Ian Lockwood


Posts Tagged ‘OSC

Explorations in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone

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Sigiriya from the south as seen from Pidruangala on a damp, monsoon-soaked morning.

Sigiriya from the south as seen from Pidruangala on a damp, monsoon-soaked morning.

In the last week of January OSC’s students and teachers fanned out across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka to learn outside to the traditional classroom walls. The focus of these trips was varied and encompassed a number of curricular goals, outdoor experiences, service opportunities and explorations of our host nation. There were a wide variety of transport methods: buses, vans, a flight north and even bicycles. Students explored ruins of past civilizations, surveyed coral life underwater, slept in tree houses, helped out in Tsunami-affected communities, sampled bird populations in a rainforest, tweeted about Jaffna’s recovery, abseiled off of waterfalls and much more. The outcome of students and teachers electrified by their learning was clear for all to see at the conclusion of the trips and has been evident as we reflect back on the experiences and learning.

This year aside from coordinating the program I led a small group of students on what I called an exploration of Sri Lanka’s dry zone ecosystems. I was supported by Marlene Fert and we had eleven Grade 10 & 11 students on the trip. My idea was to expose the group to sites that blend culture, history and ecology off the beaten tourist track. We were based in the shadow of the rock fortress at Sigiriya and port town of Trincomalee. Originally we had planned to visit Pigeon Island, but the stirred up seas from the tail end of the North East monsoon made this impossible. My family and I had made two trips in preparation for this study trip (see blog posts from April 2013 and October 2013) and I wanted to was provide a similar, yet climatically different WWW experience to the Sinharaja WWW trip. Ironically we experienced a good deal of rain in the dry zone, but never enough to negatively affect our plans.

Scenes from the dry zone int he wet season...Dehigaha Ela and Pidrangla

Scenes from the dry zone int he wet season…Dehigaha Ela and Pidrangla

Back of Beyond’s properties at Dehigaha Ela and Pidruangala provided the perfect place to be based at. They are both situated in serene dry zone mixed evergreen and deciduous forests, they have super staff that provide a home-away-from-home atmosphere, the accommodation (some in trees or caves) is beautifully earthy and there is (thankfully) only intermittent cellphone connectivity! While there we took a day trip to Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve and a night walk in the Popham Arboretum. In Ritigala we explored the ruins of monastic communities and other evidence of past civilizations.

Biodiveristy, both livging and dead, see on our visit.

Biodiveristy, both living and dead, seen on our visit.

A highlight was visiting two archeological sites that both host important Buddhist vadatages (relic houses) and other significant sacred ruins. Medirigiriya is an impressive site with nearly two thousands years of recorded history. It sits off the main Habarana- Polonnaruwa road and is free of tourists. North of Trincomalee is the ancient Jaffna kingdom port of Thiriyai with a very old and important Buddhist vadatage set on a low hillock amidst mixed evergreen and deciduous dry zone forests. Thiriyai was apparently it is the “Thalakori in the 2nd century AD map of Ptolemy” (Wikipedia). Images from these sites will be highlighted in an album in the next post.

WWW Dry Zone Explorations map #1 (with edits)

WWW Dry Zone Explorations map #1 (with edits)

Here is the poster (below)  that I put together for the WWW exhibition held on 20th February 2014. The Landsat imagery is much more recent (from the week after the trips came back).

WWW Exhibition Poster (originally  A1 size with 300 DPI)/ Reduced to 72 dpi here.

WWW Exhibition Poster (originally A1 size with 300 DPI)/ Reduced to 72 dpi here.



Dammika, Ven. S. Sacred Island: A Buddhist’s Pilgrims’ Guide to Sri Lanka. 2007. Web. 7 February 2014 (see Medirigiriya  Thiriyai)

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

Lankapura  http://lankapura.com/ (a good site for historical images & maps  of Sri Lanka)

Raheem, Ismeeth. Archaeology & Photography – the early years 1868 -1880. Colombo: The National Trust of Sri Lanka, 2010. Print.

A Week Without Walls in Sinharaja

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Sinharaja morning walk…looking for bird flocks on the way to the Gallenyaya caves.

At the end of January I spent five superb days exploring different aspects of Sinharaja’s ecology, geography and human impact with sixteen Grade 10 & 11 students. Our trip was part of a larger secondary school learning exploration of Sri Lanka. The focus is on experiential education, service and addressing curricular goals outside of the traditional classroom. For the older students the trips are focused through the learning outcomes of the Creativity Action & Service  (CAS) program.

