August 2015


Chundikulam Bird Sanctuary: A Northern Wildlife Destination
August 2015




Little egrets about to take to the skies

Leafing out from the mainland to form the northern peninsular, the ‘stem' of thin strip connecting both ends, bordered by the Indian ocean from the east, and carving to create a lagoon from the west is a divine hotspot of wild creatures that's been hidden for nearly three decades. Chundikulam declared a bird sanctuary in 1938, is one of the best wildlife destinations for visitors who plan to visit the northern region of the Island. Its undulating landscapes have over the years created a large variety of habitats. From beaches laden with sand-dunes, to salt marshes, to wetlands, to thorny scrublands and dry forests, to tanks, mangroves and lagoon have all combined to produce a wild haven.


Words Nethu Wickramasinghe Photography L J Mendis Wickramsinghe


Despite its boundaries, to access the sanctuary one should take the A9 road towards Jaffna, and head to the Iyyakkachchi junction, passing the Elephant Pass causeway. Drive another 15 km drive towards Kaddaikadu, until you arrive at the Chundikulam junction. The road across the Sanctuary falls between Chundikulam from the northern end and Chalai from the southern end, running parallel to the coastal line. On journeying to the North, palmyrah palms in the distance silhouetted against the rays of the sun along with scrublands, vast areas of grass lands and the typical setting of dryer parts of this region present an altogether different experience from other parts of Sri Lanka. Much of the forest vegetation consists of Palu (Manilkara hexandra) and Weera (Drypetes sepiaria) dominant dry forest type. The dry zone forest cover is home to the larger mammals such as the sloth bear, jackal, sambur and deer, while smaller mammals such as mongoose, otter, ring tail civet, fishing cat, and jungle cat, can also be seen.


The effects of the vast ocean and the ripping winds have carved the sanctuary's eastern boundaries with sand dunes, which have ultimately become natural barriers protecting the land from the erosion causing salty waters. During the migratory season, spanning from November to February, these very dunes and the skies above become the major sites of activity for large flocks of birds, such as terns and gulls, and to raptors such as kites and sea eagles. Birds all flock to collect the small fish lying on the shore from nets cast by fishermen, which presents an ideal setting to capture their acrobatic movements. Not only the dunes, but the vast areas of open space, and the fishing activities with the backdrop of a scarlet skyline at twilight too provides much opportunity for an enigmatic wildlife moment for photography enthusiasts.

The effect of the vast ocean and the ripping winds have carved the sanctuary’s eastern boundaries with sand dunes,  which have ultimately become natural barriers protecting  the land from the erosion causing salty waters
Crimson winged, long slender necks entwined with one another, engaged in a ballet will keep one simply mesmerised... For these magical greater flamingoes in their thousands all unite to create a picturesque sight, moving further away when approached, keeping their distance well in the safety zone amidst the salt tolerant greenery of the lagoon. What's even more astonishing is the fact that a flock of 10,000 birds were even sighted way after the birding season, during the months of June. These birds were once abundant during their migratory season in the Bundala National Park of the southeastern coast. However, now they are rarely seen at the national park due to changes that have taken place in the environment, and now have found shelter on the northwestern, northern and northeastern coasts.


We encountered a magical spectacle, for close to three days of our stay in the area, we witnesses what could be one of the largest migrations of Dragon flies ever known in Sri Lanka. Zillions of dragon flies of the same species manoeuvred along air currents in an invisible path, coming into the Island clouding a vast region, which stretched to as much as seven kilometres in length as observed from a given point along the coastal belt towards the northern tip.


Pools near the coastal line are formed due to inter-tidal activity, where salty waters have combined with rain water to dilute and create ideal habitats for insects, and even birds. We were indeed taken by surprise at the arrangement of the tiny eggs neatly laid on a lily leaf, of the glorious and colourful Lily moth (Polytela gloriosae), in one of the salt marshes. During the season of butterflies, the sanctuary bursts with an unusual abundance of these colourful creatures. From glassy tigers to lime butterflies to common tigers they all flock up in either mud-puddling, or feed on plants looking for nectar or sap they prefer most.


Wetland habitats within the sanctuary are overflown with aquatic birds such as painted storks, pelicans, godwits, ducks, open bills, spoon bills, ibises, and many species of waders that scoop their beaks in a tireless effort in search of food. Continuous air raids by the predatory raptors, that competes in the vast skies like the common kestrel, marsh harrier, honey buzzards, and shikras keeps the natural balance intact.


The road along the shore can be accessed even at night. Unlike the rainforest experiences, nights in the dry zone forests are quite the opposite, with the skies gleaming with pristine lucidity. White furry balls atop trees in an open area, is a common sight. These are Barn owls, nocturnal ambush predators, with their exceptionally fine-tuned eyes gleaming when illuminated by light, and easily spotted.


Chundikulam lagoon, nourished by several rivers, was once openly linked to the Indian Ocean and Jaffna lagoon, which became one big salty lake after the construction of the Elephant Pass causeway. Just how vast this sanctuary is and how diverse it may be is hitherto undocumented due to inaccessibility in the past, but now there is so much to see and experience.

 

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    A large flock of greater flamingoes amidst the salt tolerant greenery of the Lagoon

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    Common glassy tigers feeding on nectar

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    Common terns competing for food

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    Purple sun bird

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    Barn Owl waiting patiently for its prey

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    Rivalry between two common mynahs

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    Tiny eggs neatly laid on a lily leaf, belonging to a Lily moth (Polytela gloriosae)

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    Picturesque view of the lagoon, at dusk

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