Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Sri Lankan Rainforest Forays in the Time of the Pandemic

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Collage of Sri Lankan (mostly) endemic birds seen in eastern and western Sinharaja. Clockwise from left: Layard’s Parakeet (Psittacula calthrapae), Sri Lanka Spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata), Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) and Sri Lanka Blue magpie (Urocissa ornata). The Frogmouth, of course, is also found in the Western Ghats of southern India.

Aside from the IA field study last September (described in the previous post) I have had the opportunity to take several other short visits to Sinharaja. Two of these were to the Kudawa side and the third was a visit to the Rainforest Ecolodge in south-eastern Sinharaja. These trips were mainly designed for my mind and spirit to get a break from city life. One was a solo trip while two involved time with Lenny and our friends Nirosha and Rashmi Bopitiya. Of course, there were opportunities to look for and photograph birds, amphibians, reptiles and plants in the rainforest landscape.

Eastern Sinharaja sub-montane forest with flowering canopy.

South-Eastern Sinharaja

The south-eastern side of Sinharaja is far less visited and in my personal case it had been several years since I has last been (see WWW blog post from 2012 and  2013). Lenny and I took a father and son trip at the beginning of our winter holidays. The drive is longer than the Kudawa entrance (about four vs 2 hours) but the site and situation of the Rainforest Ecolodge makes it worthwhile. We had three nights at a time when visitation was relatively low and there were reasonable deals to make it an attractive place to stay. We did a few short hikes abut mostly enjoyed simply walking on the access roads through healthy montane rainforest. I am drawn to the exquisite sub montane forest in this area and there are numerous places to get canopy level perspectives. During our stay several key trees including  Shorea trapezifolia were in flower. We had several good walks with the Rainforest Ecolodge naturalist who helped in the discovery of several key frog species seen in this post. Otherwise Lenny and I wandered on the access roads where we encountered several mixed-species flocks. The same flocks flew right through the hotel area and one didn’t have to go too far to see many of Sri Lanka’s spectacular endemic birds.

Scenes from the Rainforest Ecolodge in south-eastern Sinharaja. Set on the edge of a tea garden at 1000 meters, the hotel utilizes recycled containers and minimalist steel structures to give visitors a unique and intimate sense of the sub-montane rainforest.

Selected frogs from Sinharaja (From top): Reticulate Tree Frog (Pseudophilautus reticulatus) and the Cheeky shrub frog (Pseudophilautus procax) from the Rainforest ecolodge area. Common Hourglass Tree-frogs (Polypedates cruciger) laying eggs near Kudawa. Sri Lanka rock frog (Nannophrys ceylonensis) at a stream near the Rainforest Ecolodge. Help with identification and lighting thanks to Vasanth at the Rainforest Ecolodge. Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana helped confirm species for me and I have loaded these up on iNaturalist.

Clockwise from left: Sri Lankan Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura) in south-eastern Sinharaja, Purple-faced langur (Semnopithecus vetulus) also near the rainforest ecolodge. Strobilanthes lupulina on the road east of Kudawa village.

Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides), a rare winter migrant visitor. This one was hanging around the kitchen drain at Martin’s Forest Lodge. This was my first sighting in Sinharaja, but apparently they are seen in many of home gardens during the winter season.

North-Western Sinharaja

The Kudawa entrance has been, of course, much quieter because of the COVID situation. On two trips there in December and March I focused on looking for birds and reptiles. On my solo trip in late December I walked with my assigned guide, Ratna and explored out to the research station and then up to Moulawella peak. The hikes were good but my best sightings came from Martin’s where I spotted several rarities while having tea and appreciating the space and solitude. A rather shy Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides) stepped out in the afternoon to look for something to eat in the drain outlet. My camera was set up and ready to go such that I got a few brief shots without my tea getting cold. Another highlight was spending time at Ratnasiri’s hide. This neighbor of Martin is building a small cottage on the road above Kudawa and has set up a simple hide where visitors can observe Sri Lanka Spurfowl and other difficult to see endemics. I had an early morning spurfowl encounter that produced dark photos and an exhilarating sound recording (click below).

Village & forest scenes on the edge of Sinharaja (from upper left): Pepper (Piper nigrum) from a home garden drying, a gourd for tapping Kithul, Raja (Anoectochilus regalis) orchid, road passing through Morapitiya, vine (Coscinium fenestratum) and leeches on my sock.

Collage of Sri Lankan endemic birds seen in eastern and western Sinharaja on the three visits. Red faced Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus), Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni), Green-billed coucal (Centropus chlororhynchos), Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler (Pomatorhinus melanurus), Sri Lanka Gray hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis) and Sri Lanka Green Pigeon (Treron pompadora).

In March Lenny and I came back to Kudawa and Martin’s with our friend Nirosha and her daughter Rashmi (from OSC’s Class of 2021). We enjoyed a morning of birding with Thilak, the superb independent guide who has established himself as one of the most knowledgeable birders in the area. Sure enough, we had fine sightings of a nesting SL Gray hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis) and Chestnut-backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanotum) and mixed-species flock. On our return Thilak found a roosting Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) which we quietly observed and then photographed. Once again it was found in mixed Pinus caribaea and secondary forest. I find it intriguing that this rare bird species, so new to science, is found in a habitat that has been a monoculture plantation and is now recovering on its way back to being healthy rainforest. This observations seems to support the idea that Pinus caribaea are good intermediate species to establish rainforest in retorsion efforts (see Ashton et al).

Otus thilohoffmanni strip  with a 600mm lens in RAW.

Final choice of the 200-500mm lens series Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni)

A male Lyre-head (or Hump-nosed) Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) in Sinharaja rainforest. This large species is surely one of the most resplendent of Sri Lanka’s many endemic lizards. It is also completely unique (it has its own genus) and there is nothing else in South Asia that looks like it. I’m always on the look out for them when in the rainforest and it has been nearly 10 years since I last saw a male (on the epic Kudawa-Sinhagala-Deniyaya trek in 2012 see https://ianlockwood.wordpress.com/…/a-path-less…/ ).
This individual was found by the sharp-eyed genius guide Thilak Ellawelage at the end of a day with many great bird sightings. He spotted it in the forest above Martin’s and I was able to photograph it both that afternoon and then next morning. Help with holding the strobes was provided by Nirosha Bopitiya (afternoon) and Ranjith (morning), the FD guide working with us. This is a morning shot taken with a 105 mm lens and two Godox strobes (one in a cumbersome but quite effective studio diffuser).

For the last several trips I have been on the lookout for the endemic Hump(or Lyre) Nosed Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus). I have had good sightings in past years but I’m working on better lighting with multiple flash units and a diffuser. Thilak spotted a mature male near to Martin’s and alerted us to it as he was on his way down in the evening. With the help of Nirosha I was able to get a few images that evening and then I came back and found it on my won the next day for another session. Earlier in the year I had bought a Beetle Diffuser from Varun  GB in India and this was my first attempt at putting into action in the field. The results are good but later experiments showed that I need to have the flash unit closer to the subject.

Sri Lanka Spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata) at Ratnasiri’s hide. For many years this has been one of the most difficult endemic birds to photographs. That all changed when guides realized that spurfowl were regular visitors to home gardens drains on the edge of the forest.

On our final morning we walked down to Ratnasiri’s to look for the spurfowl. There was another group of Sri Lankan photographers led by Chintika De Silva so we gave them a chance and then spent time in the hide later. While we were waiting Rashmi spotted two large frogs climbing up a tree. These turned out to be part of a group of Common Hourglass Tree-frogs (Polypedates cruciger). Although its name suggests that it easy to see (its conservation status is “least concern”) we enjoyed a really unique gathering. A total of six individuals put on a show of courtship and then mating in broad daylight. The smaller males, clinging to the back of the females whipped up and fertilized the eggs being laid over a small spring. That evening, fulfilled by our many sightings and interactions with the people of Kudawa, we returned to Colombo. On our drive out we passed under dark cumulonimbus clouds and, soon enough, a torrential downpour brought relief to the hills. It was the kind of heavy rains that kicks off the life cycle for the tree-frogs we had been observing that morning.

Selected heat maps from three different visit to Sinharaja (two in December 2020 and the final trip in March 2021)

Snapshots from the March 2021 visit to Sinharaja. From Left: Rashmi, Martin, Chandralatha, Nirosha, Lenny & Ian at the forest lodge. Martin on his verandah. Lenny, Ratnasiri and Rashmi at his new cottage.

SELECTED REFERENCES

Ashton, P.M.S and  S. Gamage, I. A. U. N. Gunatilleke and C. V. S. Gunatilleke. “Restoration of a Sri Lankan Rainforest: Using Caribbean Pine Pinus caribaea as a Nurse for Establishing Late-Successional Tree Species.” Journal of Applied Ecology. 1997, 34 . Web via JSTOR.

