Monday, April 13, 2015

Marine Madness- Two days of Whale watching in Mirissa


The Avurudhu holidays were coming and I still didn’t have any solid plans. During last few days coming on to the holidays I made a last moment decision to do a two day trip to the great blue oceans in Mirissa. My friend Ganindu runs the best whale watching operation in the area named as Whale Watching Mirissa and I let him know of my plans. I didn’t have a car hence I hired the services of my office van driver Premeratne and was also joined by Indika a friend I met at the adventure shop Borderlands and his roommate Buddhika.

 

We left at 3.30 am on Saturday in order to catch the boat on time. Taking the expressway it took us 1 hour and 45 minutes to reach the Kokkmaduwa exit. This lead to the Weligama town from where we took the Galle road to the Mirissa Harbour. It was very crowded that morning with a lot of fishermen bringing in their catch. We reached the boat by 6.30 am. The boats name is Speed Liner and it’s a big trimarine which can accommodate over 100 guests. We got the best spot up front where the view was best and waited till the other guests came in. At around 7.30 am we left the docks and headed to wards the open water. On the way to deep waters we came across a pod of around 25 Spinner dolphins. They were not as active as they usually are and did not jump up in the air.

 

Continuing on our journey we came across a lone blue whale who we saw briefly, but decided to continue ahead as the captain of the boat has seen two blue whales further up. Moving along we came to the correct spot where we saw the blows from far away. When we reached there we waited for the whales to surface. Normally it takes around 15-16 min. suddenly with a loud blow a massive blue whale emerged. Its size was immense and much bigger than any whale I had seen before. Close to it there was another blue much smaller which surfaced.


 

The guests were thrilled, and so was I, despite seeing blues many times, it always brings a smile to ones face when coming face to face with the largest animal on the planet. The boat captain was amazing as he knew the right angle and distance to keep from the whale without making a disturbance. Unfortunately one boat which was also there didn’t pay heed and almost went over the whale while surfacing. These kind of irresponsible boat handling is very common and hence the reason that Whale Watching Mirissa is so special. The staff are very professional, polite and also very helpful, and the captain is a very good driver and hence imo the best boat in Mirissa.



 

After having our fill of photographs we decided to head back to shore. It was very hot and sunny and we felt dehydrated. Wanting a nice cool beer we headed towards Weligama where we came to a small bar, where we quenched our thirst with our favorite brew- Lion Lager. The food we ordered was very tasty and the bill was quite reasonable.
 
 
We were quite impressed and decided to come there at night for a few drinks with my friend Ganindu.
 
Heading back to Mirissa we reached the guest house were were staying in- I&I guest house which was run by Indunil another of Ganindu’s partners in Whale Watching Mirissa. It was on the roadside hence quite noisy but the rooms were very clean and quite comfortable. After a quick shower we hit the sack for a few hours.
 

In the evening we headed to Weligama to meet up with Ganindu. After a great night of drinks, great food and great friends we went to bed as we had to get up early for yet another day of whale watching.

Up early morning, we asked Premaratne to get some good fish for us while we went on the boat. The harbor had some fresh catch arriving in the morning hence it was great to try and get some for the home.

Leaving the dock we noticed the sea was much calmer than the day before. We came across one lone blue whale. Much smaller than the big guy seen the day before, we managed to photograph the signature tail movement when it dives a few times before coming back to shore. On the way we observed an Olive Ridley Turtle as well. It was a good change from the mammals we went after.

 

Back at home I reminisce the great time I had in Mirissa and the great hospitality and service provided by my friend Ganindu and his team at Whale Watching Mirissa.
 
If you want to experience the best whale watching operator then Whale Watching Mirissa it is. You can visit their website on - http://www.whalewatchingmirissa.com/ or visit their facebook page- https://www.facebook.com/whalewatchingmirissa?fref=ts
 
Also for accommodation you can check out I&I guest house. A simple but very comfortable place for a reasonable price right at the heart of Mirissa- http://www.iandimirissa.com/
 


Return to the Montane Wilderness


This was a trip which was more than a year in the making. Ever since my amazing trip to Horton in 2013 with Riaz I wanted to do a bungalow booking in the park and stay over and see if I can have luck in photographing many of the amazing wildlife found there.

