Friday, 29 February 2008


While reading the excellent birding blog of Timo Janhonen; the Bad Finnish Birdwatcher, I read about an (Eurasian) Eagle Owl Bubo bubo invading a football match played in Finland between the host country and Belgium and that the footage captured of this incident is in Youtube. Finland had won this game according to Timo who sounds happy; mentioning the footie result in the same breath. I had a look at this and thought it had enough merit to share with my blog readers, not that I am overly fond of owls or anything.

Spectators cheer ‘Huuhkaja’, which apparently means owl in finnish. It sounds like a very bad swear word in Sinhalese but I learnt that the bird had since then come to be known as Bubi, a sports commentator in Finland. How fitting considering that its scientific name is Bubo bubo! A related form occurs in Sri Lanka, which is called Forest Eagle Owl Bubo nipalensis (Ulama in Sinhalese), of which the shrilling calls are considered to bring death and misfortune by the locals. I am on the hunt for one of these and I shall break some news if I succeed in my mission. If any of my blog readers have any credible information of this or any other owl in day time roosts in Sri Lanka, please let me know!

Edit: Timo informed me that Huuhkaja means Eagle Owl.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Israel chasing targets in Sri Lanka

Green Pit Viper in Sinharaja 25 Jan, 2008
I guided Israel Leinbach, a crack US naturalist from Yuma, Arizona on a day tour to Sinharaja. He had reached there independently, a couple of days ago. Returning home after my birding trip with Malcolm and Duan, and just managing forty winks, I was off to Sinharaja at 2.00 a.m., to meet him at an all-suite botique hotel named, Boulder Garden.

As I was just myself, I had my local tuktuk friend, Sarath who had already made a couple of mission-critical-trips to Sinharaja with me, to deliver me there. Israel was the first to tour with me after finding me through my blog. He is reading for his Masters in Entomology, and was quite keen on all types of life forms that come in smaller sizes, especially scorpions. He is also a brilliant photographer with special interests in macro photography, and by the time I met him, he had already found quite a few critters under his own steam including a family of scorpions. They were under a boulder in the boulder-strewn landscape of the hotel gardens. And he also knew where the best looking frogs in the hotel gardens were.

Sri Lanka Whistling Lizard - 25 Jan, 2008
Israel had already made a visit to Sinharaja before I met him. However, he still had several key targets missing in his wish list, which included the endemic Green Pit Viper, Hump-nosed Lizard, and False Lantern-fly. And he didn’t mind the odd snake or two.

Sri Lanka Rock Frog
After meeting him, I got Sarath to drop us at Sinharaja. He enjoyed it.

Before reaching the forest proper, we paused at several roadside patches along the road leading to the ticket office in search of Sinharaja’s abundant natural history.

Our first finds was the endemic Tree-climbing Crab Ceylonthelphusa scansor—a high profile crab, may I add.

We also saw Sri Lanka Rock Frog Nannophrys ceylonensis, the latter found hiding inside moist rock crevices during daytime. Both the above genera are endemic to Sri Lanka—with the later having three representatives in the scientific inventories of which is presumed extinct. It is only found in museum specimens made in the hey days of British era of natural history explorations, and recent field work to find it had drawn blank.

After obtaining our permits and meeting our compulsory local guide, Ranjaka, we took a 4-wd jeep ride up to the forest’s entrance. En route, I paused to scan a tree that I had observed the good looking False Lantern-fly previously. While I was scanning this tree high up, fresh from memories of my most recent encounter with it last December when I found one high up, Israel spotted one quite low down, which was great as it was within the range for close up photography. He got some cracking photographs of it over the next 20 minutes while I searched its vicinity for other thingamajigs.

Israel finds finds a target in Sri LankaOne key target bagged, we drove to Martin’s Simple Lodge for a cuppa and to let him eat his packetted breakfast.

Stripe-tailed Bronze-backWalking up to the forest’s entrance thereafter, I spotted a smallish lizard resting vertically along a tree trunk, quite  low down. A close examination revealed it was the scarce endemic, Sri Lanka Whistling Lizard  Calotes liolepis. Israel had not expected this, and was full of superlatives, and expletives as he macro-photographed it over the next few minutes. Boy! he really does not hide his feedback!

We had still not entered the forest’s main entrance, and Ranjaka delayed our entrance again by spotting another gem—tree snake, Stripe-tailed Bronze-back Dendrelaphis caudolineolatus, resting on a fern patch on a slopy edge. I told Israel to first go for a record shot before getting closer for improved macro shots as this non-venomous snake is calm in disposition, often tolerating closer approaches. This was a useful hint as he was able to do just that taking his own time to try out different settings and compositions, and getting some stunning shots in the process. His close-ups of its head area was unbelievably good. He had not encountered any snakes on his visit to Sri Lanka prior to this, and this was enough to make him declare that his trip to Sri Lanka is now justified.

