitterns. The sulky and rare wetland birds have been reported from Nugegoda’s wetland park by birders on the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka, a Facebook page I follow and occasionally contribute to. So far, I have hesitated to venture into the city for birdwatching—it seems antithetical to the whole idea of twitching. In fact, for the last few years I have been happily exploring the wetland parks near the Sri Jayewardenepura (Parliament) lake where I live and work. Diyasaru and Beddagana both have excellent trails with plenty of birds to see. Rosy starlings, blue-tailed bee-eaters and rarities such as the ruddy crake come in the winter. There are even saltwater crocodiles cruising the lake; the protective fencing line walkways and signs caution against croc attacks.
In Nugegoda, the wetland park started off as a place for city dwellers to walk and run in, and a 1.5-kilometre-long walkway stretches alongside a canal that exudes a rather whiffy grey water odour. The pathway wraps itself around several small islands of dense, marshy vegetation. We are early. It is only 6.30 a.m. and the parking lot is already packed. Inside, the broad, sandy walkway is getting crowded with early morning walkers dressed in shorts and leggings. For the most part they walk in small groups, engaged in conversations. Individual runners, wired into devices, criss-cross between these groups. Lenny and I are in khaki and camouflage garments, weighed down with large lenses and tripods. Nobody really stares but I see a few eyebrows rise, telling us we might be slightly out of place.
Almost immediately we start seeing interesting feathered creatures. At first it is the striated heron hunting by the water’s edge a few metres from our path; not just one, but a handful of these rare birds are all well within our sight. On my past wetland visits I have seen and photographed it, but never have I had such a fine opportunity to appreciate the heron’s details and behaviour. A yellow bittern, the most common of the genus, strikes a pose as it scouts for fish. We set up the tripods and start shooting. The birds seem unfazed by our presence amongst the steady stream of walkers. Nearby, there are green imperial pigeons nesting. Other birds include spot-billed pelicans, stork-billed kingfishers, night herons and purple herons. We hear and then successfully photograph the endemic crimson-fronted barbet feeding on a ficus tree. Enormous water monitors—scavengers of Sri Lanka—share the waterways and walking path with humans and other wildlife.
Moving through a lesser used link path, I spot a dark shape sitting motionless in a shadowy thicket. We have been in the park less than 20 minutes and here is the elusive black bittern, perched perfectly still on a branch just above the water. It is barely four metres away from my tripod legs when I get my first images. But it seems to sense my interest and, like a ghost, disappears into the woody zone across a murky moat. I wait in vain, but on this first visit I also learn to be content with just a glimpse. It will take several more visits before I can record it properly or photograph the even more reticent cinnamon bittern.
We head homeward with a sense of elation and an appetite for one of the famous chilly-spiked Sri Lankan breakfasts. By now it is mid-morning and the number of visitors has thinned. The joggers have been replaced by young couples occupying secluded seats in corners. They cuddle and giggle when we walk by. Outside, it’s just another busy weekend day as traffic picks up and the hustle of the city goes on alongside this fine slice of the natural world.
Ian Lockwood is a restless explorer fascinated by the intersection of biodiversity, landscapes and human impact in South Asia. He makes a living trying to excite young minds about the fragile planet they inhabit. Whenever possible, he travels on foot.