Tuesday 25 December 2007

Birding with Yong Ding Li & friends

Yong Ding Li, 23, a Singaporean birder, had seen 1,217 species of birds in Asia by the time he visited Sri Lanka for a birding trip. Ding Li was determined to break the record of Ben King—who has seen the most number of birds in Asia. He was referred to me by Enoka Kudawidanage who is doing a PhD studies at NUS (National University of Singapore), where Ding Li is a student. Although Ding Li first wanted to do a very low budget backpacking style trip, inviting me to join him at a few key birding sites such as Sinharaja rain forest, I was able to lure him to accepting a more structured itinerary. It was good a group tour—to keep costs low.

Chestnut-backed Owlet photographed at point blank range at Kithulgala

The result was a birding trip done between 10-19 Dec 2007 with 5 other Singaporean birders joining in. They included Ding Li’s birding buddy: Albert Low, 21, who had seen 1,107 bird species in Asia and 1,500 species in the world by the time he came to Sri Lanka.

The group from left to right: Willie Foo, Ding Li, Albert Low, Alfred Chia, Pah Liang, and Alan Owyong,

Others were Alan Owyong—a keen videographer, who had visited Sri Lanka a couple of times; Alfred Chia—a serious birder and a keen photographer with a sharp eye and an even sharper wit; Willie Foo—a keen videographer; and Yang Pah Liang—a keen birder who had travelled extensively.

I spotted a pair of Jungle Owlets from a moving vehicle, and this is one of them; it caught a prey item when we were watching it.

We combined several key birding sites: Kithulgala, Sinharaja, Morapitiya, Udawalawe National Park, Tissamaharama, Nuwara Eliya and a host of local patches, and a bit of sight-seeing at Kandy, before heading back to Katunayake for the final night.

Ding Li and Albert Low stayed on for two more days of birding and cultural explorations. During this extension, Albert and I did a "water birds day tour" combining a few wetlands north of the airport: Chilaw sandspits, Annaiwilundawa Ramsar wetland, Palawi saltpans, and the massive Nawadamkulama tank.

Our final bird trip list stood at 221 species—seen. Our top birding highlights were Green-billed Coucal, Chestnut-backed Owlet, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Red-faced Malkoha, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, White-faced Starling, Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Spot-winged Thrush, Brown-capped Babbler, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Malabar Trogon, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Brown-backed Needletail, Besra, Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Dull-blue Flycatcher, Kashmir Flycatcher, Pied Thrush, Indian Blue Robin, Slaty-legged Crake, Indian Blackbird, Hill Swallow, Blue-faced Malkoha, Osprey, Jungle Owlet, Brown Fish Owl, Jungle Prinia, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Indian Nightjar, Blyth’s Pipit, Indian Scops Owl, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Spot-billed Pelican, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Indian Pitta, Lesser Cuckoo, White-naped Woodpecker, Indian Think-knee, Indian Pygmy Woodpecker, and Yellow-wattled Lapwing.

Albert’s water birds tour with me produced Eurasian Oystercatcher, Sanderling, Great Thick-knee, Caspian, White-winged, Little and Lesser Crested Terns, Lesser Sand Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Grey Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Kentish Plover, Brown-headed Gull, Garganey, Watercock, and Indian Reed Warbler.

On the main tour, we managed to bag 31 of the 33 endemic birds; plus many of the sought-after migrants and sub-continental specialties. Our notable miss was Serendib Scops Owl. The closest we got for this endemic bird discovered in Janurary, 2001 was when we heard it across a shallow stream at Kithulgala. It was rainy, yet I could have shown it had my visitors been willing to following me in cross that stream. Our second attempt at Morapitiya ended up in failure with heavy rain and greatly swollen streams hampering our movements.
A spread of Sri Lankan rice and curry at Kithulgala.

On account of our missing this rarity, Albert thought it should be named Serendip Scops Owl in our final bird list! The other endemic that eluded was the Crimson-backed Flameback.

As mentioned above, we had to contend with rainy weather—at times rather heavily on certain days because the period of our travel coinciding with a untimely monsoonal peak. Leading to this trip, I was quite surprised as to how many dry and sunny days I enjoyed in November this year, which is usually rainy due to the onset of the North-East monsoon. This monsoon brings rain to the dry zone (3/4 of the island) as well as the wet zone (the balance 1/3). The intensity of rain expected in November was clearly not there this year. (During a trip done in November, I spoke to a farmer in the dry zone, and was concerned by the delayed monsoon.)

A Malabar Trogon at Sinharaja rain forest.

It seemed to me the rain overdue had been delivered with interest December this year!
The heavy monsoonal rain caused extensive floods in some areas in the north-central and eastern districts in the dry zones after a lapse of many years. This was especially due to spill gates in certain tanks (reservoirs) having to be opened due to very high water levels.

Such bad weather encountered on birding tours do not always dampen the spirits completely as some people use that time wisely to follow other more ebullient indoor pursuits. In an evening in which rain called off play, few of us were gathered at Martin’s balcony to drink tea. We enjoyed the rain forest in rain. We kept our binculars with us anyway, lest the rain would ease and bring the birds out again. And then somebody suggested that we played Scrabble. There were a couple of English visitors who were marooned at Martin’s balcony with us. They were to travel to Galle to see the cricket, which was to start in a few days. They joined us too to form three teams. The Englishman and Ding Li were the first one. Albert and the English lady were the second one. And I battling alone.

As usual for a game of Scrabble, there were plenty of disputes. Some resorted to sledging and 'mental disintegration' tactics. Yet, I came from behind to thrash both the combined commonwealth teams just in my last word scored by dropping an 'O' next to 'Z' to make ‘ZO’—earning 26 in the process. And this was challenged straightaway. The final score was Ding Li’s team – 177, Albert’s team – 196 and yours truly 209.

