Monday 31 October 2011

Leopards and Scrabble Tour

22–29 October, 2011 saw me guiding my first "Leopards and Scrabble" tour. It was with Diane Lofthouse from Sydney, Australia. The trip centred around Yala National Park—the celebrated wildlife hotspot in South East Sri Lanka.

Diane had turned 70 just days before the trip. And seeing a Leopard in the wild I was told was on top of her "bucket list!"

She was able to achieve that on the first game drive itself—seeing not just one, but three Leopards. They were—surprise, surprise—the celebrity Rukwila cubs (two out of three) and their "supermom."

Born little over an year ago, the Rukwila cubs are too bold, too photogenic and too ignorant that they are Leopards. And as most Leopard cubs at Yala, they have still not come to realise that as Leopards they are supposed be shy and elusive.

The handsome one above was seen on our seventh and last game drive on 28 October. We drove along the Patanangala bungalow road from the seaside and found ourselves stopping behind a jeep that had arrived earlier. The one above was sitting in a roadside thicket first.

That was while its sibling was resting on the track farther away. It was out of photographic reach for us because the track ahead snaked just enough to obstruct a direct view. A few jeeps, which had come from the main road side, were behind that Leopard cub. Which to their dissatisfaction, faced away from them.

As more jeeps crowded the scene from the main road side, the lounging individual got up and ambled to towards the one sitting in the thicket near us. Soon, it veered off and retreated to the thicket.

In the meantime, the one near our jeep got up and walked in the opposite direction—that is, towards the jeep track in front of us.

It then sat there giving us jaw-dropping views!

It was almost as if it was rewarding our good behaviour—by that I mean us being not too under its nose. And from 6.21 to 6.41 a.m. we had it posing for us beautifully. It was such a sweet reward for our patience and field craft.

Soon, more jeeps arrived from our end, eventually forcing the poser in the direction of more intimate company.

After this superb sighting, Diane told me that she can finally die happy!
Dying happy, unfortunately, was not case for one of the Leopards at Yala in October this year. We learnt, to our sadness, that a female Leopard cub had been found dead by the main road. This had happened before we arrived at Yala. It was first rumoured to have been killed by a Wild Boar. We were told that the carcass had been taken away by the wildlife department to conduct an autopsy.

There is some confusion as to whether the deceased was one of the Rukwila cubs or a different cub that had been near their territory. This is because of a few alleged sightings of all three Rukwila cubs together since the incident.

But I have my doubts about those alleged sightings.

Diane and I visited the Yala park from 23–28 October doing seven game drives. When ever we encountered the Rukwila family, the maximum number of individuals seen by us did not exceed three. And when all three were seen together, they included a markedly bigger individual. Which appeared be the mother of the cubs.

In the meantime, I got to know after returning home through Namal that the autopsy carried out by the animal hospital in Udawalawe had concluded that the cause of death to be a result of it being hit by a vehicle. Apparently, it had suffered damages to its ribs and internal organs—with very little damage to its exterior! If that autopsy is accurate, this death marks the second such case this year. Very, very sad. 

I fear this kind of incidents may happen again.
This is because jeeps exiting the park at dusk/evening are requested to keep their front lights switched off to "minimize disturbance to animals." As some jeeps try to hurry their way out to keep to the time of exiting the park, this kind of tragic accidents would be hard to avoid. Allowing front lights to be kept on in the vehicles (in a dimmed-state) when visibility drops, and having strict guidelines to avoid speeding inside the park at all times may help to avoid accidents like this in my opinion. Bringing the time to exit the park forward would be the wrong way to do things. 

Coming back to our tour, we had about twenty sightings of Leopards involving seven individuals. Most of the sightings were of the celebrity cubs of Rukwila, seen in all sorts of postures!

And scurrying across the track, sandwiched between jeeps.

In addition to Leopards, we saw plenty of wildlife, which included Sloth Bear and plenty of Asian Elephants.

More tragic news, I got thrashed 3-1 at Scrabble!

