Friday, 16 November 2007

Water birds & Sea food trip

Common Greenshank and Black-winged Stilt
Kusum, a birding pal, and I organised a 2-day "water birds and sea food trip"  from 11 to 12 Aug., 2007. It served two puposes: to catch the early arrivals of winter migrants and to increase our blood cholesterol levels measurably. We were joined by several of our birding buddies: Mihiri, Umesh, Ayanthi, Rohantha, Madhu, Kishan and Devi—latter an MD—our doctor on call, just in case.

Our overnight base was a private Bungalow close to Kalpitiya, named the Turtle Point, which was recommended by Sandali Wijayatilake, who had been there in April and alledgely seen the highly sought-after Crab Plover nearby. All my previous sightings of this Deccan avi-faunal zone rarity had been in the Talaimannar area in Mannar, so one of the ulterior motives of this trip was to find it in a site more accessible.

We left Colombo very early and reached our first birding spot, Chilaw Sandspits—a wader patch in the western coast, north of the airport. It was too early in the season for the Sanderlings, which are usually found wintering here. But, we found a few early arrivals in the form of Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, and several Eurasian Whimbrel in the shoreline. A pair of Great Thick-knees and several Great Crested Terns also were noted. I was the only person with a scope, so as usual, there was a neat queue to take turns for better views.

Chilaw Sandspits is situated close to a fishing hamlet. Several of our participants had to experience ‘too much of reality’ too early in the morning. But what can I say? I had warned them precisely of such "ground realities."
 The queue
Breakfast at the Chilaw Resthouse was good and Kusum fell 10 short of his alltime string-hopper-eating record—gobbling 70!

This was with fish, potato, and dhal curries; plus pol sambol. The fish curry was a bit on the hot, and this was made an excuse to eat two slices of bread on top of it—in a bid put off the fire in his mouth!

Kusum:'no strings attached'
With our bellies full, we drove to the Annaiwilundawa RAMSAR wetland, which not surprisingly for this time of the year, was very dry—with its network of tanks reduced to small ponds here and there. A noteworthy birding highlight was  Large Cuckoo-shrike, which is somewhat of a regular at this site.

Cotton Pygmy-goose, Oriental Darter, Pied Kingfisher, Green Bee-eater, Indian Roller, Black-headed Ibis, Purple Heron and the four species of white Egrets, came in quick order. Thereafter, we drove up to the Puttlam Saltpans, which appeared devoid of birds at the first glance. It was so desolate that we almost turned back before we spotted a couple of small flocks of waders comprising of Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Kentish Plover, and Lesser Sand Plover—all retaining variable degrees of summer plumage. Some of those Curlew Sandpipers were almost in full summer with their beautiful brick-red plumages.

Several Gull-billed Terns were also spotted settled down close by. Returning to our vehicle baked in the blazing Puttlam sun, the organisers of the trip bedazzled the lot with some chilled soft drinks pulled out from a a coolbox tucked inside a seat. A few brownie points.

We broke for lunch at the good old Puttlam Resthouse, and since this is not a FOGSL trip, some of us had the luxury to replenish the lost liquids properly with chilled Lion beer with devilled cuttle fish as "bites" (Sri Lankans almost never drink without bites—which are often spicy/fired dishes with liberal amounts of chillie and high fat eating thingies).

Next, we enjoyed an artery-clogging rice and curry lunch—with more cuttle fish, prawns curry, and some fish curry for those who didn't like prawns and cuttlefish.

Western Reef Egret
Post lunch, we explored the vast expanse of Palavi mudflats.

As soon as getting off the vehicle, I picked up the call of a Grey Francolin—yet another deccan avi-faunal zone specialty. It was my first at this site. We looked for it but had no luck. It was extremely dry here, as expected, resulting in the wader patches being too far from the roadside. I saw not much point in trying to scope things from the roadside so Rohantha, Mihiri and Umesh agreed to walk up to the wader flocks following my ASS (advance-stop-scan) technique.

We had to report to our accommodation at around 5ish with the dry rations that we had brought along, in order for the caretaker family to cook our dinner. So this meant we could ASS only 750m. However, this was enough to find several high profile early migrants in the form of a grey morph Western Reef Egret, at least five Broad-billed Sandpipers, and Grey Plover. Those who stayed back in the dry land had also picked up blobs of the Grey Plover and the Western Reef Egret, but had missed the Broad-billed Sandpipers.

Returning to our vehicle, we accidentally flushed a Grey Francolin, a lifer for the rest. A BVD, of course.

