Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Moonstone Wanderings in Anuradhapura

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

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

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

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

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

Echoes from Amarāvatī

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

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

Ruwanwelisaya_moonstone_Mirror_(MR)(11_19)

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

Anuradhapura’s Moonstone Gardens

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

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

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

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

A Note on the Photography in this Post

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

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

 

SACRED SPACES BLOG POSTS (CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SELECTED REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

Images of Ceylon. Web.

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

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

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

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

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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, we had it was relatively painless and we were thankful to be in a place where the virus was under control. When the summer holidays came in mid-June we happily set out around our island home, looking to explore the country’s dry zone.

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

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

Sigiriya, Kandalama & Dehigaha Ela

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

Heat maps from cycle rides in the Dehigaha Ela area.

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

Trincomalee

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

Passikudah, Arugam Bay & Kumana

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

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

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

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

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

Tissamaharama

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

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

Summer Wrap Up

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

PAST POSTS

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

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

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

Written by ianlockwood

2020-08-24 at 9:40 pm

Colombo Curfew Birding in the time of COVID-19

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Indian Robin (Copsychus fulicatus) at Eden Gardens boundary.

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

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

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

Curfew Collage 2020(100 dpi) copy

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

Ducula_aenea_at_EG_1(MR)(04_20)

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

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

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

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

Amaurornis_phoenicurus_at_EG_2a(MR)(04_20)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

References on my desktop.

REFERENCES

FOGSL Avurudu Bird Count Padlet 2020. Web.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thattekad Winter 2019 Visit

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

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

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

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

Thattekad primary forest area in winter light.

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

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A SUPERB DAILY ROUTINE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palani Hills Sky Island Landcover Changes at the ATBC Asia Pacific

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ATBC_Devil_Dance_1(MR)(09_19)

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

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

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

Poster designed by the author for the ATBC conference.

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

Cover from ATBC journal and copy of page 243.

 

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

Written by ianlockwood

2020-03-26 at 11:36 am

Central Highlands (Northern Route) WWW Experience 2020

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

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

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

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

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

The hunt for….

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

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

 

GOOGLE MY MAP OF ROUTE

PAST WWW TRIPS

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Pada Field Study 2018 & 2020

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On our way to the summit of Sri Pada. Looking up at the peak on Day 1 of the three day ES&S field study in Peak Wilderness.

Sri Pada Field Study 2020

The annual OSC Sri Pada field study was revived again last month when a small group of OSC’s DP1 students and their teachers spent three days climbing and staying on top of this sacred pinnacle in the midst of the biodiversity-rich Peak Wilderness area. The learning experience gives the class an important opportunity to learn more about the peak, its biodiversity, vertical changes in forest vegetation, contrasting land uses and its cultural significance as an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is also a physically demanding experience that left our group exhausted and sore yet elated by its concluding day.

2018 Recap

Rewinding back to the last academic year, I had chosen to join Will Duncan’s Physics field study at Norton Bridge. My ES&S class was quite small and I was interested in having my students learn more about hydroelectricity in Sri Lanka. We went to Norton Bridge in December 2018 and spent two nights in the area. The highlight was getting a tour of the Wimalasurendra Hydroelectric Power Station. This station is part of the Laxapana valley cascade generating system that utilizes water coming down from the Central highlands through the Kelani river. The 52 MW pant is named after the “father of Sri Lanka’s hydroelectricity program” D. J. Wimalasurendra and was built in the late 1950s (CEB). The students also had a chance to make their own mini-power generators using a small stream at the guest house where we stayed. I used the same stream to look for frogs and was rewarded with a (Pseudophilautus macropus) while Will found an endemic Chesnut Backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanotum) in the adjoining tea garden (my first sighting after 13 years in Sri Lanka).

