Thursday, 30 October 2008

Serendipity

Another garden post.

About 5 months ago, while photographing insects in a overgrown section of my yard—"designated" to lure in the Himalayn winter visitor Indian Pitta among other things—I had a brief encounter with a smallish terrestrial mammal. I couldn’t get a good look at it due to thick vegetation. It ran slowly in the under growth, froze for a moment, and moved out of my radar as I strained my eyes to catch a glimpse of it. My gut feeling suggested that it was a mouse deer aka. chevrotain (Me-minna)—a mammal that would not only be new to my yard but also to my local area!

And then, a local man who helps us with our gardening chores, Premadasa, recently mentioned to me a couple of days ago that he saw a Chevrotain in this very section of my yard about a month ago!

He is familiar with this animal as is apparently found in his area, which happens to be thickly wooded. Oh! And my mother too described features of a small mammal with yellow stripes that she saw in one late afternoon!

This is extremely good news, and I will be on the look out for this very special mammal.

After analyzing the skulls and skins of this mammal found in India and Sri Lanka, Groves and Meijaard in 2005, ‘split’ the population of the Mouse Deer found in the wet zone in Sri Lanka into an endemic species. Thus, it is now regarded as Yellow-striped Chevrotain Moschiola kathygre (Groves and Meijaard, 2005). Click here to download that paper published in the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology.

Below is a picture of an unfortunate Yellow-striped Chevrotain preyed a stray dog at the Sinharaja 'word heritage' rain forest. I reported this earlier in this post.


Coming back to my garden's record, this is an extremely exciting news as my area is residential one and is not woody as it used to be.

The most exciting mammalian find in my yard before this, was in mid 2007, when a pair of Golden Jackals turned up at broad-daylight! I showed it to my mother and a few gasping neighbours who at once confessed that they would have easily overlooked them as two stray dogs! I belived them.

Here is a record shot of a pair Golden Jackals seen at Bundala National Park on a bird watching tour that I led with 11 British birders in 2006. Click here to read its full trip report.


On the birding front, 2-days ago, I had a new bird getting added to my garden bird list in the form of Indian Pygmy Woodpecker (formerly, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker). This species is found in my local area at a spot that is 1.5 km away from my residence, but this was the first occasion I had it turning up in my yard. It betrayed its presence by its distinct call, and moments later, I had a good sighting of it.

With this, I now have 4 species of Woodpeckers in my garden list. The other three species are the Black-rumped Flameback (the commonest Woodpecker in most home gardens), Lesser Yellownape (occasional visitor to my garden), and Rufous Woodpecker! The latter is the most exciting one out of this list. It was recorded in 1991—during a fine morning when I was getting ready go to school! It hung around for few days in my yard, betreying its presence by its signtature call. I had no sightings of this species in my garden since then.

A Large Cuckooshrike, which is an occasional visitor to my garden, was also heard a few days ago.

Moving on to invertebrates, I spotted this Long-horned Grasshopper species for the first time.


Its identity was narrowed down by Dr. Priyantha Wijesinghe as follows.
Orthoptera: Tettigoniidae: Phaneropterinae: Mirolliini?

He commented “This is something of a mystery, but that is probably just my lack of familiarity with the species. By the way, it is illustrated on p. 103 of Henry's autobiography 'Pearls to Painting”


I took my copy of G.M.Henry’s autobiography, and turned to page no.103, and—lo and behold—there it was in the form of an excellent work of art by Henry!

This was found low-down in an ornamental plant in the shade of a (Malaysian) Rambutan tree Nephelium lappaceum. As the Zumala that I found in Sinharaja rain forest, this looked rather bizarre with the posterior end of its tegmina looking somewhat like a headdress of an Egyptian Queen!

I was chasing a dragonfly when I ran into this Spiny orb-weaver Gasteracantha geminata (Fabricius, 1798) female (also identified by Dr. DPW). It was dealing with a termite prey. I took only this shot of it as I try not to get distracted with other life forms when I am chasing a particular target.


