Sunday, 30 March 2008

One Fine Day

A pair of Eurasian Oystercatchers at the Chilaw Sandspits, 15 March, 2008
I did a half a day "water birds trip" with Joan and Martin Fine on 15 March, combining a couple of wetlands north of the Club Palm Bay Hotel, Marawila, where they were based.

Our first point of call was the shorebird patch Chilaw Sandspits, which proved quite productive with a flock of over 30 Sanderlings feeding frantically with their dashing runs ahead of the breaking waves. Always a pleasant start. A pair of hoped-for Eurasian Oystercatchers followed next, which had made Chilaw Sandspits their wintering grounds this migrant season. This as reported in previous reports by me is a good record as it is usually found wintering in the wetlands further north. A couple of Whimbrels surveying the coast weren't ignored. A Whimbrel at the Chilaw Sandspits, 15 March, 2008 Kentish Plovers and Lesser Sand Plovers were also represented in reasonable numbers and scanning them closely, I was able to zero in on a Greater Sand Plover, which Joan enjoyed especially with Lesser Sands nearby to compare.

This was followed with the most exciting find of the morning when I spotted a distant white egret near the shoreline. It had its greenish yellow colour of toes extending up towards the hock joints of the leg and a heavier beak prompting me to claim exclaim 'Western Reef Egret!'

Joan had seen this species in Goa but this was the first white morph type for her. Closing in, we had several Little Egrets too in our view, which were useful for comparing the jizz, and this bird appeared quite different especially due to its heavier beak. Behaviour-wise and habitat association-wise too it strongly suggested of Western Reef being found running around the breaking waves at the edge of the shoreline. This is only my second white-morph individual ever, after seeing my first little over a month ago at Bundala National Park during my 15-day Absolute birding trip. This time, I got a fine photographer interested in it.

Here's a record shot.

In my opinion, if there is one bird that makes a mockery of the modern Bird Field Guides (books ) this would be it! Its supposedly ‘established characteristics’ listed in various Field Guide have made things a bit complicating when used to identify real birds observed in the field.

According to the most recent work on birds of our part of the world; ‘Birds of South Asia’ by Rasmussen, the bill of the white morph Western Reef Egret Egretta gularis compared with the Little Egret Egretta garzetta (with which it can be confused in the field) has a "a heavier, yellower bill (and longer in males)."

Coming back to the current observation, the individual observed had a clear black beak (as did the Bundala one for that matter) but the jizz (and leg colour too ) strongly suggested of Western Reef Egret. Grimmett’s ‘Birds of Indian Sub-continent’ suggests, "bill is usually yellowish or brownish-yellow, but may be black when breeding," which I feel is a more fair description given the variabilty of this feature.

The Collins Bird Guide to Britain and Europe by Killian Millarney, suggesting "Bill colour is variable, usually yellowish with darker culmen," acknowledging variability when there is variability is also good in my reckoning.

I invite you to see this analysis in the Stokes Birding Blog addressing such an Egret ID conundrum of a (possible) Western Reef Egret Egretta gularis in the USA using various Field Guides and sources. None of Field Guides compared in their analysis suggests the bill colour could be at times black!

I sent my WRE pictures to Krys Kazmierczak (surname pronounced as cash me a cheque) of Oriental Bird Club, who is also the author of the Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. He too agreed that it is a Western Reef Egret, confirming my original claim.Coming back to other birds, we had a good diversity of terns. They were Great Crested, Lesser Crested, Little, Common, Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns.

Good views were also had of winter plumaged Brown-headed Gulls. Moving towards the lagoon side, I picked up a single Terek Sandpiper—at almost infinity. This was a good record (my second ever for this site) as it is an uncommon migrant wader usually found "Up North." At 60 times magnification, it showed a clearly up-curved beak, dumpy profile and clear orangey legs aiding the ID. Soon, Joan drew level, deftly picking up a pair of Great Thick-knees—her first lifer for this morning.

