Archive | August, 2012

World’s longest dragonfly migration via Sri Lanka?

26 Aug

By Malaka Rodrigo Last week, a large cloud of dragonflies was observed along the west coast near Colombo. Subsequently, an increase of dragonflies was sighted in many areas islandwide. This sudden appearance of dragonflies in large numbers raised the curiosity of the public.This wave of dragonflies was first reported moving southwards in large numbers on October 20 morning. One of the witnesses, Nashath Haffi of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) says while travelling by train he observed this wave around 7 a.m., parallel to the coast, continuously from Moratuwa to Kollupitiya. It is not clear whether the swarm continued further southward.With the aim of investigating the phenomena, the Sunday Times visited the Dehiwala beach, which was in the middle of the recorded route of the dragonflies last Sunday. The residents, mostly fisher folk, when interviewed, confirmed sighting on October 20 a wave of dragonflies flying southwards at a height of about 10 feet. Some of them said it was the first time they had observed such a phenomenon, while others said it was an annual event.

The Dehiwala residents also assisted in catching a few dragonflies still hovering in the vicinity. This dragonfly is about 4.5 cm long, with a wingspan of about 5 cm. The body is a golden colour (dark yellow) with a dark line. The wings are clear and very broad at the base, with a tip near the end. The photos were shared with dragonfly experts and the species identified as Globe Skimmer, or Wandering Glider, scientifically categorised as Pantala flavescens.

Investigations also revealed an interesting fact that this dragonfly is migratory like birds. A Dragonfly migration is believed to be happening annually from India to Africa via the Maldives. Dr. Charles Anderson, who had researched this migration, confirms that, the dragonflies caught in Dehiwala, are the same species involved in the India-Africa migration. Living in the Maldives since 1983, Dr. Anderson continues to observe a sudden influx of dragonflies which raised his initial curiosity. Dragonflies need freshwater to raise their young, as their larvae stage is spent in freshwater.

However, the Maldives is a group of oceanic islands with sand that absorbs all the rainwater it gets. Hence, no freshwater pools are formed even after rain falls. So, apparently, the dragonflies recorded in the Maldives are from elsewhere.

Dr. Anderson started noting down dates of dragonflies seen for the first time in the Maldives, and then compared the data of dragonflies appearing in South India. He found a clear sequence of arrival dates from north to south. According to this data, dragonflies first arrive in Southern India and then in the Maldives. According to his research, each year, dragonflies first appear in the Maldive’s capital, Male, between October 4 and 23, with a mean arrival date of October 21. Quite interestingly, the sighting of the dragonfly wave along the west coast was reported on October 20, which is quite close to the dates they arrive in the Maldives. So, dragonflies seen in Sri Lanka, must also be those involved in this migration.

Dragonflies, though hardy, are small insects – so how can they fly such long distances? Dr. Anderson also attributes that wind patterns help them in this journey. In October, and continuing into November and December, a weather system called the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) moves southwards over the Maldives. Dr. Anderson suggests these dragonflies must be flying on these winds at altitudes above 1,000 metres.

Globe Skimmer (Pantala flavescens) caught from Dehiwala

“Ahead of the ITCZ, the wind blows towards India, but above and behind it, the winds blow from India. So, it seems that, the dragonflies are able to reach the Maldives by flying on these winds at altitudes above 1,000 metres” he said.

This could probably be assisting them to visit Sri Lanka too. Since last week, we are experiencing much rain, which could be a result of this weather pattern. Raising the importance of following traditional knowledge, many of the Dehiwala fishing community say these dragonfly waves appear with the change of wind, or ‘goda sulan’, which they are quite accustomed to identifying.

The researcher also found data of sudden appearances of dragonflies in Africa, and when collated, the analysis matches, indicating this migration continues all the way to Africa, more than 14,000 km away.

Migrant Watch – You too can support science

There is a need for extensive research to solve the mysteries of this migration. But the first step would be to monitor where the dragonflies have been sighted in large numbers, which will at least give the coordinates of a possible map. The FOGSL has initiated a programme called MIGRANT WATCH, and invites the general public to forward information on these dragonfly movements. If you have seen swarms of dragonflies recently, please forward location and related dates.

