Monday, 31 December 2007

Sinharaja with an expat family

I visited Sinharaja rain forest with a British expat family over 21-23 Dec. They were referred by Graham Crick who has been on two 15 day birding trips to Sri Lanka in 2004 and 2006, lead by me.

We arrived at our overnight base, Martin’s Simple Lodge, by lunch time. This was after pausing for some wayside attractions, which included a Blue-tailed Bee-eater sitting pretty in good light and a couple of Green Forest Lizards. As usual, on the way to Sinharaja, I did my usual tour commentary, which included, on popular request, an extended version about leeches. To make things exciting for the kids, I announced several challenges and rewards. The first challenge was—"the first person to get a bleeding bite by a leech." It turned rainy after our arrival at Martin’s. But that didn’t matter too much as it was all over by the time we finished our lunch. During the time we stayed at Martin's balcony, we had several birds visiting the tree tops in front. They were Legge’s Flowerpecker, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Square-tailed Black Bulbul and Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike—all of which stayed long enough to present scope views.

Just before we were ready to set off on our first walk to the forest, we discovered the lucky person to have got the first bleeding leech bite—one of the kids—who was rather excited about it. It probably would have got on when he went out to photograph some flowers before wearing the leech socks provided. The reward for this was a booklet titled “Mixed species bird flocks in Sinharaja” authored by Prof. Sarath Kotagama and Dr. Eben Goodale.

Early in our foray into the forest after lunch a male Malabar Trogon offered heart-melting scope views before disappearing into the woods.

It was overcast not at all helping the player comfort. Our only other birds seen in this session were White-bellied Drongo, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Pale-billed Flowerpecker and Green Imperial Pigeon.

The second challenge was spotting the first lizard inside the forest. It didn’t take too long—this time, the mother of the kids—spotted a gravid female Kangaroo Lizard. A book titled 'Birds of Sinharaja' authored by Prof. Kotagama, was the prize for spotting the lizard, which ended up with one of the kids who diligently took notes and marked the checklist.

Our final noteworthy critter for the day pair of False Lantern-flies Pyrops maculata.

And we retreated to Martin’s for dinner and overnight stay.

Early next day, we had tea with five Sri Lanka Blue Magpies, which arrived soon after 6.00 a.m. to feed on the insects fallen under lamps at Martin’s. These were followed by a confiding Spot-winged Thrush. After this, an Orange Minivet that visited the tree crowns in front. Soon we went to the forest on a pre-breakfast walk, which gave us fine views of Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Black-capped Bulbul, Yellow-fronted Barbet, to name a few. After meeting our compulsory local guide, Ranjith Premasiri, we went on a longer walk.
Three challenges were today by me: spotting a snake, a monkey and a butterfly named Tree Nymph.

We had no luck with monkeys; we had to contend with only the booming calls of two dominant male Purple-faced Leaf Monkey engaged in vocal distancing. The snake spotting-challenge didn’t go to anybody, as I was the first to spot one—my fine was a Sri Lanka Keelback Water Snake—a regular at Sinharaja.

Ranjith soon followed finding a beautiful Green Whip Snake Ahaetulla nasuta, merged perfectly into the lush undergrowth. Its generic name is same as its local name: Ahaetulla, which means the "eye plucker"
This explains a myth that surrounds to the effect that they attack the eyes of humans—not true.

A book titled "Pictorial Pocket Guide to Mammals in Sri Lanka" by Prof. Kotagama went for one of them for spotting the first Tree Nymph butterfly of the trip. Moving on, Brown-capped Babbler waited just long enough to offer scope views. We had a decent mixed species bird flock with the usual complement of species.

Top highlight in the post-lunch session was a Red-faced Malkoha, which gave multiple scope views for all of us. We were lucky that the weather remained good for most parts. (We had to put up our umbrellas for a couple of short drizzles.) It rained from mid night until 8.30 a.m. in the morning of day 03. We enjoyed a late birding breakfast. An obliging Asian Brown Flycatcher and more Orange Minivets gave good long views from the balcony. On the way back to Colombo, we had a Crested Hawk Eagle, sitting handsomely, on a roadside post and several Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters. Soon, we paused in the Blue Water in the west coast for an artery-clogging buffet lunch and a dip in the pool. Very good.

We played an absorbing game of Scrabble; the final score 294-248 in favour of me doesn’t really reflect how closely the game flowed. Soon after the tour, I got an e-mail from them with a link and seeking my views. It took me to an optics site and to a certain spotting scope special offer.

The gentleman wrote, "we have turned twicthers!"

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Birding with Yong Ding Li & friends

Yong Ding Li, 23, a Singaporean birder, had seen 1,217 species of birds in Asia by the time he visited Sri Lanka for a birding trip. Ding Li was determined to break the record of Ben King—who has seen the most number of birds in Asia. He was referred to me by Enoka Kudawidanage who is doing a PhD studies at NUS (National University of Singapore), where Ding Li is a student. Although Ding Li first wanted to do a very low budget backpacking style trip, inviting me to join him at a few key birding sites such as Sinharaja rain forest, I was able to lure him to accepting a more structured itinerary. It was good a group tour—to keep costs low.

Chestnut-backed Owlet photographed at point blank range at Kithulgala

The result was a birding trip done between 10-19 Dec 2007 with 5 other Singaporean birders joining in. They included Ding Li’s birding buddy: Albert Low, 21, who had seen 1,107 bird species in Asia and 1,500 species in the world by the time he came to Sri Lanka.

