Friday, February 13, 2015

Bird watching in Chundikkulam / Jaffna –North Sri Lanka

Ever since the 30 year political unrest in the North of Sri Lanka came to an end in May 2009, people have been travelling to Jaffna and its islets on pilgrimage and for leisure. With the A-9 road, the primary motorway to the peninsula being rehabilitated in 2013 and the railway line re-laid in 2014 the visitors to the peninsula has increased tremendously bringing about a thriving local tourist industry.

Majority of  them are Buddhist pilgrims to the Nainativu islet and to the numerous post-war memorials; …. the others on leisure are mostly nature lovers, and many are the Birdwatchers.

The Jaffna peninsula and the Gulf of Mannar on the western coast towards the north of Sri Lanka are famous for the birds classified under the  Indian Avi-faunal Zone, and they rarely occur in other parts of the country. This area is also the entry point to the country for the migratory birds on the Middle Asian Flyway. The end point of the Middle Asian Flyway being Sri Lanka and Southern India, them locations are important to the world of Ornithology.

world flyways

Much of the land area in the peninsula consists of large shallow brackish inland ponds to shallow coastal saline lagoons that are high productive feeding grounds to water fowl, wading birds and numerous Gulls and Terns. The  period  from August to April each year is significant as the bird migratory period in the country.

Jaffna Peninsula

This year’s [2015] calendar from 1st to the 4th of February was a long holiday in Sri Lanka with very favourable weather for travel. Fourteen of us, very ardent birdwatchers / birders …..five in the medical profession and their friends and parents traveled to Jaffna by the new air-conditioned train on a bird-watching excursion in the peninsula. A very comfortable travel time of just six and a half hours unlike the strenuous drive up on the A-9 road.

Our main intention is to explore the area of Chundikkulam the once famous bird habitat and the only declared wildlife sanctuary within the peninsula.


Welcome to the Jaffna

Chundikkulam is located 65 km south of Jaffna and is home for the 55th Brigade of the Sri Lanka Army. The village of Chundikkulam was devastated in the  boxing day  Asian Tsunami in 2004; and today nobody lives within the sanctuary; a new village is located in the high grounds away from the coast for those that survived the catastrophe.

We are are to stay at the “Nature Park Holiday Resort”; a hospitality facility that is run by the Army’s 55th Brigade located in close proximity to the sanctuary.  A facility with basic requisites was an officers mess during the 30 year war and their billets now serve as lodgings for the traveller.


Day 1 [1st Feb 2015]

We leave the Fort Railway Station in Colombo at 5.50 a.m.and reach Jaffna by 12.30 p.m. With almost half the day spent travelling we decide to explore the  birdlife on the Karainagar causeway in the afternoon having had lunch at the famous meal spot in Jaffna…. the Mango.

Black-tailed Godwits

On the causeway far out into the sea we see the shape of the most sought-after bird in the peninsula…. the Greater flamingo; not a flock but a few birds. Them being very far out we proceed to the closer feeding waterfowl [ducks] and the waders.

pintail flying
Northern Pintail

Western Reef - egret 

Little Tern a look alike of the Saunder’s Tern


Slender-billed Gull -1 [A vagrant Migratory Gull  in Sr Lanka]

Slender-billed Gull - 2 [A vagrant Migratory Gull in Sr Lanka]

Northern Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveller  the Gargany and the Lesser Whistling ducks were in plenty. Two Western Reef Egrets in their darker grey morph entertained us outside a pipe sluice when they ran about gawkily turning ever so quickly, stabbing at small fish. This behaviour identifies them in their white morph when they resemble more like the Little Egret. Many waders were seen with a lone Wimbrel in the water, and with the tide setting in and the light fading we start our way to Chundikkulam for the night via Kadurugoda where the remnants of an ancient Buddhist monastery is still to be seen.


The 65 km on the A-9 to Chundikkulam was a long way off and my limited linguistic skill of the Tamil language was sufficient to converse with Pallio… our coach driver in locating the dirt road to the  “Nature Park Holiday Resort” turning off at Iyakatchchi.  The coach rattled along the battered road to reach the resort just along side the 55th Brigade Headquarters; a journey of almost an hour and a half. Tired and weary we retire for the night after a sumptuous dinner of string hoppers  and curried chicken.