I have never come across an overseas birder who knew all the Sri Lankan birds by their scientific names. That was until I met Ding Li. He constantly dazzled me with his ability to remember scientific names of not only of the Lankan birds we saw on this tour, but also birds across Asia, which I thought was pretty amazing. Ding Li and Albert discussed day’s sightings lengthily, and took extensive notes at the end of the day.

The Scrabble board at the end.

Our non-birding highlights came in the form of Yellow-striped Chevrotain Moschiola kathygre, which we encountered on the trail while driving up to Martin’s at night and Bear Monkey Trachypithecus vetulus monticola in Nuwara Eliya.

Considering rainy weather we ha and us not visiting three national parks usually visited on standard birding tours (Horton Plains, Yala and Bundala), overall we could be happy of what we achieved in such a short span of time.

Sri Lanka White-eye at Nuwara Eliya.

Ding Li left Sri Lanka boosting his Asian tally by 63 ending up at 1,280 seen. Albert Low left Sri Lanka high, raking in 91 lifers to stand at 1,198 Asian birds seen.

Edit: The newly rediscovered Sri Lankan breeding resident Marshall's Iora was seen briefly on this tour at the Lunugamwehera; and made it to the final trip list. After this, I had very convincing views of this bird on my Absolute Birding tour in Feb, 2008. A detailed report of it is here here.

The pair of Jungle Owlets that I spotted from a moving vehicle at Tanamalwila.


Anonymous said...

This is probably the best picture of the Chestnut-baacked owlet I've ever seen! In simple terms, its *freaking good* man!

Amila Salgado said...

Thanks Ding Li!
Great to hear from you!
*freaking good* - that must have been our most (over)used phrase after "It's a great day for mankind" and "It's a momentous day for mankind" I like that!

oldcrow61 said...

What a fabulous trip you had. Sounds very exciting. The pictures are amazing.

Amila Salgado said...

OC, Thanks a lot! Yes we did have quite a good trip. Albert Low will do a trip report soon and I will carry a link to it when it goes online.

Stuart Price said...

Wow.....some pretty impressive birds there. And scrabble too! In one game of scrabble many years ago I managed to use the word 'quim' (a vulgar word-check it in the dictionary) not once but TWICE in the same game. I won...........

Amila Salgado said...

Thanks Stu, Now that's a good word to know as Q can limit you a bit! Not sure whether I will use it with some clients though... Having said that when faced with sledging and mental disintegration tactics of the opposition, it would be a good one to throw back...& clarify it in a thoughtful sentence if they happen to ask the meaning!

Duncan said...

You've taken bird blogging to a whole new level Amila, fantastic birds, mind games, and that wonderful food!!!!

Larry said...

Boy-Great pics! You and your clients are light years ahead of the type of local birding I do.-Maybe some day I'll join one of your tours when I have some extra funds-Sounds like great fun!

Amila Salgado said...

Thanks Duncan! Playing a game of Scrabble has now assumed the status of a 'local custom' of sorts that the visitors are expected to respect and follow...avoiding, which would offend the host....
I am very happy to hear your comments!!

Amila Salgado said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amila Salgado said...

Thanks Larry! I will be happy to show you some good birds. Not all my clients are hardcore types...
The above deleted one is my own

Owlman said...

Awesome owl pics - well done. Great blog I have added your site to my blog roll and I look forward to reading about your adventures. As a South African I am nuts about cricket although it's hard to find it on TV in the States without paying massive amounts of cash. The last world cup I managed to watch most of the games on the net. Anyway, keep birding and writing!

Amila Salgado said...

Great to hear from you Owlman! Thanks for your comments about my Owl pics and adding me to your blogroll. I have reciprocated. Nice to know you are a cricket fan. I have heard the same complain from my friends living over there. I watched the Tests in Colombo when SA came over hear last year, which I enjoyed a lot!! And I had the rare pleasure of explaining the game to a couple US visitors too!. I still remember with pain Bret Schultz causing havoc in an earlier tour!

I look forward to exploring your blog and especially learning a thing or two about Owl boxes as I am keen to try one in my garden.
Congrats on your Rugby World Cup victory! I am a big fan of Habana!

Kiwi-Bird said...

Hi Gallicissa! Nice meeting you! Never knew that you are a great birder!! Perhaps you can visit Malaysia one day =)

Amila Salgado said...

Thanks kiwi-bird! I have been to Malaysia on a solo birding trip in 2005 Sep-Oct over 17 days, which I enjoyed a lot! Surely I will return one day soon to explore Panti, Fraser's Hill and Taman Negara again. Thanks for your invitation!

Anonymous said...

Amila, my late limerick for our "out of this mankind" trip.

We were about to dip the owlet.
So SOSes were sent out to locate it as our last outlet.
We were told that a village girl had spotted our cutie bird.
And there it was, sitting pretty while we stared with our eyes agog!
We had thrown a candy gauntlet, the village girl had indeed responded with our owlet!


Amila Salgado said...

Alfred, good to hear from you! Glad you cared to do one & good try! Suggest other tour participants to follow. I remember Alan doing one during the tour. To draw some inspiration, see http://www.oedilf.com/db/Lim.php

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Amila. I have often admired your outstanding shots of birds and insects, but never got down to mentioning it. You must have a super collection. Maybe an exhibition some day?

Keep up the great work.

Java Jones

Amila Salgado said...

Thanks Java Jones! Good to hear from you. I do have a decent collection of photos. Haven't thought of doing an exhibition yet to be honest. But may be in the future, surely. Thanks for your encouragement!

Amila Salgado said...

As promised, a detailed trip report is online now at here.

the same URL:

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