Monday, December 22, 2014

Mannar 2014-Flamingoes, Crab Plovers, Floods=Epic Adventure

I had been planning a trip to Mannar for a very long time. I didn't go there during the season from January and February when there were many flamingoes because I had just bought my new lens and I was busy trying it out on leopards and endemic birds in the rainforests. I had regret missing this amazing sighting. Thus I made arrangements with my usual travel friends Riaz, Raveendra and Ganindu to go there during December.

As usual the best place to stay in Mannar is at  Four Tees Rest Inn owned by Mr Lawrence. The prices are very reasonable and the food is amazing. Due to the high demand one has to make a booking few months in advance.

Mr Lawrence is a lovely gentleman and he gave regular updates on the bird situation over there. During the time of October he said that there was not enough water in Vankalai area and he was worried that the birds wont arrive due to this. By December things had turned around and there was regular rain.

The plan was to leave at around 5. 00 am on Friday the 19th as we didn't want to drive up with no rest. I booked a jeep with Senevi from Wilpattu, as we all decided its better to photograph without having to drive around in a car and also would be better to go around anywhere without worrying about damaging the car.

Myself , Riaz and Ganindu let Colombo and hoped to join Senevi at Wilapattu and head towards Mannar from there. Raveendra would meet us there.

While driving to Wilpattu we noticed overcast conditions and decided to take the car up there as well because the jeep has little protection against the rain and we were worried about getting our camera equipment wet.

We initially took the Oyamaduwa road via Tantirimale as this is a shortcut which falls to Settikulam. But while going along we were told the road ahead was blocked by police due to the rain. The water was flowing across the road. So we took the longer route to Anuradhapura and drive via Medawachchiya. The road was amazing upto Madhu turnoff. From there onwards it was a slow ride as there was road construction and the condition was bad.

We drove ahead in the car upto Vankalai and waited for Senevi's jeep to arrive. After arriving I got in the jeep and the car followed us through the Vankalai road looking for birds. There was not much as it was late afternoon but we did see some Garganeys and Northern Pintail Ducks. While driving along the causeway towards Mannar Town we got caught to a very strong rain with gusts of wind and heavy shower. The road ahead was barely visible. Despite the harsh conditions we continued until we reached our destination Four Tees Rest.

Raveendra was already there and he has done a tour in the morning. He showed us the photos he had taken and we were amazed as he had seen Crab Plover up close. One photograph is of a plover eating a crab. He has also seen a Western Reef Egret. Also he had witnessed two jungle cats crossing the road on the Ponneryn route.

We had a late lunch of rice and curry with prawns. The food was amazing. The flavors were unlike I had ever had before. The preparations were made in the traditional northern Jaffna style using unique curry powders and spices. This was heaven and the food could not be replaced even in a 5 star hotel.

It was raining continuously, despite this we thought of doing a drive to see if we can find any birds. Firstly we drove towards the saltern where the flamingoes were said to be but to no avail. Thereafter we went towards the causeway and observed about 200 flamingoes very far away. The distance was too great even for an evidence shot. The rain kept getting stronger so we decided to call it a day and try tomorrow.

That night we were treated to a feast of crab curry with pittu. This was heaven. The food was so good its hard to describe in words.

Early morning the next day we headed towards the saltern again but there were no birds. The weather was gloomy and there was a permanent drizzle with some strong winds. It was very cold and very much unlike the Mannar we were expecting.

Driving along the proposed railway track in Vankalai we noticed a Western Reef Egret but it flew off and we were unable to photograph. While putting on to the main road Riaz noticed something and asked Senevi to reverse. When we reached the spot he wanted us to reverse to, I realized he had seen a pair of Painted Snipe. The shy birds were hiding under a bush and it was hard to photograph. But I managed to get an evidence shot. The male bird flew towards the main road and we drove over there and waited to see if it would appear out into he open.  For a small time he did, but I didn't notice it and wasn't able to capture any photographs.

