Friday, 30 October 2009

In Flagrante Delicto

Stilt-legged Flies in flagrante delicto
These Stilt-legged Flies, were photographed in flagrante delicto in my garden at Bomiriya, 90210. They belong to the family: Micropezidae. And they truly engage in marathon mating efforts, and are easier to photograph when they are blinded by love.

More hot news, this time birding: last Tuesday was an eventful day. It started very early with a vocal Common Hawk Cuckoo waking me up at 1.30 in the morning! Migrants of this bird species boost the resident populations during this time of the year. I think what I heard was a migrant on transit to more woodier interiors. It was a first record for my garden, so I had no complains, despite the nuisance caused.

At a more civilised hour on the same day, I found two hoped for migrants in my yard. The first was an Indian Pitta, which comes all the way from Himalayas. It was seen hopping at a corner of my garden (with dense undergrowth), especially designated for it. I am looking forward to photograph it later on—after giving it some time to settle down. The Indian Pitta is truly gorgeous bird, which explains why it's been featured in the front cover of Salim Ali's magnum opus, The Book of Indian Birds.

The second migrant seen was this Brown-breasted Flycatcher.

Brown-breasted Flycatcher
When I started birding, it used to be known as Layard's Flycatcher, named after Edgar Leopold Layard (1824 – 1900)—a British civil servant, who succeeded in adding an astonishing 136 species of birds to Sri Lanka's list of birds. This achievement is phenomenal considering that when he started collecting, our avain inventory stood at 182. The scientific name of this bird is Muscicappa muttui of which, the specific epithet: muttui is to honour Muttu (more correctly, Muththu)—the Tamil servant of Layard, who collected this bird from, Point Pedro, Jaffna—the northernmost tip in Sri Lanka. Layard was full of praise for Muttu, and wrote that he has named this bird after him: "... to whose patient perseverance and hunting skill, I owe best of my birds."

The collection of the first Brown-breasted Flycatcher was made by Muttu in June, which suggests that the individual collected was a loiterer—a migrant that has over stayed.

And the penalty it had to pay for that immigration delinquency was death!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Sanderling Watching

Last Saturday I got a detailed reading of my horoscope through a local astrologer. For the record, it was done on my own initiative. One of the interesting things I learnt from that was that I have two lucky months: September and October, the latter being the luckiest! I was told that these months, therefore, are auspicious ones for me to begin new things. Liking buying new cameras and lenses. OK, this latter fact was revealed after I posed a specific question. Now, I must be honest here, that I had absolutely no knowledge of this when I got my first dSLR in Sep., last year, or when I got my Canon 100-400mm lens last month, or when I started this blog 2 years ago on a day like this. Wish me luck, ladies and gentlemen, today is my second blogoversary.

To mark this momentous day, I wish to share some pictures of a bird that I like very much, the Sanderling, a High Arctic breeding, long-distant migrant that winters in sandy beaches, pretty much around the world.

It is an uncommon visitor to Sri Lanka and the sandspit near the fishing village at Chilaw is arguably one of the best places in Sri Lanka to see it.

Sanderling is a gregarious bird in winter. However, when there are not enough numbers at a wintering site, they can join flocks of other shorebirds, probably to seek safety in numbers. When they do that, they can be often seen in locations, well away from their typical sandy-shore habitats. Here's a case in point.

In the above, two Sanderlings (largely white & grey birds, in the left and middle) can be seen mixed with the migrant Lesser Sand Plovers, at the Bundala National Park. When found in habitats like this, Sanderlings are not at their usual bubbly selves.

See this wader flock in flight photographed at Bundala.

And here' a close crop of the area that I want you to see. You should be able to identify two strangers in it.

The one that I want to point out is a Sanderling—the larger bird in lower middle. The other obvious stranger in this flock of Little Stints, is a Curlew Sandpiper, which is the one with a decurved beak, at the top left.