De Silva, Anslem. Amphibians of Sri Lanka: A Photographic Guide to Common Frogs, Toad Caecilians. Published by author, 2009. Print.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishing, 2017. Print.

DeZoysa, Neela and Rhyana Raheem. Sinharaja: A Rainforest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.

Gunatilleke, C.V.S, et al. Ecology of Sinharaja Rain Forest and the Forest Dynamics Plot in Sri Lanka’s Natural World Heritage Site. Colombo: WHT Publications, 2004. Print.

Harrison, John. A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. UK: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Kotagama, Sarath W and Eben Goodale. “The composition and spatial organization of mixed-species flocks in a Sri Lankan rainforest.” Forktail. 2004. Print & Web.

Liyanage, L. P. K. et al. “Assessment of Tourist and Community Perception with Regard to Tourism Sustainability Indicators: A Case Study of Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest, Sri Lanka.” World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology International Journal of Social and Business Sciences. Vol 12 No. 7. 2018. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Wet: Field Notes From Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone.” Sanctuary Asia. August/September 2007. 3-11. Print. PDF.

Lockwood, Ian. “Montane Biodiversity in the Land of Serendipity.” Sanctuary Asia. July 2010. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Preliminary Analysis of Land Cover in the Sinharaja Adiviya using Planet Dove Imagery.”  Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2019. Web.

Singhalage Darshani, Nadeera Weerasinghe and Gehan de Silva Wijeratne. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Flowers of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2018. Print.

Sri Lanka Survey Department. Sheets 80_x & 81_x (1:10,000) 2nd Edition. Colombo: 2017. Maps & Spatial Data.

Warakagoda, Deepal et. al.  Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.

Wikramanayake, Eric. “Sri Lankan Moist Forests Ecoregion: An Imperiled Island Rainforest.” The Encyclopedia of Conservation. 2020. Web.

Wijeyeratne, Gehan de Silva.  Sri Lankan Wildlife (Bradt Guides). Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Ltd. 2007. Print.

Vigallon, S. The Sinharaja Guidebook for Eco-Tourists. Colombo: Stamford Lake Publications, 2007. Print.

Sinharaja: The IA Must Go On

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OSC’s class of 2021 DP Geography class. Standing from left: Kevin, Satwik, Imandi, Talia, Ashvini, Rukshi and Rika. Kneeling: the author and Rashmi (Class of 2020). Photograph courtesy of Desline Attanayake

In Sri Lanka we have been living through an age of disruption-first with senseless bombing in April 2019 and then with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The impact to the island’s tourism industry has been profound. Flights were cancelled in the spring of 2020 and the country went into lock down. At the time of writing the country was experiencing being called a 2nd wave of the virus. This all had an impact on Sinharaja, the resplendent rainforest that has a thriving, low-impact model of ecotourism at its two major entrances. It has served as a place for exploration and learning both at a personal level and for my students of the Overseas School of Colombo.

The IA Must Go On

In hindsight, the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year experienced a relative lull from the pandemic storm and we ran face-to-face classes. During that time I was able to take my small cohort of seven Class of 2021 DP Geography students to Sinharaja to complete their field work for their Internal Assessment (IA). The final report they produce is an important milestone along the 18-month journey of the course. It normally counts for between 20-25 % of their overall grade but because exams have been cancelled two years in a row, the IA is the only piece of work that the IB has to assess students. This school year it is slated to count for 35% of overall grades but it is likely that it will have a greater impact on how grades are allocated. Many schools have been forced to cancel field work and we were fortunate to be able to squeeze our trip in when the COVID situation was relatively stable. 

We had four days based out of Martin’s Forest Lodge. Desline was able to support the trip and we were supported by Rashmi who had just graduated and knew the data collection routines really well. Both of them enjoy birds and other creatures and we were a strong team. During our time the students were able to conduct 59 separate interviews in four teams of two. They used Survey 123 again and were able to explore the impact of COVID on lives and tourism. Over the next few months they processed and analyzed the data, mapped their sites and then produced final internal assessments (IA) reports. The GIS maps that students use to support their data and analysis had to be created in January during a relatively brief period of face to face teaching. Given that IB exams were cancelled this year it is gratifying that they had such rich experiences to build their internal assessments on.

Captions for Above Images

(Upper left) Satwik & Ashvini interviewing a tuk-tuk driver in western Kudawa.

(Upper right) Talia & Imandi interviewing Sunil, one of the most senior guides working at the Kudawa entrance.

(Lower right) Ashvini & Rukshi on the Sinhagala trail as we retreated back to the research station in the rain.

(Lower center) We got caught in a downpour looking for pit-vipers on the trail leading to Sinhagala. Talia & Imandi are prepared with an umbrella and jacket.

(Lower left) Talia & Imandi interviewing a family on the road to the west of Kudawa. They make a living growing tea on a small parcel of land.

(Center left) Thilak, Sinharaja’s talented and well known private guide, clears a tree that had fallen across the road leading to Martin’s lodge.

Captions:

(Top Left Image) Home Garden near Kudawa village showing a mix of  tea, coconut and other crops. The ridge above has a mix of Pinus sp. plantation and secondary forest with Alstonia macrophylla.

(Upper right image) Tea fields in a home garden in the area west of Kudawa village. Typically a field of tea is supplemented with a variety of other fruit and vegetable-bearing plant like this papaya tree. The shade tree is Gliricidia sepium, which is nitrogen fixing and used as an organic nutrient supplement.

(Middle right image) Forest Department Map of the Sinharaja Rainforest Complex showing the updated boundaries from 2019. This and several other maps are on display at the Kudawa entrance.

(Lower image) Scrub areas on the Sinharaja buffer near Kudawa being prepared for a new generation of tea plants.

The recently painted bus stand shelter pays artistic tribute to the denizens of Sinharaja. The COVID pandemic has forced a steep drop in visitor numbers.

Past Blog Posts on Sinharaja

Geography IA Trip 2007

Geography IA Trip 2008

Geography IA Trip 2009

Geography IA Trip 2012

Geography IA Trip 2013

Geography IA Trip 2014

Geography IA Trip 2015

Geography IA Trip 2016

Geography IA Trip 2017

Geography IA Trip 2018

Geography IA Trip 2019

General Sinharaja Reflections

SELECTED REFERENCES

DeZoysa, Neela and Rhyana Raheem. Sinharaja: A Rainforest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Wet: Field Notes From Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone.” Sanctuary Asia. August/September 2007. 3-11. Print. PDF.

Vigallon, S. The Sinharaja Guidebook for Eco-Tourists. Colombo: Stamford Lake Publications, 2007. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2021-01-01 at 12:00 pm

Palani Hills Sky Islands

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A collage of Sky Island species and landscapes from the upper Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu.

Every so often new terminology is coined to propel and lift our understanding of concepts that we had previously observed but not fully understood. In the broad field of environmentalism the notion of “sustainability” is an example first articulated in the 1972 book Blueprint for Survival (Kidd). The concept changed how the public viewed large processes like economic development and the human relationship with the biosphere. “Biological diversity” coined by Thomas Lovejoy in 1980 and the notion of the “biodiversity hotspot” proposed by Norman Myers in 1988 radically changed the way conservation efforts approached notions of “wildlife” and “wilderness” (WWF, Myers). The idea of  the “sky island” is one such term that is helping us to rethink the uniqueness of the tropical montane ecosystems. In India’s southern Western Ghats, Sky Islands are now recognized as places unique on a global scale while at the same time being under enormous anthropogenic pressure.

SKY ISLANDS GLOBAL & LOCAL

The term “sky Island” was first used in 1940s in the south western United States to describe the Madrean range of mountains (Dodge). Sky Islands are defined as “isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments” (US Forest Service). The term is widely used for ranges in Central America, Eastern Africa and South East Asia, to name a few examples. People familiar with India’s hill stations will quickly understand the utility of the idea of sky islands. For places like the Palanis Hills with summits and plateaus, lofty and cool, so far removed from the sweltering plains below the term “sky islands” is most fitting.

I was first introduced to the idea of sky islands by the evolutionary biologist V.V. Robin. In 2006 we bumped into each other in Cairn Hill Shola in the Nilgiri hills looking for endemic shola birds. More than any other individual, Robin has worked to identify the upper reaches of the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot as sky islands. His research has focused on the evolution of bird species specific to the sky islands of the southern Western Ghats. Now as an assistant professor at IISER Tirupati, Robin has nurtured an expanding group of young researchers to examine and broaden our understanding of the ecology of Sky Islands (see his website Shola Sky Islands). Kodaikanal International School has developed an important link with the IISER teams and has supported their work by providing accommodation and a study site on the edge of Bombay Shola.