Our group started in the west with two nights at Martin’s Lodge near the Kudawa entrance. This, of course, is where the vast majority of visitors to Sinharaja go. Martin’s offers a very genuine, albeit basic, kind of ecotourism opportunity: Martin and his family are from the area, the lodge is powered by a home-made mini-hydro unit, you eat locally produced Sri Lankan food, drink clean stream water, take showers in solar heated water and enjoy many of Sinharaja’s avian highlights sipping tea on the verandah. There are few temptations to distract you, though cell phone connectivity is starting to creep in. This proved to be a bit of a distraction to several members of our party who had a challenging time being offline and away from other modern trappings.

On Wednesday we took the long and very windy road north and east of the boundary via Rakwana, Suriyakanda and Deniyaya to the incomparable Rainforest Ecolodge. During the course of the five days looked for birds, handled snakes, trekked into the deep forest to explore caves, climbed peaks, swam in cold mountain streams and tried to sit in silence in the star-lit forest (not very successful with all the giggles and leech-inspired screams). I gave several photography mini-workshops and had lots to share about he ecology, but a bad cold had robbed me of my voice. Pradeep, our other male chaperone helped me out while I rolled my eyes and tried to use sign language. Time was set aside each day all of us to reflect using journals and guiding questions. Overall the students were great and put up with the activities, conditions, numerous stops and long road trips. Their efforts to organize a clothes drive and health camp with Indrika Senaratne at the Ecolodge tea worker’s camps worked out exceedingly well and surpassed our expectations.

Meanwhile the rest of OSC’s secondary school was out and about in the different corners of Sri Lanka. This year the WWW program that I coordinate had trips in Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Arugam Bay, Bandarawella, Kitulgala, Hikkaduwa, and Galle. There were major changes this year in that the older students got to choose and then participate in the planning of their trips- modeled on the MUWCI Project Weeks that Raina and I were involved with a decade ago. This coming week we are having a WWW exhibition to share all the learning with our school community.

Forest Department map of Sinharaja

Forest Department map of Sinharaja from a signboard at the Kudawa entrance.


OSC 2013 WWW Sinharaja group at Martin’s about to hit the forest in new leech socks.

Stream at sunrise, Sinharaja

Primary forest stream at sunrise, Sinharaja

Biodiversity in Sinharaja (clockwise from upper left): Odonata sp,, Imatiens sp. , Cyrodactylus subsolanus and Nepenthes sp.

More biodiversity  that we witnessed in Sinharaja (clockwise from upper left): Pied Parasol (Neurothemis tullia), Impatiens sp. , Sinharaja Bent Toe Gecko (Cyrodactylus subsolanus) and the Sri Lanka pitcher plant  (Nepenthes distillatoria).

Medical camp run by Indrika and our OSC students at the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Medical camp run by Dr. Indrika Senaratne and our OSC students at the Rainforest Ecolodge village for tea workers.

Rainforest Ecolodge: Night and Day.

Rainforest Ecolodge: Night and Day.

View north and east from the Rainforest Ecolodge. The high ridge has notable peaks on it with Suriyakanada's towers  being at the far right.

View north and east from the Rainforest Ecolodge. The high ridge  (@1,300 m) has notable peaks on it with Suriyakanada’s towers being at the far right. Morningside is a short distance away over the forested foreground. Click on image to enlarge.

More biodiversity ():

More biodiversity (clockwise from top): Kendrikcia walkeri, ferns on the Sinhagla trail and a female Sri Lanka frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger)

Cave on Sinhagala trail

Chandra, the  only female nature guide working at Sinharaja, at the Gallenyaya cave on Sinhagala trail. She has been working with OSC students groups for the last seven years.

Submontane rainforest canopy from the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Sub-montane rainforest canopy from the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Leaving the forest on a beautiful morning with creation light.

Leaving the forest on a beautiful morning with creation light.

Pre-Season On Sri Pada

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West face of Sri Pada a bit lower than the summit from the Ratnapura path.

West face of Sri Pada, a bit lower than the summit from the Ratnapura path.

