I did a half a day "water birds trip" with Joan and Martin Fine on 15 March, combining a couple of wetlands north of the Club Palm Bay Hotel, Marawila, where they were based.
Our first point of call was the shorebird patch Chilaw Sandspits, which proved quite productive with a flock of over 30 Sanderlings feeding frantically with their dashing runs ahead of the breaking waves. Always a pleasant start. A pair of hoped-for Eurasian Oystercatchers followed next, which had made Chilaw Sandspits their wintering grounds this migrant season. This as reported in previous reports by me is a good record as it is usually found wintering in the wetlands further north. A couple of Whimbrels surveying the coast weren't ignored. Kentish Plovers and Lesser Sand Plovers were also represented in reasonable numbers and scanning them closely, I was able to zero in on a Greater Sand Plover, which Joan enjoyed especially with Lesser Sands nearby to compare.
This was followed with the most exciting find of the morning when I spotted a distant white egret near the shoreline. It had its greenish yellow colour of toes extending up towards the hock joints of the leg and a heavier beak prompting me to
Joan had seen this species in Goa but this was the first white morph type for her. Closing in, we had several Little Egrets too in our view, which were useful for comparing the jizz, and this bird appeared quite different especially due to its heavier beak. Behaviour-wise and habitat association-wise too it strongly suggested of Western Reef being found running around the breaking waves at the edge of the shoreline. This is only my second white-morph individual ever, after seeing my first little over a month ago at Bundala National Park during my 15-day Absolute birding trip. This time, I got a fine photographer interested in it.
Here's a record shot.
According to the most recent work on birds of our part of the world; ‘Birds of South Asia’ by Rasmussen, the bill of the white morph Western Reef Egret Egretta gularis compared with the Little Egret Egretta garzetta (with which it can be confused in the field) has a "a heavier, yellower bill (and longer in males)."
Coming back to the current observation, the individual observed had a clear black beak (as did the Bundala one for that matter) but the jizz (and leg colour too ) strongly suggested of Western Reef Egret. Grimmett’s ‘Birds of Indian Sub-continent’ suggests, "bill is usually yellowish or brownish-yellow, but may be black when breeding," which I feel is a more fair description given the variabilty of this feature.
The Collins Bird Guide to Britain and Europe by Killian Millarney, suggesting "Bill colour is variable, usually yellowish with darker culmen," acknowledging variability when there is variability is also good in my reckoning.
I invite you to see this analysis in the Stokes Birding Blog addressing such an Egret ID conundrum of a (possible) Western Reef Egret Egretta gularis in the USA using various Field Guides and sources. None of Field Guides compared in their analysis suggests the bill colour could be at times black!
I sent my WRE pictures to Krys Kazmierczak (surname pronounced as cash me a cheque) of Oriental Bird Club, who is also the author of the Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. He too agreed that it is a Western Reef Egret, confirming my original claim.Coming back to other birds, we had a good diversity of terns. They were Great Crested, Lesser Crested, Little, Common, Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns.
Good views were also had of winter plumaged Brown-headed Gulls. Moving towards the lagoon side, I picked up a single Terek Sandpiper—at almost infinity. This was a good record (my second ever for this site) as it is an uncommon migrant wader usually found "Up North." At 60 times magnification, it showed a clearly up-curved beak, dumpy profile and clear orangey legs aiding the ID. Soon, Joan drew level, deftly picking up a pair of Great Thick-knees—her first lifer for this morning.
Time seems to fly by and soon it was nearly 9.00 a.m. and time to go to the nearby Chilaw Resthouse for breakfast.Thereafter, we drove to our second and the last patch of this trip: Annaiwilundawa RAMSAR wetland, which was teeming with life. Martin was overwhelmed with the sheer diversity of things in shooting range. Our highlights very quickly, dragonflies: Oriental Scarlet, Pied Parasol and Variable Flutterer; butterflies: Great Orange Tip, Plain, Common and Blue Tigers; reptiles: Green Forest Lizard and Common Garden Lizards keeping him rather busy.
Birding at this vast wetland complex was at its usual best, as expected for this time of the year.
Birds seen here were Pheasant-tailed Jacana in full breeding regalia, many wintering Garganey, Cotton Pygmy-goose, Lesser Whistling-duck, Little Grebe, Purple Swamphen, Oriental Darter, Little Cormorant, Indian Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Black-winged Stilt, Purple Heron, Intermediate Egret, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, White-throated Kingfishers, Purple Sunbird, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Brown-headed Barbet (nesting) and Blue-tailed Bee-Eater.
An Accipiter was scrutinised closely and it proved to be an immature Shikra while a pair of Large Cuckoo-shrikes that I found in the scope was the lifer no.3 for the day for Joan.
We returned to the hotel at midday to log our sightings before ending our short and sweet trip.
The above is my contribution to I and the Bird #75 hosted by me!