Saturday, 30 April 2011

Owls, Leopards, Blue Whales, and Rapacious Flangetails

I am back after leading several exciting bird and wildlife tours.

My last tour for the season ended was a 15-day Natural History tour from 9 to 23 April, 2011 with Barry Barnacal, Gary Bellingham, Katrina Hay, and Andrew Vinson from the UK. The three gentlemen of this group were very keen photographers, and they carried serious photo gear, including Canon EOS 1D Mark 4s and lenses that ranged from 100mm macro to 500mm telephoto.

They came to me through a referral by Barry’s pal David Clugston—an avid birder and a worldlister with nearly half the world birds in his tally; he did an Absolute Birding tour with me in November, 2009. David was a pure birder, and did not do any photography while in Sri Lanka, opting just to watch birds and finding more of them. This explains why were able to rake in a massive 14-day tally of 252 species of birds, including all endemics.

The Brown Wood Owl Strix leptogrammica that I discovered thanks to a mobbing party of birds at Welimada.

Coming back to this tour, it was designed to focus on four aspects: birds, Leopards, Blue Whales, and other natural history.

After arriving in Sri Lanka, Barry, a former wildlife tour leader, wasted no time in briefing me that he and his group were not like their good friend back home! And that they certainly did not need to end up with a huge triplist. So, for them the success of the trip did not depend on making a clean sweep of special birds that most birders come here to see.

One of the main reasons why my visitors chose to visit Sri Lanka in April was to improve their chances of seeing the Blue Whale, as it is arguably the best month to see it, with almost a 100% success rate reported by whale watching operators. April also happens to be one of the best months for observing dragonflies and butterflies in Sri Lanka, as it sees most seasonal specials taking
wing. Being the tail end of the migratory season, April is not bad for birds either. And April is certainly not bad Leopards, which can be seen year round at Yala. So, the timing of the visit fitted perfectly with the broader requirements of the group.

So, with this rambling preamble, you may want to know how we fared.

Not too badly.

We ended up seeing 223 species of birds.
These included all 33 endemics and 10 out of the 15 resident night birds. And we bagged four Leopards at Yala, and four Blue Whales in the big pond 12 nautical miles off Mirissa.

Yes, it was real bagful!

As it is usual for April, we had good “viewing and photographic weather” in the first half of the day, with rains experienced during most afternoons. Which gave a lot of siesta time. This provided a nice balance because we found ourselves getting up early to take advantage of the conditions. And chill indoors during afternoon rains. Daylight was early, with the dawn chorus begining roundabout 5.30 a.m. At Sinharaja, the Blue Magpies coming to clean up the moths under lights at our lodge were punctual at 5.45 a.m. on both mornings we were there.

Gary wrote to me after the trip to say that he downloaded some 80GB of photos! I am sure others were not too far behind.
I too clicked a few here and there. Some of them are shared below.

Serendib Scops Owl Otus thilohoffmanni

I found a single bird in a day roost on day 1. Which, needless to say, got the tour to a terrific start. On day-2, there were two birds in the same roost, presumably male and female, and the picture above shows that.

The iris colour of the males of this owl is orangey, and yellowy in the females. After studying a picture taken by Andy, which he shot when the birds had briefly revealed a bit more of their eyes, I came to the conclusion that the top bird was probably a male, and the other, probably a female. The latter, as captured in this picture, was a bit more darker than the top one in real life too. Other than the eye colour, and differences in vocalisations of the two sexes, published literature on Serendib Scops Owl do not reveal of any diagnosable morphological features proving sexual dimorphism in this species.

Leopard ("Sri Lanka Leopard") Panthera pardus kotiya

Our first sighting was of two adults guarding over a Sambar Rusa unicolor carcass. By the time we visited the park, news of these two Leopards seem to have spread fast, judging by the traffic of safari jeeps. The Leopards were very much hidden in the vegetation and were not too photogenic. Shown above is one of the two Leopards taking us in amidst all the commotion created by the jeeps muscling for better viewing positions.

Soon, we wisely left the big traffic jam to look for other things.

With no local guide available because of new year holidays, I moved to the vacant front seat of our jeep. After finding Brown Fish Owl in a day roost, we arrived at a spot named Gonalabbe Kalapuwa, where Gary spotted a distant Black-necked Stork. After that we drove around for a while stopping frequently for various subjects.

And about an hour later, we found ourselves back at the site we saw the big stork.

Pausing there, we hit gold between 5.19 to 5.21 p.m. This was when Garry expertly spotted a Leopard ambling through the low vegetation towards the road where we were parked.

We backed off a little to get a clearer view of it. There was not a single jeep nearby, and we had this Leopard all to ourselves in the first minute or so.

It was our Leopard!

When it looked as if it was just about to cross the road behind our vehicle, a jeep came rushing behind us, apparently unaware of the big cat. The team wisely signaled to that jeep and brought it to halt just in the nick of time, before it could get too close to disturb the animal.

Everything seemed to work really, really well.
Seconds later, as expected, the Leopard nochanatly crossed the road between the two jeeps.

A moment of magic!