In recent years the annual pilgrimage to Sri Lanka’s sacred peak of Sri Pada has grown and the mountain is visited by thousands of pilgrims, hikers and others during its six month season (between the December and Vesak poyas). For most visitors this means an experience of negotiating the pathways with large numbers of people and at times there are human traffic jams amidst the cloud forest trails. One solution to this challenge of congestion is to visit the peak during the off-season. You gamble with the weather but if the timing is right and you are lucky, you can experience the peak, its landscape and ecology much the way that the very first pilgrims did thousands of years ago.

Last month I had the opportunity to do precisely that as I led a small group of students and teachers up to Sri Pada two weeks before the season started on December 27th. This is the 6th year that the OSC IBDP Environmental Systems and Societies has visited Sri Pada to learn about it ecology and cultural traditions. The group was small but filled with enthusiasm and energy for the challenge. Like our school it was international group: one Korean, a South African, a Japanese Sri Lankan, a Peruvian Sri Lankan, a Maldivian, a British-Sri Lankan and then me! As has been our tradition, we based ourselves at the Fishing Hut and then hiked to the peak on the 2nd day. We carried up food and gear in order to spend the night on the temple floor. Once again the temple authorities (there were only two young men on duty) helped facilitate our stay and gave us a room to use.

The dominant land use in the Central Highlands is large scale tea plantation agriculture. Surprisingly there are still some areas being cleared for new plantations. The image on the right shows new tea gardens being established on degraded lands (presumably a former abandoned estate). However the close proximity of the sub-montane forest is notable.

The dominant land use in the Central Highlands is large scale tea plantation agriculture. Surprisingly there are still some areas being cleared for new plantations. The image on the right shows new tea gardens being established on degraded lands (presumably a former, abandoned estate). However the close proximity of the sub-montane forest is notable.

OSC students and teacher before and during the trek to Sri Pada.

OSC students and teachers before and during the trek to Sri Pada.

The first day is spent getting from Colombo to the Fishing Hut. There are opportunities along the way to discuss and evaluate the impacts of large-scale plantations agriculture and hydroelectric schemes on the areas ecology and the country’s economy. The Fishing Hut sits at a confluence of human-dominated landscapes and the mid elevation sub-montane forest that has never experienced logging or degradation. The key learning part of the trip happens on the 2nd day as we hike up through tea plantations and sub-montane forest before entering the cloud forest zone near the upper parts of the peak. The opportunity to observe vertical zonation as we ascend the peak is a key learning outcome of the trip. We witnessed flowering Rhododendron arboreum trees and large tree ferns (Cyathea sp.) as well as a host of small flowering plants (Exacum sp., various Impatiens sp. etc.). At times some of these plants and larger understory species (especially Strobilanthes sp.) had taken over the concrete path ways! It was amazing to witness the resilience and recovery of the ecosystem in the brief months that pilgrims had not walked the pathways.

Three types of forest from Sri Lanka's Central Highlands: lowland rainforest, montane forest and cloud forest.

Three types of forest from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands: lowland rainforest, sub-montane rainforest and cloud forest.

Flowers in the shadow of the peak. (Satriyum nepalense, Rhododendron arboreum and Impatiens sp.)

Sonalee Abeyawardene and students from OSC ascending the Hatton path steps to Sri Pada shortly after joining the concrete steps from the fishing hut trail. The Japanese Dagoba is visible on the regular Hatton pathway.

Sonalee Abeyawardene and students from OSC ascending the Hatton path steps to Sri Pada shortly after joining the concrete steps from the fishing hut trail. The Japanese Dagoba is visible on the regular Hatton pathway.

Rare and endangered wildlife from Peak Wilderness: Purple faced langurs (Trachypithecus vetulus) and the rare and endemic Emerald Sri Lankan spreadwing (Sinhalestes orientalis) identified with the expertise of Karen Conniff. Apparently it was last recorded in 1859 but then rediscovered by Matjaz Bedjanič in Balangoda. We found the dragonfly on the summit near the sacred footprint while the langurs were photographed on the Hatton path in forest patches surrounded by tea.

Rare and endangered wildlife from Peak Wilderness: Purple faced langurs (Semnopithecus vetulus) and the rare and endemic Emerald Sri Lankan spreadwing (Sinhalestes orientalis) identified with the expertise of Karen Conniff. Apparently it was last recorded in 1859 but then rediscovered by Matjaz Bedjanič in Balangoda. We found the dragonfly on the summit near the sacred footprint while the langurs were photographed on the Hatton path in forest patches surrounded by tea.

