Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Endemic and Elusive- The Serendib Scops Owl

Sri Lanka's bird life aka "avi fauna" have been studied and observed for many years. It was thought that every species was recognized and identified by that time. But there was yet an undiscovered species of owl lurking in the shadows of our rainforests.

Finally observed, identified and studied it was finally recognized as a new species in 2004 and named the Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni). Found in rainforests such as Sinharaja, Kitulgala, Runakanda and Morapitiya this small owl is strictly nocturnal and hunts for insects close to the ground. It begins calling at dusk, its frequency rising again some two hours before dawn.

Unlike the other two species of scops owl in Sri Lanka, Collared Scops  and Oriental Scops Owl , it does not have ear tufts and its facial disc is only weakly defined. The general colour of this 16.5 cm long, short-tailed owl is reddish brown with paler underparts, spotted all over with fine black markings. The irides are tawny yellow (more orangish in male) and the feet are a pale fleshy colour. Tarsi are feathered for less than half their length. The claws and bill are a pale ivory colour.

I have been wanting to see this rare and endemic owl for many years, and during this year alone I traveled very frequently to Sinharaja in search of it to no avail.

Finally I got a call one Saturday of a sighting of two chicks. This was phenomenal news, to my knowledge very few or no records have been observed of two chicks of this species. Reaching the location the next day, my trusty guide has done the work for me and located the young owls who were huddled together, perched on a nearby branch. Being at eye level this was perfect for photographers like me. Not wanting to disturb the birds, I ensured to keep a good distance and keep the noise level to minimum. They were the cutest owls I have ever seen, and were unfazed by my presence. Spending a good two hours I went to town clicking away, but the low light didn't help and it was very difficult to get the birds in focus.

Occasionally waking up from their slumber the birds observed me with mild indifference, yawning and stretching from time to time. Some of the villagers passing by were amazed themselves and many told me that despite living their entire lives in the forest they never observed these owls before. This sighting was all thanks to my trusty guide Thilake who went to great lengths braving leeches and other perils in the rainforest to find these elusive birds.

The survival of these endemic owls as well as all other denizens of our rainforests depends on the preservation of their habitats which are shrinking on a daily basis to make way for human settlements and development. Unless a sustainable approach is utilized this ecosystem will be severely affected and which in turn would affect all of us in the long run.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Owls at Office

I got to know of three small owls being seen in one of our offices every day on a tree. I immediately made arrangements to go there, but it never materialized as I was busy with different other excursions as well as a hectic work schedule. After a few weeks I got news that they were not seen again.

Having taken my my out of these owls for awhile, I went for a meeting one morning to this office. When I concluded the meeting I was told that the owls still remain, and that they have moved their perch to a different tree. Walking along the large yard, we came to a mango tree in the corner. And there they were, three cute little birds huddled together, fast asleep. I couldn't identify them and hence went back determined to come back with my lens the next day.

Armed with the 200-400mm I went there during my lunch break yesterday. They were in the same spot where I saw them the day before. When I looked up at them one of the birds which looked like the mother opened its eyes and looked down at me with mild curiosity. The ear tufts were pointed up and after I started clicking away the bird gave its full attention to me.

One of the younger birds also got up and looked at me. It started swaying its head from side to side and then did the most amazing thing, it twisted its head from side to side as if in curiosity at this strange being pointing a large white object at them.

The sun was harsh and hence was not optimum for photography but I managed to get some decent shots. The best would be early morning as the light would be clean, and I hope to go there soon.

I advised the guys at office not to disturb it and I was glad to know that our office was considered a safe haven by these birds for them to spend their daytime roost in.

Back at home I mailed the photos to several experts and the funny thing is I got two different names for this owl. Some said this was the Collared Scops Owl and some said Indian Scops Owl. Still I am unsure which one they are.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Endemic Weekend- Encounters with the rare Spurfowl and many more

The long weekend was approaching and I was very keen to cover some rare endemics of our country. Endemics are animals which are seen only in Sri Lanka. The country is home to 26 Endemic species of birds.
Most of them are found in the wet zone, and Sinharaja world heritage site is one of the best places to find them. Being a rainforest the chances of seeing a rare endemic is very small, but yet the adventure of trekking in a rainforest and the sense of being immersed in the wilderness is irresistable to me. 