An important imitative on the 2018 ES&S & Physics field trip was the successful search for the endemic Daffodil orchid (Ipsea speciosa). I’ve been searching for this terrestrial orchid for many years in Sri Lanka and it finally took the wise advice of Nadeera Weerasinghe who suggested searching the Watawala area. That happened to be right near to Norton Bridge and so we stopped to walk along the Peradeniya-Hatton tracks and look for it. The flower is associated with mid-elevation pantanas (grasslands) which have been largely converted to tea estates and timber plantations. It seems reasonable to expect that the populations of Daffodil orchids are found in areas that survived the almost nearly complete landscape conversion to plantation land in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The dominance of plantations in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands helps to explain why they are not common. We can think of daffodil orchids as important indicators of an ecology and landscape now lost to plantation agriculture. Its Western Ghats cousin, the Malabar Daffodil Orchid(Ipsea malabarica) is extremely rare and was thought to be extinct for many years (it was rediscovered in Silent Valley in 1982). The Gurukula Botanical Garden has a healthy population now. My father Merrick Lockwood, who has been passionate about orchids for many years, photographed a single Ipsea malabarica in mid-elevation montane grasslands in the north-west Palani Hills in the 1980s on a family camping trip.

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Class of 2020 all together at the start of the science field trips. (December 2018)

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Class of 2021 all together with a few teachers at the start of the DP1 science field trips. (January 2020)

2020 Sojourn on the Summit

This school year (2019-20) the science trip was placed at the beginning of the 2nd semester and we departed a day after returning from the winter holidays. Three of my students got sick but I was still able to take the remaining four with the support of my colleague (and KIS graduate) Andry Dejong as the female chaperone. The other DP1 science classes were in the same vicinity and we started off together.. The ES&S had to have a flexible approach to the journey and we ended being able to spend the night on the summit with other pilgrims.

Our first night was spent at the Blue Magpie Resort, the upscale sister guest house of the Fishing Hut. It is still within the Maskeliya Plantation’s Moray estate but is downstream a kilometer or so from the Fishing Hut. While it doesn’t enjoy the spectacular view of the peak, the stream at the Blue Magpie is better suited for exploring and swimming. It is also a lot less rustic-something that my group appreciated. Similar to past years, the learning of the field study was focused on four broad themes related to the Environmental Systems & Societies syllabus.

  • Theme 1: Land Use Variation (anthropocentric vs. natural ecosystems, plantation agriculture etc.)
  • Theme 2: Forest & Vegetation Types (llowland & montane tropical forests, cloud forests, pantanas)
  • Theme 3: Vertical Zonation
  • Theme 4: Biodiversity in a ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’

Montane forest in evening light, Peak Wilderness.

After careful consideration I consulted with the team and then made the decision to bivouac with other pilgrims up at the summit of Sri Pada. This meant carrying larger backpacks with food and sleeping gear on the hike up. In the past carrying loads has been a challenge for OSC students unaccustomed to backpacking and ascending altitudes after being at sea level. Working with Andry, we ensured that the group would go at a slow pace and stay hydrated to avoid these challenges.

We had overcast, but dry conditions, as we started the hike up through montane forest at on January 8th. The altitude at the start point above the Fishing Hut is about 1,500m while the summit is 2,243m -so it’s a rather steep 6 km hike up! There were virtually no leeches which pleased the group (and in particular one unnamed individual who has a phobia for them). The trail had been cleared for the season’s pilgrims but other than one small party led by a monk, we were the only ones on it. We hiked up the path under gnarled trees, around mossy boulders and along the ridge that leads up the eastern face of the peak. Occasionally, we had fleeting views of the peak with its summit hidden by a crown of mist. Our pace was slow and I wanted the group to keep an eye out for facets of the forest. At one of the few stream crossings the students found several small frogs. We took a break to refill water bottles there but were not that successful in photographing the amphibians.

The clearing at 1,850m provides an ideal rest stop and we took a generous break with water, peanuts and chocolate. The group seemed relieved when we reached the main path with its railings, tea shops and steps. However, the novelty of doing monotonous measured steps, ascending concrete steps at 60 degrees soon wore off and they belatedly realized the value of the forest trail. After a tea break we reached the summit by 4:00. Catching our breath, we were able to observe temple rituals and watch the clouds roll over the lower hills as the sun went down. Swathes of mist whipped over the peak; one moment we would be basking in the scarlet light of the sunset and then thick mist would envelop us. As darkness set in I did a short frog search with Rizqi and we found several interesting individuals but were not successful with the photography. The night on the peak was memorable and shared with dozens of other pilgrims as well as a few emaciated dogs who had made the trek up. Early on, our group laid out sleeping bags in a corner of the pilgrim’s quarters under the temple. We snacked on mixture, pita bread and hummus and then tried to sleep. Of course, as more pilgrims and visitors make it up in the early hours the temple and associated spaces of the summit got rather crowded and noisy. I’ve done this before so I managed several good hours of rest but the kids were not happy with the sleep they missed.

