Sunday 6 April 2008

Sinharaja with FOGSL - 2008

Green Pit Viper in Sinharaja rain forest 23 March, 2008
I accepted a last minute request to lead my second successive trip to Sinharaja rain forest for the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) from 20-24 March, 2008. This was in the absence of Prof. Kotagama, who usually leads this annual birding pilgrimage. (Click here to read the 2007 report). The (current) President of the FOGSL, Rahula Perera, joined from day-2 onwards to provide further fire-power to the cadres on the ground. This year’s Sinharaja trip had been brought forward after a reshuffling of the FOGSL’s tour calendar. Perhaps due to this, only eight participants joined the trip, which in the end, proved quite a manageable number for a good birding trip. Four of them were on their maiden visit to this birding mecca.

Noteworthy hits and misses—birds

Sri Lanka Myna Gracula ptilogenys—I scoped a pair in a tall Alstonia tree from the Kudawa bridge. Our first top bird. As the members rotated to get closer looks at this uncommon endemic, it took my memory back to April, 1990, when I made my first visit to Sinharaja rain forest, as a schoolboy, on a field trip organised by our nature club at St. Peter’s College. Nobody scoped any bird to me because nobody had a scope to scope. None of us even had a pair of binoculars to even share between us! The local guide we had was knowledgeable on flora, but not on birds. I relied totally on my unaided-eyes to spot and enjoy things, and this, over time, made me sharper in the field. So much so, I was able to spot and identify birds at great distances with a remarkable accuracy. These field skills gradually diminished after I started to use binoculars, and later, scopes. Now, I am compelled to to raise my Leicas to such common fare as Red-vented Bulbuls at times, unable to tell it apart from birds of similar shape. Not good!

Times have changed now, and the newbies are getting scope views of the endemic birds in perfect light—with interpretative commentary delivered in the background of the diagnostics to look, and stuff.

Sri Lanka Frogmouth Batrachostomus moniliger—We saw a nest of this with a brooding adult male, and the chick it was brooking. A nest reported earlier was not to be seen, and the local guides suspected that the chick may have been "predated." As certain nest predators may remove the entire nest while predating on the nest contents, and because the chick observed earlier didn’t appear to be grown enough to fledge by the time of our recent trip, I was sort of in favour of accepting this sad verdict. Thandula Jayaratne, a local guide in Sinharaja, wrote a piece to Forktail (20)—"the Journal of Asian Ornithology" of Oriental Bird Club (OBC) in 2004 documenting a Sri Lanka Frogmouth nest observation.

The nest built by Sri Lanka Frogmouth is quite small and when the chick is ready to fledge, it fills the entire nest—at times bursting out of it. So it is clearly visible under the brooding male parent bird. Thandula's supporting photograph to confirm this, graced the front cover of the aforementioned journal. According to Thandula's observation, the entire nest was removed by the male parent bird after the chick had fledged. Coming back to the current nest observation, no local guide had seen the chick developed into that ready-to-fledge stage. Flight views of a pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths were had on day 3, before retreating to their roosts.

Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon (aka. "Lady Torrington's Pigeon") Columba torringtonii—I have been keeping an eye on this endemic during the past several months. Therefore, I was quite pleased when one of these was deftly spotted by my colleague Nishantha Ganeshapriya when we paused to look at a mixed species bird flock on the way to our accommodation on our day-1. This was my first Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon at Sinharaja for this year. It didn’t appear to be a participant of the bird flock, but was sitting inside a dimly-lit thicket, as it usually does. Basically, it had distinctly smallish scruffy head, which fitted incongruously onto a pretty bulkier body giving it a rather unusual "jizz." Doesn't it look an ornithological joke!

A Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon immature in Sinharaja rain forest - 20, March, 2008It turned out to be an immature bird as it showed plenty of pin-feathers and naked areas in the head appearing very much like a bird hatched in the present calendar year. This endemic is known to breed above 720m above sea level in the highlands in Sri Lanka, and so far no nest/breeding activity of it had been reported at the lowland reaches of Sinharaja rain forest (the areas regularly visited by bird watchers every year—roughly at an elevation of 450-600m.)Close up of the head showing pin-feathers and naked facial areas of an immature Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon in Sinharaja 20 March, 2008

It is well-known that Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon undertakes altitudinal migrations from its usual range in the central highlands—typically above 1000m down to lowlands of around 300m (rarely lower). As with most endemic birds in Sri Lanka, no focused single-species studies have been done of Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon yet; thus, large gaps exist regarding our knowledge of their behaviour and ecology. Therefore, information such as just when it undertakes migration, what triggers it, and whether immature birds join such inter-migrant flocks is not documented. I presume this would be the first instance of occurance of immature (or first calender year individuals) birds are reported in Sinharaja rain forest with supporting photographic evidence.

In February this year, Java Jones made me turn green with envy mentioning a sighting of a flock of at least fifteen Sri Lanka Wood Pigeons in his hill retreat Flowerbook close to Welimada. Several FOGSL members too confessed getting more than their fair share of sightings of the Sri Lanka Wood Pigeons in a birding trip to Haputale in early February, 2008, including observing courting and mating pairs. In my 15-day Absolute Birding trip—our only observation of this essentially montane endemic was at Surrey Estate at Welimada, when we had a pair at eye-level.

Coming back to the current Sinharaja trip, we had two more sightings of Sri Lanka Wood Pigeons, which included a flight view seen only by me on day-2, and a perched adult bird seen by everybody on day-3.
In late March this year, Java Jones noted a drop in their numbers.

This drop of the numbers in Welimada (and such preferred breeding elevational areas) by late March, and parallel increase in sightings of the Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon sightings in lowland areas such as Sinharaja at the same time may be because of it engaging in internal migration from the highlands to the lowlands this time of the year. So birds such as Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon may require a larger area in the wet zone for its survival than the average sedentary endemics.

Red-faced Malkoha Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus – an animated pair provided eye-ball views low down on day-1. (Those newbies were lucky or what? I had to wait for a good four long years to see my first!)

Green-billed Coucal Centropus chlororhynchos—Quite vocal around the research camp. Observed a pair briefly before seeing it in an all too familiar disappearing act. A few of the members had seen a juvenile too accompanied by parent birds (probably consisting of fledged individuals from the nest that I discovered in January, just 25 m away as a crow coucal flies).

Chestnut-winged Crested Cuckoo Clamator coromandus—flight views at pre-dawn.
Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus—Another bird that livened up our very first walk on day-1, when a perched individual, in a nicely-lit patch in the forest edge after rains, gave soothing views.

Indian Cuckoo in Sinharaja rain forest - 20 March, 2008Sri Lanka Spurfowl Galloperdix bicalcarata—A fleeting glimpse near our accommodation. A pair was seen by a few other members near the entrance.

Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush Zoothera imbricata—Not a breath! Its site was checked at midday hours, but not in late afternoon, where chances for it are higher. This fact together with large number of visitors attracted because of public holidays was probably the reason why we missed this shy terrestrial endemic.

Sri Lanka Blue Magpie
Urocissa ornata—A fledged juvenile being fed by two parents and a helper was a pleasing sight as we entered the forest on day-1 taking advantage of the respite had from heavy rains. Regular sightings were had on all days including many seen behind the kitchen at the research camp, coming to feed on the rice thrown out by the research students. Fledged juveniles were also to be seen over there.

One of the begging juvenile Sri Lanka Blue Magpies attended by two caring parents and a helper in Sinharaja rain forest - 20 March, 2008White-faced Starling Sturnia albofrontata—Easily over twenty birds were seen close to our accommodation almost every morning. Also observed feeding on Bombu fruits Symplocos cochinchinensis.

White-faced Starling in Sinharaja rain forest on a Bombu tree - 23 March, 2008Spot-winged Thrush Zoothera spiloptera—I observed one feeding on Bombu fruits.

Noteworthy hits– Natural History

Green Pit Viper Trimeresurus trigonocephalus—The top non-birding star of the trip seen on day-3. This was, by far, the biggest individual I have ever seen. We saw it thanks to some "real time ground intelligence" by Ranjaka—the local guide who was with me while chasing targets with Israel Leinbach. I predicted that it would be seen on the following day at the same site given the site-fidelity shown by it to a selected daytime resting place, and rightly so, found it on day-4 giving us more photo opportunities.