Which, take my word, had not happened for a long time. I lost 280–292 in the first game and got totally steamrolled 280–362 in the second.

I came back to win the third 328–314 in a close battle, but she had the last laugh with a runaway 368–298 win in the final game.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Scarlet Basker

The Scarlet Basker has got to be one of the easiest dragonflies to photograph. That is, if you're willing to put the hard hours in baking sun. Midday is when it is mostly at its element. The male above was shot in a quarry just 250 metres as a crow dragonfly flies from my garden. The owners of the quarry tolerate me trespassing it for my photo missions.

When I am chasing dragonflies, I rarely let other natural history distract me. With that single-mindedness, I just go flat out to get the results that I want. And that is dragonflies standing out in plainer backgrounds. Which do not compete for attention with the subject.

These were shot some time ago when I was using my Canon 40D. I coupled that with my Canon 100mm macro lens. The female above was shot at a privately owned wetland site near my place named Ketha, which is also famous for its juicy Rambutans.

I got less that a foot from these basking beauties to photograph them.

Friday 14 October 2011

Skywatch Friday—A Canopy Giant

Click here to see what other sky watchers have posted.

Thursday 13 October 2011

A Primate Moment

This primate moment happened last month at the Hakgala Botanical Gardens. I was guiding Prof. Aiden Foy and Mrs. Hilary Foy from Australia. Seeing a troop of Toque Macaques marching along, I stood ground at a spot that I thought they may pass. The troop were quite disciplined in that they kept to a pavement designated for walkers. Expecting them to breach my personal space and ready for some an interaction, I had already kept one foot forward on the pavement. That was partly to claim ownership to it. And to show that I am no pushover. 

A curious little macaque paused near my foot. It rolled its eyes up to take me in and hurried away. A female with a baby clutching onto her belly walked swiftly pass me, giving just a cursory glance. Soon, another little one stopped by. It gave a teasing pat on my boot and retreated in haste. Perhaps it feared an angry reaction from me. I stayed unmoved and he too moved on. After that, another little one paused near me. He gave a more assertive pat on my boot, looking up to check my reaction. Too easy, he went a step further and came closer to sniff it. Continuing the march, he too moved along. Then came what looked like the dominant male of the troop. He paused near me to give a once-over, and sniffed the boot himself, as if to check what's all the fuss about. And he then got distracted by my lens dangling down my waist and tried to reach it. That was too much, sorry, and I held it close to my body to claim ownership to it. Just looky looky, no touchy touchy there please, the big male sensed my energy and moved on.

Seconds later, two more curious macaques stopped by. No threat from me may have been the word around as they both got much nearer. After the sniffing routine, the game changed to a more confident full-contact sport. They both gave the boot a thorough inspection, touching it much more confidently. This entailed an obligatory inspection to see whether it was edible! And that meant a tiny bite on to my boot. It was mainly out of curiosity than to make a meal of my boot, so I tolerated it.

While this was going on, the other one rudely lifted my trouser to check out what's inside. Prof. Foy walked to the scene roundabout that time to take the above picture. Sadly, a security guard of the park—a real Buzz Killington— walked in and disturbed the monkeys. More sadly, I have no photographs of this monkey business of myself because it all was too close for my lens.

But sometimes memories are worth heaps than a photograph.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Sinharaja in August

I am back after guiding several trips.

One of them was a two-day trip to Sinharaja rain forest from 28–29 August. It was with Dr. Jane Rosegrant, who is the outgoing country director of VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) in Sri Lanka. An American married to a Scot, Jane holds a PhD in Human Ecology from the University of Edinburgh. The work of her organization here is mainly to do with assisting Sri Lankan people involved in the treatment of mentally ill. Jane was a keen birder and the main purpose of her trip with me was to see as many endemic birds as possible. While working towards that goal, she also did not mind seeing a representation of natural history that Sinharaja had in store.

