When I see on my itinerary that I’ll be visiting a destination for one short day, I start to feel a bit of pressure to make the most of it. This week, I was to visit Colombo, Sri Lanka for my first time—my only taste of this storied island nation. What to do, what to do?
As it turned out, my options were narrowed considerably before I arrived: it was New Year’s Day, one of the most important holidays of the year, and virtually everything would be closed. I’ve been through at least three New Year celebrations in the last few months; this one is an astronomical date as the sun passes into Aries, and is celebrated by Sri Lankans, Thais and a few other Asian cultures.
Well, when all else fails, there are birds. Colombo is situated on a low, wet coastal plain, and the bird life is spectacular. I walked with binoculars in hand through the quiet streets, but my first quarry turned out to be of the four-legged variety. Right beside a busy city street, on a cement fence post, sat one of the most colourful lizards I have ever seen. I began photographing it from a distance; my experience with these guys invariably involves inching just a little bit too close, whereupon they disappear into the nearby bushes in a flash.
This guy wasn’t going anywhere, though: he was in full breeding colours, and wasn’t willing to give up his prime position on that exposed post. I photographed him for a good long while, and later looked him up: he’s an Oriental garden lizard, one of the dragons or Agamid lizards (its cousin the bearded dragon is common in the pet trade.) I had seen other garden lizards in Singapore, but their colour is highly changeable and I had never beheld one with these bright reds and yellows. As I approached, he turned to me and inflated his throat patch, the lizard equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet. Though he was only a foot (30 cm) long at best, I backed off, and continued my walking tour. There were pelicans flying overhead, and I wanted to get near them.
The spot-billed pelican is a bit of a runt as pelicans go, but still a hefty bird when viewed from up close. They’re found throughout Sri Lanka, India and up into Cambodia, and have long lived in close proximity to people. They nest in trees, building big loose platforms on the broad, spreading branches of Barringtonia and other low trees, creating impressive colonies right in the middle of coastal villages. Their numbers have fluctuated and gradually decreased over time as human populations elbow them out, but a number of villages have discovered their value as tourist attractions and are working to conserve them. I had first seen them flying over the harbour from the ship, and was delighted to find them on a large lagoon right in the centre of Colombo.
There were apparently fish near where I stood, and one pelican—already habituated to city life—was willing to come surprisingly close to take advantage of them. The spot-billed pelican isn’t a diver like its famous brown cousin; rather, he sits on the water and plunges his head down into the depths to net his prey with that prodigious pouch. He (or she—the sexes are identical) was successful after a few dips, and I watched the fish flop around awkwardly in his mouth. The pelican tossed his head this way and that to get it in position to slide down the hatch, and down it went, still flopping. That can’t be a comfortable feeling: do the fish keep flopping for a while in the bird’s crop?
Near the pelican, a sextet of little cormorants fished manically. I followed them with my telephoto lens as they surfaced and turned and plunged with the precision of Olympic synchronized swimmers. Alas, they were too fast for my camera.
Striking a more zen-like attitude on the shore were a variety of egrets, joined by the small but surprisingly pretty Indian pond heron. Again I found them remarkably tame and more than willing to pose for a shot or two. A great egret, perhaps the most statuesque of all the heron family, stood and fished as I approached; I’ve never been permitted so close before. What a beauty.
Down the way, its smaller cousin, the cattle egret, paused from its shoreline patrol long enough for me to catch it in perfect light against the blue water of the lagoon. And lastly, a little egret (closely related to the snowy egret of North America) let me get a shot or two, though he was considerably more wary than the others. Sadly he was surrounded much of the time by floating garbage; there’s been no shortage of that anywhere here in Asia.
House crows mobbed and scolded me as I worked; they’re a beautiful grey and black bird and ubiquitous in this part of the world. Overhead, Asian koels called their names ceaselessly, and small gangs of rose-ringed parakeets squawked as they streaked across the sky.
The sun was climbing and I had a long way to walk back to the port. I had planned to spend some time photographing the local people, but the streets were virtually deserted for the New Year holiday. No matter; I made my way back to the ship for a long afternoon nap.