Sunday, April 20, 2014

New Year Holidays- "What a Blessing"

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year Holidays are here, and as usual practice the organization I work for gives us one full week off as our factories shut down. This year I didn't make any firm plans until the last moment.

Firstly I was to head for three days to my estate in Rozella with the family and dogs. Leaving early morning on the 12th I had to drive our double cab with the two rascals Ozzy the labrador and Bella the Rottweiler up to Rozella which is few miles before Hatton. The ride was pretty bumpy and I was feeling very sleepy but managed to take the cab up to our small bungalow in one piece. We had a great family time, but by the second day I was feeling a little out of sorts and not feeling 100%. Despite this, I was planned to head to Wilpattu with my friend Hamid on the 15th for a one day trip. This was a last moment plan, but I was determined to do so as I had promised to Hamid.

WE departed from ROzella on the 15th and WHich would be one of the best pleasurable and fastest drives back home as all the streets are empty due to the auspicious times of the New Year.

Hastily packing and recharging my camera, I left that day itself at around 10.00 PM with Hamid and his son Naasir to Wilpattu. We reached there by around 1.00 am and had a few hours of sleep at my usual spot named "Dolosmahe Rest Inn" which is run by Athula who is a very hardworking jovial fellow. He had prepared breakfast and lunch for us the next day to take inside the park. We met up with my usual driver Senevi and headed inside my favorite park of all. Driving along the villus till mid day there seemed to be no signs of a leopard, but coming out of Eriyakkulam Villu into Mahapatessa we noticed a few jeeps parked on the far end of the villu. Driving towards the location we didn't realize it but ended up driving right next to a sleeping leopard which was around 5m away from us. Not wanting to disturb it, we drove a little further and maintained a good distance. My 200-400mm F4 lens with the new 5D mark III worked beautifully in this distance which was paired with my 1.4x built in converter of my lens. I clicked away like mad taking advantage of the good light, and the high speed 160mbps CF cards which I had got which gave me almost 50 continous shots. The marking of the feline revealed that this was the original Panikkavillu cub which is now roaming between Illandamottai, Kudapatessa and Mahapatessa along with his one eyed brother.
Being the most photographed leopard in the park, he was completely oblivious to the number of jeeps which were lining up.

 Peacock in all his glory
 Pin Tailed Snipe
 Soft Shelled Terrapin
Motion Blur of a Common Kingfisher

One thing I noticed and really liked was how well behaved and orderly the jeep drivers were in Wilpattu compared to Yala. They all maintained a good distance and ensured the animal was not disturbed.

After around 1 1/2 hours the lazy cat was awoken by some grey langurs who started giving out an alarm. Clearly annoyed the cat got up and slowly walked back into the jungle.

I had used up a full 32GB card with over 1000 shots of the cat. I was very happy and fully satisfied with the sighting and glad that I made the trip.

The rest of the day was pretty quiet but I got some interesting sightings of a dancing peacock, pin tailed snipe in good light and a soft shelled terrapin.

Driving back at night, I reached home by around 11.00am and immediately re packed my stuff for my next journey the following day. I was to head to Habarana and spend two days exploring Minneriya and Kalawewa.

I was picked up at 7.00 am by my friend Raveendra, and we headed to wards another familiar haunt of mine. We reached Habarana and settled down in my friend Sumedha's eco lodge deep in jungle. This lodge is one of my favorite places on earth and the location is to die for. Giving instructions to the bungalow keeper Siri, we headed towards minneriya with a new driver named Manju.

We made the mistake of keeping the canvas roof open and I forgot to take my hat. We were punished relentlessly by the searing heat and hot sun. I almost felt like passing out due to the sun. Using the beanbag as a measley shelter from the heat we had a quick lunch at the watch hut by the lakeside and drove towards the heard.

What we witnessed was out of this world. Over 200 elephants had come out into the open and were grazing on the green grass as well as bathing and drinking water from the lake. I noticed a big tusker among the group and asked the driver to go towards him. He was a magnificent specimen which looked in peak condition.

