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


  1. Rajiv thanks for a wonderful blog. Your work brings nature closer to people and I trust they will appreciate it. I also hope Children will be educated to respect our great wild-life heritage and preserve it for future generations. Sometimes, we have a destructive instinct in us to break a leaf, seeing an animal or bird to throw a stone, aim a catapult unless we are made aware of how wrong it is. Thanks.

  2. Hi Rajiv,

    You photographs are extraordinary as usual. There are a few developments in the world of science as regards to the Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Sri Lanka Junglefowl and the Sri Lanka Peafowl.

    1. Spurfowl: Molecular work has revealed that members of the genus Galloperdix are closely allied with those of the genus Polyplectron. They probably diverged during the Early-Pliocene. The lineage of Galloperdix/Polyplectron is a sibling lineage with the monotypic Haematortyx which diverged from a common lineage during the Miocene. These new findings make these birds all the more compelling as they are yet another evidence toward paraphyletic origins of the so-called Perdicinidae and Phasianidae. As these three aforementioned genera are highly isolated from other monophyletic clades they may be elevated to a family level, the Polyplectronidae.

    2. Junglefowl: Of the four species of extant species in the genus Gallus, molecular findings suggest that the Sri Lanka is the least-derived and thus closest living relative of the ancestral species of Junglefowl. The Grey Junglefowl is closely related to the Sri Lanka Junglefowl. The two only diverged during the Mid-Pliocene.

    3. Molecular data reveals that the Sri Lanka Peafowl is a distinct sub-species of Indian peafowl. The two have been divergent since the Early Pleistocene.

    1. Thanks Kermit.

      Very interesting details you have mentioned above.

      Thanks for the info

  3. Rajiv, may we have permission to publish some of your photographs of the Sri Lanka spurfowl in an article about the evolutionary history of peacock-pheasants?

    best regards K.