Friday, 25 June 2010

Green Skimmer

Here you have a male, Green Skimmer Orthetrum sabina sabina (Drury, 1770).

This is probably the commonest dragonfly in Sri Lanka. I photographed it near my dragonfly-pond, where it is a regular. It was found at midday, and I didn't use any macro flash.

These were fired through my Canon 100mm f 2.8 Macro USM lens.

And it was coupled with my newest toy. Any guesses?

Saturday, 19 June 2010

High-octane Bird-photography

I guided a high-octane bird-photography tour from 24 January to 9 February, 2010. It was with Felix Ng, and two trigger-happy lady friends of his, all from Hong Kong.

Plum-headed Parakeet—one of the highlights.

As blogged before, Felix wielded the latest Canon EOS 1D Mark IV camera. He coupled it with Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM super telephoto lens. They were mounted on a serious tripod. All these made up his carry-on kit. When the subjects were too close, and likely to stay on—just as any thoughtful bird photographer would do— he pulled out his Canon EF 300mm f2.8 L IS USM telephoto lens for hand-held shots.

They say that one of the features that defines a successful birding tour from an ordinary one is the quality of night birds seen. Well, this being a bird-photography tour, the challenge was more daunting, as seeing and photographing are two entirely different kettles of fish when it comes to night birds. And Felix & co., carried no binoculars—no room for them, anyway.

I think it requires a lot of patience and an equal measure of skill to pull off good shots of night birds in untamed field conditions. In the quest for Sri Lankan specials, a birder has to find two species of owls to make a clean sweep of the 33 endemics. The first is the Serendib Scops Owl—discovered in 2001, with an estimated total population of 200-250 in the wild; plausibly classified as 'endangered' by conservation bodies.

The other owl on the wanted list of endemics is the Chestnut-backed Owlet.

We did well during the first couple of days at Kithulgala, getting photo ticks of most of our targets. After an easy morning's birding, we crossed the Kelani River in a dug-out-canoe to reach the verdant rain forest at Kithulgala in search of our pending targets. I first visited this forest in 1991. It take just an hour and a half to reach there by public transport from my place. As a budding birder, I had done many trips to this 'patch'.

Opting to travel light, I carried no camera with me when I entered the rain forest with Felix & co. Actually, I had an ulterior motive to this—to veer off the main track in a deep penetrative operation—to see whether I can find a Serendib Scops Owl in a daytime roost. Lugging a camera along for such adventures, slows me down.

So, I left my visitors at a bird-rich spot, and made a beeline to a spot that I long suspected would hold a roosting Serendib Scops Owl. Despite previous attempts, I had not found a day roost of this bird at Kithulgala. It was nearing midday. The scorching sun had lulled the bird activity though this was not a hindrance to the job at hand.

First, I penetrated the forward defence line made up of the Bamboo Ochlandra stridula, enduring cuts delivered by their sharp leaf blades, while keeping my radar on other potent dangers. And owls.
Barely two minutes into scanning a targeted area, an elongate dead leaf stuck in a thicket—how the Serendib Scops Owl would appear when it is roosting—caught my attention. After a close inspection through my Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42 binoculars, it turned out to be what it was—a dead leaf.

Moving on, I came near a clump of tree ferns Cyathea sp., and more bamboo with their interiors overrun with vines, holding dead leaves and good promise. Scanning it to find a matching target, I drew a blank, again. A moment later, now about three minutes into searching, a vertical leafy profile in another thicket beckoned me. Surely this must be it, I thought. Upon close inspection, it turned out to be—would you believe—another leaf.

Undeterred, I kept scanning. Now about five minutes into searching, a strikingly rufescent leaf with well-marked dark spots, caught my attention. Closer look, and lo—this time, it turned out to be a Serendib Scops Owl!

In a flash, I noticed second bird, perched on a different branch about a foot away from it—a truly momentous day for mankind!

Soon, I showed them to my visitors. Frame-filling shots, and more jaw-dropping views followed. The gentleman mildly complained that it was "too clOse" though. I left no room for such complaining when I found Chestnut-backed Owlet below, hunting during day time, as glaucidium-owls do. This was at a home garden in Kithulgala.

Chestnut-backed Owlet

We had six different sightings of the Brown Fish Owl at various sites. The best was the one shown below. Arriving at this crime scene at the amazing Yala National Park, we found this Brown Fish Owl looking rather guilty.