By the earliest light the summit of Sri Pada was packed with pilgrims and numerous foreign hikers who had left Nalathani at midnight or after. I positioned my tripod near the lamp-lighting shrine and then coaxed my group out of bed to join me. Andry was up but the kids had a hard time getting out of their sleeping bags. There were clouds in the east which affected the sunrise and mountain shadow. It was more or less clear around the peak and by 7:00 the triangular shadow was being projected down on the western forests of Peak Wilderness. We started down around 8:30 and I guided the group down the Ratnapura steps and then around the mountain on the short-cut back to the main Nalathani route. The path gives you a fine experience of the cloud forest and there were several flowering Rhododendron (R. arboretum) trees below the summit. It wasn’t too long before the strain of the steps set in. Rika sprained her right ankle and I had problems with my knees. We wrapped the sprain and Andry lent me her walking sticks for the last stretch. Although it wasn’t as physically demanding as the ascent, we ambled slowly and carefully down to Nalathani where we met up with our van and started the journey back to Colombo. The group was tired but we reflected back on the significant learning and accomplishments of our journey to the peak.

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Cloud forest below Sri Pada’s summit with a flowering Rhododendron (R. arboretum)- an indicator of this high altitude vegetation type.

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OSC students photographing the shadow of Sri Pada. (January 2020)

Google MyMap of paths from January 2020 Sri Pada field study (click inside to interact with the terrain).

PAST SRI PADA STUDIES

  • OSC Class of 2010 (Sri Pada 2008trip)
  • OSC Class of 2011 (Sri Pada 2009trip)
  • OSC Class of 2012 (Sri Pada 2010trip)
  • OSC Class of 2013 (Sri Pada 2011trip)
  • OSC Class of 2014 (Sri Pada 2012trip)
  • OSC Class of 2015 (Sri Pada 2013 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2016 (Sri Pada 2014 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2017 (Sri Pada 2015 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2018 (Sri Pada 2016 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2019 (Sri Pada 2017 trip)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Atmospheric Optics. “Mountain Shadow.” Photography by Ian Lockwood. 2010. Web.

Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) Laxapana Complex. Web.

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

Hance. Jeremy. “ Scientists discover 8 new frogs in one sanctuary, nearly all Critically Endangered.” Mongabay. 21 March 2013. Web.

Luxman Nadaraja and Sarala Fernando. Sri Pada. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa, 2011. Print.

Pethiyagoda, Rohan. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2013. Print.

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

Wickramasinghe, L.J. Mendis et al. “Eight new species of Pseudophilautus (Amphibia: Anura: Rhacophoridae) from Sri Pada World Heritage Site (Peak Wilderness), a local amphibian hotspot in Sri Lanka.” Journal of Threatened Taxa. 2013. Web.

 

 

 

Sinharaja 2019 Geography IA Field Studies

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Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) on the Sinharaja boundary. Spotted with the excellent help of Warsha and the good company of Desline, Luca and Rashmi.

In April this year the unprecedented attacks on churches and hotels shook the stability and relative peace that Sri Lanka has enjoyed in the ten years since the conclusion of the Civil War. One of the minor impacts of the events was the suspension of field trips for almost all schools, including OSC. That meant a delay in the annual field study that I have been running in Sinharaja since 2005. My students were disappointed but they understood the situation and I made plans to conduct the study in the early parts of the 2019-20 school year.

The students in the Class of 2020 IBDP Geography class are a special bunch: they enjoy each other’s company, love to engage in field work (regardless of leeches and wet conditions) and are not fazed by time away from their mobile phones. The group of eight includes class clowns, aspiring activists, experts in GIS, individuals determined to get good grades and several dedicated birdwatchers. There are five Sinhala-speaking individuals who played a key role in the interviews that are at the heart of the data collection.