Up at the 2,243 meter summit of Sri Pada we caught our breaths, congratulated ourselves on making the climb without injury and then realized that we were all alone in this most holy of holy sites. Mist rolled up from all sides and enveloped us in a moist cocoon. It was chilly and fleece jackets were unpacked along with a late lunch. Occasionally the mist withdrew to reveal glimpses of the lower forests and valleys of tea. When it did, bright sunlight bathed the temple in a silvery glow and projected bits of the peak onto the nearby clouds (the elusive Brocken Spectre effect). The actual sanctuary housing the sacred footprint was locked up but we sat on its side and stared out at the drama of clouds, sunshine and changing landscape. A dragonfly (see below image) had found its way to the temple and clung to a lamp post. This turned out to be the very rare and endemic Sri Lankan spreadwing (Sinhalestes orientalis). Later an officer from the Wildlife & Conservation Department came up and we compared notes on what we had seen.

That night the group turned in early (where else would you get teenagers volunteering to go to sleep at 8:00 pm?). I awoke a bit after midnight and wandered around the temple to take in the views of the heavens and lower settlements. The temple was deserted and it was cold with a steady wind blowing in from the east. All the clouds and mist had cleared from the summit. The feeling and view was sublime in a way that I have not witnessed on my fourteen previous visits to the summit of Sri Pada. Without the distracting brightness of sodium vapor and fluorescent lights, one is given a very different view on a clear night. Many of the surrounding valleys and hills lay in inky darkness-areas that fall within the Peak Wilderness area. Far above, stars, planets and occasional shooting stars filled the sky. As if a reflection of the heavens, there were clusters of lights in the hills and lower valleys. Ratnapura to the south, Maskeliya to the north and, perhaps Hambantota to the distant south-east were visible. The radar station on Sri Lanka’s highest (2,524 meter) peak Pidurutalagala was a bright beacon to the north east. Colombo cast a dull glow along the western horizon. Two or three large thunderstorms were active over the coast to the south and distant lightning illuminated banks of clouds.

I was able to rouse two members of my team- Harshini and Yo- who joined me on the steps by the temple. They used my bulky tripod to take time-lapse images of the views that illuminated the darkness in surreal ways. Harshini, a talented and energetic young photographer, has posted her photos of the trip at Mixbook. Several hours later after an interlude of sleep we were up again to watch the birth of a new day. By now there were other visitors, almost all foreign with guides from Nalathani, who had come up to the peak. The sun soon rose over the Horton Plains horizon and cast a gilded glow on the lower ranges before projecting the mountain shadow that I had been hoping to see. Our whole team was able to witness it leaving all of us with an unforgettable experience. As usual most of the other visitors were intently enjoying the sunrise to the east, ignoring the drama behind them! They soon hurried down and once again we were all alone on the sacred summit. We lingered and stayed several more hours to get a sense of the landscape before going down the Ratnapura steps to Nalathani. The view was exquisitely clear with unforgettable views in every direction. On the decent-always a bit painful with 4,600 plus concrete steps to negotiate- there were no shacks set up to buy tea from or get our tired feet massaged at! Nevertheless once again a small group of OSC students and faculty returned from Sri Pada’s ancient summit with a great sense of fulfillment.

The Knuckles Range as seen from Sri Pada looking due north. The city of Kandy is in one of the lower valleys inbetween.

The Knuckles Range as seen from Sri Pada looking due north. The city of Kandy is in one of the lower valleys between Sri Pada and Knuckles.


Mountain shadow projected by Sri Pada , looking west towards Colombo over the Peak Wilderness forests.

“On our third visit… we hoped of seeing the marvelous shadow of the peak projected above the low ling mist clouds, and stretching beyond the bounds of the Island far away into the surrounding oceans. Faint and not very clearly defined at first, as the sunlight became stronger, the outline and body of the gigantic pyramid-shaped umbra grew sharper, darker and more distinct; and as the sun rose higher in the heavens, the titanic shadow seemed actually to rise in the atmosphere; to tilt up and gradually fall back upon the mountain, shrinking and dwarfing in dimensions as it drew closer and yet closer to its mighty parent, until absorbed in the forest for which the mountain is clad, it was wholly lost to view. So singular a sight, -one so strangely magnificent, and even awe-inspiring, can be seen nowhere else in the Island, perhaps nowhere in the world. As the mist and clouds dispersed, the extensive views that opened out became sublimely grand. North and east, below and beyond us, were range upon range of mountains, the valleys and slopes of which from Maskeliya to Rambodde, from Dinmbula to Haputale…”

extracted from Adam’s Peak by William Skeen (1870) (p. 222-223)

West view from Sri Pada showing mountain shadow shrinking over the Peak Wilderness forests.