Prasenjeet Yadav in his work with Robin on a National Geographic explorer’s grant incorporated themes of sky islands into his August 2017 National Geographic article and photo essay. Prasen is a talented, hardworking, rock star photographer who deeply understands the science of his subjects. We’ve had the joy of taking several hikes and small expeditions together where I was able to show him some of my favorite places in the Palanis. In the article the author Shaena Montanari highlights the role of sky islands in distribution and evolution of species in the southern Western Ghats. This is almost entirely based on the field work of Robin, his students and colleagues at IISER.

The idea of the sky islands seems to say so much about the uniqueness of Kodai and the Palani Hills- a story that for a long time has been difficult to tell. Those of us who have lived and walked in the upper reaches of the Palani Hills know that there is a very special nature to the landscape and life of the hills. It is a realization tinged with grief and foreboding as the very landscape has dramatically changed in our short lifetimes. Areas that were once a mosaic of grasslands and shola pockets have been replaced by a carpet of dense wood from other continents. Urban (built up) and agricultural areas have also expanded significantly in recent decades. The realization that satellite imagery could help us better tell the story of ecological change in the Palani Hills was first articulated in my 2014 blog post. The images showed that changes were not that old; in fact they happened in our lifetimes as our subsequent  study of land cover changes using satellite image published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One (2018) demonstrated.

The story of the ecological change in the Palani Hills is complicated and rather messy. During the last few decades citizens, scientists and the forest department have engaged in observations, field studies and vigorous discussions on these changes. In the 1980s and 90s the Palani Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) helped citizens develop an appreciation for the hydrology of the hills and the importance of sholas. The observation of the revival of shola species under non-native plantations by Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar surprised many in academic and conservation circles. There are ongoing debates about the origins of large montane grasslands (are they human or natural  in origin?). There are voices that supported this idea while other scientists consider the shola/grassland mosaic to be the climax stage of a complicated process in the upper hills. The role of fire has been debated. It clearly has a damaging impact on the lower slopes but is it possible that fire had a role in maintaining montane grasslands?  Some areas of Kerala still use fires as an effective management strategy to support healthy montane grasslands.  The recovery of large herbivore populations-namely gaur (Bos gaurus)- in semi-urban areas near Kodaikanal has become a challenge that citizens and wildlife managers are perplexed by. To what extent the issue climate change plays a role in the ecological changes in the Palanis has not yet been investigated. In summary, there are plenty of vexing issues to keep ecologists and other interested parties engaged in the Palani Hills sky islands for many years to come.

A mosaic of ridge lines (from multiple images and places) advertises Kodaikanal as an “island in the sky” at the Madurai airport.

A SKY ISLAND CENTER: KIS’s CENTER FOR ENVIRONMENT & HUMANITY

In the last three years the idea of a learning center to explore the ecology of the Palani Hills has taken shape in KIS’s Center for Environment & Humanity. The idea of a learning center grew out of the school’s efforts to promote environmental and experiential education at a time of great in Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills. The growing human footprint in Kodai, the challenge of solid waste management and regular water scarcity issues have given energy to the need to direct teaching and learning to solving real world problems. The goal has been to harness learning themes of ecology, place-based learning, sustainability and environmental awareness as a key part of the “Kodai experience.” The center also recognizes the importance of learning about and from the human communities that inhabit the Palani Hills. Thus, human ecology is an important theme alongside biodiversity and conservation.

The origins of the center dates back to the tenure of principal Dr. Paul Wiebe (1987-2001). Initially land was acquired near the remote village of Poondy to set up a program of environmental education. This has provided a wonderful retreat center for KIS student, staff and alumni but there was still a need to have a learning center closer to the school’s campus in Kodai itself. During these decades and in the wake of the 1992 Rio Earth summit there was a growing realization about the importance of environmental education. More specifically, environmental and experiential education, with a focus on addressing local challenges and solutions within a global framework, could potentially be the factor that distinguishes KIS from the other IB world schools that have sprouted across India. The school’s values-based approach and vision to be the “school that the world needs” provides a framework to put ecological teaching and learning at the heart of what KIS in the coming century.

Two year ago the energy of alum Clarence Maloney coupled with the vision of principal Corey Stixrud and support of Kodai Friends International (KFI) helped kickstart what would be called the KIS Center for Environment & Humanity (CEH). During that time I was in and out of Kodai for visits and had a chance to see the site located at the former Swedish mission dormitory. In June 2018 Robin, his colleagues and I met with the school to promote the idea of university collaborations and the idea of the “Sky Island” for the nascent center. KIS’s Commander Ashwin Fernandes (Retd), the maintenance team and the housing office were in the process of refurbishing the site. By the time the KIS board met in September 2019 the Center for Humanity and Environment was ready for formal inauguration. The center is now staffed by Drs. Lekshmi Raveendran and R. Rajamanikam- a husband and wife team that bring energy, grassroot connections and dedication to their jobs. My personal hope is that the center will grow into a world class institution that supports learning and conservation initiatives in the Palani Hills. There are still opportunities to focus the efforts of CEH on the idea, novelty and challenges of sky islands.

The Kodai lake basin with Perumal Malai in the distance serves as a dramatic reminder of the Palani Hills as a sky island. This image (and the landscape in the collage at the top) was taken at the end of 2013 on a morning when temperatures had dropped close to freezing. At 10° degrees north of the equator it is hard to associate frigid conditions with southern India. But the Palani Hills sky islands are high above the warm plains and frequently have frost from December-February. I had left my gloves at home on the short motorcycle ride up to Swedish Hill to see the view with Val Sloan, our friend and the wife of my classmate John Miller. It was so cold on the next stretch from Lake view to Pillar Rocks that I nearly fainted when we stopped (no exaggeration here, as people who know me well will verify). A warm cup of tea and vigorous rubbing finally revived me and I got some decent images of an extraordinary morning!

***

This post has been written in advance of a Zoom talk that I am preparing for KIS alumni and other friends entitled Palani Hills Sky Islands: A Personal Journey Rethinking Landscape, Ecology and Change in the Hills we Love.

 

SELECTED PAST BLOG POST ON THE SKY ISLAND THEMES (chronological order)

Lockwood, Ian. “Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky.” Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2015. Web.

          ”          “Metamorphosis of a Landscape.” Nature In Focus. 2017. Web.

          ”          “A Song of the Sholicola.” Ian Lockwood Blog. April 2018. Web.

          ”          “Landcover Changes in the Palani Hills-A Spatial Study.” Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2018. Web.

          ”          “Aerial & Terrestrial Snapshots of the Southern Western Ghats.” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2020. February 2019. Web.

          ”          “Palani Hills Sky Island Landcover Changes at the ATBC Asia Pacific.” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2020. Web.

 

REFERENCES

Arsumani, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.”  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Dodge, Natt. “Monument in the Mountain”. Arizona Highways. Phoenix, Arizona: Arizona Highway Department. March 1943. (Wikipedia Link)(Sky Islands Alliance link)

Kidd , Charles V. “The evolution of sustainability.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. March 1992. Web.

Montanari, Shaena (& Prasenjeet Yadav). “Breathtaking Sky Islands Showcase Evolution In Action.” National Geographic. 11 August 2017. Web.

Myers, Norman. “Threatened biotas: “hot spots” in tropical forests.” The Environmentalist. 1988. Web.

Myers, Norman et al. “Biodiversity Hotspots for Conservation Priorities.” Nature. February 200. Web.

WWF. Leadership: Thomas Lovejoy. ND. Web

Written by ianlockwood

2020-12-03 at 8:11 pm

Moonstone Wanderings in Anuradhapura

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Moonstone in the fields to the south of Thuparama, Anuradhapura. A mosaic of several images.

In the waning days of the summer holidays I took a short pilgrimage to Anuradhapura where its ruins, old stones and living traditions drew me back. My days previous to this outing had been spent with friends and our daughter Amy looking for wildlife in Wilpattu National Park. The road to Anuradhapura  was a relatively short detour and helped me complete a summer of Sri Lankan dry zone exploration.

It was the summer of the pandemic and the sacred city was relatively empty-perfect for some solitary explorations and wandering with my camera. Our family has visited several times during our stay in Sri Lanka (see my October 2014 post). Half a century before our time, my father Merrick recalls visiting Anuradhapura on the journey from Colombo to Jaffna. In the 1940s and 50s when they visited, there large areas were overgrown and unexcavated. The town itself had a relatively small population and was not an urban center. The irrigation reservoirs (tanks or wewas) were being restored and rich agricultural areas revived. Now, in 2020 after 72 years of independence and more than a decade after the end of the civil war, Anuradhapura has a new town while its sacred precinct has been preserved for its historical and religious significance.

