Friday, 8 May 2009

Bagging the Blue Whale


Sri Lanka is one of the best places to see the Blue Whale Balaenoptera musculus—according to Marine Biologist Dr. Charles Anderson. He is based in Maldives since 1983 and his research on whales in the Indian Ocean led him to believe that Blue Whales should be present off the south coast of Sri Lanka in April—a hypothesis he confirmed with pelagic trips done in April 2007 and 2008. In the last of these trips, he has had Blue Whales on all 14-days he spent looking for them, with an average of 4.5 sightings per day!


Sri Lanka, as you may be aware, is a continental island, which had been connected to India for much of the geological past through epocs of lowered sea levels. The continental shelf that it sits on begins to slope after 3 nautical miles off Dondra in the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka, which is also the southernmost point of the whole of Indian subcontinent. Because of this oceanographical reality, ships plying between east and west have to circumnavigate Sri Lanka, passing by Dondra instead of cutting across the northern Sri Lanka, where seas are shallower.

According Dr. Anderson, the cetaceans migrating between feeding areas in the east and west of the Indian Ocean also take the same route as the ships. This, according to him, happens between December to April—with clear peaks in December and April.


With this beging the state of affairs Peter Kaestner, who at present is the world’s 7th ranked birder, came to Sri Lanka on a 9-day holiday with his family in early April—with wathcing the Blue Whales being central element of the tour. According to the latest numbers listed in Surbirds.com, Peter has got a whopping 8,180 species of birds, out of 10,000 or species found in the world.

In 1989, he was fortunate to discover a bird species entirely new to science, from Columbia, which came to be known as Cundimarca Antpitta Grallaria kaestneri.


This was Peter’s second trip with me. The first was in Sep, 2007 when he came on 3-day weekend birding trip wanting to clean up 8 Sri Lankan endemic birds missing in his world bird list. Before this, he had been on a solo birding visit to Sri Lanka in 1981—round about the time when I was getting ready to go to the kindergarten!

In the 2007 trip, we managed to see 7 of those 8 targets: Serendib Scops Owl, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Red-faced Malkoha, Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Green-billed Coucal, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler and Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush—the toughest endemics, with two being in the “endangered” club.

The one we missed out was the not-so-elusive Brown-capped Babbler. This miss was because some of those rare species we sought were found in two ecological zones – the lowland wet zone and highland wet zone respectively, and because some of them being rare birds didn't show up easily, demanding more time.

Oh! And because, we encountered foul weather throughout in this particular tour due to the period of travel coinciding with a monsoonal high.


We commenced our 2009 trip in the southeastern Sri Lanka with two game drives to the spectacular Yala National Park hoping to go 1-nil with the Leopard. Unfortunately, we drew a blank with this big cat this time.

But, to make amends, I managed to find the Brown-capped Babbler!

Next came the pelagic leg—the most important one—of the trip to see our main quarry, the Blue Whale.

Having started from Mirissa at 7.15 a.m., on 5 April, we had the first evidence of our first Blue Whale after travelling 4 nautical miles, towards—well—Antarctica. It was a distant but unmistakable view of a characteristic high vertical blow.

Tickable views were obtained around 5.5 nautical miles off. We had at least 4 good sightings of just an individual after we reached the hotspot and started looking intently. We knew it was the same one as it had a characteristic white marking in the tail, which showed up clearing with each surfacing. Here's a crude video of our Blue Whale. I should stress the word: crude.



At one point it was seen as close as 20-30m from our boat as it surfaced to breathe, almost taking our breath away. It performed well for us as well as for people aboard 3 other boats that converged at this hotspot for the same purpose. One of those was full of familiar faces with members of a local nature club. They, at one point, were pretty close. By the way, the terra firma you see in the picture below is Sri Lanka, just in case if you are wondering whether it is Antarctica.


I did not take my dSLR for this trip. That's because all my lenses are macro types. And the Blue Whale was not really a macro subject.

So, all these pictures shared here were taken by my trusty Panasonic Lumix FZ-18, which is also the model that Peter currently uses as his carry on camera. I bought mine after seeing this amazing shot he got by photographing the Serendib Scops Owl at night (using an older Lumix version).