Looking at the set of pictures that went into my Scrabble and Dragonfly tips post, I found this picture of a juvenile Elusive Adjutant that I had mysteriously overlooked!


It is quite sharply focused in both the eyes than the similar looking picture that I used for that post. I did very little post processing with this as everything was just right. It was shot at natural light, hand-held.

By the way, his kinkiness the Painted Waxtail that I posted in this post was, as I suspected, suffers from a birth defect caused at the immergence from exuvia. This was confirmed by my dragonfly mentor Matjaz Bedjanic. He went on to say that the said individual “….is suffering from a emergence defect and his abdomen is has not been damaged during copula. Normally such specimens [with birth defects] don't survive long”.

That is all for now.

Edit: Dr. Priyantha Wijesinghe has sought opinion from Dr. Sigfrid Ingrisch, an expert on Orthoptera to narrow down the identification of the Long-horned Grasshopper above. And the question mark means it is unidentified.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Blogoversary

Odontocista - the toothed Lathrecista
Today marks my first blogoversary. I am quite happy that I lasted a year in the blogsphere! I’d like to take this opportunity to say a Big Thank You to all my dear readers and commenters who have been a big force behind this blog through its short journey.

Since I started this blog, I have been asked by several people as to what my blog-name: Gallicissa means. And I think this a good occasion to answer this burning question.

Gallicissa is the name of a "mythical' bird" that I created as part of the logo of this blog. (edit: it has been replaced with what you see now.) It was fusing a images of several endemic birds found in the endemic hotspot that is Sri Lanka. The two central birds that I used for this fusion were Sri Lanka Junglefowl Gallus lafayetti and Sri Lanka Blue Magpie Urocissa ornata, the latter which was formerly known as Cissa ornata—the name that existed in the days that I started birding in 1989. So, I used their generic names, gallus—the plural of which is galli; and cissa to coin the generic name: Gallicissa for my photoshopped bird.

Gosh! I just can't understand why so many people cannot figure this out!

Anyway, apart from the aforementioned two parent birds, I used plumage features of three more endemics to add to the gaudiness of my creation. They were the throat streaks of the Red-faced Malkoha, facial pattern below the eye, pattern in the belly, the ‘spot-wing’ of the Spot-winged Thrush (I used two photographs for this purpose), and the ‘yellow ear’ of the montane endemic Yellow-eared Bulbul.

There you have it.

As far as it is known, Gallicissa Salgado, 2007 is a monotypic genus that is endemic to Sri Lanka.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Sticky matters.


I led a 17-day "Christmas Bird watching Tour" in December, 2004, for a reputed British nature tour operator. Its ground handing was done by a local travel agency to which I freelanced at that time. This tour stays in my mind for a number reasons.

First, the unfortunate reasons:

1. Briefed and given in writing as a "mostly bird watching oriented tour," this tour had five English people that included:

i. A nature photographer with a keen interest in wild flowers.
ii. A walking enthusiast who just liked to keep on walking.
iii. A natural history enthusiast with a passion for photography and a passing interest in birds.
iv. A hardcore birder who was heavily into listing.
v. A person who didn’t fall into either of the above categories.

It was like a challenge that Donald Trump would have chosen for the final episode of the Apprentice. I did my best to juggle all the balls without dropping any. What can I say,  it was a good learning curve!

2. The Boxing Day Tsunami, which caused havoc killing over 40,000 people in Sri Lanka alone, happened during this tour. We were mopping up the montane endemics at the cloud forests of Horton Plains National Park—the tallest plateau in Sri Lanka some 2,100 m above sea level—when the killer tidal waves devastated the coastal lowlands. And we were to visit this area in two days’ time!

I had the tour rerouted thereafter to stay away from the affected lowlands. I also decided to spend more time in the unaffected endemic rich wet lowlands.