Had our four Mark 4s fired live GPMG rounds, this Leopard would have ended up in a pretty bad shape!

That’s why I like photography; it is such a bloodless sport.

Blue Whale Balaenoptera musculus

Travelling 12 nautical miles into the deep blue seas off Mirissa in beautiful weather, first signs of a Blue Whale were detected when we saw their diagnostic vertical blows. (On the whale watching trip done in April, 2009 with Peter Kaestner, as blogged by me before, we had first signs after travelling just 5.5 nautical miles.) After approaching this sighting, we detected two individuals moving together. Only one of them was noted by to lift tail fluke in its diving sequence. 

The above shows the two individuals seen closely. Two more were found farther away at the same time.

Compared to their massive body size, the Blue Whales are endowed with puny dorsal fins, which can be seen above. They are located roughly about three-quarters along the length of the body, and are visible when they are diving to reach deeper waters after breathing near the surface.

Indian Fritillary Argynnis hyperbius

We encountered this thirsty highland butterfly at Hakgala. It was very pretty in the underside.

Rapacious Flangetail Ictinigomphus rapax

I spotted this large dragonfly at the Bundala National Park in a patch quite far from freshwater. It was very much distracted by its large prey. Taking advantage of that, we photograpjed it from our safari jeep.

Sri Lanka Tree-climbing Crab Perbrinckia scansor

Katrina spotted this one and only tree-climbing freshwater crab at Sinharaja in a spot not too far from where we found the same species in the Absolute Birding tour that I guided in April, 2010 with Dr. Gil Ewing from the USA.

More posts of this tour will follow.


Kirigalpoththa said...

Lovely shots Amila! Hope to see you record more about those ocean giants as SL is one of the best place to see them in the entire world.

silent moments said...

Wonderful collection of fauna !

Heard that those gentle giants in SL waters were a non migrating group compared to whales seen in other parts of the world. Apparently a peculiar behaviour for them !

Janith said...

Love the whale pics, and the one with the butterfly has got lovely colour and composition! :D

But I'm a sucker for Leopards, they take the cake for me. ;)

mboi said...

awesome pics as always amila.

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks, man!

True, Sri Lanka is one of the best hotspots for watching Blue Whales.

Thank you.
Yes, contrary to what we believed earlier, Blue Whales can be found year round in the deep seas off SL. However, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge about their ecology.


We saw that Leopard a few hours after the dawn of the New Year, so it was kind of special.

Thanks! Nice to hear from you after a while. Please drop me an e-mail if you want to hear my explanation about that other matter.

Anonymous said...

You made my day. Thank you Amila for the photos and the explanation. As always, it is an experience, to visit your blog.

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks for your kind words, Magerata. Nice to hear from you, as always.

Unknown said...

The Flangetail is stupendous!
Tell me, is the leopard the apex mammalian predator in Sri Lanka? Or do you have tigers, too?

Amila Suwa said...

Good to hear from you Beej.

We do count Tiger and Lion in our impressive tally of extinct Pleistocene megafauna. These big cats are sadly gone, and the Leopard by default has become the undisputed apex predator in Sri Lanka.

With no other big cat to challenge its authority, and thanks to sound protection afforded to it and its prey species, Leopards in Yala National Park are quite bold, and can be seen much more frequently during the daytime, compared to other areas of its range, where they to deal with other big cats and/or severe hunting pressures from us humans.

The latter reasons explain why Leopards are usually more nocturnal and secretive in most areas of its range.

Here’s a paper on the extinct Tiger of Sri Lanka: said...

Awesome post Amila and I’m not surprised cos it’s coming from you!

I was great to meet you in person at Sinharaja (even though it was totally unexpected :) and to see the hard work you put behind your tours. By the way Hope you had a smooth end to that trip :D


Amila Suwa said...

Thank you, Anjana.
Nice to have bumped into you too.

Yes, the trip ended pretty smoothly. If you mean the literal end, our last bird of the trip was Brown Hawk Owl. We saw a pair of them engaged in courtship feeding; the unlucky victim was a female Purple-rumped Sunbird.

Dhammika Heenpella said...

Like your style of writing - quite absorbing.

BTW my small son is inquisitive to know where you have spotted the Serendib Scops owl.

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks, Administrator.
I photographed the Serendib Scops Owl at Kithulgala.

Chrissy said...

A fascinating selection of shots. Glad to see you're still blogging. I'll try to stop in more often.

Amila Suwa said...

Wonderful to hear from you Chrissy!
It's been a long time! Great to have you back in the blogosphere!

flowergirl said...

Fabulous! yeah, I love the bloodless sport too! And those whales are magnificent! And the butterfly...and the owl, and the arachnid, and...oh well all of them are amazing, incl Mr Leopard!

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks a lot, Flowergirl.
Wonderful to that you like this collection. For me, Mr. Leopard was the pick!

Gutterflower said...

Amazing pictures Gallicissa! Loved the one of the Serendib Scops Owl.

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks, Gutterflower!
The Serendib Scops Owl is a very special bird because it was discovered just in 2001. And there are only an estimated 200–250 birds in the wild!

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