After finishing our urban habitat surveys we moved on to our second site, located outside central Colombo at some unpronounceable (Thalawathugoda) reclaimed wetland. Earlier in the year Anya had captured and collared a fishing cat that, due to his unfortunate habit of stealing chickens, had to be relocated and this was the area that was chosen:
The site consists of 10 man-made islands situated inside a large marshy area. The wetland was created for use as a biodiversity study site and educational platform to educate school children and the locals about the importance of wetlands and the resulting local wildlife. The public will have access to 4 of the islands but the rest will be left undisturbed for the wildlife, except if researchers like Anya and I need a nosey.
As we entered the site, to my delight, I noticed that the ground was squishy mud, YAY! Perfect for pugmarks. We then proceeded to walk with our noses to the ground like eager drug-sniffing dogs. Within a few 100 yards —RESULT! Footprints! Unfortunately, they belonged to one of the many feral dogs in the area, but they were swiftly followed by something much more interesting. A set of different prints. These weren’t like anything I’d seen before, spiky with very long toes (even more so than mine!) and a long smooth streak between the feet. The marks belonged to a large water monitor and the smooth streak was a drag mark from its tail. As we continued on we also came across the odd bird print and yet more feral dog stomps.
After the initial excitement of searching and finding footprints I lifted my gaze and looked around. There were birds frigging everywhere! Needless to say I became that infuriating 5- year old, that everyone loathes, by asking what everything was. In 4 hours I saw cormorants, egrets, herons, a Brahminy kite, white breasted water hen, red-wattled lapwing, bee-eaters, something bright red that zoomed off into the distance, swallows, white-throated and lesser pied kingfishers, common mynah, whistling ducks with ducklings, other teeny birds that were a bugger to find (despite them being the loudest animals around) and another bird of prey which I narrowed down to either a buzzard or a harrier –it was too far off for identification.
Despite my child-like enthusiasm for everything that moved, I had to focus: we had work to do. As we came to the water edge I got the first glimpse of our boat. It was the oldest, decrepit ‘working’ boat I’d seen. I didn’t care –this just made it more fun. To be fair it looked very heavy and sturdy, although, I wasn’t sure if that meant we wouldn’t sink or that it was too heavy to float with us in, it did after all, have a large puddle in the bottom of it already. While Maduranga held the boat steady I, as elegantly as a new-born deer, stretched my spider limbs into the boat and hastily sat down. Anya clambered aboard with slightly more grace quickly followed by Maduranga who, like a boss, hopped in and began rowing. I sat at the head of the boat like a manic-looking Viking prow head.
It was even more stunning on the water. We could see tracks had been made through the foliage on and off the islands. They could’ve been made by any number of species including otters, monitors, porcupines (I didn’t know they could swim either), feral dogs and, of course, fishing cats. It was so quiet. It was a wonderful change from what I had become used to. My hostel is unfortunately sandwiched between two main roads and both the walls and windows are thin. I’d say I’m 70:30 split when it comes to country life and city life. I love going to the theatre, museums, exhibitions, drinking cocktails and shopping but I’d never ever want to live in a city or town centre again. My heart belongs to the countryside and so these wetlands, as blisteringly hot as they were, were bliss.
As we continued we came across an interesting-looking island, so we ‘skillfully’ rowed the boat smack bang into it, hastily grabbed any foliage within reach and scrambled out. We could see bare earth shaded by some small trees, known as pond apple trees; we hoped to find some fishing cat pugmarks in there. Instead we found ants, lots and lots of ants. The branches were covered in them. Usually they’re one of my favourite animals, incredibly interesting both socially and anatomically, but in Sri Lanka every single species bites. Once we got through the branches on the outer edge it was amazing. Part of the island dropped steeply away and we found ourselves standing level with the tree tops, unable to climb down. It reminded me of old explorer films where the characters would have to hack away with a machete to get anywhere. If only we had a remote-controlled, all-terrain mini monster truck to strap a camera to! There had to be loads lurking in there. It was perfectly secluded, secure, and from the looks of it offered substantial protection from the rain. Defeated, but no less enthused, we weaved our way back through the ant-infested branches like a pair of OAP acrobats and back onto the boat.
Anya was now at the prow of the boat and ‘guiding’ us round the islands. In all fairness the chunky boat did have 2 different-sized people on the oars, so rather than rowing straight, we tended to bounce between the islands as if we were in a pinball machine. It was still more fun to blame our terrible steering on Anya’s directions. It was approximately 1:30 at this point, the hottest part of the day, and it was beyond roasting. I’m sure Anya was testing me; if I keeled over, then I definitely wasn’t fieldwork material. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more tiring, she directed us straight into a section of the wetland smothered in a type of floating pond weed. We ground to a halt. The only way out was to picture the cake I’d be ordering for lunch and paddle for the love of it. As any true leader would, Anya supervised, shouting encouraging phrases such as ‘onward’ and ‘go, go, go’, in-between which she decided a boat selfie was in order. Just as my arms were about to drop out of their sockets and fall into a puddle of sweat formerly recognisable as me, we were through. Now all it needed was just to paddle all the way back to where we’d first embarked.
In case you’re wondering, yes, we had cake at lunch and, yes, it was worth paddling for.