Painted Snipe

Deciding to go back for breakfast we drove along the causeway and suddenly came across a Western Reef Egret. This uncommon bird is steel grey in color and is found very sparsely in certain areas. We photographed this rather unusual bird for quite some time and after having our fill of photos decided to head back.

While driving by I noticed that the flamingoes far off in the saltern we fewer than before and I asked Senevi to check the Saltern. Arriving there I noticed some birds from the distance and from the binoculars identified them as flamingoes. highly excited we drove along a by road and parked our jeep. Afterwards I did a "Commando" style maneuver across the waterways and slowly crawled upto the birds. The drizzle kept coming and we were slowly getting wet , even our equipment but seeing this was a momentous occasion which had to be cherished. These beautiful birds were a sight to behold. Their graceful walk and head movements are amazing. We photographed them for a few hours until the rain was too much to bear and I retreated back to the jeep. Also my hands were cut to the small shells which were among the banks of the salterns.

Thanks to a pair of US Army boots I was able to get about in the water, sand and mud. The light was pretty low but because of my lens the Canon 200-400 f4 I managed to get some decent shots which would have been impossible with my old lens the canon 100-400. Investing in good glass is important as the quality is amazing in the tip end glass offered by both Canon and Nikon.

We headed back to Four Tees in a celebratory mood. It was 12.00 noon. We got news from some sources that there was severe flooding in the Anuradhapura area and the roads were unpassable. We were worried but decided to stay one more day to let the water levels come down.

After a combined lunch and breakfast we rested for a few hours as the crawling and stalking made our bodies ache.

We left again at 3.00 pm and did one more round at the flamingoes in the saltern. Thereafter we drove along the causeway and found some more flamingoes close to the road. Being able to photograph from the jeep we parked next to them. This was a good spot as the background was clear and the setting was much better than the saltern.

I have to mention I have been wanting to take a particular photograph for some time. I had in my mind an image of flamingoes flying or taking off and captured using a long exposure technique where the motion was blurred to show the movement. This was a tricky technique where you had to get your settings right and the photograph needs to be perfect where the heads of the animal should be in focus with the movement of their bodies needs to be captured in a panning motion.

Ready for such a shot I adjusted my settings and waited for the right moment. I brought the shutter speed down in order to capture the panning motion. Suddenly I noticed a flock of flamingoes arriving in flight. I immediately started photographing them using the technique. I checked what I had captured and there behold one of the photos had come out right. I was overjoyed this was the main objective of my trip and I had achieved it.

Returning to Four Tees we celebrated the success with a  good drink and went to bed. We planned to leave early the next day due to the floods and thus headed after an early breakfast.

Driving along the causeway we came across some crab plovers. I was overjoyed as the trip felt complete now with this rare sighting. The plovers were much larger than I expected and were right next to the cause way. They were feeding for crab and were very interesting to photograph. After about half and hour with them we decided to push off as we were worried about getting marooned due to the floods.

Crab Plover 
 Crab Plover
 Grey Plover
 Crab Plover
 Crab Plover
 Crab Plover
 Crab Plover

Driving upto Medawachchiya was fine but from there onwards there was a massive block. The Rambewa tank has overflown and the water was rushing across the road in a torrent. Due to this a lorry had toppled and was blocking the entire road. Many people in the Medawachchiya town said that the car could not be passed and we almost made a decision to stay overnight in the town. But yet we thought of going to the spot and checking out the situation. After asking from the police they confirmed that a car could cross the spot. After about 3 hours of waiting finally our turn came and the crossing was quite scary. We were worried that the car might get stuck, but we managed to cross the water without an issue.

Afterwards the next hurdle was to get across Anuradhapura which too was underwater. Many areas in the town were flooded and we spent a long time in the town trying to find a way out. Finally we managed to get to the Kurunegala road where we bid Senevi farewell and headed towards Colombo.

The rest of the journey was without incident and we managed to get back home by late evening after almost 9 hours on the road.

What a trip, what an adventure. Mannar never ceases to surprise me and I guarantee there will be many trips over there in the next few months.