Migrant Watch mainly aims at observing Migrant Birds as a Citizen Science project. Prof. Sarath Kotagama also highlights the importance of observation even by non-experts, as being immensely helpful, as that of the dragonfly migration, which was triggered by Nashath sharing his sighting on October 20. So, he invites all to participate in MIGRANT WATCH, and email the data to or, post it to FOGSL, Dept. of Zoology, University of Colombo, Colombo 3. Further details can be obtained from 2 501 332 / 0712 543 634 / 0712 543 634.

published on sundayTimes on 06/11/2011


Unravelling the mystery of feathered dead passage migrants to Sri Lanka

26 Aug

The discovery of dead Sooty Terns around the country triggered fears of Bird flu. Malaka Rodrigo speaks to ornithologists to find the missing pieces of the puzzle

“Birds are dying in many parts of Sri Lanka”, “Sri Lanka’s bird deaths likely to spread to Wildlife Parks”, “Could it be Bird Flu..?” these are headlines we have seen in recent weeks. The dead birds were reported from many parts of the island and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) put its regional offices on alert. A media alert too was issued, and many dead birds were reported to the DWC. They all belonged to a bird species called Sooty Terns.

“These dead birds were mainly reported between May 11 and 26. Some of the birds had been dead a few days at the time of the recovery while others were fresh carcasses. About 40 dead birds were found around the country,” a Department of Wildlife Conservation official said. The DWC had handed over samples of these bird carcasses to the Medical Research Institute (MRI) for testing, but the reports had not showed any sign of an illness that could have caused the deaths. However, ornithologists had an answer for the puzzle.

“The Sooty Tern is a pelagic seabird that flies across the oceans and comes to land only to breed. The strong winds occasionally bring them to the land,” said Prof. Sarath Kotagama, veteran ornithologist of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) based at the University of Colombo. “The birds can die due to exhaustion trying to fly against the wind and it is not a rare phenomenon during this time of the year,” revealed Prof. Kotagama.

The veteran ornithologist also said these Sooty Terns are migratory and on their way back North after breeding. This migration happens between end of May and can go on until July, but evades our eyes unlike the other migrants, as these birds take a seabound route. Sooty Terns only pass through our country, so they are known as Passage Migrants.

Sea birds usually nest as large colonies and many tropical islands have been their breeding grounds for centuries. Most of the dead birds found in Sri Lanka are also said to be young birds that could have been making their first journey from their breeding grounds. But there were three special birds among the dead Sooty Terns- marked with a ring. Ornithologists ring birds to mark their presence in a location. The small metal or plastic ring around one of the bird’s legs contains basic information indicating the ringing location, so the information can be used to track the origin of the bird.

Quite amazingly, two of these ringed Sooty Terns were traced back to the African region. The Sooty Tern found in Battaramulla was wearing a ring placed in the African island of Madagascar from a ringing programme conducted by UK ornithologists and the other bird found in Chilaw was ringed in Seychelles by a group of French ornithologists. The third ring on a bird found in Jaffna has yet to be traced back, but the DWC is checking to find its origin.

Story of the recovered Sooty Tern

A small cage placed in a corner of the garden of Kithsiri Gunawardane in Borella held a Sooty Tern, which spread its wings in anticipation of the dinner which Kithsiri was bringing – some fresh halmassas (Sprats). The bird gulped the sprats and wanted more.

The Sooty Tern waits for Kithsiri to bring its dinner

“These sprats are soaked in salt water. Sooty Terns catch fish directly from the sea and gulp them whole. So together with their meal and drinks, they consume more salt and it is important to keep this salt balance while in captivity,” Kithsiri said. The Joint Secretary of the Ceylon Bird Club, he takes the bird out every evening and allows it to stretch its wings to give exercise to its shoulder muscles to get it ready for freedom again.

