As I sat in my little flat with all the electricity turned off and the steady dripping of water leaking through the ceiling, I knew it was going to be great at the study site later. It was nearing the end of April and the first of the rains had arrived. The rain is always joined by thunder and a fantastic amount of lightning. Houses are regularly hit by lightning out here and electrical appliances are fried – not surprising given the ‘interesting’ wiring I’ve seen – hence the reason everything was switched off. In fact, one of the hostels I stayed in last year got zapped while I was out and I came back to the smell of burning and lots of candles. The thunder is phenomenal, nothing like the pathetic rumbles we occasionally get at home. Here, it sounds as if giants, a few feet from your head, are smashing mountains apart with bowling balls. I’ve never been scared of thunder –in fact I revel in it– but there are times that it is SO loud, directly above you, that you feel a kind of shockwave move through your body and it jolts, just for a second, some primal fear instinct that makes you realise with such clarity just how tiny you are.
Two hours later after the rains had moved on, and with the last of the light fading, we arrived to set our trap cages at Thalawathugoda – buzzing with excitement at the prospect of seeing something new. We’d never experienced the site after dark or after such a downpour; what would it be like and what would the downpour have enticed out? It was every child’s dream – puddles everywhere! Not any old puddles but major, enormous, super-puddles! In many places the puddles filled the track on the main island making temporary watery bridges between the sides of the island. Luckily we’d had the forethought to change into our flip-flops; my boots can take quite a bit of water but immersing them in ankle high puddles is asking a bit much. As we waded to our trap cages (don’t worry, the chickens wouldn’t have drowned, we’d decided to switch them for shop bought fish earlier in the day) our feet were surrounded by baby snakehead fish, small tilapia and another species I didn’t recognise. We were literally walking through shoals of fish! We could hear frogs everywhere, calling and sploshing into the water, there were SO many different species of all sizes!
We baited our traps with the freshly-bought fish and began to explore. I was armed with my amazing Christmas present, a ‘burn your retinas out’ torch so we would be able to see as well as any fishing cat. The descriptor “amazing” just about covers our experience of the next hour. We saw three water snakes, one of which caught a fish a few metres from our feet! Eye shine (the reflection of light on a thin membrane, the tapetum lucidum, at the back of the eye in most animals) is a great way to pick out animals in the dark. Usually eyes appear green or yellow, but while lighting up the water’s edge we experienced some freak red eye shine under the water, it was like something from a bad horror film. The eyes belonged to a very large, extremely fast-moving fish: somehow, I wasn’t so keen on cooling off in there after a hard day’s rowing in the sun!
After what felt like an age of my pointing at random bugs, asking what they were and only getting confused, unknowing looks in response, I decided that I really need an entomologist friend because there were heaps of interesting insects but no one seemed to know anything about them. We were spoilt with animal sightings, but the two highlights of the night were a scops owl that sat on a fence very close to us, and the finding of a young Russell’s viper – the most venomous and deadly snake in the country. All too soon it was time to go and leave the new waterpark to the animals of the night.
When we returned in the morning to check and close our traps, we were able to see the full extent of the flooding before the wetlands drank it all up like the environmental sponge that it is.
It was beautiful.