Sunday, 17 October 2010

Absolute Birding–April, 2010

My last tour for the 2009/2010 birding season was a 14-day Absolute Birding tour from 17 to 30 April, 2010 with Dr. Gilmer (Gil) Ewing from Calif., U.S.A. Gil works as a specialist Paediatrician at Kaiser Permanente.

He had grown up in a lush, beautiful neighbourhood in Atlanta, where all families fed the birds in their backyards. Seeing such delights as Cardinals, Pileated Woodpeckers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Blue Jays, and Purple Finches, Gil had got hooked on birds by the age four; he had reached a life list of 100 even before getting his first binoculars.

All pictures shared in this post were shot during this tour. They are spread randomly, so they are not always directly linked to what is revealed in bigger text near them. Now, about this picture, as the blue skies reveal, we had great weather during this trip. This Indian Roller we found at Bundala National Park gave frame-filling captures at the 300mm range of my 100–400mm lens. Gil too used a similar lens.

A prolific birder, Gil had seen “way over 4,000 species of birds,” but since his birding comrades had become jealously competitive and secretive, he had rejected the numbers game altogether and stopped counting. And he never reports his numbers to the official lists now. I was told that his ABA list to be somewhere in the region of 800, and a CA list to be over 500, but he wouldn't tell these things, if you don't ask.

Looking all handsome in its cute little bow tie dress, the Common Tailorbird's mountain subspecies fernandornis was found singing its heart out at the Victoria Park, Nuwara Eliya.

Gil frequently joins group birding tours of the “big three” bird tour companies in the U.S.: Bird Guides, VENT, and Wings; and have travelled with them to such birding hotspots as Panama, Venezuela, Galapagos, Peru, Namibia, Bhutan, Brazil, Indonesia, Madagascar, Kazakhstan, New Guinea, Ethiopia, and. Chile. He'd also been to Alaska 13 times. Six of these trips have taken him to the North American rarity hotspot Attu.

Gil and I photographed this Jerdon's Leafbird at Sigiriya where the morning light was great for photography.

During the journeys between birding sites, I probed his birding anecdotes. And weren’t they fantastic! My favourite was his Peruvian birding adventure, when he’d sighted a Jaguar during a daytime vigil in anticipation of a game bird, deep inside a Peruvian rain forest. This doesn’t make to the top because of this extremely rare big cat sighting. Instead, it was made special by of a web of stories to do with the people on that tour: serious birders, and the bird tour leaders. All I can say is it was definitely more intriguing than The Moment of Truth.

We found the best photo opportunities of birds at the Bundala National Park where the light was fabulous. This Painted Stork was perfectly lit and it gave Gil and me some decent exposures.

He had me gasping in shock and awe at some of the incidents that had happened on that trip. I think it would make a spellbinding documentary, in say, Discovery Channel. I asked Gil to write it up one day. Being the busy professional and the modest person he is, I doubt he will ever do it though.

This Grey-headed Fish Eagle too gave us frame-filling captures at the 300mm range at the Bundala National Park. Its got a horrible call that complements its severe appearance deficits.

Touching on the tour period, April was the only month Gil could travel to Sri Lanka.

April, incidentally, is a very special month for nature enthusiasts in Sri Lanka. First, it is the last of the “high-yielding” birding months in the birding season of Sri Lanka that starts in October with the arrival of migrants. Second, it is the best month for spotting Blue Whales off the southern coast of Sri Lanka—with almost 100% success rate of seeing them. (Gil was not keen on this, as off CA, he’s seen Blue Whales a plenty.) Third, it is one of the best months for observing rare and seasonal insects, most notably, butterflies and dragonflies.

Asian Elephants were in force at Yala National Park were we photographed this on the track ahead of us.

On the bird watching front, we did well for late April, seeing 216 species of birds, with all 33 endemic birds currently recognised. I showed 12 out of the 15 resident night birds—equalling my record, set a month earlier. Interestingly, the tally of night birds was identical to that of March. 101–108 species of birds (depending on taxonomy) were life birds for Gil. He wrote to me that “… night birding experience was amazing, especially when compared to the past trip lists …”

Gil’s favourite Sri Lanka bird was the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, followed by the Serendib Scops Owl that I showed at the endemic hotspot Kithulgala.

The orderly Eurasian Spoonbills at the Bundala National Park.

My top birding highlight was the Oriental Scops Owl that I found at Sigiriya. On the night that I found it, we also heard an Indian Jungle Nightjar, but it was stubbornly uncooperative once again. (I need to work hard to break its "code.") As in March, we saw the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl well. (I could have photographed it well had I got a decent flash.) We also heard it again at Sigiriya. A howling of a terrified dog each time this massive owl gave out its blood-curdling scream was a creepy yet stimulating auditory experience.

Yellow Bittern’s status in Sri Lanka is “Breeding resident and regular migrant.” We had good sightings of it at the Bundala National Park. While birding with Pete Isleib in Attu, Gil had been able to locate an errant Yellow Bittern—a first for North America. This was after Pete had seen an unidentified heron-like bird flying off. After this, Gil and Pete have gone in separate ways to locate this mystery bird. And during that, Gil had managed to find it, and had identified it positively.

Gil had found me through this blog, after trying to identify some dragonflies and insects that he had photographed in a birding trip to Indonesia during last year with VENT. Although he was a serious birder, he certainly didn’t ignore such "other forms of life," and several seasonal delights seen during birding walks were appreciated well.

His top non-birding highlight was a Green Pit Viper that we found at a stake out at Sinharaja. For me it was the rare lycaenid butterfly Aberrant Bushblue. Not many serious butterfly chasers in Sri Lanka have photographed this one, let alone seen it, so it was a big catch.

We cleaned up all the lowland endemics by the third day at Sinharaja, and this gave time to explore Sinharaja's natural history treasures. One of these finds was this lycaenid butterfly Aberrant Bushblue Arhopala abseus. I photographed this with my 100mm f 2.8 lens with Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash.

Gil is also a grammar stickler expert, and I learnt a lot about grammar and usage matters that I either didn’t know or had taken for granted. And with all those selfish benifits extracted also factored in, this trip would rank high in my mind's list of best birding trips that I have guided.

We had two sightings of the one and only tree-climbing fresh water crab in Sri Lanka, Perbrinckia scansor.


Stuart Price said...

Great photos as ever, my fave is either the crab or the Tailorbird.......

rainfield61 said...

I have invested in a macro lens, I must have quited my job if I invest further on a good telescopic lens, for birding.

Your photos always prompt me to do so...

but reality is against it.


Lady divine said...

All I can say is "Oh My GAWD!"

simply awesome!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! Next time I am home I will go looking for Tailor birds in the Victoria Park! This guy (or gal) is so cute!

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks, I now need to photograph a tailorbird from the lowlands now.

Congrats! I will drop by to check your captures. Good luck!

@Lady Divine,
Thank you!
Nice to hear from you.

We had that tailorbird really close. I am sure you'll find one easily.

Kirigalpoththa said...

Wonderful photos Amila!

Janith said...

Awesome pics Amila. Love the leafbird! Gil sounds like a really interesting guy. :)

Amila Suwa said...

Thank you, sir!

Thanks, man.
Yes, he was.
I forgot to add this: I thrashed him at Scrabble. :)

flowergirl said...

This post like one of those fashion ramp shows, where all the models need to look left!! Did you notice that besides the Indian roller, all display the same profile?!

The bowtie gent is really cute!

Amila Suwa said...

Haha, I didm't notice it until you mentioned it. I should have rotated the Roller too so that it looks left. :)


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