West view from Sri Pada showing mountain shadow shrinking over the Peak Wilderness forests.

Temple summit on Sri Pada looking east.

Temple summit on Sri Pada looking east.

Looking south from Sri Pada over sub-montane forest in the Peak Wilderness area.

Looking south towards Sinharaja from Sri Pada over sub-montane forest in the Peak Wilderness area.

West view panorama from the lower steps of Sri Pada. The last shadow of the peak is still visible.

West view panorama from the lower steps of Sri Pada. The last shadow of the peak is still visible.

Temple doorway on Sri Pada's summit, looking south.

Temple doorway on Sri Pada’s summit, looking south.

GIS Developments at OSC in 2012

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Bangladesh Change Matters

Two sets of images from the ESRI/Landsat site called Change Matters. In both sets of pictures an early (1975) Landsat thermal/infrared image is compared with a more recent one (2000). The third image on the far right shows the NDVI, which give an estimate on vegetation change (either increases or decreases) during that time period. The above image set shows the Dhaka urban area while the bottom image details the beautiful waterways and mangrove forests of the Sunderban. I was living in Dhaka when both images were taken. One notable feature in the lower set is the birth of what is known as “Egg Island” in the south-east of the forest. It is not visible in 1975 but by 2000, a year that I last visited the area, the island has emerged. Today it continues to grow (see Google Earth image at the end of the post).

This year has seen a steady growth of Geographic Applications (GIS) in it usage to promote student learning in the humanities and environmental sciences at OSC. Some of this has been in the classroom, where a greater number of students are using GIS software to meet course expectations in the Internal Assessment and Extended Essay. A good deal of the growth in the last year has been in my own understanding of the myriad applications and data sources that are now available to users. I’ve become especially interested in remote sensing and the Landsat data archive that is now freely available. Perhaps the greatest development in GIS as a tool for teaching and learning in recent years has been the explosion of online applications and freely available data. This post will offer a short synopsis of these with the aim of providing an overview of teaching and learning options of GIS with a special focus on the South Asian region.

At OSC we continue to use the ArcGIS platform as our primary GIS software package. When I started up the program several years ago I was aided by several useful ESRI publications and online lesson plans from the ESRI Education Community. Notable amongst the books was the series Our World GIS Education (four volumes, first published in 2008). These are a bit dated now but the lessons and data still serve as a basis for the DP Geography study of population pyramids and the MYP study of the South Asian monsoon. Meanwhile the UK’s Geographical Association, in collaboration with ESRI, has published a book entitled GIS for A-Level Geography by Peter O’Connor (2010). This is probably the single, best volume to have for IBDP teachers looking to integrate GIS into their teaching. The examples and data are UK-based but it succinctly explains all the basics and has good examples. For a comprehensive introduction to maps and their applications the 6th Edition of Map Use  (A. Jon Kimerling et al 2009) is an invaluable resource. Further print resources that I have acquired to aid teaching of GIS are listed in my Wikipage.

Galle Fort Field Work

Snaps shots from the Galle MYP Geography/Humanities Field study.

Snap shots from the Galle MYP Geography/Humanities field study.

In the early parts of this year I designed a unit of study around the historical city of Galle on Sri Lanka’s South Western coast. It was part of a broader unit on globalization and tourism using Sri Lanka’s experience as a case study. We were interested to see to what extent land use patterns in the fort reflected evidence of a  development strategy that uses tourism to promote economic growth. The study involved designing and then conducing a series of surveys on a short field visit. Both Grade 10 MYP Humanities batches went down and spent a day conducting interviews to and gathering field data. Students mapped this using land use data from the Urban Development Authority. An example of what the students produced from the study is given below. The fort makes an excellent location for study; it is compact, free of traffic and is a safe location for students to wander around in. The new Southern Expressway makes the trip doable in one day- a perfect example of time-space convergence.

Student work on truism and land use in Galle Fort featuring the talents of Leila, Jesse and xx.