I was joined by my friends Riaz and Hamid, and we left Colombo pretty late, at around 9.00 am. Taking a longer route we entered the Southern Expressway from Kottawa and took the Panadura Exit. From there heading on the Panadura-Rathnapura Road until we reached Kiriella Town from where we turned towards the Ayagama Road. This was a small and narrow road with hardly any vehicles on it. Being a low car Riaz's Honda Civic had some difficulty on this road as the weight of the passengers and luggage resulted in the silencer hitting the ground at some points when the vehicle bounced. Driving very slowly and carefully we fell to the Kalawana Road, which was one of the worst roads I have ever encountered. The road was being carpeted in the most disorganized and haphazard way, and in most cased was not simply motorable anymore. Unless one has a good jeep I would not recommend this, but as we were already there, we slowly traversed this hell of a road until we turned off towards Kudawa. This stretch was pretty alright and we reached our place of accommodation which was Rock View Motel. 

Rock View Motel was a very decent place which offer triple rooms for a reasonable fee which was workth every cent. The rooms were massive and spacious and the view was to die for. The food was abit pricey but the service was of a hotel standard. The boys in the hotel were very efficient and helpful.

The link to the hotel website is as follows-


Deciding to do an evening trek in the rainforest, we were picked up by jeep driver Warana in his ancient and rickety Willeys jeep. Reaching the rainforest entrance, we went on foot from there onwards. Listening to the many bird calls and sounds of nature we went along with our Forest Dept guide Manju. We came across a Green Billed Coucal nest along the road. This very rare and shy bird is quite difficult to photograph and being one of the rare endemics I looked forward to see, I set up a hide and waited for the bird to come. And after a few minutes arrive it did, with a morsel for its chick. Making some very vocal sounds the bird was very shy and quickly dropped the food in the nest and flew off. I was unable to take any photos, and as it was getting dark we decided to head back to the hotel. 

We were welcomed in the hotel with some ice cold beer, and having  a really good nights sleep we were up at the crack of dawn at 3.45 am ready for a morning jungle trek. Leaving the hotel at 4.30 am we travelled on some deep trails until we reached a spot which was said to have the rare and elusive Sri Lanka Spur Fowl. We decided to set up some hides, and I had borrowed a khaki bed sheet form the hotel which I used to drape myself and the camera and set up a makeshift hide. About 30 minutes late the male spurfowl arrived in the spot. It was about 6.00 am and the light was too low, and the camera refused to focus. I was very upset, as the bird didn't even stay for a minute and went back into the forest.

 We waited for another hour hoping the bird would come back, but hearing the sounds of the Green Billed Coucal, we went out from that spot towards the other side where I managed to photograph the elusive coucal on a tree. It is endemic to Sri Lanka. The Green-billed Coucal is a rare and shy species of the tall rainforests of southwest Sri Lanka. It nests in a bush, and the typical clutch is 2-3 eggs. This is a medium to large species at 43 cm. Its head and body are purple-black, the wings are maroon above and black below, and the long tail is dark green. The bill is a distinctive light green. Sexes are similar, but juveniles are duller and streaked. The Green-billed Coucal takes a wide range of insects, caterpillars and small vertebrates, but snails are a favourite. It occasionally eats other food items. This species is somewhat smaller and less contrasted than the more widespread Greater Coucal. Despite its size and distinctive call, this is a difficult species to see because of the dense habitat in which it lives and its retiring nature.
This coucal has a small and declining population as a result of the forest destruction.

Few moments later I noticed another small bird landing on the same tree. It was the endemic Chestnut Backed Owlet. Crawling through wet grass full of leeches, I managed to get close enough to get some decent shots. The Chestnut-backed Owlet is a common resident bird in the wet zone forests of Sri Lanka, and can be seen easily at sites such as Kitulgala and Sinharaja.This species is diurnal and is frequently seen in the day, especially in the evening. The flight is deeply undulating. It can often be located by the small birds that mob it while it is perched in a tree. It frequents tops of tall trees, usually on steep hill-sides and hence is often missed.The call is a slow kraw-kraw and carries for a long distance. It nests in a hole in a tree, laying two eggs.

 The national bird of Sri Lanka the Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl
 The rare, elusive, endangered and endemic Green Billed Coucal

The endemic Chestnut Backed Owlet

Suddenly I noticed Riaz was missing, suspecting he must have gone back to the spot where the Spur Fowl might be, we went back again and he came out of the hide saying they indeed did come back. He managed to take some really nice photos of the male and female. I was devastated and angry with myself for leaving the hide, but yet was really happy that at least one of my crew managed to capture this rare bird on film. 