In Chilaw sandspits, there are enough Sanderlings to form flocks of their own during the migratory period. I saw my first Sanderlings for this season while birding alone at this site, on 1 Sep. In that, I saw four birds; they appeared to me as if they had just touched down in the balmy Sri Lankan shores.

Sanderlings, when they are found in their typical shoreline habitats, are absolutely pleasing birds to observe. This is mainly to do with their peculiar feeding actions. It is characterised by dashing runs towards the shoreline with each ebb, to frantically feed on any organisms exposed. Like this.

And soon turning back to run ahead of the breaking waves. Like mad.

Sometimes, those waves are too brisk for their comfort, and they are forced to take wing to take evasive action.

You really don't have to be a bird watcher to enjoy these avian tourists in their element. If you happen to pass Chilaw between now and late April, just pay a visit to the Chilaw sandspits to see what I mean.

Note: locals may not readily understand if you ask directions for "Chilaw sandspits" from them, for it is very much a term used by the small coterie of bird watchers to refer to this particular site.

This is how to get there: When you drive along the road that leads to the beach, turning right near the Chilaw Resthouse (which you should be able to find easily, with its directions clearly marked), turn left when you come across a colourful Catholic church, and then turn right again when you meet a small Catholic shrine—both within sight of each other. At this point the sea will come into view. The road gets narrower from this point onwards with houses of the fisher folk hugging it from either sides. From here, you will have to drive very slowly, as there are a lot of people around. I usually advise my drivers not to toot the horn while passing this stretch, as the locals may find it disturbing.

Generally speaking, the proletariat folk there are peaceful types. I have taken a fair number of western bird watchers to this site. No drama so far.

Anyways, once you pass the narrow stretch, you come to an open area, with a graveyard on the right (the dead centre of Chilaw sandspits). Having arrived there, drive another 100m or so and stop when you meet another Catholic shrine and walk towards the beach at that point. Scattered flocks of Sanderlings are usually found along this stretch. 6.00–9.00 a.m. is my preferred time belt to visit this site. Afternoons at times attract local visitors, who may not share the same level of passion in birds as you.

Once you are there, also look out for such goodies as Terek Sandpiper, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Western Reed Egret, and if you arrive on stormy weather, scarce seabird visitors such as Brown Noddy. This site is also great to observe a good array of tern species. These may include Whiskered, White-winged, Little, Caspian, Gull-billed, Large Crested, Lesser Crested, Common, and Bridled Terns. If you visit this site after reading this post, please drop a comment here to let me know how you fared.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Blue-faced Tuesday

Blue-faced Malkoha

This Blue-faced Malkoha tested my manual focussing skills during my last trip to Yala National Park. A cuckoo family member, it is not brood-parasitic as most of its other relatives, but builds its own nest. In Sri Lanka it is found in the more sylvan parts of the dry and intermediate zones.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Dear Lord

14 October, 2009

The Lord of the Gods and Chief Rain Maker,
South Asian Affairs,

Rain to the dry zone in Sri Lanka

Dear Lord,

How are you?

It's been a while since I wrote to you. Pardon me for this slightly longish communication.

First, thank you very much for the new Canon 100-400mm lens! I have been thoroughly enjoying it, as you can see from the pictures embedded in this letter. I am now sort of admiring the looks of the Canon 500mm f4.5 lens, its amazing curves and all that.

My Lord, why I am writing to you this time is for a totally different matter. I visited Bundala and Yala National Parks in the dry zone from 5-10 October, just by myself. As you are aware, that part of Sri Lanka is experiencing a severe drought right now. Which of course in anothing new—it being a usual weather pattern. My previous local experiences suggest that you are extremely meticulous in ending this prolonged drought by the mid October. This being that time of the year, I just thought of writing to you to give you a gentle reminder—what with you having to deal with global climatic distabilisation and all that. As you may have heard from many, rains are badly needed to the 2/3rd of this island that makes the dry zone.

I know that you are generous enough to bring rains to the wet zone too during this time of the year. Frankly, we have had plenty of rain where I live in the wet zone, so if you are like in a squeeze or something, please feel okay to direct all those rain clouds to the dry zone—the area with a more pressing need for rain right now.