Eurasian Curlew and  Whimbrel.... difficult to tell apart from a distance
The plan for  Day Two is to rise early and bird-watch around the resort and proceed to the Chundikkulam Bird Sanctuary along the coastal road after breakfast.

Day 2 [2nd Feb 2015]

The sand dunes around the resort was the habitat for much forest birds. Of them the Eurasian Collard-dove and the Grey Francolin were special. All eyes were on the lookout for the ‘Sand Martin’ that is said to be a frequent winter visitor in this area. The lagoon along the resort had the Black-winged Stilts, the Common and the Marsh Sandpipers, the Red-wattled Lapwing with the White-breasted Kingfisher. The Brahamini Kite and the White-bellied Sea-eagle were still at their overnight perch on the crownless Palmyra Palms.

sand dunes
Chundikkulam Sand dunes

Typical Beachscape of Chundikkulam

After breakfast we take the 14 km route across the sand dunes into the sanctuary that runs up to the sea outfall. Not far away we encounter many Plovers…. the Golden, the Grey, the Mongolian, with the Kentish, and the Little Ringed. The Eurasian Curlew with its long curved mandible was close enough to differentiate from the Wimbrel seen the previous day.

Thick knee
Great  Thick Knee

Grey Francolin

Eurasian Collard Dove

All along the drive the water level in the Chundikkulam Lagoon was at the high mark and this was not a good sign for the presence of  wading birds. We drove up to the sea outfall with hardly any significant birding…. excepting for the shore birds…plovers, and the Great Thick-knee. The current at the sea outfall was very strong. This much water flowing into the sea meant it was freshwater and the obviously reason for the lack of birdlife in this  once famous Bird Sanctuary, It was only second to Kumana in the deep south according to old bird literature.

White-cheeked Tern

little stintgolden plover
Mongolian Plover                                    Pacific Golden Plover

A few Gulls and Terns were observed at the sea out fall and on the way back a flock of over five hundred waterfowl, mainly Eurasian Wigeon and Northern Pintail were seen feeding in the deep water in their up turned feeding behaviour.  A villager cycled close enough to disturb them to the opposite shore.

The general urge to see rare birds  is common among many a birder, and the Indian Pond Heron around here with their larger and sterner build with the ample food source available prompted many to think they were Chinese Pond Herons; a vagrant winter visitor.

yellow bittern

Back at the resort after lunch and a siesta we proceed back to the outfall in the evening. Once again with not much success, but for some plovers on the beach at the sea out fall.

The birds seen during the day and the previous day  were listed after dinner and the plan for day three was to go birding in the Jaffna islets.

Curious about the lack of birdlife in the Chundikkulam Sanctuary; my favourite travel book “The Handbook for the Ceylon Traveller”  by the most eminent travel /photographer of this country; Nihal Fernando of ‘Studio Times’ revealed the mystery.

Page 233 Second edition of 1983 says thus,,,

Still further up the coast, skirted by a rough road from Mullaitivu to Pallai is another little-known and rarely frequented bird sanctuary the Chundikkulam lagoon. It once formed part of the Jaffna lagoon and was saline, but is reported to be losing some of its salinity after the closure of the elephant pass causeway. A number of fresh water streams, including one from the Iranamadu tank flow into this lagoon.”

Cundikulam Map

This is clear in the map above and it is the reason for the high water levels in the lagoon with all the irrigation water draining into it making it freshwater  not favourable for the growth of crustaceans; the preferred food of the waders. The high water mark in the lagoon does not create shores and mud flats for the smaller shore birds.

It is so unfortunate that land-use and land development programmes have to act against faunal behaviour patterns as this. The same fate came upon the famous Bundala wetland which is the last point in the Middle Asian Flyway, when the drainage water from Laungamwehera Irrigation Scheme diluted its salinity recently. The Udawalawe Multipurpose Irrigation Scheme took away the birds from the Kalametiya  Lagoon in the south of the country way back in the 60’s.

