Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Sinharaja with Enoka and Sandali 3-4 Feb, 2007

Three-spot Grass Yellow
While I was returning home after the trip below, I had a message in my phone from a Sri Lankan lady wanting to book a trip to Sinharaja for two persons. Her name was Enoka. And joining her was her school time friend Sandali. They booked a tour to Sinharaja with me in the following weekend.

Sri Lanka Birdwing
Enoka, a banker, was to soon go oversees for training for few years, and this trip was hurriedly arranged before that. Fresh from Sinharaja experiences, I was only happy to return there yet again, and it turned out to be an absolutely amazing a nature tour with lots of goodies.

Leaving early from Colombo, we stopped at Morapitiya to take advantage of the early morning activity. Rather than visiting the forest interior by means of a 4-wd., jeep, I just took them around the village area by foot targeting birds that stay long enough for scoping. 

We did well, and our scoped birds included Yellow-fronted Barbet, Sri Lanka Small Barbet, Square-tailed Black Bulbul, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Black-capped Bulbul, and a Blyth’s Reed Warbler, would you believe! (Nothing is impossible!).

We also managed to see several dragonflies in a roadside puddle. These included the Asian Pintail and the Red (aka Spine-tufted) Skimmer  Our top non birding highlight, was a pair of courting Sri Lanka Birdwing butterflies. Lovely.

Hump-nosed Lizard
As Martin’s was fully booked for this weekend, we stayed overnight at Green Shadow Lodge—very close to the day roost of the ultra secretive Sri Lanka Bay Owl patch. Sandali and Enoka became my first lucky clients to see the ultra elusive Sri Lanka Bay Owl.

We had several great bird flocks during the two days we explored the forest. Taking advantage of my scope, Sandali also tried her hand at digi-scoping. She took home pictures she was proud of, and these included a rainbow of Three-spot Grass Yellow butterflies at a puddle.

Tree Nymph
Coming back to birding, we got scope views of Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Legge’s Flowerpecker, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Orange-billed Babbler, Red-faced Malkoha, White-faced Starling, Sri Lanka Myna, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie (in a nest), Black-capped Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Orange Minivet, Malabar Trogon, Besra, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Lesser Yellownape, Green Imperial Pigeon and Black-naped Monarch (in a nest).

Their other non-birding highlights in Sinharaja were the endemic Hump-nosed Lizard, Giant Squirrel, Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, False Lantern-fly and the paper like butterfly, Sri Lanka Tree Nymph.

Sinharaja 26-30 Jan, 2007

I got another telephone call from Sinharaja on 26 Jan., with the news that a pair of Bay Owls had been sighted, the day before. Due to limitations of digi-scoping, my previous captures of this top owl was a tad unsatisfactory; most of them were not in sharp focus. January, which usually is a busy month was looking very bad work wise this year with only 3 days of work with a single client for me after a couple of the big tours that I was expecting got cancelled because of Sri Lanka hitting the news headlines for wrong reasons. So basically, I had plenty of time to spare this January—arguably one the best months for birding in Sri Lanka. And this is very true for Sinharaja too because of the migrants joining the flocks to boost the quality and quantity of birding, most birds engaging in nesting, and overall dry weather—which means less leaches, though they bug me not. All these reasons amply justified a second visit to Sinharaja this month and after the first tuktuk trip; it was way too tempting not to try it again. So I had to call my trusty tuktuk companion, Sarath, once again.

White-faced Starling
Leaving late, I reached the site by 5.15 a.m. and Thandula guided me to a and was in a terrible angle for digi-scoping. Before even I could mount my camera, it began to rain heavily and I had to wait until it settles down before attempting even a record shot. Adding to my woes, the light also began to deteriorate. So after a few record shots I had to call it a day. In the period I was in Sinharaja the Sri Lanka Bay Owl remained in spots where it was difficult for me to digiscope, so I just got on with other birding. I found that my camera was not getting zoomed in properly—after getting exposed to rain on the previous day. So this trip was a disaster in terms of photography. In the period that I was in Sinharaja from 26-30 Jan, the following noteworthy sightings were made.

Chestnut-winged Crested Cuckoo—I saw one while it was moving low in the under storey level in a mixed species bird flock. I was seeing this scarce migrant after fifteen years! And too was at Sinharaja—in the southern end of it. I also sound recorded a cuckoo at dawn and dusk to be later identified as this species. This is usually silent during its stay in Sri Lanka. All except one local birder (Upali Ekanayake) that I consulted weren’t familiar with its call.

