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.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Urban Crocodile

I have been spending the last few weeks in Colombo. But this doesn't mean that I don't stop my passion for wildlife and photography. Most weekend mornings are spent at Thalangama Tank. This man made lake is a haven for countless birds. I was very keen to photograph the occasional Black and Cinnamon Bitterns found there as well as the rare sightings of the Eurasian Otter. But despite 4-5 trips there luck was not on my side.

But I did manage to find few interesting sightings of nesting Open Billed Storks as well as the usual Purple Coot, Purple Herons and migrant Pintail Snipe and Blue Tail Bee Eaters.

The most interesting news I received over the weekend was of a young crocodile often seen in the heart of the city in a canal. I was very keen to go and photograph this critter as not only were the chances of this being a Saltwater or estuarine species of crocodile which I have never seen before but also it would an interesting story of urban wildlife.

The residents of the area told me that it sometimes appears on a sandbank along the Canal during the morning hours.

Keeping this in mind I was joined by my good friend Chaturanga who is always game for a new adventure and we decided to stake out this location for a few hours.

On the first day about 3 weeks back we were both extremely sick, and were both down with bad cold and cough. But despite this we were determined to spend a few hours in anticipation of the saurian.

But despite hours of waiting in the boiling vehicle till mid day we were not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this croc. disappointed we went back home determined to returned soon.

The next weekend I didn't expect to head towards this area and was waiting at home when I got a call from a friend of mine whose a resident that the croc is out again. Desperate to get there , I called Chaturanga but he was asleep. But the time he got up and came to pick me up it was too late.

Nevertheless we headed to the spot to try our luck and found that the water level has risen quite significantly during the day. We scoured the length of the canal but found nothing. We tried the same on Sunday as well but we saw nothing.

Determined to find him, I made plans to head there early morning this Saturday. We arrived at the spot, a hot Latte in our hand and waited. Hours went by and  yet no signs of him. The sun was right above us and the heat was getting unbearable. Giving up, extremely disappointed we decided to go to crescent to get the vehicle services. Just as we were about to turn in, we got a call that the croc is in the water. Immediately making a U turn we raced towards the spot. My friend was waiting there to show us the croc. The critter was so well camouflaged that it might have even been there all along.

Only the top of its head could be seen above the water, and from the looks of it, this was a small animal. I took out my big lens and started clicking. Few minutes passed and the croc made a turn and started heading towards the sand bank.

 Anticipating a better angle I asked Chaturanga to move the vehicle ahead. This was a good decision as the croc got on top of the small sand bank and made a turn to face the water. Suddenly he started opening his mouth wide in a gaping yawn. I managed to capture the sequence, and before I know it the croc was back in the water.

We waited few more minutes and then a boat appeared with men cleaning the canal. The arrival of the boat made the croc go under.

I was elated at our find and couldn't believe our luck. This was such an amazing find for me, especially as this was in an urban setting in the heart of the city.

The crocodile we saw was the species known as the Saltwater or Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus Porosus).

A description of this species is given below, written by Mr. Howard Martenstyn-

"The saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, is the largest of all living reptiles, with an adult body length ranging from 4.5-5.5m and can weigh over 1,000 kg. It is also the most widely distributed crocodile species as it can travel long distances by sea and colonize new locations. It mainly inhabits estuarine deltas in coastal areas and may sometimes travel long distances up river particularly during the dry season. Males are strictly territorial and solitary, unlike the mugger crocodile, which normally occur and bask in groups. Although the mugger is unlikely to be found in marine environments, their habitats can overlap due to the wide distribution of saltwater crocodiles."
 This was a first ever sighting for me and I was thrilled as its not easy to find this species.

The risk of a crocodile in this area is two fold. One is a potential danger to people if the crocodile grows to its full size. But from what I see the biggest danger is to the croc itself as people are known to kill and eat crocodiles, especially young ones.

Dr P.E.P Deraniyagala stated that these crocs have been recorded in Colombo during his time as well (1930's-1950's), and crocs have been in Kotte since the Portugese esa. These natural populations  have become more visible due to new housing schemes build along the waterways, and the recent developments happening in the past few years. There are known to be a few big specimens in Diyawanna Oya and Attidiya.