The group from left to right: Willie Foo, Ding Li, Albert Low, Alfred Chia, Pah Liang, and Alan Owyong,

Others were Alan Owyong—a keen videographer, who had visited Sri Lanka a couple of times; Alfred Chia—a serious birder and a keen photographer with a sharp eye and an even sharper wit; Willie Foo—a keen videographer; and Yang Pah Liang—a keen birder who had travelled extensively.

I spotted a pair of Jungle Owlets from a moving vehicle, and this is one of them; it caught a prey item when we were watching it.

We combined several key birding sites: Kithulgala, Sinharaja, Morapitiya, Udawalawe National Park, Tissamaharama, Nuwara Eliya and a host of local patches, and a bit of sight-seeing at Kandy, before heading back to Katunayake for the final night.

Ding Li and Albert Low stayed on for two more days of birding and cultural explorations. During this extension, Albert and I did a "water birds day tour" combining a few wetlands north of the airport: Chilaw sandspits, Annaiwilundawa Ramsar wetland, Palawi saltpans, and the massive Nawadamkulama tank.

Our final bird trip list stood at 221 species—seen. Our top birding highlights were Green-billed Coucal, Chestnut-backed Owlet, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Red-faced Malkoha, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, White-faced Starling, Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Spot-winged Thrush, Brown-capped Babbler, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Malabar Trogon, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Brown-backed Needletail, Besra, Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Dull-blue Flycatcher, Kashmir Flycatcher, Pied Thrush, Indian Blue Robin, Slaty-legged Crake, Indian Blackbird, Hill Swallow, Blue-faced Malkoha, Osprey, Jungle Owlet, Brown Fish Owl, Jungle Prinia, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Indian Nightjar, Blyth’s Pipit, Indian Scops Owl, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Spot-billed Pelican, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Indian Pitta, Lesser Cuckoo, White-naped Woodpecker, Indian Think-knee, Indian Pygmy Woodpecker, and Yellow-wattled Lapwing.

Albert’s water birds tour with me produced Eurasian Oystercatcher, Sanderling, Great Thick-knee, Caspian, White-winged, Little and Lesser Crested Terns, Lesser Sand Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Grey Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Kentish Plover, Brown-headed Gull, Garganey, Watercock, and Indian Reed Warbler.

On the main tour, we managed to bag 31 of the 33 endemic birds; plus many of the sought-after migrants and sub-continental specialties. Our notable miss was Serendib Scops Owl. The closest we got for this endemic bird discovered in Janurary, 2001 was when we heard it across a shallow stream at Kithulgala. It was rainy, yet I could have shown it had my visitors been willing to following me in cross that stream. Our second attempt at Morapitiya ended up in failure with heavy rain and greatly swollen streams hampering our movements.
A spread of Sri Lankan rice and curry at Kithulgala.

On account of our missing this rarity, Albert thought it should be named Serendip Scops Owl in our final bird list! The other endemic that eluded was the Crimson-backed Flameback.

As mentioned above, we had to contend with rainy weather—at times rather heavily on certain days because the period of our travel coinciding with a untimely monsoonal peak. Leading to this trip, I was quite surprised as to how many dry and sunny days I enjoyed in November this year, which is usually rainy due to the onset of the North-East monsoon. This monsoon brings rain to the dry zone (3/4 of the island) as well as the wet zone (the balance 1/3). The intensity of rain expected in November was clearly not there this year. (During a trip done in November, I spoke to a farmer in the dry zone, and was concerned by the delayed monsoon.)

A Malabar Trogon at Sinharaja rain forest.

It seemed to me the rain overdue had been delivered with interest December this year!
The heavy monsoonal rain caused extensive floods in some areas in the north-central and eastern districts in the dry zones after a lapse of many years. This was especially due to spill gates in certain tanks (reservoirs) having to be opened due to very high water levels.

Such bad weather encountered on birding tours do not always dampen the spirits completely as some people use that time wisely to follow other more ebullient indoor pursuits. In an evening in which rain called off play, few of us were gathered at Martin’s balcony to drink tea. We enjoyed the rain forest in rain. We kept our binculars with us anyway, lest the rain would ease and bring the birds out again. And then somebody suggested that we played Scrabble. There were a couple of English visitors who were marooned at Martin’s balcony with us. They were to travel to Galle to see the cricket, which was to start in a few days. They joined us too to form three teams. The Englishman and Ding Li were the first one. Albert and the English lady were the second one. And I battling alone.

As usual for a game of Scrabble, there were plenty of disputes. Some resorted to sledging and 'mental disintegration' tactics. Yet, I came from behind to thrash both the combined commonwealth teams just in my last word scored by dropping an 'O' next to 'Z' to make ‘ZO’—earning 26 in the process. And this was challenged straightaway. The final score was Ding Li’s team – 177, Albert’s team – 196 and yours truly 209.

I have never come across an overseas birder who knew all the Sri Lankan birds by their scientific names. That was until I met Ding Li. He constantly dazzled me with his ability to remember scientific names of not only of the Lankan birds we saw on this tour, but also birds across Asia, which I thought was pretty amazing. Ding Li and Albert discussed day’s sightings lengthily, and took extensive notes at the end of the day.

The Scrabble board at the end.

Our non-birding highlights came in the form of Yellow-striped Chevrotain Moschiola kathygre, which we encountered on the trail while driving up to Martin’s at night and Bear Monkey Trachypithecus vetulus monticola in Nuwara Eliya.

