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Bird watching at a tank

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by Athula Dissanayake

Way back in the mid 1970’s, I was still a schoolboy and had just started a new hobby, namely bird watching. Schooling in Colombo did not provide much opportunity for bird watching and therefore it was with much delight that I accepted the invitation of my aunt and uncle to spend the school holidays at their home in Kurunegala.

Their house, situated at Kaudawatte in a rural setting amidst paddy fields, coconut plantations and scrubland, was a haven for me as it provided ample opportunity to pursue my new hobby. Most of the birds I came across there were new to me. Eventually it became a habit with me to spend one or two weeks at their home during school holidays, and they always welcomed me with open arms.

My bird list grew rapidly and soon I was able to register my hundredth bird very proudly. It happened to be the Ceylon lorikeet, which was calling loudly on a coconut frond in my aunt’s garden. I hurriedly took notes in my field book for subsequent identification from a bird guide. This is a habit I would recommend to every raw bird watcher; for otherwise memory would play tricks when one attempts to write the details later, making identification difficult or inaccurate.

My two cousins at Kurunegala knew of every nook and corner of the neighborhood and took me roaming into the paddy fields, coconut estates and scrubland as well as along streams and into the jungle in the famous Elephant Rock at Kurunegla. The present day road along which a car would now take passengers right up to the summit was not in existence in those days, and we three boys joyously trekked along footpaths through the forest up to the summit, which I still remember with nostalgia.

One day they suggested that we should visit a small tank at Thittawella and so we set off, walking all the way. At the end of the long walk I set my eyes for the first time on this tank and immediately fell in love with it as it proved to be a refuge for water birds, which were at that time all new to me. Thereafter we made frequent forays to this small tank in the mornings or afternoons and spent hours at a stretch at the site.

We had all the time in the world and were not hampered in anyway by tuition classes as the present day kids are! I used to sit there and observe the abundant bird life, taking notes with meticulous care and attention to detail, while my two cousins who lacked such patience wandered off on their own frolics until I had finished my work. Later, back at the house, I used to copy these field notes and sketches of birds neatly on to a permanent record book.

Thittawella tank is situated along the Kurunegala-Puttalam road. It is small and is in a picturesque setting. Towards its southern end are some boulders of varying size standing in the water, which break up the monotony of an otherwise plain sheet of water. The largest of these is covered with scrub vegetation, offering refuge to many water birds, including herons and cormorants.

Varieties of water plants grow in different sections of the tank and offer varying shades of green. These plants consist of water lilies, reeds and many kinds of floating vegetation. The centre of the tank is mostly overgrown with lotuses with their beautiful pure white blossoms, while in the shallow periphery are the olu (Nymphaea lotus) plants with their equally beautiful, pale pink and white flowers.

These patches of vegetation are interspersed with stretches of unobstructed water glimmering in the sunlight. In the south-eastern horizon, rising out of the plains like giant sentinels, stand large boulders and mountains so characteristic of Sri Lankan scenery. On a poya day the rising full moon casts a magic spell over this peaceful scene and many an enchanting evening have I had while seated on the bund of this tank to enjoy its varied bird life and tranquillity.

To the casual observer Thittawella tank would, at first glance, appear to be devoid of any bird life. The bigger and more glamorous avifauna in the form of painted storks, pelicans, open-bills, white-necked storks and spoonbills would be prominent by their absence. It would be to the keen and patient student of nature that it would gradually unravel the mysteries that are hidden deep in the beds of reeds, clumps of water lilies, and tangles of floating weeds. I would sit on the banks, take out my binoculars and notebook, and wait patiently for things to happen, and they did happen gradually and unobtrusively.

Jacana

I noticed a strange-looking bird, like a young chicken, walking on the leaves of the water lilies. It was mostly white, wore a necklace of black and had a bronze back and short stump of a tail. It had several companions walking about on the lily pads. It puzzled me to see other similar individuals but with a different plumage, consisting of a jet-black belly and long black tail. They took to the air uttering strange cat-like calls (hence their Sinhala name halal-sera) and flew from one part of the tank to another like giant butterflies fluttering in the wind.

My notebook began to fill up with copious notes and sketches. That was my first introduction to the water birds of the tank and it was the beautiful pheasant-tailed jacana. The birds were in two different kinds of plumage, the non-breeding and the breeding. Later I would spend hours watching them walking daintily on the water lilies as their long toes helped to spread their weight over a large surface on the leaves. As they walked they fed on various small creatures and the vegetation. The jacanas flew low over the water in a tail-heavy flight with their long legs trailing behind. The black-edged white wings made a striking contrast against the green water plants as they flew.

