Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Birding in style

I did an 18-day ‘birding in style’ tour from 24 February to 10 March. It was with four bird watchers from Australia and England. This was my first birding in style tour. And it was put together for Ben Allen from Perth. He was joined by his wife Fiona, her mother Shirley and their birding friend, Sybil Sassoon—the latter two Brits—both born in 1932! This was the first trip to Sri Lanka for the first three, but for Sybil it was the fourth— having led tour groups in 1973, 1982 and 1994! She remembered seeing Leopard and Sloth Bear very well at the Wilpattu National Park in her previous visits, and was very pleased when we found this massive Leopard— one of the two we encountered—at the spectacular Yala National Park. Sybil and the African specialists in all of them noted that this was the biggest individual they have seen. I was happy to hear that.

We found it when we were leaving the park and it just kept walking like this.

Leopard at Yala National Park
And pausing briefly...


...to checking us out, before disappearing.



My ‘birding in style’ tour uses swanky accommodations, which include 5-star nature resorts, and boutique hotels—with good garden birding, and top recreational facilities. It is operated at a much slower pace compared to serious birding tours, in which we aim to see as many birds as possible. This relaxed pace is mainly for one thing—to enjoy no-nonsense arm-chair birding! Very important, our slow approach also leaves us enough time to experience such guest facilities as spas, and infinity pools in the posh accommodations we use. Special dining experiences also mark another crucial element of this tour with international buffets, fine dining, and a good mix of Sri Lankan cuisine for those who are adventurous enough.

One of the trappings of being a tour guide, is that I too get to experience the same facilities and experiences as my guests, more often than not.

I'll explian a day at Heritance Kandalama:

A hour and half of morning birding—starting at 7.00 a.m., breakfast buffet, 40 minutes of post breakfast arm-chair birding near the hotel's rock pool, followed by an extended time at leisure to do our own thing.

For me the latter included, a bit of bird-sound recording, watching cricket in the TV, volunteering to sample a complimentary spa treatment that Ben didn't want to do, lounging by the pool with everybody—scoping birds that visit a fig tree near the pool with a chilled Carlsberg as an observational aid.

Buffet lunch.

A post-lunch power-nap, two and a half hours of absorbing late-afternoon birding in the hotel gardens, a shower, checklist over drinks.

A ‘Mongolian night’ buffet dinner.

More TV before finally retiring for the day.
Crickey mate! This job, guiding, can take a lot of ya!

Such pure pampering and holiday spirit notwithstanding, we managed to see 230 species of birds on this tour, which included thirty out of the thirty-three endemics. The endemics we didn’t see were the very endemics we didn’t bother to look for—the Serendib Scops Owl, the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler and the Sri Lanka Spurfowl—a troublesome trio—which my clients unanimously decided to let go.

Our final bird tally included six of the fifteen resident night birds. We also scored twenty-seven mammals on this tour including all four mongooses found in Sri Lanka. This included a species that is getting rarer, the Stripe-necked Mongoose, which was expertly spotted by Sybil close to the legendary Rawana Falls.
While there are many highlights on a tour such as this, spanning over 18-days, some stay in memory for very special reasons. They are as follows in no particular order.

(a) A White-throated Kingfisher beating the hell out of a 'Tawny-bellied Babbler prey', captured in a crude video by me below.



(b) A Chestnut-winged Crested Cuckoo that came to a frutting fig near the natural rock pool at Kandalama minutes after settling to do some arm-chair birding. Beautiful.
(c) A flock of 21 Greater Flamingos flying over at Malala lagoon at the Bundala (Ramsar wetland) National Park, which was first picked up by yours truly. According to the local park guide, these were the first for this migratory season, and first GFs after a lapse of several years in Bundala. Check this out to find why.



(d) Four sightings of Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush—three in the morning and one in the afternoon at Nuwara Eliya.
(e) A Slaty-legged Crake spotted by me in the forest floor from a moving vehicle while driving along the road leading to Heritance Kandalama. It turned out to be an addition to the hotel’s bird list, which increased to 173-bird species. This was seen again at Nuwara Eliya—only by yours truly
(f) Two puddle birding sessions that saw us raking in a high profile communal bathing party that included Indian Blue Robin (4), Orange-headed Thrush (4), White-rumped Shama (2), Brown-capped Babbler (about 3), Emerald Dove (1), Indian Pitta (1) and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (about 2). The lighting was poor but this video gives a taste of what we experienced.



(g) Observing a full-blown mixed-species bird flock while seated in arm-chairs at the Research camp at Sinharaja.
Apart from the endemics and other birds mentioned specifically above, some of our other avian specials included Kashmir Flycatcher, Pied Thrush, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Watercock, Sirkeer Malkoha, Blue-faced Malkoha, Marshall’s Iora aka. White-tailed Iora (2 sightings in two locations), Fork-tailed Drongo Cuckoo, Lesser Adjutant, Common Hawk Cuckoo (not common – and a potential split), Malabar Pied Hornbill, Indian Blackbird (potential split), Small Pratincole (nesting on the road at Bundala), Yellow-fronted Pied Woodpecker, Indian Pygmy Woodpecker, Brahminy Myna, Brown Fish Owl, and Barn Owl, which is a locally uncommon bird.
Oh! we also had a nesting Red-vented Vermin Bulbul at the reception of the Heritance Kandalama. This eccentric mother was brooding with a ready-to-fledge chick by the side of her nest!