Sri Lanka Spurfowl—I had three sightings of which two were planned, and one was accidental! The planned sightings were when I waited in a spot where it had been sighted on the main track in late afternoon by a few reliable observers. If my camera had worked, I could have got a cracking shot of this ultra secretive endemic. I also got a sound recording of this and found a roosting site of it inside the reserve.

Green-billed Coucal—A observed this carrying nesting material indicating breeding activity.

Black-naped Monarch—A nest close to the main track. Both parents were attending to the nest, feeding the fledglings and removing waste matter.

Malabar Trogon – A pair was observed at a nest hole close to the Sri Lanka Bay Owl site. They were leaving the nest hole with several unidentifiable objects in the beak—indicating nesting activity may be in progress.

White-faced Starling (above)—I photographed this species in a bird flock below Martin’s.

Post script: no wonder this trip was a failure photographically speaking as I started it on a 26th!

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Endemic Clean up with Clive Harris 13-15 Jan, 2007

Chestnut-backed Owlet
This was the second birding trip in Sri Lanka for Clive who had squeezed in some birding during a business trip in 2000. He was back for yet another business trip, and this time, he booked a 3-day birding trip with me to visit Sinharaja rain forests to fill some of his gaps. The foremost target bird was the Serendib Scops Owl—discovered in Jan., 2001.

After picking him up at 5.30 a.m., from Colombo Hilton, I took him to Morapitiya rain forest, which is a good quality rain forest on the way to Sinharaja, for a full day’s birding. We reached the turn off to the forest at 6.55 a.m., and our driver Wijey did an excellent job in taking us there in time for some quality early birding.

A four-wheel drive jeep was waiting for us at the turn off to take us on a bone jarring ride up to the bird rich interior of the Morapitiya rain forest. On the way, I paused at bird rich patch, and was immediately rewarded with fine views of the scarce migrant, Slaty-legged Crake, inside a bamboo thicket. And that was the first bird that Clive trained his binoculars on this trip! A Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill was scoped at a nest hole, soon after. We decided to walk ahead having asked the jeep driver to pick us up after a while. We paused at a roadside patch, which has been good for Chestnut-backed Owlet. After a bit of patient searching, we were looking at this endemic owl (shown above) in the scope.

Exploring a narrower trail, we had a basking Crested Goshawk in a clearing. And a tea break in a village garden produced the diminutive Legge’s Flowerpecker, Yellow-fronted Barbet and Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot. Back on the main trail, we had a good mixed species bird flock close to yet another home garden, and it contained a pair of Red-faced Malkoha (missed on his last trip), and I was able to quickly scope one for him. Thereafter, we drove up to the deeper reaches of the forest, and had a pretty good bird flock, which had more Red-faced Malkoha, and our first Malabar Trogon.
Crested Goshawk - basking
Our lunch stop was strategically made beside a boulder-strewn mid forest stream with a beautiful natural pool. All of us indulged in a refreshing dip before enjoying our packed lunches. This was just what we need as the high humidity , and intense birding had drained our energies. With te batteries recharged, we resumed our birding post lunch. This session saw us bagging a high profile assemblege of birds including Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Green-billed Coucal, Sri Lanka Myna, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Lesser Yellownape and more Red-faced Malkoha.

Finally, we arrived at the site of our prime target for the evening; the newly discovered Serendib Scops Owl. After a bit of intense listening in, I was able to find one at 7.35 p.m., when the dusk had give way to night, to give Clive his most valuable tick of the day. A record shot of it is below. Thereafter, we reached Martin’s Simple Lodge, Sinharaja our overnight accommodation. A late dinner and checklist marked the end of a great field day in which we had narrowed down our targets for tomorrow considerably.

Serendib Scops Owl
Early morning vigil for Sri Lanka Spurfowl and Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush below Martin’s proved fruitless, and we had to contend with a couple of Spot-winged Thrushes, instead. After breakfast, we reached a "transit point" used by birds to bask in the morning light to get dry from overnight dew. This produced cracking views of White-faced Starling, Hill Munia, Green Imperial Pigeon, Gold-fronted Leafbird, Black-capped Bulbul, Orange Minivet, Legge’s Flowerpecker, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Sri Lanka Myna, and a distant Indian Cuckoo—all in the space of 20-minutes occupying a single spot!

Black Eagle feeding on a rat
Walking down to the ticket office to obtain our permits, we visited a couple of patches around the ticket office for the Sri Lanka Spurfowl. No luck! After obtaining our permits and meeting our compulsory local guide, our walk back to the forest was delayed by a Black Eagle near the bridge in the Kudawa village. It soared low over the trees, and came down to perch on a coconut tree just a few metres from us to give great views. It soon took wing with a nest in its talons, and settled down atop a yet another coconut tree. Scope views of it revealed the victim was a rat. Black Eagles are known to pick up entire nests of small mammals and birds in this manner according to Henry (1955), and it was my first observation of it doing this. I am told that Black Eagles are seen airborne with the big twiggy nests of Giant Squirrels—that should be a crazy sight!