After getting some ice from an ice factory to cool our food and beverages, we drove to the fish market in Kalpitiya to buy some seafood. It was here that another one of my techniques came in real handy. When we turned up at the fish market, all the fish vendors, who happened to wholesale fish dealers, didn’t care about us townies wanting small quantities of fish. And they gave us ‘Colombo prices!’.

One of the interesting things about our culture (shared also with certain other eastern cultures) is addresing complete strangers in kinship terms. So I addressed the vendor that I was speaking to ‘Ayye’ (elder brother), for he clearly looked older than me. This not only conveyed respect, but also put me in equal level with him socially. To be effective, I used it more often in my sentences than I would do it normally.

And Lo and behold!

It really worked as that bloke who seemed rude, and unfriendly at first really loosened up. We were quoted Rs. 1,200 per 1 kg of ‘jumbo’ Prawns initially but thanks to my heart-melting Ayyefying, we walked away with the same quantity paying just Rs. 500, which was a great bagain!

Similarly, I Ayyefyed another vendor to get a 2.8 kg Paraw Fish (Black-Tip Trevally,) at fraction of the Colombo prices! And I did this wearing my shorts and looking more like one of them.

following my ass(advance stop and scan)technique
We reached our accommodation around 5.30p.m., to be greeted by our friendly caretaker, Lional, who looked after us extremely well during our stay. The Turtle Point has three rooms (one with two beds, and two with three beds) each coming with private facilities. Note it has no electricity. Also, there are also extra beds that can be used if you want to sleep out in the veranda, which is what Kishan, and I did as it was a bit stuffy inside the room. More liquids, checklist and a fine seafood dinner marked the end of a great day.

A pre-breakfast birding walk on the following day along the shoreline was productive with steady flows of Brown-winged (Bridled) Terns, a passage migrant flying south, close to the shoreline. This proved a lifer for some. Also seen here were Little, Common, Large Crested, and Lesser Crested Terns, in addition to Black-winged Stilt and more Eurasian Whimbrels. Other highlights were early arrivals of Ruddy Turnstone, Little Stint, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper, and Curlew Sandpiper—all showing of summer and summer to winter transitional plumages in varying degrees.

No luck with Crab Plover. Our breakfast was rice with dhal curry, pol sambol and more Paraw fish curry.

Our exportations until lunch didn’t produce anything spectacular, and after another superb lunch, we bid farewell to Lionel and his family and drove to the Nawadankulama Tank. Here we had 19 Common Coots, a locally uncommon bird, and many Little Grebes feeding in formation. I also heard a yet another deccan avi-faunal zone specialty in the form of Eurasian Collard Dove, which would have been a lifer for the rest.

We returned home with copious quantities of Jumbo Prawns –the bloke charged only Rs. 450 per kg!

The above was my submission for I and The Bird #63 hosted by The Greenbelt

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

SLWCS Field Station, Wasgomuwa 6-9 Aug, 2007

Sunrise from the field station
I joined a trip to the SLWCS’s Field Station in Wasgomuwa with Chandeep Corea. On the way, we picked up two English volunteers: Ed and CJ, from a hotel north of the airport. They both had come to volunteer on a long running Elephant conservation project carried out by SLWCS at Wasgomuwa, and were going to be here for little over a month. I have been invited to visit this Field Station for long by Chandeep, but haven’t been able to find time and was happy visit it finally.

It was very basic but the spectacular views of the Knuckles mountain range and a tank (ancient reservoir built for irrigation purposes) nearby amply make up to it. According to Chandeep, it is common for overseas volunteers to extend their stays. I could see why.

Playing Scabble in the Tree hut
During the stay, I was able to find a good pair of scrabble buddies in ED and CJ and I managed to thrash them in all three games played!

Sri Lanka 3, England 0.

One of our Scrabble games was played on top of a tree hut while waiting for Elephants to immerge during one memorable evening. Soon, we had over 50 Elephants in close proximity Elephants seen from the Tree hutto our tree hut, feeding and interacting with each other, which was a fabulous experience. The day before, we observed over 80 Elephants around the same site, which by the way, is situated outside the Wasgomuwa National Park.

This was the peak of the dry season here and Elephants were coming in for drinking and bathing in the tank that was nearby, which still retained some water. Ed and CJ leant how to identify Elephants individually, using their unique features, and for this purpose we also took some video footage for later comparisons.

View of the Knucles Mountain range from the field station
We had interruptions for our scrabble and elephant observations by Chestnut-headed and Green Bee-eaters, Black-capped Bulbul, Sri Lanka Swallow, Wooly-necked Stork, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Indian Roller and Pied Kingfisher. I also observed nesting colony of Striated Weavers in the Tank in the Handungamuwa area.

