Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Birding in Style

I guided a 15-day Birding in Style tour last December. It was with Stephen Lowe—a serious birder from the UK, and his non-birding family: his wife, Andrea (from the US); and two daughters, Ali and Christy, who are studying in Edinburgh, and Cambridge Universities, respectively.

The endemic Layard's Parakeet photographed using Canon EOS 40D  fitted with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens

Being a family birding trip with an influential lobby of non-birders, our birding was limited to walks in and around the bird-rich hotel gardens, and few visits to several key birding sites. Most of these were done while the girls enjoyed the beaches, infinity pools, spas and dining experiences at specialty restaurants. Therefore, this was very different to my Absolute Birding tour—in which we would spend most daylight hours birding as a group to see as many target birds as possible.

Infinity pool at Heritance Kandalama

In serving the wider interest of the family, we excluded a couple of key birding sites, namely, Kithulgala and Udawalawe National Park; instead included four nights at the beach to start proceedings. While the girls enjoyed the beach, Steve and I squeezed in a visit to the endemic hotspot, Sinharaja rain forest spending there two nights. Leading several a hardcore birding trips to this forest earlier in the season, I was fresh from field experience, and was in top form like a batsman with good match practice. That really helped in making quick work of the target birds.

The endemic Dull-blue Flycatcher photographed using Canon EOS 40D  fitted with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens

In the end, we managed to see a tally of 224 species of birds, and to Steve's surprise, all thirty-three endemic species of birds currently recognised! It was quite an achievement, considering that we did not visit the endemic hotspot Kithulgala—a site regularly visited on most organised bird watching tours. On serious birding trips we'd normally spend two nights at Kithulgala and three nights at Sinharaja—as longer time improves our chances of raking our target species in these lowland rain forest areas (situated in the only aseasonal ever-wet region of the whole of South Asia), where regular rainy weather can reduce birding time.

Although all endemics found in Kithulgala are also at Sinharaja rain forest, bird tours to Sri Lanka usually include Kithulgala, as certain endemics such as Chestnut-backed Owlet and Green-billed Coucal; and sought-after specials such as Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher, are much easier to see at there compared to at Sinharaja. In Kithulgala, the aforementioned bird species turn up in well-wooded home gardens bordering the rain forest; therefore are more tolerant of bipeds. This make them far easier to see and photograph at Kithulgala compared to Sinharaja, in my opinion. In fact most of my sightings of the Owlet at Sinharaja have been in towering canopy giants standing 35m high—not too easy on the neck, no.

A pair of Indian Scops Owls in a dayroost at Tissa, digiscoped using a Swarovski ATM-80 HD Spotting Scope with 25-50 x eyepiece and Nikon Coolpix P5100 Digital Camera coupled together with a Swarovski Universal Digiscoping Adapter (UDA).

Apart from the obvious highlights that are endemics, all of which were seen extremely well, some of our other birding highlights included Kashmir Flycatcher, Pied Thrush, Indian Blue Robin, Black-throated Munia, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Jerdon's Nightjar, Greater Painted Snipe, Slaty-legged Crake, Watercock, Common Hawk Cuckoo, Malabar Trogon, Sand Martin (a rare migrant to SL), Indian Scops Owl (a roosting pair) and Marshall's Iora (a newly rediscovered breeding resident).

A male Kashmir Flycatcher photographed using Canon EOS 40D fitted with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens

Our top mammalian highlight of the trip was this Leopard resting in a tree at Yala National Park, amidst pouring rain. The credit for this should go to Ali who nagged just enough to win an unscheduled third game drive to Yala to see a Leopard, on the morning we were to head to the hills. Our two visits done to Yala NP previously went Leopard-less.

A Leopard in pouring rain at Yala National Park - a record shot.

