Thursday 28 October 2010

Sinharaja in October—1

I guided a 2-day natural history trip to Sinharaja "world heritage" rain forest from 13 to 14 October, 2010. It was with Kevin and Annie Ford from Bath, England. Kevin was a keen bird watcher and Annie a nature enthusiast. This was their third visit to Sri Lanka, and they were staying in the Club Palm Bay Hotel in Marawila, which is a beach hotel situated north of the airport.

Our first point of call was my home garden, where a fig tree (Ficus tsjahela) was in fruit. A deciduous giant in a sea of evergreens, it had no leaves, having shed them all. And this made birding as easy as A.B.C.

Sri Lanka Small Barbet foraging in a Ficus tsjahela in my garden.

In a brief vigil near it, we saw close to fifteen Sri Lanka Small Barbets, which seemed to own the tree. Seen with them were a couple each of Brown-headed Barbet, Green Imperial Pigeon, and Black-hooded Oriole—all which waited long enough to provide scope views. A newly arrived migrant Forest Wagtail also showed up at a different spot, and it was photographed by Kevin.

In the days before the trip, I heard from my forest-based sources that it had been quite moist there. Wet weather during this time of the year is caused by inter-monsoonal rains. As we usually do on rain forest visits, we went prepared for wet weather. And what was the weather like during our trip? Not a drop of rain! Instead, we had bright and lush conditions to deal with! And with the 13th and 14th being weekdays, we had the forest virtually to ourselves. With all the rain leading up to our visit, and bright weather that we brought with us, the forest was absolutely teeming with life; we couldn't have timed our visit better!

On the birding front, we had a few mixed species bird flocks, starting with one found in front of our forest accommodation—at 2.30 p.m. on day 1. Of the flock-associated endemics, the Red-faced Malkoha was the toughest to get good views of. I eventually found one in the scope, in a full-blown mixed-species bird flock near the research camp. That was before it melted away into the canopy in the all-too-familiar manner. It was brief sighting, yet enough to note its diagnostic red-face to call it "tick."

Hysterical laughter in the under-storey pointed our attention downwards to a flock of Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes—a threatened endemic and a regular member of the flock. I was able to take my first decent captures of this drab, forest-dweller, which is not too easy to photograph. Finally!

Ashy-headed Laughingthrush—a threatened Sri Lankan endemic.

The Indian sub-continent endemic, and a regular member of Sinharaja's bird flocks Yellow-browed Bulbuls were at their usual bubbly selves. One of them obliged to give Kevin and me photo opportunities.

Yellow-browed Bulbul, another regular in the Sinharaja's flocks, showed up well.

For some of us who preferred furry stuff, this Grizzled Giant Squirrel Ratufa macroura melanochra was a joy. It was found close to the track, unfazed by our close presence. The black and yellow bicoloured form of this squirrel found in the wet zone looks almost a different species to what is found in the dry zone, with which it is currently treated as conspecific.

A gentle giant

October being a top month for insects, most notably butterflies and dragonflies, we had an absolute blast in seeing and photographing them. I fail to pick a favourite, as all of them were special due to one or more attributes: rare, endemic, tough to photograph in field conditions, not seen by me before, not photographed by me before, and just too sexy.

Good enough reasons to make one go weak in the knees!

First, it was this Papilionoid butterfly Sri Lanka Rose Pachliopta jophon that landed on a "Weraniya" Hedyotis frutocosa plant in bloom. A quick disclosure why this was special: rare, endemic, and not photographed by me before.

The graceful female of the Sri Lanka Rose.

And then there was this common Papilionid, Tailed Jay Graphium agamemnon. Am I the only one who find photographing the Tailed Jay tough? It is like a butterfly on steroids: it has a rapid flight; it hardly stays long on a single feeding stop; each time it pauses for nectaring, it'd go into a fit of rapid wing quivering; and to make matters worse, rarely staying still, it'd constantly change the postures while nectaring; thereby, messing up compositions.

I think I will not bother with the Tailed Jay again. OK, may be I will, to get a plainer background.

Of the Danaid butterflies in Sri Lanka, four have been named Glassy Tiger, Blue Tiger, Blue Glassy Tiger, and Dark Blue Tiger!

Meet the Blue Glassy Tiger.

According to the Butterflies of Ceylon the Blue Glassy Tigger Ideopsis similis exprompta, "... does not occur inland more than 20 miles from the coast." I don't mean to sound pedantic, but it is a well known fact among butterfly enthusiasts in Lanka that a disjunct population of this occurs at Sinharaja rain forestmore than 3 times the maximum inland distributional range mentioned above.

