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.