I accepted a last minute request to lead my second successive trip to Sinharaja rain forest for the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) from 20-24 March, 2008. This was in the absence of Prof. Kotagama, who usually leads this annual birding pilgrimage. (Click here to read the 2007 report). The (current) President of the FOGSL, Rahula Perera, joined from day-2 onwards to provide further fire-power to the cadres on the ground. This year’s Sinharaja trip had been brought forward after a reshuffling of the FOGSL’s tour calendar. Perhaps due to this, only eight participants joined the trip, which in the end, proved quite a manageable number for a good birding trip. Four of them were on their maiden visit to this birding mecca.
Noteworthy hits and misses—birds
Sri Lanka Myna Gracula ptilogenys—I scoped a pair in a tall Alstonia tree from the Kudawa bridge. Our first top bird. As the members rotated to get closer looks at this uncommon endemic, it took my memory back to April, 1990, when I made my first visit to Sinharaja rain forest, as a schoolboy, on a field trip organised by our nature club at St. Peter’s College. Nobody scoped any bird to me because nobody had a scope to scope. None of us even had a pair of binoculars to even share between us! The local guide we had was knowledgeable on flora, but not on birds. I relied totally on my unaided-eyes to spot and enjoy things, and this, over time, made me sharper in the field. So much so, I was able to spot and identify birds at great distances with a remarkable accuracy. These field skills gradually diminished after I started to use binoculars, and later, scopes. Now, I am compelled to to raise my Leicas to such common fare as Red-vented Bulbuls at times, unable to tell it apart from birds of similar shape. Not good!
Times have changed now, and the newbies are getting scope views of the endemic birds in perfect light—with interpretative commentary delivered in the background of the diagnostics to look, and stuff.
Sri Lanka Frogmouth Batrachostomus moniliger—We saw a nest of this with a brooding adult male, and the chick it was brooking. A nest reported earlier was not to be seen, and the local guides suspected that the chick may have been "predated." As certain nest predators may remove the entire nest while predating on the nest contents, and because the chick observed earlier didn’t appear to be grown enough to fledge by the time of our recent trip, I was sort of in favour of accepting this sad verdict. Thandula Jayaratne, a local guide in Sinharaja, wrote a piece to Forktail (20)—"the Journal of Asian Ornithology" of Oriental Bird Club (OBC) in 2004 documenting a Sri Lanka Frogmouth nest observation.
The nest built by Sri Lanka Frogmouth is quite small and when the chick is ready to fledge, it fills the entire nest—at times bursting out of it. So it is clearly visible under the brooding male parent bird. Thandula's supporting photograph to confirm this, graced the front cover of the aforementioned journal. According to Thandula's observation, the entire nest was removed by the male parent bird after the chick had fledged. Coming back to the current nest observation, no local guide had seen the chick developed into that ready-to-fledge stage. Flight views of a pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths were had on day 3, before retreating to their roosts.
Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon (aka. "Lady Torrington's Pigeon") Columba torringtonii—I have been keeping an eye on this endemic during the past several months. Therefore, I was quite pleased when one of these was deftly spotted by my colleague Nishantha Ganeshapriya when we paused to look at a mixed species bird flock on the way to our accommodation on our day-1. This was my first Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon at Sinharaja for this year. It didn’t appear to be a participant of the bird flock, but was sitting inside a dimly-lit thicket, as it usually does. Basically, it had distinctly smallish scruffy head, which fitted incongruously onto a pretty bulkier body giving it a rather unusual "jizz." Doesn't it look an ornithological joke!
It turned out to be an immature bird as it showed plenty of pin-feathers and naked areas in the head appearing very much like a bird hatched in the present calendar year. This endemic is known to breed above 720m above sea level in the highlands in Sri Lanka, and so far no nest/breeding activity of it had been reported at the lowland reaches of Sinharaja rain forest (the areas regularly visited by bird watchers every year—roughly at an elevation of 450-600m.)
It is well-known that Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon undertakes altitudinal migrations from its usual range in the central highlands—typically above 1000m down to lowlands of around 300m (rarely lower). As with most endemic birds in Sri Lanka, no focused single-species studies have been done of Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon yet; thus, large gaps exist regarding our knowledge of their behaviour and ecology. Therefore, information such as just when it undertakes migration, what triggers it, and whether immature birds join such inter-migrant flocks is not documented. I presume this would be the first instance of occurance of immature (or first calender year individuals) birds are reported in Sinharaja rain forest with supporting photographic evidence.
