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

Great weekend in the Jungle

This is the first blog post for the New Year. I apologize for not writing anything sooner, but I have been quite busy the last few weeks.


I was going few weeks on end in Colombo and was wanting a quick Jungle fix. I spoke to my good friend Raveendra and decided to do a weekend in Wilpattu. As this was a last minute decision we didn't have any bookings at bungalows inside, so we booked a room at our usual spot outside the park- Dolosmahe guest house run by Athula. Arriving early morning on Saturday we picked up our breakfast and went into the park.

Sandun was our driver who worked for Ravee's contact Bobby. He is known as a very lucky driver and with very keen eyes. We were looking forward to seeing the infamous Natta or Prince the most photographed leopard in Sri Lanka. This cat is the star attraction in the park and all the jeep drivers owe a great debt to him for being so "vehicle friendly". Been a star since 2012 this amazing cat prowls the sands of Wilpattu like a true king and is in prime condition. We hope that he grow even bigger to become a dominant male.

Arriving in Maha Patessa Villu we noticed some fresh pug marks coming into the villu from the road leading from Kuda Patessa. The tracks were over some jeep marks so we are sure the cat was somewhere close. Driving up to Kuda Patessa we noticed the tracks lead all the way to Mahapatessa. We drove up and down in this area but couldn't find anything. Then Sandun suggested we go to Kuruttu Pandi via Kuda Patessa. This made no sense for me as the tracks were leading in the opposite direction, but nevertheless I agreed to take the chance and go ahead. I got a shock when while driving on the forest road and saw Mr Prince walking straight towards us. There was a Land Rover jeep following the cat, and we told Sandun to start reversing all the way back. Light was low so the shutter speed on the camera was not high as I wanted. But I managed to get some shots of him walking towards up. We reversed all they way to Kuda Patessa, where he walked along the sand until he came to a point where the sand bank was breaking into the water. Not wanting to get hi
s feet wet he doubled back and walked towards us again and went into the forest. Realizing that he going to come on to the road leading to Maha Patessa we drove there and waited. Arrive he did and started walking straight towards us again. After awhile he slunk into the side of the road and settled down. Having had our fill in photos and one more breathtaking encounter we decided to leave him be and head to Kumbuk Wila for breakfast.

After a meal of Bread, Pol Sambol and what we thought was congealed green gram which was a shock to us as we expected dhal curry and Athula has send something weird which we didn't like to eat as the taste and texture was unusual and we didn't want to get an upset stomach in the jungle. After a few rounds and sightings of few animals such as deer, jackal etc we decided to come out of the jungle as we were tired and just wanted to relax. So back at Athula's I asked him what he gave us to eat and he said he ran out of Dhal so he made a paste out of Green Gram. It wasn't the best invention as the texture made me queasy. We wanted to have a nice drink so went to Nochchiyagama and got a bottle of Gordons Dry Gin and had a few shots of my favorite cocktail "Tom Collins" which is a mixture of lime juice, soda and gin. Its very refreshing especially for a hot afternoon. It was nice to have a siesta in the afternoon which is a luxury now a days with the busy life of office.

In the evening we had a nice dinner and drinks with veteran photographer Namal who is always interesting to talk to and Kithsiri who is an encyclopedia on birds and wildlife. We planned to visit our old haunt closeby where we hoped to see a tusker the next day. Therefore up early morning the next day we drove upto the village and met up with our friend Bandara. After driving around the village area one old farmer said that the big tusker was a regular in his chena and agreed to show us his land. Driving along these lonely roads we came to a large open area of chena cultivations. If the tusker does come out to this area its a great place because there are very few people around. There was a small shelter made under tree where the poor farmer stand watch against elephants. He said that this tusker was vey peaceful and is been around for many years and hence he allows him to remain in the chena. I have been following this tusker for a few years now and hes almost like a living icon of the village. He wanders the area peacefully feeding and is no threat to people, but he does end up getting into injuries due to trap guns. Last year he almost died when a gun hit his leg which became badly infected. We were worried that he wouldn't recover as the vets took a few months to treat him and by that time his condition was very bad. Also after the first treatment regular pressure was needed to push the vets to come back and treat him again. It was said that hes not fully recovered.

Being in the Chena Ravee got the idea to cook a village style lunch under the hut. I went back to Bandara's house and brought some clar pots and utensils to cook a meal along with some rice, beans, potato and coconuts. Arriving back at the chena, I found Ravee and Bandara far out in the other corner on a hillock looking at the hut. When I inquired why they were there, he said they suddenly heard the sound of an elephants ears flapping from the bordering forest. As we were back and we had the vehicle we were not worried. The main culprits we need to keep and eye out for are the young bull elephants who follow the big tusker around. Known as "Askari's" or soldiers in Africa, young bulls tend to follow and protect old bull elephants. This is sort of a mentoring process in elephant society and is seen even in elephants in Sri Lanka. These young bulls have been known to kill people and are very aggressive hence we were warned to be careful.