Considering rainy weather we ha and us not visiting three national parks usually visited on standard birding tours (Horton Plains, Yala and Bundala), overall we could be happy of what we achieved in such a short span of time.

Sri Lanka White-eye at Nuwara Eliya.

Ding Li left Sri Lanka boosting his Asian tally by 63 ending up at 1,280 seen. Albert Low left Sri Lanka high, raking in 91 lifers to stand at 1,198 Asian birds seen.

Edit: The newly rediscovered Sri Lankan breeding resident Marshall's Iora was seen briefly on this tour at the Lunugamwehera; and made it to the final trip list. After this, I had very convincing views of this bird on my Absolute Birding tour in Feb, 2008. A detailed report of it is here here.

The pair of Jungle Owlets that I spotted from a moving vehicle at Tanamalwila.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Dragons in my garden Part 1

starring Elusive Adjutant adult male

The foremost expert on Sri Lankan dragonflies and damselflies is not a Sri Lankan. He is a Slovenian named Matjaž Bedjanič who had studied these insects for his PhD. I regularly correspond with him to supply data and to get the IDs confirmed of the dragonflies and damselflies that I photograph in the field. One of these photographed by me in Sinharaja rain forest, turned out to be a new species and is awaiting formal description!

Elusive Adjutant adult female

My garden has over 20 species of them; some quite colourful. Shown here are three photographs of one of those garden delights; the extremely beautiful Elusive Adjutant aka Black-headed Basker (Aethriamanta brevipennis), which is listed as a highly scarce resident. This is found regularly in my garden and is quite photogenic.

Elusive Adjutant young male

Friday, 7 December 2007

A visitor in my garden

Indian Pitta

I forgot to blog this earlier; I had my first Indian Pitta for this migratory season on the 30th October in my garden. I usually keep a corner of my garden with thick undergrowth to invite it and it accepts my invitation every year! This pretty terrestrial bird calls at dawn and dusk around 6.00 O’clock. Consequently, one of its popular local Tamil names is 'Aarumani Kuruvi', which translates to ‘The 6.00 O’clock bird’. According to local folklore, the beautiful feathers of the Indian Peafowl aka Peacock were originally belonging to the Indian Pitta. The Peacock had ‘borrowed’ it for a wedding and had Indian Pittanever returned. Hence the reason the Pitta calls everyday to remind the peacock to return its feathers!

It must be noted that there are various versions to this story; one saying that the peacock stole it, while the Pitta had put it aside for bathing! However, the version mentioned in the ‘Aspects of Sinhala Folklore’ by Prof. J.B. Disnayaka is that the peacock borrowed it and I am happy to borrow that version

Anyway, what a beauty it would have been its original plumes!

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

A Sri Lanka Bullfrog in my garden

Sri Lanka Bullfrog
I found a Sri Lanka Bullfrog aka. Sri Lanka Painted Frog Kaloula taprobanica, while I clearing a garbage bin, outside my Kitchen on 23 November, 2007. It was hiding underneath the bin. And with its distinctive colour pattern, it caught my attention straightaway. This was my first encounter with this little frog. But I knew what it was the very moment I saw it. This frog has an interesting life-cycle, and is known to live a life of underground existence during the dry times, at times being found in 10-12 feet below, at times! It surfaces out during the wetter times for breeding.

The species etymology of this frog alludes to Taprobane, a pre-Christian era name for the island of Sri Lanka. It was coined by Onesicritus, companion of Alexander the Great's campaigns in northwestern India after the name that existed for Sri Lanka: Tambapanni. It means "copper-hued palms". That was how the ancient settlers from Northern India. These settlers colonised Lanka in the 6th century B.C., and according to the Mahavamsa, the Great Chronical. This was named like because the soil in the place of their landfall turned the palms of the settlers copper coloured after they rested on it following landfall.

The island of Sri Lanka is referred as Tamrapanni in the 3rd century B.C rock edicts of Emperor Ashoka in North India. Therefore, Tamrapanni is another variant of the name, Tambapanni. While leading a SLWCS trip with some US visitors in 2004, I have been to this general area—a site called Kudremalai—inside the Wilpattu National Park (131,693 ha). The sand was strikingly reddish-hued. Here' a photo of that soil with a nice Fan-throated Lizard (Sitana ponticeriana) to complement it.

Fan-throated Lizard in Kudiramale, Wilpattu National Park

Sinharaja with Alan and Lucy Smith

Alan and Lucy Smith from Yorkshire, England had come here on a Kuoni general round tour. They were based in a beach hotel in Kalutara, when I picked them up to visit Sinharaja rain forest for a birding tour over 25-27 November, 2007. Both in their late 60s, they were very lucky to be rewarded with a full-blown mixed species bird flock while sipping tea at Martin’s balcony, just 10 minutes after arrival at 11.15 a.m. Birds recorded in quick order included White-faced Starling, Red-faced Malkoha, Orange-billed Babbler, Orange Minivet, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, White-bellied Drongo, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Black-capped Bulbul, Common Iora, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Malabar Trogo, and Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler!

Tawny Rajah
What felt even better was that there hadn’t been any flock the day before, according to a few local birders who were at Martin’s. Going for a walk, we had the same flock just 5 minutes into our walk up the road and we had second and third views of all the above; plus Black-naped Monarch, Legge’s Flowerpecker, and Sri Lanka Myna. We were well and truly off to a dream start without even walking 100 m from Martin’s!