Student work on tourism and land use in Galle Fort featuring the talents of Leila, Jesse and Shubhanshu.

GIS Day at OSC

We celebrated “GIS Day” on November 15th with the support of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). GIS Day, of course is a global event celebrated by organizations and educational institutions using GIS. The focus of our event this year was “using GIS to better understand, analyze and address climate change.” Salman Siddiqui the head the IWMIC GIS lab and I chose the topic based on some new work that IWMI is doing and the growing importance of understanding climate change and global warming that is evident in the IB Group III and IV curricula. Usign the OSC auditorium foyer we displayed a gallery of OSC student work and IWMI posters. GIS Solutions, lead by Thillai and Ramesh were on hand to talk about and promote different GIS software options here in Sri Lanka. The main event consisted of series of lectures that were aimed at a wide range of student ages. Salman gave the keynote lecture on how IMWI is using GIS to better understand and analyze climate change. The day was capped off with an interactive session in the library computer lab for participants. Juri Roy Bruman and Prunima Dehiwela brought a batch of Geography students from the British School and they helped give a broader perspective for options of using GIS in the IB/A-Level frameworks. Several OSC humanities and science classes joined the lectures and the turnout was healthy. Although we would liked to have invited more schools from Colombo, computer spaces for the interactive sessions limited this.

GIS Day 2012 Collage


In the August post I mentioned Bhuvan, the geo-spatial and earth observation portal from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). With the support of IWMI’s GIS lab team I have learnt how to access some of its data and have been especially happy to be able to download a wealth of high-resolution tiles of remote sensing imagery. One of my first tasks was to learn how to use Web Map Service (WMS) links in ArcGIS and Q-GIS. This essentially allows you to import map data that is found on an online server into your GIS software and then combine it with shapefiles and raster data that you have in your own databases. Seems quite intuitive, but it was a revelation to actually succeed in combining the data. Bhuvan hosts a detailed land cover WMS file (see map below) and there are other data sets (floods, waste lands etc.).

SWG WMS (12 2012)

Land cover map of the southern Western Ghats with data provided by the Bhuvan land use/land cover (terrain) WMS. The 500 m contour was generated from an SRTM using ArcMap.

Bhuvan’s remote sensing data for India is of a high quality, but depending on what area you want it may not always be free of clouds & haze. You have several choices about data under the Thematic Services page where, with a simple login, you can download compressed files. These are unprocessed files with 4 tiles each and you need to process them like you would a Landsat file with multiple layers of multi-spectral imagery. It has been nearly six months since I processed Landsat files and I had to re-learn how to do this. I was aided by Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne of the University of Vermont’s very helpful online slide show. It turns out that the tiles of the Palani Hills area have excellent clarity and resolution. Other areas in the southern Western Ghats (High Range, KMTR, Nilgiris etc.) are not of the same quality. At this point they only have one tile per area for the 56m AWiFS imagery. That should change in the future.

Palanis with Bhuvan Images (12_12)

ESRI’s Change Matters is an easy to use website that allows you to look at early and late Landsat imagery as well as a NDVI images that map change in vegetation. It offers two Infrared views of areas with contrasting dates that are juxtaposed with the NDVI image. The comparison is startling especially when you look for signs of change in vegetation. In the Amazon it is the incredible loss of forest that is striking. Closer to home, the Palani Hills show an apparent increase in vegetation. However, as we all know that is because most of the native montane grasslands were replaced with fast-growing tree species such as eucalyptus during the last 20-40 years. In some places you need to be aware of seasonal changes in vegetation, say between the dry and monsoon seasons in South Asia. Clouds can also be represented as vegetation decreases so the data must be analyzed carefully to get a sense of change.


Another set of images courtesy of the ESRI/Landsat site Change Matters. This set illustrates changes in the Palani Hills and Highwavys. The addition of vegetation through introduced plantations in the upper Palanis is notable.

There are several new developments aiding data acquisition for GIS applications. Google has launched its Earth Engine, which is designed to be a portal for a mass collection of spatial data. NASA and the USGS are also working to consolidate their data under a new site called Reverb. This is where you will go in the future to mine the vast databases of  US government-funded spatial data repositories.