We spend over 3 hours among the herd photographing all the antics of the little ones as well as the social behaviors of the adults.

Driving back to the eco lodge, Siri had arranged a lovely barbecue for us. Enjoying the night in the jungle we went to sleep content with our day.

Getting up early in the morning the next day, we walked along the small bund of the lake bordering the eco lodge and settled ourselves besides the water to photograph some birds. We were surprised to find a make spotted deer walk towards us and drink water right next to where were were seated.

After a delicious breakfast of Kiribath (Milk Rice) and meatballs, we got ready and drove towards Kalawewa our next destination. Famous for tusker I have been wanting to photograph the great Walagamba once again, and our village guide called me that morning and asked us to come immediately as he had seen Walagamba. Rushing towards Kalawewa which take about an hour to get to from Habarana we came across the guide who had forgotten his previous rush and was taking his own cool time to open up the fence and take us around.

Reaching the lake, he took us towards a Kumbuk Tree forest and said that Walagamba is with the herd. Driving among the maze of trees we came towards a few elephants. He claimed that walagamba is the big elephant who was sleeping on the ground. Being doubtful of this unreliable guide I remained skeptical. My doubts were proved right when the tusker got up, I identified him as "Revatha" who is another big tusker who comes to the lake and not "Walagamba" whom my guide was claiming to me. I made the guide know that I had caught his bluff and feeling embarrassed he said that "Walagamba" was with the main herd which was some place else. After few hours of observing the tuskers in front of us, we walked closer towards them , and I managed to get some photos of  "Revatha" and a new tusker whom I have never seen before.

 New young tusker 

 Revatha the biggest tusker seen after Walagamba
 Revatha the biggest tusker seen after Walagamba

Afterwards the guide said he will take us to the main herd where he claimed Walagamba was there. Still in doubt we agreed and we took off on a wild goose chase which was an utter waste of our time. The guide seemed insane and was taking us in circles and on treacherous terrain. Walking in front of us he should look at the path condition and warn us if its futile, and yet in one spot he told to drive on and we ended up getting stuck in a quagmire of mud. We were in a pretty bad situation as the driver who we took was a young boy who didn't know how to use 4wd properly and we ended up getting miserably stuck.

I was really annoyed now, and we spend over 3 hours struggling to get the jeep out. Luckily I saw some men walking along the forest some distance away and I clapped and asked them to come to our aid. With an additional force of around 7 men we managed to push the jeep out of the mud. Now back on a terrain with no real trail we were taking in some more circles around and around the wilderness and ended up in the open lake area where this guy said the elephants are said to be. But to our dismay we found the entire herd of around 100 elephants out in the open on the other side of the lake where we were in the morning !

I was furious, this guy was either drunk or not right in the head, because he took us on a wild goose  chase to find nothing. In anger I told we've had enough and to head back home.
This guide unfortunately is the only man around that area and only guy who knows where the elephants are, hence dealing with his eccentricities is part of the journey. The day Kalawewa becomes a proper national park with trained park rangers would be the day this man runs out of business and ends his monopolistic claim to the lake.

Leaving Kalawewa we got caught to a heavy torrent of rain and thunder. Driving slowly along the slippery roads, we cam to our eco lodge for the night.

Having a drink at night, I heard the breaking of branches just next to where were were sitting. I knew at once it was an elephant, and told my friend Ravee. Being new to elephants he panicked and wanted to go inside, but I re assured him to remain where we were. Listening to the rumbling and munching of a pachyderm which was a few feet from us was an awesome feeling. Thereafter the elephant began to give out loud growls and calls from the opposite side of the bungalow. I returned a similar call and the elephant replied. I was thrilled at having communicated with an elephant, much to the horror of poor Ravee.

The next morning we headed back to Colombo at 6.30 am leaving behind a magical bungalow and location where we had such a great time. The experiences in Minneriya and Kalawewa were awesome and despite all the set backs we really had a good time.

Thank you to my office for giving such a great time off from work to enjoy this time in the wilds.

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