On both mornings, we had early tea with five Sri Lanka Blue Magpies, which came to feed on the insects trapped under lights in the Martin’s balcony. These were accompanied by a confiding Spot-winged Thrush, hopping inside the balcony.

Yellow-browed Bulbul
In our birding walks that followed we also had Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Brown-capped Babbler, Crimson-backed Flameback, Black-naped Monarch, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Layard’s Parakeet, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, and a pair of roosting Sri Lanka Frogmouth, which were huddled together appearing like two delayed leaves. This sighting was shared by Prasanjith Caldera, and I am thankful for him for sharing it.

Our top natural history highlights were cracking views of two good looking butterflies: Cruiser Vindula erota and Tawny Rajah Charaxes psaphon both of which were filmed and photographed. Our driver was Sameera Arandara and once again he did a fantastic job in driving us promptly and safely.

Oh, I did play a game of scrabble. Which I won: 250-140.
ENTAILED earned my highest individual score of 68 playing all 7. And Alan vowed to square it on his return next time around.

Sinharaja with FOGSL

Sri Lanka Junglefowl
I joined the annual workshop on mixed species bird flock studies in Sinharaja rain forest conducted by FOGSL (Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka) from 8-11 November, 2007. The group this time were 20 plus local birders, mainly consisting of newbies.

Prof. Kotagama who usually heads this annual birding pilgrimage pulled out last minute due to work commitments; therefore, I became the leader by popular choice. We had good weather with a tinge of overnight rain, which didn’t really matter.

As usual when there are over 20 in a birding group, there tend to be a bit more chattering than is healthy for birding, so much so that birding gradually assumes secondary focus by around day 3 and 4!

Adding to this problem is what I call as the "newbie syndrome": new bird watchers expecting every bird to be spotted for them. And presented in a platter if possible!

So, one of the first things that I did early in the trip was to set a simple target for each person to spot at least one new bird for the rest of the group to see. If it was only seen by a few that wouldn’t count. Instead, it had to be shared among everybody. This wasn’t too unreasonable as we had over 3 full days’ for birding. It worked quite well, and we cleaned up most of the expected Sinharaja highlights by day our 2!

I personally sacrificed a lot of digiscoping opportunities to provide scope views of most of the flock-associated birds that stayed on long enough. It was a very nice feeling to share good sightings of birds—some of which were rarer species—with like minded people. They got great first looks at some of the endemics that I as a bird watcher took years to even get a glimpse of!

Apart from the usual flock-associated birds, other birding highlights included a fleeting glimpse of a pair of Sri Lanka Spurfowl, many Sri Lanka Junglefowl sightings, and prolonged views of the Green-billed Coucal near the entrance.
Cheeky Shrub Frog
Highlight for me was a night walk that a few of us did with the member and naturalist Dulan Ranga, who has special interests in amphibians and reptiles. During this, we had a Common Wolf Snake Lycodon aulicus, a couple of sleeping Kangaroo Lizards Otocrypis wiegmanni, several unidentified amphibians of the genus Philautus; plus a few old-timers such as the Long-snouted tree Frog Polypedates longinasus, and Kelaart’s Dwarf Toad Adenomus kelaartii.
 Long-snouted tree FrogWe also had several Tree Climbing Crab Ceylonthelphusa scansor, which was discovered in 1995 from Sinharaja. Our only mammalian highlight during the night walk was Sambar Deer Cervus unicolor. I heard the call of Serendib Scops Owl below Martin’s (near the steam that flows down towards the village) at midnight. We didn’t try to find it.
 Tree Climbing CrabWe also encountered several snakes during the daytime: Millard’s Hump-nosed Pit Viper Hypnale nepa, Common Bronzeback Dendrelaphis tristis, a possible Stripe-tailed Bronzeback Dendrelaphis caudolineolatus (featured below), and Sri Lanka Keelback Water Snake Xenochrophis asperrimus. Amazing what a few focused eyes could find!
 Tree snake juvenile

A Lifer For The Fat Birder

I went birding with Bo Beolens, the Fat birder on 22 October, 2007. By the time I met him, he and his wife Maggie had completed a birding trip arranged through a competitor. He has done a trip report of his full tour. Picking Bo up from his hotel close to the airport, I took him out to the newly established Horagolla National Park, which comprises of a secondary patch of lowland rain forest covering little over 13 hectares for half a day's birding. This fragmented forest doesn’t hold any special birds that you cannot find in the regular sites visited. But, the presence of a few endemics such as Spot-winged Thrush, Chestnut-backed Owlet, Sri Lanka Myna, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, and Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill and its proximity to Colombo airport (appox. 45 minutes) make it a decent back up site.

Brown-breasted Flycatcher aka. Layard's Flycatcher.

We had unfortunately picked the worse day in the whole week to travel because the day turned out to be an unusually rainy. This was because of a depression  in the bay of Bengal, we learnt later. So we couldn't get much birding done. But, it gave us a good opportunity to know each other well. 

We had some trouble in finding the turn-off due to poor signage with the heavy rain not helping it either. When we did reach the little ticket office, the rain was not showing any sign of letting up. Expecting such conditions, I had strategically packed some important accessories that usually go with my birding gear for longer tours—my Travel Scrabble!

Being a weekday with no other visitors, we had the entire visitor area to ourselves to play literally, an absorbing game—what with the open sides of our seating area and all.