Deciding to give it one more shot, I hid myself in the hide again and waited for over an hour. And my patience paid off when the female walked into the open. I clicked away and from the corner of my eye noticed the male coming out as well. Being more wary, he did not wait for long and I managed to click only one clear shot of him, but this was enough as being my first attempt at such a rare endemic bird.

The Sri Lanka Spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata) is a member of the pheasant family which is endemic to the dense rainforests of Sri Lanka.

It is a very secretive bird, and despite its size is difficult to see as it slips through dense undergrowth. Often the only indication of its presence is its distinctive ringing call, consisting of series of three-syllabled whistles. Kitulgala and Sinharaja are sites where there is a chance of seeing this bird.

Sri Lanka Spurfowl is ~ 37 cm long bird. Both sexes have brown upperparts, wings and tail. The males exhibit vivid crimson red legs and bare facial skin.

The adult male exhibits striking black and white dorsal plumage that extends to its head. There is also extensive white ocellation on the sepia wings and upperback. The legs of both sexes have multiple metatarsal spurs, which give rise to the specific name. The female has chestnut underparts and a plain brown back and wings. She is more prominently crested than the male.

Sri Lanka Spurfowl-Female
 Sri Lanka Spurfowl-Female
 Sri Lanka Spurfowl-Male
Sri Lanka Spurfowl-Female

Happy and satisfied with my adventure I went back home with great joy at my encounter and experience. This fragile environment is the last refuge for these rare animals which are found nowhere else on earth, and it is our duty to protect and conserve these habitats for future generations. The choice is ours to make. 

 Firnged Ornamental Tarantula (Poecilotheria ornata)
Asian Brown Flycatcher

Monday, February 10, 2014

Great times with good friends- A weekend in the wilderness

It was that time again, when my brother from another mother Gihan was back in Sri Lanka. Our friendship goes back to our school days, and our adventures in the College Wildlife Society. Even though we live miles apart, everytime he comes down to Sri Lanka, we end up doing a crazy adventure filled trip. Full of laughs, and great times with good friends. Some of our "pissu" adventures have been to places like Kalawewa and Galgamuwa where crazy things have happened and we go ourselves into messes and manage to get ourselves out of them as well. Like in the case where we were on a small lake bund outside Wilpattu at night, when a herd of around 30 eles came to drink water. We had nowhere to go, but jump into the marshes. But we managed to get ourselves out of the sticky situation somehow.

So this time around we wanted to do something before he flies off. Having many change of venues, and plans, we had to finally decide on an easy place to go to. So what better place than my home away from home Wilpattu. It was more to spend time with him and our other friends rather than a hardcore wildlife trip.

Leaving Colombo at around 3.00 am we hired a van and for the Colombo stretch it was only Gihan, Tinesh and myself. Few others dropped out in the last minute but we wanted to do this trip somehow so we went ahead.

We reached Wilpattu late, at around 7.00 am and we met up with another friend Sankha who joined us from Anuradhapura. We used my tracker Priyantha's jeep which was driven by Samantha who is superb at handling the vehicle inside the jungle and setting up the vehicle ideal for photography.

Heading into the park we did the normal rounds around the villus and areas photographing anything we see from buffalo to spotted deer to an array of birds. Unfortunately no leopards that day, but one photo which I liked was of a big boar who ran across Panikkavillu. I wanted to do a panning shot but the moment was too fast for me to change settings so I freeze framed the shot.

 Wild Buffalo
 Wild Buffalo
 Spotted Deer
 Spotted Deer Stag with horns shed
 Bar Tailed Godwit
 Pacific Golden Plover
 Crested Hawk Eagle
 Big male boar running across Panikkavillu
Big male boar running across Panikkavillu

I wanted to see some elephants, so as we heard that elephants have come back to Mahawewa, we decided to drive there at about 3.30 pm. We faced a little bit of trouble as the park office has laid a large concrete tube known in Sinhala as a "bokkuwa" which was jutting out of the road. This cause the underside of the jeep to brush along this. We made it to the otherside, but we worried that the sump would get damaged.
Reaching Mahawewa we drove along the lake which was massive, and went along the bund where we found some a large tract of the lake covered in a kind of reeds. We wondered if elephants would feed on these as they looked very lush and green.