Green Forest LizardEntering through the forest’s main entrance, we walked along former logging tracks to reach the virgin interiors in search of Israel’s other ‘high-value-targets.’ I announced a count down to another snake encounter and didn’t disappoint him in finding not just one but two Sri Lanka Keelbacked Water Snakes Xenochrophis asperrimus at a known stake-outs. We also found several more critters including the Giant Wood Spider Nephila maculata, Giant Millipede Spirostreptus sp., and two more lizards namely Kangaroo Lizard Otocryptis wiegmanni, and Green Forest Lizards Calotes calote—all of which, despite being found on his previous visit to Sinharaja, kept him busy regularly.

Israel finds a target in Sri LankaStill no Green Pit Viper, and Israel decided to just check a few suitable habitats in his own initiative. I was playing my cards close to my chest, and I took him to a site— following some ‘real time ground intelligence’— to find him a stunningly beautiful Green Pit Viper Trimeresurus trigonocephalus lazing off near a dark corner along the track. Previously unheard of Arizonian superlatives and expletives followed.

That really was an orgasmic encounter!

This sluggish arboreal snake is one of the most photogenic ones if you know how to deal with it, and it took some persuasion to take him away from it.

Walking towards the research camp, I paused in for some wayside avian distractions in the form of a pair of roosting Sri Lanka Frogmouths, found in the previous visit. He had already seen these on his previous entry, but was not dismissive of it, when I offered him scope views. Soon, Israel found and photographed a stunningly beautiful jumping spider, so ornately coloured that it would have got even the most extreme arachnophobiac hooked on spiders. It was seriously bling, bling. Too bad I couldn't shoot it, as it was so tiny, and out of my range, photographically speaking.

We broke off to put our feet up during the midday, which offered some arm-chair birding with several confiding Sri Lanka Blue Magpies and Sri Lanka Junglefowls breaching our personal space before a mixed species bird flocks operating in silence yielded scope views of Malabar Trogon, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo and Ashy-headed Laughingthrush.Green Pit Viper - 25 Jan, 2008
The time was 2.00 p.m. and Israel didn’t seem to be any hungry for lunch (when my hunger index—calculated from 0-10 had already hit an all-time high!), and we continued our quest—living off biscuits and bananas—in search of the remaining high profile endemic, the Hump-nosed Lizard. I took him up deeper into the virgin interiors of the rain forest and to a site where I photographed a pair of these at point blank range last December. En route, we found several good-looking arthropods, which were all nicely macro photographed. Having arrived at the site of the lizard, we searched for it high and low but were unable to locate it.

Thinking that it may have distanced away from the site I found it earlier, I searched the perimeters only to draw a blank again.

Finally, we decided to do our operation in three different fronts sweeping the forest. After an hour or so of searching, Israel exclaimed going into what was then a familiar high, stumbling another Green Pit Viper!

It was a young individual lying in ambush low down in a tiny sapling. This site was quite away from any stream, which was interesting, as Green Pits are usually found alongside streams. Knowing well will be lingering here for some more time, I went back to find the missing lizard, and to re-focus on what I thought to be the "core area," undaunted by the failures.

Soon we hit gold as Ranjaka skilfully spotted an adult male
Hump-nosed Lizard - 25 Jan, 2008
Hump-nosed Lizard settled about 15 feet up a lanky under storey tree—just the 3rd neighbouring tree from where I photographed it in December!

Israel was quickly summoned—and what do you know—it was love at first sight for him. Being out of macro photographic range, some work was necessary to bring it to a manageable height before attempting to photograph it.

It was clearly a day of multiple orgasmic sightings.

I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent chasing targets for Israel who was great fun to work with. He keep me going with his hunger for nature and great sense of humour. He possessed an amazing field craft, which made every minute that I spent with him at Sinharaja enjoyable. Israel was never short of appreciation of my efforts, and it was such a good feeling to make a clean sweep of all his prime targets.

I believe luck plays a big roll in such limited operations and this man was one lucky dude. A prolonged late Sri Lankan rice and curry lunch at 4.00 p.m. at Martin’s was described by him as the best meal he had since coming to Sri Lanka. I returned home with some great gifts, which included a snake-guard, a streamlight TwinTask 2D flash torch ideal for my nocturnal pursuits.

Tour guides reading this post: if you get an enquiry from this man, Israel Leinbach, do not miss the opportunity to guide him. He is bloody awesome!

Israel Leinbach in a moment of joy - 25 Jan, 2008
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