Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Birding with Adrian Mann

Serendib Scops Owl
I did a 4-day birding trip with Adrian Mann, a British birder, from 23–26 Aug., 2007. I picked him up from a beach hotel in Kalutara in the southwest coast, where he was holidaying with his fiancé and her parents. We first visited Morapitiya rain forest for a full day’s birding on our day 01. Fresh from my experiences a couple of days ago, I was quite pumped up. And I had a 4 WD jeep waiting near the turn off to reach the prime birding area as the access to the prime birding area of Morapitiya is tough for cars.

With high humidity and mostly overcast conditions, birding turned out to be hard work, but overall, we could be happy of what we achieved. Knowing the local conditions, we carried enough water and drinks in a coolbox. And that helped us a great deal to keep ourselves nicely hydrated.

On the birding specifics without further ado, early in our walk, we were rewarded with fine views of Gold-fronted Leafbird, Lesser Hill Myna, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Layard’s Parakeet, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Emerald Dove and Green Imperial Pigeon. The only mixed species bird flock was good, and it had such delights as Orange-billed Babbler, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Black-capped Bulbul, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Malabar Trogon, Square-tailed Black Bulbul and Black-rumped Flameback—all sought-after specials.

Sri Lanka Spurfowl proved elusive—this shy forest dweller requires a bit of patience, and a bit of hardwork. Adrian didn't like to spend a lot of time over bird, and complying to his likes, I didn't push myself.

Exploring a different trail after feasting on our packetted lunch, we resumed exploring the edge of the forest close to human habitation. Soon, I stumbled upon the scarce endemic, Green-billed Coucal. Unfortunately, Adrian mised seeing its diagnostic green bill. No tick. A pair of Black Eagles soured high above. No problem with that. The good-looking endemic, Crimson-backed Flameback, Black-naped Monarch, and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher were also added to our growing list as the day wore on.

Returning to a village home garden for a cuppa in the late afternoon, Adrian picked a bird perched high up in an Alstonia tree, a fair distance away. It turned out to be a Dollarbird—a top rarity in Sri Lanka. It provided prolonged scoped views for us, and for a few smiley village kids. This was followed with the endemic Sri Lanka Small Barbet—one of those soft endemics.

We lingered until dusk for night birds. As dusk envoloped us, we had great views of Sri Lanka Frogmouth, below eye-level, when it emerged from its low day roost. Thereafter, we shifted our focus for the crème de la crème: the newly discovered Serendib Scops Owl. We didn't have to wait for long. As early as 6.55 p.m. we had met our quarry—a perfect sighting low down (picture above).

We got the wheels moving by 7.00 p.m. to commence our journey back our overnight base in Sinharaja. Everybody was quite knackered by the time we reach there. A nice cold shower, chilled Lion beer, and a rice and curry dinner did the trick to recharge our batteries. I started the day at 4.00 a.m. By the time I hit the sack, it was 11.30 p.m.; I slept like a baby!

Early next day, we explored the adjoining forest patch, and had a Spot-winged Thrush on the trail. This was followed by scope views of Green-billed Coucal—the green bill of which was seen well this time! A Malabar Trogon also graced our morning, oblinging with scope views. After obtaining our entrance tickets for today, and meeting our compulsory forest department tracker, we reached the Martin’s Simple Lodge: our overnight base for tonight. It had some rain today, but that didn't hamper our birding—as when it mattered most, it was nice and dry.

Exploring a trail below Martin’s, we encountered five Sri Lanka Blue Magpies, which were seen preening seated close together in a row—soothing sight. We also had several mixed species bird flocks with the usual species. One of these produced scope views of Red-faced Malkoha feeding on a large caterpillar. (I am closely monitoring the feeding ecology of this cuculid, so it was all good!)

Children in Morapitiya
Back in Martin’s during our midday break, a Black Eagle, soaring over the shorter trees around the balcony area, once got about 4 m from us giving heart-stopping views. I picked up a call of a Rufous Woodpecker, which flew in front of Martin’s to perch in a tall tree nearby, but when I tried to find it again for Adrian, it proved elusive.

Our top highlight during the birding session in the second half of the day was Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush. It was scoped on the trail after waiting specifically for it.

Checklist and dinner back in Martin’s marked the end of a nice and easy day in the field.