That soggy cat aside, Yellow-striped Chevrotain, Barking Deer, Ring-tailed Civet and Jungle Cat made up a tally of twenty-four or so species of mammals on this trip. Our butterfly list stood at forty species, and the specials included Indian Sunbeam (ovipositing in Pongamia pinnata near the lobby at Heritance Kandalama), Forget-me-not, Blue Oakleaf, Blue Admiral, and the national butterfly, Sri Lanka Birdwing.

Steve has written a wonderful trip report of his family trip.


Offthebeatentrack said...

You saw 224 species and all 33 endemics on one trip!! And it wasn't even a serious one? You have skills my friend!

Love the Yala shot, dunno what's going on but most of the shots I've seen since January from my friends and my own visits have been leopards up in trees...wonder why they've gotten aerial all of a sudden :)

Dee said...


Amila Salgado said...

Thank you Offthebeatentrack!
I was fresh with field knowledge from my serious birding tour ending two days before I started this one. I think that helped to make a quick work of the endemics. Besides, December is a very birdy month in SL anyway.

Leopards: I think with lots of sharp observers visting Yala, we are finding more of them in their arboreal hideouts.
Gracias Dee!

Anonymous said...

I absolutely LOVE your photos!
The parrot is so cute and the owls... awwww

Amila Salgado said...

Hi Aluajala,
Thanks a lot!
Pleased to hear from you.

Me-shak said...

Wow, theses are truly amazing pictures! I love the owls.
Excellent stuff G :D
Looking forward for more!

Phil Slade said...

Love the Dull-blue Flycatcher - a new one on me. Birds are never dull, should rename it Subtle-blue Flycatcher

Amila Salgado said...

Hi Mee-shak,
Thank you sir!
Hi Phil,
Good suggestion!
Honestly, I too think it deserves a better sounding name. What is worse is scientific name Eumiyas sordidus aka sodidus suggests that it is a dirty/shabby flycatcher - a clear scientific insult!

Stuart Price said...

Sounds like a great trip.

Dull-blue Flycatcher. LOL! What a funny name for a bird, I have a mental image of other birds avoiding it at parties because it's so dull.

Amila Salgado said...

Hi Stu,
haha...good one!
An older name for it was Dusky-blue Flycatcher, which is not as derogatory.

Kirigalpoththa said...

I also thought that leopard shot is quite a unique one. Guess you were also quite soggy after the safari trip :)

Super shot of the Infinity pool too!

Amila Salgado said...

Hi K,
We were quite drenched in the end, but managed to keep our cameras and optical gear dry. Never been so wet at Yala!

flowergirl said...

Hey Amila, guess what, I saw my first leopard-in-the wild too! At Ranthambore, up on the rocks! Wonderful to see it through the binoculars, thought it was too far away for our little cameras.

And are all the indian birds emigrating to SL?! Hmailayan flycatcher, Indian Scops owl, etc etc?!

Thats a pretty awesome tally for a non-serious birding trip!

Amila Salgado said...

Hi Flowergirl,
Congratulations on your first Leopard in the wild! A distant view is better than nothing and I am happy for you!

We do get a fair number of birds coming here with Indian passports!
However, not all birds with the country-name prefix, 'India' are migrants, for some of them are breeding-residents. The Indian Scops Owl and the Indian Roller are good examples for that.

I am pleased with the numbers of this trip.

flowergirl said...

Indian Scops Owl and the Indian Roller - Non-resident Indians?!

See my latest rhyme, when you have the time.

Good luck for the T20 championships!

We were of course over-the-moon with the CSK win in the IPL final. A big thanks to Murali for that as well.

Amila Salgado said...

To be brutally honest, they both do not deserve to be labelled as 'Indians', for both the species were first described from specimens collected by Loten between 1752-1757 from SRI LANKA.

Love your poems, thanks for the invitation. I am suffering from sleep deprivation from watching too many T-20 matches. Super8s should be good and I am looking forward for them eagerly. Murali is worn off when he is required to play for SL. Love to see Raina and Mahela in full song.

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