I ended up inflicting Bo’s first scrabble defeat (home or away!), thrashing him with a resounding 372-258 score line! My highest individual score was 61 for TWITTING, scoring all 7. In the little respite we had from the rain during our stay, we did venture into the forest briefly, and I had the pleasure of finding a lifer for Bo in the form of the migrant, Brown-breasted Flycatcher aka. Layard's Flycatcher.

Bo was kind enough to send me a signed copy of his book Whose Bird? Men and women commemorated in the common names of birds, which was co-authored by Michael Watkins. I greatly enjoyed reading the bits relevent to Sri Lankan birds in this.

Bo later wrote to me to inform that in Layard's Flycatcher Muscicapa muttui, the species name species name: muttui had been named after Muttu—the Tamil cook of Layard's who had collected this bird.

Edgar Leopold Layard spent 22 years in Sri Lanka during the mid 19th century adding an astonishing 136 species of birds to the island's inventory. It stood at 182 bird species at the time he began collecting.

Camping in Sinharaja

Crested Hawk Eagle

This camping trip to Sinharaja over 14-15 October, 2007, came through my colleague Anuruddha Bandara of Eco Team. It involved three Canadian families (Lange, Seretski & Morris) based in Qatar comprising of 6 adults and 6 well-behaved kids. They were holidaying in the luxurious Lighthouse Hotel & Spa in Galle from where I picked them up. We had a 4 hour drive in prospect to reach our campsite in Sinharaja. Therefore, I made plenty of stops en route to show interesting wayside natural history. These included several Common Garden Lizards, a roost colony of Flying Fox and several birds including an obliging juvenile Crested Hawk Eagle.

I had a lot of fun asking nature queries from the kids. Having noticed that not everybody was involved in giving answers, I decided to really test the general knowledge and asked the name of Paris Hilton’s dog. Stevie, the 12 year old girl of the Morris family who were dodging all my nature queries before jumped up with a big grin “Tinkerbell!” And she was fully involved thereafter!

Breakfast at campsite

We arrived at our campsite, which was situated 3 kms from the park’s entrance by lunch time. After enjoying a good long lunch, we explored Sinharaja rain forest in the late afternoon along the Waturawa Trail. It was terribly overcast and bird activity was poor. For those equipped with digital cameras, I introduced the wonderful and fun world of macro photography. We had several obliging subjects for this in the form of Kangaroo & Green Garden lizards, Green whip & Sri Lanka Keelbacked Water Snakes, False Lantern-fly & a good-looking Green snail (Beddomea albizonatus). Our highlight of twilight came in the form of a Sri Lanka Frogmouth, which I spotlighted near campsite.

We enjoyed a barbeque dinner with a good bonfire, which was reduced considerably by the time we finished our dinner due to a rain storm. I had absolutely no sleep in the night before, having started at 2.30 a.m. after watching the Rugby Semi Finals. However, that didn’t stop me from playing a good game of scrabble with the two Mikes of the trip. One of them; Mike Morris who played Srabble for the first time, played like a pro even earning 50 bonus points scoring all 7 & led by the time we stopped the game half way through!

Sri Lanka Keelbacked Water Snake

I arranged a 4 WD Jeep to reach the entrance to commence our morning’s walking along the flatter terrain of the main reserve. We had nice sunny skies in the morning and were fortunate to witness a full-blown mixed species bird flock in action close to the entrance very early in our walk. I scoped almost all the flock associated birds that stayed long enough for all the participants, which was great fun. These included Orange-billed Babbler, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Red-faced Malkoha, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Lesser Yellownape, White-faced Starling, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Legge’s Flowerpecker, Pale-billed Flowerpecker, Malabar Trogon, Yellow-browed Bulbul & Black-capped Bulbul. I had told enough stories about Sinharaja’s bird flocks during our long drive, so everybody knew what to expect and were happy to experience this unique phenomenon firsthand. We also had cracking views of the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, which flew towards us to almost touching distance in pursuit of a flying insect, which it caught. Bonnie Morris took a good picture of it.

Full House by Stephen Jay Gould

Dave Lange, the main organizer of this trip gifted me a book titled “Full House” by the famous author Stephen Jay Gould, dealing on one of my favourite topics; evolution, which was very nice (I think all my future clients reading this should do such good things!!). Mike Morris admitted that he is well & truly hooked on birds thanks to this tour, which was extremely nice thing to hear as a guide. He also got introduced to macro photography & scrabble so he had at least three good things to say about this holiday!

Column A or B ?

I stumbled upon this YouTube piece in the Born Again Bird Watcher who had received it from 'Teach Me About Birdwatching!!!' I think this guy makes a very good argument about Global Warming and is worth listening. He goes by the name Wonderingmind42 in YouTube and his argument are receiving a lot of attention. Let's take action before its too late!!

Brown Hawk Owls in my Garden

Brown Hawk Owl in my home garden
Mobbing calls of several birds filled the air while I was working in my office on 7 Oct., 2007. I went out to see that their wrath was directed towards a pair of Brown Hawk Owls, which had come to occupy a roost atop a mango tree in my yard. One of the owls was showing up well, while other was hidden in the vegetation.

It's been a while since I saw this owl roosting in my garden. The intensity of mobbing behaviour shown by the mobsters consisting of White-bellied Drongo, Common Tailorbird, Red-vented Bulbul, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Oriental Magpie Robin, and Yellow-billed Babbler had its clear ups and downs. The owls, however, did not give in and they stood their ground. The commotion gradually died down. And the mobsters went silent and left the owls at peace.