With this plan in mind I discussed with my friend Raveendra and made a booking for Mahaeliya bungalow in 2014. But this trip was never to be because Raveendra fell ill and was hospitalized. Since then we always talked about making this trip happen but it didn’t become a reality until this March.

 

Raveendra has booked the bungalow and we made plans to go with a small crowd. Hence it would be only myself, Ravee, Ganindu and Sudheera who would be taking part in the trip.

Planning to leave relatively early we assembled at Ravee’s house and departed at around 5.30 am from Kadawatha. Not decided on the root we should take we let Sudheera tell the directions. After a long drive through suburbs of Colombo he told of a turn off which would lead straight to Avissawella. Unfortunately for us the road was under construction and was in a terrible state. In fact terrible was an understatement. It was like going through a war zone. Reaching Avissawella after a bumpy ride we decide to drive towards Kandy as this would lead to a shorter route (so we thought).

 

After a stop for breakfast at a wayside shop, we arrived close to Peradeniya where there was a turnoff to Gampola. This is where Ganindu made the call to go via this route and hence we made another erroneous turn off where we ended up going up an amazingly windy road which led up a hill and down again to a valley leading to the Gampola town. The entire ride was dizzying as the roads were windy and in the map looked like an ECG reading.

 

From Gampola we headed on the Nuwaraeliya road, which too was winding with lots of bends and turns. Much to our discomfort Ravee who was driving wasn’t helping either, as he attempted to make us feel dizzy with his increasing turns at the bends much to our annoyance. Reaching the Mackwoods tea center we got off the vehicle all dizzy and dazed. The amazing tea offered at this center took our weariness away.

Back on the road we reached Nuwara Eliya in the afternoon and headed towards Horton Plains via Ambewela and Pattipola. Climbing the forested road we stopped at a few places to observe some bird activity. We came across the endemic Sri Lanka white eye and Great Tit. The weather was very cold and misty. Given that I got sick the last time I attempted the colder climes I was very careful. Unfortunately this time around as well I didn’t have adequate warm clothing.
 
Great Tit

Entering the park we made a small stop at Thotupola Kande turn off and walked on this trail for abit. First I saw the endemic dull blue flycatcher, and behind it, in the bushes a brown bird. It was very hard to photograph but managed to get some evidence shots. Further observation revealed that it was a female Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. One of the rarest and most elusive birds in the country and also one of the hardest birds to photograph. The bird was in the bushes and it was very hard to see let alone photograph, hence we decided to head to the park office for lunch and to rendezvous with the bungalow keeper.

 

Along the way we came across many specimens of the iconic Sambhur, the large elk who is seen quite frequently in the park. These majestic deer are the largest species found in Sri Lanka. They are the main prey item for the Sri Lankan Leopard found in the plains. I was very keen to photograph a leopard in the plains as this is a very rare occurrence, arriving at the Far Inn office we had a quick lunch and picked up our bungalow keeper and headed for Mahaeliya.

 

Compared to the structures found in other parks this was not an impressive bungalow, it had been a former pug sty in the early 90’s and converted to a bungalow. It comprises only of a long corridor with three bedrooms and two toilets. There was no place to sit and relax, hence we put some chairs outside. The wind was blowing continuously and it was very cold, much to my discomfort. The evening was quite bad and I was suffering the most as I didn’t have adequate clothing. My hands, feet, wrists and ankles were aching from the cold and was feeling quit uncomfortable. Settling down for the night, I woke up at about 2.00 am to find my hand swollen and the rest of my body feeling try and taught. I was wondering if it was an allergy and went to the light to find the palms of my hands swollen and taught. The color was bright red/orange and was getting worried. But as I had no choice but to wait till morning I went back to bed and had an uneasy sleep. Up early morning we made our way to the Arrenga Pool which was a place famous for the Sri Lanka whistling thrush. But what we realized was that the number of vehicles arriving with tourists was so many that we had no chance of having a sighting of this shy bird.
 