Red-vented Bulbul - unusal nest
Here's Sybil getting her daily dose of arm-chair birding.

Sybil arm chair birding - almost
Ben was kind enough to do some important shopping for me before coming to Sri Lanka. He and the 'party' presented me with two superb books: one on ‘close-up photography’ and the other on ‘night bugs’, which I am eagerly consuming at the moment. Thank you all for such a superb trip – one of my best!

 Jeez, I can do with some of those pampering now!

18 comments:

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

It's a tough job Amila, but someone's got to do it!

Sean said...

This is so amazing Amila! I can't wait to someday get out there with you. Very inspiring.

Sean

Java Jones said...

Sounds like a super trip Amila. Hey, no Yellow-eared Bulbuls in Nuwara Eliya? I haven't seen them for a while now, so am wondering.

Cheers!

spookydragonfly said...

Oh...the sacrifices you endure!!Sounds like you had a great time and I enjoyed reading of your "hardships" on this tour!

Azahari Reyes @ Jason a.k.a horukuru said...

Lovely trip you had and the luxury too hahaha

Gallicissa said...

Hi RD,
Indeed! I hope you've been to Heritance Kandalama. It's a superb hotel.

Hi Sean,
Thanks! It'd be great to go birding with you someday. Tell me when you coming here next.

Hi Java,
Yes, we all had a terrific time. I too hae experienced that Yellow-eared Bulbuls are not as numerous as they used to be. But they still show up easily in woodier spots such as Victoria Park.

Hi Kim,
It really was a tough job!

btw, I have seen about 6 dragonflies emerging from the last larval stage in my pond. I have counted over 15 exuviae including ones that have emerged when I was away.I promise to do a pond post after a while.

Look forward to seeing results of your new toy.

RyanM said...

What a hard life Amila ... how we pity you!!! NOT! :D

The White Throated kingfisher video was fascinating. I knew about them eating frogs and lizards but other birds ??? What's the reason for its behaviour - the shaking the bird about ? I think the bird was already dead so it was not killing it - may be "de-feathering" it ? Also, do you think it hunted and killed the bird ? Or picked up an already dead bird ?

Great pics of the leopard - I hear Yala is not safe these days is that true ? And the videos are great - not crude at all !

Fantastic post once again !

Dale said...

that leopard is gorgeous!
it seems to have smaller rosettes than the ones I am used to in southern africa, though.

happy birding
Dale
http://alpinebirds.blogspot.com

Gallicissa said...

Hi Horukuru,
Thanks! It is always nice to hear from Borneo.

Hi Riyazi,
Thanks! No such joy everyday though.

Answering your questionnaire,

Q: I knew about them eating frogs and lizards but other birds ?

A: Yes - this is an unusual diet and the first time I observed this kingfisher with an avian prey.
Such high protein prey are captured by birds when they have hungry young to feed. They provide good nutrition for the growing chick.

Q: What's the reason for its behaviour - the shaking the bird about ? I think the bird was already dead so it was not killing it - may be "de-feathering" it ?

A: It is to 'process the meal' - which includes de-feathering and if possible to break it into bite size proportions. kingfisher beak is not hooked at the tip as it the raptors and is not fully geared to tear meat up...

Q: Also, do you think it hunted and killed the bird ? Or picked up an already dead bird ?

A: I think it may have killed that bird.

Q: I hear Yala is not safe these days is that true ?

A: What rubbish. I visited Yala park today too!

As you know it is a huge area and the part that is opened for tourism (the block 1) is quite safe.

Hi Dale,
Thanks! I shot that Leopard with my Lumix in IA (intelligent auto mode) letting the camera decide all the settings for me.

I am pretty pleased what it delivered. Interesting observation about the rosettes. I will check that.

Chriss said...

I would love to go birding with you one day. Forget birding I'll just hire you as my tour guide and we'll visit all the cool places :-)

Gallicissa said...

Hi Chriss,
I have never met any blogging friends of mine. So, it would be very cool to meet you!

p.s. we can go easy on birds!

Sunita said...

Amila, that leopard is one handsome guy! Wow! (please go back and read that I specified "the leopard" )
As for the Red Vented Bulbul, you wont believe what their counterparts in my garden pig out on ... chillies! The reddest, spiciest chillies you'll find in peninsular India!

Gallicissa said...

Hi Sunita,
Thanks! That Leopard was a bit of a boy.
I have seen birds feeding on such chillies found in my garden too. I cannot imagine how they can cope with such chillies as Thai pepper that score so high on Scoville scale.

Doug Taron said...

I like the idea of birding in style. Looks like it was a great trip. I liked the puddle birding video. You can do something similar for butterflies. It can be particularly effective if you use something other than water- the Carlesburgs can be of some assistance with that.

Gallicissa said...

Hi Doug,
I have bookmarked your article in Chicago Wilderness especially because I wanted to try that sugaring solution that you shared in that to attract butteflies.

You reminded me that I should get some beer to for such educational purposes.

Indyana said...

Wow! that's a nice shot of the leopards! Were they closeby...?!!! The wildlife crazy hubby would love your blog!

Gallicissa said...

Hi Indyana,
Thanks! It was not more than 10m away when we found it. Your wildlife crazy hubby is welcome in my blog. Have a good day!

Amila Kanchana said...

This is the first time I saw a Kingfisher praying on a bird. Mother nature never ceases, to surprise us does she?

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