Thursday, 28 July 2011

Absolute Birding in January, 2011

In January 2011, I guided Jan Henriksson and Britt Marie Skoglund from Sweden on a 16-day Absolute Birding tour. We saw a total of 255 species of birds, including all endemics and other usual suspects. Jan has done a brief report in Swedish, and just so your Swedish is not up to scratch, you can get it translated using Google Translate.

Jan was the keener birder and photographer of the two, while Britt tagged along giving moral support, and at times, dazzling us with her sharp spotting skills.

Jan works in a prison in Sweden. He told me that it was a stressful job, having to deal with bad guys on a regular basis. And birds and photography were his "releases" from all that. He was a demure person, and often chose to enjoy birds silently. Britt on the other hand, was quite expressive, and was the official go-between on most matters. Oh, and Jan was a huge fan of Two and a Half Men; he said he had all the 8 Seasons of it in DVD with Swedish subtitles!

Some pictures from our trip:

Indian Roller

Our vehicle came to an abrupt halt after seeing this on a roadsides post at Udawalawe. We used our vehicle as a hide to get close to it and shoot this at point blank range.

Red-wattled Lapwing

For this, we used a safari jeep as a hide at Bundala National Park, where we had beautiful morning light.

Yellow-eared Bulbul

This stayed frozen at Nuwara Eliya in a cool morning. It was too lazy to fly despite us approaching it close. In 2000, I went for a job interview of a nature tour company, and one of the questions thrown at me was to name the Latin name of Yellow-eared Bulbul! I rattled off Pycnonotus penicillatus, and if I remember right, murmuring a dah, after that.

I was selected.

This is the bird that appears on the new Rs. 5,000 currency note, so it is by no means a cheap bird.

Sri Lanka Frogmouth

Beej once commented here, "The Frogmouths always wear a precious expression—bedraggled and slovenly but infinitely adorable."

We found this adorable pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouth at the Sinharaja rain forest. When found in day roosts, this bird is almost always found in low-light; I shot this bumping up the ISO to a crazy high—of 4000. There was a nest of another individual quite high up.

Painted Stork

We had a mustering of Painted Storks foraging close together at Bundala National Park, which I find a peaceful place for bird photography (compared to the melee that is Yala N.P.) I photographed this one when it strayed from the rest.

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater

This one too obliged at the superb Bundala National Park. A very small population of this species is found in my village in the lush valleys of the Kelani River.

Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher

This one appeared as if was dressed to go to war, sporting what looked like an iron helmet. I like to freeze birds in such poses, when they appear to look straight at me. This one was real a hyperactive little fellow, rarely staying still for long. We photographed it at Hakgala.

Little Indian Nightjar

It was trying to pass as a rock. Here's a close crop  of it looking all sleepy.

We found this at the Udawalawe National Park, very close to a track.

 Dull-blue Flycatcher

Patience pays off when it comes to dealing with the endemic Dull-blue Flycatcher. This is the bird that appears in the new Rs.50 currency note—a rather cheap denomination for such a pretty bird, if you ask me. Especially considering that it is already insulted scientifically as a sordid bird in Eumiyas sordida. 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Monkey Puzzle, and I Am Like.

The Monkey Puzzle is, like, now in my garden's expanding butterfly list.
And I am, like, totally, happy.
First time I saw this rare beauty was like an year ago, close to Kebithigollawa.
It is named Monkey Puzzle because its "prickly" caterpillar looks like a leaf of the South American conifer Monkey-puzzle.

Today, I am heading to Kandy for the big rugby match between Kingswood and St. Peter's. At this moment, I am, like, in need of a pump up song ahead of this clash. So here it is.

The inspiration to use the word "like," except, where it was genuinely needed as a word, came from this post of London, Lanka and Drums.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Weaver Ant-Mimicking Jumping Spider Up Close and Personal

Meet the half ant, half jumping spider, and totally mean, Weaver Ant-Mimicking Jumping Spider Myrmarachne plataleoides that I photographed in my home garden yesterday.

As soon as I stumbled it, I could see through its cunning disguise by noting that it had four pairs of legs like in a spider, as opposed to three pairs of legs like a plain vanilla ant. The elongate body size meant it was a male of this jumping spider.

Contributing to its elongate design was its long protruding spatulate “jaws”—the ends of which were fitted with a pair of needle-sharp fangs that could deliver a fatal stabbing to its victims.

The males, having gone for this extravagant secondary sexual adornment of looking front-heavy to impress the gals, and to intimidate rivals, have dispensed with venom in the fangs altogether.

So with no venom, they use their heavy machinery in front to overpower their prey first, before stabbing them repeatedly with their needle sharp fangs to suck their juices. Often while the victim is still alive.
The females of this species, on the other hand, having settled for a simpler body design—looking strikingly similar to a typical Weaver Ant Oecophylla smaragdina ("Dimiya")—have retained potent venom in their fangs. And they inject it to incapacitate their victims first, before drinking the liquefied juices thereafter, the regular way.
Those gleaming cute eyes that you see at the proximal sides of the male’s oversized “jaws” are fakes to make it appear like an ant.

It’s real jumper eyes—four pairs of them—are situated further back, where its actual head is placed.

The appearance of the male looks remarkably like a larger Weaver Ant carrying a smaller cousin. Which in real Weaver Ant world is a done thing, with major workers transporting minor workers in their complex social structure to fulfill various daily duties. So this physical appearance of the males also copies a vocational behaviour of the Weaver Ants in an ever so clever way.

This jumper was found in an endemic "Wal-idda" tree, which is peculiarly named in botany as Walidda antidysenterica. This tree had a fair number of Weaver Ants that this jumping spider was trying to copy.

Underneath the leaves, this tree also had a fair number of scaled insects, which feed on plant juices, sucking them directly from the plant's vascular system. After doing that, they pass out a honeydew—a sugary excretion, which the many species of ants, including Weaver Ants, find irresistible.

So this explains the presence of Weaver Ants and the Weaver-Ant-mimicking jumping spider on the same tree. As many other species of ants, Weaver Ants mainly prey on small insects, and turn to honeydew offerings of leaf-dwelling insects to supplement their diet with more carbohydrates. These sugar addicts drawn to trees infested with scaled insects in return give these defenseless insects with much needed protection from their natural predators such as lady bugs and hover flies. 

The "Wal-idda" tree in question had no Weaver Ant nests. As a result, the ants were less temperamental and gave me no trouble. Of course there were warnings given by the odd individual with its "cutting edge" mandibles agape to intimidate me.

Photographing jumpers is challenging business because they are too jerky and jumpy, resulting in pictures with the subject badly composed, blurred, or missing altogether! The other thing is they jump on to the lens and the flash heads when you get too close.

Compared with all of them, I found Myrmarachne plataleoides incredibly easy to work with because it was very calm in its disposition. It was slow and confident, just like an undisturbed Weaver Ant.
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