Settling down to start work on cooking, I helped Ravee by cleaning the vegetables and Bandara helped to start the fire. Once the fire was up and running the cooking started and Ravee was the chef. While cooking suddenly Bandara announced that the tusker has arrived and when we looked out into the corner of the chena there he was, mighty as ever, like a large rock in the middle of a corn field. We walked upto him and observed his massive presence. He has made a full recovery and was physically looking in great form. He is a massive animal which a large head and full body and is a very tall elephant ranging from 9.5-10 feet. His tusks used to cross few years back but now there is a small gap maybe due to one end chipping or breaking off a the end. The ivory too were long and were about 3.5-4 feet long. He was very peaceful and quietly feeding along the chena on corn and Kurakkan. We left him and went back to the hut for lunch. It was a great feeling to have a delicious meal of rice, beans and potato maaluwa and pol sambol while watching this magnificent tusker right in front of us.

When the light improved we walked upt to the tusker and got quite close to get some great photographs. He was very much accustomed to our presence and kept feeding while we watched. After about two to three hours he slowly moved into the forest and left us happy and satisfied.

Glad to see him safe and sound we left the village and big goodbye to Bandara and went back to Colombo.

All in all it has been a great weekend with some good times and good friends.

Looking forward to more adventures this year !!!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Mannar 2014-Flamingoes, Crab Plovers, Floods=Epic Adventure

I had been planning a trip to Mannar for a very long time. I didn't go there during the season from January and February when there were many flamingoes because I had just bought my new lens and I was busy trying it out on leopards and endemic birds in the rainforests. I had regret missing this amazing sighting. Thus I made arrangements with my usual travel friends Riaz, Raveendra and Ganindu to go there during December.

As usual the best place to stay in Mannar is at  Four Tees Rest Inn owned by Mr Lawrence. The prices are very reasonable and the food is amazing. Due to the high demand one has to make a booking few months in advance.

Mr Lawrence is a lovely gentleman and he gave regular updates on the bird situation over there. During the time of October he said that there was not enough water in Vankalai area and he was worried that the birds wont arrive due to this. By December things had turned around and there was regular rain.

The plan was to leave at around 5. 00 am on Friday the 19th as we didn't want to drive up with no rest. I booked a jeep with Senevi from Wilpattu, as we all decided its better to photograph without having to drive around in a car and also would be better to go around anywhere without worrying about damaging the car.

Myself , Riaz and Ganindu let Colombo and hoped to join Senevi at Wilapattu and head towards Mannar from there. Raveendra would meet us there.

While driving to Wilpattu we noticed overcast conditions and decided to take the car up there as well because the jeep has little protection against the rain and we were worried about getting our camera equipment wet.

We initially took the Oyamaduwa road via Tantirimale as this is a shortcut which falls to Settikulam. But while going along we were told the road ahead was blocked by police due to the rain. The water was flowing across the road. So we took the longer route to Anuradhapura and drive via Medawachchiya. The road was amazing upto Madhu turnoff. From there onwards it was a slow ride as there was road construction and the condition was bad.

We drove ahead in the car upto Vankalai and waited for Senevi's jeep to arrive. After arriving I got in the jeep and the car followed us through the Vankalai road looking for birds. There was not much as it was late afternoon but we did see some Garganeys and Northern Pintail Ducks. While driving along the causeway towards Mannar Town we got caught to a very strong rain with gusts of wind and heavy shower. The road ahead was barely visible. Despite the harsh conditions we continued until we reached our destination Four Tees Rest.

Raveendra was already there and he has done a tour in the morning. He showed us the photos he had taken and we were amazed as he had seen Crab Plover up close. One photograph is of a plover eating a crab. He has also seen a Western Reef Egret. Also he had witnessed two jungle cats crossing the road on the Ponneryn route.

We had a late lunch of rice and curry with prawns. The food was amazing. The flavors were unlike I had ever had before. The preparations were made in the traditional northern Jaffna style using unique curry powders and spices. This was heaven and the food could not be replaced even in a 5 star hotel.

It was raining continuously, despite this we thought of doing a drive to see if we can find any birds. Firstly we drove towards the saltern where the flamingoes were said to be but to no avail. Thereafter we went towards the causeway and observed about 200 flamingoes very far away. The distance was too great even for an evidence shot. The rain kept getting stronger so we decided to call it a day and try tomorrow.

That night we were treated to a feast of crab curry with pittu. This was heaven. The food was so good its hard to describe in words.

