Friday, 20 March 2009

Daylight robbery

A robber in my garden
Since yersterday, I have been an eye-witness to a robbery taking place in my home garden at broad daylight. A pair of robber flies has taken residence on some of the sticks that I have erected to invite dragonflies to perch. Ssing them as launching pads, the robbers have been launching precision air strikes to hunt on various tiny insects.

With their large compound eyes and three simple eyes situated in the depression in betweeen, they have amazing eye sight, and hardly any fly in the vicinity that falls within their target size goes unnoticed.

On several occassions I saw a perched individual fly in the opposite direction to take insect prey in mid-air!This particular species of robber fly, measured barely a centimetre in length, was a pretty amazing killing machine.
A robber in my garden
Once the victim is caught in mid air, it returns to the perch to 'process' the meal. First, it uses its short proboscis to inject venom— its saliva containing neurotoxic, and proteolytic enzymes to first paralyze, and then to digest the insect's inner parts. Thereafter, puting its proboscis to good use, it cold-bloodedly sucks the liquified meal like a milkshake.

And once it is done, the victim's lifeless outer casing is discarded like a used satchet.

A robber in my garden
Robbers belong to insect order: Diptera to which 'true flies' belong. They possess a single pair of wings. All Robbers belong to the family, Asilidae. Their quite impressive prey menu includes other flies, beetles, butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, spiders, dragonflies, damselflies and grasshoppers!

A robber in my garden

Monday, 16 March 2009

Leopards galore

Leopard at point blank range, Yala National Park
I am a firm believer that for getting ‘tickable views’ of rare species on tours that are usually limited in duration, you need lots of good luck. You can be a birder or a naturalist with good field craft & have all the latest tools in the trade, but if you don’t have enough luck, you are bound to head back home empty-handed.
Over the years of guiding birders and naturalists I have met persons of varying levels of field craft. Some of them were extremely skilled naturalists but they just lacked that luck factor while others were average as far as field craft was concerned but brought with them lots of luck to the equation. Naturally, with the latter types we end up seeing lots of specials, surpassing expectations. No other person that I have guided so far had bought field craft and luck in equal high measures as Dr. Andreas Prevodnik of Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.
Leopard at Yala National Park
I had the fortune of guiding him on what turned out to be a high-adrenaline ‘Bird and Natural History’ tour from 10-17 Feb. This tour came to me through Red Dot Tours, a British Tour Operator to which I freelance in between my tours. It turned out to be an absolutely fantastic trip in terms of both numbers and quality of sightings. We both worked tirelessly and ended up bagging a whopping 216 species of birds including 31 of the 33 endemics currently recognized, which was quite something given the short duration of the trip. We missed out on the Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon and Sri Lanka Small Barbet. Our best efforts to see them failed, driving home, another crucial fact - you sometimes need time too!
Our final bird tally included 6 of the 15 resident night birds, which included Serendib Scops Owl, Chestnut-backed Owlet, Brown Wood Owl, Indian Scops Owl, Indian Jungle Nightjar & Sri Lanka Frogmouth – another brooding male shown below cooperating to offer stunning views.

A special natural history highlight of the trip was seeing 7 Leopards in 2 game drives at the amazing Yala National Park. Four of these were recorded on the first game drive. We just couldn’t stay away from Leopards at Yala on this tour as they turned up every time we were after other targets. I hate to admit this, but Leopards were a big distraction on this tour!
The first of the Leopards to grace our visit to Yala (shown at the top) settled under the shade of a tree by the roadside at the beginning of the Uraniya road and gave us stonking views just, 2.5m away from our safari - after 30 minutes from entering the park.
Our second Leopard found at an area casually named as ‘Ahelagas-wala’ at the famous Leopard zone, Meda-para was this stubborn cub, who refused to give us any decent look at it except a bum view.
Leopard at Yala National Park
Our third Leopard only offered a fleeting glimpse as it crossed the track a bit ahead of the location where the above brat cub was 'misbehaving'. Our fourth and final Leopard was sighted in full view close to Uraniya road when it came down to the ground from a Palu tree when we were exiting the park.
Our 5 & 6th Leopards were spotted together on our second safari, guarding over a Water Buffalo kill from a safe distance. Despite their intimidating presence near the carcass, a Golden Jackal, and a Wild Boar and several birds crashed the party and helped themselves for a quick McBuffalo meal. Here’s what happened, shot from about 70m away.

When we were observing this, news arrived that a male Leopard is out in the open at the nearby Palugaswewa No.1. We wasted no time in going for it to find this beautiful Leopard. (note: the colours are wrong.)
Leopard at Yala National Park
It was well worth it as this male really put up a show for us with a curious male Sri Lanka Junglefowl also playing a support role. Check this out.

We also chanced upon 2 Jungle Cats outside the park while returning to our accommodation on the 2 days that we visited the park. Andreas photographed one of them at point blank range.
Apart from the endemics, our other birding highlights include Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher, Malayan Night Heron (adult in clear view – easily my best sighting ever), Painted Snipe, White-cheeked Tern, Western Reef Egret, Western Marsh Harrier, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Watercock, Black-necked Stork, Pied Thrush, Fork-tailed Drongo Cuckoo, Small Pratincole, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Blue-faced Malkoha, Indian Pitta, Indian Blue Robin, Rufous Woodpecker, Marshall’s Iora, Black Bittern, Yellow Bittern & Streaked Weaver.
Sri Lanka Frogmouth
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