Ian Lockwood

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Defying the Odds (again ) in Sinharaja

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OSC’s annual DP Geography field study in Sinharaja investigates patterns of land use, home garden agriculture and the impact of tourism in the shadow of a critical Sri Lankan protected area.

In the DP geography class, current patterns and cases studies play a vital role in helping students understand broad concepts such as power, change, globalization and economic development. The ongoing political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka has been an unfortunately clear case study that provides multiple teachable moments. During recent field work students from OSC’s Class of 2023 witnessed these issues in real life, as seen in surveys of a rural settlement near Sinharaja rainforest.

At the end of April OSC’s IB DP2 Geography class spent four days conducting field research in village areas next to Sinharaja rainforest. This UNESCO-designated World Heritage site located the south-western “wet zone” of the country is well known for its rich biodiversity. OSC classes have been conducting field work in Sinharaja since 2005 and we have established a positive relationship with the community. The location offers ideal conditions for student learning, inquiry and field work on socio-economic, tourist and land-use themes. As usual, we were privileged to stay at Martin’s Wijesinghe’s Jungle Lodge. He sadly passed away last November but his daughters are continuing to provide a fine, basic guest house for people interested in learning about the area.

Kudawa fieldwork and SInharaja explorations are accomplished on foot in a variety of settings.

The Class of 2023 geography class is composed of seven young men and women from six different countries. The class embraced the learning opportunities, didn’t complain about the leeches and seemed to relish the village meals and local vegetables. Thevuni and Thisathma, as Sinhala speaking individuals, played a key role. The other team members including Huirong, Josh, Lucca Sam and Sara all played important supporting roles. OSC’s logistic coordinator Desline Attanayake provided support in the interviews and took part in all aspects of the study. We hired three Sinharaja guides each day and they were essential in leading us through home gardens and helping the students to get a better understanding of the area. The surveys were gathered on foot in rain or shine. We also interacted with two different groups of university professors and students that were in Sinharaja at the same time. It was intriguing to learn about their studies and see how others conduct academic research in this unique rainforest ecosystem.

OSC’s DP Geography students conducting field work in the Kudawa village area in April 2022. Each of the students had an individual research question that could be answered through a face-to-face survey. Their questions were combined into a common 50 question survey that was loaded onto the Survey 123 app. Responses were also collected on paper as a backup. Over the course of two full days of house to house visits 48 responses were collected in the Kudawa area.

Each of the students explored an individual geographic research question but pooled all of their sub-questions into a single survey that small groups could run. The survey of 50 questions could take up to 20-30 minutes with introductions and a look around their properties. The respondents were gracious with their time and several teams were invited to have refreshments. With three different teams going in different directions we collected 48 different interviews. Responses were collected using Survey 123 a GIS-enabled data gathering app that all the students could run off their phones (we also recorded every response on paper). This allows students to map their results and do basic spatial analysis on the findings using ArcGIS, the GIS software package that they are learning to operate.

It’s amazing how much you can see on a relatively short visits to Sinharaja. This collage features amphibians and reptiles from the IA trip that were photographed while on our walks or in the evening near Martin’s.

Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) that we found on a night walk looking for frogs. It was not as docile as the individual that we had seen during the day.

Long-snout(ed) Tree Frogs (Taruga longinasus) photographed in Sinharaja during the IA visit. Female on the left and two different males in the center and right. This is an endemic species closely associated with the lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka’s wet zone. I hear it every time I visit Sinharaja but they are usually in the canopy and are tricky to find. On this trip with my geography students pre-monsoon showers had dampened conditions and a few were at eye level. I’ve posted images of the other two Taruga sp. in earlier posts.

In addition to conducting the surveys, students got a flavor of being ecotourists in a tropical forest. They walked the different forest trails, encountered birds, snakes and spiders, and soaked their feet in jungle streams. Just before returning to Colombo on Saturday we hiked up Moulawella peak to take in the full extent of Sinharaja. It was a challenging adventure but all members of the team made it up and down safely. The sky was exceptionally clear and we could see the Indian Ocean in the south and east and Sri Pada in the north. It helped round off an exhilarating adventure in geographic learning. The students are now working on processing their data and writing up their IA reports.