Coming back to the aforementioned trip, the nearest reason for undertaking this twitching trip (pardon my birding slang) was a Pectoral Sandpiper that was reported by my friend, Chinthaka Kalutota, from the Bundala National Park. Despite making three visits to this magnificent Ramsar wetland site, I drew a blank. Other local birders too had failed to locate it. It's not like I did not try, my Lord. I walked for miles in hot, baking sun in the Bundala lagoon, barefoot, getting feet like this. No, those gum-boots of mine just won’t work in our mudflats. Just, where the hell is that bird? I heard somebody mentioning that only God knows it. Hence the question, pardon me.

My dear Lord, thank you for that Glossy Ibis. Gosh! I mean, God! That really was a consolation! It remained a bogey bird of sorts for me for...god knows how many years, until you finally revealed it. A pair of them at the Embilikala lagoon. Just great!

The Oriental Darter population is doing extremely well at Bundala. This one was doing a Usain Bolt and I thought you might like it, as it sort of would remind you of the weapon you wield: thunderbolt, which you use to slay the dragon, who is like causing all this drought—by enveloping the rain clouds. Just an innocent attempt at imitative magic, that's all.

The Usain Bolt bird
Those Oriental Pratincoles, which you revealed in flight, were also good, though you only gave me record shots.

Noteworthy migrants that formed larger flocks were Curlew Sandpiper, Lesser Sand Plover, Black-tailed Gotwit, and Little Stint. A single non-breeding Red-necked Phalarope and several Sanderlings were some of the other interesting ones. Here's the kind of flocks you revealed to me.

Did you know that Yala National Park, which is traditionally closed from 1 Sep to 15 Oct annually, was kept opened for visitors this year by the wildlife authorities? That is right, no unofficial 'open season' for poachers this year! Taking advantage of this, I visited this premier National Park on four game drives.

Words cannot express my gratitude for you for finding this Leopard, just minutes after entering the park, on my first game drive.

It was just 3.30 in the afternoon. We had just arrived at a waterhole named, Palugas-wala No.1—a popular Leopard hotspot at Yala. Suddenly, alarm calls of the Hanuman Langurs filled the air. They beckoned that that a Leopard may be close by.

Hanuman Langur

There were just two other jeeps at the site. Before I could even get my pair of binoculars to scan the surroundings, our sharp-eyed tracker, Sujith, spotted that Leopard making its way towards the now dried up northern end of the waterhole. It was a very sturdy-looking male. And I couldn't help going, “OMG!”

Did you hear it?  Just kidding!

It turned out to be this individual rather meanly meanly nicknamed by the locals as “Pottaya”—a derogatory reference to person who is blind in one eye in Sinhala.

Do you know why it's blind in one eye? I heard one commenting that only god knows; hence the question.

Anyway, it did a very measured circuit around the waterhole, walking very confidently in the open theatre-like conditions at the site. It was watched closely by a large Wild Buffalo chilling in the mud, which held its ground unintimidated, after repositioning itself not to lose sight of the predator. During its stroll, the Leopard marked its territory by spraying urine to several of the trees, you know, like cats usually do.

Territory marking
I observed this magnificent cat for a good 1 1/2hours, even though you were willing to give me a longer views, if I had wanted.

You were so lovely to have punctuated this prolonged Leopard sighting with plenty of non-feline pleasures. This Green Bee-Eater that sat nearby was just one of them.

Green Bee-eater
Again, you were terrific in giving me interesting compositions of the Leopard and the Wild Buffalo.

Face off
Here's a crop of the feline half, and showing its better half.

The feline half
After a while, a Wild Boar male arrived to quench his thirst; thereby forming this tense triangle
A tense triangle
It was like finding RD, DB, and NB in the same bar.
As the Leopard went into a marathon lounging session., it was behaving more like our pet cats. And by 5.00 p.m., I've had enough of this view.

More revealing
Guess it was telling us to just get lost!

