Stands of long-stalked Kadol, a dominant mangrove tree lined each side of the river as our two boats drifted silently along the river. It was daybreak and nocturnal birds such as the Black-crowned Night Heron were still active and showing well. These boat trips are an excellent way to watch and photograph birds at close range. The birds are used to fisherfolk and fishing boats and watch the oncoming boats with almost puzzled curiosity until the boats are almost upon them, to take flight. The kingfishers are probably the highlight for most visitors. We saw the large Stork-billed Kingfisher and the diminutive Common Kingfisher. The Pied Kingfishers depart from the norm of being colourful and sporting a blaze of blue. They are black and white and hover when hunting. Statuesque Purple Herons stalked the marshes quietly. A ghostly, melancholy call from Grey-headed Fish-eagles rang out briefly.
We were on the Urani River, around fifteen minutes’ drive from Pottuvil and Arugam Bay. I was researching another book on Sri Lanka and also accompanying some members from the Jetwing Hotels marketing team who had brought me to Jetwing Surf. My family had been bowled over by the design of the spacious cabanas and the inventive cuisine. I was harder to please and needed my green fix with the wildlife.
The Urani River Safari is a project run collectively by the local community in an initiative that has received EU funding. Tourists sit on boats which are designed as a flat platform laid across two outrigger canoes. These floating platforms are paddled typically by two oarsmen. No motorised boats appear to be allowed minimising damage to the edges of the river and cutting out the noise that would kill the tranquillity. I suspect as tourism progresses, bigger boats with seats on platforms will be developed, somewhat in the fashion of the boats on the River Zambezi in Zambia. But I hope motorised boats are not allowed on this stretch. Early morning or in the evening, when the flaming ball of fire is no longer overhead, these rides are cool and calming. On our morning trip in August I heard or saw 38 species of birds. Later in the year with migrants present, the number could approach 50. Birdwatchers and bird photographers would be better off chartering a boat for themselves. This will allow you to dictate the pace and allow the boat to slowly drift towards some of the shyer birds like the Little Green Herons which are fond of mangroves.
This part of Eastern Sri Lanka still contains pockets of scrub forest interspersed with grasslands, within a matrix of agriculture and villages and towns. Travelling free between the sheltering pockets of land are wild elephants. The boats pulled up to the edge of grassland and in the distance was a grazing elephant. We were offered the option of walking in closer. We politely declined. Wild elephants are unpredictable which makes them potentially dangerous. It is best not to tempt fate.
We returned to Jetwing Surf for a late breakfast and visited Arugam Bay, a surfer’s hangout. It has become sufficiently touristy that non surfers also come to enjoy its beaches. After lunch we headed to Kumana National Park, which adjoins on its western boundary, the Yala National Park. As one cannot drive through one park to the other, the circuitous road transfer is around three hours. Kumana is around an hour’s drive from Jetwing Surf. It is a RAMSAR convention site on account of its many large waterbodies which hold large numbers of breeding and wintering waterbirds. The approach to Kumana (strictly speaking the Yala East National Park) takes you past the adjoining Kudimbigala Sanctuary which has an arresting rocky ridge with a Buddhist stupa. On our way we stopped to photograph a pair of jackals that was out hunting. Alighting at the park office I was distracted by the swarms of insects visiting the small white flowers of the Bauhinia, one of the most numerous small trees in the dry lowlands. As we watched from a bridge, a crocodile lunged at a large fish. Leopards are also seen regularly in Kumana. Several kilometres inside the park we arrived at the Kumana Villu; a large lake that has long been famed for its breeding colonies of waterbirds. A scarce migrant Glossy Ibis was pointed out to me by Senal Siriwardene. A tall birdwatching tower has been built allowing for a panoramic view of the lake which had several tiny islands bounded by mangrove trees. Painted Storks were raising young. At the base of the tower an enormous Wild Boar slumbered. Kumana is a beautiful park, quite different in character to the adjoining Yala National Park which I would be visiting the next day by staying at Jetwing Safari Camp Yala which adjoins Jetwing Yala.
The previous day, I had visited another national park, also about an hour’s drive from Jetwing Surf. This was Lahugala National Park. The road that leads to Pottuvil and Arugam Bay runs beside a large lake within the park on which elephants are regularly seen. We passed one. The road also runs through a beautiful, forested stretch of the park. Lahugala is in the intermediate zone, intermediate between the dry and wet zone. The forest here is tall, characterised by large trees densely growing near each other. It is very different to the thorn scrub forest in Kumana and Yala which have tall Palu trees dotted around. Palu is the climax tree in the dry zone growing tall and large with a heavily reticulated dark bark. It has a dark green, dense canopy which leopards are fond of sleeping in for the cool shade. Whereas the Palu trees are spaced out at large intervals in Yala, in Lahugala the tall forest trees are thronging each other, like in a rainforest. As we explored the forest in a safari vehicle I asked the driver to pull over since I heard the calls of Racket-tailed Drongos. We seemed to have encountered the kind of feeding flock which is more common in the wet zone. Dark-fronted Babblers churred and a Blue-faced Malkoha flew to the left. Then suddenly, at very close range a Red-faced Malkoha flew to the right and ascended the canopy. It was so close that its red face and black and white body could not have been mistaken for anything else. Isuri Alahakoon from the marketing team in the head office was surprised at how excited Nilushan Wijesinghe, Senal and I were. The Red-faced Malkoha has been documented in the dry zone, especially in riverine forests where taller forest is found. But records are rare and only a tiny handful of people have seen it in the dry zone. I suspect Lahugala with large areas of tall forest may turn out to be one of the best places for it outside wet zone reserves such as Sinharaja. Lahugala probably has more ornithological treasures to be discovered by birders. It would also be absorbing for anyone with an interest in native trees.
With good roads in place and tourism infrastructure opening up, there is huge potential for an eastern Sri Lanka wildlife circuit to open up. Birders and wildlife photographers can easily stay at seaside hotels such as Jetwing Surf and smaller properties such as Kottukal Beach House and have a number of options such as Lahugala and Kumana within an hour. Further afield at between an hour and a half to two hours is Gal Oya National Park. A wildlife tour may work better if it is designed to stay over for a night or two at Gal Oya. The bigger hotels such as Jetwing Surf have innovative cuisine and facilities such as a swimming pool and a secluded beach to keep non birding partners and family members happy. Travellers on a budget can consider options at Arugam Bay. There are also a number of ancient archaeological sites in the vicinity. In addition to the River Urani safari, lagoon safaris are also available on the Pottuvil Lagoon. Sri Lanka’s eastern wildlife circuit with a range of options can easily keep a visiting wildlife enthusiast and family occupied for a couple of weeks.