Amarvathis_panel_with_wheels_1b(B&W)(MR)(06_18)

Panels from the Amarāvatī Stupa housed in the Chennai (Madras) Museum. These 2nd/ and 3rd Century BCE Buddhist limestone carvings were once part of a large complex that was abandoned and only rediscovered in the early 19th Century. Most of the pieces of surviving art are located at the British Museum in London and the Government (Madras) Museum in Chennai. They are exquisite works of art. The stylistic similarity between Sri Lanka’s moonstones and the semi-circular parts of the vertical columns that encircled the stupa (dagoba) are uncanny.

Echoes from Amarāvatī

Two years ago, while preparing the Hills of Murugan exhibition in Chennai, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the Madras Museum, now renamed the Government Museum, Chennai. This repository has priceless collections of ancient Indian heritage and art. The gallery of bronzes is, perhaps, the most famous space but the museum also hosts a gallery dedicated to the once colossal Buddhist stupa at Amarāvatī. This site on the banks of the Krishna river in Guntur district was an early center of Buddhist learning and worship. Its story is well known: from being one of the earliest stupas/dagobas (3rd-2nd  Century BCE) to being abandoned and then broken up for construction material before being rediscovered by Colin Mackenzie in the early 19th Century. Amarāvatī’s most valuable limestone carvings now sit in two museums: the British Museum in London and the Madras Museum in Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai.

There was a great deal to appreciate and observe in the museum. In fact far too much for a single visit. One thing that struck me were the semicircular designs carved in relief that are found at the bottom of the columns below a set of discs or wheels (see image below). These columns originally provided a circular protective wall around the stupa. The wheel or dharmachakra, of course, is an important Buddhist, Hindu and Jain symbol associated with the cyclical nature of life. Some of the images in the gallery have intricate scenes from the Buddha’s life (these are mostly encased in glass that make them difficult to photograph). The majority of disks/wheels (or “lotus medallions”) are relatively plain with concentric patterns radiating out from the center. Some of these would have been a part of a “crossbar” that linked pillars together (see Akira Shimanda’s articles below). James Fergusson and James Burgess refer to these objects as “disks” decorating ornamental pillars (in Sanchi) in their book The Cave Temples of India (1890). In the Madras Museum there are dozens of wheels/discs that seem largely decorative. Some are parts of pillars while others are solid pieces of limestone carved to be a piece of a complex puzzle. However at the bottom of several pillars is a semicircular relief that looks like a proto-moonstone propped upwards. I’m not sure to what extent this striking similarity has been investigated but I assume that others have noticed it before. Amarāvatī’s stupa predates the estimated dates of Anuradhapura moonstones by nearly a millennium and in their day there would have been considerable interaction between these two important Buddhist centers.

Ruwanwelisaya_moonstone_Mirror_(MR)(11_19)

Moonstone mirror study in the fields to the south of Thuparama, Anuradhapura.

Anuradhapura’s Moonstone Gardens

Back in Anuradhapura this summer, I marveled at the connections between Buddhist sites across South Asia. The most famous moonstone (or Sandakada pahana as moonstones are known in Sinhala) in Anuradhapura is located in a complex to the west of the colossal Abhayagiri Stupa. Like all moonstones, it provides an ornate and visually dazzling entrance way to a scared space carved on a large (and deep slap of granite). The concentric layers symbolically progress inwards from outer states of consciousness to the final inner core of nirbana (nirvana). The elephants, horses, lions and bulls, marching across the outer layer are carved with startling likeness.

I appreciate this most famous moonstone but what I enjoy even more is wandering through the less visited parts of Anuradhapura and stumbling across neglected examples of this uniquely Sri Lankan art form. There are at least a dozen or more intricately carved moonstones lying in the shadows of more famous monuments. There are many more plain slab moonstones scattered across excavated sites and hidden amongst overgrowth sites. The Sri Maha Bodhi shrine has several large moonstones at its entranceways. Of course, further away the Vaṭadāge at Polonnaruwa has several outstanding  moonstones (see the March 2017 post).

The classic moonstone is almost never found without accompanying guard stones and balustrades (railings). The guard stones in Anuradhapura are most frequently a guardian male figure with a multi-headed cobra hood. He holds up a vessel (of scared water?) and a wisp while there are often small dwarf characters at his feet. In a few cases, the guard stones are dwarfs. The balustrades are ornate railings on the side of the steps. They usually depict a dragon or fierce creature who’s tongue rolls out to form the railing. Elephants are also depicted as the creature in some balustrades (as seen in Thanjavur).

Though my only claim of expertise is my curiosity in South Asia’s sacred architecture, I’m not aware of moonstone being used in ancient temple architecture in India. The moonstone appears to be a uniquely Sri Lankan art form. From the Amarāvatī pillars there are hints that ideas freely flowed across the shallow seas in the hundreds and thousands of years before the present time. These crosscurrents of people and sophisticated ideas being interchanged across the South Asian landscape reminds us that we still have a great deal to learn from the past.

A Note on the Photography in this Post

More than a century ago the pioneering photographer Joseph Lewton documented Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon’s)  cultural triangle with a large format, glass plate camera that needed its own darkroom on site. The sepia toned images that are left with us provide a stunning first view of sites before they were restored (see Ismeth Raheem’s publications below).

In between efforts to document landscapes and ecosystems in the Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot, I wanted to explore the island’s sacred sites and document theses scared spaces  with high resolution images. I originally photographed moonstones and elements of Sri Lanka’s scared architecture with medium format cameras using black & white film. This was not that long ago (2005-2010) and I developed the film and printed the images at home myself. About 12 years ago, the whole world of photography was undergoing a dramatic technological change and it became clear that digital imagery offered powerful tools that were superior to the film gear that I had available to me. Obtaining film and chemicals was difficult and the digital workflow could be done on a personal computer without a darkroom and wet chemicals. My work on the sacred sites has since evolved to utilize these digital tools but I still aspire to create images that do justice to the magnificent art and architecture of these sites

 

SACRED SPACES BLOG POSTS (CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER)

Lockwood, Ian. “Portrait & Panorama in Anuradhapura.”  Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2010. Web.

“            “Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part I).” Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2011. Web.

“            “Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part II).” Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2011. Web.

“            “Amongst the Sacred and the Sublime in the Dry Zone.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2012. Web.

“            “In Hanuman’s Flight Path.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2013. Web.

“            “Elephanta: A Pilgrimage” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2014. Web.

“            “Early Pathways at Mihintale & Anuradhapura.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2014. Web.

“            “Glimpses of Polonnaruwa.” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2017. Web.

SELECTED REFERENCES

“Amaravati Stupa.” Wikipedia. accessed 10 September 2020.  Web.

Daniel, Shannine. “The Moonstones Of Ancient Sri Lanka: Religion, Art, And Architecture.” Roar. 16 Feb 2018 Web.

Dhammika, Ven S. “Anuradhapura.” Sacred Island: A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Guide to Sri Lanka. 2007. Web.

Falconer, John and Ismeth Raheem. Regeneration: A Reprisal of Photography in Ceylon 1850-1900. London: The British Council, 2000. Print.

Fernando, Nihal et al. Stones of Eloquence: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Studio Times, 2008. Print.

Images of Ceylon. Web.

Moonstones, Guardstones, Balustrades of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka Postal Service, 12 December 2012. Print.

Raheem, Ismeth. Archaeology and Photography: The Early Years 1868-1880. Colombo: The National Trust Sri Lanka, 2009. Print.

Shimanda, Akira and Michael Willis Ed. Amaravati: the Art of an Early Buddhist Monument in context. London: The British Museum, 2016. Web.

Stambler, Benita.  “Maintaining the Photographic Legacy of Ceylon.” Trans Asia Photography Review. Fall 2013. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2020-09-14 at 9:16 pm

Dry Zone in a Biodiversity Hotspot

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A collage of Sri Lanka’s dry zone species and habitats (SE coast near Kumana).

Sri Lanka’s climate zones, split between the wet, intermediate and dry zones each have distinctive qualities and biodiversity. While the wet zone has the highest levels of endemism the dry zone shows close affinity to southern India’s flora and fauna. There are even several slivers of the island with arid climates that are sometimes separated from the dry zone (the Jaffna peninsula, Mannar, Yala etc.). On several trips in the last year, and most importantly the summer during the pandemic, I continued to explore, document and better understand the biodiversity and landscapes of the dry zone.

