Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Sinharaja with FOGSL–2010

I am back from a trip to Sinharaja rain forest with the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) from 9-12 September, 2010. Prof. Kotagama, who usually leads this annual birding pilgrimage couldn't join us on the first two days because of some commitments. So, the main responsibilities of guiding on "birds and related matters" fell on me—as in 2007 and 2008. This year's trip had twenty-eight participants—mostly newbies.

Prof. Kotagama joined us from the late afternoon's bird walk on 11 Sep. onwards. And in that evening, we listened to his traditional lecture: "History of Sinharaja, and Mixed-species Bird Flocks"—the research of which is being spearheaded by him since the 80s.

We saw a total of 42 44 species of birds. This was fewer than what you'd normally see on a similar length tour to the dry zone. But, the important thing was, nearly 50% of our Sinharaja tally comprised of endemics—and new birds to most participants. So what we lacked in quantity, we certainly made up with quality.

We had a good mixture of rainy and sunny weather, as it is usual for this time of the year. I had absolutely no complains about the rain; I like my rain forests wetter and lusher.

We had the services of Dee as our local guide. As always, he delivered what the group and I wanted, with a smile. After making a clean sweep of almost all the flock-associated specials such as Orange-billed Babbler, Crested Drongo, Red-faced Malkoha, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Malabar Trogon, and the likes, I sent Dee to find several "high-value targets."

High on my "hit-list" was Serendib Scops Owl—an endemic bird discovered in 2001.
After several hours, Dee met me, looking as happy as a dog with two tails. Soon, I was taken to a spot, and shown this adorable Serendib Scops Owl, sitting on a Cyathia fern, doing its best to disguise its real birdie profile.

Returning to our base after this, I paused to search a patch, after hearing alarm/mobbing-type calls of Yellow-browed Bulbuls, and Black-naped Monarchs. Su Bambaradeniya who was with me, mentioned of seeing a perched bird taking wing; disappearing into the forested valley below. So, I searched that general area, also aided by the angry mob still at it. Moments later, I spotted the target of the mobsters's wrath—a Chestnut-backed Owlet—a lifer for all. Scope views followed through my Swarovski ATM-80 HD.

And with that, we cleaned up all the endemic owls.

A notable absentee among birds was "Square-tailed" Black Bulbul—not even heard. A Besra juvenile (a bird-hunting raptor) obliged to provide scope views in front of our accommodation; two more separate sightings of this species followed.

Close to the research camp, a Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush was expertly spotted by Dee.

My top behavioural observation—in the birds category—was seeing the mainly insectivorous Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler feeding on the fruits of the pioneer Macaranga indica [family:  Euphorbiaceae; boo-kenda in Sinhala (pronounced, boo can-the)]. 

Aug.–Sep. mark the fruiting season of this pioneer, and I have previously observed other such mainly insectivorous birds, that make up Sinharaja's bird flocks, opportunistically "turn to bit of fruit" when Boo-kenda was in fruit: in Aug., 2007, I observed Orange-billed Babbler and Ashy-headed Laughingthrush feeding on Boo-kenda; in Sep., 2007, I observed Ashy-headed Laughingthrush of a mixed-species bird flock feeding on Boo-kenda—a behaviour, which was copied by a Crested Drongo that was nearby.

This Red-faced Malkoha was seen early during our last birding walk, was photographed when it perched on a tree across the field close to the entrance. I showed this enigmatic endemic to all newbies through my scope.

Change of topics, I was absolutely shocked to see the recent "improvements" done to the track by the Forest Department (FD) have turned it all muddy. And I have one word to explain the mud all over the track and those "planners" who caused it—thick.

May be this needs more explanation than just one word. But, I'll be brief.

FD has dredged a canal along the left side of the track, in sections between the barrier gate, and the turn off to Mullawella trail; and splayed the dredged soil on the track, forgetting that it rains here. And the result is this—a (previously) usable track for walking, turned into a quagmire.

Pressed to find drier paths, walkers have used the higher ground on the right, destroying low flanking vegetation on the roadside, not to mention the habitats of myriad critters. Here are FOGSL members negotiating the "facelifted" track.

