I visited Sinharaja rain forest on a solo trip, from 7-10 Jan., to photograph the Sri Lanka Crested Drongo for an article that I am working with Dr. Eben Goodale. Well, I had several ulterior motives too, I must admit. These included checking some sites for certain sought-after specialtiesm ahead of some birding tours, and to enjoy the forest under my own steam. After crashing in a friend’s place in Ratnapura on the previous night, I travelled to Sinharaja early on the 7th with Ranji—a local jeep driver who was bound to Sinharaja.
Overall, I was able to accomplish most of my missions. This was despite inclement weather, with overcast conditions lasting almost throughout the day on the first two days, and heavy afternoon rain on all days—conditions which the locals in Sinharaja including my host Martin termed ‘quite unusual’ for January, which is traditionally a nice dry month. This was probably due to the North-East monsoonal rains getting somewhat delayed as observed by me before.
The period from November to April is when most birds in Sinharaja start nesting, with the rains. Ranji paused in a home garden of one of the local guides to show me a male Sri Lanka Frogmouth in a nest. Sex roles of this avian specialty are reversed. The male attends to brooding activities during the daytime exclusively. The female also takes turn at night, but it is th male that does the bigger share of child caring. The male looks the more cryptically coloured of the two sexes with its lichen-like white patches of its body offering the protective resemblance it requires to disguise itself as a broken branch when engaged in brooding activity. A record shot of the male Sri Lanka Frogmouth is shared here.
The compulsory local guide who accompanied me on my first walk: Thandula mentioned that he had failed to see any bird flock along the main track of the forest over the past week. Was that because of bad weather? Or has it got anything to do with noisy construction work going on in three spots along the main track? The forest office were building shelters termed in local English as "summer huts" and the first visitor toilet inside the forest—all good. But I think they should have done this avoiding the peak visitor season. I was also thinking, would the nesting duties of the birds be keeping them off from flocking, which account for this apparent lull in flock activity?
Anyway I was quite lucky to have accomplished my main goal of the trip— just minutes into my first walk. This was while walking up to the barrier gate to meet Thandula when a Sri Lanka Crested Drongo appeared below eye-level to sit just long enough to give my first photograph of it for the trip. It turned out to be the best shot that I could obtain on the while trip! I found this bird in a small flock, which seemed to be slowly forming.
Meeting Thandula, I walked up to the research camp. Along the way he showed me a nest of a Black-naped Monarch, containing a brooding parent bird. We also had a pair of courting Tree Nymphs—clearly blinded by love, as they ignored our close presence. Around the Research camp, we had several obliging Sri Lanka Blue Magpies and Sri Lanka Junglefowls coming to feed on rice thrown out of its kitchen. Thandula mentioned that the Blue Magpie never feeds its nestlings with rice despite showing a great liking to it. We had no bird flocks inside the forest. We broke for lunch with the skies above us looking ominous. Heavy rain called off play in the post lunch session. Well, that's Sinharaja. And there was nobody to thrash at Scrabble. Pretty miserable.
Joining me on my walk on the day 02 was Waruna—Thandula's brother. After receiving a tip off of a nest site of the shy endemic Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush from a local tracker, I climbed up about 800 metres along the Mulawella trail to find a thrush nest. From the outside, it looked an untidy aggregation of sticks and decayed leafy matter, probably to deform its profile to prevent detection by predators. Its interior was lined up with rootlets into a neat cup, which held one newly hatched nestling, and a single whitish egg. To me, it looked very much like that of a Spot-winged Thrush being even built on a Pini-baru tree (Lijndenia capitellata, Family: Melastomaceae)—a tree it frequently uses for nesting. We retreated to wait the arrival of parent birds, but despite our waiting quite a distance away, and trying to remain unobtrusive, we were not graced by its arrival. So we left the scene to minimise disturbance. Back on the main track, a Yellow-fronted Barbet posed for a quick set of photos low down. It rained post lunch session, again, and I enjoyed a good sleep to the sound of rain forest in rain.
A new local guide named Dharshana joined me on Day 03, and we had clear blue skies greeting us for the first time during this trip. The day turned out great for birding, and amply made up all those lost hours of the first two days. We climbed up today to the ‘Scaly Thrush nest’ site to see that it was indeed a Spot-winged Thrush nest, as one of the parent birds briefly visited as if to confirm this to us. Since I have photographed this species in the nest earlier, I left the site soon after establishing this fact, to leave the birds at peace. Close to the nest, we had a good bird flock—inside the virgin interiors—of the Sinharaja. Here, I managed to photograph the Drongo once again. This flock contained usual suspects including the two migrants, which join flock during this time of the year: Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Chestnut-winged Crested Cuckoo. The latter was vocal at dawn, and I was able to identify its call straightaway as I had heard, and sound recorded during the last season. This call sounds like a certain car alarm that I've heard.
On the way to the research camp, following another tip off, I visited a site in a virgin section of the forest for the ferocious-looking agamid, Hump-nosed Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus). It’s the only representative of its genus, which is endemic to Sri Lanka. This name alludes to its lyre-shaped head. Before checking the precise location given, I stumbled upon a cracking male of the same nearby. Its mate was nearby. I got some good pictures of this rare forest lizard. It is flagship species in Sri Lankan herpetology, with the country's leading herp. journal being named in after its genus.
Soon after, I saw a Sri Lanka Blue Magpie being given a chase by a dark coloured bird in the under storey of the forest. The chaser settled on a branch at eye-level, and proved to be the elusive endemic Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, which afforded jaw-dropping views! It seemed like this one may be nesting close by and had given chase to the Magpie, which may have attempted to predate on its nest contents, for which Magpies are notorious the world over. My first photographs of this rarity was also made just at this very site sometime ago, and I was quite thrilled about this sighting. To be it was the top highlight of the trip.
After it took wing waiting for 10 minutes of portraits, I looked around this location to see whether I could find its nest. I had three more great sightings of it in the process. And finally, I was able to locate a thrush nest which I suspected to be of its. Which, however, was empty. Has the Blue Magpie removed the eggs/hatchlings? Or was the chasing behaviour to keep a potential prefator off its nest site? I don’t know. What I know is I will keep looking for it next time pass that way.
Moments later, Dharshana also showed me a nest of a Sri Lanka Blue Magpie at a different spot. We also had a good looking butterfly Glad-eye Bushbrown, and a very special creepy crawly in the form of a Giant Earth Worm (Megascoles coeruleus) spanning over a metre in length—a good McWorm Meal for Sri Lanka Blue Magpies!
Our walk back to Martin’s for lunch was delayed considerably by two bird flocks. One of these was found low-down near a stream by the side of the track between the 1ts and 2nd bends from the main entrance at 2.40 p.m. During the midday, I have often encountered flocks, pausing in for bathing at this site. So it was good to see it again. The bathing party consisted of Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Malabar Trogon, Red-faced Malkoha, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush and Orange-billed Babbler—all of which afforded views below eye level. Here, I was able to photograph the Drongo once more. Late lunch marked the end of a fine field day. It soon started to rain to give time to rest our weary legs.
Brief look around in the following morning didn’t produce anything noteworthy, and leaving Martin’s at 9.05 a.m. some power-trekking was required to catch the 9.30 a.m. bus to Kalawana—the 1st of the three sectors of my return journey. It was pouring down when I reached home at 3.30 p.m.