Although the extent of the dry zone covers nearly two thirds of the island it is not a homogenous landscape and there are significant variations in terrain, forest cover, hydrology and land use in its different parts. The area is characterized by seasonal spells of intense rain (the monsoon) and longer periods with relatively little rain. The North-East (winter) Monsoon, active from October to January, provides most of the seasonal moisture. This June we traversed the three climate zones: we left Colombo in the midst of showers from the South West Monsoon, experienced rain in the intermediate zone near Sigiriya and then had almost all rain-free dry days in Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Arugam Bay.

Panthera pardus kotiya at Wilpattu National park. Leopards are not exclusive to the dry but the large protected areas of Yala, Kumana and Wilpattu offer the best places to encounter them. This juvenile male thrilled our small group with a lengthy encounter in the early morning of a visit in July. Special thanks to Achintha Piumal who alerted us to its presence and got us to the location without disturbing his morning rituals.

Conservation Value of the Dry Zone

The lengthy Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot, as demarcated by CEPF, is characterized by India’s west-coast mountainous spine as well as (almost) the entire island of Sri Lanka. It always intrigued me that the Western Ghats portion is made up of mountainous habitats while Sri Lanka’s portion includes significant lowland, plains areas in its dry zone along with its Central Highlands and coastlines. In fact, all of Sri Lanka, with the exception of the Jaffna peninsula, falls under the hotspot boundary. It’s a somewhat arbitrary boundary distinction and meant to give a target area for the governments of India and Sri Lanka to value and protect. The Western Ghats plains areas in the shadow of the ghats have been largely converted to agricultural and other human-dominated landscapes. In contrast Sri Lanka’s lowlands, especially in the dry zone,  still have large areas of natural forest cover and this most likely explains the boundary choices.

The largest protected areas in Sir Lanka, the ones that draw visitors wanting a “safari” experience, are all found in the dry zone. Yala National Park in the south-east draws the largest numbers of visitors. Its north-eastern parts, bisected by the Kumbuk Oya, are protected as Kumana National Park. In the central plains around Dambulla/Sigiriya parks protected as part of irrigation reservoirs such as Minneriya, Kaudulla and Kala Wewa host some of the biggest congregations of Asian elephants in the world. Sri Lanka’s largest national park is Wilpattu located on the Gulf of Mannar and stretching nearly to the center of the island at Anuradhapura. After being contested during the years of fighting, Wilpattu has made a comeback. Classic dry zone mammal species like sloth bears, elephants, grey langur, spotted deer are all found at Wilpattu. I appreciate Wilpattu for its forests. Visitors spend hours traversing mature strands of tropical evergreen forest to get to the open areas and wilus (shallow natural lakes that can either have saline or fresh water) areas with bird and mammal densities. There are many significant species of trees on the drive in. I appreciate the Manilkara hexandra (or palu/palai) that are a favorites species for birds of prey, Malabar Pied Hornbills and occasionally, leopards.

Many of the other large protected areas of Sri Lanka including Wasgamuwa, Gal Oya and Madhura Oya and Somawathiya are all in the dry zone. Satellite imagery shows large tracts of dry zone forest north of Vavuniya in the Vanni. These were areas that were controlled by the LTTE for many years and survived the ravages of war. At this stage few of these are being explored by wildlife enthusiast and birders, as far as I know.

 

Granite rocky outcrops are a feature of many parts of Sri Lanka’s dry zone. The Kudumbigala hermitage on the edge of Kumana National Park has some exquisite rocks that are safe from those blasting and quarrying.

Connections Across the Straits

Ecologists and others familiar with the plains of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s dry zone have observed the remarkable similarities in climate, soil and geology. It is certainly something I think about every time I fly into Madurai and drive away from this ancient urban settlement. The red soil and occasional patches of thorn forest and sacred Ficus trees, scattered amongst drought-prone fields and granite outcrops, hint at a past that would have looked quite different.

Rom Whitaker, India’s snake man who is based in Tamil Nadu, visited Colombo in 2010 and gave a public talk sponsored by Dilmah Conservation that reminded me of the connection between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. He drew our attention to the fact that Sri Lanka’s dry zone coastal areas were likely representative of what Tamil Nadu’s plains once looked like. Land cover change on the plains of Tamil Nadu, of course, has been happening at an astounding pace in recent decades. However, Rom was hinting at patterns that happened in India much earlier-as in hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Those changes led to a different landscape and perhaps a less-humid climate in plains Tamil Nadu. This topic deserves thorough academic investigation but Rom’s message was conservation- oriented. He was discretely pleading with the Sri Lankan audience to act to protect areas before sand mining, granite blasting, deforestation and other threats destroyed the remarkable magic of the dry zone.

The situation with Sri Lanka’s dry zone is especially remarkable because it historically experienced dramatic land cover change and then recovered. The ancient Sri Lankan hydraulic civilizations that created systems of sophisticated water management and irrigation more than 2300 years ago were all based in the dry zone. The remains of these civilizations and especially their Buddhist sites in places like Ruhunu, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa illustrate of the importance of the dry zone in Sri Lanka’s rich cultural history. It was only later, after repeated attacks and the outbreak of malaria, that the Sinhalese kings moved south-west into the wet zone. That migration left much of the dry zone alone and gave the forested areas a chance to recover. Mark Ashton, Nimal & Savitri Gunatilleke and others in fact state that “the early phases of Sri Lanka’s history therefore suggests that nearly all of the forests now in the dry zone are of secondary origin, having re-established over the last 7-8 centuries.” (Ashton et al. p.12)

The idea that the plains of Tamil Nadu might once have been thickly forested in a way similar to Wilpattu is intriguing. The land cover change and the clearing of these Indian forested areas would have happened so long ago that there are few records of the change. Great kingdoms and empires-the Pallavas, Pandians, Cholas and others-rose and fell over several millennia. Presumably the dry evergreen plains forest was cut back to make room for agriculture during these times. The relatively recent (and well documented) British colonial forestry efforts were focused on wooded, hilly  areas like the Anamalais, Nilgiri and Palani Hills. A modern forest map of Tamil Nadu (see TN Forest Department) suggests that almost all forest cover is in the Western and Eastern Ghats rather than the plains and a few mangrove patches. There are relatively small examples of the dry evergreen forest  in Tamil Nadu and there are efforts in Auroville (see link) to protect and propagate this forest type, but nothing on the scale of what is found across the straits in Sri Lanka.

Panthera_pardus_stretch_at_Wilpattu_3a(MR)(07_2)

Panthera pardus stretching at Wilpattu National park. Special thanks to Achintha Piumal who alerted us to its presence and got us to the location without disturbing his morning rituals.

SELECTED REFERENCES

Ashton, Mark et. al. A Field Guide to the Common Trees and Shrubs of Sri Lanka. Colombo: WHT Publications, 1997. Print.

Conservation International. Biodiversity Hotspots. Web.

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Biodiversity Hotspots. Web. (see link for Western Ghats projects)

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.. Ecosystem Profile: Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot (Western Ghats Region). May 2007. Web.

De Silva, Asoka T., Ed.  Sri Lanka’s Forests-Nature at Your Service. Colombo: Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, 2014.

Ministry of Mahaweli Development & Environment. Biodiversity Profile- Sri Lanka Sixth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity. May 2019. Web.

Ministry of Mahaweli Development & Environment. National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan 2016-2022. May 2016. Web.

Lankan Ramblings in the Summer of the Pandemic

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On the road to Thiriyai in north-eastern Sri Lanka during an unseasonal squall.

In the time of the pandemic, visitors to the island dried up and the forests, ruins and beaches that magnetically pull so many from around the world were quiet and empty. Flights into Sri Lanka were suspended and protocols were put in place to minimize the chance for the virus to spread. These were strange and challenging days, that none of us had experienced before. Our family, like so many in the Colombo suburbs, was locked down for three months. The teaching and learning that governs our life’s rhythm shifted gears as we went online and operated classes from home. Time seemed to slow down and it required extra energy to complete basic tasks. We developed new routines to balance work with exercise. We had more time for introspection. In the end,  it was relatively painless and we were thankful to be in a place where the virus was under control. When the summer holidays came in mid-June we happily set out around our island home, looking to explore the country’s dry zone.

Our family vehicle had been taken apart, restored and repainted over the first part of the year. The COVID crisis had significantly delayed work but there was nothing to do about that and we were locked down at home anyway.  After some rather serious chassis work and new additions, it was put back together in mid-June. It had to pass the annual emissions test, be outfitted with a canopy and have new tires put on and then we were ready to pack it up for an exploration into the dry zone of Sri Lanka.

A collage of summer reflections exploring parts of Sri Lanka’s dry zone. Scenes from Dehigaha Ela (Sigiriya area), Trincomalee, Passikudah, Arugam Bay and Tissamaharama.