A day trip we did following this to Sinharaja rain forest to see Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush and Crimson-backed Flameback was successful. The former responded aggressively to my rendition of its contact call by flying straight towards my head, indicating it may be busy nesting. These two birds together with Sri Lanka Woodshrike and Common Hawk Cuckoo seen on this tour by Peter went as ‘bank birds’—ones which do not get added to his bird list immediately as the ‘Clements' checklist’ that he uses to keep track of birds species seen, has not yet accepted these recent taxonomical splits/potential spits as valid species yet; and now that he has seen them, they would increase his tally once they are accepted as valid species in the future.

I nearly forgot, Peter became the first birder to see my garden's roosting Brown Hawk Owls.

Brown Hawk OwlA related post: Finding lifers for Peter Kaestner

15 comments:

Java Jones said...

Love that owl! Next time you want to see Brown Capped Babblers check out Flowerbook. The Wood Pigeons are back as well.

Cheers!

N said...

Wow...awesome shots. I saw Blue Whale out here in California in the Channel Islands and it was one of the most awe-inspiring events of my life.

Kalusudda said...

I love whales and I will soon be embarking on a long trip with my brother who is a Cinematographer / photographer / and more for a big nature channel. We will be chasing seasonal whales along the California coast down to Mexico. Then will travel further down to see some Orcas and other whales. In recent years, researchers have confirmed the presence of resident populations of whales along the elongated Chilean coast, including 100 to 150 humpbacks in the glacier-rimmed Strait of Magellan. I am going to be a very happy brother and a Scout!
Again thank you for very informative post. Surbirds is something new to me!

Gallicissa said...

Hi Java,
That Owl is now famous, having appeared in a Thayer DVD about N. American birds.

Yes, I will keep in mind about Flowerbook for those two birds. We had two very good sightings of Sri Lanka Wood Piegon on this tour at Sinharaja.

p.s. Let me know when you are in town as I need to deliver the dragonfly print from the quizz.

Hi N,
Thank you and good hear from you! I have read about the Cetacean hotspot in that area you have mentioned. I am sure you would have seen other Whales there too.

You are right about thr 'awe-inspiring factor'. It made me feel pretty small! And proud to be Sri Lankan.

Hi Kalu,
Lucky you! Sounds like it is going to be a pretty hardcore trip. Humpbacks & Orchas sound terrific. All the best and look forward to seeing the pictures. I'd love to see some of your wide-angle captures of those big whales,....preferrably with a setting sun in the background, please. Keep me posted.

Surfbirds.com is a good market place where serious birders shop.

S.C.E. said...

It looks too hot for antarctica anyway..........

Wow, a Blue Whale.......

Gallicissa said...

Hi Stu,
Antarctica is warming as we speak.
It was surprisingly easy!

Kirigalpoththa said...

Great post and amazing photos!
Tks for posting them!

Love that picture with the owl:)

Vickie said...

Thanks for sharing the blue whales and all the details of your historical journey. Quite something to be with someone you admire so much and assist his search.

Love your garden owl! Awesome image.

Gallicissa said...

Hi K,
Thanks and pleasure!
I had that picture opportunity of the Owl thanks to a mobbing party of small birds who disturbed its peace at the roost.

Hi Vickie,
You are welcome. Yes Peter Kaestner is somewhat of a celebrity birder and in this year I have had 25 people visiting my blog searching his name.

As I blogged here this Owl has made it to Peter Thayer's Gold Edition DVD on N.American birds.

flowergirl said...

Tremendous Amila! And just in our backyard!! Do you know, centuries ago, i went to the Cape Cod area, and my hosts took me out to sea to see the blue whales, which were to be a sure shot...and guess what, didn't see any, not one!

Wow 8k+ birds! Amazing! (How old is he?!) And what is your tally?! I wonder if I've reached three figures as yet! LOL!

oldcrow61 said...

That owl is just gorgeous. Nice shots of the whale.

DeeCee said...

i love owls! saw some in habarana..

Gallicissa said...

Hi flowergirl,
Thanks! Yes, BWs are doing well in our waters. And we are quite proud of it! Sorry to hear that you mised it on that trip.

Peter is 50-something. He is very sharp. Mine is just about 12% of his tally. I follow the "middle path" in birding so, I will not go to challenge him.

Hi OC,
Thanks! The Brown Hawk Owl in the North American bird list now!

Hi DeeCee,
I've photographed the Brown Fish Owl at the lodge. Good bird.

storyteller's other blog said...

Whale watching is something I've done off the coast of Alaska and California. Your photos are wonderful!
Hugs and blessings,

Gallicissa said...

Hi storyteller,
Thanks! I have heard that whale watching is good over there.

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