On our last day the class and I did the traditional Moulawella hike before heading back to Colombo. It a short but tough climb up through secondary and then primary forest to the ride and peak with its panoramic view over the western part of Sinharaja rainforest. The experience gives hikers a sense and appreciation of Sinharaja and its conservation value. We were blessed with clear weather such that we could see the seas in the south and Sri Pada looking to the north.

Moulawella south panoramic view (April 2022)-a view that I was eager to share with Professors Nimal & Savitri Gunatilleke.

Here is a new way of looking at the same image-through a Panoramic viewer.

OSC’s Class of 2023 IBDP Geography class- continuing a tradition of learning about the rainforest and its hinterlands through the support of Martin Wijesinghe’s family.

PAST BLOG POSTS ON SINHARAJA IA

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

Geography IA Trip 2020

Geography IA Trip 2021 (Cancelled because of COVID)

General Sinharaja Reflections

 

SELECTED REFERENCES

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

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela & Dilan Chathuranga. A Photographic Guide to the Amphibians of Sri Lanka. Oxford: John Beaufoy Publishing, 2021. 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.

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. “Sinharaja: The Heart of South Asian Biodiversity.” Sanctuary Asia. April 2020. PDF

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.

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.

Written by ianlockwood

2022-05-29 at 4:38 pm

Remembering Martin Wijesinghe (a Personal Narrative)

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Poster of Martin Wijesinghe. The picture captures a rare mischievous smile taken in 2015 during an OSC DP Geography IA visit. The three endemic species were all photographed within sight of his guest house while he was alive. (all photos by the author).

In November last year Martin Wijesinghe passed away at the advanced age of 82. He was and continues to be intimately associated with the remarkable story of the protection of a logged forest that became the resplendent Sinharaja Man & Biosphere reserve. This large area of lowland and montane tropical rainforest in the Rakwana hills of south western Sri Lanka was a bleak and unappreciated landscape five decades ago. The forest was the site of industrial logging before a hard fought non-violent citizen’s campaign in the 1970s put a stop to that plan. Nearly 50 years later, Sinharaja has made an astounding recovery, illustrating the resilience of nature to recover after harmful human activities. Martin lived through this period of transition serving in the agency that sought to profit from timber and then becoming a guardian and voice for its conservation.

In Sri Lanka, Martin’s story is the stuff of legends. He worked in the Forest Department serving in a variety of roles. He started as a cook but when his sharp naturalist skills were recognized he extended himself into guiding and supporting researchers who were studying forest dynamics and species in the early 1980s. He had interactions with leading scientists such as Professor Balasubramaniyam, P.B. Karunarathne, Nimal and Savitri Gunatilleke, Peter Ashton and Sarath Kotagama. My understanding is that it was Professor Kotagama that encouraged Martin to set up a guest house for bird watchers in the early 1990s. Uditha Wijesena’s blog post from 2016 on Martin details these facets of his beginnings as a conservationist. By the turn of the century Martin was known as the man to go to if you wanted to know about Sinharaja.

Snapshots from my first visit to Sinharaja with Anna Lockwood in March 2000. From top: catching a ride to Sinhagala with a researcher (note the open roads that are now under the forest canopy), Ian with Martin after one of the long hikes, with the two Finnish birdwatchers on the veranda at Martin’s place. (photos taken by Anna Lockwood)

Early Personal Forays

I first heard about Martin through publications from the Oriental Bird Club (OBC). In the mid-1990s I was dipping my toes in the world of serious birdwatching and become a member of the OBC. Birding complimented my interest in natural history, landscapes and efforts to document their changes in key South Asian habitats. I had just started working as a teacher in Bangladesh and one of my first steps was to invest in a pair of Leica Trinovid binoculars (a purchase that took a good year of saving to afford). On weekends I started going on birding expeditions with the towering pioneers of the field in Bangladesh including Dave Johnson, Paul Thompson, Ronnie Halder and Enam Ul Haque. Their stories and articles from the OBC’s journals led me to Thailand and also helped me better understand the unique birds of the southern Western Ghats. In 1997 the OBC published a thin but enormously valuable supplement entitled A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (part of OBC Bulletin). The pamphlet written by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Lester Perera, Jeevan William, Deepal Warakagoda and Nirma de Silva Wijeyeratne emphasized the importance of Sinharaja as the key site to visit for most Sri Lankan endemics and notable species. In those days there was only one place to stay at in Sinharaja and it was run by a man named Martin.