Common Bronzeback Tree Snake Dendrelaphis tristis – First reptile of the trip observed on day-1.

Green Pit Viper in Sinharaja rain forest - 24 March, 2008

Tawny Rajah Charaxes psaphon - a male of this beautiful butterfly was observed at the point identified commonly as Maguru-wala, near the first rest hut after entering through the main entrance (known as the barrier gate). My first of this rare butterfly was seen and photographed at the exact location in November ‘07 while guiding Alan and Lucy Smith as reported. Fresh from my memories from that encounter, I calmed a few anxious photographers in the group when one of these were seen in active flight that it will eventually settle down for us. As predicted, it did, first on a mud puddle, and second, on a bird dropping on a fern.

Tawny Rajah in Sinharaja rain forest - 22 March, 2008Five-bar Swordtail Pathysa antiphates—Of this, Bernard d’Abrera’s Butterflies of Ceylon says: “...In the glorious days of the study of butterflies at the turn of the century (and between the wars), so punctual was it, that it used to be known as the “12 O’clock Fly.” As this good book says, we encountered it at midday, soon after a downpour when it came down to settle on the damp ground near the research camp.

Five-bar Swordtail - A rare Swallowtail butterfly in Sinharaja rain forest -23 March, 2008Binara Exacum sp.—The picture showing showy little flowers in bloom of this was posted in the previous post. Quite pretty.

Blue Glassy Tiger Ideopsis similis—Rather common butterfly at Sinharaja.

Blue Glassy Tiger in Sinharaja rain forest - 22 March, 2008
The above article is my contribution to I And The Bird#73 hosted by A Snail's Eye View


Mel said...

Great post!!
I like how you explain everything and take us birding with you!
AMAZING pics!!

Amila Salgado said...

Hi Mel,
Thanks a lot! Happy to have guided you around Sinharaja!

Chrissy said...

Absolutely beautiful photos. I love the photo of the snake, stunning colors. I'll visit your blog again :o)

Amila Salgado said...

Hi Chrisss,
Thanks for dropping by. Glad you liked my photos. I am quite pleased about the colours of my Green Pit photos this time.It appears to be wearing fresh skin. I visited your blog and I liked it too. My biggest compliment about is that it has a real tranquil feel to it!! Hope to explore it leisurely.

Anonymous said...

The exact location is actually equidistant between Welimada and Bandarawela and located in a little valley at an elevation close to 4000'. I'm not sure if the recent rains have had something to do with it, but I haven't seen any more flocks since getting up here yesterday. I'm also trying to get a positive ID on the tree/s whose berries/seeds attracted them. Will keep you posted.

Much better hue on this photo of the Trimerasaurus. Nice work, man.

Amila Salgado said...

Hi Java,
Thanks for the info on the exact location and update on the SLWP sightings. Yes, look forward to knowing the ID of those trees.

I'm glad you are happy about the hue of the Green Pit this time!
As commented earlier this individual also seems to be in fresh skin. As always thanks for the word of encouragement!

Nishantha Kamburugamuwa said...

Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge generously and for all those scope views.
Sorry to have given you a tough time on night walks!

Amila Salgado said...

Hi Nishantha,
Thanks for spotting the SLWP!
That was a good one and I enjoyed it! I am pleased to hear your comments.

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

A fantastic post! I loved all of the pictures. Such a variety. That is one beautiful snake! Thanks for the great nature walk.

Amila Salgado said...

Hi Sandpiper,
Thank you very much!
The diversity here is pretty astounding, which is why Sri Lanka & Western Ghats taken as one region is justifiably regarded as one of the global biodiversity hotspots. I am quite pleased you loved my pictures. The snake was the easiest of the lot as it is quite docile during daytime. Pleasure to have guided you around!

ST said...

the posts are always good and i like birds as you know ,but can you include more of the wonderful insects you come across.

Amila Salgado said...

Hi ST,
I will be doing a post on Dragonflies soon. I will post any good insect pics that I get on my tours for sure. Thanks for the request!

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