And now, the fortunate reasons:

1. More time in the wet lowlands didn’t harm our burgeoning bird list one bit. This was the first tour in which I showed the avian jewel Serendib Scops Owl Otus thilohoffmanni to an overseas bird watching audience, after its discovery in Jan, 2001. Needless to say, it was a momentous day for mankind!

2. I made a clean sweep all 33 endemic birds on this trip—for the first time having started my guiding career in January in the same year. As a budding bird guide, it was an important rite of passage.

3. An observation that I made at Sinharaja "world heritage" rain forest became the subject of my maiden paper to a peer-reviewed ornithological journal. It is—

Salgado, A. (2006). Some observations on the diet of Red-faced Malkoha Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus in Sri Lanka. Sandy (UK): Forktail Journal of Oriental Bird Club. 22: 122-123.

Click here to download a PDF of it.

Anyway, what I am trying to get at like Sir. Humphrey Appleby is to correct an error that had slipped in the above article by me.

In it, I had a ‘giant stick insect’ preyed upon by a Red-faced Malkoha identified as Palophus sp (Order Phasmatodea) after comparing it with what I thought at that time to be a reliable source of reference.

On 14 October, 2008 its identity was corrected by a world authority on stick insects: Dr. Frank H. Hennemann from Germany, thanks to intervention by Dr. Priyantha Wijesinghe who is a Sri Lankan Entomologist/Systematic Biologist based in the USA.

Accordingly, it is an adult female of Phobaeticus hypharpax (Westwood, 1859).

The classification being:
Order: Phasmatodea. Suborder: Anareolatae. Family: Phasmatidae Subfamily: Phasmatinae Tribe: Pharnaciini.

A better view of the Giant stick insect. Note the rear left limb is a result of an optical illusion created by a limb like branch behind. The actual left rear limb was broken off by the time I took this shot as this was photographed after the above
Dr. Hennemann disclosed that the locality data for all but one of the specimens lodged in the world museums including the type specimen from which Westwood named this species bear nothing beyond "Ceylon."

Therefore, he, was quite happy to receive the locality data of my Phobaeticus hypharpax that eventually ended up in the gut of the above Red-faced Malkoha.

Very interestingly, on 15 October, a day after this e-mail communication, Dr. Hennemann had a revision of the very Tribe: Pharnaciini published in Zootaxa in the form of a 316 paged paper, which included, the above species.

The reference is:
Frank H. Hennemann & Oskar V. Conle (2008). Revision of Oriental Phasmatodea: The tribe Pharnaciini G√ľnther, 1953, including the description of the world's longest insect, and a survey of the family Phasmatidae Gray, 1835 with keys to the subfamilies and tribes (Phasmatodea: "Anareolatae": Phasmatidae. Zootaxa 1906: 1-316 pp. Auckland, New Zealand: Magnolia Press.

According to the above, and as per a personal communication by Dr. Hennemann, in addition to the above species, Sri Lanka has one more species belonging to the tribe: Pharnaciini, which is Phobaeticus lobulatus (Carl, 1915). Its body length is 162.0 mm and is a very similar species to P. hypharpax, which has a body length of 185.0–236.0 mm. The former is only known from the female holotype with the locality data reading again as "Ceylon" only. So far, it has never been recorded since its original discovery in 1915 according to him.

By the way, the world’s longest insect, referred in the title of the aforementioned stick insect revision paper is (drumroll, please) Phobaeticus chani—Chan's megastick from Borneo—with a body length of 333.5–357.0 mm. Its overall length with the limbs stretched out is a whopping 567mm!

This is a completely new species described based on a specimen in the collection of a Malaysian naturalist and insect collector from Sabah Borneo, Chan Chew Lun, who had received it from a local collector. Dr. Philip Bragg named it in honour of Chan who had donated his world record holding megastick to the British Museum of Natural History.

If you are really into sizing up your megasticks, the former record holder for the world’s longest insect title based on body length was Phobaeticus kirbyi with 317.0mm., which is also found in Sabah, Borneo. So the newly described Chan's megastick is 40mm longer!

