Thursday, 23 April 2009

What is your binocular?

Mine used to Leica Trinovid 10 x 42. Its current price in Adorama is $1,395, but if you shop around you can find cheaper offers.

I paid Rs. 65,000 for mine in April, 2002. It was a slightly used one, but I didn't mind that as a brand new Leica Trinovid was beyond my reach. Before this, I had two binoculars—Bresser "Shark" 7 x 24, and Bresser 7 x 50 "Action"—both received as birthday gifts when I was younger. Sadly, both of these didn't stand my abuse under field conditions for long.

So, I found myself in the market for a pair of binocs again.

For much of my early years as a budding bird watcher—I used no optical aids—for reasons beyond my control. A proof for this is this picture taken on 11 May, 1990 on my first trip to Horton Plains National Park. (I am the sweetest one of the lot.)

My first trip to Horton Plains National Park

This highland trip was led by the bloke in shorts—one Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi—who as this picture testifies shows, was at the prime of his youth.

Kelum (ayya) is a celebrated biologist in Sri Lanka now. He has discovered and described countless number of vetebrates new to science from Sri Lanka, and have gone on to author, and co-author papers such as this, this, this, this and this.

By the way, today marks 19 years since my first trip to the Sinharaja rain forest. It was with the school's nature club from 23-25 April, 1990. I will be making a private trip to Sinharaja to celebrate this special anniversary, later this month.

Coming back to binocs, in late February, 2009, I treated myself for a Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42.
Being a top of the range binocs, it came at a big price tag of $1,660.(It was actually $1,825, but I got this special deal thanks to Ben Allen). However, its superior light gathering power—helpful in low-light conditions, increased depth of field and jaw-dropping overall optical quality amply justified the premium price that I paid for this toy.

As a naturalist guide, I often find myself birding in dense and dimly-lit rain forests conditions. I have experienced that the visual clarity of this binoculars is markedly better in dimly-lit conditions compared to my previous model. This was really evident when I trained my new toy on the cryptically-coloured Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush at the Sinharaja rain forest during a recent tour. The light garthering power was just amazing.

In early this month, having arrived early at Haputale to pick up a few bird watchers to start a tour, I found myself birding in their hotel gardens. There, I picked a pair of Tickell's Blue Flycatchers down a ravine. When I focused on one of them, I was simply blown away by the vivid colours that I was seeing. I have seen this bird for many years; however, it has never occured to me before that this bird has such a gorgeous blue patch in the forehead. Perhaps, I may have overlooked this feature before.

According to the specifications, the Swarovski EL binoculars allows a minimum close focusing distance of 8ft, which is ideal for odonatoholics like me. This excellent review says that you can achieve a minimum focus of 7 feet, which I think is probably right although I have never measured it precisely.

If you are an avid bird watcher who is in the market for a pair of binoculars, prefer nothing but the best, and don't mind paying a little more in exchange of quality optical experiences, go for these.

I like this comment mentioned by a reviewer in Amazon:
"Looking through these things is like ingesting some kind of powerful drug. One is transported into a new reality, one in which even mundane objects become endlessly interesting..."

So, what is your binocular?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

I breathe from my rectum

I have for most parts, a watery existence. I can propel in the water by forcing out water that I have sucked in from my rectum. Yes, you guessed right, I have a multi-purpose rectum. In order to prevent fecal matter from contaminating the rectal cavity and messing up my oxygen intake, I excrete them in carefully processed packets. So, you squeamish types, relax.

I have an enlarged and a ‘teethed’ lower lip that I can shoot out at 1/100th of a second to as much as 1/3 of my body length to catch prey. This remarkable speed is achieved by internal hydraulics in my body. I have a voracious appetite and I am labelled as one of the top carnivores in freshwater habitats. Eventually, I transform into a beauty totally different to my rough looks and questionable ways of life.

Just who am I?

Answer this correctly and win a signed printed copy of any of the images in this blog. Multiple correct answers may necessitate a draw.

On other matters: I made a mistake in my previous post. That image was not shot at 5 times the life size. The one below was. It is uncropped image as the previous one.

I am watching you

Monday, 20 April 2009

Macro Monday

I am watching you

This is a head-on shot of the one shown in my previous post. I photographed it yesterday at 5 times the life size. I am still awaiting a verdict on its ID, so don't ask me what it is. We do not have a guide to these types in this country still. So, I have sought ID help from an 'informed source'.

I did two tours in April. The images of the first of these were downloaded to my desktop computer and it has gone in for repairs. It should take about a week for it to be back in working condition. Due to this, my April trip reports will take a while to appear here. In the meantime, I promise to do a post on my dragonfly pond and brief you of its progress.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Birding in style

I did an 18-day ‘birding in style’ tour from 24 February to 10 March. It was with four bird watchers from Australia and England. This was my first birding in style tour. And it was put together for Ben Allen from Perth. He was joined by his wife Fiona, her mother Shirley and their birding friend, Sybil Sassoon—the latter two Brits—both born in 1932! This was the first trip to Sri Lanka for the first three, but for Sybil it was the fourth— having led tour groups in 1973, 1982 and 1994! She remembered seeing Leopard and Sloth Bear very well at the Wilpattu National Park in her previous visits, and was very pleased when we found this massive Leopard— one of the two we encountered—at the spectacular Yala National Park. Sybil and the African specialists in all of them noted that this was the biggest individual they have seen. I was happy to hear that.