Though now fully recovered, the bird’s condition was pretty bad at the time it was found in a garden in Panadura on May 26. Manoja, daughter of the house owners had alerted Kithsiri who had rushed there.
The Sooty Tern was so exhausted that Kithsiri worried about its chances of recovery. The bird had to be initially hand-fed. Like many other birds in trouble, the Sooty Tern too had diarrhoea. Kithsiri had a little remedy for this and had given it a few drops of Cytexin – and added a little glucose to the bird’s diet to help it regain its strength.

His efforts to help the bird have succeeded and Kithsiri is now planning to release the bird in the next few days. The Sooty Tern is also tagged with a ring given by the DWC with “Info Sri Lanka – DWLC 001” on it- so if found in any parts of the world, it will be known that it was in Sri Lanka.

published on SundayTimes on 19.06.2011

From the Himalayas to your doorstep

26 Aug

(During the season, the migrant Indian Pitta has been found several occasions exhausted after their long journey. This is another article done in 2009, where a pitta has been rescued in heart of populated Colombo. Since the same can be repeated this year, the article is repost here, so that you can help if you get an exhausted visitor in your own garden or even at your office..!!)

Sri Lanka, being the southern tip of the Central-Asian flyway, has about 200 migrant birds visiting each year. The Indian Pitta is probably the most beautiful of them all. This bird that breeds in the Himalayan foothills may visit your home garden this season, writes Malaka Rodrigo

Suranga had just finished his morning workload when he heard the raucous cawing of a flock of crows. He looked to see what the commotion was all about. For a moment, he thought a rainbow had fallen from the sky. But it was only a multi-coloured bird which, fluttering weakly, landed near him. Gathering all its remaining strength, it tried to fly but ended up getting stuck in the nearby AC. Suranga with his fellow workers at the Delmege Company rescued the bird, placing it carefully in a cardboard box.

“We never expected to find such a beautiful bird in a congested Colombo neigbourhood like Maradana,” said Chandana Hettiarachchi, Maintenance Manager of Delmege. A bird lover himself, Chandana identified the bird as an Indian Pitta known as Avichchiya in Sinhala and called the Dehiwela Zoological Gardens for advice on how to treat it.

Though the Indian Pitta feeds on insects and worms, this Pitta had happily eaten the fruits and rice offered to him. It was also drinking water showing signs of early recovery, so the rescuers kept the bird in its box in a dark corner without disturbing it. After a few days, its strength regained it flew off to explore its new territory.

This is not the only instance of an exhausted Indian Pitta being rescued in Colombo during the migration season. The Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) too reported two Indian Pittas found in Colombo a few weeks ago. One of them died of exhaustion, but the other recovered and flew away, much to the delight of the rescuers.

“It is not uncommon to find exhausted Indian Pittas at the start of the migration season. They are not sick, but get disoriented after the long journey,” explained veteran Ornithologist Prof. Sarath Kotagama. He advised that the troubled birds be fed with mild sugar syrup and if unable to fly, provided a safe place away from possible predators, until they are fit to fly again.

The Indian Pitta is called Aru-mani-kuruvi in Tamil which means the 6 ’o clock bird and its loud, clear double whistle ‘wheet-tew’, can be heard in the morning and evening around 6 ’o clock. So listen for this unmistakable call – it maybe a visitor from the Himalayas.

If you see a troubled migrant

There may be exhausted late comers who may still land on your doorstep. Dr. Deepani Jayantha offers some tips on helping them.

  • An exhausted or injured bird could be fully conscious, semi-conscious or unconscious. Such a bird should be protected from dogs, cats, rats, crows, shikras etc. Keep them in a dark, quiet and warm place. Handle them gently only if necessary and never force-feed a semi-conscious or unconscious bird.
  • If it is too weak to fly on its own; try giving it small amounts of low concentrated glucose saline with Vitamin C.
  • If the bird is able to fly, release it as soon as possible in a proper environment.
  • If it is necessary to keep the bird for a few days for medical care, provide a proper cage (avoid injurious materials) with a perch protected from predators. Attend to traumatic injuries (broken bones) as necessary – if extensive care is needed, consult a veterinarian
  • Provide clean food and water.