The former record holder for the overall length with the limbs stretched out was Phobaeticus serratipes distributed in Peninsula Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia of which one has been measured at 555mm.

The new megastick on the block has beaten that record too by 12mm. However, this recorded would have been greater by 7–10 mm if the specimen of Phobaeticus chani donated by Chan Chew Lun had not been damaged according to Hennemann and Conle, 2008.

So no matter how you size up, the Malaysians get to retain the coveted world record title for the world’s longest insect by a long margin. I am sure Tabib, who is a regular visitor to my blog from Malaysia, will be proud about this.

I’d like to conclude this post by saying a big thank you to Dr. Hennemann for taking his valuable time to help with the identification of my megastick. Last but not least my profound gratitude is due to Dr. Priyantha Wijesinghe, for sending my images to Dr. Hennemann to seek his expert opinion and communicating to me the same and putting me in touch with such a world authority.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Lately in my garden

I was going to do a butterfly post, instead I changed my mind to do a garden post involving butterflies.

We are in the early stages of the North East monsoon now, which brings rain and migrant birds to the entire country. Speaking of migrants, the much talked about Himalayan avian jewel, Indian Pitta Pitta brachura has arrived and my mother reported hearing one early morning today.

It usually calls at around 6 a.m. and again at 6.00 p.m., which has earned its local Tamil name: Arumani Kuruvi meaning the Six O'clock-bird! I was fast asleep at the unearthly hour that my mother had heard it.

Well, now that I know it is here, I will make an exception and look for it. Soon.
I have been trying to capture a certain angle of it for the last 4 years to complete an article about its plumage. I hope I would be get it this season.

My first Brown-breasted Flycatcher aka. Layard's Flycatcher Muscicapa muttui for this migratory season was seen on 12 Oct (Sunday).

Brown-breasted FlycatcherI welcomed it by doing a customary migrant welcoming dance. For those who are not familiar with this obscure Sri Lankan birding ritual, it is very similar to the dance performed by some of the US birders when a life bird is seen, as demonstrated by Susan Williams, except that in this version, you do figure 8s from your hips 3 times before moving the hands in the air like you just don't care.

The species name of Brown-breasted Flycatcher: muttui is to honour one Mr. Muttu (pronounced muththu)– the Tamil cook who served its discover, Edgar Leopold Layard (1824-1900), who was a British civil servant (1839-1848) with a passion for birds and natural history. Layard came to Sri Lanka with just £17 in his pocket with his wife Barbara Anne Calthrope after whom the species name of the endemic Layard's Parakeet Psittacula calthropae was named.

I heard the unmistakable call of the regular migrant Bright Green Warbler Phylloscopus nitidus on 1 October, and saw one the following day. Two more migrants, Barn Swallow and Brown Shrike were also seen for the first time for this season a few days ago at my local patch.

Butterflies:
I have started to photograph 'blues' again, with renewed enthusiasm after getting my new camera. All these targets were acquired lying flat on the ground—commando-style—at early morning (defined as 7.30 a.m., thank you) when they weren't too active.


Indian Cupid Everes lacturnus

Indian Cupid
Their relative inactivity also allowed me to narrow down the shooting distance to less than a foot, which is required to get good close ups with my Canon 100mm Macro lens. In these pictures, you can see its conspicuous double orange spot on the tornus of the hind wing verso, which is a reliable diagnostic to tell this species.

Here's the same with in a more orthodox posture but with the light coming from a different angle.

Indian Cupid
Here is the same with the wings open showing why they are popularly referred as 'blues.'

Indian Cupid
Here's another shot of the same.

Indian Cupid
Most of the 'blues' are quite small and look identical, which explains why they pose ID challenges of the highest magnitudes. If you are not comfortable in capturing them to identify down to species level as deemed necessary by some experts, I think the next best way to identify them is to photograph them! And that is half the battle, of course.

I employ this second method, which works for me. Your mileage may vary.