 The typical Cloud Forests that Horton Plains is famous for
 The open plains which gave this land its name
 Cloud Forest Canopy
 Giant Fern
 A type of lychen called "Old Mans Beard" in the early morning light
Cloud Forest
After a hearty breakfast we walked along the main road where we came across two amazing and rare endemic lizards. One was a juvenile pygmy lizard and the other was the rhino horned lizard. Both sightings were a thrill for me as I always wanted to photograph both, especially the pygmy lizard which I have never seen before.
 Pygmy Lizard (Cophotis ceylanica)-
 
Pygmy lizards belong to a family of reptiles called Agamidae (commonly called dragons or dragon lizards). But unlike other Agamids these little fellows don't lay eggs. Instead they hatch the eggs within their body and give birth to live young. This lizard is one of the slowest moving lizards on the island. You can only find it in Sri Lanka, and then only in a few areas including the cloud forests in Horton Plains, Hakgala and the Knuckles Mountain range.  This endemic lizard was a very special find for us.

Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii)

Back at the bungalow we enjoyed the sun which was out till about 1.00 pm thereafter the mist rolled in. During the evening we drove down to Nuwara Eliya for some supplies and hoped that coming back we could have a rare leopard sighting. But it was not to be, but we did get some interesting landscapes.

 Black Winged Kite

 

It rained that night, which made the weather abit more bearable, but it was still cold.  That night as well I noticed my hands swelling and realized it is for the cold, where the skin dries up. Early the next day we headed back to the Arrenga Pool hoping for some luck. I wanted to go there before the crowds started pouring in, so we went there and waited. I suddenly heard the signature call of the bird and after a while my friend Sudheera pointed out to a bird hiding in a clump of grass on the side of the road. Suddenly the bird came on to the road and was having alive frog in its mouth. It killed the frog by dashing it on the ground and thereafter continued to eat it before flying away. The light was very bad and despite the high ISO reading I did not manage to hget a clerar shot as the camera was not focusing well due to the lack of adequate light. Nevertheless I was happy to at least see this bird who was such a rare and elusive specimen.

Evidence shot of a Female Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. Sorry for the bad image due to low light.

Driving back to the bungalow we came across a mazing landscape with a view of the mountains far away and Adams Peak the holy mountain among them. This was where my new 24-105mm f4 L lens came in handy and I managed to capture an amazing landscape photograph. 


 

Despite the breathtaking beauty of the park, I was unable to truly take part in much photography due to the cold. This was making my whole body ache with bone chills.

Happy to leave that day we made a difficult decent down via Ohiya and took the route back to Colombo via Haputale.

I need to be more prepared next time, especially for the weather and return as this place truly is a treasure trove for photographers.

 

 


Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Long Weekend Well Spent

An extended long weekend approached us and I had made no plans. But my good friend Riaz suggested we do Mannar for one final time as the season is coming to an end and there were still many birds and photographs which I wanted. So we planned to book Four Tees Rest for 3 nights. This would be the longest trip I have done in a very long time. Back when I was small 3 night trips were the norm, but nowadays with our busy schedules it is seldom a reality.

Thus with all bookings made we set off at around 5 am . The drive was smooth and easy. We reached Wilpattu where we had to do a small operation to secure a part of the buffer which was done by our trusty driver Bobby using some wire. From Nochchiyagama onwards we turned towards the Oyamaduwa road. I took the wheel as Riaz was sleepy. The remote village road was well carpeted and it was such a pleasure driving on this road as there was no traffic and the views were serene and beautiful. Reaching Tantirimale I had to take it slow for a few KM as the road was broken here and there due to heavy rains in December. Reaching Cheddikulam it was a straight drive towards Murunkan. From there onwards due to road constructions its better to turn towards Silawathurai and then take the road towards Vankalai. The ocean view was beautiful and we passed the old ruined bungalow of Govenor Federick North called the Doric.

Reaching Four Tees Rest for lunch we noticed the water levels in Mannar have significantly reduced in the last two weeks since I was there last. And the heat was at another level. It was unbearable to stay in the room. I coaxed Riaz to start doing the birding round early at around 2.30 pm. Thankful for the A/C of the car we scoured the Vankalai area but the ducks were in the wrong side from the sun and hence was hard to photograph. We thereafter drove towards the Pooneryn road for over 30 km looking for birds. We came across a sighting of some grey Francolin and also the western reef egret.

