Friday, 10 July 2009

Monsoon Birding

a forlorn Pied Bushchat female
I guided three avid birders on a monsoon birding trip from late June to early July. The main organiser, Pieter van der Luit from Inezia Tours, and his colleague, Teus (Dr. Teus Luijendijk) came from the Netherlands. They both were terrific birders and had 3,138 and 3,777 birds in their respective life lists. Pieter won one of the books that I gave away at a quiz that I did in the IATB #75—birding blog carnival.

The third person, Philip Johnson, was a client of Pieter's. Phil is a Professor at the University of Alabama in the department of civil engineering. He was determined to reach 5,000 birds before he turns 60—on the 30th December. After visiting five other countries in the oriental region since May, birding, Phil’s life list stood at 4,897 birds when he arrived in Sri Lanka. He left Sri Lanka with a tally of 4,950. Pieter and Teus bagged 138 and 51 lifers respectively.

The monsoon really had a dampening effect at some of the key birding sites we visited. Nevertheless, we trudged along and achieved a tally of 194, which included thirty-one endemics, and eight of the fifteen resident night birds. We missed out on two endemics: Sri Lanka Spurfowl and Serendib Scops Owl—both were stubbornly silent.

We did quite well with mammals, seeing a total of twenty-six species including Sri Lanka’s big three: Elephant, Sloth Bear and Leopard. Being a target-driven world birder, non-birdie subjects to Phil were as unattractive as non-estrous females to a Silverback.

Of course, he did not resort to chest-beating and grunting to show his displeasure, but instead he conveniently lumped them in a catch-all category named NFF—No F***ing Feathers! And moved on to find his next life bird.

Despite his avowed indifference to creatures with no feathers, Phil kept on stumbling some rarest non-birdie gems—for people like us. And he was nice enough to share them. The star among these serendipitous finds by him, was an adorable Red Slender Loris, that he spotted while it was moving slow and low in a thicket in the amazing Sinharaja rain forest. This nocturnal endemic mammal is rather rare, and all of us had great views of it.

His next best exploit was chancing upon a Muntjak at Welimada, which is not as rare, but cool nevertheless.
Moving on to birding specifics, our search for the Sri Lanka Bush-Warbler near a pool at the cloud forests of Horton Plains National Park (2,100m) to me was the most memorable birding experience of the trip. It was in a very cold morning with temperatures in single digit ºC, when intermittent downpours, and foggy conditions conspired with high gusts to spell very little hope for our cause.

Yet we stood there tenaciously, with bins firmly in our grips, ready to lift them at the slightest detection of a movement in the low-vegetation that stood before us. A movement that would betray the presence of this endemic LBJ – that can prove pain in the neck at elevations lower down. Our agonizing vigil was interrupted by my pep talk how I have shown cracking views of it at this site before on previous tours. And how we should not call off play, on account of the elements. And stay positive just like this Sambar.

a begging Sambar
Fifteen minutes on, there was no let up; it was bitterly cold.

I then I decided to take a stroll with the team to see whether we could pick its metallic call in the low shrubs. No hope. Even the bubbly Yellow-eared Bulbuls remained stubbornly silent. And the gregarious Sri Lanka White-eyes too seemed to be on a token strike, protesting the weather. Not even a Dull-blue Flycatcher sang its sonorous call—which would have been fitting for the moment. We didn’t need that Flycatcher. Phil spotted it the day before at Welimada to give great views for all of us. In fact, we had three individuals, which included a newly fledged one. One good view is just enough for hardcore birders. The name of the game is to move on to look for new birds.

With little success from the walk, I called that we should go back to check the pond.

Minutes after arriving back at the original position, our hopes were raised when Phil detected a movement of something birdie, in the low thickets, but lost it before he could find it in his binoculars. It was too misty and gloomy. Phil finds it a bit difficult to see things in low-light. And the optics gathered water droplets whenever we took off the protective covers to scan the surroundings, impairing our vision further.

With this being the state of affairs, seconds later, the bird rematerialised in a reedy patch at the edge of the pond—seemingly on transit. It was good enough for the Dutch duo to get their fills of this rare skulker. But, Phil was not on it, still struggling with his bins, wiping the mist on his glasses, and all that. Quite frustratingly, before we could show him this LBJ, it flew off across the pond, and disappeared into the bordering thickets. Only UTVs—Un-Tickable-Views. That means, it will not be counted as seen.

I alerted to stay focused as it might pop out again. Soon, as predicted, I picked up a slight movement across the pond—bingo—I got Phil on it this time. I could read its details just enough through my Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42. But then, Phil claimed he could still see only the dark blurry profile of the bird just to say that it looked like a Bush-Warbler but nothing beyond. That hinted that it was still a UTV as far as he was concerned!

I then gave him my bins to try. And that worked.  He at once claimed to see its details much clearer than through his 10 x 42s, (which were pretty worn out). The Dutch duo too were sporting Swarovski EL 10 x 42 binoculars. Pieter and Teus too took turns to look through my bins at a now preening Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, out in the open— to confirm what Phil observed. The superior light gathering ability of Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42 does have its uses in low-light forest birding.

Although the weather improved very little thereafter, birds, however, began to come out as the day wore on. It seemed like they had resigned to the fact that things will not get any better. Raising our hopes, Sri Lanka White-eye, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Indian Blackbird, Orange-billed Babbler, Grey Tit, Dark-fronted Babbler, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Common Tailorbird, Dull-blue Flycatcher, all came in quick order as we pressed on.