Sigiriya, Kandalama & Dehigaha Ela

Our journey took us on a circular loop around the mountainous interior and through the dry zone, revisiting old haunts and then exploring sections of Sri Lanka unseen previously. Leaving Colombo and the wet zone behind, we drove through Kurunegala and Dambulla into the heart of the Cultural Triangle. This area near the rock fortress at Sigiriya sits on the edge of the intermediate and dry zones and sure enough we experienced several monsoon showers. We stayed at one of Back of Beyond’s Dehigaha Ela tree houses. This off-the-grid location was set up by our friend and fellow College of Wooster alum Yohan Weerasuriya. Aside from family visits, we have been using Dehigaha Ela and the nearby Pidurangala property for Week Without Walls experiences that I coordinate for OSC. The serene setting is a fine place to slow down, appreciate Sri Lanka’s rural landscape and explore on bicycle. Our family was joined by colleague, friend and KIS alum Andry DeJong. Because of the COVID-induced curfew, Dehigaha Ela had been closed and we were the first visitors after a long stint. Sigiriya was not open and we experienced the empty surroundings and lesser sites in blissful solitude.

Heat maps from cycle rides in the Dehigaha Ela area.

One of the exquisite tree houses at Back of Beyond’s Dehigaha Ela.

Trincomalee

Four days in this once strategic port gave our family an appreciation for the stunning coastal beauty, rich cultural heritage and sub-surface marine life of Sri Lanka’s east coast. We enjoyed time with our friends the Leighs, Presleys and Bargefredes. Snorkeling, dolphin watching and diving off of Pigeon Island and the Koneswaram temple were highlights. Our last outing was to Thiriyai, the site of an ancient vaṭadāge. It is known to be one of the oldest Buddhist sites in the country and is situated near to an important but long-lost port. The origins of this Buddhist site, with Pallava links, in an a historically Tamil area of the island, hints at a fascinating past of cultural diffusion.

Passikudah, Arugam Bay & Kumana

From Trinco we drove south, navigating its modest town, passing the China Bay airfield and various harbor inlets before crossing the Mahaweli Ganga and heading south towards Mutur. I still have warm childhood memories of Trinco’s inlets, the docks and Swami Rock, from a family visit in the winter of 1977. The geography and bathymetry of Trinco’s harbor and Koddiyar bay, with its deep trench cutting from the continental crust into the Bay of Bengal, are intriguing. Nautical maps give a sense of the submarine contours but don’t seem to do justice to the sheer natural magnificence of the area.

The conflict had rendered the area south of Koddiyar Bay off limits and impossible to get through for many years. Now  a decade or more after the cessation of hostilities, new bridges and surfaced roads make it effortless. Driving south to Passikudah you traverse rich, irrigated paddies and then pockets of deprivation in a sparsely-populated landscape. We overnighted in Passikudah, a crescent moon-shaped bay of large hotels developed after the fighting stopped. It would normally be teaming with foreign tourists in the summer season. In 2020 it was deserted and only a few hotels were open for business. Further south in Batticaloa and its environs, the eastern coastal belt is densely populated with commercial and agricultural communities. We had planned to dive on one of the wrecks off  Batticaloa but put it off for another trip.

In Arugam Bay we were surprised to find a relatively lively and bustling scene. The pandemic and the precautions of mask-wearing seen elsewhere were in little evidence here. Stranded tourists and resident expatriates had found their way to this seaside mecca of South Asian surfing. Our kids took surf lessons, we had Ayurvedic back treatments and we relished the food and fine coffee. We stayed at the tastefully designed Spice Trails, run by KIS alum Prithvi Virasinghe and his wife Silje. One of our mornings was spent visiting Kumana National Park with our recently graduated student and friend Luca  Feuerriegel. He had just completed an epic cycle ride from Colombo to Arugam Bay via several key birding destinations (see his excellent blog post for details). Having my cycle was a great boon and I took a series of solo exploratory rides south of Arugam Bay. Here amidst patches of scrub forest, paddy and meandering streams I enjoyed some of the most pleasant, scenic riding that I have done in Sri Lanka thus far.

Heat maps from the area south of Arugam Bay and Yoda Lake (Tissamaharama).

Pathways and paddy along the Heda Oya south of Arugam Bay.

Tissamaharama

On our loop back to Colombo we drove around the protected areas of Kumana and Yala, through Moneragala and Kataragama to Tissamaharama. We stayed with our colleague Kristin and her husband Madhu and daughters at their place Wild Lotus.  By this time we had been out almost two weeks and so we skipped visits to Yala and Bundala in order to get home for a while.

The Yoda Lake west embankment with the Kataragama hills in the background.

Summer Wrap Up

Just before school resumed in early August I had the opportunity to visit Wilpattu National park and the sacred city of Anuradhapura. This journey, exploring Sri Lanka’s dry zone biodiversity and cultural heritage, helped bring the summer’s journey’s full circle. The next two posts detail the encounters with the natural world of the dry zone and experiences looking for moonstones amidst the ruins of Anuradhapura.

PAST POSTS

“Pigeon Island Explorations” Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2015. Web.

“Amongst the Sacred and the Sublime in the Dry Zone.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2014. Web.

“Windows on the Long Road to Jaffna.” Ian Lockwood Blog. April 2013. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2020-08-24 at 9:40 pm

Colombo Curfew Birding in the time of COVID-19

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Indian Robin (Copsychus fulicatus) at Eden Gardens boundary.

These have been strange days with a world turned upside down by an invisible yet society-altering virus. Here in Colombo, our city and suburban neighborhood has been locked down under a curfew since March 21st. At this stage these efforts seem to have contributed to the relatively slow spread of the disease in Sri Lanka, though it is still too early to be sure. Teaching and learning have not ceased for those of us in the Overseas School of Colombo (OSC) community but it has changed as the school abruptly transitioned into a Distance Learning Program (DLP). An important part of the new routine has been ensuring that we balance our screen time with regular exercise and time spent outdoors while maintaining social distancing norms. I didn’t need much of an excuse to get outside but I was pleasantly surprised with just how much wildlife our immediate neighborhood has to offer-something that the curfew and lockdown facilitated.

Since March I have been spending several hours every day walking with binoculars in large circles, cycling up and down the access road and lurking at a few lonely corners of our housing compound. These confined journeys have given me a chance to observe birds, a variety of animals, flowering trees, reptiles, the movement of clouds and more. It has been a remarkable time as the air has cleared up and human sounds that used to drown out the natural world have disappeared. After several rewarding avian sightings I started taking my camera and telephoto lens on these neighborhood strolls. At first, the modest but versatile 200-500 f/5.6 lens sufficed. However after some surprising sightings of skulking wetlands birds I changed into drab, earthy colors and brought out the 600 f/4 lens.

We live in a gated complex of 90 or so houses, each with modest gardens and ample tree cover (Cassia fistula, Mangifera indica, Mesua ferrea, Couroupita guianensis, Jacaranda mimosifolia, Elaeocarpus serratus, various palms etc.). On the north side an overgrown rubber estate grows up against the compound fence. To the west the property runs alongside a paddy area that is only partially cultivated. A significant part is not managed and this provides a habitat for some interesting wetland species.

Curfew Collage 2020(100 dpi) copy

A collage of trees, flowers & views in the Eden Gardens residential area.

Ducula_aenea_at_EG_1(MR)(04_20)

Green Imperial Pigeons (Ducula aenea) a forest bird that is frequently seen in many leafy neighborhoods in Colombo.

The most common birds that we see include Yellow-billed babblers (Turdoides affinis), Magpie Robins (Copsychus saularis), Red-Vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus cafer) Spotted doves (Spilopelia chinensis), Red Wattled Lapwings (Vanellus indicus) and Palm Swifts (Cypsiurus balasiensis). Even forest birds such as Green Imperial Pigeons (Ducula aenea) and Crested Serpent Eagles (Spilornis cheela) are seen on a daily basis.

My personal discoveries of rarer species came from the overgrown wetland areas that is outside of our compound. I can only view it from some distance through a fence so most of my pictures are not as clear and crisp as I would like. These observations picked up when I was out early participating in one of several bird races organized for OSC and FOGSL friends. On our first race I spotted a medium-sized brown, chicken-like specimen lurking at the edge of the wetland. Based on repeated observations and photographs this turned out to be one of two immature Watercocks (Gallicrex cinereal). These are shy and rarely seen wetland birds but I have been observing them in the same place on a daily basis during the curfew. A day or two after while finishing my morning exercise routine I saw a dark shape sitting on a tuft of grass above the wetland in the same area where the watercock had been. When I returned with binoculars the shadow was still there and turned out to be a Black Bittern (Ixobrychus flavicollis). This is, of course, one of the shyest wetland birds found in Colombo’s urban wetlands and it has been my quest to find and photograph it over the last several years (see my April 2019  blog post and National Geographic Traveller article). Prior to these encounters my most significant success with this search has been at Weli Park in Nugegoda where I photographed a Black Bittern in 2019. Earlier this year, before the COVID-19 crisis and curfew, I had experienced several productive visits to Weli park where I had photographed all three bitterns (the subject of a future post).