In April 2000 my cousin Anna and I found ourselves negotiating rough, monsoon-gouged roads in an uncertain direction towards the Kudawa entrance of Sinharaja. Sri Lanka, its food, culture and people were familiar because of our family’s long connections in the northern areas of the island. Our grandfather Edson had been a birder accompanying Sid Bunker on many an outing in the wetlands and coastal areas around Vaddukkodai in the 1940-60s. Now a half century later the grandkids were on their own adventure in a very different part of this diverse island.

The route to Martin’s was not clear and our van driver was new to the area. At the time, Sinharaja was far off the beaten path for most tourists. The driver became quite agitated in the final few kilometers as the old logging road wound its way up through small home gardens and tea plantations from Kudawa to Martin’s place. It took 4-5 hours from Colombo (today we can do the trip in 2.5 hours thanks to the vastly improved roads). Upon arrival we were greeted by Martin and his family. His place was simple with 3-5 rooms that were grouped around his family home and a plot of tea on the edge of the forest. There was no power or solar-heated water but we were in a superb birding location. A partially covered verandah with a dining table was where we spent most of the time when we weren’t walking. It overlooked the edge of secondary forest that had been logged three decades earlier. Across the valley towering emergent trees created a wall of undisturbed rainforest vegetation. We sipped tea and waited for different feathered delights to fly over. Anna and I dedicated four days to Sinharaja and had a chance to explore the key trails to the Research Center, Sinhagala and Moulawella peaks. In the evenings we spoke with Martin, enjoyed the company of two very serious Finnish birdwatchers and tallied our lists of species seen.

In 2005, married to Raina and with our son Lenny aged 18 months, I returned to Sri Lanka to teach IB Diploma Geography and Environmental Systems at the Overseas School of Colombo. Previous to my arrival, there was low enthusiasm for conducting the required IA field work. It was an anxious time as the war was raging in the north of the island. In my job interviews I proposed conducting the field work using the safe and homey location of Martin’s as a base. Laurie McLellan, the Head of the School, seemed interested and perhaps my enthusiasm for both Sinharaja and Sri Lanka helped secure my contract. On my first visit with students in October 2005 I was lucky to be able to request Professor Kotagama and his PhD student Chaminda Pradeep Ratnayake to accompany us. That really helped as I started to establish learning and data collection routines for the students in the forest. Over the years the focus of the data collection has gone from ecology-oriented studies to looking at human interactions in the landscape outside of the protected area boundaries. The learning experiences were successful (we recently completed the 17th IA study) and we continue to come back for annual studies-usually in May at the end of the DP1 academic year.

Martin’s Forest Lodge played host to OSC classes over the final 16 years of his life. The place grew in a somewhat haphazard manner; new rooms were added and the verandah area was enlarged. Around 2018 grid electricity was extended to Kudawa. Sadly the home-made dynamos that Martin had rigged up went into disrepair. Meanwhile the secondary forest grew and today there are virtually no signs of the ravages of the logging in the 1970s. When you stay at Martin’s it is a true home stay and after a few nights you are part of the family. That family is now global and includes most serious birders and naturalists who have visited Sri Lanka as well as the many Sri Lankans who visit regularly. I always enjoy interacting with other visitors who have come to Martin’s with a similar approach to escaping the city in search of Sinharaja’s serenity and enormous diversity. I’ve crossed paths with Deepal Warakagoda, Sarinda Unamboowe, Michal & Nancy van der Poorten, Vimukthi Weeratunga, Uditha Hettige, Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana, Mevan Piyasena and many others while at Martin’s.