I thought all the good karma that Jane had accrued from her altruistic line of work had a positive effect on our trip: we saw forty-nine species of birds, including twenty endemics, most of which obliged to provide scope views; we encountered four mixed-species bird flocks in full swing, first of which was found just two minutes into our very first walk; we were able to find one of these mixed-species bird flocks engaged in a midday bath, with several of the high-dwelling specials, some of which are found in the forest's canopy thirty-five to forty metres above ground level, obliging to give superb views low down; in between birding, we encountered a superb array of natural history, which included nine individual snakes belonging to four species, over a dozen butterflies species, and several mammal species including two species of monkey.

I am sharing below some of the highlights that cooperated.

Red-faced Malkoha

Red-faced Malkoha
This attractive cuckoo family bird proved to be one of the top endemic lifers for Jane. This particular individual was spotted on day two, while it was basking in beautiful early morning light, close enough to provide frame-filling views through in my Swarovski scope at twenty-five times zoom—orgasmic!

Mountain Hawk Eagle (Legge’s Hawk Eagle)

Mountain Hawk Eagle
This rare forest-dwelling raptor was found close to the Morapitiya rain forest, rather serendipitously, during a leg stretching stop that we did on the way to Sinharaja. It was perched atop a roadside 40-metre canopy giant. My lens didn't have enough reach to capture this well, so this is just a cropped and dirty record shot. This was only the third time in which I had been able to see this bird of prey while perched, so I was very pleased, as was Jane.

Red-spot Duke

Red-spot Duke
The nymphalids were in force, especially at midday and this rare gem was seen twice.

Grizzled Giant Squirrel

Grizzled Giant Squirrel
This chose to ignore us and nibble away at a fruit of the Malabar Tamarind Garcina gummi-gutta (Goraka in Sinhala), which is a resident tree species in Sri Lankan rain forests. Its fruit is a regular curry condiment in cuisine in our part of the world. Which I think makes this squirrel is a curry muncher! Or a real Gorakaya, if you like.

Anyway, this squirrel is one of the favourite prey species of the Mountain Hawk Eagle. Detecting one of these eagles soaring above the canopy, it would make “a blood-curdling” alarm call, which is not a strange to people who frequent rain forests. As a matter of fact, I use that call as a reliable indicator to spot airborne birds of prey.

I have planted a Goraka tree in my garden. It has reached nearly twelve metres, but is yet to bear fruit.

Striped Bronzeback 

Striped Bronzeback
This is one of the nine individual snakes we encountered, thanks largely to the superb snake-spotting skills of our local guide Dee. I have better shots of this snake taken on previous visits, just for the record. 

Sri Lanka Keelback

Sri Lanka Keelback
We found three individuals of this water snake at two sites.


Cruiser, male
Here’s another pretty Nymphalid butterfly that we saw at close quarters. It is christened Vindula erota scientifically, presumably because of its erotic nature.

Blue Glassy Tiger 

Blue Glassy Tiger
Although supposed to be "not found more than 20 miles from the coast" according to "The Butterflies of Ceylon" by Bernard d' Abrera, this butterfly is found at Sinharaja rain forest, which is more than 70 miles inland from coast.

Toque Macaque

Toque Macaque at Sinharaja
The Toque Macaques in Sinharaja are not forthright and confiding as those found in cultural sites, where they accost humans for handouts, and often commit snatch theft on anything that they see as food. The ones in Sinharaja are quite wary of humans, presumably because villagers have/are hunting them (in villages close to the forest) for bush-meat.

The Land Snail Arcavus superbus

The Land Snail Arcavus superbus
Here's a Gondwanaland relic land snail species in an endemic Nelu tree (Strobilanthes sp.) in bloom.

Apart from above specials, I also was able to photograph the Sinhalese Bushbrown—a butterfly lifer for me. And I got a decent sound recording of the Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush. Our birding highlights included Serendib Scops Owl and Sri Lanka Spurfowl, arguably two of the toughest endemic birds to see. And we saw a brooding male Sri Lanka Frogmouth in a nest.

Change of topics, who do you think will win the Rugby World Cup 2011? My money is on Ireland Australia! New Zealand!!
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