Lime Blue Chilades lajus

Lime BlueHere’s one showing the recto of the same. Note how similar it is to the first one above.

Lime BlueA garden post without dragonflies?

No bloody way!

I had a brief but a good sighting of a male Pruinosed Bloodtail Lathrecista asiatica asiatica last Saturday, soon after waking up from a 3-hour power-nap at late afternoon. The last sighting of an adult male this uncommon dragonfly was on 6 Sep, 2004 when a male visited my home garden presenting my first views. Click here to see a young female of the same. An Amber-winged Glider Hydrobasileus croceus was seen today in flight, of which the first record was when I saw this individual on 17 Oct, 2004. This seem to be the time of the year when it visits my garden. This species is one of the two Libelluids that is not represented by a colour photograph in the 'photo guide to dragonflies of Sri Lanka,' as I blogged here I have now got both these species.

I conclude this post with this female Variegated Flutterer Rhyothemis variegata variegata, which is the Sri Lankan version of the Halloween Pennant found in North America seen in this post by Ecobirder.

Variegated Flutterer

Monday, 13 October 2008

Macro Monday


Asian Pintail Acisoma panorpoides panorpoides—adult female.

This was photographed in my local patch a few days ago. It is often found quite low down among the vegetation. So it is not the easiest dragon to photograph.

By the way, one of my dragon shots emerged the winner as the Best Dragonfly Moments Macro Capture of 2008—in a contest in Flickr. Click here to see all the entries and the voting process and here to see the winning shot of mine announced.

A momentous day for mankind!

Monday, 6 October 2008

House guests

Indian Scops Owls
I found this pair of roosting Indian Scops Owls (Collard Scops Owl for some) in the Deep South, Sri Lanka during the photography tour that I led in August. They used to roost inside a tree hole in a home garden. However, as of recently, they have checked into more cozy indoors in search of better amenities.

This species of Owl was originally collected by Joan Gideon Loten (15 May, 1710–25 February, 1789) who was the Dutch Govenor of the martime provinces of Lanka from 10 Sep, 1752 to 17 March, 1757, upon whose collections, the foundation of Sri Lankan Ornithology was built.

Govenor Loten collected a large number of birds and natural history, and noted their weights, dimensions, and Sinhala names. He then got a local artist with European descent named, Pieter Cornelis de Bevere to illustrate his collections. Following his term, Loten retired to England in 1758, and corresponded with some of the well-known naturalists in England and beyond. This Owl was described by one such naturalist, Thomas Pennant in Indian Zoology in 1769.

The species etymology: bakkamoena is interesting, as it in Sinhala it means owl. However, the latter is commonly used for somewhat larger ones like the Brown Fish Owl; the smaller owls such as Indian Scops Owl are loosly referred in Sinhala as bassa nowadays. However, the former appears to be the name that the locals perhaps have communicated to Loten; thus it had beem used as its species name in the Latin binomial given by Pennant. In the Sinhalese pronounciation, the 'moen'of the latinized species name is pronounced as 'moon'.

Related posts for this tour:
Roosing Indian Scosp Owls in my home garden.
Pure Gold!
Zumala
Coastal Pennant bagged!

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Scrabble and Dragonfly tips

I have two words for Scrabble enthusiasts: OBELISK n and OBELISKING adj.
The online Free Dictionary gives only two meanings for OBELISK:
1. A tall, four-sided shaft of stone, usually tapered and monolithic, that rises to a pointed pyramidal top.
2. A dagger sign used in printing to indicate a cross reference or footnote.
The word 'obelisking' will come in handy in a high-browed game of scrabble if the word, 'king' is already played, and there is room left of it to expand. Of course, you could play this work in several other ways too, but I will not elaborate on them.

There is a third meaning to this word in the naturalists's lingo when we talk about dragonfly behaviour.