Martin has left us with a legacy of love and respect for Sinharaja and Sri Lanka’s rainforests. Through his life and efforts so many of us have learnt to love what previous generations might have dismissed as a leech-infested, jungle only worth its weight in timber.

Over the years OSC geography students have had a chance to speak with Martin and learn more about his experiences in Sinharaja.

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OSC students from the class of 2020 speaking with Martin. Luca asking questions next to Rashmi and Anouk. Josh and Arnav are also seen while Savi, Seth and Neha are out of the frame. Taken on the delayed IA study that happened in September 2019.

REFERENCES

de Silva Wijeyeratne Gehan, Lester Perera, Jeevan William, Deepal Warakagoda and Nirma de Silva Wijeyeratne. “A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka.” OBC Bulletin Supplement. 1997. Link.

de Silva Wijeyeratne Gehan. Birds of Sri Lanka: A Pictorial Guide and Checklist. Colombo: Jetwings, 2010. Web.

Gunatilleke, Nadidra. “Martin Wijesinghe: Unofficial ‘caretaker’ of Sinharaja.” Daily News. 1 April 2019. Web.

Raṇasiṃha, Ḍaglas Bī. The Faithful Foreigner: Thilo Hoffmann, the Man who Saved Sinharaja. 2015. Colombo: A. Baur & Co. (Pvt.) Ltd , 2015.  Print.

Wijesena, Uditha.  “Martin Wijesinghe ……of Sinharaja Fame.” Uditha Wijesena Blog.  2016. Web.

Wijesinghe, Martin. “Nesting of Green-billed Coucals Centropus chlororhynchos in Sinharaja, Sri Lanka.” Forktail 1999. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2022-03-01 at 8:20 am

Down South Musings

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Room with an exquisite view at the Rainforest Ecolodge

The last three years have seen a series of unexpected events disrupt life, the economic bedrock and learning activities here in Sri Lanka. The Easter bombing on April 21, 2019 caused an initial body blow to the country. We were just getting our feet back on the ground when the COVID pandemic swept the world and caused the first lockdown in March 2020. Now in the spring of 2022, as the COVID problem has receded a political and economic mess of unprecedented scale has engulfed the country. The Overseas School of Colombo, where I teach and lead key experiential education programs, has managed these challenges with wisdom, creativity and fortitude. A casualty of the initial response was the cancellation of most sports and field trips for the better part of a year. That was hard on students and as well as teachers like me who based learning activities on getting students outside of the traditional classroom. In January this year, in the face of lingering doubts, we were able to defy odds and run our annual secondary Week Without Walls program Explore Sri Lanka!. One of the trips, affectionately entitled Down South, encapsulated the challenge and joy of running these learning experiences during such challenging times.

I designed the Down South learning experience to expose students to the culture and natural history of southern  Sri Lanka off the tourist beaten path. It joins a host of other Microtrips that are designed to get small groups of OSC students and teachers into the different corners of Sri Lanka where they can learn about the rich history, culture and ecology of our island home. In past years we had sent groups to the Hambantota area with a service focus. The new Down South  itinerary was designed to build on the geographic focus while incorporating some of the kinds of learning experiences (hiking, bird watching, natural history etc.) that have made the Sri Lanka Highlands microtrip so successful. Our team included 17 DP1 and MYP5 students, Desline Attanayake (OSC’s logistics coordinator), Melinda Tondeur (our new French teacher) and myself.

A collage of species as seen by the Down South Experience Sri Lanka team in southern Sri Lanka. From upper left clockwise wrapped around the leech sock image: Pseudophilautus poppiae at Enasalwaththa (Rainforest Ecolodge area), Sri Lanka Woodshrike (Tephrodornis affinis) at Kahandamodara, a different Pseudophilautus sp. also at Enasalwaththa and a Blue-Tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) at Bundala NP.