The sun-loving Nymphalids were in force, relishing the bright conditions. We had two Red-spot Dukes Dophla evelina. One was on the track, and the other beside the track—both waited long enough for photographs; my first of this species. Here's the one we found on the track.

I declare the Red-spot Duke, bagged. I will not bother photographing this. Seriously.

Returning to our base, all sweaty and tired, after a marathon rain forest session lasting over seven hours on the second day, I spotted my first ever Gaudy Baron Euthalia lubentina at 1.00 p.m., sending me to fit of uncontrollable joy. About this, Bernard d'Abrera in his book The Butterflies of Ceylon wrote this: "... both sexes of this butterfly are so magnificent that they must surely rank as the most spectacular butterflies on the island."

One of the special Nymphalids seen by us—Gaudy Baron (male)—just too sexy. Other Nymphalids noted by us were Chestnut-streaked Sailor, Tawny Rajah, and Baron.

Not as Gaudy as the above, or its mate, this female Dawn Dropwing Trithemis aurora was one of the few dragonflies that obliged.

A female Dawn Dropwing. Of other dragons seen by us, the endemic Furhstorfer's Jungle Watcher Hylaeothemis fruhstorferi was special.

Our top reptilian highlight was this Green Wine Snake Ahaetulla nasuta . The genus of this attractive snake is of Sinhala origin, being the local vernacular for it, which means—"the eye-picker"—owing to its alleged reputation to pick eyes of unwary people. Rrrubbish!

Clicking on the images, you can view all images sharper in Flickr.
On other news, this blog celebrated its third birthday a couple of days ago.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Facebook Caterpillar

Meet the urber-cool caterpillar of the Fruit-piercing Moth Eudocima homaena (Hubner, 1823) that I photographed at the Sinharaja rain forest, early this month. The winged adults of this moth pierces fruits, most notably of Citrus types, to feed on their juicy rewards; and are regarded as agricultural pests because of that.

It's feeding on a tender egde of the rain forest woody climber Coscinium fenestratum [Familly: Menispermaceae; Sinhala: Weniwel (වෙනිවැල්)—from which the herbal ingredient with anti-tetanus properties Weniwel-gaeta (වෙනිවැල්-ගැට) is extracted from].

Its head is on top, and the "Scottish Terrier head" seen at the botton is its posterior end, complete with an "eye" and a "mouth," which is open. And it appears to be sporting a cute little red tuque. Two of the big white "eye-spots" have letter "f" embedded in them as in Facebook, which I am not part of. Not yet.

Anyway the two Facebook signs look appropriate, for it appears to have two faces! For you scientifically attuned, its classfication is as follows:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Suborder: Ditrysia
Superfamily: Noctuoidea
Family: Noctuidae
Subfamily: Calpinae
Genus: Eudocima
Species: E. homaena

On other news, the regular migrant Indian Pitta is back in my garden, and it was seen close to dusk on 19 October, 2010. It was silent, and looked as if it had just arrived. Careful not to stress it, I didn't go after it to photograph; I will do it later, leaving it some time to settle down.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Absolute Birding–April, 2010

My last tour for the 2009/2010 birding season was a 14-day Absolute Birding tour from 17 to 30 April, 2010 with Dr. Gilmer (Gil) Ewing from Calif., U.S.A. Gil works as a specialist Paediatrician at Kaiser Permanente.

He had grown up in a lush, beautiful neighbourhood in Atlanta, where all families fed the birds in their backyards. Seeing such delights as Cardinals, Pileated Woodpeckers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Blue Jays, and Purple Finches, Gil had got hooked on birds by the age four; he had reached a life list of 100 even before getting his first binoculars.

All pictures shared in this post were shot during this tour. They are spread randomly, so they are not always directly linked to what is revealed in bigger text near them. Now, about this picture, as the blue skies reveal, we had great weather during this trip. This Indian Roller we found at Bundala National Park gave frame-filling captures at the 300mm range of my 100–400mm lens. Gil too used a similar lens.

A prolific birder, Gil had seen “way over 4,000 species of birds,” but since his birding comrades had become jealously competitive and secretive, he had rejected the numbers game altogether and stopped counting. And he never reports his numbers to the official lists now. I was told that his ABA list to be somewhere in the region of 800, and a CA list to be over 500, but he wouldn't tell these things, if you don't ask.

Looking all handsome in its cute little bow tie dress, the Common Tailorbird's mountain subspecies fernandornis was found singing its heart out at the Victoria Park, Nuwara Eliya.

