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.