Dry Zone Component

We spent the first three days based out of Back of Beyond’s Kahandamodara wellness center and then transitioned into the south-eastern Rakwana hills at the Rainforest Ecolodge. Few OSC students have stayed at a Back of Beyond property before their WWW experiences (OSC families are more likely to patronize the fabulous large hotels and resorts on the island). I appreciate Back of Beyond for their sublime locations, minimalistic yet tasteful approach, ecological design ethic, exceptional Sri Lankan cuisine and hardworking staff. Kahandamodara has a spacious campus with good dry zone vegetation and access to a relatively lonely stretch of beach on the southernmost coast near Tangalle. There are several bungalows, a pool and common area/yoga studio which makes it ideal for medium-size (under 20) school groups.

The significant day trip to us to the 2nd Century BCE Buddhist ruins and hermitage at Situlpawwa and then Bundala National Park. Situlpawwa is one of my favorite sites and had been a destination for an early WWW trip (with the Class of 2013). It is located within the protective boundaries of Yala but few visitors, other than religious pilgrims, go to Situlpawwa. In its sprawling area you can explore low hills, dagobas, monastic caves and pathways on foot. From the granite hillocks you get sweeping views over Yala’s forested interiors. Wildlife sightings are good-our class was astonished by the elephants, wild boar and sambar deer begging for food at the parking lot. My favorite sighting was a fly over by dozens of Malabar Pied Hornbills when our family visited Situlpawwa last year. We were standing at the Dagoba and they flew by at eye level, one wave after another heading east. The Down South group spent the second half of the day doing a jeep safari around Bundala. As is usually the case, we were the only jeeps in the protected area and enjoyed excellent sightings of birds including several rarities.

Down South group members climbing a hillock at Situlpawwa.

Bundala National Park is an excellent place to get non-birders excited about the joys of observing, photographing and identifying feathered creatures.

An osprey (Pandion haliaetus) at Bundala National Park. Though these birds are common in many areas around the world they are quite rare in this part of Sri Lanka. We were thrilled to observe it in excellent afternoon light.

Rainforest Component

Mid-week we boarded our buses and moved north west up to Deniyaya and the edges of Sinharaja Rainforest at Enasalwaththa. The vegetation in the rolling hills and home gardens changed as we entered the wet zone and transitioned to the 1,000 meter plateau in this edge of the rainforest. Our two night say was a reminder that the Rainforest Ecolodge is a spell-binding and activity-rich area to bring our students too. We did a series of morning, daytime and nocturnal hikes looking to see as much of the biodiversity that Sinharaja is so well known for. Bird life was quite good. Flock activity seemed to be less than my earlier visit but we had a good encounter with a relatively rare Legge’s Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus kelaarti). Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata) fly right through the property in the morning and they are sometimes followed by Red Face Malkohas (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus) and other endemics . I found the frog watching to be especially rewarding. After quite a bit of hard looking with JagathJayawardana, the capable guide at the hotel, we found Pseudophilautus poppiae one of the critically endangered green frogs that has a narrow range in these hills and Morningside. Another interesting find was a Tarantula (Poecilotheria sp. of some sort) that lives in a dead log near the Ecolodge and regularly come out to awe guests.

OSC students birding at the Rainforest Ecolodge (right, both images)  and Situlpawwa (left).

OSC students and teachers on the trail near the Rainforest Ecolodge. Left: DP1 students Huirong, Eleez & Thevuni Center: Desline & Melinda warding off leeches with a homebrew spray and socks. Right: MYP5 students Chirath, Yali, Leonie and Vansh at the stream (our destination on the waterfall hike).

Arboreal biodiversity near the Rainforest Ecolodge: The stunningly glorious endemic creeper Kenrikcia walkeri flanked by Legge’s Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus kelaarti).

The endemic Sri lanka Blue Magpie (Urocissa ornata) in forest near the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Amphibians and arachnid at Enasalwaththa (Rainforest Ecolodge area). From top to bottom: Pseudophilautus sp. (perhaps poppiae) in forest /tea plantation edge. Unidentified tarantula (Poecilotheria sp. of some sort) at the hotel gate. Nannophrys ceylonensis from a wet rock face to the west of the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Montane forest canopy at Enasalwaththa (Rainforest Ecolodge area). Taken in 2020 during a flowering of the principal canopy species Shorea trapezifolia. This was printed as a 20″20″ fine art print in a series of given to departing OSC faculty members in 2021.

