Saturday, 21 February 2009

Birding with Keith and Julie Ellis

Sri Lanka Frogmouth male
I led an 18-day 'birds, wildlife and culture tour' with Keith and Julie Ellis from Kent, UK from 23 Jan – 9 February. Keith was a serious birder with over 3,000 world birds in his life list. He knew most of the species that he wanted to see by their scientific names and was a sharp birder. Julie had broader interests, which included culture. She was supportive and tolerant—two traits that I admire in non-birding spouses accompanying serious birders! A cultural extension added to the tour to please her took us to several Unesco world heritage sites that included Anuradhapura—the first capital of Sri Lanka from 4th century B.C to early 11th century AD, Polonnaruwa—the medieval capital from 11-13th century A.D, Sigiriya—popularly, a pleasure capital of a single king named Kashyapa in the 5th century A.D, and Kandy—the last Sinhalese capital from 16th to 19th century A.D, which is home to the Temple of The Sacred Tooth Relic, where a Sacred Tooth of the Buddha is encased in jeweled caskets that sit on a throne. In Anuradhapura, we also visited Mihintale—the cradle of Sinhalese Buddhist civilization and birded in the world’s first declared wildlife sanctuary, announced as early as in the 3rd century B.C.!

The 'World Heritage' Sigiriya Rock Fortress
We were quite lucky with the weather, and experienced nice dry conditions throughout the tour, which was perfect for birding. In total, we bagged 253 species of birds including all thirty-three endemic birds currently recognized. Nineteen of these endemics were bagged during our first two days at Kithulgala—in the "power play" stage of the tour. And this reduced the ‘asking rate’ during the rest of the tour considerably!

Some of the high-profile endemic targets bagged at Kithulgala included Serendib Scops Owl, Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Crimson-backed Flameback, Red-faced Malkoha, and Sri Lanka Blue Magpie.
The latter two species are usually considered as Sinharaja specials, but we made good ground by bagging them in advance to free up time to look for bonus birds. Our last endemic to be seen on the trip, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler was the one that gave us the hardest time. As it was proving elusive at my regular sites at Nuwara Eliya, a pre-dawn visit was undertaken to the cloud forests of Horton Plains National Park just to see it. The temperature at at the site we settled to look for this LBJ at the Horton Plains was just about 3 degrees centigrades! Not my cuppa tea! It was so cold that there was ground frost. Jesus Christ!

After 45 minutes of searching, I managed to spot one Sri Lanka Bush Warbler skulking in low bamboo thicket, thus making a clean sweep of the endemics. I suspect the reason for its inactivity at elevations low-down probably may be due to the very dry weather experienced at those sites.

Painted Stork
Painted Stork
A special highlight of the tour was seeing ten out of the fifteen resident night birds—with most offering multiple orgasmic views! This figure comprised of seven owls, two nightjars and the only frogmouth species found in Sri Lanka. This night bird number beat a previous high recorded on my tours of nine—seen on a 15- day birding tour in February, 2008 with four crack team of British birders.

Touching in the specifics of the haul of night birds and other things, our first owl of the trip was Chestnut-backed Owlet (shown below), and it was spotted by Keith while it was actively foraging at daytime close to our accommodation. The same species was seen moments later in another patch close by, with its characteristic call betraying its hide-out in the dense vegetation.

Chestnut-backed Owlet
Our second species of owl for the trip, a roosting Indian Scops Owl was picked by me quite by chance moments later, when I was looking for the skulking endemic, Green-billed Coucal in a thicket. We got decent views of the hoped for coucal and as dusk approached the scops owl cooperated at a more open branch to present us full view of its profile. Indian Scops Owl was recorded again at a nest hole towards the tail end of the holiday (that's like, work, for me) at Anuradhapura during the cultural leg.

Our day 2 at Kithulgala saw us getting cracking views of the highly-sought-after endemic, Serendib Scops Owl. This rain forest owl was discovered in 2001 and is one of the 2 ‘endangered’ endemics (which I believe should go up to 3 with Sri Lanka Bush Warbler added to it!). The other endemic bestowed with this conservation status, Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush gave an untickable view on our first dusk vigil, but did not disappoint us on our second attempt when a female showed up over 10 minutes. A change of strategy adopted by me did the trick for us: Keith and I occupying two different spots, at several metres apart, covering two vital angles. Both of us got it almost at once when the bird emerged secretly.

Our fourth Owl species for the trip and second for day two came in the form of a vocal Brown Fish Owl in flight. The same species gave cracking views at Nuwara Eliya, Sigiriya and Anuradhapura, the last at daytime courtesy of a mob of smaller birds harassing it.

Our fifth resident night bird for the trip came in the form of a brooding male Sri Lanka Frogmouth (shown below and again, at the very top) at Sinharaja on day three. Rather sadly, we learnt the on the following day from our local guide, Ranjaka, that this nest had been ‘predated’ under mysterious circumstances. A Human involvement was suspected, which if true, was very very sad.

