Monday, 31 May 2010

Kudu Tour Highlights

The Kudu 2010 Sri Lanka tour, that I guided from 9–20 January, was rich in wildlife and other moments. Most of them came during our two visits to the amazing Yala National Park in the southeastern Sri Lanka. There were 11 British visitors on this trip, which included the indefatigable Tour Leader, Frances Fedden who's led all Kudu trips to Sri Lanka since ancient past.

Our first highlight of the first game drive was this pair of Leopards crossing the main road, minutes after entering the park. Only one is clearly visible in this picture, with the other showing just the rear bits disappearing in the bushes to the right.

They were a bit distant, and the light was a bit low to get a perfect view, but that was enough to tick Leopard off the checklist—for those of us into listing.

Then we had these two Land Monitors in combat close to the main road. They were both were equally matched in the pugnacity, and we really couldn't judge who the winner was.

Next, we witnessed a courtship behaviour of a pair of Black-winged Stilts, where a male performed an endearing head-bobbing dance in front of a female to send her into a posture of submission. I alerted everybody to be ready for some action, and as predicted we had them in flagrante delicto.

The full paparazzi complement was shared by me here.
And then, there was this Ruddy Mongoose—enjoying a lie-in on a Palu tree, looking pretty and relaxed.

Fresh after rains, the park was teeming with wild flowers. These included the suggestive, Butterfly pea Clitoria ternatea, lending colour to the lush undergrowth. This species is named after the spice island, Ternate in Indonesia. The genus is named after an intimate part of female anatomy.

Crocs were in force as usual, and this one looked very well-fed.

The star of the show, however, was this male Leopard, which was seen by the people who were in the jeep that I was in. We found it very, very close to the jeep, just minutes before it was time for our exit on the second game drive. Frances and others who were in a separate jeep missed this, but roundabout the same time we had this one, they'd got a Leopard resting on the rocks at Kotigala. So we were all square, and happy!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Centromeria viridistigma (Kirby, 1891)

When I posted this planthopper in Flickr sometime ago, I had a question mark associated with its species name as its identification was doubtful. It is not a question anymore, thanks to Dr. Zhi-Shun Song from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing. He contacted me a couple days ago, after finding my images in the web. And after confirming its identification, Song sang this:

"... at present, I am revising this species, along with other dictyopharid species. In my studied specimens, the body colors are depigmentized owing to their old nature. So I would appreciate some ecological pictures of Centromeria viridistigma that you could give me"

And I obliged straightaway.

It should be noted that I originally sought "ID help" for this from our own, Dr. Priyantha Wijesinghe who is based in the USA. He, having crosschecked with an expert on a related family, forwarded me the following reply he'd got:

"... I reach the same conclusion as you: probably close to Centromeria viridistigma (or maybe it is that species) but as I am not a Dictyo specialist, I really cannot tell you more ..."

It was from this point onwards that I had it named Centromeria viridistigma with a question mark. This helped Zhi-Shun to find this image in the web, and to finally confirm that it was indeed that species. So, a big thank you goes to Priyantha and his unnamed colleague for doing the initial "infanty work"—in clearing the ground of landmines, IEDs and pitfalls by narrowing it down to more or less to this species—before 'Special forces' that is Zhi-Shun could arrive in to really finish the business.

This planthopper was photographed at Sinharaja 'World heritage' rain forest in Dec, 2008, during a 14-day Absolute Birding tour with Dr. Richard Bishop and Anne Bishop from Kenya. To shoot this, I used the same rig that I used for the 'Sri Lanka Tree-climbing crab'.

This planthopper was barely 3 cm in length.

The classification of this species as per the current knowledge is:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hemiptera
Infraorder: Fulgoromorpha
Superfamily: Fulgoroidea
Family: Dictyopharidae
Genus: Centromeria
Specific name: viridistigma (Kirby, 1891),
Scientific name: Centromeria viridistigma (Kirby, 1891)

Friday, 21 May 2010

Triskaidekaphobia x 2

Triskaidekaphobia is a morbid fear of the number following 12 and preceding 14. A variant of this is when that day happens to be a Friday. It the goes by the rather cool sounding name, friggatriskaidekaphobia! The first element of it derives from ancient Scandinavian goddess Frigga, after whom Friday is named. In any case, it is a hopeless word to know if you are a scrabble aficionado as it is too frigging long to play!