While Sujith suggested that we stayed to see whether it would come to drink at the waterhole nearer to us, with a huge Wild Buffalo laying claim to it, I thought it may not happen too early.

Therefore, instead of lingering on at that site, I suggested to move on to explore other sites good for Leopards, as the time was just right for them. This turned out to be a good move as minutes after entering the main road, that's like at 5.40 p.m., we saw a Leopard crossing the road. Two jeeps that arrived at the junction at that very moment, however, missed that brief crossing episode.

While that saw them making a beeline to the point where the said crossing took place, Sujith came up with a battlefield manoeuver, and commanded the driver to take a different road to outflank the Leopard. Having done that, he then got the driver to kill the engine and bring the jeep to a gradual stop at a certain point. And then, he urged everybody to keep an eye on a particular area. Expecting the low light conditions, I had my camera ready with appropriate settings to take the target before that. Seconds later, a Leopard materialised slowly from the thick shrubbery, and Sujith was the first to spot it.

I managed to get a burst of shots of this glance, which it held for about 20 seconds, clearly looking bemused as to how we had managed to zero in on it!

What brilliant field craft by Sujith!

Returning to my hotel after this exciting game drive, I learnt from those who hung around near the first Leopard site that it had not come to drink but instead vanished to the jungle few minutes after we left. God! You really work in mysterious ways. Don’t You?

Although the three game drives done after this, yielded just 2 Leopards between them, they gave us plenty of other interesting wildlife sightings. One of them was observing a bask of over 90 Mugger Crocodiles in the dried beds of Buttuwa Tank.

A crowded scene with Asian Openbill, Mugger Crocodiles, Black-crowned Night Herons and Little Egrets
It was a veritable croc farm. On my last game drive I found this dead Wild Buffalo there, surrounded by, you know who. Need I remind you of the severity of the drought?

Gosh! I should stop now. One last request; could you please go easy on lightening this time? I just don't want to lose another router.

Thanking you,

Respectfully yours,

Amila Salgado

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Focusing Problems

I am experiencing focusing problems in my new lens when photographing birds in flight.
This Brahminy Kite was shot at Yala National Park last Tuesday.

Brahminy Kite
And this Rose-ringed Parakeet was captured on the same day, soon after.

As you can see both are terribly out of focus. More about these focusing failures later.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Quote, unquote

Quote, unquote

The treatment, arrived last Monday. Since then the weather has turned lousy for bird photography, with heavy monsoon rains and high gusts not helping the cause. This Yellow-eared Bulbul was in a small feeding party of birds led by Sri Lanka White-eyes at the Victoria Park in Nuwara Eliya, where I found myself on the first outing with my new toy.

Yellow-eared Bulbul

If you are new here, we are talking about the Canon 100-400mm lens, "the treatment" I sought to cure APOBPS, the critical condition that this blog was diagnosed with. This is my first "L series" lens and won't be the last. For the record, it was a brand new one and it put me back by Rs. 185,000 (US$ 1,623). I got it through the local Canon dealer after months of waiting.

The results so far may not relfect those of a 185,000 buck lens yet, but I am sure will get there. This Scaly-bellied Munia was feeding on some seeds, not too far from the aforementioned feeding party.

Scaly-bellied Munia

This Crested Hawk Eagle found close to Kithulgala was too far for my lens and I had to resort to digiscoping to get this one.

Crested Hawk Eagle

Although the weather has not been too favourable for bird photography, it has been not too bad for macro. The quote, unquote critter above, with a face only a mother can love, was found on my neighbour's live fence. It is a Tree hopper (family: Membracidae). Here's a lateral view of it.

Tree hopper

The winds have brought about some pleasant changes in the environment. These include the arrival of migrant birds in search of warmer weather. Noteworthy ones seen by me so far include Grey Wagtail, Forest Wagtail, Blue-tailed Bee-Eater, Barn Swallow, Bright Green Warbler and Common Sandpiper. I am very much looking forward to the Sri Lankan 'birding season', which spans from mid October to late April.

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