We found it when we were leaving the park and it just kept walking like this.

Leopard at Yala National Park
And pausing briefly... checking us out, before disappearing.

My ‘birding in style’ tour uses swanky accommodations, which include 5-star nature resorts, and boutique hotels—with good garden birding, and top recreational facilities. It is operated at a much slower pace compared to serious birding tours, in which we aim to see as many birds as possible. This relaxed pace is mainly for one thing—to enjoy no-nonsense arm-chair birding! Very important, our slow approach also leaves us enough time to experience such guest facilities as spas, and infinity pools in the posh accommodations we use. Special dining experiences also mark another crucial element of this tour with international buffets, fine dining, and a good mix of Sri Lankan cuisine for those who are adventurous enough.

One of the trappings of being a tour guide, is that I too get to experience the same facilities and experiences as my guests, more often than not.

I'll explian a day at Heritance Kandalama:

A hour and half of morning birding—starting at 7.00 a.m., breakfast buffet, 40 minutes of post breakfast arm-chair birding near the hotel's rock pool, followed by an extended time at leisure to do our own thing.

For me the latter included, a bit of bird-sound recording, watching cricket in the TV, volunteering to sample a complimentary spa treatment that Ben didn't want to do, lounging by the pool with everybody—scoping birds that visit a fig tree near the pool with a chilled Carlsberg as an observational aid.

Buffet lunch.

A post-lunch power-nap, two and a half hours of absorbing late-afternoon birding in the hotel gardens, a shower, checklist over drinks.

A ‘Mongolian night’ buffet dinner.

More TV before finally retiring for the day.
Crickey mate! This job, guiding, can take a lot of ya!

Such pure pampering and holiday spirit notwithstanding, we managed to see 230 species of birds on this tour, which included thirty out of the thirty-three endemics. The endemics we didn’t see were the very endemics we didn’t bother to look for—the Serendib Scops Owl, the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler and the Sri Lanka Spurfowl—a troublesome trio—which my clients unanimously decided to let go.

Our final bird tally included six of the fifteen resident night birds. We also scored twenty-seven mammals on this tour including all four mongooses found in Sri Lanka. This included a species that is getting rarer, the Stripe-necked Mongoose, which was expertly spotted by Sybil close to the legendary Rawana Falls.
While there are many highlights on a tour such as this, spanning over 18-days, some stay in memory for very special reasons. They are as follows in no particular order.

(a) A White-throated Kingfisher beating the hell out of a 'Tawny-bellied Babbler prey', captured in a crude video by me below.

(b) A Chestnut-winged Crested Cuckoo that came to a frutting fig near the natural rock pool at Kandalama minutes after settling to do some arm-chair birding. Beautiful.
(c) A flock of 21 Greater Flamingos flying over at Malala lagoon at the Bundala (Ramsar wetland) National Park, which was first picked up by yours truly. According to the local park guide, these were the first for this migratory season, and first GFs after a lapse of several years in Bundala. Check this out to find why.

(d) Four sightings of Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush—three in the morning and one in the afternoon at Nuwara Eliya.
(e) A Slaty-legged Crake spotted by me in the forest floor from a moving vehicle while driving along the road leading to Heritance Kandalama. It turned out to be an addition to the hotel’s bird list, which increased to 173-bird species. This was seen again at Nuwara Eliya—only by yours truly
(f) Two puddle birding sessions that saw us raking in a high profile communal bathing party that included Indian Blue Robin (4), Orange-headed Thrush (4), White-rumped Shama (2), Brown-capped Babbler (about 3), Emerald Dove (1), Indian Pitta (1) and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (about 2). The lighting was poor but this video gives a taste of what we experienced.

(g) Observing a full-blown mixed-species bird flock while seated in arm-chairs at the Research camp at Sinharaja.
Apart from the endemics and other birds mentioned specifically above, some of our other avian specials included Kashmir Flycatcher, Pied Thrush, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Watercock, Sirkeer Malkoha, Blue-faced Malkoha, Marshall’s Iora aka. White-tailed Iora (2 sightings in two locations), Fork-tailed Drongo Cuckoo, Lesser Adjutant, Common Hawk Cuckoo (not common – and a potential split), Malabar Pied Hornbill, Indian Blackbird (potential split), Small Pratincole (nesting on the road at Bundala), Yellow-fronted Pied Woodpecker, Indian Pygmy Woodpecker, Brahminy Myna, Brown Fish Owl, and Barn Owl, which is a locally uncommon bird.
Oh! we also had a nesting Red-vented Vermin Bulbul at the reception of the Heritance Kandalama. This eccentric mother was brooding with a ready-to-fledge chick by the side of her nest!

Red-vented Bulbul - unusal nest
Here's Sybil getting her daily dose of arm-chair birding.

Sybil arm chair birding - almost
Ben was kind enough to do some important shopping for me before coming to Sri Lanka. He and the 'party' presented me with two superb books: one on ‘close-up photography’ and the other on ‘night bugs’, which I am eagerly consuming at the moment. Thank you all for such a superb trip – one of my best!

 Jeez, I can do with some of those pampering now!
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