They remained at the roost site for the rest of day.

I attempted a few digiscoping shots, but they didn’t turn out well due to angle of light. The photo above is from a previous encounter in my garden, following a similar mobbing episode. Click here to read an article that I did on my garden’s Brown Hawk Owls in Siyoth the journal of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL).

Wildbird on the Fly
The above was my contribution to I and The Bird #65 hosted by

Birding with Liz and Keith Richie Part 2

Crimson-backed Flameback
Liz and Keith originally wanted to visit Kithulgala on a day trip. But, after meeting me earlier on a water birds trip, I convinced them to visit Sinharaja over 2 days. So, we did this from 30 Sep. to 1 Oct. 2007. We had good weather and it turned out to be an excellent bird and natural history trip. I secured the services of our excellent driver Sameera Arandara, who, again, did a good job.

In Sinharaja, we had the services of Thandula Jayaratne as the local guide. I was able to scope almost all the flock-associated birds for Liz and Keith. These included Orange-billed Babbler, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Black-naped Monarch, Malabar Trogon, Legge’s Flowerpecker, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Red-faced Malkoha, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, White-faced Starling, Lesser Yellownape, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, and Square-tailed Black Bulbul.
Spot-winged Thrush nestlings

Special highlight was finding an obliging male Crimson-backed Flameback (still Greater Flameback according to some), which produced cracking views, just near the main entrance. I used the opportunity to fill one of my longstanding photo gaps by quickly digiscoping it. Our top natural history highlight was seeing the rare endemic butterfly, Sri Lanka Forester, which was also digiscoped. This was the first time I saw this rare butterfly so I was quite happy to have photographed it. Its identity was confirmed by Michael van der Poorten.

Spot-winged Thrush
I sent Thandula out on a mission to find a Chestnut-backed Owlet, which was not successful. However, moments later, he returned to tell us that he had "rescued" a couple of Spot-winged Thrush nestlings from a pair of marauding Sri Lanka Blue Magpies. He had temporarily hidden the nest with its two terrified occupants in a Rattan thicket to put it out of sight of the magpies. We reached the site to this. After photographing them in the nest and digging some worms to make them happy, we placed the nest in the original site to bring it to the attention of its parents.

Click here to read one of my articles on Spot-winged Thrush published in BirdingAsia, number 4 of Oriental Bird Club (OBC) dealing with the subjects of nesting and plumage features.
Sri Lanka Forester

I also found a Sri Lanka Frogmouth at dusk, which was a top highlight for Liz. We had the endemic Brown-capped Babblers on three occations.

Our other birding highlights included Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Sri Lanka Myna, and Sri Lanka Blue Magpie near the research station.

On the natural history front, we also had Sri Lanka Keelback Water Snake and Green Whip Snake. Our mammalian highlights included Southern Purple-faced Leaf Monkey and the handsome Grizzled Giant Squirrel.

I had the pleasure of playing two absorbing games of scrabble with Liz and Keith and thrashing them in style! I am thankful for them for recommending me in the Trip Advisor and for their comments.

Birding with Liz and Keith Richie Part 1

Purple Heron

I did a Water birds trip with Liz and Keith Richie, England on 24 Sep, 2007. We combined a selection of sites namely Annaiwilundawa RAMSAR wetland, Palavi Saltpans, Nawadankulama Tank and finally the Chilaw Sandspits. Our driver was Sameera Arandara, who owns and drives a Nissan Bluebird Sylphy and this was the first time I used him for my tours. He did a good job in taking us to our sites promptly and safely, which was important in this type of tours involving multiple sites.

As expected our first stop; Annaiwilundawa RAMSAR wetland was dry as this was the tail end of the dry season. However, that didn’t stop us from seeing a good combination of scrub and wetlands birds including a few migrants. These included Blue-faced Malkoha, Crested Serpent Eagle, Pacific Golden Plover, Blue-tailed Bee-Eater, Purple, Long-billed & Purple-rumped Sunbirds, Brown-headed Barbet, Black-hooded Oriole, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Oriental Darter, Pied Kingfisher, Purple and Grey Herons & Black-headed Ibis.

Spotted Dove

Next, we visited the Palawi Saltpans, which was again drier than in August when I last visited this site. I had already told Liz and Keith to expect such conditions and to come ready to follow my ass (advance, stop and scan) technique. It didn’t take me too long to realize that waders were too over the head for Liz and Keith so I soon decided to change habitats to give them different birds, which they appreciated. Anyway, our brief Palawi-watch produced Grey Plover, Gull-billed Tern, Lesser Sand Plover, Curlew Sandpier, Little Stint & Kentish Plover.

Indian Green Frog

After enjoying a sumptuous lunch in the good-old Puttlam Resthouse; the Sri Lankan rice and curry lunch of which was described by Keith as one of the best meals he had on his Sri Lankan holiday, we leisurely explored the Nawadamkulama tank where we had White-naped Woodpecker, Black-Liz and Keith at Palawi Saltpansrumped Flameback, Common Coot (a locally scarce bird), Little Grebe, Purple Swamphen & Pheasant-tailed Jacana. Liz also picked up a Pied Cuckoo. We also enjoyed seeing several good-looking Indian Green Frogs aka Green Pond Frog (Euphlyctis hexadactylus) floating in good light.

