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Sunday, 13 January 2002  
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Yala's unique bird hide


The bird hide is modelled on those found in Europe and USA

The small thatched roof mud hut on the right bank of the picturesque bird filled lagoon a few yards from our bedroom at the Yala Safari Beach Hotel, might have been mistaken for a guard house where some lone watchman kept his night vigil to frighten away wild animals approaching the hotel.

Set in a small cleared patch of ground surrounded by jungle, with a small pool in front of it, around which were scattered several dead branches of trees placed in such a manner as to attract insects, we had no idea that what we were looking at was actually a bird hide. The only clue to its real identity from the outside, once you drew close enough to enter this purpose built bird watching hide, lay in the two carefully hidden open windows complete with elbow rests to enable bird watchers to hold optics for several hours without experiencing fatigue. The elbow rest is also used for positioning telescopes using a 'hide clamp'.

Observing our feathered friends

Built strictly according to environmental regulations this unique bird hide, claimed to be the first to be constructed by a hotel chain in this country, is one of the many eco-friendly innovations currently being spearheaded by Jetwing Hotels, and has been designed after a careful study of the features of well known bird hides elsewhere in the world. "Instead of re-inventing the wheel, we decided to combine the best of these features and adapt them to our own environment,"says Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Director, Product development, for Jetwing Hotels.

Along with his Managing Director Hiran Cooray, Gehan says he visited several nature reserves managed by the RSPB, Wildfowl and Wetland Trust and local councils in the UK before embarking on a Bird hide of their own.

"We finally decided on a design which adopted the features used in Europe and the USA. But all the raw material we used is one hundred percent local", he stresses as he draws our attention first to the red clay with bits of grass still freshly embedded in it that made up the hide and then to the thatched roof made of illuk grass. "The material we have used serves a two fold purpose. It keeps the hide cool and gives an ethnic touch to it which is specially appealing to visitors", he explains.

At the inauguration ceremony

The hide is made up of two small rooms. One is a sort of conference room where discussions can take place on the day's sightings. The room which opens to the lagoon and overlooks a small man made pool is for bird watching. Here you see a row of benches which can accommodate about seven or eight persons, with a small table where children accompanied by their parents can also participate in the bird watching experience and can draw and paint the birds they see. "We have made a deliberate departure from the smaller hides one finds in Europe.

Ours is wider and larger because we want more people to participate in this exciting experience. Children for example can accompany their parents and draw and paint the birds they see from here", says Gehan. The hide is also positioned in such a way that approaching visitors are screened naturally by the jungle vegetation surrounding it.

To attract birds closer to the hide, several dead branches of trees have been strewn around the man made pool, (called a 'scrape' in Britian.. "This is to attract both birds and insects, especially dragon flies" explains Chandra Jayawardene, the resident Naturalist. He says that some 40 odd species of birds, water birds and aquatic birds including migratory birds have been spotted on the lagoon and even in the little man made pool outside the Hide.

They include egrets, red shanks, red wattle and yellow wattle birds, Indian data, snake birds, whistling teals, doves, green bee eaters and many more. "This is the time when migratory birds make their way to our country to escape the cold winters. They come from East European countries such as Russia and fly via India. We call this route the "Indo Asian fly way".

Many of them will stay here until about April. So this is the best time of the year for bird watching, and this hide provides the ideal place to observe them undisturbed for any length of time". As he points out, Sri Lanka is home for some 435 bird species of which 190 are migratory birds. In just two days at the hotel Gehan says he was able to record over a hundred species of birds around the hotel premises, while Chandra adds that he was able to record over 30 species of butterflies with the list growing every day.

To make it easier for bird watchers to record their sightings, the Jetwing Initiative has also put out the Yala Bird checklist published by the Sri Lanka natural History society, which lists every single known species of birds, their favourite habitats and habits in the Yala Sanctuary. The Yala Safari Beach Hotel has also put up notice boards where visitors can record their findings.

As the Resident naturalist, Chandra is currently educating the hotel staff about birds, in particular. "From the bell boy to the accountant, all of them are now familiar with at least some of the features of the birds in this vicinity. We also conduct workshops for them" he says. One such workshop in which members of the visiting team of media personnel was allowed to participate, turned out to be a real eye opener. Both the questions asked and the correct replies given by the hotel staff who included waiters, porters and bell boys was ample proof that Chandra's lessons on wildlife had not fallen on deaf ears.!

"Our staff is exceptionally fortunate to be living in such unique surroundings. They can easily promote eco tourism simply by talking to visitors about the rich wildlife around the hotel", says Upali Weerasinghe, Manager of the hotel who encourages his staff to walk the hotel's nature trail with Chandra. Walking this trail on a hot sunny afternoon with Chandra, colleague Vimukthi and I were able to spot fresh deer droppings, elephant dung indicating that both deer and elephants had walked the trail not so long ago.

We walked past the lagoon, entering a jungle through which we trekked until we came up to the sandy beach on which two enormous rocks stood. Strangely they resembled an elephant and wild boar and blended well with the jungle nearby.

The Yala Safari beach hotel's bird hide, was opened last month by environmentalist Sarath Kotagama. To quote a press release, he has stated that "the speed with which a private sector can act, could make environmentally responsible eco tourism companies a useful ally to save Sri Lanka's bio diversity". Now that they have taken the first step, Jetwing hotels are hoping that other eco-friendly companies will do just t hat.

Crescat Development Ltd.

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