Now, I must be honest that I do not have any of the aforementioned phobias. However, I am awed by the destructive, unlucky and overwhelming nature of the number after 12 and before 14, multiplied by two. Just in case you don’t have a calculator handy, I am talking about 26

When I sat to write this post, I at once remembered an article by the veteran Sri Lankan journalist, DBS Jeyaraj on the deceased Leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was born on 26 November, 1954. In this, DBS sheds light on the circumstances leading to his death in May 2009. Here's an excerpt from that.

“……LTTE launched a massive attack on the armed forces shortly after midnight on Sunday. This was because of numerology as Sunday was the 17. Once midnight passed it was Monday 18th. There was a time when the LTTE would not engage in major operations on the 8th, 17th or 26th. Because No 8 was considered unlucky. Subsequently these superstitions became irrelevant but at this critical juncture the “Eight” phobia was on.”

I think the irrelevance of this fear, as observed by DBS, is proved by the fact the LTTE chose to close the sluice-gates of Mavil Aru on July 26, 2006. A military operation by Armed Forces to wrest the control of the sluice gates to provide relief to thousands of people left without water due to this wanton act, marked the starting point of the Elam War IV. This ended badly for LTTE on 19 May, 2009 with a crushing defeat in the battlefield after 26 years of conflict.

Before it all ended, the first daring attack launched by 'Air Tigers' took place on 26 March, 2007, when two Czech-built Zlin Z 143 four-seater light aircraft, modified to carry four bombs mounted on the undercarriage, dropped their payload on the Katunayake Air force base, north of Colombo. This attack failed to destroy the Kafir and Mig aircraft targeted, but it killed three airmen and injured several. After several more fearless attacks of this nature, this treat was finally neutralised by the defence establishments.

In one of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka, country’s main Airport situated near the aforementioned Air force base was stormed by 14 Black Tiger Commandos, destroying 26 aircraft in July 2001. One Mil Mi-17 helicopter, one Mil Mi-24 helicopter, two IAI Kfir fighter jets, a MiG-27 and three Chinese K-8 trainer aircraft were part of the military aircraft destroyed. The attackers could not reach the hangers, probably didn't need to as all those the military aircraft destroyed happened to be on the tarmac—sitting targets for shoulder–mounted RPGs. A crack team of Special Forces finally brought the situation under control, after several hours; preventing the situation from dragging on for days, as it may have so easily have happened.

With losses of civilian aircraft alone estimated over US$ 350m, this attack dealt a crippling blow to the Sri Lankan economy, slowing it down by -1.4%. It particularly affected those of us in tourism with aftershocks coming in the form of tour cancellations and negative travel advisories, denting an already bruised industry. And two months later, came the 9/11 making things really bad for the world at large.

As we were slowly building our lives after all these happenings, came the Tsunami on 26 December, 2004—killing over 35,000 and displacing over 500,000 people in Sri Lanka alone, all within a matter of a few minutes. When this tragedy struck, I was guiding a Naturetrek Christmas birding tour at 2,100m above sea level, in the cloud forests of Horton Plains National Park. Later on, I came to find out that a lot of my friends at the Yala Safari Game Lodge were sadly no more. This included the manager, accountant, chef and the front office manager. The hotel’s in-house naturalist and a fellow bird tour guide, who happened to be there, ran for their lives, scaled up trees and survived, as did most of the junior staff. Did the senior staff think it was too chicken to run for their lives? I don't know. In any case, with a total estimated global death toll of 230,000, destroyed property running to billions of dollars and 1.69 million people displaced, the Boxing day Tsunami would go down as a major natural disaster in the modern history.

Seven months after this serious natural calamity, which also hit India, came the Maharashtra floods of 2005, bringing our big neighbour’s commercial capital, Mumbai to a standstill. This was caused by unusually heavy rainfall that lashed on 26 July 2005. It turned out to be the eighth heaviest ever recorded 24-hour rainfall figure: 994 mm. To put this into context, the floods we are now experiencing at Katunayake area was caused by a rainfall figure of 200mm reported over several days.

While we are at India, I should note that the horrendous 2008 Mumbai attack began on 26 November 2008. Dubbed by some as India’s 9/11, this killed 173 people and wounded at least 308.

I nearly missed, what about the 2001 Gujarat earthquake that tragedy killed 20,000 people and left 600,000 homeless? It happened on 26th January.