Beaks  copy Paint
How waders & shore birds share a common feeding ground


Day 3 [3rd Feb 2015]

Day three was a chase for the Greater Flamingo. We leave very early with a packed breakfast of ‘Kiri bath” [rice cooked in coconut cream] on to the main causeway in Jaffna leading to the Kytes and Mandathive islands. The sea water levels too were on the high side with the lunar effect being a full moon period. The birds were located more in the shores of the Kytes island. The morning sunlight was favourable to the shutter bugs photographing the shorebirds.

Typical Landscape of Kytes Island

Waterfowl were congregated in their hundreds and it was hard to distinguish the vagrants among the Wigeons, Pintails, Shovellers  and the Garganey.  The occasional Common Teal among the hundreds of Northern Shovellers is very challenging to identify even through a spotting scope. Three Eurasian Spoonbill  were seen among the Painted Storks and the Grey Herons in their numbers.

Brown-headed Gulls

We leave the waterfowl and proceed further looking for Flamingo making inquires from the local residents showing the bird to them in the guide. We go to the dead end on the Arali road in Kytes up to the war monument in memory of the valiant soldier  – General Kobbekaduwa who perished with many high ranking officers in 1993 in the height  of the war. We listen to the sentry on guard narrate the fate that befell of their beloved General… the end we ask him of the Flamingo. He promptly responds that they were on the way that we passed skirting the water front. We look for it on the way back but for a Painted Stork.

Panorama 8
Remnants' of the blast

The last lookout for the Flamingos is to be in Mandativu. The islet being small we scan all the water bodies with no luck. It’s Plovers and Godwits in their plentiful. Everyone was fascinated to see so many Brahamini Kites sitting in shallow water among other wading birds.

Eurasian Wigeon
No luck with the Flamingo we head back to the mainland and into the Mango for lunch. The evening is to explore the inland ponds off Meesalai around Antanantidal. The area primarily under rice paddies are protected from a manmade sea water intrusion control structure. The mudflats in the ponds are dominated by the  Black – tailed Godwits.

Man made Structures control salt water intrusion to the paddies

Eurasian Curlew

Black–tailed Godwits – inland ponds 

As evening set in we are back in Chundikkulam before sunset. Every one is awestruck  when Pallio who is also looking for birds for us now, stops at very close range to a raptor on a Palmyra by the road. It's a Common Kestrel with its colours very clear to the naked eye.   In a grassy drainage ditch in the sea shore a solitary Pintail Snipe is startled by our presence. it takes off and settles back in the ditch. We had to flush it again for the benefit of others, And off it went looking for a different roost for the night.

The bird list for the day is done, when we notice the rare Common Teal and the Slender-billed Gull in the photographs taken in Kytes and the previous day in the Karainagar causeway. Their is much controversy in this digital era….  if a photographic recording is accepted as a birds seen. The conventional birder who prefers to identify birds through field characters and behaviour would find it to be inappropriate. On the other hand the camera is an ubiquitous equipment today and the records on them though not seen to the naked eye needs to be considered in the science of Ornithology I feel. Accounting such records in one’s life list is open for debate.

common teal

Common Teal - [A vagrant Migratory Waterfowl in Sr Lanka]

550px-Common_TealBased on the photographic records the list goes up with the Common Teal to the Slender-billed Gull and the Saunder's Tern.

Day 4 [4th Feb 2015]

The journey back home is at 1.45 p.m. from Jaffna. Off we go to Jaffna after breakfast making the best use on the way for birding. The much sought after Sand Martin was seen and the only cuckoo for the trip was recorded as a Grey-bellied Cuckoo. The elusive Yellow-wattled Lapwing was seen in their numbers among the wilting ground grasses.

brahminy kite
Indian roller

paddyfield pipit
brown shrike

IMG_0628ID 11

Closer to Jaffna a solitary Oriental Darter was recorded being the only sighting of this species.