The bird races were a great way to focus our observations but they also contributed to broader understanding of bird population and migration patterns since we submitted lists to E-bird. Will Duncan (of OSC) got us started and there were parallel lists being conducted by Gary Allport (Birdlife International), Sampath Senveratne (Colombo University), Moditha Kodikara Arachchi, Luca Feuerriegel, Rashmi Bopitiya (both OSC students), Scott Hawkins (OSC faculty) and a few others. I completed a bird race list and then a general list over a longer time period. The Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka organized a Avurudu Bird Count (ABC2020) to celebrate the Sinhala/Tamil New Year bird race. They were able to garner 200+ birdwatchers across the island to contribute lists in the week around April 14th. All of us were in lockdown and facing similar movement restrictions. Malaka Rodrigo and Sampath Senevirathna have worked with other to process this data. All in all the experience of logging into E-bird on a regular basis during this restricted time has been very productive.

Amaurornis_phoenicurus_at_EG_2a(MR)(04_20)

White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)on our garden wall. These commonly seen water birds frequently move into habitats that are not wetlands including lawns, gardens and forest groves.

 

Black Bittern (Ixobrychus flavicollis) at the wetlands adjoining Eden Gardens. Photographed in the first two weeks of April.

Other highlights and rarities from the watching included a pair of Lesser Yellownapes (Picus chlorolophus) and two Golden-fronted Leafbirds (Chloropsis aurifrons). Just as the curfew was starting off I had photographed a rare Indian Golden Oriole (Oriolus kundoo). The final highlight of the migrant season at Eden Gardens was a single Cinnamon/Chestnut Bittern (Ixobrychus cinnamomeus) in the same wetland area at some distance. I have seen them both on occasion right up to the time of publication.

As I finish this post the sweep of COVID-19 continues to grow and our curfew has been extended into the month of May. Most of the migrant species have all flown north but there are still all kinds of winged creatures to observe and learn about during this uncertain time.

Lesser Yellownape (Picus chlorolophus) on a Cassia fistula tree at Eden Gardens. We don’t see these very often-this was my first sighting in three years of living here.

A rare Cinnamon/ Chestnut Bittern (Ixobrychus cinnamomeus) photographed through a wire fence on April 19th at the wetland area near to Eden Gardens.

References on my desktop.

REFERENCES

FOGSL Avurudu Bird Count Padlet 2020. Web.

Grimmett, Richard, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, Second Edition. Oxford: Helm Field Guide/Oxford University Press,  2011. Print.

Kotagama, Sarath and Gamini Ratnavira. Birds of Sri Lanka: An Illustrated Guide. Colombo: Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka, 2017. Print.

Rasmussen, Pamela C. and John Anderson. Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide. Volumes 1 &2, Second Edition. Washington DC: Smithsonian, 2012. Print.

Rodrigo, Malaka. Garden Birdwatch 2020. Blog.Warakagoda. Deepal et. al.  Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.

Warakagoda. Deepal et. al.  Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.

Wijeyeratne, Gehan de Silva. A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2017. Print.

Thattekad Winter 2019 Visit

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A kaleidoscope of Thattekad’s birds from the December trip. Clockwise from upper left: Gray Jungle Fowl (Gallus sonneratii), Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger), Fairy Bluebird (Irena puella), Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus), White Bellied Blue Flycatcher (female) Flycatcher (Cyronis pallipes), Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata), Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides), Streak-throated Woodpecker (Picus xanthopygaeus), birding group in action, Forest Eagle-owl (Bubo nipalensis), Flame-throated Bulbul (Pycnonotus gularis), Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura), Orange-headed Thrush (Geokichla citrina), Jerdon’s Nightjar (Caprimulgus atripennis), Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus).

A highlight of the winter holidays was spending time in Thattekad with Lenny looking for and photographing the key endemic bird species of the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. My time staying with KV Eldhose at Thattekad last June (as documented in an earlier post) was quiet but rewarding. The December visit was during  peak season and Eldhose’s place was full up and rocking. Our four days and three nights were a fast-paced series of birding encounters with many highlights that have taken me months (and an unplanned curfew/lock down thanks to COVID-19) to process and appreciate. Unlike my normally solitary bird forays, the December outings in Thattekad were accomplished as part of a group(s). Lenny and I were there with guided teams of photographers from Pune and Chennai and then independent birders from the US and UK. As usual, either Eldhose or his trusty lieutenants Adjomon and Vimal accompanied the groups out.

In mid-December Lenny and I took a scenic drive from Kodai down to Bodi, over the Ghats and through the Cardamom Hills to reach Thattekad (about six hours of driving). We had an auspicious start when our arrival coincided with the pursuit of one of the most difficult birds to see in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. A pair of Sri Lanka Bay Owls (Phodilus assimilis) was roosting in the primary forest and we were invited to take a peak. After a short 20 minute drive up the road Vimal guided us into a thick tangle of canes, dense shrubbery and towering rainforest trees. My 600 mm lens was still cold from having been up in Kodai and it fogged up when I took it out of the pelican case. It took nearly an hour to acclimatize so the shots of the Bay owl were taken with the 200-500 mm lens that Lenny used on the trip (we had taken it out to photograph Euphorbia trees for Bruce Dejong on the Bodi ghat).

SrI Lanka or Ceylon Bay Owls (Phodilus assimilis) at Thattekad primary forest. Guiding courtesy of KV Eldhose & Vimal Niravathu.

Thattekad primary forest area in winter light.

All of Eldhose’s cottages were full and we stayed in the main house. He was busy running his operation with key support provided by his wife Amy and daughter Ashy. The groups from Chennai and Pune were friendly and during the brief moments where we weren’t out finding birds we shared stories and images. The Chennai group was composed of middle aged and older men from the Photographic Society of Madras and was led by Saravanan Janakarajan. We spent time with them in the hides, in the primary forest and in the evening looking for owls. Lenny and I also got to know Jim and Maggie, a friendly couple from Seattle.

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A SUPERB DAILY ROUTINE

Our pattern was to visit a hide visit close to Eldhose’s home at first light. That offered a chance to photograph the reclusive Slaty-breasted Rail (Gallirallus striatus) and then the more reliable starlings, trees pies, woodpeckers and drongos. The hide is close to the house and cottages but it is tiny and we had to take turns. My photographs were taken on the 2nd last morning. Rather than have breakfast at home, all the groups headed out to the primary forest 7:30 and ate breakfast on the way at Kuttampuzha. A simple road side café overlooking a tributary of the Periyar river offered classic Kerala breakfast fare (appam, puttu, paratha, beef curry, chickpeas etc.)

The primary forest, where most of the key birding is accomplished, is actually not a large forest area like Parambikulam, Periyar or Vazhachal. It isn’t even technically part of the Salim Ali Sanctuary, the protected area that Thattekad is associated with. But there is enough habitat diversity and remnant lowlands tropical rainforest to offer opportunities to see all sorts of key Western Ghats birds. It’s not the sort of place that you can wander around on your own and we were accompanied by Adjomon and Vimal. They had their hands full and it would have been better to be in a smaller group but we did fine. The habitat is ideal for Malabar Trogons (Harpactes fasciatus), which I never tire of photographing. They are shy but will sit still in a shaded area if you are fortunate. We saw Sri Lankan Frogmouths (Batrachostomus moniliger) on three different occasions and the guides have several spots that they check reliably.

Our birding mornings typically stretched on to about 1:00-2:00 PM and then we headed back to Eldhose’s to eat, rest briefly and get ready for the afternoon programs. There was a rotation of hides to visit and the groups took turns visiting them. Just behind his newly constructed rooms, a rare Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides) appeared like clockwork every afternoon at the edge of the wetland to look for mealworms. The other two hides are the “Treepie” and “Flycatcher hides.” Both of these are located on privately owned land that adjoins forest patches. They offer unparalleled opportunities to see and photograph key species up close and personal. White-bellied Treepie (Dendrocitta leucogastra), Chestnut-tailed Starling (Sturnia malabarica), Red Spurfowl (Galloperdix spadicea) and Fairy Bluebird (Irena puella) were my personal favorites at the Treepie hide. Lenny and I spent a wonderful afternoon-almost three hours- at the Flycatcher hide with Jim and Maggie. The diversity of flycatchers and other birds was truly dazzling and it was difficult to keep track of the different species as they came in for an afternoon bath and feed. The key flycatchers included the Blue-throated flycatcher (Cyornis rubeculoides), White-bellied Blue Flycatcher (Cyronis pallipes), Rusty-tailed Flycatcher (Muscicapa ruficauda) and Indian paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi). We were also treated to exquisite views of an Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura), Orange-headed Thrush (Geokichla citrina) and Malabar Whistling-thrush (Myophonus horsfieldii).