 
Western Reef Egrets

Back at Four Tees we planned our next days operation and decided to head to Vankalai. That night was unbearable and I couldn't sleep dur to the heat. Riaz on the other hand slept soundly. Early the next morning we headed towards the Vankalai road. On the way we spotted some flamingoes on the Kora Kulam lake. But there was some fishermen walking on the water and hence disturbed the shy birds. There was an amazing shot which I couldn't take due to the fact that I was driving where the flock were flying across a full poya moon. What a shot it whould have been. Thinking no more of it, we drove towards Vankalai. As expected there was a fair number of Nothern Shovelors. We parked the car and waited for them to approach us. 



Nothern Shovelor
 
 

Heuglins Gull

After over two hours of waiting the male birds got close enough for some good photos. I was very happy at a particular shot of a male bird getting up on its hind feet and flapping his wings. I got the female doing the same action last time and I was over the moon that I was able to get the male this time around. After a few hours we noticed to massive Heuglins Gulls landing on the water body. They were waiting for the small whiskered terns to catch some fish and they would pounce on them. I got a very close up full frame shot of one of the gulls flying pass our car. The wingspan was massive and was the same size as a white bellied sea eagle or bigger.

Driving back towards the causeway , we stopped at a spot where I had earlier seen some spot billed duck. We crawled on the under bush and I managed to sneak up on a pair of little grebe chicks and also showed Riaz a spot billed duck which was some distance away.

 
Little Grebe Chicks
 
 
 
Black Kite

 
Black Kite


 The heat was getting unbearable and I made the call to head back for breakfast. During the afternoon the heat was crazy as usual. I took a shower every hour but still the heat was unbearable. We decided to photograph some gulls and hence drove towards Talaimannar. At the pier we got some great shots of brown headed gulls all vying for scraps of the local fisherman.


Brown Headed Gull



Black Kite in Flight


Back at Four Tees at night we planned to head towards Wilpattu the next day as we got most of the shots we wanted. During the early morning session we planned to find the rare and elusive Indian Courser who was said to haunt an open plan many miles away from Mannar. We reached the spot at 6.00 AM and kept driving up and down, scanning the location. As we have never seen these birds before our eyes were untrained to identify it. We spotted many golden plover, and yellow wattled lapwing. The a jeep approached which was led by senior birder and photographer Mr Kithrisiri Gunawardene. He showed us four birds far away which we could only make out through our lenses.

After observing their erratic and quick movements we decided that I am going to walk around, hiding among bushes and try and get a close photo. I managed to get within sight of the birds, but suddenly a cow came out of the bushes and scared the birds away.


evidence shot of Indian Courser

Heading back to Four Tees we were glad to have witnessed this rare bird at least to get an evidence shot.


Pre Sunrise over the Mannar causeway


Black Drongo

Driving towards Wilpattu, I took the wheel and we reached Senevi's house for lunch. After a great meal hosted by his wife, we headed towards the park. driving around we ended up at Kokkari villu where we came across our friend "Natta"/ aka Prince the leopard sleeping on the middle of the road. After about 30 min the prince of Wilpattu got up and walked towards the Villu. There was a terrific build up of jeeps and hence we decided to move on .



Driving along Borupan Villu we stopped to photograph some Greater Thick Knee and suddenly I head a singular call of a Grey Langur. I told Senevi to keep listening , and we heard the second call. Driving towards the Chapman junction we kept hearing the call, and suddenly we came face to face with a big male leopard walking along the main road. He was very shy and was trotting ahead of our jeep. We tried getting closer but he kept trotting ahead. He constantly kept looking back at us while marking his territory. This was the first time I have seen a fully matured male in the park. He was massive with the normal skin folds along his neck and stomach which are signs of a mature male. We tried getting closer for a better shot but the cat got scared and ran into the bushes. It was late and almost 6.00 pm so we decided to head back out.


Big Male Leopard at Chapman Junction



Thrilled at our sighting we headed towards our guest house Dolosmahe Rest. I had a celebratory drink with Senevi and had a good nights sleep.

Up early the next day we went back into the park. Reaching Suduweli Kanda at about 10.00 am we came across Natta again who walked across our jeep and along the road. We followed him for awhile and then came towards a large congregation of jeeps. So we decided to head back out as it was going to be a long drive back.

