In the previous article, I wrote about the leopard watching strategies in the Yala Protected Area Complex (YPAC). In this article I will focus on other mammals and birds. My visit was in August, the onset of the migratory season. The previous evening, I had already visited Kumana National Park which adjoins Yala National Park on its eastern flank. My entry point to Kumana had been from Pottuvil, very close to Arugam Bay which is famous as a surfers’ hangout. Kumana is around an hour’s drive from Pottuvil, where I had stayed at the beachside Jetwing Surf.
Block 1 of Yala National Park has entry points at Katagamuwa and one more heavily used at Palatupana which is approached from near the fishing village of Kirinda. The majority of the larger and top-end game lodge type properties are located near the Palatupana entrance. The transfer from Jetwing Surf at Pottuvil to Jetwing Yala (near Palatupana) takes around three hours and is a pleasurable journey.
Leaving Jetwing Surf, we took the A4 which runs from Pottuvil to Buttala with the road cutting though a lovely forested stretch of Lahugala National Park. Near Moneragala, on the way to Buttala, the road runs past a range of forested hills which are in the intermediate zone, with its wildlife different to what is found in Yala. From Buttala one takes the B35 to Kataragama; one stretch of road of the B35 runs past Blocks 3 and 4 of Yala National Park on its eastern side and Block 5 on the western side.
I can imagine that in olden days, these roads would have been jungle tracks with people taking their baggage in oxen carts with the risk of highwaymen besetting them in the forest. Modern highway bandits are also afoot but rather blatant and inclined to daylight robbery or thuggery. They are rather large and not be messed about with. Sri Lanka is an amazing island of 22 million people who share it with an estimated 5,000 plus wild elephants. The elephants are increasingly penned in by electric fences although a smart few manage to outwit the enforcers. Some have taken to highway robbery in more than one part of the country. A favoured tactic is to stand in the middle of the road and be a large and menacing roadblock. Motorists who behave nicely and throw out a tasty banana or two or some bread, are allowed through. Opinion is divided on the merits of this. On the B35, we pulled over some distance from such an elephant and watched a procession of vehicles slow down, roll down their windows and throw out their road tax banana and pass the elephant unmolested. Others believe this reinforces bad behaviour of the elephants and can only lead to bigger trouble. One infamous elephant within Yala’s Block 1 took to putting its trunk inside open vehicles and searching it before allowing a vehicle to pass through. As we watched, one angry driver tooted his horn at the elephant that took fright and scurried away into the jungle.
From Kataragama, we headed via Tissamaharama towards the fishing village of Kirinda and just before reaching it, took a turn off towards the Palatupana entrance of Yala. We passed the Palatupana Salt Pans which is one of the best places in the world in which to see a variety of wading birds at close range. I remembered visiting the site many years ago with David Rosair who authored the Hamlyn Photographic Guide to the Waders of the World. He agreed that it is unmatched for close views of many species. The Salt Corporation no longer allows birders to go inside, but there is a long stretch of public road (the B499) from which one can see a wide variety of waders including Black-winged Stilts, Curlew, Broad-billed and Common Sandpipers, Common Redshanks, Ruff and Lesser Sand Plovers. As we drove through, an unseasonal, short-lived tropical downpour swept through, turning the muted browns of the lowland dry zone into the muted grey more familiar in the mist-laden highlands. We emerged through the greyscape into Jetwing Safari Camp with the downpour petering out into an intermittent drizzle.
From the top deck of the reception area I looked out over the sand dunes towards the sea. Large Crested Terns were heading south with measured wingbeats. Tented chalets had been carefully sited within tall Palu and Inginiya trees to avoid cutting any down. Each tented chalet had a deck that was one of the biggest I had seen in a lodge. I watched a male Common Iora with black upperparts and yellow underparts threading its way through a Palu tree, betraying its presence with a melancholy call. The iora’s call is for me one of the acoustic signatures of the dry lowlands.
The original plan had been to go to Nimalawa Sanctuary and bird watch on foot. After a brief discussion with the head ranger Chamara Amarasinghe and his Deputy Thilani Rathnayake, we decided to bird watch around the hotel grounds. Jetwing Yala Safari Camp with its tented chalets is situated next to Jetwing Yala which is a large property with rooms set along a 600 metre long corridor. Jetwing Yala combines safari chic with the service and amenities of a top-end resort hotel. It includes a swimming pool, gym and a choice of dining options from an airconditioned indoor restaurant to outdoor dining. The safari camp is a more intimate and rustic affair. Chamara is working on a PhD on bats and one of the first places we visited was a small grove of palm trees that had been planted beside the hotel. The palm fronds were folded over and roosting in the shade cast by the folded fronds were Short-nosed Fruit Bats. The palm fronds do not fold over naturally. The bats nip the bases of palm leaflets until they bend over. It is an engineered construction.
A Large Egret, Pied Kingfisher and a Common Sandpiper occupied a small waterhole. A Little Cormorant gave us a baleful look. Overhead, Palm Swifts and Little Swifts quartered the sky. I wondered about the life history of the swifts in the tropics. In Europe, studies of the Common Swift have shown that a bird, after it leaves its nest may not touch land again for a few years. It hunts and eats on the wing and even sleeps on the wing. It is extraordinary to think that a bird could be in constant motion for more than a year. I was with Senal Siriwardene from the Jetwing Hotels marketing team. We had persuaded Gemunu Srilal the General Manager of Jetwing Yala to join us on a bird watch. I had known him from over ten years ago and as we chatted in the entrance area of the safari camp I recorded over twenty species of birds. Red-vented and White-browed Bulbuls chatted noisily and an Oriental Magpie-Robin, an accomplished singer sang beautifully. From the scrub we heard Plain Prinias and Tawny-bellied Babblers.
We stopped at the entrance gate to the safari camp and spoke to the security personnel to check on the whereabouts of Walige Kota or ‘Short Tail’. Shorty is an elephant with attitude. He does not take kindly to gates and if he finds any in his path, he sees fit to dismantle them as the mood seizes him. The safari camp has recognised that if he is allowed to come and go as he wishes, he causes no trouble. Nevertheless, guests are warned of the dangers and asked to keep their distance and not feed him. He has wrecked three cars where drivers ignored the warning not to leave food inside vehicles. He also has a famous YouTube appearance. One went viral when he nonchalantly walked through the main entrance of the larger Jetwing Yala and through to the seaward side of the hotel amidst a scattering away of guests and staff who beat a hasty retreat.
Having checked that Shorty was not going to surprise us, with a watchful ear and nose we walked along the road leading to the hotel with the buffer zone of the park on one side. In the fading light we listened to the changeover of the birds. A White-rumped Shama, one of the most beautiful songsters in Asia sang from the undergrowth. The marble dropping calls of Indian Nightjars joined it. Before long, mixing with it was the more measured call of Jerdon’s Nightjars. We walked back to the safari camp and in the gloom we could just about make out three large birds with rounded wings in flight. Their call seemed like an apologetic croak for their late appearance. These were Black-crowned Night-herons. We had seen over forty different species of birds in and around the hotel. We could have seen more with less chat and more birding. But as my family likes to remind me, we are on holiday. I rejoined my family for a leisurely and excellent dinner prepared by Kaushalya Batagoda, a young award-winning chef. Next on the agenda was to look for nocturnal mammals. That will be the subject of another article.