Published on 2009 on SundayTimes

Say hello to Bee-eaters, Brown flycatchers and Kentish plovers…

26 Aug

Sri Lanka is an important destination for migratory birds. Heralding the start of the 2008 bird migration season, common migrants such as Bee-eaters, Brown flycatchers and Brown shrikes have already arrived in our home gardens. The Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) together with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) conducts the National Bird Ringing Programme to monitor migrant birds. Malaka Rodrigo reports on the latest Bird Ringing Camp held recently at Bundala. Published on SundayTimes on 2008.10.26 

Only the moon and thousands of stars light the Bundala sky. The strong breeze across the mudflats is tinged with salt. The calm of the night is soon disturbed by a faint flutter. A Little Stint that is entangled in the mist-net is struggling hard to break free.

A member of the bird-ringing team skilfully extricates the bird from the net and puts it into a cloth pouch so that it can be taken to their temporary camp set up nearby. Once all the nets are checked, the light of the petromax lamps is increased and the bird ringers start their ringing operation. Each bird is given a number and its data is recorded in a fresh data sheet. Later this information goes into a computerized central database.

The bird ringing camp was conducted as part of the National Bird Ringing Programme (NBRP) at Bundala National Park. Aimed at monitoring Migratory Shorebirds this was initiated by the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) in 2005.

The winter visitors have already started arriving and this is the third ringing session for 2008.
“This redshank needs a Grade B ring,” says a bird ringer holding a Common Redshank. The metal rings used to mark migrant birds come in different sizes. Each ring has its own number and a return address including the name of organization and country engraved on it. This number is recorded along with other details of the bird like the size of the beak, total length, weight etc.

The ringer swiftly places the ring on bird’s leg. A little adjustment with a pair of pliers seals the ring around the bird’s leg. Several large boxes are tagged with the names of different birds and the birds are placed in them.

“We keep the birds overnight to complete the processing in the morning. Recording the birds’ moulting patterns and colours needs more natural light. By the dim light of the lamps, we can’t see the colours properly,” explains Chinthaka Kaluthota, leader of the National Bird Ringing Programme.

The Bundala lagoon is a paradise for migrant shorebirds; hence the best place for a ringing camp. Of the 197 species of birds observed in Bundala, 58 are migratory species. It is believed the shallow wetlands at Bundala provide a vast area of feeding and roosting grounds for large flocks of migratory shorebirds.

The capturing of birds for ringing starts at dusk by setting up mist nets across the Bundala lagoon. A mist net is a net made of thin strings with small holes that are virtually invisible to a bird in full flight. At least four mist nets are set up at different locations of Bundala lagoon and kept open throughout the night. Nets are monitored every 30 minutes to check for a catch. Once caught in the net, the bird struggles to get free and gets further entangled. Disentangling a bird from a mist net can be difficult and must be done carefully only by trained personnel.

Setting up mist nets in the Bundala lagoon

If a bird is heavily tangled, the mist net is cut to avoid injuring the bird. The most commonly captured species of birds at Bundala are Little stints, Kentish plovers, Curlew sandpipes, Lesser Sandplovers and Common redshanks. “Not having a proper set of data is a drawback in conserving migratory birds. That is why we needed a National Bird Ringing Programme,” said Prof. Sarath Kotagama, National coordinator who initiated this ringing programme through FOGSL. Four ringing sessions are carried out each year of which three are during the migratory season while the other is in July –the non-migratory period.

FOGSL has also trained Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWLC) field officers on bird ringing to make sure the project proceeds without disruption.

Sri Lanka being a signatory to the International Convention on Migratory Species, the Department plans to take the National Bird Ringing Programme forward.

Fly, fly, pant, pant.. there’s more to go!