Kithulgala with Steve & Mary, USA 12 July, 2007

Chestnut-backed Owlet in Kithulgala

I picked up Steve and Mary Pence from their Guest house in Negombo in the west coast, north of the airport and drove to Kithulgala for day’s birding. They are based in India and had come here on a short holiday. We had plenty of rain while on the road, but were extremely lucky that it stayed dry when we were out birding.

Our first tick in Kithulgala came in the form of the endemic Chestnut-backed Owlet, just 5 minutes after arriving and it afforded great scope views, below eye-level. The view we had of it was front-on with its ‘chestnut back’ not being visible and soon after both had seen it in the scope, we lost it. Steve has the habit of looking for the field diagnostics to get convinced of the identity of the birds he sees. Soon, I was able to whistle it back to clear view to see its diagnostic chestnut back in the scope during which time I also got a quick digi-scoping photo shown above.

Birding in the Kithulgala Forest Reserve we had great views of a female Crimson-backed Flameback, which I quickly scoped for great views. Our other highlights included Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Layard’s Parakeet, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Black-capped Bulbul & Legge’s Flowerpecker. We sadly dipped out on the Green-billed Coucal.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Arankele Forest Reserve with FOGSL, 12-13 May, 2007

the group
I joined 16 members of the FOGSL (Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka) on a trip to Arankele forest, north of Kurunegala. This intermediate zone evergreen forest is dotted all over with monuments of a forest monastery dating back to 6th century A.D.A long stone-paved path—part of the old monastery—provides the main access to the interiror of the forest. This is ideal for naturalists. A community of forest dwelling monks still reside in this temple ith the the cave shelters nestled deep in the jungle providing them the ideal retreats for meditation. We crashed in the more modern part of the temple for two days, roughing out in the alms-giving hall.

Our birding highlights over the two days included Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike nest on a dead tree containing a fledged juvenile, Sri Lanka Swallow, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Black-capped Bulbul, Sri Lanka Small Barbet, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Crested Treeswift, White-rumped Shama (many sightings), Crested Hawk Eagle, nests of Alexandrine Parakeet containing juveniles. Jerdon’s Leafbird, and Greater Racket-tailed Drongo.

When we were out birding, a pair of canine companions accompanying us (much to my dislike) swiftly ran into the forest and caught something that was on the forest floor. I got my binoculars on it to see that it was an Alexandrine Parakeet—probably fallen to the forest's floor from their a nest hole 25-30 metres above. By the time a participant intervened to save it, the parakeet has already lost its head to the dogs.

playing scrabble during a break
A non-birding highlight to me came in the form of a Sri Lanka Coral Snake Calliophis melanurus sinhaleyus, which I observed at dusk.

Another mild non-birding highlight for me was getting Kishan and Kusum, two of the regular participants on FOGSL bird watching trips, hooked on Scrabble! It was fun as all our breaks between birding walks were utilized to full effect to play some very relaxed Scrabble.

They rudely challenged one of my words: "yellowing." To keep the tranquillity of the forest, I had to take it back, and lose my turn, as the dispute raged, threatening to put the off the meditating monks.

Later on, I bought a book titled Collins Scrabble Tournament and Club World List and it confirmed 'yellowing' as a real word. Had I been allowed to play that word, I could have widened my victory gap no less than 70 points!

On the way back, we paused a bit in the Athugala (Elephant Rock) in Kurunegala. There is a good intermediate patch of (tall) forest here and we saw Brown-capped Babbler, Shaheen (Peregrine Falcon) and an immature Common Hawk Cuckoo here.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

A dead Western Purple-faced Leaf Monkey in my neighbour’s garden, 27 Mar, 2007.

Western Purple-faced Leaf Monkey
I fouund a dead "Western" Purple-faced Leaf Monkey Trachypithecus vetulus nestor, one of the world’s 25 endangered primates. It was a yong male, cut down in the prime of its life.

With bite marks in the thigh, I found its body in my neighbour’s garden. It also had bled from the mouth and nose—probably after internal bleeding resulted by the fall. This arboreal species is one of the three endemic primates in Sri Lanka (as far as it is currently known). The dominant males of this folivorous (leaf eating) species generally avoids full-blown fights with its opposite numbers in adjacent territories. Instead, when it comes to settling territorial issues, it relies on what primatologists call as "vocal distancing"—uttering far reaching calls that enable inter-group spacing. This is particularly useful given that the species is a leaf eater and the energy it extracts from such a leafy diet is minimal. This phenomenon is also manifested by Howler Monkey in South America and Colobus Monkey in Africa—both of which are noisy vegetarians.