The weather was good to us-cool and relatively dry as it usually is during the short dry season in January/February. A rain shower on our last day at the Ecolodge helped bring out the amphibians and I was happy about that. The clouds and blue sky (opening photo) were spectacular as we packed up to leave. The whole group would have gladly extended our stay. Nevertheless, we had a good sense of accomplishment returning to campus free of sickness and incident after so many rich experiences. The other WWW groups came in with a similar sense of elation, having beaten the odds to pull off this experience of learning across our island home.

2022 OSC Down South group at the waterfall near to the Rainforest Ecolodge.

INTERACTIVE MAP OF DOWN SOUTH

Route map of the Down South WWW learning experience.

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PAST WWW TRIPS

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela & Dilan Chathuranga. A Photographic Guide to the Amphibians of Sri Lanka. Oxford: John Beaufoy Publishing, 2021. Print.

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

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

This post was started in February but the final draft of this post was published on 7 May 2022 and then backdated as I catch up on happenings.

 

Written by ianlockwood

2022-02-01 at 10:20 pm

In Rāvana’s Throne Room: A Journey into the Knuckles Range

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Dumbara Falls, a stunning site located deep in the Knuckles Range that was our home for two nights.

In the great Hindu epic the Ramayana the principle antagonist is Rāvana, king of Lanka. He is an intelligent and sophisticated deity who, through complicated circumstances involving key siblings, is cast in opposition to the hero Rama. I first encountered and read the Ramayana in Sally Noorullah’s South Asian Studies class at AIS/Dhaka. It was a bold move to incorporate an Indian epic in its entirety at a school that was otherwise quite American. At the time, we used a dense translation of Valmiki’s work that was challenging to get through (luckily the library had the visually-rich Amar Chitra Katha comic version to support our understanding). Ms. Noorullah, who later mentored me in my first year of teaching at AIS/D, brought passion and insight to the way she taught the themes of good/evil, dharma and the hero’s adventure. We capped off the learning with a week-long field trip to Calcutta (now Kolkata) where the class looked for evidence of the epic in museums, on the streets, at various temples, on the Hooghly river and in the delicious food of a myriad restaurants. The sections of the epic involving Lanka, the monkey king Hanuman and the penultimate battle were fixtures in my imagination. Now, many years later, I find myself living in Sri Lanka, a place where Ramayana tourism is developing into a niche market alongside beach, tea and heritage tourism. At the same time, there has been a revival of interest in Rāvana’s legacy and rethinking his traditional role as the villain of the story.

Stories of this mythic king filtered through my thoughts and dreams as a small group of us  trekked deep into a wilderness that is closely associated with the legend of Rāvana. In August my family and I had just returned to Colombo from a restful summer holiday in the Pacific Northwest. All of us had been vaccinated and there was a window of time before OSC started the new school year. We didn’t know it then but Sri Lanka was on the verge of entering another prolonged lockdown. With help from Nadeera Weerasinghe at Sir John’s Bungalow I was able to plan and set up a three day backpacking trek that would take us deeper and further into the heart of the Knuckles (Dumbara) Range than any previous trip. I recruited veterans from last year’s Sinhagala trek including my son Lenny, former student Rashmi Bopitiya and colleague Andry Dejong. Crucially we were able to get the expert services of KC, the talented guide and herpetologist that has assisted my field visits to the Knuckles on previous visits.

Our destination was Duwili Eli (Falls), a location that is spoken of in whispers amongst hiking fraternities but is rarely visited by others because of the difficult and tiring access. Andry had visited the area soon after she arrived in Sri Lanka and our friend Mangala Karunaratne had camped at several locations near the falls. The series of falls that is associated with Duwili Eli and the idea of a long trek in a primeval forest in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspots were enticing. In February on a long weekend visit to Sir John’s, KC had taken a different group of us towards the abandoned agricultural settlement of Walpolamulla, a stop about 4 km from the road head on the way to Duwili Eli. It was evident from that hike that this part of the Knuckles offered rich opportunities to experience forest wilderness and biodiversity. It was just a matter of having enough time and in August 2021 all the pieces came together serendipitously.

