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An otherworldly idyll on the waters of Kalametiya bird sanctuary

A man poles a boat
Two men in pink shirts sit in blue boats on water

Arriving at the water’s edge we see two small fibreglass boats ready to take us away. At the back of the boats, patiently sitting are the two oarsmen. They wait for us to settle in before poling gently away from the shore. And soon we have entered a watery paradise. A paradise where the only sounds we hear are the slight splashes as the single bamboo oar enters the water. Interspersing the quiet, are our exclamations as birds appear before us. 

The Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary, was first declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1938, originally with 2,500 hectares, and then abolished in 1946. Again declared a sanctuary in 1984, but with a considerably reduced area, the Sanctuary today comprises coastal lagoons and mangrove areas. It supports four nationally threatened birds: Indian Reef Heron, Glossy Ibis, Black-capped Purple Kingfisher and the Sri Lankan Junglefowl. Image right is of a Grey Heron at the Sanctuary

A close up of a bird
A bird perches on a water buffalo

We hear a mournful call echoing across the water. What bird is making that noise we ask ourselves. But it is no bird. Instead, a farmer, piloting his traditional wooden boat across the velvety water, calls his herd of water buffalo home. Again and again, the mournful cry rings out as the evening lengthens. Obediently, the buffalo slowly slide into the water and make their way toward home. Some even take a feathery passenger along for the ride.

Gliding further along the network of connected lagoons, we pass hundreds of birds. Contentedly feeding, they fail to acknowledge us as we glide noiselessly past. We are in their environment now.

The sun sinks lower in the sky, bathing us in its golden light. As we turn for home, more birds appear. It’s like we must get a final glimpse of them enjoying their sanctuary before we depart. A pheasant-tailed jacana dances across the water beside us, its long tail bouncing behind as it steps carefully along the weeds and vegetation clinging to the water’s surface.

And then, a hush falls on us. Great flocks of glossy ibis fly overhead. In the familiar v-shape they form an arrow pointing to the east. More of these threatened birds come, and yet more. The flock must number in the thousands, all seeking their nocturnal refuge.

A bird on water

Gradually the light fades from the western sky. Wearing a feeling of peaceful contentment we glide back towards the shore.

Then, we come across a group of contented buffalo just floating in a pod, all together in the comforting embrace of their watery wonderland. The buffalo have given their milk and eaten their food. Now they munch happily, floating calmly as their egret friends do insect duty on their leathery backs.

Meanwhile, our oarsmen pole the boats back to the shore. After the bump signifying we’ve reached our destination, we gather ourselves and step on firm land. Have we really just visited a paradisiacal watery world? A sanctuary for feathered friends to roost peacefully as the day ends? Or was it all simply a dream?

A video memory of my watery interlude

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