Friday, 4 February 2011

Chasing Shaheen

My last tour for 2010 was in late December with Mike Pope, who came here with his non-birding wife Gill, and their eight-year old thumb war champion son, Jaden. Our first base on this tour was the Hunas Falls Hotel, which is situated in the lush foothills of Hunasgririya mountain. About 10 years ago I researched and named two nature trails around this hotel: Simpson's Trail, and Shaheen Trail. The latter leads to "Shaheen Peak" (1,043m), which I named after a particular bird found on top of it named Shaheen, which is the local race of the Peregrine—the fastest member of animal kingdom reaching speeds upto 320km/h.

Hiking nonstop from the hotel, the trek up to Shaheen Peak takes 40 minutes for people like us. That's to say with the odd birding stop or two. The first half of this hike winds through an uphill, narrow, and leechy trail. The second half of the hike falls through an open grassy terrain interspersed with the odd pioneer tree. The trail is good for most parts; some sections are slippery, so it is better to take the off trail grassy approach.

Mike and I weren't initially going to do it—not just for one bird, and because sometimes it proves elusive.

But, our plans took a swift change.

This was when I scoped a Shaheen from the hotel gardens while it was perched at the eerie precipice of the Shaheen Peak, a good kilometre or so away. A snap decision was made to extend our pre-breaklfast birding session to hike to the top of the Shaheen Peak to see this impressive raptor at close quarters while the family was still enjoying a lie-in.

Reaching the top, as expected, we were rewarded with absolute cracking views of our quarry when this  handsome Shaheen was found perched on the Pines on the peak.

Shaheen Falco peregrinus peregrinator

And here's Mike perched on top of the Shaheen Peak.

The bird soon took wing on a foraging mission. Mike with his Canon 50D and 400 f5.6 L lens got a pretty good flight shot. I wasn't so lucky though. Let's say it was a good learning curve for me, as I found that tracking such a small (because of the distance) and fast subject with Spot Metering Mode wasn't easy. I'll know better next time, thanks to Mike.

Here's a cross section of the habitat of the Shaheen, where it had nested several times.

Here's a close up of the above picture.

The eerie view of the world below. Look how lilliputian the coconut trees look!

And the snaking road that leads to Elkaduwa and Ukuwela holds very good birds such as Chestnut-backed Owlet, Brown Fish Owl, and Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher.

At the top, I also found a bonus bird for Mike in the form of a male Kashmir Flycatcher—a Himalayan delight that winters in the highlands of Sri Lanka. 

Mike's account of the first leg of the trip involving birding around the Hunas Falls Hotel can be seen here.

Have a great weekend all!


Stuart Price said...

Wow, never seen a Peregrine in a tree before.

That looks like a nice Flycatcher.

If I were rich (and it was politically stable in NW India) I wouldn't mind summering in Kashmir and wintering in Sri Lanka........

Amila Suwa said...

Stu, I too wouldn't mind enjoying the summering and wintering arrangement of the Kashmir Flycatcher!

But, if I am to pick a bird to be, I'd choose to be a European Bee-eater, and be a part of their population that summer in Europe and winter in Africa. :)

rainfield61 said...

It took such an effort....

No pain no gain.

Amila Suwa said...

That's right, rainfield.

Anjana Gunawardena said...

Awesome! Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

I would love to take the “Shaheen” trail one day. Btw why the other trail called “Simpson’s Trail”?

Anonymous said...

Hi GI, Long time! I absolutely love Hunas Falls Hotel. Climbing those hills and swimming during the three day stay is in the list of the best times I had in SL.
I was in the hill as well but was very depressed, because of the way we treat workers. I will be back soon with my PhD papers, so I can get a job at a Uni and fix my estate.
Thank you for the great posts that I manges to miss! (I am going to read them :)

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks, mate!
Good news: you do not have to stay overnight at Hunas Falls Hotel to do the Shaheen Trail. Drop me an e-mail when you want to go, and I will give you some tips.

It was named Simpson's Trail because it leads to a forest patch called Simpson's Forest after a coffee planter named Simpson!

Yes, yes, long time no see!
Sorry, I have been mostly away...
Glad you stayed at HF, and enjoyed your stay! Yes, we have to improve standards of tea workers if we believe it "equali-tea!"

Got to go...

Janith said...

Amila, love the pictures! You guys do go to insane lengths to catch the birds nah? :D Btw, what does that sign next to Mike say? Did you put it up? :)

Kirigalpoththa said...

I too like to do those trails oneday. That is a sheer precipice over there..must be more than 1000 feet for sure..Awesome sight.

I think those birds can aim at their prey below even from those heights.
BTW 320kmph is F1 speeeed!!

Unknown said...

Gorgeous! And interesting that you have a peak named after this incredible bird. We get both Peregrines and Shaheens here in southern India. I was lucky last week to watch a pair of Peregrines nesting near Bangalore.

silent moments said...

Thats one Shaheen who knows how to model ! Love the way the first pic has turned up. Many birds dont understand that telephone cables never look nice in a picture :)

Thanks for the info about the trail. Just added it high in my places-to-go-before-i-DIE list.

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks! Yes, some birds are more challenging, but then that's all part of the fun of birding.

That signs says the name of the peak and gives its height. And the fact that Shaheen could be seen from there. The hotel's put up he sign. (The hotel does not own the peak though.)

It will be quite easy for you. The escarpment over there is well over 1,000 feet. The windy slopes there is perfect for aerial hunting stoops of the Shaheen, during which it reaches those crazy speeds.

Nice to know that. The Peregrine is a (non-breeding) winter visitor here. I am yet to see it this year.

Thanks! The first picture was a rush job.

I am pleased you've added this to that list! Plan your visit there in good weather, if you do not want the mist to block the panorama.

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