I find it amazing that scientists dated the big Cascadia earthquake near Canada to January 26, 1700. And to 9.00 p.m. on that day! They used old tsunami records in Japan and studies of tree rings, which showed that red cedar trees killed by lowering of coastal forests into the tidal zone by the earthquake have outermost growth rings that formed in 1699—the last growing season before this cataclysmic event. There’s also a great oral tradition about the quake and resultant tsunamis, and this interesting study sheds light on that.

To tell you the truth, my morbid fascination on 26th actually began when I watched a documentary about the famous volcano, Krakatau. Our 2004 Tsunami had already happened by then. When I heard the narrator explaining that this volcano began to explode with devastating fury on 26 April, 1883, it dawned on me that the biggest natural disaster in my memory, the Tsunami was also on a 26th. And it was from that point that I started to pay attention to 26. Coming back to Krakatau, this explosion was known to have been 13,000 times the nuclear yield of the "Little Boy" bomb that devastated Hiroshima. The actual explosion and resultant tsunamis killed over 36,000 people.

And finally, isn’t it really interesting that St. Peter’s crushed Price of Wales by planting 26 ties in their record breaking 164-0 victory a few weeks ago? St. Peter’s will meet Royal on 22 May at the Royal Sports Complex in a crucial schools rugby fixture. Two unbeaten teams playing vintage rugby, cool monsoonal weather, sludgy ground, and passionate supporters—what more do you want for a perfect Saturday late afternoon? I can safely say the match would get underway shortly after 4.26 p.m. I will be at the winning section. Say halo if you spot me. If you can't make it, catch live action via

Disclaimer: Far too many terrorist attacks and natural disasters have taken place on days other than 26th and events listed here are a set arranged for narrative convenience in this random monsoonal rant.

Edit: The South Korean Naval Tragedy that killed 46 of their sailors happened on 26 March, 2010.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Noiseware Professional

I photographed this Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher at Kithulgala in February, 2010. I was guiding a serious bird photography tour with Felix Ng from Hong Hong and two of his friends. Felix wielded the latest Canon EOS 1D Mark iv fitted with a Canon EF 500mm F4 super telephoto Lens. After he was done, I borrowed his monster lens and coupled it with my Canon 40D to shoot this beauty. The settings I used were 1/25 and ISO800. As this bird was in a dimly lit spot, the high ISO enabled me to lighten things up to catch more detail. As expected the high ISO also resulted in rendering the image a bit grainy in the final output, which you can see especially in the background.

In order to get rid of the grainy effect resulted from camera noise, I used a camera noise removal software named Noiseware Professional for post processing. See the result below.

Noiseware Professional is a plug in filter that can be used with Photoshop and it is very easy to use. The whole operation of cleaning up the image just took me less than 30 seconds.

Edit: This is in response to flowergirl's comment in this post. The grainy effect is more obvious when you see the image zoomed in/cropped. Here's a close crop to reveal it:

And the same after filtering it through NP.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Birding and Rugby Roundup

I guided a 3-day birding trip from 3-5 January. It was with Paul Ode, an Entomologist who works as an Assistant Professor at the Colorado State University and his wife, Meena Balgopal who also works as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at CSU. To combine the best of lowland dry zone and wet zone in real quick time, we visited the Udawalawe National Park and the endemic hotspot, Sinharaja ‘world heritage’ rainforest. These two coordinated birding raids yielded a whopping 142 species of birds! Our tally included twenty-one out of thirty-three endemics currently recognised. The star bird was the Serendib Scops Owl, seen at a daytime roost. This owl, discovered in Jan 2001, is one of the two “endangered” endemics in Sri Lanka with an estimated population of 200-250 in wild. A record shot of this owl in a daytime roost can be seen in a post below.

A male Purple-rumped Sunbird.

We observed a pair of immature Ashy Prinias in a plumage not depicted in colour plates of any of the field guides relevant to Sri Lanka. A picture of one of them is shared below. The sub-species brevicauda of Ashy Prinia found here is endemic.

Immature Ashy Prinia at Udawalawe National Park, 3 Jan 2010.

I learnt that Paul specialises in behaviour and ecology of parasitoid wasps among other things. I wasted no time in showing off my pics of the ant parasitoid wasp, Chalcura deprivata (Walker, 1860) - photographed sometime ago in my home garden.