We tried once again for Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush below Martin’s and our patience finally paid off, and we got fine views of it. The rest of the day was spent exploring the Sinharaja’s bird rich trails, enjoying flocks. Close to the research camp, we found a nest of a Sri Lanka Blue Magpie with a brooding adult. It was built in a tree by the side of the main trail, about 2 ½ m above the trail, requiring those who go towards to research camp tSri Lanka Blue Magpie - broodingo walk right under it. I think selection of such a nest site so close to a trail taken by visitors regularly clearly demonstrates the ‘confidence’ Sri Lanka Blue Magpies have placed on humans. It is also effective in keeping off nest predators that are shy of human presence. (Two months later I observed two juveniles fledged successfully from this nest!). Our highlight of twilight was Sri Lanka Frogmouth and we returned to Martin’s for dinner, checklist, and overnight stay to end yet another great day’s birding.

After exploring a few patches around Martin’s in the morning of Day 03 (15 Jan), we drove down to our vehicle and reached Colombo where I dropped Clive back at the luxurious Colombo Hilton!

Friday, 26 October 2007

A tuktuk trip & a top lifer!

“… persons who come into possession, or have opportunities for observing the habits, of this rare owl, are urged to do all they can to note and record permanently every detail about it"
- G.M. Henry, 1955 in A Guide to the Birds of Ceylon

Ranjith Premasiri, a sharp-eyed local guide from Sinharaja, rang me on 18 Jan., 2007 at around 10.15 a.m. He gave me a ‘breaking news’ that a day roost of a Sri Lanka Bay Owl Phodilus assimilis had been discovered by him. That was while accompanying a couple of British bird watchers and their local bird tour guide, the day before. And with the same breath, he added that, it was re-spotted in a different tree today.

One of my first shots of the ultra secretive Sri Lanka Bay Owl - on 18 Jan, 2007
According to him, when it was first seen it had been out in the open on a tree sapling at almost eye level beside a track leading to a few village houses. The guides apparently had misidentified it as Serendib Scops Owl! Lester Perera, a local birder, (and Vajira Wijeygoonawardene) who had been at Sinharaja at that time, had heard the news and visited the site to find a Sri Lanka Bay Owl instead!

I thanked the two informants and told them that I am on my way. I rang my local tuktuk driver, Sarath, to come to pick me up, ready for a long trip. We were on the road by 10.30 a.m. and after buying enough social lubricants to quench the thirst on the way and to celebrate in the evening, we arrived at Sinharaja by 2.15 p.m., after way too many unscheduled stops en route.

I met Ranjith and his colleague Tilak who took me to the site. Soon, I was looking at my first Sri Lanka Bay Owl! Just amazing! It was about 5 metres above the ground, and about 12 m away from the track. I quickly mounted my digi-scoping gear and took some record shots.

It was facing its back towards the road and every now and then looked over the shoulders. It would also go into a rocking motion—slowly moving its body sideways, presumably to ease of the strain on the legs after perching motionless for sometime. Unfortunately, it was terribly overcast by the time I arrived at the scene, and I could only take a few record shots, before the rain started to absolutely belt down with rain.

When the rains eased off after an hour or so it began to get terribly misty. That hampered further photography. Anyway, before all this. I had said good-bye to Sarath who left unconvinced of my explanations as to why I took all this trouble over a single bird.

Bay Owl at night, 18 Jan, 2007
About an hour aftre, more birders flocked to the site—thanks to Ranjith the informant. These included Uditha Hettige and Chinthaka de Silva and Palitha Anthony. As for me, it turned out to be lifer for them too! A much sought after one at that. I also met Lester and Vajira who correctly identified it a day before.

Light kept on deteriorating. Undaunted, I lingered on to see it leaving the roost. I was joined by Thandula Jayaratne, arguably the best birder among the local guides in Sinharaja, who only learnt the news of this mega bird from me! As the dusk approached all the visitors left, leaving only me and Thandula at the site. I had it focused in my scope to observe it in the deteriorating light.

As the dusk was approaching it was moving slightly along the perch and making rocking motions more often. It was also seen stretching its wings several times indicating it was ready to leave the roost pretty soon. After a while, the calls of Sri Lanka Frogmouth filled the air announcing the dusk by around 6.20 p.m. However, the owl appeared in no hurry to leave its roost any time soon. I waited.
I observed it. I checked the time. I noted that it left its perch at 7.12 p.m.—when dusk has given way to night completely.