A Blue Tiger at Annaiwilundawa RAMSAR Wetland, 15 MarchTime seems to fly by and soon it was nearly 9.00 a.m. and time to go to the nearby Chilaw Resthouse for breakfast.The Annaiwilundawa RAMSAR WetlandThereafter, we drove to our second and the last patch of this trip: Annaiwilundawa RAMSAR wetland, which was teeming with life. Martin was overwhelmed with the sheer diversity of things in shooting range. Our highlights very quickly, dragonflies: Oriental Scarlet, Pied Parasol and Variable Flutterer; butterflies: Great Orange Tip, Plain, Common and Blue Tigers; reptiles: Green Forest Lizard and Common Garden Lizards keeping him rather busy.
A Common Tiger at Annaiwilundawa RAMSAR Wetland, 15 March, 2008Birding at this vast wetland complex was at its usual best, as expected for this time of the year.
Birds seen here were Pheasant-tailed Jacana in full breeding regalia, many wintering Garganey, Cotton Pygmy-goose, Lesser Whistling-duck, Little Grebe, Purple Swamphen, Oriental Darter, Little Cormorant, Indian Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Black-winged Stilt, Purple Heron, Intermediate Egret, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, White-throated Kingfishers, Purple Sunbird, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Brown-headed Barbet (nesting) and Blue-tailed Bee-Eater.

An Accipiter was scrutinised closely and it proved to be an immature Shikra while a pair of Large Cuckoo-shrikes that I found in the scope was the lifer no.3 for the day for Joan.

An Oriental Scarlet at the Annaiwilundawa RAMSAR Wetland, 15 March, 2008We returned to the hotel at midday to log our sightings before ending our short and sweet trip.
The above is my contribution to I and the Bird #75 hosted by me!

I and the Bird - Birding Blog Carnival

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Fines at Sinharaja

Joan and Martin Fine from Selby, England did a 2-day birding and photography tour to Sinharaja rain forest with me from 11-12 March, 2008. They were on the beach leg of their Sri Lankan holiday (the cosy Club Palm Bay Hotel in Marawila) booked through a British tour operator. Joan's been a pretty active twitcher and claims over 400 species of birds in her British list. She now has moulted into a "go-slow birder,"—a formally active twicther now taking the middle path of birding.

This is marked by general slow approach to things and very importantly not getting too flustered over missing out on special target birds. Martin is a serious photographer and enjoys birds.

Having birded in Goa in South India, and having done a round tour in Sri Lanka a few days before, Joan was fluent with most of the Indian sub-continent bird species, which made things sort of easier for me. Our first special highlight at Sinharaja was a nest of a Sri Lanka Frogmouth with a brooding male parent bird in it. This nest was built on a branch, which stood right above the gently sloping track. Advancing a few steps up, we were able to get an angle at almost eye-level, which was perfect for photography with less backlighting. Martin was able to get some good photos. I too made hey getting my best shots of this sub-continental endemic in the nest. Observing it in the scope, Joan picked up a fledgling sanwiched between the parent bird an the nest, when the latter wriggled out of it to relieve itself. It spurted the waste matter out of the nest, showing good nest sanitation practices. We were able to photograph this reasonably well as documented previously. Soon, we reached our overnight rain forest accommodation, Martin’s Simple Lodge to enjoy a nice rice and curry lunch. This March has turned out to be unusually rainy early on. For much of the wet zone, it had taken the shape of conventional nature (at least in the first two weeks) with clear skies in the first half of the day, which gradually gets cloudy by midday with heavy downpours accompanied by thunder starting from round 3.00/3.30 p.m. lasting until about 4.30/5.00 p.m—conditions usually typical between late March and April. Expecting things to be no different this afternoon too, our birding was limited to the bird rich patches around our rain forest accommodation, which overlooks a ridge enveloped by primary rain forest. This produced a few usual suspects including Black-capped Bulbul, Square-tailed Black Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Orange Minivet, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Legge’s Flowerpecker and Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot.White-faced Starling & Yellow-fronted Barbet in SinharajaThe heavens opened at 3.30 p.m. It  turned the verdant forest view we were enjoying into one of gloomy and blurry nature—offering little hope for doing anything else, but play Scrabble. The Fines were looking forward for this having heard enough of my boastful small talk. The rainstorm stopped at around 4.45 p.m. We were nearly done with our "absorbing" game of scrabble too, and I paused it in order to squeeze in a good hour’s birding, thereafter. This brief session was productive with good bird activity and it gave us excellent views of a few specials including White-faced Starling, Sri Lanka Myna, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Gold-fronted Leafbird, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Brown-backed Needletail, and Spot-winged Thrush. The streams were gushing making the forest noisier than normal and we discovered that marsh near the entrance had turned into huge lake! We returned to our rain forest accommodation for a hot water shower, daily log and dinner. Getting that unfinished business finished, saw me thrashing the two Brits, 211-148-138, continuing my golden run!

