Friday, 17 December 2010

Absolute Birding—November, 2010

Two days after hatching, the chicks of the Blue-throated Bee-eater, several feet down in their dingy nest burrows, begin to develop a hook in the tip of the upper mandible. It turns needle-sharp by day four, before disappearing altogether by around day thirteen. During this time, the sharpness of this hook is such that if you unearth a chick from its subterranean confines, and rub the beak on human skin, it could actually tear it.

So, why such a hook?

Well, it is a weapon that the older chicks have got it to stab younger siblings to death; thus, ensuring it gets all the food delivered by the parents. Fatally stabbed, the younger siblings are unceremoniously cornered few inches away from their cradle, never to see the light of the day.

This developmentally temporary siblicidal weapon of the chicks of the Blue-throated Bee-eater, and their macabre siblicidal behaviour were discovered and documented to science by a British Ornithologist named David M. Bryant and a colleague of his, following a study carried out in Malaysia.

I was extremely glad to have guided David M. Bryant and his ecologist wife Vicki Bryant on a 14-day Absolute Birding tour from 20 Nov. to 3 Dec., 2010. This turned out to be the first guided birding tour he’d undertaken lasting multiple days. Except for an a couple of day-trips; in all his other world birding trips, he’d not sought services of a local guide, preferring to find birds under his own steam.

A professor in ornithology, David had been the supervisor for more than 50 Ph.D students. Listening to his scientific research work, and birding anecdotes was an amazingly enlightening experience. David was a very sharp birder; I could see why he’d not wanted guides all this time!

We were able to rake in a whopping 252 species of birds. We found all 33 endemic birds currently recognised. Our tally included 10 out of the 15 resident night birds. The Black-capped Kingfisher and the Whimbrel found pre-tour by David at Waikkal were not reported on the main birding tour he did with me. David has done a brief trip report and posted it at the Please have a look to see his views and our complete bird list.

Coming back to birding specifics, my top 10 birds of the trip were Serendib Scops Owl, Slaty-breasted Rail, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Greater Sand Plover, Great Knot, Cinnamon Bittern, Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, Rufous-bellied Hawk Eagle, Plum-headed Parakeet, and Sri Lanka Spurfowl.

I am sharing a few specials that cooperated.

Orange-billed Babbler Turdoides rufescens
The mixed-species bird flocks of low to mid-elevation rain forests of the wet south-west Sri Lanka are centred around this gregarious species. According to a research carried out by the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka in the 80s and 90s in the Sinharaja "world heritage" rain forest, Orange-billed Babbler is present in c.90% of the flocks.  These flocks average 41 individual birds (comrpised of several bird species), and in them, this babbler averages little more than 16 individuals per flock. Therefore, it is regarded as one of the "nuclear species" of the flock.

Sri Lanka Spurfowl Galloperdix bicalcarata
This is easily my best shot of this ultra-secretive forest dweller. It was captured at the Sinharaja rain forest. Not living upto its reputation as an elusive ground bird, this vocal, male Sri Lanka Spurfowl gave us exceptional views for nearly a half a minute. I photographed it with manual focussing, as the scene was too leafty and twiggy. A friend of mine finds it difficult to pronounce the English name of this birds, saying, Sri Lanka Superfowl!! Well, it's a super bird; I'll give him that!

Sri Lanka Bush Warbler Elaphrornis palliseri
This scarce montane endemic is very difficult to photograph because of its skulky habits at times. I am very happy about this. It is a treatened species because of habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, high pesticide use  and pollution. Like most endemics, its ecology is poorly known.

Moving on to non-birding subjects, we also saw over 40 species of butterflies, which the Bryants appreciated. This Centaur Oakblue Arhopala pseudocentaurus that we found at Kithulgala was my top highlight, as it was a lifer for me. It had an amazingly beautiful blue on the upperside.

Red Helan Papilio helenus This large swallowtail was spotted by Vicki, who had an eye for prettier things. (No, she certainly didn't do pipits and other LBJs.)

Common Jazebel Delias eucharis
Another butterfly that Vicki liked. The flower that is nectaring on goes as Wal idda in Sinhala. Its botanical name curiously is Walidda antidysenterica.

p.s. On a recent visit to Sinharaja, I discovered that the Forest Department had done postcards using two of my bird images without seeking my permission! And they were selling them! I protested, and they stopped selling them. Because of such severe copyright violations, I am reluctantly forced to include a watermark touching the subjects.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Backpacker

"... When the nesting time arrives, a hollow tree or branch is chosen—preferably one with a long, narrow, nearly vertical cavity, and a narrow entrance at the top. Then the female builds her nest, which consists of strips nibbled from the edges of green leaves. Having cut a strip, she inserts one end of it under her scarlet rump-feathers, apparently digging it well into the skin; this does not however, prevent a large proportion of the strips from falling out. When a rumpful of strips is collected, she flies off to her nest-hole and deposits them, accumulating a large mass, on top of which the eggs, two or three in number, are laid."

G.M. Henry about Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot in A Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka, first published in 1955.

Friday, 10 December, 2011. A respite at last after days of deluge. I came out of my house to enjoy the first rays of sunlight after days of gloom. Well, actually, to put my towel out to dry. Soon, a familiar call drew my attention to the Cinnamon tree in front. It was a Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot—an endemic bird that is more than an occasional visitor to my yard. In all honesty, I wouldn't have noticed it had it not betrayed its presence, for it was merged into the foliage like a traffic policeman in a dark roadside corner.

I ran back to my house get my camera to photograph it, after noticing what it was doing—tearing leaf strips, and tucking them inside its lower back, which is also known as the rump. Knowing that I do not have a lot of time to adjust the settings, I fired some record shots, and the above was the best out of the lot. This was the first time observed this "backpacking" behaviour described so well by the late G.M. Henry, whose book mentioned above was my first guide to birds.
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