It was gone. But, we remained at the site hoping to take a sound recording of it. No luck. As we were about to call it a day, a rustle in a nearby Jak tree caught both our attention. I flashed my torch. And there it was a Sri Lanka Bay Owl, again. This being the nightime, the bird was clearly at its element. We couldn’t be sure whether it was the same bird or a different one. It was glancing down very eagerly and seemed to be looking for its first meal of the day and seemed oblivious to our presence. It also flew about in different branches and after doing so walked a bit along them looking down all the time. Using this opportunity, I tried my first every night time digi-scoping shots taken of any bird, which turned out better than I expected.

Close to the original site of roost, and the tree it was observed during the night time was a dead Fish Tail Palm tree Caryota urens with an hollow top. Sri Lanka Bay Owl is known to nest it tree holes. And I suspected that this Bay Owl may be nesting at this site. However, we couldn’t see it reaching this dead tree when we were there. Finally at around 7.55 a.m. it flew in the direction of the river, prompting us to call it a day.

Dinner, celebrations and overnight stay in Thandula’s residence.

Early next morning, Thandula and I reached the site. Despite searching the nearby trees we could not locate the bird. Soon, the birders and photographers who were here yesterday; plus more who had come from Colombo this morning were at the site. They included Namal Kamlgoda and Gihan Rajapakse, both equipped with the latest digital cameras and monster telephoto lenses.

We were all assembled near the Jak fruit tree in which the owl was seen by Thandula and me last night. Apparently, Namal has a conference to attend in Kandalama Hotel, in Dambulla (close to north central Sri Lanka) this afternoon and had come here (south western interior, Sri Lanka) 'on the way'. And Namal learnt that one of birders had arrived here yesterday by a tuktuk. We were swapping such stories and showing off each others pictures of this high profile rarity. The newly arrived were making no real effort in looking for it. Perhaps the photographers in them were overawed by the sheer number of birders present and thought somebody will find it. The ones who had seen it already were more happy to brag about the sightings yesterday and engage in small talk. Perhaps given its rarity, it was too much to expect for a Sri Lanka Bay owl to be sighted for three straight days.

Soon it was time for Namal and Gihan to hit the road for their conference. The rest of us also went in our own ways. Guided by the cues of the cacophony of bird calls as the sun broke out, I went on a walk down the same track looking for other birds. A consolation came, when I saw the Chestnut-backed Owlet below. It was quite photogenic.

Chestnut-backed Owlet
One of those pics appeared in an article in Oriental Bird Club’s BirdingAsia, Number 7 (June 2007) titled Identification of Asian Glaucidium owlets done by Mathias Ritschard and Manuel Schweizer.

Bay Owl, 19 Jan, 2007
Ambling back to the Bay Owl site, I noticed few birders and Thandula were still lingering around the same place where I left them. Knowing his antics, Thandula’s smirk was a give away. I knew he had found the Owl. The question was where? The answer came after a teasing pause. Jesus, Mary and Joseph!, it was in the Jak Fruit Tree!!—the very spot we were all standing and doing everything but finding it!

To be fair by all of us, it was visible only from a narrow angle looking from the main trail & and the spot was well concealed by foliage. Anyway that's why we missed it!! This Jak Tree, was bordering a tea garden in one side and and a separate track that branches off the main track on the other. Moving around its perch, we could find about 3 good angles in which the bird was showing well.

We observed it in the same night (19 Jan) too and observed that the bird left the roost when it was completely dark at around 7.20 p.m. Thandula and I had the company a few more birders at the site. We observed the bird to be flying between the Jak fruit tree and another tree that was close by, middle of which was the dead Fish Tail Palm that I first suspected to be the nest tree. After observing it for a while, we all left the site without stressing the bird too much. Later on, Uditha had observed a Bay Owl approaching the top of the dead Palm making a squeaky note with a second bird responding in a similar manner from inside the hole and continuing to do so. He had also seen this bird that approached the tree hole entering it. So I was right; they were nesting!

Post Script: Uditha, Palitha and Deepal Warakagoda, the Serendib Scops Owl discoverer met with a dangerous road accident in February, while driving to Sinharaja to observe these nesting Bay Owls. This had happened when their vehicle was skidded several metres off the road into a ditch. It had happened when trying to avoid a head-on collision with a truck coming at dangerous speed. Two persons suffered considerable injuries. However, considering the circumstances, it was a lucky escape as it could have been a lot worse. This unfortunate incident prevented further monitoring of the nest by them. I stopped my night time observations after 18 & 19 Jan., as the local forest rangers weren’t too happy in birders trying to learn more about the ecology of a rare forest bird.
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