Evenings at Eldhose’s always started with an effort to see the Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata) at twilight. This experience had been a highlight of the June trip and sure enough an individual of this rare endemic species came back this time. All of us photographers, armed with tripods and lenses (see images), were lined up and seated for the show. We had one excellent sighting and then two nights where it decided not to visit. Before dinner we had the opportunity to go out looking for rare night birds in the nearby secondary forest. Here the rarities included the Great Eared-nightjar (Lyncornis macrotis) and Forest Eagle-owl (Bubo nipalensis). The nightjar sat in the same place very evening while the Forest Eagle-owl was shy and hard to see. I did manage a blurry image on the 2nd evening.

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Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura) bear Thattekad. Hide courtesy of KV Eldhose.

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Hilltop birding inside the primary forest. The open rock faces provide good views of the canopy. There are remnants of ancient humans living here in disused grinding stones and what might be collapsed dolmans. A family of adivasis was camped at the spot and had permission to collect minor forest products.

On our last morning before Lenny and I returned to Kodai we had a chance to photograph the Grey Jungle Fowl (Gallus sonneratii). This is a bird that I have been listening to for much of my life and I’ve frequently seen it on hikes in the Palani Hills. But the sighting near Eldhose’s gave me a whole new appreciation for its beauty (especially in the male individuals). Soon after we packed up, said goodbye to Eldhose, Amy and Ashy and headed back to Kodai to be there in time for a Christmas in the hills. The sightings of birds and experiences in Thattekad left us with an overwhelming sense of awe and appreciation for the diversity of winged life forms in the southern Western Ghats.

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Bird watching and photography gear at KV Eldhose’s on a brief break from the action.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Ali, Salim. Birds of Kerala, 3rd Edition. Kerala Forest & Wildlife Department. Thiruvananthapuram, 1999.Print.

Birding South India. (Eldhose’s website). Web.

Grimmett, Richard Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, Second Edition. London: Helms Field Guide/Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Kazmierczak, Krys. and Raj Singh. A Birdwatcher’ Guide to India. Devon, UK: Prion,1998. Print.

Rasmussen, Pamela C. and John Anderson. Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide. Volumes 1 &2, Second Edition. Washington DC: Smithsonian, 2012. Print.

Sreenivasan, Ramki. “Thattekad Check List and Trip Report.” Birds of India. ND.  Web.

Palani Hills Sky Island Landcover Changes at the ATBC Asia Pacific

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The opening ceremony of the ATBC meeting featured several cultural shows including this impressive fire dance.

Last September Sri Lanka hosted the Association for Tropical Biology & Conservation (ATBC) Asia Pacific chapter meeting at the MAS Athena center outside of Colombo. This was an important gathering, drawing scientists, conservationists and NGOS from across the country, South Asian region and globe to review different studies and approaches. The theme was “Bridging the elements of biodiversity conservation: Save, Study, Use.”

Earlier in 2019 I had met and interacted with Nimal and Savitri Gunatilleke, the distinguished Peradeniya University professors. They have been deeply involved with forest scientific studies and restoration efforts in Sinharaja and the rest of the island. We had enjoyed several conversations about similarities and differences in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity Hotspot. Nimal encouraged me to submit the findings of the grasslands group published in PLOS ONE. The idea of using satellite imagery to show the drama of land cover change in the WG/SL hotspot is a powerful tool for conservationists that is only just being realized (see the May 2018 blog post for details). After consulting with Robin Vijayan, Arasu and some of the other co-authors I submitted a proposal was invited to share the conclusions at ATBC in a poster display.

Poster designed by the author for the ATBC conference.

I was able to get PD time away from normal teaching duties that allowed me to attend the opening and first day of ATBC events. There were some fascinating presentations and interactive workshops. Maithripala Sirisena, the president of Sri Lanka at the time (and also the minister for Environment), was the chief guest. The main thrust of his talk was the remarkable legacy that Sri Lanka’s farmers have with producing abundant food surpluses without endangering the country’s wildlife (both historically and to some extent today). The keynote talk by Sejal Worah from WWF-India on adapting to rapid change to better protect biodiversity. Madhu Verma, from the Indian Institute of Forest Management, spoke of environmental economic and how putting environmental value on ecosystem services is a key step to more effective conservation. There were a whole series of shorter talks and workshops over the next three days. I went to interesting talks by Nimal (on restoration in fern lands) and later on presentations by representatives from ATREE the French Institute of Pondicherry. I enjoyed several excellent session on Wednesday morning. Anjali Watson& Andrew Kittle’s (Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust) “cat talk” about their work with leopards in the Central Highlands was a highlight.

Cover from ATBC journal and copy of page 243.

 

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Arsumani, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.”  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Association for Tropical Biodiversity & Conservation (ATBC) Asia Pacific . Proceedings Book. Web.

Land cover changes. (* posts are in chronological order)

  1. “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment.” Ian Lockwood Blog. August 2014. Web.
  2. “Mapping Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills. Ian Lockwood Blog. August 2016. Web.
  3. “Landcover Changes in the Palani Hills-A Spatial Study.” Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2018. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2020-03-26 at 11:36 am

Central Highlands (Northern Route) WWW Experience 2020

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Looking south in the high peaks of the Knuckles (Dumbara) range from the newly flooded Kaluganga reservoir.

This year OSC’s Highlands WWW experience took a different, more northern route to Sri Lanka’s loftiest peaks, offering fresh opportunities to explore themes of ecology, landscape and culture in the mountainous interior of the island. The group included 13 MYP5 and DP1 students from a variety of countries. Desline Attanayake supported me in guiding them as we headed north to Yapahuwa, overnighted in Pidurangala and then headed into the Knuckles for three days. Our final night was at Nuwara Eliya where we enjoyed a final night of frogging.

Amphibians were once again a key point of interest on our daily walks. The lingering North East Monsson brought heavy rains to the Knuckles and provided ideal opportunities to look for frogs and their predators. Our main target species was the point endemic Kirtisinghe’s rock frog or marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata). It is restricted to wet rock surfaces at the Pitawala Pantana on the road to Riverston. Our team was assisted by the able and knowledgeable Knuckles-based guide KC. He helped us locate several individuals in an area that Lenny and I had searched in vain for back in June. We were less successful with our planned hike to Manigala where heavy rain and unmarked paths forced us to cut short the walk. Staying at Sir Johns Bungalow was a new part of the experience and it proved to be an ideal base for our Knuckles explorations. Our final 24 hours in Nuwara Eliya were productive with rich frog and bird sightings. We were also happy to enjoy the hill station’s crisp, clear winter weather sans precipitation. As usual, we ended the trip with a visit to Pidurutalagala- something that took an extra effort through Desline and MYP5 student Lithira.

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OSC Highlands group at Yapahuwa steps. This was the first day of our five day foray into Sri Lanka’s highlands. Yapahuwa is not in the highlands, but it was on our way and offered a worthy first peak to climb and explore.

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Approaching the eastern face of the Yapahuwa rock fortress, a splendid archeological site on the road up to Anuradhapura. Yapahuwa was briefly a capital of the ancient kings and hosted the tooth relic in the 13th Century.

The hunt for….

Kirtisinghe’s rock frog or marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata) at the Pitiwala Pantana. This is a Sri Lankan point endemic species located in a very, very narrow geographic area.

First night on the adventures….OSC Highlands group climbs Pidurtalagala for sunset.

 

GOOGLE MY MAP OF ROUTE

PAST WWW TRIPS

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Bambaradeniya Channa and S P Ekanayake. A Guide to the Biodiversity of the Knuckles Forest Range. Colombo: IUCN. 2003. Print.

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Western Ghats and Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot. May 2007. Web.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanisha Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2017. Print.

Rodrigo, Malaka. “Lanka’s central highlands win heritage battle”. The Sunday Times. 8 August 2010. Web.

Senevirathna, Ishanda. The Peeping Frogs of Nuwara Eliya. Colombo: Jetwings, 2018. Print.

Singhalage Darshani, Nadeera Weerasinghe and Gehan de Silva Wijeratne. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Flowers of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2018. Print.

Somaweera, Ruchira & Nilusha. Lizards of Sri Lanka: A Colour Guide With Field Keys. Frankfurt: Edition Chimaira 2009. Print.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.

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