We are back at the Mango and insist for a Jaffna style lunch of “Poori and Chappati” which is generally a dinner menu over here.. Our request is considered and obliged as a special offer for us having frequented this place throughout our stay in Jaffna.

D4 1
At the Mango

At the railway station we say good bye to a very helpful and pleasant lad…..Pallio our coach driver, who was generously tipped by everyone for his services. He is sure to have caught the hang of birdwatching by now.........And I’m sure he will continue to look for the Flamingo that we missed.


Dr Jayantha Dayasena & Dr Ravi Dayasena.
Parents of Dr Jayantha & Dr Saroja Siriwardane
Dr Varuni de Silva Hanwella  & Dr Raveen Hanwella with daughter Anjali
Hemamala Dissanayake & Uditha Wijesena
Wilson Kulasuriya
Yuraji Karunaratne
Madhubashini Jayawardane & her niece Sumudu

 Photographic credit

Dr Varuni de Silva, Yuraji Karunaratne, Wilson Kulasuriya & Uditha Wijesena

Bird List 
Sri Lanka Tally List No Species name Scientific name Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Species count
01-Feb-15 02-Feb-15 03-Feb-15 04-Feb-15
Karainagar Causeway Chundikkulam Jaffna Peninsula Jaffna Peninsula
2 Grey Francolin Francolinus pondicerianus 1 1 1 1 1
11 Lesser Whistling-duck Dendrocygna javanica 1 1 1 1 1
17 Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope 1 1 1 1 1
20 Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata 1 1 1 1
21 Northern Pintail Anas acuta 1 1 1 1 1
22 Garganey Anas querquedula 1 1 1
23 Common Teal Anas crecca 1 1
44 Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 1 1 1 1
47 Painted Stork Mycteria leucocephala 1 1 1 1 1
48 Asian Openbill Anastomus oscitans 1 1 1 1 1
54 Black-headed Ibis Threskiornis melanocephalus 1 1 1 1 1
56 Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 1 1
64 Pond Heron Ardeola grayii 1 1 1 1 1
66 Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis 1 1 1 1 1
67 Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 1 1 1 1 1
69 Purple Heron Ardea purpurea 1 1
70 Great Egret Casmerodius albus 1 1 1 1 1
71 Intermediate Egret Mesophoyx intermedia 1 1 1 1 1
72 Little Egret Egretta garzetta 1 1 1 1 1
73 Western Reef Heron Egretta gularis 1 1 1 1
81 Spot-billed Pelican Pelecanus philippensis 1 1
85 Little Cormorant Phalacrocorax niger 1 1 1 1 1
86 Indian Cormorant Phalacrocorax fuscicollis 1 1
88 Darter Anhinga melanogaster 1 1
91 Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1 1
103 Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus 1 1 1 1 1
104 White-bellied Sea-eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster 1 1 1 1
113 Shikra Accipiter badius 1 1 1 1
133 Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio 1 1 1
139 Great Thick-knee Esacus recurvirostris 1 1 1
142 Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 1 1 1 1 1
145 Yellow-wattled Lapwing Vanellus malarbaricus 1 1 1
147 Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus 1 1 1 1 1
149 Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva 1 1 1 1
151 Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula 1 1 1 1
154 Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 1 1 1 1 1
155 Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus 1 1 1 1
157 Caspian Plover Charadrius asiaticus 1 1
160 Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus 1 1
164 Pintail Snipe Gallinago stenura 1 1
169 Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa 1 1 1 1
172 Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus 1 1 1 1
174 Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata 1 1 1 1
176 Common Redshank Tringa totanus 1 1
178 Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia 1 1
182 Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola 1 1 1 1
184 Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 1 1 1 1 1
186 Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres 1 1
211 Herring Gull Larus argentatus 1 1 1
215 Brown-headed Gull Larus brunnicephalus 1 1 1
217 Slender-billed Gull Larus genei 1 1
218 Gull-billed Tern Sterna (Gelochelidon) nilotica 1 1
219 Caspian Tern Sterna caspia 1 1 1
221 Great Crested Tern Sterna bergii 1 1 1
227 Saunders's Tern Sterna saundersi 1 1
228 White-cheeked Tern Sterna repressa 1 1
231 Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida 1 1 1 1
246 Eurasian Collard Dove Streptopelia decaocto 1 1 1 1
247 Spotted Dove Stigmatopelia (Streptopelia) chinensis 1 1 1 1 1
249 Orange-breasted Green-pigeon Treron bicinctus 1 1 1
255 Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri 1 1 1 1
265 Grey-bellied Cuckoo Cacomantis passerinus 1 1
268 Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus 1 1
295 Asian Palm Swift Cypsiurus balasiensis 1 1 1
303 Indian Roller Coracias benghalensis 1 1 1 1
306 White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis 1 1 1 1 1
311 Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis 1 1 1 1
312 Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis 1 1 1 1 1
313 Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus 1 1 1
319 Brown-headed Barbet Megalaima zeylanica 1 1
335 Common Iora Aegithina tiphia 1 1
344 Brown Shrike (L. c. cristatus) Lanius cristatus cristatus 1 1 1
347 Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 1 1
352 Black-hooded Oriole Oriolus xanthornus 1 1 1
353 Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus 1 1 1
364 House Crow Corvus splendens 1 1 1
365 Jungle Crow Corvus levaillantii 1 1 1 1 1
367 Sand Martin Riparia riparia 1 1
370 Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 1 1 1 1
376 Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula 1 1 1 1
385 Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer 1 1 1 1 1
387 White-browed Bulbul Pycnonotus luteolus 1 1 1
390 Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius 1 1
413 Yellow-billed Babbler Turdoides affinis 1 1 1 1
422 Common Myna Acridotheres tristis 1 1 1 1 1
439 Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis 1 1 1
441 Indian Robin Saxicoloides fulicatus 1 1 1 1
465 Pale-billed Flowerpecker Dicaeum erythrorhynchos 1 1
466 Purple-rumped Sunbird Nectarinia zeylonica 1 1
472 Streaked Weaver Ploceus manyar 1 1
478 Scaly-breasted Munia Lonchura punctulata 1 1
488 Paddyfield Pipit Anthus rufulus 1 1
Daily Tally 42 64 70 52
Total Species Count   92 92