26 Aug

What do you do if you come across a dead-beat migratory bird?
By Malaka Rodrigo, Pic by Sasitha Weerasinghe

(This is the migration season and during this time of end October, the migrant Indian Pitta has been found several occasions exhausted after their long journey. This article has been done in 2007, where several such pittas are rescued. Since the same can be repeated this year, the article is repost here, so that you can help if you get an exhausted visitor in your own garden)

“The day has just arrived at my garden in Kalubowila, but the morning sky was gloomy and hinted more rains. ‘Kelie’- my female dog was suspiciously looking at a darker corner in the garage. In the shade, there was a bird. It didn’t move….. It looked at me innocently, through its wide open eyes. ‘Kelie’ was vigilant, but haven’t tried to attack, may be understanding the anguish of the exhausted bird. I have taken it to a veterinary surgeon and later handed over to one of my friend to look after it, as it couldn’t stand on its own. Small worms were fed and the bird showed hints of recovering. However, it was too weak and after three days, on Saturday 10th November, the bird – Slaty-Legged Crake died.

This was the experience of Dulani Dissanayake, a bird watcher who tried to save the life of a migrant bird that would have been exhausted after its long flight.

Over 200 species of birds migrate to Sri Lanka, during the migratory period that starts usually in late August and extends upto to March/April. The bird visitors travel mainly from Europe and northern parts of India. Circulated on the email network of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) last week, were two more accounts of migrant Indian Pittas found in home gardens. The Indian Pitta found in Udahamulla in the garden of Sasitha Weerasinghe was also exhausted, but recovered after being fed with water.

The Indian Pitta found at Udahamulla.

But the Indian Pitta at Pelawatte in the garden of Dr. Udaya Kumarasinghe was not that lucky. This Pitta had been observed over the past few years in his garden and Dr. Kumarasinghe had even treated the bird two years ago. On that occasion, he had been seated on his verandah when the Pitta just fell off a nearby tree. He nursed it and the bird recovered in an hour or so and flew away but returned to his garden for the rest of the season. The Pitta came back last year as well. Some of the territorial birds show site tenacity which drives them to the same location year after year.

“It is common to find the migrant birds exhausted after a long flight. Those migrants who travel during the night may be attracted to the light. This is why many birds are found in home gardens. Birds that are attracted to light may collide with windows and get hurt. They can also be easy prey to domestic cats and dogs while resting. Otherwise, birds usually recover on their own,” says veteran ornithologist Prof. Sarath Kotagama. Birds may be found even in the heart of Colombo, where the lights of the buildings attract migrants. But such incidents are rarely recorded, he adds.

Emphasizing the importance of collecting data, Prof. Kotagama invites bird watchers to send their records to the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) which is also conducting the National Bird Ringing programme in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation, primarily to study migrant birds.

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Try a little TLC

Usually before the migration, birds feed a lot to gain the strength needed for their long flights. Their bodies are streamlined for flight and in addition, migrant birds employ several other mechanisms to minimize the effort of flying. Larger birds like eagles, cranes and storks soar in the sky, using the thermal upwind. They fly to a higher elevation and then manoeuvre with the wind to move forward with minimum effort.

Larger birds usually migrate during the daytime through a route mostly across a land area. Small birds like Flycatchers and Indian Pittas prefer to travel at night. Not having the advantage of soaring, they have to beat their wings continuously to travel.

If you find an exhausted bird, you need to be calm and not panic the bird further. Chase away the cats, dogs, crows and any other potential predator and leave the bird as it is to recover. If the bird seems to be extremely weak, it could be given water.

Bird Flu: is it really safe..?

There are fears about the spread of Bird Flu through migrant birds. But Avian Influenza has not reached the island or any location that is on the migratory route.Still it is always best to take precautions before handling a sick bird. Using a pair of gloves and cleaning up thoroughly after handling such a bird is indeed wise.

The best we can do is protecting the habitats that are used by these migrants. Start the effort in your own home garden. Plant a tree, make a shade for the exhausted migrants to rest and live in peace during their stay.

Published on 18.11.2007 on SundayTimes

Monitoring and protecting feathered migrants

26 Aug

Published on 07.09.2009 on the SundayTimes  By Malaka Rodrigo, Pic by Indika Koggallarachchie.

“Please switch off the outside lights on your skyscrapers after 11 p.m.” read the note to owners of skyscrapers in Chicago. No, it was not an Al-Quaeda threat but a request made by the Chicago Audubon Society, a bird conservation society in the USA whose aim was to save thousands of migrant birds that are attracted to the lights and are killed when they collide with the buildings.