I suppose the Forest Department may have perfectly logical explanations for this. Like trying to attract water birds bound to Bundala.

All you "planners" in your comfy air-conditioned rooms who are responsible for this, I have a simple message for you:

Sinharaja is like a rain forest. So it rains here a lot. Which is why rainfall figures of rain forests, such as Sinharaja, are expressed in metres rather than millimetres. So when you put loose soil on the track, like you've done, things really get messy after a while. Right now, your actions have made walking on this track, a nightmare. Please clear the mess you have created. The track you should repair, as a matter of urgency, is the old 3km stretch that connects the ticket office at Kudawa with the barrier gate. Which is like a dried river bed. Please make this "world heritage" rain forest visitor friendly; it's a national disgrace right now.

On the positive side, the conditions underfoot, made me the coolest dude of the lot because I was the only person sporting welly boots. I was as confident as this male Sri Lanka Junglefowl.

But, I wasn't really dressed to impress like this Sri Lanka Blue Magpie though.

The Spot-winged Thrush was heard and seen in song; it looked to be in a breeding rush again. A few members had observed one of them mobbing a Sri Lanka Blue Magpie—a notorious nest predator. 

Natural History Specials (part).

Cruiser Vindula erota.
Kusum Fernando (KF) spotted this female, when we were waiting for a "flock" near the research station. KF's now metamorphosed into a butterfly-chaser, with birds coming third; second is photography.
With species names like this one's—meaning "erotic"—who can blame him!

Striped Bronzeback Dendrelaphis caudolineatus
I spotted this uncommon tree snake in the primary forest patch close to the research camp—my top natural history highlight. I was seeing this snake, quite familiar to me, after a long time.

Kangaroo Lizard Otocrytis wiegmanni
Close to the main track, I spotted this male, sporting breeding colours.

Common Bronzeback Dendrelaphis tristis
We had three sightings of this tree snake, resting in ambush on ferns flanking the track—where "improvements" have not swept through.

One-spot Grass Yellow Eurema andersoni
A stupid name for an otherwise pretty, endemic butterfly. I spotted this seasonal delight, fluttering low over a shady section of the track, and shared it with KF to whom it proved a butterfly-lifer. I am quite familiar with this species, having photographed it earlier. Grass Yellows are tricky little ba butterflies. And photographing them definitely helps to put names to them.

Luckily, it was found in an unmolested section of the track, so that KF and I could lie low to shoot it.

Here are the newbies, old bees, spelling bees, and NIMBYs. The one with the Santa Clause-like beard is our good ol' Prof. Kotagama.

KF shot this using my camera; he had to take 3 shots to capture the whole group as my lens was not a wide angle one. And I stitched 'em all using PhotoStitch.

Popularising bird watching—traditionally limited to upper-class types—is one of the fundamental objectives of FOGSL. It was great feeling to share my joy of birds with loads of like-minded people. And to see their faces light up, after getting their first glimpses of these avian jewels through my scope. If the tour comments and feedback I heard in the end were anything to go by, Prof. Kotagama and I made most of those participants, joining on their first field trip with FOGSL, firmly hooked on birds.

That, to me, tops all the highlights mentioned above.


silent moments said...

That owl looks more like a soft toy than an endemic bird with its slightly squinted eyes and extra furry hide :)
How does one join these expeditions?

Stuart Price said...

Some great photos there especially the snakes and the....... er..........chicken (only joking!).

I can see why you need wellies now.......

Unknown said...

Wow, this is fascinating, AMila. I don't think I've ever seen a better shot of the Red faced Malkoha in its habitat -- just the way one is likely to spot it, I suppose. Why do you call it an 'enigmatic' endemic?

Love the other endemic shots, too. I'm sharing this on The Green Ogre Facebook page

Kirigalpoththa said...

The owl looks like a cat with a 'facelift' :) Very funny creature.

Other than the good old Prof, the guy with all sort of gadgets also looks familiar :)

Top class nature photos!