In the short birding session, which we squeeze in the morning of Day 03 in Sinharaja, we had scope views of 4 White-faced Starlings perched atop an Alstonia tree almost at eye level. This tree had an active Weaver Ant colony (Oecophylla smaragdina). I noticed that the starlings were picking up these ants and rubbing them into their body. This may be to keep parasites off as these ants contain acidic body fluids. All four birds were involved in this ritual for 10 minutes before taking wing. Other highlights included great views of Legge’s Flowerpecker, Hill Munia, Orange Minivet and Sri Lanka Myna.

After this great birding in the lowland wet zone, we reached the dry lowlands of Udawalawe, where a totally different avifuana awaited us.

 As this was the school holidays, the park was full of local visitors and the official manning the ticket office (who happened to be the park’s accountant on this particular day) refused to let us enter until a tracker returns Crested Hawk Eagleafter a safari, as it is compulsory to have one when entering the park. Although I tried my best to convey that we are here to watch birds and delays do not help our course, he was unwilling to consider any alternative in favour of the overseas visitors. In my opinion, the parks should either have enough trackers or look to authorize regular jeep drivers to step in as temporary trackers when they are short-staffed  (for they are quite knowledgeable of the park’s roads, rules, and wildlife) to meet the demands of high visitor numbers during peak holiday seasons. An overseas visitor pays a very high entrance fee (compared to fares in the regional national parks), which is close to Rs. 2,400 per person (around USD 21 with all taxes). This is compared to around Rs. 100 per person (around 0.9 US with taxes) paid by a local visitor. It is a great shame that an overseas visitor is delayed from entering the park on account of lack of local trackers when people in the tourism iIndustry in this country are trying everything possible to get more visitors to this country. And trying give them memorable experiences. With such red tape and tunnel vision, I am afraid overseas visitors will not return home with happier stories; I was quite frustrated. (the official now works at Bundala NP, and is a good friend of mine; he is changed now!).

After a frustrating half an hour at the park’s entrance waiting for a tracker to be available, we finally entered the park at around 3.00 p.m. (Luckily, I had reached the park’s entrance early, so we weren't handicapped too much by the hold up). The tracker who became available was known to me, and instead of sharing one tracker with multiple jeeps (as it happens on busy days), I was able to get him released only for our jeep insisting that we had a different focus.

Coming back to birding, I had a 5.00 o'clock appointment with several woodpeckers at a site in the park’s interior. So I briefed the jeep driver about it at the start, so that he can time the journey, with all our regular birding stops. As this was the peak of the dry season in the dry zone, the park was quite dry with most of the ponds retaining little water with some gone completely dry. Our first birding highlight was Plum-headed Parakeet, which was followed by several dry zone specialties: Malabar Pied Hornbill, Blue-faced Malkoha, Yellow-eyed Babbler, Sirkeer Malkoha, and Yellow-crowned Woodpecker. Yes, the birding was very good. A couple of early migrant were added to our list: Barn Swallows and Grey-bellied Cuckoo—my first records for this migratory season.

This park is simply great for raptors and we had multiple sightings of Black-winged Kite, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, and Crested Hawk Eagle. As usual Asian Elephants were in good numbers, and we did pause to observe a few family groups.

Our appointment with the Woodpeckers were spot-on and we had brilliant scope views 3 White-naped Woodpeckers; plus a couple of Crimson-backed Flamebacks—early hiccup at the entrance were soon forgotten! What's more, Adrian wanted to come back the following morning!

Close to the woodpecker spot, we also had ten Lesser Adjutants with an assortment of several other big water birds: Wooly-necked Stork, Asian Openbill, Painted Stork and Black-headed Ibis having a feast in a drying water hole. We also bagged Zitting Cisticola (for non-birders, this is not a fizzy drink!), Black-headed Munia, Jerdon's Bushlark, and Crested Treeswift in the later afternoon.
White-naped Woodpecker

While heading back to the park’s exit, we came across a truck belonging to the wildlife department, which apparently had a break down.

The two wildlife department guys in it sought our assistance. And we obliged. Our ulterior motive was because this gave an excuse to linger on at the part until dusk—and Adrian didn't mind seeing a few nightjars.

So our well measured help extended, gave us good long views of Little Indian Nightjar. Checklist a Sri Lankan-styled Chinese dinner marked the end of an eventful day.

No more hiccups at the entrance on our Day 04, as I had the same tracker arranged for our morning's visit to the park. Our top highlight today was a Brown Fish Owl in a day roost. Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Tawny-bellied Babbler, Indian Silverbill, and Jungle Prinia were also added to our tally. After pausing en route in the Bodhinagala Forest Reserve, we returned to Adrian’s beach hotel. That diversion didn’t add anything new to our tally.

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