Accordingly, obelisking refers when dragonflies raise their body vertically up towards the sky as if they are performing a delicate headstand, during which time they are told to be in obelisk position. Obelisking is done during the hottest times of the day by some of the sun-loving dragonflies to reduce the surface area of the body exposed to direct sunlight. And they also do it as a threat display to show an apparent increase in body size when confronted with an opponent—another dragonfly.

I observed the latter form of obelisking a few weeks ago in my home garden when a Dawn Dropwing Trithemis aurora adult female landed on the same twig that a young male Elusive Adjutant 'owned.

The juvenile male Elusuive Adjutant was not in obelisk position when he was alone, but as soon as there was company, he went into obelisk posture like a Kung Fu fighter, and started walking towards the intruder, in an apparent threat display. And that feared the intruder away.

According to the excellent Guide to North American Dragonflies: Dragonflies Through Binoculars, some dragonflies are known to raise their abdomens perpendicular to the sun to 'gain' temperature while for a few it is the normal way of perching.

Here, I share some photographs of obelisking Elusive Adjutants—my  pet dragonfly species—photographed at my home garden.

Note that some these images are cropped to fit the tight space of this blogger template that I have chosen. But on the other hand the close-cropped and enlarged versions give you better detail for casual viewing. (This is especially because, I have increased the image display size by modifying the HTML code that blogger generates.)

Elusive Adjutant juvenile male obelisking

In the above, you can see two clear circular eye highlights especially on the left compound eye of this dragonfly, and the same effect in reduced extent on the right one. As you dragonfly photographers reading this post would understand, this double highlights usually happen when you try to go macro on dragonflies and either experience camera shake and/or when the subject shakes at the time of pressing the shutter—both cases rendering the image out of focus.

However, it is not the case in this image as you can see the eyes which I wanted to get in focus, are in good focus. So, how do you explain the two circular highlights?

This was photographed at around 11.00 a.m., under hot sun when this Elusive Adjutant brat young male was obelisking like crazy. And one of these highlights is due to the the sun, and the other is due to the camera's built-in flash.

Controling light is important when you do macro photography to get crisp and vivid images. But, I haven't got a special macro flash yet. Although you could get decent shots at natural light as the one shown below (of the same individual), I have realized that a proper macro flash would give me more 'keepers' than now.

Adjutant juvenile male obelisking
All these shots shared here were taken hand-holding the camera (without using a tripod). I was quite pleased that the above came off well. Here's the same shot with the head close-cropped.

Adjutant juvenile male head crop

Below is another shot of an Elusive Adjutant in obelisk posture, this time of an adult female, also photographed under natural light. Click here to see the uncropped version of it.

Elusive Adjutant adult femlale on obelisk position

By the way, as you can judge, the red colour in the compound eye colour of the juvenile Elusive Adjutant is less intense compared to that of the adult female.

Being a self-employed nature tour guide, I experience prolonged spells of under-employment. So, I get a lot free time to play around with my garden delights and try out new things, photographically speaking. One of those was to see whether I could get the two highlights discussed above to align on top of each other. I chose the very friendly juvenile featured above to try it and here's the result: I now hear you grumbling that the image is not large enough to see the eye detail. Relax! Knowing how fussy you are, I have not put this on flickr to enable you to click on it to enlarge it here itself to read the details.

Elusive Adjutant juvenile male
As you can see the two highlights are more or less superimposed. You cannot really get it to align perfectly as I will then have to stand in the path between the sun and the subject, which will block the sun's shine-effect on it. Or else, I have to turn to photoshop to clone away the overflow effect of the highlight. I prefer not to think too much of post-processing when I photograph. I prefer to get things right at the time of shooting as much as possible. In this case, I knew I was positioned right when I felt the burn in the back of my neck!

And then, I was careful to be just a wee bit away not to block the sun. By the way, this photo also sheds light into the internal anatomy of this dragonfly—showing parts of its digestive track, which I think is rather cool. That is not due to any special quality of the photograph per se but because juvenile Elusive Adjutants being sort of revealing in their tender Victoria's Secret like exteriors.
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