The final reading of our ScrabbleAs expected, we had great weather the following morning. However, the Sri Lanka Blue Magpies didn’t arrive at early morning to lay siege around Martin’s restaurant and viewing area, as they usually do, to feed on the insects found under lamps, which would have given Joan an early tick on her birthday. This is the breeding season for this rain forest corvid. During this time, the two parent birds are assisted by helpers for their nesting/parental chores as discovered by my birding buddy from schooling days Chaminda Ratnayake, who is studying Sri Lanka Blue Magpie for his PhD. The absence of the magpies may be due to them being burdened with young.

After breakfast, we undertook our first walk along the former logging tracts, which provide prime access to this forest. We didn’t walk all the way up to the research camp as usually done but returned after reaching the second hut, a couple of hundred metres short of it. A pair of Sri Lanka Blue Magpies were seen early in our walk with begging young giving Joan her a "birthday bird." We weren’t lucky to get a full-blown mixed species bird flock, which would have produced most of our mouth-watering specials in a matter of a few minutes. However, this didn’t matter for us as we had scope views of two usually flock-associated specials in the form of a male Malabar Trogon and a single Red-faced Malkoha in the canopy foliage about 40 metres up a tree, when we encountered what looked like a disintegrated bird flock.

A couple of Lesser Yellownapes were also bagged here, which weren’t new to Joan. Soon, the scarce endemic, Green-billed Coucal flew towards us responding to my renditions of its sonorous call giving nice views, overheads. It was joined by another bird and soon I was able to scope one of these inside a thicket to offer excellent views for us. At this point we came across some visiting birders  which included a Polish ornithologist with a PhD on bird nest architecture! We shared our scope view of the coucal with them. Other noteworthy new birds found in the walk were Sri Lanka White-eye, Brown-capped Babbler, Dark-fronted Babbler, Black-naped Monarch, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Black Eagle, Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Large-billed Leaf Warbler.
Spine-tufted Skimmer in SinharajaLack of a proper mixed species bird flock meant that we missed out on one of the two nuclear species of Sinharaja’s mixed species bird flock—Orange-billed Babbler—which shows a 92 % presence according to a long running study done since 1981. This doesn’t happen too often as this gregarious bird is also the most numerically present member of the flock—with an average of 16 individual birds in Sinharaja’s bird flocks.

We also missed out on another flock-associated gregarious species, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush. In her enlightened state of middle-path birding, these misses didn’t matter much to Joan. Then again, this is exactly why it is recommended to visit this forest over three days to do some justice to this site!

The two guides also found plenty of natural  history highlights, which kept Martin engaged, and these included Giant Squirrel, Layard’s Squirrel, Dusky-striped Squirrel, Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, Toque Macaque, Green Forest Lizard, Kangaroo Lizard and butterflies: Great Eggfly, Blue Glassy Tiger, Tailed Jay, Plum Judy, Three-spot Grass Yellow, Tree Nymph and Great Crow. The striking red dragonfly; Spine-tufted Skimmer (aka. Red S.) obliged for good close ups, as did Pied Parasol (aka. Black Velvet-wing).Great Eggfly at Sinharaja 12 Mar, 2008Returning to the beach hotel after lunch, I bailed out at my home range half way through and our driver, Sameera, drove Joan and Martin to Marawila to finish the tour. We would meet them again in a few days for a water birds day tour.

