Thursday, October 6, 2011

It’s the habitat that keep them in location.

Heather Martin and Angela Savage both academics at the National University of Ireland Galway, were visiting Sri Lanka in July 1994 . They were living with friends, and were guests of my friend Prabath Senaratne. We were all in the Irrigation Department [ID] then, Prabath was in Colombo, Wilson Kulasooriya and I were stationed at Hambantota. On Prabath's request we  picked them at the Rest House and were off to Yala for two days; stopping over at Tissamaharama for provisions to keep us going for the two night stay. We were booked into the park bungalow at Katagamuwa and the journey commenced through the park all the way to Katagamuwa. The first night was very memorable being just after a full moon with clear vision, when we had nightly visitors at Katagamuwa. First it was an elephant and then a bear that came rustling in compared to the stalking elephant. The bear came straight to the stand pipe for water and had his fill from the plastic container and was gone. The two days was a show up of almost all the animal and bird species homed at Yala including a python that did a marathon crossing holding us for over 10 minutes for it to cross the road.  At the end both Angela and Heather pleased and fascinated with all that was seen inquired as to what keeps all these animals within the park. The answer was obvious……….. the habitat. 

Yes it’s the habitat that keep them in location.

My eight year stay at Hambantota with the ID in the eighties was a way of life that I always longed for. In the bush surveying for the right contour for the canals, encounters with the beasts and indefinite work stoppages until the elephants that had came from nowhere had decided to leave. Bundala then was not a National Park but a sanctuary with plenty of migratory birds, more elephants frequently crossing the main road at Andalla to the saltpans, jeeps were cheap in the trails of Bundala for visitors, no deaths due to elephants heard as today.…. Alas the flocks of birds then are no more now. Ever since the drainage water of Lunugam-wehera came into Bundala on its way to the Malala Lagoon, affecting the salinity, depth of water, vegetation, etc, etc. You may call it change of habitat if you like...........we are yet to lose it.

Strangely though the rice farming practiced in the dry zone of Sri Lanka is by irrigation and happens to be a process of changing habitat. It is this that keeps much of the bird life active year round during the Yala and Maha seasons. It’s amazing to see masses of water birds following the plough for grubs in the up turned earth.

It was in the Field Ornithology Group [FOGSL] that I came across a book by Ms. Tara Gandhi the wife of the then Ambassador to India in Sri Lanka; a science scholar and an active conservationist who contributed generously to the cause of FOGSL; a print of her thesis. This book carried an illustration of the change of habitat that is created by irrigation in rice farming. 

[Courtesy- Tara Gandhi]

This is a classic self explanatory lay out of the activity in irrigated rice farming in the dry zone.

Once the crop is harvested the fields become parched until the seasonal maintenance to the canal system is done and the water issue is re-commenced. During this time the habitat suits the larks and the pipits. Once the water is turned into the fields this habitat is no more and they move onto the grassy bunds and levees. Now it attracts the waders; stints, plovers, snipe, stilts, herons, egrets, ibis, storks, coucals, kingfishers, and if the time is right the migrant godwits as well, till the fields are ploughed and planted. During the growth stage the bee-eaters the drongo and the flycatchers feast on the avian insect pests that are attracted to the  plant. The standing water attracts the swamp hens, water hens, snipe, herons and ducks that feed on the snails and other floating algae.

When the paddy flowers and ripens the water is cut back and the standing water is no more it’s an all new habitation for the munias, parakeets and pigeons, the so called pests in rice farming arrive.  The other mammalian pests, the rodents that are attracted are dealt by the raptors; shikra, kites and the eagles during the day and  nocturnally by owls.

Once the crop is harvested the numerous pigeons and the doves feast on the harvest waste left in the fields and the larks and the pipits return until the next water issue is commenced.

It is strange to see this amount of bird life still active with the amount of pesticides and fertilizer being used though. After all habitat change is not always a negative factor. 'Isn’t it?'

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