Another point to learn from the sighting for me is that Wildlife is something we find all around us. We don't need to go to far off jungles in search of it. If we open our eyes to what's around us we can find so many things. The urban setting is not a deterrent for wildlife if the right conditions are present.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A day with "Prince" the leopard of Wilpattu

Hello everyone. Its been a long time since I wrote my last blogpost. The reason being that I haven't been travelling a lot lately. Mainly due to weather and also commitments at home at office. But there is an encounter recently which was unbelievably fantastic and amazing that I had to share it with you all.

I was on a day trip to Wilpattu one Sunday. It was just one of those random trips which we didn't plan and to be honest was not expecting much either. We drove in early morning as usual and was covering all the villus. We noticed many tracks everywhere, and it seemed that leopards have been very active that night. After several hours of driving around we were disappointed not to find any sightings. But we enjoyed the morning nevertheless with our amazing tracker Saranga and driver Bobby.

During our stop at Kumbukwila, Saranga went into the forest and came back with the most amazing fruit which he picked from the jungle. It was a small red berry with so much flavor it was a mix of spicy and sweet. He said its called "Bol Pana". It was also the season for a fruit called Dam which we also found at Kumbukwila. After spending a few minutes at the rest stop we continued our search.

While driving past Kokkari villu towards Kuruttu Pandi, we suddenly spotted a leopard up ahead, seated on the road. We drove up to the leopard and the bold feline was the least concerned of our presence. We realized that this was non other than "Prince" aka "Natta" the original Panikkavillu cub. This bold leopard is in my opinion the most accustomed to vehicles out of all the animals found in Wilpattu and Yala. Despite dozens of jeeps at times he doesn't care about them at all and will go about doing his own thing.

In this case as well, he treated our presence with a mild indifference, and simply yawned, stretched and walked right next to the vehicle along the road towards Kokkari. While walking he kept marking his territory. He was slowly growing up to be a dominant male and its glad to see him looking healthy.

We slowly followed him on his path which included several times where he simply sat and waited, and yawned and stretched some more. Also he licked himself clean and it was a feast for our cameras to capture so many actions of this leopard. While walking on the trail at one moment his actions changed as he noticed something in the forest. He crouched down and started stalking. Anticipating a kill we waited patiently. Prince was slowly moving towards his target in the forest. But the deer he was stalking saw him first and started giving out the alarm call.

He was back on the road again and we kept following him. At one point he started eating the grass on the roadside. This was done by cats at time even the domestic felines. Suddenly after leaving the grass he got on his two hind feet and scratched his nails on a large tree.

Continuing his walk , we kept following while he marked his territory. After few hours he laid back on the sand on the road and fell asleep. It was mid afternoon by then and we were hungry, so decided to have our lunch while Prince slept.

While rolling lazily on the sand we noticed that he is very observant to certain sounds. He completely ignored the sound of the jeep and the noises coming from the vehicle from the creaks of us shifting on the seats, the crackle of the plastic water bottles while we quenched our thirst etc. But when my friend Raveendra had to relieve himself out of the jeep, the leopard suddenly raised his head and listed to the sound, and he kept looking up at the sky to see if its raining. It was clear that he was confused with this noise. But what we realized was how quickly he learns because the second time Ravee answered the call of nature, he completely ignored the noise.

After over 5 hours he finally reached Kokkari villu. For this entire period of time, we were the only jeeps present and Prince gave us a private show. After reaching the villu he walked into the forest. The sighting we had was the best leopard encounter we both have had ever in our lives. The photographs came out perfect and Mr Prince gave us memories which we will never forget. May the young prince of Wilpattu continue to roam free in his home and continue to awe us for years to come.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Trip Report-Weekend Adventure-Malkoha's, Loris, Bear and Leopard

Its been quite awhile since I posted a trip report. Most of my posts have been articles written for magazines and newspapers.

