Thursday, 17 February 2011

Birding with Max Berlijn

Early this month, I guided Max Berlijn from the Netherlands.

Max came to me for an eight-day birding tour through Pieter van der Luit of Inezia Tours—one of the winners of a blog quiz done by me.

Of the numerous birders that I have guided over the years, Max was special in that he was my first hardcore Holarctic Lister: a passionate birder who likes to see birds found in the Holarctic region, and proceeds to travel the world for that objective while meticulously maintaining a list of such birds seen.

According to Max, one of the reasons for narrowing down his birding focus to Holarctic region was because the Holarctic birds are more likely to turn up as vagrants in his country, the Netherlands. And to slice the world into a more “manageable chunk” for birding.

Although Sri Lanka does not fall within the Holarctic region, some birds found in this region could be seen in here. Therefore, the purpose of Max's visit to Sri Lanka was to see those Holarctic birds, still missing in his list. These, informed to me before the commencement of the tour, included six species: Slaty-legged Crake, Brown Fish Owl, Small Pratincole, Great Thick-knee, Pied Thrush, and Kashmir Flycatcher.

I showed them all.

The Slaty-legged Crake, as expected, proved tough using up a lot of our time budget at the Sinharaja rain forest, which is where I chose to look for it. After four hours of tracking, Max was rewarded with a preening individual in a thicket for a good five minutes!

Five additional Holarctic species, which were not on Max's original target list was bagged, taking the total Holarctict ticks on this tour to 11. These were Indian Blue Robin, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Black Bittern, Jacobin Cuckoo, Grey-bellied Cuckoo and Besra. All of these obliged without much drama.

With all that Max's total Holarctic Life List now stands at 1741 species of birds. He is currently the No.2 in the Holarctic Life List page as per

I am more used to guiding birders whose main focus is to see 33 or so endemics. This tour was different in that Max did not want to see the endemics; he considered them as “non-migrating rubbish!”

However, in a bid to transform Max into a world birder, I secretly was determined to show him all our 33 endemics! With a Green-billed Coucal shown at Kithulgala on the day 7, I achieved just that. This was done while not compromising on any of Max's Holarctic wants. And he quite liked some of those "non-migrating rubbish," especailly the Serendib Scops Owl, which was showed at Sinharaja and Kithulgala—the latter at a daytime roost. In the end, we managed to rake in 230 species of birds during this 8-day tour, which was a pretty neat tally for such a short tour.

Some of the noteworthy “other” birds included (sites in the order of visited) Legge’s Hawk Eagle, Brown-throated Needletail, and Plum-headed Parakeet at Sinharaja; White Wagtail ( local rarity), Pallid Harrier, and Little Indian Nightjar (at a day roost) at Udawalawe; Chestnut-winged Crested Cuckoo, Sirkeer Malkoha, Eurasian Oystercatcher (a southern SL rarity), and Temminck’s Stint at Bundala National Park; Watercock at Tissa; Marshall’s Iora, Jungle Owlet, Rufous Woodpecker, Indian Pygmy Woodpecker, and Large Cuckooshirke at Tanamalwila; Sykes' Warbler at Nuwara Eliya (An LBJ that got Max really interested!); and Lesser Yellownape at Kithulgala.

Max was a very sharp birder, and very pleasant person to go birding with. So we got on quite well—so much so that I even introduced to him the Modern Family! We watched it on my laptop during our non-birding breaks! His favourite star of the cast was Gloria, allegedly because of her unique accent. :)

Some of our trip pictures are below.

At Bundala, Max spotted this Temminck's Stint, which was chased by a Little Stint.

Here's Max observing some Small Pratincoles at Bundala.

A "non-migrating rubbish" Chestnut-backed Owlet at Kithulgala. We also saw this species at Sinharaja. Asked whether he would see such a pretty owl instead of a drab Holarctic Warbler which he'd not seen , Max at once said he would rather see the latter. Dah!

A Tickell's Blue Flycatcher at Kithulgala.

 A Jacobin Cuckoo at Bundala National Park.

A grumpy looking Sri Lanka Hanging Parotat Sinharaja.

A male Kashmir Flycatcher at Nuwara Eliya.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Chasing Shaheen

My last tour for 2010 was in late December with Mike Pope, who came here with his non-birding wife Gill, and their eight-year old thumb war champion son, Jaden. Our first base on this tour was the Hunas Falls Hotel, which is situated in the lush foothills of Hunasgririya mountain. About 10 years ago I researched and named two nature trails around this hotel: Simpson's Trail, and Shaheen Trail. The latter leads to "Shaheen Peak" (1,043m), which I named after a particular bird found on top of it named Shaheen, which is the local race of the Peregrine—the fastest member of animal kingdom reaching speeds upto 320km/h.

Hiking nonstop from the hotel, the trek up to Shaheen Peak takes 40 minutes for people like us. That's to say with the odd birding stop or two. The first half of this hike winds through an uphill, narrow, and leechy trail. The second half of the hike falls through an open grassy terrain interspersed with the odd pioneer tree. The trail is good for most parts; some sections are slippery, so it is better to take the off trail grassy approach.

Mike and I weren't initially going to do it—not just for one bird, and because sometimes it proves elusive.

But, our plans took a swift change.

This was when I scoped a Shaheen from the hotel gardens while it was perched at the eerie precipice of the Shaheen Peak, a good kilometre or so away. A snap decision was made to extend our pre-breaklfast birding session to hike to the top of the Shaheen Peak to see this impressive raptor at close quarters while the family was still enjoying a lie-in.

Reaching the top, as expected, we were rewarded with absolute cracking views of our quarry when this  handsome Shaheen was found perched on the Pines on the peak.

Shaheen Falco peregrinus peregrinator

And here's Mike perched on top of the Shaheen Peak.

The bird soon took wing on a foraging mission. Mike with his Canon 50D and 400 f5.6 L lens got a pretty good flight shot. I wasn't so lucky though. Let's say it was a good learning curve for me, as I found that tracking such a small (because of the distance) and fast subject with Spot Metering Mode wasn't easy. I'll know better next time, thanks to Mike.

Here's a cross section of the habitat of the Shaheen, where it had nested several times.

Here's a close up of the above picture.

The eerie view of the world below. Look how lilliputian the coconut trees look!

And the snaking road that leads to Elkaduwa and Ukuwela holds very good birds such as Chestnut-backed Owlet, Brown Fish Owl, and Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher.

At the top, I also found a bonus bird for Mike in the form of a male Kashmir Flycatcher—a Himalayan delight that winters in the highlands of Sri Lanka. 

Mike's account of the first leg of the trip involving birding around the Hunas Falls Hotel can be seen here.

Have a great weekend all!
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