Finally we explored the Chilaw Sandspits for Sanderlings and we were rewarded with good views of 17 of them in addition to Whimbrel and several Large Crested Terns. Thereafter, I dropped them off at their cosy retreat; Club Palm Bay Hotel, Marawila.

Finding lifers for Peter Kaestner

Serendib Scop Owl photographed by Peter Kaestner, Sep, 2007
Ranked 4th in the all-time World Listers, Peter Kaestner had seen 8,128 species of birds out of the 10,000 or so species in the world by the time he came to Sri Lanka to bag 8 of his missing Sri Lankan endemics. He came to me through Jon Hornbuckle who is currently the 2nd ranked birder in the world with over 8,400 birds seen. Peter is also the discoverer of a new species of bird in the world—Cundinamarca Antpitta, which he had been fortunate to stumble upon in 1989 while birding in the East Andes in Columbia in South America. This species had been named eponymously in honour of him as Grallaria kaestneri by Gary Stiles, the ornithologist who described the species. By 1986, Peter Kaestner famously became the first birder to see a representative of each bird family in the world—a feat which took his name to the Guinness Book of world Records, although the list of bird families recognized by science has changed considerably since then. Peter had been a birder since childhood and cannot remember not being interested birds in his life. Instead of taking up Ornithology professionally, he had heeded a sagely advice of one of his teachers, and had turned a diplomat instead—a job in which he'd have scope for extensive world travel. This has worked and it has enabled him to amass a great species list of birds over the years.

Peter is currently working in the US embassy in New Delhi in India as consul-general and came here on 21 (Friday) September, 2007 at around 2.00 p.m., and was dropped off at the airport on the 23 (Sunday) Sep at 1.30 p.m., to catch the return flight. During this period, we judiciously combined: Morapitiya Rain forest, Sinharaja Rain forest, Kithulgala, Hakgala, and Bomuru-ella Forest Reserve to bag seven out of his eight target birds. And we achieved that in trying conditions during a monsoonal peak!

The endemics that boosted the burgeoning life bird list of Peter Kaestner, in the order of seen, were Serendib Scops Owl (discovered in 2001) at Morapitiya; Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Red-faced Malkoha, and Sri Lanka Spurfowl at Sinharaja; Green-billed Coucal at Kithulgala; and Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush and Sri Lanka Bush Warbler at Nuwara Eliya. We tragically dipped out Brown-capped Babbler!

Anyway, considering the adverse weather we had to contend with, and relatively short time we had to combine the lowlands and highlands, and above all rarity of his targets (some of which consumed time),
I was personally happy to have got those ticks for Peter who left Sri Lanka, content, with 8,135 birds.

Red-faced Malkoha
Our Serendib Scops Owl was seen at around 7.40 p.m. at Morapitiya; on 21 Sept, after intense tracking as it was raining in stops and starts. Which didn’t help our course. When it was finally spotted by me, Peter took a great photograph of it using his Lumix FZ 8, which is shown above (note the wet feathers of its head).

Before this, we had a good look at a Sri Lanka Frogmouth at dusk—not a new bird for Peter.

In Sinharaja, we had Thandula Jayaratne as our local guide who came in the morning to join us. By the time we met him, we had narrowed our list of wants by two: Ashy-headed Laughingthrush and Red-faced Malkoha, the latter which was spotted by Peter in a mixed-species bird flock (at a site in Sinhraja named "Leopard rock"). He also photographed it.

After meeting Thandula, we made a call to go for the tougher endemic, Sri Lanka Spurfowl. We reached a site in which we have previously had success with this elusive forest dweller. Here we remained seated on a boulder, which was covered with leaf litter, looking down a flat area of the forest for a good half an hour amidst constant rain and steady flows of leeches: conditions which would have put most bird watchers off. But not Peter Kaestner!

Our collective team work and perseverance finally paid rich dividends and Peter first had great views of a male followed by a female Sri Lanka Spurfowl, which was extremely satisfactory. These were accompanied by a flock of Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes. Since both these species disturb leaf litter while feeding, they may be mutually extracting foraging benefits in locating prey by flocking together. That's something that occured to us.

While birding in Sinharaja, I was able to make yet another interesting feeding observation involving a couple of regular flock-associated birds. This was when a flock of Ashy-headed Laughing Thrushes was seen feeding on the fruits of the pioneer, Macaranga indica (Boo-kenda in Sinhala), as I did on the trip with Shiromi Lazarus in August. Rather interestingly, during this observation, a Sri Lanka Crested Drongo also joined the laughingthrushes in the feast, which was very special as the latter is deemed to be an insectivorous species. (This was my first observation of this species feeding on fruit.)

Peter & myself
It was 11.00 a.m., and the rain was getting heavier at Sinharaja. Rather than attempting to attempt for the two missing lowland targets: Brown-capped Babbler and Green-billed Coucal in this weather, we gambled to drive on to Kithulgala to improve our chances there; and thereafter to hopefully reach Nuwara Eliya in the highlands in time for overnight stay to squeeze in some montane birding on the following morning! And thereafter, heading to the airport for departure.

Soon after arriving in Kithulgala, I was able to hear a Green-billed Coucal, and would you believe, within 5 minutes we were in business, bagging this somewhat elusive endemic!

No Brown-capped Babbler though—not a breath of it as Jon Hornbuckle writes it in his bird trip reports.

