Mannar - dancing islands and enchanted skies
Updated: Feb 19
Words by Dr. Sampath Seneviratne
Photos by Udaya Karunaratne
Mannar represents Sri Lanka’s western-most large landmass with a mere 23 kms from the tip of the island forming the gateway across the straits over Ram Setu (Rama’s Bridge) or Adam’s Bridge islands, to the tip of Pamban island of India. On a clear cloudless day of an early morning after the monsoonal rains one can observe the tall radio masts of Pamban island, though the earth’s curvature is too great to spot land on the other side of the straits.
The thin long island was a trading post dating back to the ancient Silk Road era where Arabic, Indian, Chinese and European merchants used the sheltered harbor of Mannar ,then famous as the great port city of Mahathiththa, for their ships to anchor and Palmyrah groves to cool-off in the heat of the day. Later Mannar was transformed into a pearl fishing hotspot attracting traders from the four corners of the earth in search of the legendary pearls of Mannar. Arippu in particular produced some of the finest pearls in its heyday.
The iconic Mannar fort that guards the strategic deep-water channel, over which lies the causeway connecting the island to the mainland of Sri Lanka was successively manned by Portuguese, Dutch and English, exacting taxes and levies on trade that passed through. The famed Sri Lankan Princess Dona Catherina or Kusumasana Devi in her youth lived in the Mannar fort under the caring patronage of the Dutch. In her later years in a Kandyan Palace, the Queen Dona Catharina stated that she missed the quiet, tranquil of Mannar.
The Central Asian Flyway feeds migratory birds escaping the deepening European winter to the tropical belt and to land’s end in the island of Sri Lanka. These migrants visit our tropical isle every year beginning in late August working their way into our lagoons, forests, wetlands and home gardens and stay out the ensuing period for nearly six months and leave back to where they came commencing in March.
Migratory birds come to us from places very different to Sri Lanka. Some of them come from the high Arctic where the edges of permanent glaciers melt in summer to expose a patch of lichen clad earth for them to breed. Others come from great mountains such as Himalaya and Tien-Shan. Sri Lanka is the southernmost point of this global bird highway, hence Mannar holds some of the best birding sites in the entire Central Asian Flyway that spans from Kamchatka and Chukotka of far-eastern Russia to Scandinavia in the North central Europe.
Which sites in Mannar plays host to the likes of the Bar-tailed Godwit or Great Knot that visit from the edges of permanent ice of the high Arctic? Which locations hold the promise of that ubiquitous duck the Garganey or the maroon headed Wigeon or that Pintail duck? From where do those photographers sporting mammoth optics obtain their portraits of cocky Hoopoo, that shy Blue-faced Malkoha or a Butcherbird that uses the sharp thorns on an Acacia tree to impale it’s unfortunate prey? Where is it best to observe the avian stars of Mannar, the Greater Flamingo?
Mannar offers several birding hotspots within a hotspot. Vankalai Ramsar Wetland offers views of large flocks of smaller shorebirds such as sparrow-size Little Stints to Myna-size Lesser Sand Plovers. The size of these flocks varies from 40,000 to over 100,000 birds consisted of the ubiquitous Stints and Sand plovers to rarities such as Ruff, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Ringed plover, Golden Plover and large chicken-size Eurasian Curlews. Finding super rarities such as Red Knots are a search of a needle-in-a-haystack in those large flocks – you’ll find them only if you are up for the challenge. Most of these large flocks can be seen in the mudflats near the coastal village of its namesake in the south-eastern side of Vankalai wetland. The shallow pools at the fork where the Road to Wilpattu diverges from Madawachchiya-Mannar road offers the best views of migratory ducks such as Garganey, Shoveller and Green-winged Teal though not in large numbers they are close enough and tolerant enough that you can even photograph them from your smart-phone!
The avian stars of this plethora of migrant birds are the Greater Flamingo, found in Vankalai in addition to several other sites. During the heat of the day these majestic birds seek the security of the depths of the vast Causeway lagoon. Looking outwards to the lagoon on most days during the migratory season, one can just make out a pink-white band of a thousand Flamingo set contrastingly against the blue of the lagoon.. If you wake up early and visit the Vankalai wetland at dawn before sunrise you will enjoy them near the road – few hundred feet away.