Early morning the next day we headed towards the saltern again but there were no birds. The weather was gloomy and there was a permanent drizzle with some strong winds. It was very cold and very much unlike the Mannar we were expecting.

Driving along the proposed railway track in Vankalai we noticed a Western Reef Egret but it flew off and we were unable to photograph. While putting on to the main road Riaz noticed something and asked Senevi to reverse. When we reached the spot he wanted us to reverse to, I realized he had seen a pair of Painted Snipe. The shy birds were hiding under a bush and it was hard to photograph. But I managed to get an evidence shot. The male bird flew towards the main road and we drove over there and waited to see if it would appear out into he open.  For a small time he did, but I didn't notice it and wasn't able to capture any photographs.

Painted Snipe

Deciding to go back for breakfast we drove along the causeway and suddenly came across a Western Reef Egret. This uncommon bird is steel grey in color and is found very sparsely in certain areas. We photographed this rather unusual bird for quite some time and after having our fill of photos decided to head back.

While driving by I noticed that the flamingoes far off in the saltern we fewer than before and I asked Senevi to check the Saltern. Arriving there I noticed some birds from the distance and from the binoculars identified them as flamingoes. highly excited we drove along a by road and parked our jeep. Afterwards I did a "Commando" style maneuver across the waterways and slowly crawled upto the birds. The drizzle kept coming and we were slowly getting wet , even our equipment but seeing this was a momentous occasion which had to be cherished. These beautiful birds were a sight to behold. Their graceful walk and head movements are amazing. We photographed them for a few hours until the rain was too much to bear and I retreated back to the jeep. Also my hands were cut to the small shells which were among the banks of the salterns.

Thanks to a pair of US Army boots I was able to get about in the water, sand and mud. The light was pretty low but because of my lens the Canon 200-400 f4 I managed to get some decent shots which would have been impossible with my old lens the canon 100-400. Investing in good glass is important as the quality is amazing in the tip end glass offered by both Canon and Nikon.

We headed back to Four Tees in a celebratory mood. It was 12.00 noon. We got news from some sources that there was severe flooding in the Anuradhapura area and the roads were unpassable. We were worried but decided to stay one more day to let the water levels come down.

After a combined lunch and breakfast we rested for a few hours as the crawling and stalking made our bodies ache.

We left again at 3.00 pm and did one more round at the flamingoes in the saltern. Thereafter we drove along the causeway and found some more flamingoes close to the road. Being able to photograph from the jeep we parked next to them. This was a good spot as the background was clear and the setting was much better than the saltern.

I have to mention I have been wanting to take a particular photograph for some time. I had in my mind an image of flamingoes flying or taking off and captured using a long exposure technique where the motion was blurred to show the movement. This was a tricky technique where you had to get your settings right and the photograph needs to be perfect where the heads of the animal should be in focus with the movement of their bodies needs to be captured in a panning motion.

Ready for such a shot I adjusted my settings and waited for the right moment. I brought the shutter speed down in order to capture the panning motion. Suddenly I noticed a flock of flamingoes arriving in flight. I immediately started photographing them using the technique. I checked what I had captured and there behold one of the photos had come out right. I was overjoyed this was the main objective of my trip and I had achieved it.

Returning to Four Tees we celebrated the success with a  good drink and went to bed. We planned to leave early the next day due to the floods and thus headed after an early breakfast.

Driving along the causeway we came across some crab plovers. I was overjoyed as the trip felt complete now with this rare sighting. The plovers were much larger than I expected and were right next to the cause way. They were feeding for crab and were very interesting to photograph. After about half and hour with them we decided to push off as we were worried about getting marooned due to the floods.

Crab Plover 
 Crab Plover
 Grey Plover
 Crab Plover
 Crab Plover
 Crab Plover
 Crab Plover

Driving upto Medawachchiya was fine but from there onwards there was a massive block. The Rambewa tank has overflown and the water was rushing across the road in a torrent. Due to this a lorry had toppled and was blocking the entire road. Many people in the Medawachchiya town said that the car could not be passed and we almost made a decision to stay overnight in the town. But yet we thought of going to the spot and checking out the situation. After asking from the police they confirmed that a car could cross the spot. After about 3 hours of waiting finally our turn came and the crossing was quite scary. We were worried that the car might get stuck, but we managed to cross the water without an issue.

Afterwards the next hurdle was to get across Anuradhapura which too was underwater. Many areas in the town were flooded and we spent a long time in the town trying to find a way out. Finally we managed to get to the Kurunegala road where we bid Senevi farewell and headed towards Colombo.

The rest of the journey was without incident and we managed to get back home by late evening after almost 9 hours on the road.

What a trip, what an adventure. Mannar never ceases to surprise me and I guarantee there will be many trips over there in the next few months.