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 !!!