Past Vankalai and the Mannar fort you come on to Mannar town. That is where you stock up on your water, biscuits and fuel as the rest of the Island does not provide any reliable place for traveler amenities except the warm soothing Palmyrah Toddy (‘thal raa’) – a fermented syrup from the Palmyrah Palm - a local form of beer. When you drive westward towards Thalaimannar, about a kilometer away from the town limit lies the largest and only freshwater lake of Mannar called Korakulam (‘Kora’ means waterbirds and ‘kulam’ means tank). In the middle of the migratory season, a keen-eyed birder could spot large numbers of migratory ducks, Black-tailed Godwits, Painted Storks and Eurasian Spoonbills foraging in the seasonal green grassy puddles amongst heavy set feathered balls of Spot-billed Pelicans. Not just birds but Asiatic Donkeys, Mannar Ponies, Water Buffalo, Grey Slender Loris and the elusive Fishing Cat too can be seen in and around this wetland. They all come for a cool drink of freshwater, a rare commodity in this salty dry landscape.
If you are up for seabirds, the kind that spend most of their time out in the sea looking for fish or follow fisher folks of Mannar for a leftover fish-head, you could spend your mid-day hours at Pesalai or Nadukuda beaches to witness thousands of white gulls such as Heuglin’s Gull, Pallas’s Gull and the red-beaked Brown-headed Gulls.
Beyond the seabird centers of Mannar towards further west you reach the western most edge of Mannar in Urumalai. To reach Urumali you need to turn left from the Talaimannar Police Station. The paved narrow road will take you through a sleepy village to the vast sand dunes and tidal mudflats, where some of the most sought-after avian specialties of Mannar can be seen without much trouble. In the early morning hours you can see the black and white Eurasian Oystercatcher with it’s distinctive red beak, Crab Plover, Great Knots and Bar-tailed Godwits. The keen birder could spot the very rare Sandwich Tern, sandwiched among thousands of Lesser Crested, Greater Crested and Caspian Terns out in the middle of the mudflat.
Rama’s Bridge, or ‘Adams Bridge’ are the islands you see west of the Urumalai mudflats. Carved by the wind and current, the dancing islands of Mannar change their shape perpetually, dictated by raging rip-currents and abrasive gale-force winds. A long walk along the sand dunes and salt marshes of Rama’s Bridge in an experience one is not likely to forget. If you try some of the local delicacies such as the spicy crab curry with ‘roast paan’ or doughy chapathy with the fried fish curry, you might just wish to extend one’s stay a bit more….
By mid-March the north-eastern trade wind begins to ease off and until the end of April, the air goes still and the temperature soars, with humidity making it’s presence felt in it’s customary clammy way. With good luck a few showers from the South West Monsoons raging far to the south may grace the sweltering sand pit which is Mannar. By May the sandy dunes of the island transforms into a cradle of life where numerous ground nesting birds, mostly waterbirds and seabirds starts to breed in large numbers. Some of them are critically endangered by habitat destruction, predation by feral dogs and cats, and the destruction of nests. The Islands of Rama’s Bridge are home to thousands of Greater crested, Bridled, Roseate and Saunder’s Terns, with a shallow depression in the ground holding their eggs. Even the rare Brown Noddy breeds in small numbers out on the offshore sandy islands of the Rama’s Bridge.
By now the shores of Korakulam, Vankalai wetlands and lagoon of Erukkalampiddi are mostly dry, offering breeding opportunities for Kentish Plover, Oriental Pratincole, Red- and Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Thick-knee and Black-winged Stilt. During the ensuing breeding months a birder would benefit by a trip to Mannar not just from the breeding waterbirds, but also from its numerous summer loiterers (migratory species that decided to skip the northern journey for a year) hanging around lazily in the baking mudflats. With loitering Flamingos, Oyestercatchers, Sand-plovers and Turnstones, the list of birds that you could see in non-winter months in Mannar can be surprising.
After all these long hours of birding in the baking sun over the scorching sand, as a birder, the best part of Mannar for me is the setting of the sun. Watching a golden sun kissing the horizon before being enveloped by the deepening tide, seated on a mat of dry grass at Urumalai with a chilled beer you sense that heaven is not too far away. This then, is Mannar.. magical, mystical and as yet, unspoilt.
Dr. Sampath Seneviratne
Scientist | birder | traveler | writer
Senior Lecturer, Department of Zoology and Environment Science,
University of Colombo
firstname.lastname@example.org | Avian Evolution Node | http://evolution.cmb.ac.lk