I have been wanting to see Loris for quite some time, and the best known place is at Vil Uyana in Sigiriya. This luxurious hotel plays host to a well organized loris watching tour. The subspecies seen in this area is the Grey Slender Loris (Loris lydekkerianus). It is a species of primate in the family Loridae. It is found in India and Sri Lanka. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical dry forests and subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests. It is threatened by habitat loss. The species used to be considered as Loris tardigradus lydekkerianus but Loris tardigradus is now a separate species found in Sri Lanka. This species has been divided into several geographically separated subspecies.

The hotel naturalist Chaminda is a very knowledgeable person who has been recording and photographic this mysterious creature for many years. He has even launched his own book on the species.

Very eager to see this animal myself and my good friend Raveendra made bookings for two nights. Making arrangements to leave office on half day in Friday, I was picked up by Ravee at noon. Driving to Sigirya was an arduous affair as there was road construction all along Kurunegala to Dambulla. This meant we had to wait for 45 minutes at times in one place, crawling at snails pace at other times and reached the hotel only at 7.30 pm. A total of 7 1/2 hours on the road we were dead tired. To our dismay it started raining which meant we weren't able to do the loris tour that night. It was good in a way as we were so tired. The hotel room was very comfortable and after a great dinner we hit the sack.

One of the newest additions to my arsenal thanks to my mom and sister was a carrying case for my long lens from a US based company called Lenscoat. This camouflage case is very easy to carry and I can take my lens out fast in order to capture the images I want. Also I got a camoflauge cover from Lenscoat again for my lens to hide the vibrant white of the Canon lens in order to make it least noticeable to animals. This is crucial especially when one is on foot, the white color stands out compared to other colors as this is very noticeable for animals who see in black and white.

Up early morning we did a walk in the hotel premises with the hope of finding some interesting birds. One thing I noticed first of all was hordes of "Meru" which are matured termites which have grown wings. There were swarms everywhere and the birds were having a field day eating these nourishing insects.

Walking along the beautiful paths in the hotel premises I suddenly came across a bird I have been wanting to capture for a very long time. A Blue Faced Malkoha which is an elusive bird I have been wanting to photograph for a very long time. The blue-faced malkoha (Phaenicophaeus viridirostris) is a member of the cuckoo order of birds, the Cuculiformes, which also includes the roadrunners, the anis, and the Hoatzin. It is restricted to Sri Lanka and southern India. The blue-faced malkoha is a bird of open forests and scrub jungle. It nests in a thorn bush, the typical clutch being two, sometimes three, eggs. This is a largish species at 39 cm. Its back and head are dark green, and the uppertail is green edged with white. The throat and belly are lighter green. There is a large blue patch around the eye and the bill is green. Sexes are similar, but juveniles are duller and barred above.The blue-faced malkoha takes a variety of insects, caterpillars and small vertebrates. It occasionally eats berries.

The light wasn't perfect and the bird wasn't staying in one place, but I managed to get two interesting shots, one was of the bird leaping to catch a flying meru and the other was while it was perched on a bamboo tree. Continuing our walk we noticed many animals enjoying the swarms of meru including Grey Mongoose and Land Monitor Lizards who were all gathering along the pathways. I also noticed large Water Monitors along the paths bordering the lake build in the hotel. The lake is full of fish which have been introduced from snake head, thilapiya and catfish. Some of the fish were gigantic, with snake head around 3-4 feet long.
The day was spent relaxing, enjoying the good food, drinks and the private pool. By late eavening the rain had stopped for awhile, and I urged Ravee to get ready and do a loris watch. We called the naturalist Chaminda and informed that we are coming for the tour and headed out with umbrellas and cameras towards the loris information center at the edge of the hotel. It started drizzling again whilst we waited for Chaminda to arrive. We were given head lamps with a red light, which is not only easy on the nocturnal animals eyes but also makes it easier to spot them. As soon as we put on the lights, we noticed the eye shine of a loris just nearby the information center. Walking towards the location, we came across a very large male. It was much bigger than I had expected and amazingly fast as it walked from branch to branch until it disappeared from sight. We walked further onwards in the forest until we intercepted the loris again. We tried photographing it, but as it was moving quite fast we weren't able to get a clear shot. Despite not being able to photograph we were thrilled to see such an elusive and rare animal for our own eyes. The loris moved fast over the trees until it was not visible.