Unknown said...

Excellent post as always Amila.

So sad to hear about the "improvements" - what a stupid waste of time and resources to make something worse than what it was.

Great pics and love the snake/butterfly pics. Judging by the recent pics/posts, I would say that Kusum is not the only one who has metamorphosed into a butterfly chaser! :D

Me-shak said...

First of all, WOW at the pictures. I mean the picture of the Common Bronzeback is just JAW dropping good. Really! Superb work Amila. The picture of the muddy road, just pushes me more and more to go there. The Serendib scops looks awesome. Beautiful picture.

Would have been awesome to be a part of this. Very informative post, as usual. I had a ball reading it :)


Sunita Mohan said...

Why does the owlet remind me of a sleepy cat? It looks most un-owlish. That Blue Magpie though is stunning! Very colourful.
I really liked that photo of the Common bronzeback with its stripes mirroring the pattern of the fern leaves.
I agree with you about the totally unimaginative names given to so many pretty butterflies. I think we need to revamp them and call for a renaming ceremony!

Anonymous said...

Once again, I learned about three birds that I have not heard about, let along seen. I think when you add department to anything in Sri Lanka, they tend go south.
People are talking about following Singapore to prosperity but I think Sri Lankans should look into South Korea. About 50 years ago, their country was devastated like Sri Lanka, from the war. About six months ago, we visited South Korea and they have gone a long way, developing and preserving the nature and heritage.
Sorry about my rant and thank you for your contribution to our knowledge. Hey we can have wild boar and hoppers in San Francisco now!

Nishantha Kamburugamuwa said...

Wow..! Looks like Sinharaja is going to reach another milestone by hosting wader birds for the upcoming migration..

Amila Suwa said...

Thank you!
You're right, that owl looks quite un-birdlike in that posture.

To join such expeditions one has to visit Prof. Kotagama's office at the University of Colombo, and register for the trip to follow (subjected to availability) by paying a non-refundable deposit of Rs. 1,500 from one's hard earned money.

The nice thing about FOGSL is one does not have to become a member before one joins the first trip.

The general membership is Rs. 100 per year, and the Life membership is Rs. 1,500, just in case one likes to become a member anyway.

And if one requires more details one can phone Indrika or Anoma on 011 5342609.

The next trip is to Peak Wilderness (via Kuruwita) from 27–30, October. This, to me, is the toughest trip in FOGSL's tour calender.

Our overnight stay will be at an ambalama with no electricity or beds.

It borders a pebble-bottomed mountain stream, and a sub-montane forest, where the demure dawn choruses of Scaly Thrushes give way to the discordant interludes of Blue Magpies.

To get there, you have to trek up with all your stuff. Porters are there to carry food, lamps, and other essential things needed for the stay.

Highlights of this trip are seeing altitudinally graded rain forests: lowland rain forests upto around 900m, sub-montane rain forests from around 900-1,500m, and montane forests above 1,500; and a corresponding masala of birds and natural history.

One could optionally attempt to
climb the Adam's Peak during this trip. But, one has to be very fit for that, as one has be back at the base before its too late.

p.s. There're a couple of Asian-styled toilets with lockable doors, and plenty of running water!
So, one should not worry about such things too much.

Thanks! No problem, we too call it the jungle chicken sometimes.

Wellies and brollies should be essential items if you are travelling to Sinharaja these days.

Thanks a lot!
The Red-faced is a tough to photograph because it is typically found 30-40m up the canopy, where it often melts away when moving in the thickets.

Why did I call it to be enigmatic? Because of the above attribute, and the uncertainity that existed with regard to status, i.e., whether it is a Sri Lankan endemic or not, as there were reports of a few alledged sightings from South India. Which, most of the Sri Lanka birders treat as dodgy!

Thank a lot for sharing linking this in FB. I am not in FB, so it helps!

I think you're right about its similarity to a cat. That guy would be me. :) Thanks!

@Riyazi and Michelle,
Thank you very much!

Yesterday I phoned the Conservator of Forest about this. And he didn't know that such a thing has happened at Sinharaja. Anyway, he's a good man, and I am sure he will take corrective measures.

