Seeing Scenic Seabirds

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Seabirds are species of birds that is adapted to a marine environment and therefore, displays unique features. Moreover, they are an essential part of our ecology.

Sri Lanka being an island blessed with an invaluable and fascinating natural heritage is a paradise to a large number of seabirds. The coast of the island, the islets around Sri Lanka, and also some of the man-made tanks in the dry zone are nesting and breeding colonies for many species of seabirds.

Seabirds are also an indicator of a healthy coastal environment and also they play a vital role in the biodiversity and are essential to maintaining the balance of the ecology. Seabirds have also shared a close bond with humans, as they are known to guide fishermen, and navigate sailors towards land. Interestingly, they are also a great source that can be utilised to improve the nature tourism industry of the country.

However, many modern human activities are threatening the existence of fauna and flora, and it is all the same when it comes to seabirds as well. Although seabirds in Sri Lanka are being protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), still there is a lot to be done in terms of ensuring the protection of the seabirds.

As the world observes the World Seabird Day today (3 July), Sri Lanka too will be engaging in some awareness programmes to protect the seabirds of Sri Lanka. To know more about Sri Lanka’s seabirds, the importance of them, and the measures taken to ensure their protection, we contacted a few environmental experts and ornithologists.

Joining us first to share his views and experience is the well-known Environmentalist, and Environmental Lawyer, Dr. Jagath Gunawardana.

He explained to us that the World Seabird Day is celebrated for the fourth time, globally, and in Sri Lanka, it has never been celebrated at the State level. But last year three environmental groups [the Young Zoologists association (YZA), the Bio Vigilant Collective group (BVC), and The Nature Beyond Horizon (of the Horizon Campus) society] celebrated the day by organising awareness programmes.

“The World Seabird Day is a Day to raise public awareness about seabirds and to remind the importance of them.”

Why 3 July?

There is a special reason behind selecting 3 July as World Seabird Day.

“3 July is the day known to be the last day of sighting a living Great Auk seabird. This bird went extinct as a result of excessive killing.”

This year, starting from 3 July, until next year 3 July is named,‘The Year of the Terns’.

He also shared a personal reason that is close to his heart, which compelled him to study the extinction of species. The Great Auk plays an important role in this story.

“In 1970 my father gifted me a book about birds. I was in grade 5 then. It was an interesting book to read and there were many other extinct bird species in it, along with the story of the Great Auk. There were pictures of two dead Great Auks and their story of extinction left a strong impact on me. Then I started reading and researching a lot about the extinction of species. That picture is still with me,” said Dr. Gunawardana.

19 reported; 11 breed

Dr. Gunawardana explained that there are 19 species of Terns reported in Sri Lanka, out of which 11 breed here.

“Until a decade ago we thought that only four Tern species breed in Sri Lanka. It was later discovered that seven more Tern species also breed in Sri Lanka and this was discovered in the Mannar islands. That was in 2011 – 12.”

He also said that the world’s largest Tern, the Caspian Tern was seen breeding in Mannar islands, and earlier it was considered to be only a ‘Winter Visitor’.

Breeding Terns should be protected

“We need to pay more attention to these 11 breeding species of Terns. BVC group is working to raise public awareness.”

As Dr. Gunawardana further said, the Mannar Adam’s Bridge area is declared Sri Lanka’s first marine national park; yet the protection is not sufficient.

The first location to be protected in Sri Lanka as a seabird colony is Ambalangoda Hikkaduwa Rocky Island Sanctuary and that was in 1940. Ambalangoda Godawaya islet and Hikkaduwa Wawalagala rocks are protected under this sanctuary.

“However, unfortunately, we have noted that for 20 years, the usual seabirds are not breeding at the Hikkaduwa islets (Large Crested Tern and Roseate Tern) while intermittent breeding (which is a discontinuing breeding pattern) has been noted at Godawaya.”

Therefore, this colony is under the threat of being lost as a seabird colony.

He also said that they have observed in the rocky coastal areas of Yakinigeduwa (Habaraduwa, Galle) these species are breeding. However, it does not display good breeding patterns. Only the Large-crested Tern breeds at this location.

“The breeding grounds of the Roseate Terns, which is Sri Lanka’s only summer visitor,  are becoming lesser and lesser, and uncertain due to various human activities,” Dr. Gunawardana expressed his concern.

Terns that breed in inland tanks

Another unique feature is that the Little Tern which is known as a resident tern of Sri Lanka is seen breeding in freshwater bodies of Sri Lanka.

“A part of Little Tern population breed at the North Western Province; at large man-made tanks such as Mahakanadara, Minneriya, and Giritale, during the dry season. However, there is no proper monitoring of these breeding places,” said Dr. Gunawardana.

“Little Tern breeds in inland water tanks and we have to take measures to protect these freshwater populations.”

Seabirds breed in Sri Lanka are unique

“In my view, Sri Lanka’s breeding populations are unique because they have adapted to breed in Sri Lanka’s natural environment. Therefore, they are irreplaceable,” Dr. Gunawardana expressed his concern.