All in all it was a great 4 days well spent.

























Monday, February 23, 2015

Mannar Revisited 2015


I have been wanting to visit Mannar during the dry season even since we went there in December during the rains. Despite all the rainy and cloudy weather we had some great sightings of Flamingoes and crab plovers. The light was terrible and hence the photographs were not that great. I was determined to get some great pictures this time and hence made arrangements for a weekend trip. Being quite far away from Colombo it is hard to do a one night trip as we would have to drive quite a distance. My good friend Raveendra and I decided to leave on Friday night after work. We decided to invite our jeep drivers and good friends in Wilpattu Bobby and Senevi along as well as they were very keen to witness the birds in Mannar as well. Senevi and I go a long way since 2011 when we met and have been close ever since. Bobby is a good friend of Raveendra’s and we decided to take them along.

 Leaving Colombo at 6.00 pm we faced heavy traffic all the way through Negombo, upto Chilaw. Reaching Wilpattu junction at 10.00 pm we picked up Senevi and Bobby and took off straight to Mannar. We took the Oyamaduwa road which was much shorter, and went via Tantirimale and reached Cheddikulam. From there onwards the road was straight upto Mannar. We saw some elephants on the roadside near the Madu turnoff. From Murunkan onwards the road was terrible as they were still carpeting the roadway and we had to slow down abit. We were very sleepy and hungry and it was 1.30 when we reached Four Tees Rest Inn. After a tiring night we went to bed straight away.
 
Up early morning we headed towards Vankalai looking for birds. We came upto a pond on the roadside where we saw hundreds of spoonbills, egrets, pelicans and painted storks feeding on fish. Among this group were the unusual and lovely Nothern Shoverlor ducks. These lovely ducks have the most unusual bills which are shaped like shovels. The males were shy and tended to be far out in the water whilst the females were closer. I got off the vehicle and positioned myself to get a better angle. I managed to get a great shot of a female as she started flapping her wings in the golden light.
 
Nothern Shovelor Duck- Female
 
 
Driving towards the vankalai bridge we couldn’t find any unusual birds hence we drove back to the Mannar Causeway. We noticed the flamingoes far out in the water. As it was too far for a good shot, I didn’t bother too much, but Ravee was determined to get close and hence called in a fisherman in an outrigger canoe. I know the experience which Kithsiri and Palitha went through when they both fell in the water with their camera’s in Debarawewa few years back and I didn’t want to risk damaging my camera’s hence I stayed back. Another crowd observed what we were doing and got their own boat and paddled fast towards the flock. This was a stupid move as they got too close and ended up scaring the birds who flew away.
 Greater Flamingoes



 Ravee coming back after a round in a fishing boat looking for flamingoes
 
 Bobby from Wilpattu coming ashore after going on the boat with Ravee to see flamingoes
 
Senevi from Wilpattu helping Ravee with his big lens
 
 
Back at Four Tees we were treated to the usual feasts of excellent “Jaffna” style seafood. That evening we drove towards Vankalai again and managed to get some good shots of Garganey Ducks. While driving along I noticed a slightly different duck and identified it as a Common Teal. This beautiful duck has bright green head and some vibrant colors all around. The lovely golden light made the colors stand out.
 Garganey Duck- Male
 
Common Teal

Back up early the next day Ravee was determined to go out into the water again, and hence we got Navy permission and hired a fisherman’s boat with a motor. The flamingoes were far out into the sea and Ravee managed to get close enough for good photos. I on the other hand went off to a different spot to find some ducks. After some time observing the Garganeys and Nothern Pintails senevi pointed out a different duck. I immediately identified the fellow as a Indian Spot Billed Duck. This beautiful duck has one of the most colorful bills I have ever seen. This lone duck quietly swam across the pond and went into the bushes. I was thrilled, this was the first time I saw this lovely duck and the sheer beauty left me breathless.
Spot Billed Duck

Raveendra landed back to shore and after a good breakfast we headed back to Colombo which was a long 8 hour drive. Tired and sleepy back at home I was happy that I managed to have some great sightings in such a short span of time and I hope to visit Mannar once again before the season is over. This truly is the place to be during this season.
 
Painted Stork and Eurasian Spoonbill