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.

Thattekad Winter 2019 Visit

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

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

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

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

Thattekad primary forest area in winter light.

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

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A SUPERB DAILY ROUTINE

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

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

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

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

Pitta_brachyura_on_trunk_at_Thattekad_4a(MR)(12_19)

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

Thatekkad_hilltop_birding_3a(MR)(12_19) copy

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

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

Thattekad_birding_gear_iP_1(MR)(12_19)

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

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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