Chalcura deprivata (Hymenoptera, Chalcidoidea, Eucharitidae) at my home garden in Bomiriya, Kaduwela
Click here for an earlier image of the same.

On other news, I am following the rugby of my school, St Peter's College with utmost interest. In the last match we played, Peterites mauled Price of Wales 164-0! This 'cricket score', crafted with 17 goals and 9 tries saw us tumbling several schools' rugby records. The final scoreline of this match was the highest in an 'division-1' (group A) schools rugby match. Several star players were rested in the second half to give the reserves the taste of the feast, which slowed the 'run-rate' somewhat. Eight of these tries were scored by the crack Outside centre, Danushka Ranjan, a rugby prodigy. He who also scored a hatrick in the match against Trinty—taming the Lions in their own den, 31-10. The number of tries scored by Danushka in the match against Cambrians also beat a previous schools rugby record of 7 tries by a single player. With also a convincing win over the traditional rugby power-house, Isipathana under the belt, our boys clearly look poised to emerge as the 'leage champs' this year, and no team would be able to halt that.

Not even Rrroyaal...

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The One and Only Tree-climbing Freshwater Crab in Sri Lanka

Until mid 90s, the inventory of freshwater crabs in Sri Lanka stood at a modest eight species, belonging to four genera. This was following the first description of a couple of species in 1880.  Since mid 90s, this tally has seen phenomenal improvements, thanks largely to the work of Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka (WHT), which began exploring this less-studied fauna in collaboration with Carcinologist, Peter Ng from the National University of Singapore. At present the freshwater crab inventory stands at an impressive fifty-one species—all of which are endemic!

According to a conservation assessment done of our crab fauna by WHT, a total of thirty-seven species are threatened with global extinction, and twenty-six species are found in areas less than 100, with two species found in an area less than 1 Clearly, our crabs are in peril!

The one and only tree-climbing freshwater crab in Sri Lanka, Perbrinckia scansor Ng, 1995.

All freshwater crabs in Sri Lanka belong to the Family Parathelphusidae. They are currently assigned to seven genera of which five are endemic to Sri Lanka. The species shown above, which I hereby refer as Sri Lanka Tree-climbing Crab for lack of a readily available vernacular, was discovered by the good men at WHT from Sinharaja 'World Heritage' rain forest, and was originally described by Peter Ng in 1995 as Ceylonthelphusa scansor. In 2005, the Sri Lankan Biologist, Mohamed Bahir of WHT and Ng assigned this species to the endemic genus, Perbrinckia in a paper published in the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology (supplement No.12), which described ten new freshwater crabs. The species name, 'scansor' means climber, which refers to this crab's ability climb trees. It is typically found in tree-holes containing rain water in the rain forests, in the highly biodiverse 'wet zone' in South West Sri Lanka. In addition to tree holes, I have also found this species in water-trapped holes in rocks in the forest.

The eggs of the freshwater crabs hatch directly into first crab stages and they do not have a sea-faring stage. All freshwater crabs brood the newly hatched young under their abdomen in a sort of a trapdoor hinged pouch. The young are released when they are grown up to a certain stage and are more active. The patch of black in the belly, out of focus in the above picture are a cluster of crab babies or crabbies as I prefer to call them.

A quick note here on the background details of this photograph and tools used may be in order. I photographed this individual at Sinharaja in April while guiding Dr. Gil Ewing - a serious birder from US-CA on a 14-day Absolute Birding tour. Our hits and misses and other juicy details of this tour will be blogged in due course, after clearing the backlog of reports of tours done since Jan.

We encountered this crab species on two days - on April 19 and 21, both during late afternoons. On both occasions we found it on the main track - away from its typical arboreal habitats.

I used my Canon 40D and Canon 100mm f2.8 Macro lens with Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX Flash for this. Settings were ISO:400, 1/250, F 5.6, FEC -2/3. To get this angle I remained postrate on the track, ignoring all leeches and other creepy crawlies for a moment. I usually do not carry my macro rig in the field when I am with birders, but on this occasion I had them handy. This was because we'd managed to bag all our endemic target birds by 9.00 a.m. on the first of the three mornings at Sinharaja. Our quick progress with the target birds found us in a more broad-minded and trigger happy mood, and gave us time to look for other natural history delights that Sinharaja had in store.
Related Posts with Thumbnails