Thursday, 26 August 2010

Of Courting Cuckoos, Butterflies That Make Me Go Weak in the Knees & Stuff

I joined a bird watching trip of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka from 21–24 Aug., 2010.

It was led by Prof. Sarath Kotagama, whose book Kurullan Narambamu [කුරුල්ලන් නරඹමු (Let's Watch Birds)] was my first field guide in 1989, after getting hooked on birds in the same year. The good professor turned 60 during this trip; few members organised a surprise cake in celebration—which turned out to be his first b'day cake! And for that reason or another, only a single candle was lit on the cake.

Black-hooded Oriole at the Rajarata University premises where we stayed overnight.

On the birding front, we did well, seeing 110 species of birds. The most interesting bird sighting (for me) was two early Barn Swallows that I spotted on 24 Aug. They were flying over a roadside wetland birding stop between Mihintale and Ritigala. This is the earliest date for this migratory bird for me; my previous best was 25 Aug., 2007 at the Udawalawe National Park.

I also picked a Wood Sandpiper (one on 23 Aug., and several on 25 Aug.).  A Common Sandpiper spotted by "Sir" was our third migratory bird for the trip.

On popular request, I did a 10-minute night walk with several keener participants, and pulled out a Jerdon's Nightjar—a lifer for all. I wasn't comfortable in going on for longer; all participants, including I, had no "proper footwear" needed for serious night explorations. (I packed for this trip with an economy that would have put Mr. Bean to shame.)

The 7cm Pale-billed Flowerpecker—the epitome of avian downsizing in Sri Lanka. 

We had mixed weather with cloudy and sunny conditions. The rain experienced in patches did not get in the way of birding. Instead, it cooled the weather and made the unrelenting August sun—relenting.

The endemic Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (male). This was rather abundant in the Rajarata uni. gardens.

My top behavioural observation was to do with a pair of Jacobin Cuckoos in courtship.
Spotting a perched individual of this cuckoo, we noticed it going all jittery—a display that consisted of wing-shivering accompanied by jerky head movements. In no time, it was joined by another Jacobin Cuckoo with a caterpillar in its beak. The latter then mounted on the jittery one, offering the morsel of food it held in its beak. This was followed with mating—when the female appeared to be distracted by food.

Here are the paparazzi captures.

Jacobin Cuckoos displaying courtship feeding, which led to mating.

These captures didn't come off the way I liked. The camera being at a wrong setting (with a higher ISO and lower shutter speed), and the scene being a twiggy one were the reasons for that.

Anyway, here's a better take, postcoital.

Jacobin Cuckoos after correcting camera settings.

Studying the photographs post-retuning-home, I saw through a cunning plan of the male.

That was during mating, the male had not let go of the caterpillar completely; instead, it had held on to a part of it in its beak—seemingly to keep the female waiting until it finished mating! I think the male was holding on to the caterpillar like a bargaining tool to seal the deal.

The cunning deal.

Moving on to matters non-birding and non-voyeuristic, I stumbled this cryptic Spotted Tree Frog Polypedates maculatus during a forest walk close to Kebithigollewa.

This particular individual was not all that spotted as the vernacular goes, but then, it is not unusual for it to be not spotty. This is one of the Gembas that turn up in toilets in the dry zone.

I also found a Sri Lanka Painted Frog hiding inside a tiny slit of a tree at the Rajarata University, where we stayed overnight.

This Oriental Scarlet Crocothemis servillia servillia was one of the dragonflies that cooperated. This is a female.

Our top reptilian highlight was an Agamid lizard described in 2005, Otocryptis nigristigma—the dry zone cousin of the Kangaroo Lizard Otocryptis wiegmanni found in the wet zone. It was spotted by a keen naturalist at the Rajarata University.

Butterflies dominated my non-birding highlights. Here are eleven of them—all photographed on this tour.

Family: Papilionidae.

Banded Peacock Papilio crino.
This is one of those butterflies that make me go weak in the knees.

We had this individual at Mihintale on day 2. It was nectaring on the flowers of Carissa spinarum (Heen Karamba in Sinhala), before perching within a few feet from me.

During a marathon lounging session in my garden, sometime ago, I saw a flash of peacock green luminescence. It at once registered in my head: "Banded Peacok." The fact that I was in my garden, in my laze, came to me little a bit late. And the delayed realisation that followed: "Banded Peacock in My Garden!" was truly an ethereal moment.

Bluebottle Graphium sarpedon teredon.
Uraji Karunaratne, an ardent Royal supporter, spotted this and shared it with me. This year's rugby captain of Royal, Duminda Attygalle, is her nephew, I learnt. (St. Peter's won the two matches played this year with Royal, after two amazing games of rugby: 22-20 in the first, and 29-27 in the second—the latter which was dubbed as the "Injuction Cup Finals," for reasons that I cannot go into detail here.)