The above article is my contribution to I And The Bird #74 hosted by Consworld

Monday, 24 March 2008

A Sri Lanka Frogmouth in a nest

I have been tagged by 3 bloggers namely Ecobirder, Blogbumper and Pish for this blogger type of chain letter! The point of the game is to write a 6-word meme describing your inner birder and then pass it off to 5 more bloggers.

I have picked a photo taken of a male Sri Lanka Frogmouth in a nest observed on 11 March (my second for this season), during a 2-day birding trip to Sinharaja rain forest with Joan and Martin Fine to go with my 6-word mime.

As mentioned in my post; ‘In Search of a Drongo’, sex roles of this avian specialty endemic to South West India and Sri Lanka is reversed with the male attending to the usually feminine chores. It looks more cryptically coloured of the two sexes too with lichen like white patches of its body plumage offering the protective resemblance it requires to disguise itself as a broken branch when engaged in brooding activity, which it does single-handedly during the daylight hours. My meme:

"I sleep with my chick, daytime"

Now I need to tag 5 bloggers to continue the game.

The 5 that I choose are Dagens f├ągel, Runswick Bay, Earth Wind & Water, Nonsuch Birder & Wytchwood ramblings

Here are the rules for those of you that I have just tagged:

1. Write your own six word meme (memoir).

2. Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you’d like.

3. Link to the person that tagged you in your post and to this original post if possible so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere.

4. Tag five more blogs with links.,

5. And don’t forget to leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play!

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Sir. Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

Sir. Arthur C.Clarke
Sir. Arthur C. Clarke passed away today at a hospital in Colombo at the age of 90. A lot is mentioned about him in the Wet, so I will keep it brief and just share with you my fortunate encounter with this great man.

In the ancient history, 2001, during the days of my desk job, I made ground arrangements for the Sri Lankan episode of the Canadian reality TV show: My Global Adventure—a centred on a twenty-something women from Calgary named Asia (Anastasia) Nelson (picked from over 500 other candidates) on a globe-trotting adventure, covering 24 countries in 6 continents in 8 months. It was produced by Minds Eye Pictures and its Director Tom Davidson had an express pre-tour request, which was to meet Sir. Arthur C. Clarke, who had been one of his heroes from childhood.

So I had to organise this meeting. And I was lucky enough to accompany him on that.

Sir. Clarke, when we met him at his study, was browsing some super-magnified pictures of Mars in his Laptop when we met him. Which did not surprise me! He was very relaxed, and showing us those pictures he was watching and pointing to a pale coloured straight line captured clearly in one of them, he asked what we thought about it. We watched. Some silence followed—us with our thinking caps on. And seeing our sorry faces, Sir. Clarke helpfully interjected, "it looks like someone has driven a pretty large vehicle!" with a wry smile.

Thereafter, he showed another picture. It had closely-spaced circular crown-like thingamajigs scattered all over. Some were small, and some were big. To us laymen they looked somewhat like tree crowns from a helicoper. He chipped in, "...they look like huge Banyan trees!", with a slight giggle. So we weren't hopelessly bad after all. But, if I remember right, he didn’t know what they were as well!

It was such a great experience chatting to him. We were also shown his "ego chamber"—filled with photos and other memorabilia of his career, including pictures of him with Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. Sir. Clarke was kind enough to present an autographed copy of one of his books to Tom, which was very special for him. We didn’t take any camera to this meeting—a big mistake. We still regret this, as one his aides took a photograph of us, promised to send it, but failed to deliver.