Purple coot

Glimpses of brilliant blue patches among the vegetation on closer scrutiny revealed the presence of several rotund birds partly hidden among the plants. As I watched patiently some of them came out into the open and I had my first sighting of the colourful purple coot. It had a scarlet bill and long reddish legs. The plumage had various hues of blue in different parts of the body, varying from sky blue in the belly to dark purplish blue on the back. The short tail was jerked up repeatedly as it walked, flashing the white under-tail coverts. It constantly used to feed among water plants, a tasty morsel being held down with one foot while the bird devoured it piece by piece with its short thick bill.

The coots spent most of the day feeding, preening and resting while hidden among the vegetation and were not given to much flying. Towards the evening they came out into the open and were readily observed. The flight when undertaken was short and heavy as they flew up on to a clump of lotuses or reeds. Sometimes a sharp note “trrrt…, trrrt…” was uttered in flight.

I once saw a purple coot standing on top of a clump of reeds towards dusk. It bent down the reeds one by one with its bill and trampled on them, thus making a platform of reeds and then stood on it motionless for several minutes. With the approach of twilight it sat down on it, probably to roost for the night. Its mate also made a similar platform close by.

Teal

On scanning the tank carefully with binoculars, some brownish birds were seen, their plumage blending perfectly with the brown and green surroundings. These small duck-like birds kept to the middle of the tank. They were partially hidden by the vegetation and kept still, keeping a wary eye on any intruder. Thus I got my first glimpse of the whistling teal or the tree duck. Sometimes they would swim slowly in the open patches of water, but always keeping close to cover.

They were most of the time in small groups of up to half a dozen birds, but sometimes in pairs. From time to time a bird would put its head and neck under water in order to feed on aquatic vegetation. In the evenings some birds would take to wing and fly around the tank uttering their shrill whistling calls, before settling down once again in the water. They may circle the tank a few times or would fly away to a distant foraging ground.

It was sometime later that I was able to set my eyes on its smaller but more beautiful cousin, the cotton

teal. As I approached the tank one day, a pair of small ducks came flying fast and low and hit the water close to the shore without any apparent slowing down. They started swimming slowly in an open patch of water in a curious waddling action. The male was pure white in its head, neck and belly and a metallic greenish-black on the back. It had a black collar round its neck and was quite a handsome bird.

However its mate, in contrast, was an inconspicuous, brownish bird. After a few minutes they started bobbing their heads rapidly in unison as if agreeing on something.

They took off as suddenly as they had landed and flew away to the centre of the tank. The male displayed a striking white wing bar in flight. My subsequent sightings of them were few and far between owing to their small numbers and also to the fact that they merged perfectly with their surroundings as they swam among the lotus leaves.

Other water birds

As I sat patiently by, the tank day by day I became familiar with its other avifauna. A purple heron would stand motionless among the water plants in perfect camouflage as it waited patiently for a fish to turn up. It slowly extended its long cinnamon-coloured neck on the approach of a fish, and stabbed it with its dagger-like bill. When resting, it kept the neck curved in the shape of an S. When alarmed it had the neck pointing straight and upward. It kept still, the body merging perfectly with the reeds.

Scattered about the tank were numerous pond herons. Little and median egrets were ever vigilant in their quest for prey. A streak of yellow revealed a yellow bittern as it darted on blackish wings into a reed bed. This being the smallest member of the heron family, it was always difficult to see this bird owing to its skulking habits. A black bittern, with its brown-streaked neck poised to strike, walked stealthily along the edge of a reed bed. It was much more readily observed.

My curiosity was greatly aroused one day when I spotted several small birds swimming and diving in the water. I thought them to be baby ducks, but as I gathered more details of their brown, maroon and buff plumage, I realised that they were the dabchicks or little grebes. I was fascinated, and spent hours watching them swimming, diving and racing through the water chasing each other. As they did so they frequently uttered a shrill, high pitched call ” hi hi hi hi hi….” It was hard to tell where they would reappear after a dive. Occasionally, when swimming, a bird would stop, raise its body up, exposing the buff white underparts, and shuffle the plumage before resuming its swim.

I would get an occasional glimpse of a kora or watercock (wil-kukula, S) as it took a short flight among the dense bushes growing on the small islets in the tank. These shy, skulking birds are quite difficult to see and one would only be rewarded by patiently sitting and observing. During the breeding season they become vociferous and more active, taking short flights among the reeds and the bushes, thus offering a greater chance of seeing them.

Little cormorants and Indian shags dived for fish in the open stretches of water. Some were seen drying their outstretched wings in the sun, perched on a rock or tree stump.



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Features

Glimmers of hope?

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The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis

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By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.

FERTILISER ISSUE

1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.

Recommendations

1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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