Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Absolute Birding in November, 2011

I am back after guiding my first birding tour for the winter tour season of 2011/2012. It was a 14-day Absolute Birding tour with Brice and Gail Wells from Perth, Australia from 1–14 November, 2011. Brice, 78, became the oldest birder to survive my Absolute Birding tour.

Our final tally of birds stood at 231 species. We saw all thirty-three endemics extremely well. As usual, we did well in the night birding department, scoring ten out of the fifteen resident night bird species. These included seven owls. Brice had never seen that many owls on a single birding trip before, so he was really pleased.

The rain gods were kind to us: barring the first two days, we had beautiful weather throughout the tour. Several mixed-species bird flocks were seen in full swing at Sinharaja. These yielded all the flock-associated specials such as the Ashy-headed Laughingthrush. Which laughs alright, but never smiles.

This Sri Lanka Swallow didn't mind the wet weather at Kithulgala; it was collecting mud for nest building.

This Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon was fearless when it came to drink in a 'waterhole' on this tree at Welimada.
Right time, right place.

The Grey-headed Fish Eagle was sentinel at Bundala National Park in bright light.

It is only fair to say that we had an impressive array of non-feathered attractions.

One of them is this gleaming elephant in pretty light at the Bundala National Park. Unlike the ones at Yala, the elephants at Bundala are a bit grumpy. So you have approach them with respect and caution. It looks like the ones at Bundala seem to have some 'issues' with the local fishermen who are allowed to enter the park in bikes to engage in fishing.

This elephant made a roadblock to assert its dominance, keeping us, and a few fishermen ahead, waiting.

We had to wait for about fifteen minutes, until it decided to clear the traffic at its own terms!

A similar standoff happened outside the Bundala National Park on another day. This time, it almost cost a few birds for the trip. Regardless, we scored 100 plus species of birds on that day. A bloke from the wildlife department, who happened to use the same road, came to our rescue; he used a couple of fire crackers to 'neutralize' the situation.

At Yala, we saw five Leopards in just two game drives (one in the first and four in the last) all which posed well. On our first visit, some real-time ground intelligence led to this lone young female on a tree close to the Akasha-chaitya junction. We had it for a good fifteen minutes.

Our no.2 and 3 Leopards came together. And in the process, nearly took our breath away!

That was when these two big boys crossed the road in the Jumburagala road. The one that took the lead was blind in the left eye.

Too bad we were at the wrong side of the light.

Otherwise, I could have absolutely nailed them!

No, we photographers are never happy!

As our jeep driver correctly predicted, one of the Leopards, as it turned out the bigger one, settled on a distant rock to nap. Driving on from there minutes later, we had the One-eye, walking along the track marking its territory.

He was a grumpy old fellow. A walking-wounded of sorts. Every now and then it paused to pose. Even the point-and-shooters had a field day.

We were compelled to take a comfort break close to 5.30 p.m. While we were busy, we heard a deer alarm. Quite close! We were making our way out of the park, having had a superb day. Too close and precious to let go, we drove in the direction of that alarm. And minutes later, we found this female.

If not for that desperate leg-stretch, we would have not heard the alarm, which led to this beauty.
Which drove home a golden rule in the jungles: when you want to go, go you must.

Anyway, the female having noticed us, crossed the road and disappeared. Once again, our driver predicted that it may climb a rock nearby, and he made a beeline to that spot.  Not even a minute passed by, and the female materialized on the rock in front of us, giving us a bemused stare, "how did you know ...?!"

Our jeep driver said he heard the female calling to its young. So we expected she will soon have some company. About five minutes later, this cute little female cub appeared on the rock!

But, before reaching her mom, she paused to check us out.

At her own pace, she joined her mom.

Some quality family time followed

The little one got a nice clean up, presumably before the evening activity.  In the shade of a fig tree, this rock had a peaceful setting of a Buddhist temple. Two Malabar Pied Hornbills whooshed pass vying for their attention. It was nice to see how mindful the Leopards were—even watching birds! We left them there to make our timely exit and to end what a fabulous day with big cats.

While the above passed as our best wildlife day, our best birding day was day-thirteen at Sigiriya. It was significant because of a late afternoon birding session, which produced an avian bonanza consisting of eight new ticks for the trip.

The goodies were Shaheen, Cotton Pygmy-goose, Orange-headed Thrush, Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher, Indian Blue Robin, White-rumped Shama, 'Fork-tailed' Drongo Cuckoo, Indian Pitta, Jerdon's Nightjar, Spot-bellied Eagle Owl (which was expertly spotted by Brice), and a one-for-the-road Brown Fish Owl.

In terms of numbers, our day-seven was the best with a whopping tally of 118 species.
Birds were superb alright, but I must say those leopards really took the cake on this tour.

Thinking about that day in Yala, I still can't wipe the smile off my face.
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