Egg Island (2011) Google Earth Image

A favorite place for birders and naturalists exploring the Sunderban in Bangladesh is “Egg Island.” The Guide Tours led by the Mansur family always took its visitors to Kotka and the area at the southern-eastern portion of the forest. What was once little more than a muddy bank at the point where the forest gave way to the Bay of Bengal was forming every year into a bigger, and bigger island. I first went there with birdwatchers Dave Johnson, Ronnie Halder, and Enam El Haque. Reading about their ongoing visits to the area makes me nostalgic for that wonderfully ethereal forest where I had so many memorable experiences. I continue to use it as an example of succession in a tropical forest. Unfortunately it has been hard to find time to return for an actual visit. The best I can do is view it through the lenses of satellites and the  Change Matters site has a fascinating look at the world’s largest mangrove forest. Egg Island wasn’t there in 1975 when the early passes of the Landsat satellites were made and Bangladesh was a newborn country. But the island had started to form in 2000 when we visited the area looking for Masked Finfoots, Rudy kingfishers, signs of Bengal tigers (we saw pug marks on the beach) and more…! Today it is growing into a larger island in spite of cyclones and sea level rise. This Google Earth images is from 2011.

Written by ianlockwood

2012-12-15 at 6:38 am

Sinharaja West, Sinharaja East (Part I)

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Variations on the Sinharaja rainforest canopy highlighting undisturbed primary forest on the ridge with secondary growth on the lower slopes (evidenced by Calamus sp. etc.). The images were taken on a Nikon digital SLR, processed on Adobe Photoshop CS5 and then manipulated with Nik software’s ColorEfex 4 plugin.

Sinharaja, the resplendent tropical lowland rainforest in south-western Sri Lanka, is a remarkable protected area, UNESCO world heritage site and living laboratory. For the last seven years it has provided an important field study site for my Geography and Environmental Systems classes at the Overseas School of Colombo. It is a large protected area (11,187 ha) and in all my years in Sri Lanka I have focused on visits to the biodiversity-rich western corner. In the last 10 days I have had the privilege of visiting both western and higher eastern portions (the next post will highlight the visits to the less-visited, higher altitude eastern areas of Sinharaja).

In early May OSC’s grade 11 IBDP Geography students had four days of rich and productive fieldwork in Sinharaja’s western (Kudawa) corner. As on past trips, the focus of the trip was for the students to collect field data for their internal assessment that accounts for 20-25% of their final grade. In years past we focused on the ecosystems angle of the tropical rainforest but with the revisions in the syllabus we are now looking at tourism as a development strategy, the theme of “biodiversity and change” and issues surrounding home garden agriculture. Land use patterns and spatial analysis are important aspects for all groups and thanks to Survey Department data from 2005 we are able to map and make attempts to verify the accuracy of this data using our ArcGIS software.

This year we utilized the new southern expressway and were up at our host Martin’s Jungle Lodge by noon. His lodge has ideal conditions for a forest experience sitting on the boundary between the buffer and core zone of the protected area. There is excellent secondary forest that attracts most of the endemic birds and a clear stream for guests to cool off in the afternoon. Electricity is generated by a small micro-turbine and there is limited cell phone coverage (thankfully).  Weather conditions were dry, a surprise after the deluge that Colombo had experienced on April 30th.

Collage showing three significant habitats that were used as study sites for students. The first is a canopy view over primary forest taken on Moulawella Peak in the core zone of Sinharaja, the second shows secondary forest mixed with a non-native pine plantation in the buffer zone. Finally the last images shows tea estates sandwiched between the small settlement of Kuduwa and the park boundary.

Thirteen students of varying nationalities (Sri Lanka, India, Finland, Canada, Switzerland, USA etc.) joined the trip.  I was supported by Eileen Niedermann, our secondary school principal and Haris Dharmasiri, OSC’s resourceful lead science technician. Lilani Ranasigha traded places with Eileen half way through the trip. After getting settled in we started the experience with a walk and introductory lecture to the Sinharaja core area. In years past we’ve been fortunate to have Professor Sarath Kotagama to give us the context for Sinharaja’s protection and what kind of significant threat the systematic logging posed in the 1970s. That afternoon we traversed the well-worn tourist paths though secondary, primary and ridge forests as we moved towards the research station. This is a major focal point (and former logging camp/maintenance depot) for all visitors to this side of Sinharaja and we use it as a base for studies in primary and secondary forests. The Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata) did not disappoint and swooped down to give us an intimate encounter. The students were still consumed with removing leaches, something that would soon become an insignificant inconvenience.