When the females of this monkey turn "receptive," the dominant males turn aggressive especially towards the young males who may opportunistically try to mate with the females. These aggressive behavious are characterized by charging and chasing of young males, and at times, savage biting. As my area is a residential one with plenty of gaps between trees these charges expose the young males for greater dangers of falling off from trees while trying to flee in desperation. In numerous occassions, I have heard meaty thumps to see that a poor monkey has fallen off due to such chasings. I suspect that the nearest cause for death for this individual a bad fall. It’s not entirely surprising considering that my neighbour’s coconut trees are over 30 metres in height, and are well spaced out.

Orange Minivet in my home garden, 20 Mar, 2007.

Orange Minivet
I heard an Orange Minivet in my garden in Bomiriya (90210!), while I was working in my office. I at once rushed out to see a pair of them in one of the Jak Fruit trees. I was seeing this here after a lapse of nearly 10-12 years. It used to be a regular when I was schooling, but due to rampant development in the area its sightings declined to the point of none over the recent years. So it was nice to see it again after a long absence.

Sinharaja with Matt Jones, 1-3 Mar, 2007

Matt Jones is an Englishman living in Spain. He had come to do volunteer work with Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society’s (SLWCS) field camp in Wasgomuwa (doing Elephant Conservation work mainly) and was referred to me by its Operations Director, Chandeep Corea. We stayed overnight in Martin’s Simple Lodge. A non-birder, Matt was rather lucky to see day time views of two high-profile owls in the form of Bay Owl (my last sighting) and Serendib Scops Owl—two dream birds on the list of wants on most serious birders visiting Sri Lanka. The other top highlight has got to be a pair of Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush which "guided" us for 200 metres along the track, giving great scope views during a cloudy late afternoon.

MonaLisa TV crew, France, 16-25 Feb, 2007

interviewing bird flock researcher Dr. Eben Goodale at Eastern Sinharaja
This tour came to me through Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS). It was a two-man French film crew doing a documentary on ‘animal instincts’ with particular reference to the boxing day Tsunami in 2004. The general angle covered was how animals reacted before the tsunami and how humans/other animals got alerted to these signals & saved their lives.

Our first interviewee was my colleague Uditha Hettige, and when we visited him, he was convalescencing from a nasty road accident while going to see the Sri Lanka Bay Owls early this month. On the fretful day of the Tsunami, Uditha had been having breakfast at the 60 plus-roomed Yala Safari Game Lodge. Just before the dangerous tsunami wave hit, reducing the hotel to a couple walls, Uditha had seen a flock of water birds taking wing suddenly. Soon after he'd seen a big tidal wave coming in towards the land, and had run for his life shouting others around to do the same. Scaling a tree, he'd escaped with only minor injuries. The manager, accountant and his spouse, front office manager, cheff—all my friends—were not as lucky, and they all died. As did several in-house guests.

After shooting the interview with Uditha, we drove to Yala National Park. Thereafter, we visited Udawalawe National Park and the eastern Sinharaja to interview Dr. Eben Goodale who studies mixed species bird flocks.

We had fantastic Elephant footage in Udawalawe and a couple of Leopard sightings in Yala. On the way to Yala, I paused at the Udawalawe causeway for a quick scan, and I was able to see a White Wagtail (race dukhunensis) a scare migrant, which had been turning up at this site regularly. My first sighting of this was at the same site in 2001.

While the crew were busy filming ‘Elephant stories’ with an expert based in a village close to Udawalawe National Park, a mix bag of swifts caught my eye and it contained to my surprise, several White-throated Needletails, a species not in the Sri Lankan bird list! I could positively identify them from a combination of features seen including clear white throat, prominent white mantle and a horse-shoe shaped white marking in the ventral area –the later feature as in the Brown-backed Needletail. As soon as I saw them, it was obvious to me that the tone of the white colour of the throat area and the ventral area was similar. As for the size, it appeared smaller than Alpine Swift, and therefore, definitely smaller than the Brown-backed Needletail. Based on these facts, I was able to confidently excluding these two species. The other species recorded in this flock of swifts included House Swift, Indian Swiftlet, and Asian Palm Swift.

White-throated Needletail was claimed in Sinharaja by a visiting British birder on a tour that I organized in 2002/2003. His record submission to the Ceylon Bird Club’s Rarities Committee was later rejected.  I have submitted mine and am awaiting acceptance.
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