  1. Phew! This is impressive. For someone like me, who is interested in watching people than birds, this is a great way of getting to know more about our feathered friends. Thank you Udi Mama, for sharing this with us.

  2. Thanks Yuraji for sharing your lovely hobby...maybe I can join you some time when I am in the country .

  3. Though I've been living for more than 5 years in Jaffna and participated for so many field visits didn't have so much information and perfect photographs. This article is impressive. :)

  4. Hi,
    Very nice write up, But kindly note that there are some ID mistakes, The Saunder's Tern in the image is a Little Tern, Whimbrel is a Curlew, White-cheeked Tern is a Whiskered Tern, Mongolian Plover looks like a Large Sand Plover (not clear, but a different photo may clear things up), also Common teal is not a vagrent, its uncommon but regular visiter to the northern waters. Do you have any photos of the Caspian Plover ? If so please do post as it is a very rare species....Anyways very nice story of the amazing avifauna of the North...Thank you...!

    1. On the Saunders and the Little Tern yes there is controversy. It was the early breeding plumage for the Little Tern and the white having not gone over the eye and the preference of the Saunders to winter in this region. that we settled for the Saunders.....Unfortunately the legs are not visible in the picture....on the Wimbrel we did see the barring on the head and the beak kinks at the edge....Anyway lets have things open for speculation

  5. Sir,
    Saunder's have a triangular forehead patch with more rounded corners, whereas here the pointed end extends as a supecillium as of the Little is distinctly as of the Little tern....Regarding the Curlew, you can clearly see the well down curved bill (relatively shorter, possibly due to a variation in race or sex) with pale base on lower mandible, pale grey legs, most obviously the streaked distinct plumage....

    1. Hi Moditha
      While welcoming your comments and clarifications will attended to amendments accordingly.....Happy birding

    2. It was a pleasure reading your blog posts, Happy Birding to you too Sir...!!! :)