Brown Fish Owl

I am no avian forensics expert, but circumstantial evidence suggested to me that this had just arrived at the scene to scavenge on the scraps left by a diurnal predator—something like a Crested Hawk Eagle. I can't be totally sure.

We saw over 230 species of birds during this tour including all 33 endemics. We had 9 out of the 15 resident night birds—didn't try for some. Felix and co., took home over 18,000 photographs of birds among them.

Remember the Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher that I shared sometime ago?
I bagged it on this tour.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Of Bombu Fruits and Hornbill Love

Coming back after the Kudu tour, I found myself guiding two short tours from 21-23, January—with Brian and Isabel Eady, two keen birders from Suffolk, England. The first was a day excursion to the dry lowlands of Sigiriya to explore the climax forest that envelopes the Sigiriya Rock. The second tour was a 2-day affair, and it took us to the endemic hotspot, Sinharaja ‘World Heritage’ rain forest, in the moist southwestern interior.

During these two coordinated birding raids, we were able to rake in twenty-seven endemic birds, out of the thirty-three currently recognised; plus a tally of over hundred other species of birds. Our hits and misses, thrills and spills, and other juicy details are in a trip report done by Brian.

In the meantime, here are a few highlights from my perspective.

Top birding highlight: A brooding male Sri Lanka Frogmouth in a nest, with a chick bursting out of its rim. In this species, the male attends to looking after the young during the daytime—when the female chills in a cool hideaway not too far.

Top garden bird: An Indian Pitta that I found in my backyard when the Eadys dropped by at my place.

Top spotting: A vocal Chestnut-backed Owlet, about 35m high up in a canopy giant.

Top forest bird: Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush.
I lured it by mimicking its high-pitched contact call, which I have sort of mastered now. This rendition is inaudible for the senior citizens, as is the call of the bird.

Top behavioural observation: An attempted courtship feeding by a pair Sri Lanka Grey Hornbills. This was what happened. No, first, a quick preamble on Hornbill breeding strategy. In hornbills (African Ground Hornbills excepted), the female imprisons herself inside a tree cavity to lay eggs, and to raise chicks, during which period the male delivers food to her and chicks.

In species such as Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, which engages in cooperate breeding, the male is aided by a team of mostly younger members, which eases his burden. They, in turn, reap in important life lessons—on what it takes to be a real hornbill parent later on in their lives.

Most hornbills use mud to cover the opening of the cavity first. Before the door of the cavity becomes too small—for the female to squeeze into—she enters it, and begins to cover it from inside using regurgitated food and her bodily excretions. Finally, the opening of the nest hole is reduced to a narrow slit, just wide enough for the male to poke its beak to deliver food inside. And for the female to eject her waste material—for better nest-sanitation.

Most females undergo moult during this imprisonment: when she sheds her flight feathers, and grows them newly. Those feathers she loses in turn provide a soft bedding for the young.

The nesthole is broken by the female when the young are ready to fledge. In some species, the female frees herself out, to join the male in feeding the young, as their nutritional needs increase. The chicks in such cases are smart enough to seal the cavity from inside, until they are ready to meet the challenges of the outside world.

Coming back to courtship feeding, it is an important pair-bonding strategy used by the male bird to show his 'quality'—as a genuine breadwinner. For all the sacrifices she has to make in the evolutionary business of give and take, the female does not want to get stuck inside a dingy tree hole with poor facilities, and find that her partner is unable to deliver. For all what we know, she may not even have flight feathers by the time she realises this.

On this occasion, as the male offered a tiny fruit of Bombu Symplocos cochinchinensis, held delicately between his powerful mandibles, the female gave the cold shoulder, and took wing. I sensed her saying, "If you want me, you gotta do more than that."

And probably murmuring to herself, "What a cheapskate!", as she left him looking desponded like this:

I concede that it wasn’t a huge reward.

The Bombu trees at Sinharaja rain forest were bursting with fruit, and were magnets for all types of birds. These included the Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, a highland endemic that descends to lowland forests such as Sinharaja during peak fruiting times. I also accept that it was not difficult for a female hornbill to reach one of those Bombu trees in fruit to help herself.

But the point is—that tiny Bombu fruit was offered to her with love.
Why o’why didn't she accept it?
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