In February this year, Java Jones made me turn green with envy mentioning a sighting of a flock of at least fifteen Sri Lanka Wood Pigeons in his hill retreat Flowerbook close to Welimada. Several FOGSL members too confessed getting more than their fair share of sightings of the Sri Lanka Wood Pigeons in a birding trip to Haputale in early February, 2008, including observing courting and mating pairs. In my 15-day Absolute Birding trip—our only observation of this essentially montane endemic was at Surrey Estate at Welimada, when we had a pair at eye-level.
Coming back to the current Sinharaja trip, we had two more sightings of Sri Lanka Wood Pigeons, which included a flight view seen only by me on day-2, and a perched adult bird seen by everybody on day-3.
In late March this year, Java Jones noted a drop in their numbers.
This drop of the numbers in Welimada (and such preferred breeding elevational areas) by late March, and parallel increase in sightings of the Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon sightings in lowland areas such as Sinharaja at the same time may be because of it engaging in internal migration from the highlands to the lowlands this time of the year. So birds such as Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon may require a larger area in the wet zone for its survival than the average sedentary endemics.
Red-faced Malkoha Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus – an animated pair provided eye-ball views low down on day-1. (Those newbies were lucky or what? I had to wait for a good four long years to see my first!)
Green-billed Coucal Centropus chlororhynchos—Quite vocal around the research camp. Observed a pair briefly before seeing it in an all too familiar disappearing act. A few of the members had seen a juvenile too accompanied by parent birds (probably consisting of fledged individuals from the nest that I discovered in January, just 25 m away as a
Chestnut-winged Crested Cuckoo Clamator coromandus—flight views at pre-dawn.
Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus—Another bird that livened up our very first walk on day-1, when a perched individual, in a nicely-lit patch in the forest edge after rains, gave soothing views.
Sri Lanka Spurfowl Galloperdix bicalcarata—A fleeting glimpse near our accommodation. A pair was seen by a few other members near the entrance.
Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush Zoothera imbricata—Not a breath! Its site was checked at midday hours, but not in late afternoon, where chances for it are higher. This fact together with large number of visitors attracted because of public holidays was probably the reason why we missed this shy terrestrial endemic.
Sri Lanka Blue Magpie
Urocissa ornata—A fledged juvenile being fed by two parents and a helper was a pleasing sight as we entered the forest on day-1 taking advantage of the respite had from heavy rains. Regular sightings were had on all days including many seen behind the kitchen at the research camp, coming to feed on the rice thrown out by the research students. Fledged juveniles were also to be seen over there.
White-faced Starling Sturnia albofrontata—Easily over twenty birds were seen close to our accommodation almost every morning. Also observed feeding on Bombu fruits Symplocos cochinchinensis.
Spot-winged Thrush Zoothera spiloptera—I observed one feeding on Bombu fruits.
Noteworthy hits– Natural History
Green Pit Viper Trimeresurus trigonocephalus—The top non-birding star of the trip seen on day-3. This was, by far, the biggest individual I have ever seen. We saw it thanks to some "real time ground intelligence" by Ranjaka—the local guide who was with me while chasing targets with Israel Leinbach. I predicted that it would be seen on the following day at the same site given the site-fidelity shown by it to a selected daytime resting place, and rightly so, found it on day-4 giving us more photo opportunities.
Alan and Lucy Smith as reported. Fresh from my memories from that encounter, I calmed a few anxious photographers in the group when one of these were seen in active flight that it will eventually settle down for us. As predicted, it did, first on a mud puddle, and second, on a bird dropping on a fern.
Five-bar Swordtail Pathysa antiphates—Of this, Bernard d’Abrera’s Butterflies of Ceylon says: “...In the glorious days of the study of butterflies at the turn of the century (and between the wars), so punctual was it, that it used to be known as the “12 O’clock Fly.” As this good book says, we encountered it at midday, soon after a downpour when it came down to settle on the damp ground near the research camp.
Binara Exacum sp.—The picture showing showy little flowers in bloom of this was posted in the previous post. Quite pretty.
Blue Glassy Tiger Ideopsis similis—Rather common butterfly at Sinharaja.
The above article is my contribution to I And The Bird#73 hosted by A Snail's Eye View