Lime Butterfly Papilio demoleus demoleus.
Photographed close to Kebithigollewa.

Family: Danaidae.

Blue Tiger Tirumala limniace leopardus.
I got a decent sequence of this.

Family: Pieridae.

Blue Wanderer Pareronia ceylanica ceylanica.
Another butterfly that makes me go weak in the knees. I have had a few close encounters in the past, but when it happed, never have I had a camera. So when this male arrived at the Carissa tree that the first one was nectaring on—I was near collapse!

Family: Satyridae.

Tamil Bushbrown Mycalesis visala subdita.
Spotted at the same spot as above.

Family: Lycaenidae.

Monkey-puzzle Rahinda amor.
I photographed this on day 3, just before I stumbled the cryptic frog. This uncommon beauty is a sought-after species by butterfly enthusiasts, so I am very pleased about it.

Lime Blue Chilades lajus lajus.
I shot this near the vehicle park at Ritigala. This is a common species also found in my home garden.

Family: Pieridae.

Lesser Albatross Appias paulina galene.
Seen soon after the Bluebotte.

Small Salmon Arab Colotis amata modesta.
A common species in dry zone.

Family: Nymphalidae.

Chocolate Soldier Junonia iphita pluviatalis.
A common species also found in my garden. This was photographed at Ritigala.

Moving on to more other stuff, the best meal of the trip was an artery-clogging Sri Lankan breakfast—free!—thanks to the member and participant Asitha Samarawickrama, 17, whose Uncle, Malik Samarawickrama, had a bridal wear factory at Madawachchiya. (I thought Sir played his cards really close to his chests, stopping there on our way to Kebithigollewa on day 3.) Everybody who joined this excursion barring a fasting Muslim girl from the Rajarata University partook this tasty breakfast, which consisted of string hoppers, chicken curry, fish white curry, coconut sambol, bread, spicy dhal curry, milk rice, lunu miris; plus tea and juice to wash 'em down. Asitha's Farther, Lalin Samarawickrama (brother of Malik Samarawickrama), is the Managing Director of Amaya Resorts & Spas. So the Samarawickrama's knew their hospitality too well.

And finally, here is the cast—the heros, villains, jokers, lovers, sinners, and midnight toker talkers—that made this production possible. One actress is missing though. Any guesses who that is, FOGSL people?

Click on images to view them sharper.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Coucal Chronicle—1

A pair of "Southern" Coucals nesting in my garden has been having it tough.

First, the nest, built atop a coconut tree, was dropped to the ground by a coconut picker; he'd not realised that it was a nest. There were some extenuating citrcumstances for this. The nest was held together by strips of coconut leaves in the outer side. It is normal for coconut pickers to clear area around the coconuts, of dead leaves and things first, before finding the right ones to pick. With its coconut leafy disguise, the nest had been hard to detect for our fellow. (I didn't know that there was such a nest until this accident happened.)

On the grounded nest, were three little devils like this.

One was already dead, probably as a result of the impact of the fall.
I got the coconut picker to put the nest back at its original spot with the two remaining chicks. However, this operation did not work out well as planned; the heavy rains later during the day was one of the reasons.

And that was the end of that. 

A few days after this, I found the coucals taking nesting material to a thicket near one of the ponds. Leaf by leaf, they finished the nest with a lot of hard work. I was happy to see them moving on after the tragedy. Sadly, this happiness was short lived, as a Spectacled Cobra predated their eggs.

Startled by the mobbing parent birds, the cobra had dropped itself down to make an escape, only to find a water hazzard.

It was quite graceful on water, yet the pond's wall was too steep for it to make an escape. So I had to fish it out.

And then, it was time for some mug shots!

The full view.

See how it has got a bulge on the unraised part? That would be the coucal eggs in its belly.

By the way, here's why it earns the "spectacled" part of its name.

And that was the end of that nesting episode.  

Undaunted, the coucals used this nest again to raise another brood. Sadly, this too was short-lived as the nestlings were predated by Jungle Crows—which too appeared to be having hungry chicks from the looks of things.

Now the coucals are putting together a new nest—this time in a coffee thicket—where a pair of Indian Scops Owls roosted sometime ago.

I hope the nesting woes of the coucals will be over this time.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Indian Roller

I am a bit under the weather. And it may be because of friggatriskaidekaphobia! So I will be quick. While guiding Dr. Gil Ewing from Calif., USA, last April, I photographed this Indian Roller at the Bundala National Park. I have not cropped this image. Which means this was my original composition. We were able to get really close to this birds from our safari jeep. After we were done, we left it where it was, and drove on to find a similarly obliging Grey-headed Fish Eagle. That will have to wait for another post.

I am looking forward for the cricket. I hope the Kiwis will get friggatriskaidekaphobia and lose the match to Sri Lanka.

Edit: Malinga, Mathews set up comfortable win [for Sri Lanka].

Monday, 9 August 2010

Sinharaja with the Taylors

Soon after returning from the bird photography tour with Felix Ng and co., last February, I guided a 3-day trip to Sinharaja ‘world heritage’ rain forest. It was with Dave and Paddie Taylor from Southport, UK. They were keen naturalists; thus, we never ran out of things to appreciate.

Our birding was extremely successful—we bagged twenty-two out of the thirty-three endemic birds currently recognised (according to Birds of South Asia by Dr. Pamela Rasmussen). These included the Serendib Scops Owl at a day roost. Discovered in 2001, it is one of the two endangered endemics found Sri Lanka, and was a great find given the short duration of the trip. To use a birding slang, it really was a crippler. We also found a roadside nest of a Sri Lanka Frogmouth with a brooding male in it. It was different to what was seen in late January.

The fruiting Symplocos cochinchinensis (Bombu in Sinhala), found in forest edges with secondary growth, were drawing a lot of birds, as I found in late January. These included the endemic Yellow-fronted Barbet (shown above), and the Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon—a “bonus bird” for Sinharaja—as it is essentially a highland endemic.

And then, we had this male Legge's Flowerpecker, the males of which sport colours of a certain champion rugby school in Sri Lanka. Cough, cough.

The tree it is on is the endemic pioneerDillenia triquetra (Diyapara in Sinhala).

Our top mammal for the trip was a Grey Red Slender Loris that I spotted. This nocturnal primate is endemic and uncommon; we were quite lucky to find it near our accommodation. Apart from this, we also came across a lone Sambar, several Giants Squirrels, and plenty of Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys.

We saw a good array of 'large-format' butterflies: Sri Lanka Birdwing, Red Helan, Blue Mormon, Sri Lanka Tree Nymph, and Clipper—all which provided soothing distractions while birding.

I spotted a Green Pit Viper, which was the top reptilian highlight. It is often found perfectly merged to the low vegetation close to streams and moist patches. During daytime, it is quite sluggish, preferring to stay still in a chosen spot, relying on its protective resemblance to avoid detection.

Some of you may remember that I have a special liking for boots. Well, it is mainly because my line of work takes me to places where snakes are frequently found. During the last winter birding season, my favourite pair of wellington boots got worn out like the last molar of an old elephant. So I found myself back in the market. And last week, I bought myself a new pair of wellies from the Malwatte Road. If you want to got shopping for a good pair of wellies, that's the place to go! I paid Rs. 900 for mine. More than the great bargain, it was way better than what was available at the bigger stores. The ones sold in the latter are either too short, making wading through small streams challenging; or have harder back quarters, making walking, a nightmare. I think they may be good for mowing lawns and such gardening stuff. But for people like us, who use them on rugged terrain, those gardening types just wouldn't do.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Sri Lanka Painted Frog

Meet the Sri Lanka Painted Frog aka. Sri Lanka Bull Frog Kaloula taprobanica (Parker, 1934), an amphibian endemic to Sri Lanka and South India. This frog is peculiar in that during drier times, it leads a subterranean life—at times being found 10–12 feet under! It comes out during wet weather for breeding, and I found the above individual on my lawn on 14 July, 2010. This day turned out to be rainy towards the evening, resulted by a monsoonal high.

On 17 July, another rainy day, I found another Sri Lanka Painted Frog—this time, would you believe, inside my house! Compared to the previous one, it was less-colourful, fatter, and full of attitude; it was probably a female (based on at least two of those attributes).

The species name: taprobanica refers to taprobane—how Sri Lanka was known to Greeks and Romans since pre-Christian times. Taprobane had derived from the local name that was in use in the past: Thambapanni (aka. Thambrapanni), which means "copper-coloured palms". The legend has it that the palms of the hands of the ancient settlers, who arrived in Lanka from northern India in the 6th century B.C., became copper coloured when they sat on the shore following landfall. (No doubt their backsides too would have turned the same colour, but historians make no such referrence.) Thereon, the newfound land of those ancient settlers came to be known as Thambapanni. As mentioned above, it later became known as Taprobane for people in the West, who came here in search of gems, spices, and elephants—the latter were famously used for wars of Alexander the Great. (Onesicritus, a historical writer who accompanied the latter, claimed that elephants from Taprobane were larger and more pugnacious than those of India.)

Guiding some visitors from USA, I first visited the general area of the aforementioned legendary site of landfall in 2004. One such site: Kudremalai, situated bordering the Indian ocean inside the massive Wilpattu National Park, to my surprise, had rusty coloured soil all over, evidently following volcanic geological events in the past. Here's how the soil looked—with a Fan-throated Lizard Sitana ponticeriana as eye candy.

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