I would love to see a museum will be put up one day to celeberate this emminent person that Sri Lanka was blessed to be home for since1956.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Absolute Birding

Sri Lanka Blue Magpie
My recently concluded 15-day Absolute Birding tour from 31 Jan to 14 Feb., with 4 British birders, was a roaring success. We bagged a whopping 252 species of birds including all thirty-three endemics currently recognised. Additionally, we also bagged forty-two birds endemic to South Asia. And we bagged nine out of the fifteen resident night birds—of which seven were owls. Special birding highlight was seeing a pair of the newly rediscovered breeding resident, Marshall’s Iora at Lunugamwehera. We also had two sightings of Leopard at Yala National Park. Which included a prolonged sighting of a male resting on a rock.

The tour was organised by Peter Nickless from England who was joined by his birding buddies: Roger Dodds, Graham Mant, and Graham Jones. Just before my clients arrived, I visited this garden—just five minutes from the airport—on a scouting mission. During this, I stumbled upon a day roost of two Brown Hawk Owls at a dimly lit thicket. So when picked my four visitors, our first point of call was this day roost. Great start!

Resuming the tour after this great early start, I was determined not to spend too much time over wayside birds, as we would be seeing these often during the course of the tour. Even with such rigorous discipline, our journey to the first accommodation saw us raking in no less than six raptor species, which included Black Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle and the only Rufous-bellied Hawk Eagle (a rare species in SL) of the trip.

Leopard - adult male resting on a rock at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka on the 7 Feb, 2007
Day-1 at the lush lowlands of Kithulgala got off to a flying start with a daily tally of fifty-six including ten of the thirty-three endemics to give a solid opening stand. Our endemic highlights were Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Layard’s Parakeet, Chestnut-backed Owlet, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Sri Lanka Swallow, Black-capped Bulbul and Orange-billed Babbler. Our day-2 brought us more goodies in the form of the South Asian endemic and regular migrant, Indian Pitta, the avian gem, Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher and more endemics: Spot-winged Thrush, Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Sri Lanka Small Barbet, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Brown-capped Babbler and Sri Lanka Crested Drongo.

Our day-3 at the endemic hotspot Sinharaja ‘world heritage’ rain forest produced a truly mouth-watering array of specials including endemics: Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Legge’s Flowerpecker, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Sri Lanka Myna and the avian jewel; Serendib Scops Owl, which evaded bird watchers until 2001. With 2/3 of the endemics bagged at the end of our day-3, we were sitting at a very comfortable position to make a clean sweep of the endemics on this tour.

Rhino-horned Lizard at Hakgala Botanical Gardens, 10 Feb, 2007
Our day-4 yielded four more ticks to our tally of endemics: Red-faced Malkoha, Green-billed Coucal, Sri Lanka White-eye and White-faced Starling. A noteworthy highlight today was Malabar Trogon—endemic to South India and Sri Lanka. By the time we ended our day-4, we had bagged twenty-seven endemics! Our day-5 was essentially a back up day in Sinharaja to nab any elusive suspects. A pre-dawn raid saw us getting cracking views of the Sri Lanka Frogmouth, low down, before a noisy Chestnut-winged Crested Cuckoo took wing to limit our views to a flight silhouette, which was followed with our 3rd views of the Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush. Happy with our haul of the specials, a message was passed on to me declaring the rest of the day a holiday—starting as early as at 8.30 a.m.! The fact that it was the Sri Lanka’s Independence Day commemorating 60 years of independence from the colonial rule of the British didn’t have any reason whatsoever for this. The luxuries of the public holiday that ensued saw a sharp increase in the extras bill for some. We bagged a new trip bird in the form of a dark-morph Booted Eagle—while chilling at Martin's balcony with a few Lion beers as observational aids.

To read the full report with the systematic list click here.
To download a PDF version of the same with images (warning: 23 pages) click here.
To read the full report at Surfbirds.com click here
The above is my contribution to I And The Bird#72 Birding Carnival hosted by Ecobirder in Minnesota, USA.
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