Beginning parts of the trail to Walpolamulla and beyond. The Forest Department maintains the trail.

Hikers in the Knuckles: (from left) Rashmi, Andry, KC and Lenny

Strava heat maps from our three days of hiking in the Dumbara Falls and Duwili Ella/Eli area.

Day 1

With the goal of reaching Duwili Eli, it works to plan a multi-day hike with different stages and a base camp. KC had done the hike numerous times and we followed his guidance. Our group took a prep day to drive from Colombo to Riverston and Sir John’s bungalow. That gave us a chance to start our first full day of hiking refreshed.

We did the 13 km hike to Dumbara Falls on the first leg of our trek . The path starts out at Pitawala and crosses the Telgamu Oya  before climbing up to the Manigala ridge. I had first been here with a group of OSC WWW students but torrential rains had forced us to retreat. The weather this time was relatively cool with a breeze and overcast skies-perfect for hiking. The path was surprising free of other trekkers-a consequence of the COVID situation and looming lock down. In the end, over the whole three day period we would meet only two other people on the trail.

At Walpolamulla we paused at the old terraced fields to take in a panoramic view of our paths ahead. The building at the former village have mostly been abandoned and it site now mainly used for grazing and a trekking campsite. From the terraces you get fine view over the Kalu Ganga valley towards Duwili Eli. On the opposite (eastern) slope several slivers of water in the forest were visible to the naked eye. The waterfalls were enclosed in dense forest and seemed rather far away. Above them loomed the distinctivly shaped Thunhisgala. This three summited mountain (1627 m) is also named Kalupahana for its tallest point. It is visible in the Meemure valley, especially on the route to the Nitrox Cave (see my Duke of Edinburgh blog post from last year).

View eastwards across the valley from Walpolamulla’s terraced slopes. Dumbara Falls, Duwili Eli and Thunhisgala/Kalupahana peak are all visible. Note the clearing in the, otherwise dense, forest-a patch of grassland that may have been a chena (slash & burn) plot in years past.

The path descends into the valley on a forested path that is still used by buffalo herders during the wet season. The area is very wild but every once in a while we would see piles of stones and tile chards that indicated a human presence at some point in the past. At one stream, a slab of lichen-covered granite once must have served as an altar (there was no evidence of modern iconography and I wondered if it was pre-Buddhist). We had timed our trek during a relatively dry spell. The South Western monsoon was hammering the windward side of the Knuckles and the summits were usually incased in mist, as the name Dumbara (misty mountains) hints at. There were few leeches on the trail but we did discover ticks and chiggers later. For the rest of the hike there were few opportunities to see where we were and the trail was entirely under the forest canopy.

In the late afternoon the path wound through a gallery of tall trees and enormous boulders before taking us to Dumbara Falls, the site of our basecamp. Here, the water from upper tributaries break through ramparts of a granite canyon to cascade 20 or so meters into a dark, elliptical pool. Over millions of years the force of the water has ripped away chunks of rock in large, slab fragments. Several of those slabs provide ideal camping spots-above the torrent of water at a level gradient with a sweet view of the thundering falls.

Forest vignettes from the trail to Duwili Eli featuring a mix of native, cultivated and invasive species.

Day 2

After a camp breakfast we zipped up our tents, put away food and left our campsite on the 2nd day to explore upstream to Duwili Eli with light packs. It is a steep but relatively short 4-7 kilometers of walking (my Strava heat does not seem to be accurate because of the tree cover). The highlight this day was the exquisite forest and different streams. I was curious to explore out to a patch of pantana (grasslands) on the edge of the forest. It seems to have been a chena (slash & burn) plot from some time ago but KC was unsure of its origin. The grass was so high that I was not able to get my bearings or a decent picture of the surrounding hills.

Duwili Eli is the top-most in the series of waterfalls. It includes a cave that is part of a ledge that the water falls over. A Ficus tree has colonized the face and its roots provide a natural protective grate. We reached the area just as a midday shower blew down across the high Knuckles ridge. When it cleared, we took in the views back towards Walpolamulla and Riverston. The cave is a popular camping spot and there is ample dry space. There was a small inscription in a script that was not obvious and it looked as if the cave had been visited for many years. I wondered about it and what links to Rāvana’s legend it might hold.

