What the early bird sees: An oasis of peace | Sunday Observer

What the early bird sees: An oasis of peace

1 October, 2017


Getting up early on a cold, foggy August morning is usually tough. But, not when you are in Mahagama Wewa or Urusitawewa as was known in ancient times. The sheer anticipation of getting a glimpse of rare birds can fill the air with excitement. Incidentally, my interest in birds is fairly recent, developed after travelling on safari with my fellow avid wildlife photographer, Susantha Wijegunawardena, to many wildlife sanctuaries around the country. And once I fell in love with this idea, Mahagama Wewa was my next destination.

The Mahagama Wewa can be reached by travelling four kilometres off Mahagama on the Hambantota-Suriyawewa Mahagama road. If one travels from Embilipitiya, an alternative route would be via Moraketiya on the Suriyawewa Road, which covers around 12 kilometres. When my family and I reached the tank bund of the Wewa, it was well past 5.30 am. and foggy.

Morning breeze

However, we were the “early birds”. A group of fishermen were keeping themselves warm around a small fire at a tea boutique on the tank bund. The parking lot alongside the road on the tank bund was almost deserted except for a couple of three-wheelers and it seemed we were among the first to brave the cold.

We walked in the dim light to the edge of the tank through a slippery footpath taking in the silence and the pleasant morning breeze. We waited a few minutes until the darkness disappeared. Sunrise was imminent and I checked the settings on my DSLR camera hanging on my neck, to capture the first rays of the sun over the tank and the amazing sight of various birds welcoming a new day. I first saw a few waders on the banks and a couple of low-flying pond egrets.

Just when the sun broke through the horizon, a group of about 20 fishermen in the Mahagama Wewa got into their colourful fishing canoes and vanished in the misty water to bring the day’s harvest. Freshwater fishing provides a good income for the local fisherfolk. The Mahagama Wewa originally covered an area of over 700 acres (280 hectares) but siltation has led to it shrinking to about 400 acres (160 hectares) amid the flat land area surrounding Suriyawewa and Embilipitiya.

Mahagama Wewa’s claim to fame is a marvellous creation of an ancient sluice gate (Biso Kotuwa), a century-old sluice gate, and the nearby ancient Mahanaga Rajamaha Viharaya. The unique monolithic figure of a cobra with seven hoods, well-preserved by the Mahaweli Authority of the Walawa Region lies on the other part of the tank bund. This figure of the cobra is a fine example of expert stone carving and rich workmanship not found anywhere else in Sri Lanka. If you are a history buff, this is a “must visit” place.

In the dawn, the Mahagama Wewa offers a breathtaking view. Skeletons of dead trees provide a nesting ground for various birds such as, pelicans, egrets, painted storks, spoonbills, changeable hawk eagles and the ubiquitous cormorants. Some of these birds were seen sunbathing and waiting for their prey on tree-tops.

A flock of egrets came in, the birds announcing their presence loudly, whistling as they frolicked and splashed in the water before settling down.

Placid waters

A flock of spot billed pelicans floated by slowly. My son looked at them through his binoculars as they curled up on the placid waters of the tank. We then headed to the other bank of the tank, and who should be waiting there, but a bright glossy ibis preening in the sun! A darter bird darted past. While a grey heron stood still like a statue. Puddles of water suddenly moved in the green marshland and the heads of ducks popped out. They flew across the tank, criss-crossing from one side to the other, whistling away.

As we rode along under the trees on the bund, the arid landscape gave way to marshland and shallow waters on the tank. A wonderful scene unfolded – an amazing range of water birds appeared all around, each busy, searching for breakfast in the shallow waters. There were purple, grey, and pond herons, great and median egrets, cormorants and painted storks. This was an absolutely meditative experience in the backdrop of a glowing midday sun; with clean, still water all around us. Herons and egrets fished furiously in the calm waters.

No wonder this place is called a bird paradise. We were lucky to spot a number of painted storks sitting around tree-tops and little islets. Snake birds dived into the tank and reappeared elsewhere, only their snake-like necks and heads seen over the water’s surface. A few great white pelicans flew in unison and settled down in the distance to give us a somewhat blurry view.

Nesting places

Somasiri, a middle aged fisherman who has been fishing in the tank for more than 10 years says, this year more birds have visited Mahagama Wewa compared to previous years. “I have been fishing here for the past 10 years. This time I saw more birds than in previous years. I had not seen pelicans in such numbers before,” said Somasiri.

The birds choose their nesting places considering food, shelter and safety. They leave the place as soon as they find that it is not safe. Tanks such as the Mahagama Wewa attract more birds as human interference is minimal. The fishermen at the tank do not harm any birds as we understood from their behaviour.

Mahagama Wewa is also an ideal location and a paradise for wildlife photographers. At dawn, the location throws hundreds of angles before the photographers as the sunrise over the tank gives an amazing view of birds’ silhouettes against the backdrop of the golden hued water.

We stood there for hours, forgetting the heat and hunger pangs, longing for more time in the company of these amazing birds.

The silence stood out as the birds called out. Fortunately, this little idyllic world is not known yet to man and commercialization. We then realized that Mahagama Wewa is not just a destination, but a pleasure filled journey, worthy of experience at least once in your lifetime.