Having stayed overnight at a cosy hotel, and started very early on the following morning—day 3, and our last day—with packetted breakfasts. First, we reached a site near Hakgala Botanical Gardens for the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. No luck despite a thirty-minute vigil. This site had been good for Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush at dusk, and this was the first time I attempted for it at dawn. (Later on, I have had success in the mornings). Tad disappointed, we reached Bomuru-ella forest soon, hoping for the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler. While I was searching low for this LBJ, Peter lagging back had scanned the water fall below a valley. And he had picked up the elusive Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush—a very fortunate sightings!

Our final montane target Sri Lanka Bush Warbler was threatening to give us some tough time. So I decided to veer off the main trail. Soon, I was able to spot one for Peter at 8.00 a.m. That brightened my day!
This bird was flitting at ground level in a bamboo thicket, and the views we had were very good.

Soon, we set our wheels in motion to reach the airport, as Peter had an afternoon flight to catch. I was hoping to make a stop for Brown-capped Babbler in on the way at Kandy, but the heavy torrential rain we had by the time we passed this area and the traffic in the busy Kandy road in wet weather prompted me to change plans. So we mutually decided to drive on—not risking missing the departure flight.

The Book of Indian Birds by Dr. Salim Ali
Peter was kind enough to bring me a wonderful gift in the form of the latest edition of 'The Book of Indian Birds' by the great Indian ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali. What I admired mostly of Peter’s style of birding is he always goes out with a very positive frame mind that he is going to find the bird that he wants. Which I believe, is one of the magical ingredients of his success. He is also tremendously lucky. Which I believe also helps! Peter was a true gentleman and I really enjoyed his company- especially listening to some of his great twitching anecdotes from around the world. My special thanks to Jon Hornbuckle for passing my contacts to him! A special thanks is also due to our driver Nihal Weerasinghe who did an exceptional job in taking us around safely to meet our deadlines.

Birding with Luca Cords Part 11

Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot

Luca did another birding day excursion with me on 19 Sep, 2007, this time to Sinharaja rain forest to bag more endemics. On the way, we had some good wayside birding with scope views of a pair of Lesser Yellownape, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Crested Hawk Eagle, Oriental Honey Buzzard & Crested Serpent Eagle; all atop Fish-tail Palms (Cayota urens)! A Jerdon’s Leafbird was skilfully mimicking the call of White-throated Kingfisher while feeding in some vegetation bordering a stream.

We had several mixed-species bird flocks in Sinharaja, which contained Orange-billed Babbler, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Red-faced Malkoha, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Dark-fronted Babbler, Malabar Trogon, Legge’s Flowerpecker, Yellow-fronted Barbet & Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler. We had Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Spot-winged Thrush, White-faced Starling and Sri Lanka Junglefowl near the research camp where a mixed-species bird flock yielded Sri Lanka White-eye, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch.

Breaking for lunch, we had a pair of Sri Lanka Mynas, which produced great scope views from Martin’s balcony - again atop a Fish-tail Palm! On the way back we paused in Morapitiya rain forest. It turned rainy and we dipped out on the Serendib Scops Owl but had to contend with great views of Sri Lanka Frogmouth instead.

Birding with Luca Cords Part 1

Pied Kingfisher in my local patch

I birded with Luca Cords on 11 Sep, 2007, one of the men behind, a popular birding site in Germany. Luca was from Hamburg and was my first bird watcher from Deutschland. This was his first visit to Sri Lanka and he had come with a group of non-bird watchers and was holidaying in a beach hotel in Kalutara when I picked him up to first visit Bodhinagala Forest Reserve, just 30 minutes away. The Swamp forest section of this lowland forest was inundated following heavy monsoonal rain, so we struck to the main access trail, which leads to a Buddhist monastery in the middle. This fragmented secondary lowland forest is dominated by thick bamboo undergrowth, which is preferred by Green-billed Coucal; known as Bata Atikukukla, meaning the ‘Bamboo Coucal’ in the local language.

A couple of Green-billed Coucal were calling from the opposite side of the Kalu River, which borders this forest. We had no luck with them unfortunately, which remained uncooperative but instead had good views of Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Black-capped Bulbul, Black-naped Monarch, Sri Lanka Small Barbet, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Gold-fronted Leafbird, Dark-fronted Babbler & an obliging Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, which was photographed by Luca.

In Kithulgala, the Green-billed Coucal again frustrated us calling on the opposite side of the river; Kelani this time. Several more new birds were added in the form of Orange-billed Babbler, Legge’s Flowerpecker, Emerald Dove, Indian Swiftlet, Long-billed Sunbird, Green Imperial Pigeon, Square-tailed Black Bulbul, Jerdon’s Leafbird and Orange Minivet. As it was threatening to rain and as Luca also wanted a bit of birding in my local patch for wetland birds, we skipped visiting the Kithulgala forest on the opposite side of the river and kept our birding to the well-wooded gardens along the main road. On the way back we had a bit of rain but luckily it remained dry when we reached my local wetland patch in Bomiriya, Kaduwela where we had a good ½ hour of birding. This produced Phesant-tailed Jacana, Asian Openbill, Purple Heron, Purple Swamphen, Great & Intermediate Egrets, Pied Kingfisher, Oriental Darter, Black-crowned Night Heron & Lesser Whistling-duck. Reaching Kaduwela town, I got him his last bird of the trip; the Spot-billed Pelican perched atop of the massive rain tree in the town centre. Thereafter, Luca dropped in my place for a cuppa. The Indian Scops Owls were sadly not seen in the day roost discovered several days earlier.

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