The view looking westwards back to Walpolamulla from the ledge at Duwili Eli. On the opposite side of the valley (on the center left) is the small terraced clearing at Walpolamulla. The Manigala ridge is on the top right and Pitawala Pantana is a hazy line on the horizon. Dumbara Falls is located deep in the forested valley below.

I was prepared for macro photography on this trip but I found that much my energy was expended on just getting around and I came back with few exiting images. Rashmi was using her new pair of binoculars and we were on the lookout for birds on all days. On the path returning to camp I caught a glimpse of a female Malabar trogon and then a pair of Sri Lankan Grey Hornbills. The drone of the Yellow Fronted Barbet was our constant companion when we were away from the thunder of the stream. When we got back to camp we swam in the pool below Dumbara Falls-a great way to wash away the sweat and strain of the day.

Campsite at Dumbara Falls.

Day 3

For a 2nd morning in a row we awoke to the thunder of the falls and beams of sunlight streaming through the high forested ridge. KC’s cooking did wonders for our morale and Lenny and I certainly needed it. Though Dumbara Falls offers one the finest campsites that we have been in, our tent was pitched on bare rock and we had neglected to bring sleeping mats! KC cooked up fried eggs on a well-used frying pan and added them to our vat of Maggie noodles for our nightly meals. For breakfast we had cereal and hot chocolate -the simple things always make such a difference in the wilderness.

The trail back followed the same route.The major stream crossing at the Kalu Ganga gave us a chance to refreshed and rehydrated and to look for creatures. There were dozens of emerald winged dragonflies-most likely Shining Gossamerwings (Euphaea splendens) – filtering above the water. Moving away from the stream, KC found a Brown Vine Snake (Ahaetulla pulverulenta) consuming a (still alive) Dry Zone Lowland Kangaroo Lizard (Otocryptis nigristigma). Both of these are not commonly seen. The toughest part was climbing back up to Walpolamulla in the middle (and heat) of the day. Crossing the saddle near Manigala we encountered a brief, rather refreshing rain shower. We were back at the trailhead at Pitawala around 2:00. After dropping off KC our group of four returned to Sir John’s to have a night of rest before returning to Colombo. All of us were a bit sore from carrying the packs but when the lockdown set in 24 hours after returning we realized that we had been very fortunate to get away. As for Rāvana’s secrets, we need a few more lifetimes to explore the Dumbara Hills…

Life on the forest floor and in the canopy.

A mosaic of diversity from the Knuckles take on the August trek and February 2021 visit. From the top to bottom: Male Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii), Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Caphotis dumbara), Frog (not yet identified), Chalky Percher(Diplacodes trivialis),  Spotted Locust (Aularches miliaris), Female Leaf Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii).

 

REFERENCES

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

De Silva, Anslem, Ed.  The Diversity of the Dumbara Mountains. (Lyriocephalus Special Issue). November 2005. Amphibia and Reptile Research Organization of Sri Lanka. Print.

Harinda. “Knuckles Duwili Eli through Walpolamulla – The Most Wanted trip of the year.”  Lakdasun Trips. April 24.  Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Knuckles Explorations.” Ian Lockwood Blog. January 2019. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Qualifying in the Time of the Pandemic: A DofE QAJ in Meemure.” CAS Pathways. 12 May 2020. Web.

Jayewardene, Sunela. The Line of Lanka: Myths & Memoires of an Island. Colombo: Sail Fish, 2017. Print.

Sanmugeswaran, Pathmanesan. “Reclaiming Ravana in Sri Lanka: Ravana’s Sinhala Buddhist Apotheosis and Tamil Responses.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 2019. Web.

A panorama of the Knuckles Range looking south from Riverston. Thunhisgala/Kalupahana peak is visible in the far right. Sri Pada can be seen on the horizon to the right of the center. Panoramic image from February 2021 visit.

Written by ianlockwood

2021-11-06 at 10:40 pm

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

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&amp;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.

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