A short respite from the rain, brought a couple of Sri Lanka Bush-Warblers to an eye-level perch for much improved views. Shortly afterwards, another one low-down. Way better.

Due to weather induced misfortunes, the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush kept eluding us until our final morning at Nuwara Eliya, when I gambled to check a new site. It worked. And the male Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush that I found for everybody not only gave jaw-dropping views, sitting on an open branch, but also entertained us with its song—which I heard well for the first time. Teus and I got decent sound recordings of it.
Whistling Thrushes are ultra-elusive birds and seeing them involve a sound technique.

I parted some tips in Finding the Malayan Whistling Thrush to Phil whose next stop was Malaysia.

16 comments:

Sean said...

Great report, Amila! Welcome back. Were you able to compile a decent treasure of pictures?

Pat - Arkansas said...

Wonderful report, Amila! I get excited just seeing hummingbirds at my feeder. I cannot imagine having a list of 4,950 different birds. At the rate Phil is going, I think he will probably make his 5,000 before December. Good luck to him!

I enjoyed the photo of the Sambuck with its head in the window. :)

Kirigalpoththa said...

Hi Amila,

very imformative post!

What is meant by xxxx number of birds in their respective life lists? Is it photos of different birds?

Tabib said...

Your perseverance paid off with finding of rare animals and birds.
Look like that swarovski model is in my wanted list.

Gallicissa said...

Hi Sean,
Thank you! The Pied Bushchat shown at the top is the only bird I photographed on this tour! Bad weather and demanding birding schedule prevented time for photography. I didn't even carry my dSLR on this trip.

Hi Pat,
Thanks! I am pretty sure Phil will reach his goal quite easily.

He is very easy to please: all you need to do is get him life birds!

There are some habituated Sambars at Horton Plains that approach vehicles for handouts. I have seen tourists feeding them with sausages and chicken sandwiches among other things!

Hi K,
Thanks! It means birds they have seen in the wild. It does not refer to birds they have photographed.

It is seeing birds that is important first of all, and if they present a photo opportunity they will take it. The trio on this tour, did no bird photography.

Hi Tabib,
It is possible to find birds even in adverse weather and I usually do not give up! You will not regret EL 8.5 x if you are going to do more forest birding.

S.C.E. said...

NFF! Had to laugh at that.........

You know I don't even know what my lifelist is (though I know my local patch list).

Gallicissa said...

Hi Stu,
NFF became very popular term on our tour as the Dutch Duo had broader interests.

For listing, you should first get one of those bird database softwares such as Avibase.

Harumi said...

Wow.. very interesting.. there were some esoteric stuff, nevertheless even a total newbie like me was able to grasp it to a fair extent. =D And I never knew birding was such a serious activity requiring tons of knowledge, skills, patience and commitment.. and money too! =D

The lifelist was something new to me, so I Googled it up and found a nice explanation in here. It's simply amazing to bag a lifelist worth thousands. Great pics too.. Thanks a lot for sharing. ^__^

Gallicissa said...

Hi Harumi,
Good to hear from you!

Those traits and money are important when you get serious and when you reach the level of wanting to see world birds to add to your lifelist. You've grasped it very well!

To reach that level of 'wanting' usually takes a while - with interest brewed over a long period of time.

It doesn't take a lot to enjoy birds in your yard and local patches as beginners. I enjoyed bird watching for a long time having no binoculars.

Thanks for sharing that interesting link.

This Is My Blog - fishing guy said...

Amila: Rain certainly does make it hard to find the birds.

Gallicissa said...

Hi Tom.
The wet zone that I live in (and where most endemics are) is the only aseasonal ever-wet region in the whole of South Asia. So,rain or no rain, you need to stay positive. I have cleaned up our targets in many rain-affected tours thanks to this approach.

Harumi said...

Yep, that's for sure. I'm not familiar with birding, though I've always had this habit of gazing and observing anything that resembles a portion of nature! lol So ya, that includes birds too. =D And no prob. ^__^

Gallicissa said...

Thanks Harumi!
Sounds like you are a born nature lover. Very good!

Larry Jordan said...

Great post Amila. You're right about being persistent in adverse conditions like those.

I also enjoyed your article on "Finding The Malayan Whistling Thrush." As you well know, having knowledge of the specific bird species' habits is essential to finding some of the more illusive birds.

Thanks for the tips!

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone - at least part of this story needs a finish, so...I picked-up number 5000 on Waigeo Island in West Papua on the the 27th of July. The bird? Wilson's Bird-of-Paradise, arguably one of the most beautiful (and remote) creatures on the planet! Now it is time to start planning for the next 1000! Cheers Amila, and thanks for a great trip to Sri Lanka! - Philip

Gallicissa said...

Hi Larry,
Thanks! The wet zone of Sri Lanka where most of the special birds are found is the only aseasonal ever wet region in the whole of South Asia. So, I do not stop play for rain!

I am pleased you enjoyed my article. Whistling-thrushes can be challenging to find and I like that.

Hi Phil,
Congratulations on seeing half the birds of the world! What a bird to see as your no. 5,000! I am very happy for you. I'd be interested to see how many you will end up with by your b'day. It was great birding with you and thank you again for the NFFs!

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