Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

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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.

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