Although all the seabirds are protected under the FFPO he suggests that the breeding population should be categorised under the ‘Strictly Protected’ category. The 11 breeding seabird species are considered ‘Critically Endangered’ and the Little Tern is considered ‘Endangered’ or ‘Vulnerable’.

“It is essential to consider issues regarding the natural heritage at a national level. Therefore, we need to take measures to protect our unique breeding seabird populations.”

Dr. Gunawardana also said that the coastal breeding populations face another threat from crows as they eat bird eggs. He also said that people collect eggs to eat and even hunt birds. Especially in Mannar, seabirds and their eggs are hunted for food by the locals.

As explained to us, the BVC group is taking measures to raise awareness about the breeding of seabird populations in Sri Lanka among the authorities as well as the public. As one solid step, they have requested the State authorities – including the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Resources Conservation, the Central Environmental Authority, and other relevant State authorities – to take quick measures to protect them. They have sent their requests in writing.

They have requested the state authorities to, carry out a survey of the currently known and possible breeding sites and assess the protected status of the same and the current threats to them, to declare the still unprotected breeding places of these Terns, to enhance the protection of the breeding places – especially during the period of five months from April to August when breeding occurs, to protect the 11 species of Terns that have breeding populations by making them ‘Strictly Protected’ by including them in Schedule ii under Section 31(2) of the FFPO, and to create more awareness in the public, with specific attention being given to areas where these species breed.

Mannar: A birds’ paradise

Next to join us to share his knowledge about seabirds is, Kithsiri Gunawardena who has done extensive research and discoveries on Sri Lanka’s seabird population. He is an ornithologist and a researcher on Sri Lanka’s wildlife and his work has been published in a number of national and international journals. Gunawardena is also the Joint Secretary of the Ceylon Bird Club.

“Mannar area is a very sensitive area for seabirds,” he started. “However, the epicentre of importance would be Adam’s Bridge Islands.”

He explained that during his observations at Mannar where he had camped for days studying the seabirds, he found that the uninhibited islets are ideal breeding locations for these marine beauties.

“They are referred to as bird islands because birds nest in those islands.”

Gunawardena explained that for ground-nesting birds it is extremely important to find a place where there are no predators and where there is ground vegetation to provide the ideal breeding conditions. Therefore, the uninhabited Adam’s Bridge islets at Thaleimannar are a paradise for birds.

“This is why Adam’s Bridge Islands need to be protected. During our studies, we didn’t find any other species other than insects and Common Garden Lizards on this island. Hence, this is an ideal breeding locality for many species of Sea birds.”

He explained to us that Adam’s Bridge Islands are the only place where Roseate Terns breed in large numbers in Sri Lanka as the breeding colonies found in Ambalanthota and Godawaya have not been as active as they used to be about two decades ago.

“During the study conducted by myself and Uditha Hettige, we observed a large colony of Roseate Terns breeding there.”

The most common nesting species was the Bridled Terns. Other species observed included Large Crested Terns and Little Terns. During our study which resulted in us visiting these islands at different times of the breeding season, we observed wave after wave of birds using the limited space for nesting.

He also said that it was a unique experience to observe the nesting behaviour of the seabirds. As it is a limited area for birds, the whole island was covered with bird nests.

The most important discovery during the study, as Gunawardena would explain was the nesting of Sooty Terns. This species was considered only a migrant to Sri Lanka until this discovery.

“However, we found Sooty Terns nesting in Adam’s Bridge islands,” said Gunawardena.

The other species which was considered extremely rare was the Saunder’s Tern.

Gunawardena also emphasised the importance of the Adam’s Bridge Islands in terms of seabird nesting and why they should be protected as a bird’s sanctuary. The Seabirds, using these islands are ground-nesting species. Thus the ideal breeding conditions would be a place where they have no predators such as snakes, rats, mongooses, iguanas, cats, dogs, and so on, and which is covered with ground vegetation where the eggs and the hatchlings can take shelter from the scorching sun when the parents leave them to find food. This island which is devoid of such predators and is covered in Bimthamburu vines (Ipomoea pes-carpe) creates the ideal breeding conditions for these sea birds. He also said that Mannar is extremely important to so many other very rare species of birds; migratory and resident birds.

Seabirds of Sri Lanka; a treasure

“As citizens of the country, we have a duty to ensure that the flora and the fauna are protected and in the constitution, there is a right and an obligation to protect our flora and fauna,” emphasised Gunawardena.

He also said that these birds had used these locations for generations and we have a duty to ensure they are able to do so in the future as well. 

“I’m pleased that this location is now granted legal protection but it is important that the law is strictly implemented to ensure the birds are not disturbed during their breeding. I’m extremely thankful to the Sri Lanka Navy for the protection they have offered over the years.”

Seabirds are rare and in only a few places do they nest. Therefore, in terms of preserving ecology as well as the duty by which we are bound to preserve floral and faunal species, it is vital to take measures to protect our seabirds.

He also brought our attention to how seabirds are extremely important for the aspect of sustainable nature tourism.

“So on both these aspects, we must take measures to ensure these animals and their breeding habitats are protected,” concluded Gunawardena.

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy