Thursday 30 September 2010

Absolute Birding–March, 2010

For its number of ridiculously easy photo moments of not-so-easy birds, a 14-day Absolute Birding tour that I guided in March, 2010, will always rank high on my mind's list. I mean birds like this Dull-blue Flycatcher that sat on a fern stem and forgot to fly.

Like this Sirkeer Malkoha, which accosted us so close that I could only capture it with my point and shoot, Coolpix 5100 with just x 4 optical zoom. As the shadow reveals, we were birding at the midday heat on this occassion.

Like this endangered Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush that sat before us delivering its exuberant song, rewarding an early morning vigil beside a ravine in a cloud forest.

Like this Small Pratincole that froze close to the jeep track at the Bundala National Park; we got the message—that it may be nesting nearby—and left the scene, leaving it at peace.

And like this Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, which tested our fast action photography skills under low light at the Hakgala Botanical Gardens. It was busy foraging for a juvenile.

All these were recorded when I guided David Thrussel and Chris Holtby from the UK on a 14-day Absolute Birding tour from 14–27 March, 2010. Dave and Chris wielded Canon 40D cameras fitted with Canon 100-400mm, and Canon EF 300mm f/4.0 L lenses respectivelty. Chris also used 1.4 x converter at the start, but soon gave it up, opting for higher clarity without it. My rig at that time was similar to Dave's. (Since the middle of this year, I use Canon EOS1D Mark IV; my 40D now collects dust.)

We found 230 species of birds including all 33 endemic birds currently recognised. A top highlight was seeing 12 out of the 15 resident night birds in Sri Lanka. My previous best tally of night birds on a tour lasting 14-days or more was when I showed 10 night birds in early 2009, guiding two Brits.

The dozen night birds seen on this tour were Indian Scops Owl (Katunayake, Kithulgala, and Tissa), Serendib Scops Owl (Kithulgala), Oriental Scops Owl (Sigiriya), Brown Hawk Owl (Kithulgala), Brown Fish Owl (Sigiriya), Brown Wood Owl (Kandy), Spot-bellied Eagle Owl (Kandy), Chestnut-backed Owlet (Kithulgala), Jungle Owlet (close to Tissa), Little Indian Nighthar (Udawalawe, Yala, and Sigiriya), Jerdon's Nightjar (Yala, and Sigiriya), and Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Kithulgala, and Sinharaja). We heard an Indian Jungle Nightjar at Sigiriya, but it didn't cooperate.

A pair of Indian Scops Owls was seen at a daytime roost at Tissa. Here's one of them.

We saw the Jungle Owlet at a patch close to Tissamaharama on three out of three days we birded there. During one of these occasions, it waited long enough to let me digiscope it using my Swarovski ATM-80HD scope and Nikon Coolpix 5100 coupled with a Swarovski Universal Digiscoping Adapter (UDA).

Before meeting Dave and Chris, I have always been reluctant to try high ISO, slow-shutterspeed, handheld captures of birds in dimly lit rain forest conditions because the results have been mostly unsatisfactory. Yes, I used to be picky bird photographer. This made my approach to bird photography largely one-dimensional—engaging on it only when the ambient light was favourable.

However, this approach underwent a radical transformation after meeting Dave and Chris.

Their bold and unrelenting approach to photographing birds, often in conditions that I usually preferred to just enjoy watching birds, was too hard not to copy. Of course there was an invisible competitive element to it too: three boys with similar toys.

The result?
I was able to get captures such as above roosting Sri Lanka Frogmouths—shot 1/40 at ISO1250—an altogether uncharted territory before March, 2010!

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Sinharaja with FOGSL–2010

I am back from a trip to Sinharaja rain forest with the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) from 9-12 September, 2010. Prof. Kotagama, who usually leads this annual birding pilgrimage couldn't join us on the first two days because of some commitments. So, the main responsibilities of guiding on "birds and related matters" fell on me—as in 2007 and 2008. This year's trip had twenty-eight participants—mostly newbies.

Prof. Kotagama joined us from the late afternoon's bird walk on 11 Sep. onwards. And in that evening, we listened to his traditional lecture: "History of Sinharaja, and Mixed-species Bird Flocks"—the research of which is being spearheaded by him since the 80s.

We saw a total of 42 44 species of birds. This was fewer than what you'd normally see on a similar length tour to the dry zone. But, the important thing was, nearly 50% of our Sinharaja tally comprised of endemics—and new birds to most participants. So what we lacked in quantity, we certainly made up with quality.

We had a good mixture of rainy and sunny weather, as it is usual for this time of the year. I had absolutely no complains about the rain; I like my rain forests wetter and lusher.

We had the services of Dee as our local guide. As always, he delivered what the group and I wanted, with a smile. After making a clean sweep of almost all the flock-associated specials such as Orange-billed Babbler, Crested Drongo, Red-faced Malkoha, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Malabar Trogon, and the likes, I sent Dee to find several "high-value targets."

High on my "hit-list" was Serendib Scops Owl—an endemic bird discovered in 2001.
After several hours, Dee met me, looking as happy as a dog with two tails. Soon, I was taken to a spot, and shown this adorable Serendib Scops Owl, sitting on a Cyathia fern, doing its best to disguise its real birdie profile.

Returning to our base after this, I paused to search a patch, after hearing alarm/mobbing-type calls of Yellow-browed Bulbuls, and Black-naped Monarchs. Su Bambaradeniya who was with me, mentioned of seeing a perched bird taking wing; disappearing into the forested valley below. So, I searched that general area, also aided by the angry mob still at it. Moments later, I spotted the target of the mobsters's wrath—a Chestnut-backed Owlet—a lifer for all. Scope views followed through my Swarovski ATM-80 HD.

And with that, we cleaned up all the endemic owls.

A notable absentee among birds was "Square-tailed" Black Bulbul—not even heard. A Besra juvenile (a bird-hunting raptor) obliged to provide scope views in front of our accommodation; two more separate sightings of this species followed.

Close to the research camp, a Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush was expertly spotted by Dee.

My top behavioural observation—in the birds category—was seeing the mainly insectivorous Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler feeding on the fruits of the pioneer Macaranga indica [family:  Euphorbiaceae; boo-kenda in Sinhala (pronounced, boo can-the)]. 

Aug.–Sep. mark the fruiting season of this pioneer, and I have previously observed other such mainly insectivorous birds, that make up Sinharaja's bird flocks, opportunistically "turn to bit of fruit" when Boo-kenda was in fruit: in Aug., 2007, I observed Orange-billed Babbler and Ashy-headed Laughingthrush feeding on Boo-kenda; in Sep., 2007, I observed Ashy-headed Laughingthrush of a mixed-species bird flock feeding on Boo-kenda—a behaviour, which was copied by a Crested Drongo that was nearby.

This Red-faced Malkoha was seen early during our last birding walk, was photographed when it perched on a tree across the field close to the entrance. I showed this enigmatic endemic to all newbies through my scope.

Change of topics, I was absolutely shocked to see the recent "improvements" done to the track by the Forest Department (FD) have turned it all muddy. And I have one word to explain the mud all over the track and those "planners" who caused it—thick.

May be this needs more explanation than just one word. But, I'll be brief.

FD has dredged a canal along the left side of the track, in sections between the barrier gate, and the turn off to Mullawella trail; and splayed the dredged soil on the track, forgetting that it rains here. And the result is this—a (previously) usable track for walking, turned into a quagmire.

Pressed to find drier paths, walkers have used the higher ground on the right, destroying low flanking vegetation on the roadside, not to mention the habitats of myriad critters. Here are FOGSL members negotiating the "facelifted" track.

I suppose the Forest Department may have perfectly logical explanations for this. Like trying to attract water birds bound to Bundala.

All you "planners" in your comfy air-conditioned rooms who are responsible for this, I have a simple message for you:

Sinharaja is like a rain forest. So it rains here a lot. Which is why rainfall figures of rain forests, such as Sinharaja, are expressed in metres rather than millimetres. So when you put loose soil on the track, like you've done, things really get messy after a while. Right now, your actions have made walking on this track, a nightmare. Please clear the mess you have created. The track you should repair, as a matter of urgency, is the old 3km stretch that connects the ticket office at Kudawa with the barrier gate. Which is like a dried river bed. Please make this "world heritage" rain forest visitor friendly; it's a national disgrace right now.

On the positive side, the conditions underfoot, made me the coolest dude of the lot because I was the only person sporting welly boots. I was as confident as this male Sri Lanka Junglefowl.

But, I wasn't really dressed to impress like this Sri Lanka Blue Magpie though.

The Spot-winged Thrush was heard and seen in song; it looked to be in a breeding rush again. A few members had observed one of them mobbing a Sri Lanka Blue Magpie—a notorious nest predator. 

Natural History Specials (part).

Cruiser Vindula erota.
Kusum Fernando (KF) spotted this female, when we were waiting for a "flock" near the research station. KF's now metamorphosed into a butterfly-chaser, with birds coming third; second is photography.
With species names like this one's—meaning "erotic"—who can blame him!

Striped Bronzeback Dendrelaphis caudolineatus
I spotted this uncommon tree snake in the primary forest patch close to the research camp—my top natural history highlight. I was seeing this snake, quite familiar to me, after a long time.

Kangaroo Lizard Otocrytis wiegmanni
Close to the main track, I spotted this male, sporting breeding colours.

Common Bronzeback Dendrelaphis tristis
We had three sightings of this tree snake, resting in ambush on ferns flanking the track—where "improvements" have not swept through.

One-spot Grass Yellow Eurema andersoni
A stupid name for an otherwise pretty, endemic butterfly. I spotted this seasonal delight, fluttering low over a shady section of the track, and shared it with KF to whom it proved a butterfly-lifer. I am quite familiar with this species, having photographed it earlier. Grass Yellows are tricky little ba butterflies. And photographing them definitely helps to put names to them.

Luckily, it was found in an unmolested section of the track, so that KF and I could lie low to shoot it.

Here are the newbies, old bees, spelling bees, and NIMBYs. The one with the Santa Clause-like beard is our good ol' Prof. Kotagama.

KF shot this using my camera; he had to take 3 shots to capture the whole group as my lens was not a wide angle one. And I stitched 'em all using PhotoStitch.

Popularising bird watching—traditionally limited to upper-class types—is one of the fundamental objectives of FOGSL. It was great feeling to share my joy of birds with loads of like-minded people. And to see their faces light up, after getting their first glimpses of these avian jewels through my scope. If the tour comments and feedback I heard in the end were anything to go by, Prof. Kotagama and I made most of those participants, joining on their first field trip with FOGSL, firmly hooked on birds.

That, to me, tops all the highlights mentioned above.

Sunday 5 September 2010

Rush Hour—1

According to ancient Indian mythology, the cosmos is divided into seven concentric islands, which are separated by the seven encircling oceans, each double the size of the preceding one. And situated in the centre of this concentric scheme is Jambudvipa—where ordinary human beings live.

Although there are different interpretations as to what land area exactly constitutes Jambudvipa, it is generally understood that it refers to the Indian peninsular. [According to the Great Chronical, Emperor Ashoka's emisary to Sri Lanka, who introduced Buddhism to Thambrapanni (ancient Sri Lanka) in the 3rd century B.C., mentioned to the Sri Lankan King, Devanampiyatissa, that he is from Jambudvipa—referring to the Indian mainland.]

Jambudvipa literally means, "the island of Jambul fruits."

Jambul is scientifically known as Syzygium cumini, and belongs to the botanical family, Myrtaceae. It is an evergreen tree that grows to a height of around 25 metres. This tree is native to Indian subcontinent, including Sri Lanka; and South East Asia. One of its common English names Java plum is derived from its presence in South East Asia; it probably reached there through colonial channels.

In Sri Lanka, Syzygium cumini goes by the name, Maadan (මාදන්/මාදං) in Sinhala.
According to my observations, June-July marks the peak flowering season for Maadan in Sri Lanka, with August-September being the peak fruiting season. I was able to experience both these seasonal specials during my visits to the dry zone this year.

In early July, while guiding some guests in the dry zone, I had a lot of time "to kill," especially in the mornings. This was because they preferred to take the mornings easy. Luckily for me, the Maadang were bursting in flower. So I chose to hang around these amazing dry zone trees, hoping to photograph the "rush hour" traffic in the morning. One slight hitch, however, was the flowers were about 15-25m high up from the ground—a bit too high up for my liking.

I ideally wanted to reach upto a level so that I have the flowers more or less at eye level. As some of you may unhesitatingly concede, I am not quite the arboreal type.

I have long progressed on my evolutionary path.

What I needed was a tall building next to few of the these flowering trees. After a bit of searching, I found the perfect spot in the hotel we stayed—Heritance Kandalama—at level 5! The photographic essay that follows is a testament to my strategy, planning and execution. And silliness, not enjoying the lie-ins.

Butterflies were the biggest shareholders profitting from the blooming business. This Common Rose Pachliopta aristolochiae was slow and graceful in its movements.

There was definitely an air of confidence to the way it carried itself. And there are reasons for this.
The caterpillar of this butterfly feeds on the poisonous vines in the genus Aristolochia. So the winged adult too is packed with poison as result. This is distasteful for predators, and they escape predation because of this. Common to such "nasty" butterflies is the slow and confident demeanour. Which is a way of advertising their potent nature—giving predators enough time to observe clearly to avoid them.

Sri Lanka Birdwing Troides darsius—Sri Lanka's national butterfly, and the largest, with a wing span of around 7 inches—looked to own the air. It rarely stopped on one flower cluster for long. Instead, it preferred to patrol its wider territory, keeping its options open. The caterpillars of Sri Lanka Birdwings too feed on the same vines as above, and the body of the winged adult is similarly packed with poisons. Their wing-shiver behaviour while feeding was a mesmerizing sight, but posed a mild challenge for photography.

Common (Indian) Crow Euploea core asela were the most numerous in the scene.
It was bullied by the supersized Sri Lanka Birdwing—which bulldozed its way like a Jonah Lomu.

Coming in small but steady numbers to this drinking party were Blue Tiger Tirumala limniace. Slow and confident, this species too have poisonous body juices, and is left alone by birds, and predators that usually feed on flying insects.

Several birds came to feed on the insects drawn to the flowers. This Asian Paradise Flycatcher female was one of them that vied for my attention. It was successful it hunting a few "yellows"—butterflies that were less dangerous.

A well-endowed mate of its, sporting a tail plus tailstreamers measuring easily over a foot, showed up  briefly. It didn't appear as bold as the female, and disappeared quickly. Or else, I wasn't fast enough.

This Pale-billed Flowerpecker was not too elusive, and obliged, presenting all 7cms of it.

A couple of mammalian visitors too crashed the party. One of them was this Grizzled Giant Squirrel Ratufa macroura dandolena. It chose to ignore me, and fed the flower buds at close quarters. With a head and body length of 33–40cm and a tail length of 35–41cm, this is squirrel features high on the menu of several birds of prey in the forest, most notably that of the Black Eagle.

When heard at close range, the alarm calls of Grizzled Giant Squirrel (explained by Dr. Eben Goodale as a "blood-curdling scream"), uttered typically after sighting larger eagles that soar above the forest canopy, features third on my list of jungle noises that send a chill down my spine. The second in this is the breeding call of Spot-bellied Eagle Owl (උලමා)—especially when heard close, with this call piercing through the jungle soundscape at pitch darkness. The first in this list is the trumpetting of Asian Elephant, when it takes you by surprise at close quarters. This also features in another more personal list, but I digress too much now.

Continuing on with mammals, a troop of the endemic Toque Macaque Macaca sinica passed through without taking much interest of the bustling activity around it.

Maadan fruit season brings about great scope for social bonding in some quarters in Sri Lanka.
Here are some participants of the last FOGSL trip raiding a tree at Ritigala, with gay abandon, during our last trip.

I think Syzygium cumini fully deserves the recognition as a keystone species.
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