 Grey Headed Fish Eagle
 Red Wattled Lapwing

 Oriental Honey Buzzard

 Partially Albino Peahen

Mugger Crocodile

We waited till around 5.00 pm but no elephants turned up. So we decided to head back out, but while going on the road we picked up a few rocks which could possible help us go across this large tube across the road. With alot of struggle we managed to get the jeep across with little damage. Reaching the park entrance at 6.00 pm we asked Priyantha and Samantha to arrange a place in the forests around the village for us to have drink and cook some dinner in the night. They suggested we go to a chena cultivation owned by one of Samatha's cousins. After a quick wash at Dolosmahe Rest we got the owner Athula to arrange the dough for some rotti and lake fish which was marinated to take on our outing. We also got him to make a spicy Kocchi (chilli) sambol. Priya had arranged his mum to make a tomato sambol. So all ready we went along with Priya and Samantha deep into the village roads until we reached the Chena. It was pitch dark and we had to find out way through small passages to reach the small hut made out of coconut palms. Settling ourselves, we gathered firewood for the stove. It was very windy and we had a little trouble getting a fire going, but once the flames were buring bright Samantha started frying the fish. This was going to be our bytes with the drinks and the taste was amazing. All this time we can hear fire crackers and shouting going on in the surrounding chena's due to elephants raiding the crops. We had to be aware that we were close to the jungle and wild animals are bound to come our way. We even found some shed skin of a cobra inside the hut.
Next came the rotti which we burned then and there, which we ate in delight with a pumpkin curry, kochchi sambal and Priya's tomato sambal. Having eaten our fill and drinks all over, we cleaned up the place and headed back to the guest house as we had an early day on Sunday.

We did not have Priya's jeep the next day as he had already commited to another guest, so we used a different one which was not that great in comparison because I didnt have any leg space and my knees were pressed against the iron bar in front and everytime the jeep braked i was in agony. Also taking shots was tough because I couldnt fully turn. Despite the hardships we went on, coming across our first leopard near Walaswala on the main road. There were two jeeps already in front of us, so we couldnt get a good view. Plus someone in the other jeep made alot of noises so the leopard got up and walked into the forest.

 Motion Blur of a whiskered tern

 Brown Shrike
Mugger Crocodile

We waited near the wala hoping that it would come back out to drink water but this did not materialize. So we went on our way, and by late afternoon at around 11.30 am we headed towards Illandamottai, and while driving towards Downhall Pitiya we suddenly saw a leopard crouched on the road. It was laying there motionless, and was flattened on the ground. It was obviously stalking something and we kept a good distance not wanting to disturb its hunt. after awhile we heard another jeep approaching from behind which maybe disturbed the deer it was stalking as we suddenly heard the alarm calls of the spotted deer. REalizeing that his cover has been blown the leopard turned on its back and rolled around abit. Thereafter as if bored it walked back into the forest. The photographs revealed that this was a young male leopard, and surprisingly it was missing its left eye. worried that this is the same young male I came across in December I examined the facial markings which revealed that this is a different animal. Despite its horrific wound the animal seems active enough to attempt a hunt, and despite looking lean the leopard showed no real sign of weakness.

Notice the one eye

After lunch we patrolled all the villus, but couldnt get another leoaprd sighting, but we got some interesting other sights like a whiskered tern preening itself. I decided to use a slow shutter to take a motion blur shot which came out quite nicely. Also the famous villu elephant who frequents Talawila and Panikkawila was not in Borupan Wila and I managed to get an interesting back lit shot.

Also few other little critters we seldom notice like the Ruddy Mongoose and Black Naped Hare came out really well with the new lens.

 Black Naped Hare
 Ruddy Mongoose
  Ruddy Mongoose
Indian Peacock

Satisfied with a good day we headed back out. On our way back we stopped at Nilantha's quarters in the Holcim cement factory in Puttalam for Dinner before leaving for Colombo. This place was a virtual wilderness and was frequented by a large herd of elephants. Also many other wild animals roam this massive housing complex.

After a hearty meal of wood burned bread "dara poranu paan" and fish curry , dhal and pol sambol, we departed Puttalam for Colombo.
We reached home late and night and extremely tired but very happy with our productive weekend. The good laughs we had and the memories we recalled were amazing, and there is nothing like true friends who know who you are and who have been part of your life for such a long time.

We are surely going to have many more adventures to come in the next few years, and I hope once Gihan comes back for good much more often than now.

Heres to memories, good times and good friends!!!!