Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Finding lifers for Peter Kaestner

Serendib Scop Owl photographed by Peter Kaestner, Sep, 2007
Ranked 4th in the all-time World Listers, Peter Kaestner had seen 8,128 species of birds out of the 10,000 or so species in the world by the time he came to Sri Lanka to bag 8 of his missing Sri Lankan endemics. He came to me through Jon Hornbuckle who is currently the 2nd ranked birder in the world with over 8,400 birds seen. Peter is also the discoverer of a new species of bird in the world—Cundinamarca Antpitta, which he had been fortunate to stumble upon in 1989 while birding in the East Andes in Columbia in South America. This species had been named eponymously in honour of him as Grallaria kaestneri by Gary Stiles, the ornithologist who described the species. By 1986, Peter Kaestner famously became the first birder to see a representative of each bird family in the world—a feat which took his name to the Guinness Book of world Records, although the list of bird families recognized by science has changed considerably since then. Peter had been a birder since childhood and cannot remember not being interested birds in his life. Instead of taking up Ornithology professionally, he had heeded a sagely advice of one of his teachers, and had turned a diplomat instead—a job in which he'd have scope for extensive world travel. This has worked and it has enabled him to amass a great species list of birds over the years.

Peter is currently working in the US embassy in New Delhi in India as consul-general and came here on 21 (Friday) September, 2007 at around 2.00 p.m., and was dropped off at the airport on the 23 (Sunday) Sep at 1.30 p.m., to catch the return flight. During this period, we judiciously combined: Morapitiya Rain forest, Sinharaja Rain forest, Kithulgala, Hakgala, and Bomuru-ella Forest Reserve to bag seven out of his eight target birds. And we achieved that in trying conditions during a monsoonal peak!

The endemics that boosted the burgeoning life bird list of Peter Kaestner, in the order of seen, were Serendib Scops Owl (discovered in 2001) at Morapitiya; Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Red-faced Malkoha, and Sri Lanka Spurfowl at Sinharaja; Green-billed Coucal at Kithulgala; and Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush and Sri Lanka Bush Warbler at Nuwara Eliya. We tragically dipped out Brown-capped Babbler!

Anyway, considering the adverse weather we had to contend with, and relatively short time we had to combine the lowlands and highlands, and above all rarity of his targets (some of which consumed time),
I was personally happy to have got those ticks for Peter who left Sri Lanka, content, with 8,135 birds.

Red-faced Malkoha
Our Serendib Scops Owl was seen at around 7.40 p.m. at Morapitiya; on 21 Sept, after intense tracking as it was raining in stops and starts. Which didn’t help our course. When it was finally spotted by me, Peter took a great photograph of it using his Lumix FZ 8, which is shown above (note the wet feathers of its head).

Before this, we had a good look at a Sri Lanka Frogmouth at dusk—not a new bird for Peter.

In Sinharaja, we had Thandula Jayaratne as our local guide who came in the morning to join us. By the time we met him, we had narrowed our list of wants by two: Ashy-headed Laughingthrush and Red-faced Malkoha, the latter which was spotted by Peter in a mixed-species bird flock (at a site in Sinhraja named "Leopard rock"). He also photographed it.

After meeting Thandula, we made a call to go for the tougher endemic, Sri Lanka Spurfowl. We reached a site in which we have previously had success with this elusive forest dweller. Here we remained seated on a boulder, which was covered with leaf litter, looking down a flat area of the forest for a good half an hour amidst constant rain and steady flows of leeches: conditions which would have put most bird watchers off. But not Peter Kaestner!

Our collective team work and perseverance finally paid rich dividends and Peter first had great views of a male followed by a female Sri Lanka Spurfowl, which was extremely satisfactory. These were accompanied by a flock of Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes. Since both these species disturb leaf litter while feeding, they may be mutually extracting foraging benefits in locating prey by flocking together. That's something that occured to us.

While birding in Sinharaja, I was able to make yet another interesting feeding observation involving a couple of regular flock-associated birds. This was when a flock of Ashy-headed Laughing Thrushes was seen feeding on the fruits of the pioneer, Macaranga indica (Boo-kenda in Sinhala), as I did on the trip with Shiromi Lazarus in August. Rather interestingly, during this observation, a Sri Lanka Crested Drongo also joined the laughingthrushes in the feast, which was very special as the latter is deemed to be an insectivorous species. (This was my first observation of this species feeding on fruit.)

Peter & myself
It was 11.00 a.m., and the rain was getting heavier at Sinharaja. Rather than attempting to attempt for the two missing lowland targets: Brown-capped Babbler and Green-billed Coucal in this weather, we gambled to drive on to Kithulgala to improve our chances there; and thereafter to hopefully reach Nuwara Eliya in the highlands in time for overnight stay to squeeze in some montane birding on the following morning! And thereafter, heading to the airport for departure.

Soon after arriving in Kithulgala, I was able to hear a Green-billed Coucal, and would you believe, within 5 minutes we were in business, bagging this somewhat elusive endemic!

No Brown-capped Babbler though—not a breath of it as Jon Hornbuckle writes it in his bird trip reports.

Having stayed overnight at a cosy hotel, and started very early on the following morning—day 3, and our last day—with packetted breakfasts. First, we reached a site near Hakgala Botanical Gardens for the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. No luck despite a thirty-minute vigil. This site had been good for Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush at dusk, and this was the first time I attempted for it at dawn. (Later on, I have had success in the mornings). Tad disappointed, we reached Bomuru-ella forest soon, hoping for the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler. While I was searching low for this LBJ, Peter lagging back had scanned the water fall below a valley. And he had picked up the elusive Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush—a very fortunate sightings!

Our final montane target Sri Lanka Bush Warbler was threatening to give us some tough time. So I decided to veer off the main trail. Soon, I was able to spot one for Peter at 8.00 a.m. That brightened my day!
This bird was flitting at ground level in a bamboo thicket, and the views we had were very good.

Soon, we set our wheels in motion to reach the airport, as Peter had an afternoon flight to catch. I was hoping to make a stop for Brown-capped Babbler in on the way at Kandy, but the heavy torrential rain we had by the time we passed this area and the traffic in the busy Kandy road in wet weather prompted me to change plans. So we mutually decided to drive on—not risking missing the departure flight.

The Book of Indian Birds by Dr. Salim Ali
Peter was kind enough to bring me a wonderful gift in the form of the latest edition of 'The Book of Indian Birds' by the great Indian ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali. What I admired mostly of Peter’s style of birding is he always goes out with a very positive frame mind that he is going to find the bird that he wants. Which I believe, is one of the magical ingredients of his success. He is also tremendously lucky. Which I believe also helps! Peter was a true gentleman and I really enjoyed his company- especially listening to some of his great twitching anecdotes from around the world. My special thanks to Jon Hornbuckle for passing my contacts to him! A special thanks is also due to our driver Nihal Weerasinghe who did an exceptional job in taking us around safely to meet our deadlines.

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