Gil frequently joins group birding tours of the “big three” bird tour companies in the U.S.: Bird Guides, VENT, and Wings; and have travelled with them to such birding hotspots as Panama, Venezuela, Galapagos, Peru, Namibia, Bhutan, Brazil, Indonesia, Madagascar, Kazakhstan, New Guinea, Ethiopia, and. Chile. He'd also been to Alaska 13 times. Six of these trips have taken him to the North American rarity hotspot Attu.

Gil and I photographed this Jerdon's Leafbird at Sigiriya where the morning light was great for photography.

During the journeys between birding sites, I probed his birding anecdotes. And weren’t they fantastic! My favourite was his Peruvian birding adventure, when he’d sighted a Jaguar during a daytime vigil in anticipation of a game bird, deep inside a Peruvian rain forest. This doesn’t make to the top because of this extremely rare big cat sighting. Instead, it was made special by of a web of stories to do with the people on that tour: serious birders, and the bird tour leaders. All I can say is it was definitely more intriguing than The Moment of Truth.

We found the best photo opportunities of birds at the Bundala National Park where the light was fabulous. This Painted Stork was perfectly lit and it gave Gil and me some decent exposures.

He had me gasping in shock and awe at some of the incidents that had happened on that trip. I think it would make a spellbinding documentary, in say, Discovery Channel. I asked Gil to write it up one day. Being the busy professional and the modest person he is, I doubt he will ever do it though.

This Grey-headed Fish Eagle too gave us frame-filling captures at the 300mm range at the Bundala National Park. Its got a horrible call that complements its severe appearance deficits.

Touching on the tour period, April was the only month Gil could travel to Sri Lanka.

April, incidentally, is a very special month for nature enthusiasts in Sri Lanka. First, it is the last of the “high-yielding” birding months in the birding season of Sri Lanka that starts in October with the arrival of migrants. Second, it is the best month for spotting Blue Whales off the southern coast of Sri Lanka—with almost 100% success rate of seeing them. (Gil was not keen on this, as off CA, he’s seen Blue Whales a plenty.) Third, it is one of the best months for observing rare and seasonal insects, most notably, butterflies and dragonflies.

Asian Elephants were in force at Yala National Park were we photographed this on the track ahead of us.

On the bird watching front, we did well for late April, seeing 216 species of birds, with all 33 endemic birds currently recognised. I showed 12 out of the 15 resident night birds—equalling my record, set a month earlier. Interestingly, the tally of night birds was identical to that of March. 101–108 species of birds (depending on taxonomy) were life birds for Gil. He wrote to me that “… night birding experience was amazing, especially when compared to the past trip lists …”

Gil’s favourite Sri Lanka bird was the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, followed by the Serendib Scops Owl that I showed at the endemic hotspot Kithulgala.

The orderly Eurasian Spoonbills at the Bundala National Park.

My top birding highlight was the Oriental Scops Owl that I found at Sigiriya. On the night that I found it, we also heard an Indian Jungle Nightjar, but it was stubbornly uncooperative once again. (I need to work hard to break its "code.") As in March, we saw the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl well. (I could have photographed it well had I got a decent flash.) We also heard it again at Sigiriya. A howling of a terrified dog each time this massive owl gave out its blood-curdling scream was a creepy yet stimulating auditory experience.

Yellow Bittern’s status in Sri Lanka is “Breeding resident and regular migrant.” We had good sightings of it at the Bundala National Park. While birding with Pete Isleib in Attu, Gil had been able to locate an errant Yellow Bittern—a first for North America. This was after Pete had seen an unidentified heron-like bird flying off. After this, Gil and Pete have gone in separate ways to locate this mystery bird. And during that, Gil had managed to find it, and had identified it positively.

Gil had found me through this blog, after trying to identify some dragonflies and insects that he had photographed in a birding trip to Indonesia during last year with VENT. Although he was a serious birder, he certainly didn’t ignore such "other forms of life," and several seasonal delights seen during birding walks were appreciated well.

His top non-birding highlight was a Green Pit Viper that we found at a stake out at Sinharaja. For me it was the rare lycaenid butterfly Aberrant Bushblue. Not many serious butterfly chasers in Sri Lanka have photographed this one, let alone seen it, so it was a big catch.

We cleaned up all the lowland endemics by the third day at Sinharaja, and this gave time to explore Sinharaja's natural history treasures. One of these finds was this lycaenid butterfly Aberrant Bushblue Arhopala abseus. I photographed this with my 100mm f 2.8 lens with Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash.

Gil is also a grammar stickler expert, and I learnt a lot about grammar and usage matters that I either didn’t know or had taken for granted. And with all those selfish benifits extracted also factored in, this trip would rank high in my mind's list of best birding trips that I have guided.

We had two sightings of the one and only tree-climbing fresh water crab in Sri Lanka, Perbrinckia scansor.
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