Sri Lanka Frogmouth - a brooding male
The day three also brought us the ultra-elusive Brown Wood Owl, which was our fifth owl and sixth night bird for the trip. We manage to see the same species on the following day too courtesy a mob of short-tempered Sri Lanka Crested Drongos. They dive-bombed it with no mercy at dusk pin-pointing us of the exact location!

Several Indian Jungle Nightjars seen at Udawalawe on day six proved to be our seventh night bird for the trip. This species offered very good views at close range at Yala too. Our eighth night bird and sixth Owl for the trip seen at Sigiriya saw us cleaning up all three Scops Owls of Sri Lanka, when Keith expertly zeroed in on an Oriental Scops Owl on day thirteen. It was calling teasingly close for over fifteen minutes. Its location remained hidden in the dense foliage for most angles available. When we found it, we had to make do with unsatisfactory back views of it due to the location of its perch.

The following morning saw us making a return visit to this site for it. After a bit of hardwork, I spotted a pair of this cute little Owls at dawn to give absolutely stonking views within three metres. Sadly, we had no camera with either of us to record this moment of magic. (Isn't that typical!).

Crested Hawk Eagle Crested Hawk Eagle
Jerdon’s Nightjar spotted by Keith on a snag high up became our ninth night bird of the trip. That was again seen on day thirteen. A prolonged sighting of the same species in a low perch bettered this sighting three days later at Anuradhapura. Our last night bird for the trip was Common Barn Owl, a pair of which was recorded in a stake-out inside shrine in Polonnaruwa.

Concerted attempts at seeing Spot-bellied Eagle Owl, Brown Hawk Owl, Jungle Owlet and Sri Lanka Bay Owl failed on this tour. However, we came agonizingly close to seeing Sri Lanka Bay Owl, twice, but it just did not show up being vocal but staying uncooperatively hidden in dense foliage despite our best efforts to obtain an angle of view. This ultra secretive owl caused a mega twitch in Sri Lanka when it turned up in a daytime roost at Sinharaja in 2007. It is in public domain that at least one local bird watcher took a tuktuk tour all the way from Colombo to see it.

Great Thick-knee
Great Thick-knee on its knees
Our other birds of note recorded during the trip included Grey-headed Lapwing (vagrant & lifer for me seen at Yala thanks to US of Ceylon Bird Club who conveyed the news), Western Reef Egret (white morph one picked skilfully by Keith at Bundala, shown below), Legge’s Hawk Eagle (formely Mountain HE, great overhead views at Sinharaja), Chestnut-winged Crested Cuckoo (a lone individual outside a flock at Sinharaja), Fork-tailed Drongo Cuckoo (spotted expertly by Julie at Kithulgala), Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher (seen & photographed at point black range at Kithulgala), Indian Reed Warbler (in song at Bundala), Slaty-breasted Rail (Scarce resident with possible migrant populations supplementing resident populations during migratory season, seen at Tissamaharama), White-naped Woodpecker (punctual!), Kashmir Flycatcher (at least 4 sightings with the first being of an adult male), Pied Thrush (great views at Nuwara Eliya) Common Ringed Plover (a scarce migrant, not too exciting to Keith), Dollarbird (seen thanks to G. de Silva Wijeyeratne at Kithulgala) and Eurasian Collard Dove (a scarce resident in Sri Lanka seen at Annaiwilundawa RAMSAR wetland, not too exciting to Keith). A Slaty-legged Crake at Sinharaja, seen only by yours truly, was the only bird species that eluded Keith.

Western Reef Egret - white morph
We had exceptional views of the ultra-elusive Sri Lanka Spurfowls when a female followed by a male were seen over five minutes, walking in the dimly-lit forest floor, totally unaware that we were observing them from a ridge higher up! Such heart-melting sightings of this game bird are rare, and this was one of the best views that I have had of it for quite a long time guiding an overseas birder. Before that we had brief view of it at Kithulgala. It was a case of BVD.

Moving on to non-birding matters, the Leopard shown below (same individual as in the previous post) was clearly our top non-birding highlight. We were the only jeep at the site when we found it. It was first sighted at 5.30 p.m., while resting in a shady spot near a water hole named rawung-wala (meaning circular water-hole) at Meda-para at the Yala National Park—the premier site for Leopards in Sri Lanka. The cat was about 25 m away when we found it first. Soon after we killed the engine of our jeep to observe it, the cat stood up and walked towards the track in front of us. It then continued to walk along it for a while like this, soon going out of view in the bend ahead.

Leopard at Meda-para, Yala National Park
We then approached it to find it again, this time within 5 meters or so from it, enabling us to photograph it at close range. Finally, after giving a good long glance at our jeep, it retreated into the jungle and disappeared out of radar.
Leopard at Meda-para, Yala National Park
More non-birding specials, we saw a pair of Barking Deers (Indian Muntjak) at Welimada. My previous sightings of this deer species has always been at the massive Wilpattu National Park. We exchanged glances with a pair of these before they retreated to the woodier interiors.
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