Over the next two days students broke into small groups to gather field data on their individual questions. We had a group looking at plant species in different habitats, another studying soil in forest and human-impacted landscapes, a group of three studying water quality in forest streams and home garden water bodies, a group looking at tourist numbers and the idea of ecotourism and finally a group conducting an energy audit and survey of homes in the buffer zone of Sinharaja. Needless to say we chaperones could not monitor all of these simultaneously and the trip is designed for students to conduct a fair amount of independent data collection. During the course of the trip we had a chance to accompany each group, provide feedback and observe their methodology.

OSC students collecting different types of data in Sinharaja for their Geography IAs. At the top students (Uvin, Brooke, Rachel & Alisha) conducting an interview with a resident about the impact of ecotourism on livelihoods. Sarah, Janik and Nadeera testing stream water samples at Martin’s Lodge. Vera and Alisha aided by Ratna identifying key plant species along a 15 meter transect in secondary forest. Lastly, Uvin using a 10 m2 quadrat to look at invasive plants in a home garden plot about to be planted with tea.

Sinharaja rainforest canopy panorama highlighting undisturbed primary forest on the ridge with secondary growth on the lower slopes. Moulawella is the center peak in the background.

Tropical Rainforest, near the Sinharaja Research Center

Ongoing experiments with spatial data from the Sinharaja area using Arcmap. We have fairly good data from the Survey Department and other sources and are now looking to effectively use it to give a spatial perspective to individual studies. Close inspection reveals issues with correctly georeferencing some of the data at a large scale.

Sinharaja has hosted several landmark ecological studies including the two decade long forest dynamics study of a 25 hectare plot by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Peradeniya University and several other notable educational institutions. A classic study on the composition and spatial organization of mixed species flocks by Sarath Kotagama and Eben Goodale from 2004 serves as a model study and journal article for OSC students. Compared to these landmark studies our fleeting encounter yields limited data. The data that we gather on the trip is useful for the students’ work but at this point is not contributing to any long term monitoring of the area.  What we are doing is getting a better sense of land use and home garden that should serve as an important evidence of patterns at this point in time.

An intriguing development in the western corner of Sinharaja is how it is being used as a location to host “reconciliation workshops” for students from all over the country.  The basic idea is to bring teenage students from government schools in the conflict affected areas in the north and east of the country and foster an appreciation of nature to help provide a more lasting peace. “Reconciliation through the Power of Nature” is facilitated by the tireless work and enlightened thinking of Professor Kotagama and the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) with support provided by Dilmah Conservation. Martin hosts these student-teacher groups at his lodge and there are illuminating posters illustrating the goals and outcomes of the three day workshops for Jaffna schools.

Sri Lanka/Ceylon Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger). Adolescent male and adult female.

Birds and the rich diversity of Sri Lankan endemics is what first drew me to Sinharaja in 1999. During a 4 day visit with my cousin Anna we trekked all over the different paths, including Moulawella and Sinhagala, looking for mixed species flocks and using just binoculars and field guides (no cameras!). On this trip to Sinharaja I had less time for birds because of the focus on human impact and land use patterns. However, we did encounter several mixed species flocks and had delightful views of a Red Faced Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus) and Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) as well as the other flock members. A highlight for me was getting to observe and photograph a pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths (Batrachostomus moniliger) on the return from our hike to Moulawella. They were located by our energetic and informed guides Dinushka, Shanta and Ratna in a thicket of tree ferns. All the students got to see the endemic Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) and a shy Hump Nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scuatus) up close. We returned to Colombo n May 3rd with plenty of field data and experiences not to be forgotten. I was delighted with the outcomes of the trip and the knowledge that I was turning around with my family to visit the other end of Sinharaja on the next day!

Emblematic species from Sinharaja seen on the trip (clockwise from upper left): Ceylon or SL frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) adolescent male and adult female, Pitcher plant (Nepenthes distillatoria) in a former pinus plantation, SL Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) and the SL Blue Magpie (Urocissa ornata).

Rainforest emergent layer and canopy, looking southwards from Moulawella Peak after a climb up with most of the group on Thursday morning.

Study area map

OSC’s Class of 2013 Geography students at a playful final group picture after four days of productive research and fieldwork. Our host Martin is seated second from the right. Haris Dharmasiri, OSC’s lab technician par-excellence is seated on the far left while Lilani Ranasingha, our energetic female chaperone is seated on the far right.

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