Friday, 29 August 2008


A Tuktuk in Sri Lanka
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Monday, 25 August 2008

Pure Gold!

I bagged three golds during the Olympics.
I mean during the time when Olympics was on. They were

1. Dancing Dropwing Trithemis pallidinervis

Dancing Dropwing 2. Leopard Panthera pardus kotiya

Leopard 3. Serendib Scops Owl Otus thilohoffmanni

Serendib Scops Owl
They were seen on an 18-day photography tour from 2-19 Aug, 2008. That was with Thierry and Maree-Andree Becret and Michelle Gerner from France.

The first gold was bagged at the dragonfly-rich wetlands at Tissamaharama.

The second gold was won in a photo-finish during our very first game drive at Yala National Park—one of the top locations to see this big cat in the world.

We had this male Leopard for nearly 15 minutes with only a partial view of the head visible through the dead brush. It then rewarded our perseverance by coming out of its lounging spot to sit in a more open patch, affording us a brief moment of magic. After a brief show up, it retreated to same spot as earlier. About 10-minutes after, it again stood up, came out to the open, glanced at us and disappeared into the thick cover to the sound of camera clicks.

Being the only big cat, Leopard is the apex predator in Sri Lanka. And thanks to the protection afforded to Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, especially to its prey species, Leopards are bolder in Yala. Therefore, daytime sightings are quite regular at Yala compared to other parts of Sri Lanka, and outside it, where human-related pressures have pushed them to be nocturnal and ultra-secretive.

Finally, our the third gold was bagged outside Sinharaja ‘world heritage’ rain forest. This one, of course, was very special because it allowed my first proper photograph of this avian jewel taken at nighttime—when it is at its element. Click here to see a picture of it taken by Peter Kaestner in Sep., 2007, which inspired me to buy my Panasonic Lumix FZ-18.

The Serendib Scops Owl was discovered only in Jan, 2001, and formally described in June, 2004.

It was first seen after its discoverer, Deepal Warakagoda, had been looking for it for 6 years since first hearing its call in 1995. The last endemic bird discovered before this was the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush - 132 years ago in the colonial era of natural history explorations, which made this discovery all the more special.

One of the reasons why it eluded bird watchers for so long is due to its unobtrusive and ventriloquial call, which is so simple in form and so infrequently delivered with a note length of 0.3 seconds repeated after 15-29 seconds. This makes it difficult to determine that it is originating from a bird, especially when it is mixed with the cacophony of calls that dominate the rainforest soundsape at night. Before its discovery, even some of the senior Sri Lankan naturalists had suspected its call to be of an amphibian of an unknown origin.

Big misktake!

This initial confusion over its call is not surprising considering that the island is rich in amphibians with over 100 new species discovered since the mid 90s. In fact a tree hole-dwelling frog species described in May, 2001, just four months after the discovery of the owl, named Nagao’s Ramanella Ramenella nagaoi, has almost identical call note to the Serendib Scops Owl that it has fooled me several times when I have been all ears trying to pick up the monosyllabic call of the Serendib Scops Owl from the other rain forest noises.
Serendib Scops Owl is recorded only in 5 lowland rain forest sites in Sri Lanka and due to its narrow range small numbers—estimated at 200-250 individuals, it is categorized as “endangered” in the IUCN of Red List of Threatened species.

Its vernacular name’s "Serendib" part is derived from a 14th century name of Sri Lanka used by the Arabs named "Serendip" (the "dip" part, is appropriate considering some birders dip out on this!) in place of the local name that existed at that time: Sihaladeepa – the island of the Sinhala people (note: some say that it derived from Swarnadeepa, which means the island of gold/gems).

The word Serendipity was coined by English novelist Horace Walpole (1717-1797) in a letter written in 1754 based on a Persian fairy-tale: The Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes of which "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of."

The serendipity of its discovery, being endemic to ‘Serendib’ are why the new Owl was appropriately christened Serendib Scops Owl. The species etymology thilohoffmanni is to honour Thilo Hoffman a top conservationist who spearheaded a campaign to stop a government endorsed mechanised logging project carried out with the help from a Canadian logging company from 1971–1977 at Sinharaja rain forest, where the discoverer first laid eyes on this owl. By the way the logging activity was carried out under the euphemism “selective logging."

Serendib Scops Owl is so new that it is not even featured in the first comprehensive modern field guide of the birds of Sri Lanka “A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka” by John Harrison (1999) - ISBN 0-19-854961-X. 240 pages, 48 colour plates, 2 maps, 200x140 mm. £39.95.

After 9 years of publication, Oxford University Press, UK is now planning to do a second edition of this highly popular field guide to the birds of Sri Lanka. I was approached by OUP, UK for a review for the second edition, which I did to earn my reward of £50 worth of books of OUP in addition to a free copy of the second edition of the Sri Lankan Bird Guide when it is published!. For the immediate reward I picked
“A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and Bali” by John Mackinnon and Karen Phillipps (1993). ISBN 978-0-19-854034-2. 510 pages, numerous colour plates, maps, line drawings, 200x140 mm. £39.95. Click here for link.


“Dragonflies through Binoculars A Field Guide to Dragonflies of North America” by Sidney W. Dunkle (2000. ISBN 978-0-19-511268-9. 368 pages, 381 color illus., 216x138 mm. £17.99. Click here for link.
the books
Yes, this was slighly over their budget but the nice people at Oxford University Press made no fuss over it. Both books arrived in fine condition, and I am eagerly consuming them. The bird guide is quite timely as I am planning a private trip to Borneo. The dragonfly book is great—I think every American dragonfly enthusiast ought to have it.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Hornbills and Redbolts

The second day trip that I did with Steve was joined by one of his trip mates, Robin. Our first point of call was Bodhinagala forest reserve, which is a small secondary rain forest comprising of 283 ha. It was just 40 minutes from the Blue Water Hotel, Wadduwa, where Steve was based. We followed this with dragonfly walk at a local wetland.

Here are some of our trip highlights.

Variable Flutterer Rhyothemis variegata variegata female

Variable Flutterer
Sri Lanka Rock Frog Nannophrys ceylonensis

Sri Lanka Rock Frog Spine-legged Redbolt Rhodothemis rufa male

Spine-legged Redbolt Leopard Phalanta phalantha

Leopard Buddhist monks at Bodhinagala thanks to whom the forest has been spared from logging.

Buddhist monks Green Skimmer Orthetrum sabina sabina

Green Skimmer Asian Groundling Brachythemis contaminata female

Asian Groundling female Oriental Scarlet aka. Scarlet Skimmer Crocothemis servilia servilia male

Oriental Scarlet male
We also found two more dragonflies in the form of Wall’s Grappletail and Pied Parasol.

Birding highlights: Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (lots), Yellow-browed Bulbul, Black-capped Bulbul, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Black-naped Monarch, Indian Swiftlet, Sri Lanka Swallow, Crested Treeswift, Green Imperil Imperiel Pigeon, Pied Kingfisher, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Blue-winged Leafbird, Layard’s Parakeet, Oriental White-eye, Orange Minivet & Dark-fronted Babbler.
A Green-billed Coucal was heard and we didn’t bother as we had exceptional views of it at Sinharaja.
Our mammal highlights included Toque Macaque and Giant Squirrel.

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