Thank you!
That Common Bronzeback posed well for me. It was found in the unmolested section of the track. You'll need good protection for cameras if you are going there.

Owl: I think you are right!
It's a cracking bird to watch in real life. Haha, nice to know that I am not the only person not impressed with some of these odd names given for butterflies.

Renaming ceremony? where? when? :)

I like the departmental comment. Nice!

Thanks a lot for sharing your sights on South Korea. I think you are right, we should learn from the methodical South Koreans.

However, when it comes to junior rugby though, I am sure South Koreas would be looking to learn from Sri Lanka, as they were thrashed 29-10 in the under 20 Rugby Asiad in Thailand. :) And ahem, this Sri Lankan team was captained by a Peterite. ;)

You have wild boar and hoppers there? Wow! If you are referring the wild boar meat, I'll pass. But hoppers, anytime!

Ado! Good to hear from you.
Yeah, there going to make Sinharaja a Ramsar wetland. :)

Amila Suwa said...

@Riyazi and Michelle,
I missed to respond to your jibe about my becoming a butterfly chaser like Kusum.

You may be right in way. :) But, I like to think of me as someone who's always been fond of them.

As a matter of fact, most of past posts that had butterflies, among other things, have been tagged under "Natural History."

I created the tag "Butterflies" only recently. I think I should go to my archive and edit all the previous posts to include this new tag. :)

Janith said...

Brilliant pictures Amila! :D Love what they've done with 'Maga Naguma' there... NOT! :/

And awesome picture of the 'One-spot Grass Yellow'! (That's a mouthful!) :)

Amila Suwa said...

Thank you!
I doubt there was any political involvement with there.

O-s G Y looks good with no flash. In the above, I have used flash. I have far better shots now.

Oh, yes! Sri Lankans have a liking for long names I think! The Common Brozeback is called in one book as Common Bronzeback Tree Snake. Yikes.

In my response I meant to say, "Thanks a lot for sharing your sights on South Korea."

Anonymous said...

Sorry it was wild boar meat I was referring to. I am a Buddhist in training :)

Amila Suwa said...

Jeez, the things you can find in the U.S.! :)

According to the folk-Buddhism here (which is a fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism, as you know), those who eat pork, wild boar, and beef will not get the blessings of the various Gods. Or in Sinhala: ...දෙවියන්ගේ බැල්ම ලැබෙන්නෙ නෑ.

Amila Kanchana said...

Another great great post Amila! Many thanks for the FOGSL contact details too!

Phil Slade said...

A great account of your trip that brought it live for me. I hadn't realised the Serendib was only discovered so recently. What a great find for you all. it sound like you have the same problems with your local authorities that we do - they always know or think they know best but seldom do.

Friend of HK said...

I'd love to follow your blog but I can not find a way of doing it.

Amila Suwa said...

Thank you!
And no problem!

Thanks a lot. This was the first time Serendib Scops Owl was found in an FOGSL annual trip to Sinharaja, so it was very good find.

Haha, sound like it's the same all around with those "planners!"

@Friend of HK,
After signing in to blogger account, you can do it in the "Dashboard." In that, in the leftside, you'll find something called "Blogs I'm following."

Select "Add" in that, and copy and paste the blogger URL you'd like to follow in the pop-up field "Add from URL," and click "Next."

There, you can select whether you want to follow the blog you want to follow "publicly" or "anonymously."

After you select one of the above options, the of blogs you follow will get refreshed within seconds.

I hope this tutorial would help!

Larry said...

Wow Amila, what a fantastic outing! All the endemic owls, including that beautiful Serendib Scops Owl!

All the bird, butterfly and reptile photos are great too. Thanks for the trip through the Sinharaja Rain Forest! And the wonderful group photo to top it all off.

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks a lot! It was my best FOGSL trip to Sinharaja with loads of goodies seen and photographed.

Haha, glad you liked the group pic. All participants seemed to have removed their binoculars before this group picture; I promise they were all bird watchers!!

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