Chicago is located in the centre of a mass migration flyway within the American continent and billions of birds fly over the city to warmer grounds and back. It is believed that birds use the light of the stars and moon to help them navigate during their long journeys, and artificial lights can confuse them.

“Migratory birds, however, are good at navigation and can find their path with great accuracy using different mechanisms. Some birds are migrating to the same location annually which is known as site-anacity. While conducting research in Sinharaja, our team had ringed a few migrants who are territorial. Next year the birds were recaptured at the same locations. A Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Brown Shrike and an Indian Blue Robin were among those who confirmed the migrant’s acute navigation skills,” said veteran ornithologist Prof. Sarath Kotagama who has studied migrants for decades.

However, in Sri Lanka, migrant birds are not studied systematically and indeed more research is needed to monitor this amazing phenomenon. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) have initiated a ringing programme in Bundala to study migratory patterns and have conducted several ringing sessions.

In the last week of July during the traditional non-migration season, the team captured and ringed 22 migrant species. “Even last year we observed a trend in early migration. Some migrants do not go back to their breeding grounds and there is a chance that some of these observed are such birds. We need hard evidence, however, that it can be an early migration,” said Chinthaka Kaluthota, coordinator of the Important Bird Areas (IBA) programme for Sri Lanka. He led the ringing session.

Satellite Tracking is the latest technology being used to monitor migrants. The Pacific Shorebird Migration Project is using this latest technology to track migration of Bar-tailed Godwits. The birds were fixed with a micro chip and anyone can observe the position and route of each bird daily by logging into the website

Saving the Migratory birds

Migration is often concentrated along well established routes known as flyways. Environmental disturbances in strategic points along the flyways can affect migratory birds, even though the breeding ground and wintering grounds are protected. Some birds have to stop on their way and destruction of such a site may badly affect them.

Great Flamingo.

Recognizing this, the United Nations’ Environmental Programme (UNEP) has prepared a convention to protect migratory birds. The Convention of Migratory Species (CMS) which was signed in Bonn is the main framework for protecting migratory species. Sri Lanka has also signed this treaty and the Department of Wildlife Conservation has the responsibility of leading the conservation effort. Destruction and degrading of wetlands remains the key threat to migrant birds in Sri Lanka.

Why Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is the last tip of the larger land mass and this strategic placement attracts over 200 migrants. Birds start migrating into Sri Lanka usually at the end of August and stay in the country until late March. Some of these birds are very common and can even be observed in metropolitan cities like Colombo. However, the greatest congregation of migrant birds occurs in wetlands like Bundala.

Migrants are further categorized and a few of these birds were seen on very rare occasions. The following migrant birds are listed in IUCN’s fauna inventory, the migrants are listed in the tables below:

Winter visitors 127
Winter vagrants 69
Status uncertain 38
Vagrant 10
Summer visitor 4
Passage migrant 2
Breeding resident + winter visitor 5
Breeding resident + summer visitor 1
Breeding resident + status uncertain
winter visitors 5
Winter visitor + uncertain breeding 1
Total 262
  • Summer visitor – A bird which uses a particular area for breeding only.
  • Winter visitor – A bird which visits a particular area only for the winter and does not breed there.
  • Vagrant – A bird which wanders to a particular area if its orientation is at fault or adverse winds drive it off course but in normal circumstances would not be found there at all. Vagrants are also called ‘accidentals’ or ‘casuals’.
  • Passage Migrant – Movement through an area involving individuals which neither breeds there nor spends the winter there, merely passing through on migration.
  • Resident – A species of which examples can be found in a particular area at any time of the year, although they may not be the same individuals, as few birds are completely sedentary.
  • Resident + migrant bird means that there is a local population as well as a migrant population of the same species.
Dr. Kotagama’s data on bird migratory patterns
Ring number
First capture
Indian Blue Robin
Near Cobra Bridge
Brown-breasted Flycatcher
Brown Shrike