We walked along the muddy trail, and the rain was making it even more difficult as my slippers were getting layered with clay. The slippery ground made the walk even more difficult. While moving along the trail we came across a civet cat and a kukri snake. Due to the bad weather it was hard to find more animals, so we decided to call it a night.

Early morning the next day we left the hotel after breakfast towards Wilpattu. Ravee has funded the renovation of a park bungalow and hence we wanted to go and see the process. We entered the park at noon and reached the bungalow. After lunch and a quick inspection we continued our safari. While driving along Nelum Wila we came across a leopard named W due to a mark on his forehead. It was a brief sighting, and we continued along the road. In Mahapatessa we came across the famous "Prince" aka "Natta" aka "Panikkavillu Cub" who is a very bold leopard who is accustomed to people and vehicles. In typical Prince style he gave us a good show and I managed to get some good photos.

After awhile we decided to head off in search of something else. While driving towards Walaswala on the main road we came across a bear behind a termite mound. I tried to adjust my bean bag to take a shot, which created abit of noise which scared the skittish animal away. I did manage to get one shot, but I wished It stayed longer.

By 4.30 PM it started to rain, and we decided to call it a day and head back home. All in all it was a relaxing and fun trip which I enjoyed thoroughly, and the wildlife sightings only made it that much better.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

My Acquaintance with Eye One of Wilpattu

One of the best and most memorable leopard sightings in my life would be with Eye One of Wilpattu.

Known by this name due to the blue haze on its right eye, this female leopard was first sighted with her brother in 2010, this unique characteristic makes her easy to identify. The cause of this unique feature could be a cataract or a childhood injury or even a birth defect. Despite this debilitating weakness the leopard seems to be thriving.

It was April 2012 and it would be my 7th or 8th visit to the park since 2003. Despite so many visits, I was yet to properly photograph a leopard in Wilpattu. I have had several great sightings in Yala not not a single shot of this elusive cat in the largest national park in Sri Lanka.

The first day bore no fruit and other than few foot prints here and there, we did not even catch a glimpse of a leopard.
Early morning the next day I departed from PAnikkawila with a slight desperation, as this was the make or break safari of our trip. Driving down the misty dark, almost “tunnel like” road off Mahapatessa, we fell to the beautiful Eriyakkulam Villu. Suddenly without warning my driver Senevi hit the brakes and we saw right in front of us a leopard crouched next to the water, having a drink. Upon sighting our vehicle it tried to get up and make its way back into the forest. My heart sank for a few seconds, but as we had turned our engine off it gave the leopard the reassurance to walk back to the water to finish her drink.

This was my chance, and it was now or never, I started clicking away, and while looking through the view finder I noticed the distinctive blue right eye. This was Eye One or Ivan for short, the legendary female whom I have heard so much about. We were all dumbfounded regarding our luck and I managed to get some lovely pictures of the graceful cat on the green meadows of the villu.
The moment was very peaceful and best of all, we had this sighting to ourselves. This was something which I longed for in Yala, but has not had the privilege to experience in a long time. Wilpattu provides and amazing opportunity for patient wildlife enthusiasts to enjoy the park in peace, and if lucky have an amazing sighting like the one we experienced.

One of the key factors for a good sighting is to give the animal its due space, getting too close would ruin a sighting. My advice would be upon sighting a leopard to turn off the engine and stop and wait. Once the animal gets used to your presence you may attempt to get closer, but all the time keeping a close observation on the mood and behavior of the animal. The nature and character of the individual leopard also plays a part, as some animals are much more forward than others.

The animal was in prime condition and seemed to have had a very hearty meal the night before or she was pregnant by looking at her stomach. I had heard reports that she had given birth to some cubs, and I presume they were hidden somewhere in the forest close to the villu therefore the pregnancy theory may not apply.

After drinking her fill, Eye One slowly walked away into the forest, but not before giving us one more haunting look from her good eye.