For nearly three months Sri Lanka was in lockdown due to the Covid 19 pandemic sweeping across both the country and the world. As human activities decreased quietness reigned through the country. While the people battled this new-fangled disease, something quite magical was taking place within the Bundala National Park well away from human eyes.
Amidst the lockdown, the rare migratory species of birds the Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) known locally as the ‘Silitu Dethuduwa’ had decided to breed in Sri Lanka after nearly 148 years. While it is unknown if this remarkable phenomenon was due to the lockdown resulting in fewer visitors to the park, nevertheless it is being welcomed by wildlife enthusiasts and environmentalists in the country.
Every year Sri Lanka becomes a temporary home for nearly 200 species of migratory birds fleeing the harsh winters of their home countries further North. From August to April and sometimes beyond the various migratory species, both terrestrial and aquatic flock to Sri Lanka for its ideal climate and habitat. Among them is the Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) an aquatic bird species known locally as the ‘Silitu Dethuduwa’.
The small bird, the size of an egret is easily identified by its brownish, curved, and long bill. The dark plumage of adult birds is brown with metallic green wings while the appearance of the juveniles is much duller in comparison.
But seen rarely in Sri Lanka during recent times the news of the species breeding in the country after nearly 148 years is a remarkable phenomenon according to local bird enthusiasts and environmentalists.
Up to five nests belonging to Glossy Ibis have been discovered within the Bundala National Park by its park warden Ajith Gunatunge and team. According to Gunatunge, the Glossy Ibises were found living communally with another group of birds in an area within the park. Wildlife officials have since observed six Glossy Ibis hatchlings in the nests.
The significance of this discovery is evidenced through the writings of renowned ornithologist Colonel William Vincent Legge in 1880. In his book ‘History of the Birds of Ceylon’ Legge notes his observations of a breeding colony of about eight pairs of Glossy Ibis at Uduwila, Tissamaharama on thorny trees growing in the half-dried small tank bed during the year 1872. This is the last record of a Glossy Ibis colony present in Sri Lanka till the recent discovery at the Bundala National Park.
However, according to Legge’s observations, unlike today Glossy Ibis had been once found in abundance during the 19th century in Sri Lanka. In his book he notes that the species was an inhabitant in the lake districts of Sri Lanka, and was often found at the Minneriya and Kantale tank. He also notes of the bird’s presence in the North and East near lakes and lagoons. Legge also observed that the species were found in the Hambantota district closer to salterns and tanks. Though a migratory bird today Legge had considered it as a resident bird but also noted that migrants of the species were also visiting the country.
But five decades later, sightings of the Glossy Ibis became rare or nonexistent with an avifaunal survey by the British and Colombo Museum from 1936 – 1939 did not find a single bird of its kind in the country.
As noted by ornithologist George Morrison Reid Henry in 1955 the Glossy Ibis if found in the country at all is rare. Henry also wrote that he had never encountered one during his many field visits at the time.
The reason why the bird went extinct from Sri Lanka remains a mystery. According to Jagath Gunawardana the question remains unanswered. He too had attempted to find an answer to this conundrum by scouring available records. “Another bird, the Comb Duck became extinct in the country as people were fond of hunting it” he said, adding that there is no evidence to show that people hunted the Glossy Ibis. Neither had he been able to find any other cause for its sudden disappearance from the country.
But once again in 1952 the Glossy Ibis found its way to Sri Lanka with reports of two birds being sighted in Kalametiya. Following this the Glossy Ibis was seen from time to time in areas such as Kalametiya, Madiwela, Habarana, Pinkatiya, Bundala, Nawadankulama, Wilpattu, Jaffna and Attidiya. There are also reports by Henry of a flock consisting of 81 birds being observed at the Muthurajawela wetland at one time. According to Gunawardana the species were seen in the Bellanwila area for example in increasing numbers in the years following 1990.
“In 1995 a school student observed 83 birds in Ja Ela, this was the largest number seen in Sri Lanka in the 21st century” he said. However according to Gunawardana despite the many sightings no observation has been made of the species breeding since the report in 1872. “It was also believed that these were not resident birds but instead were migratory birds as the sightings took place during the migratory season” he noted. According to Gunawardana it is believed these birds had come to Sri Lanka from neighbouring India.
So the news of the Glossy Ibis not only returning to the country but also choosing to breed here once again after 148 years is welcome news for the country’s bird enthusiasts and environmentalists alike. According to Gunawardana this is a very significant event and had been predicted that it may occur some time ago.
According to Gunawardana the reason for this change of behaviour remains unclear. “However places like Bundala and Kalametiya do have the necessary conditions for breeding for Glossy Ibises” he said adding that perhaps climate change may have also played a part. Or perhaps the birds decided to breed here rather than return to their home country, he added. “It is still too early to arrive at a conclusion,” he said. But according to Gunawardana his hunch is that after many years the species have rediscovered that the conditions at Bundala are conducive to nesting.
While in 1991 the Bundala National Park was the first wetland to be declared as a Ramsar site in Sri Lanka, Gunawardana said the recent discovery proves this was a correct decision made by the government of Sri Lanka. “It shows that the national park has maintained a conducive environment for birds” he said.
He also noted that the event proves that despite the lockdown in the country due to Covid 19, the Wildlife department officials have been carrying out their duties. “The staff has been active and alert,” he said. Noting that if not, they would have missed this rare sighting he said it proves they had even gone to areas not reachable by an average tourist. “They have been diligent and carried out their duties in a conscious manner,” he added.
Noting that around five nests have now been observed, Gunawardana said this can be declared as very successful breeding. However according to the environmentalist, it is too early to say if this will become a precedent in Sri Lanka. “This might be a precedent for breeding or even be a one-time occurrence” he said adding that it can only be seen after carrying out observations a few years along the line. “It is only then we will be able to see if there is a precedent breeding population in Sri Lanka” he said.