In September, after receiving the green light to conduct our field work, the class packed up a bus and headed south to Sinharaja. There we spent four days conducting field research in the home gardens on the north-western edge of Sinharaja rainforest. OSC’s logistic coordinator Desline Attanayake provided support in the interviews and fully took part in all aspects of the study. We hired four Sinharaja guides each day and they were essential in leading us through home gardens and helping the students to better understand the area. Some of them like, Chandra (Sri Lanka’s 2nd female guide in Sinharaja) , have been working with OSC groups for more than 10 years and they know our format and aims well. All of the surveys were gathered on foot in rain or shine. We now have a deep and intimate relationship with the area. The Kudawa village and forest on this side of Sinharaja offer ideal conditions for student learning, inquiry and field work on socio-economic, tourist and land-use themes. Martin’s Wijesinghe inimitable Forest Lodge,  was once, again the base of operations. We appreciate the forest access and family-like atmosphere that he extends to our OSC groups.

Nisaetus sp. on the road up from Kudawa to Martin’s Forest Lodge. I’m not 100% sure of the identity of this individual. Most likely a Changeable Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) but also possibly a juvenile Legge’s Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus kelaarti).

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 actual survey of 48 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 four different teams going in different directions we collected 55 different interviews. Once again, we collected responses 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.

Moulawella_rain_pan_1a(MR)(09_19)

The view south from Moulawella Peak. I take this composite panorama of Sinharaja rainforest canopy every time I have the privilege of sitting on top of this beautiful mountain. Soon after, the first drops started to fall on us and we headed down.

Another view of the endemic Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) on the Sinharaja boundary. Spotted with the excellent help of Warsha and the good company of Desline, Luca and Rashmi.

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. Before returning to Colombo on Saturday we hiked up Moulawella peak to take in the full extent of Sinharaja. It was a challenging adventure and we encountered mid-morning shower that thoroughly soaked the group on the descent. But all members of the team made it up and down safely. A highlight of the trip was having an encounter with the rare and endemic Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni). It helped round off an exhilarating adventure in geographic learning.

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

General Sinharaja Reflections

 

SELECTED REFERENCES

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.

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.

 

Thattekad Introduction

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Blue-winged or Malabar Parakeets (Psittacula columboides) at K.V. Eldhose’s place outside of Thattekad.

(Continuing from the October Post)

Leaving the Anamalais, I traversed westwards down the long, but rarely used and richly-forested road into Kerala’s Vazhachal area and then to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. This side of the Western Ghats enjoys the full force of the South Western Monsoon and harbors fine examples of tropical evergreen rainforest. That means the opportunity for high biodiversity and endemism. The high rainfall and deep valleys also attracted dam builders in the last century and there are a number of large hydroelectric reservoirs and generating stations in Vazhachal. I had visited Athirappilly Falls nine years ago (see August 2010 post) and on this trip I wanted to go further to Thattekad and explore its forests and birds before making my way home to Colombo via Kochi (Cochin).

Vazhachal_pan_1(B&W)(06_19)

Deep inside Kerala’s Vazhachal area on my way to Athirappilly Falls  and Thatekkad.

Descending into Vazhachal to Athirappilly was fascinating as the road passes through towering valleys of classic tropical rainforest. This is classic GPH territory and it was surprisingly clear on the day that I did the drive in a rented Valparai taxi. It was somewhat frustrating as vehicles are not allowed to stop-to prevent picnics and mischief from tourists. In the last few years Athirappilly has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The Kerala State Electricity Board (the same actors in the effort to dam Silent Valley) has been trying in earnest to dam the Chalakudy near the falls. There are already several dams upstream but KSEB has stubbornly stuck to proposals to put in a 163 MW dam at Athirappilly (Environmental Justice Atlas). The debate is sometimes seen as a classic “pro-development vs. environment/conservation” argument. Tragically, even after the battles and lessons of Silent Valley, we are reminded that protection and conservation is never guaranteed. Current and future generations are compelled to be alert to those who seek short term solutions in the last remaining areas of wilderness.

Thattekad Bird Sanctuary is well known for its association with Salim Ali, India’s legendary birdman. Ali’s books, published by the Bombay Natural History Society, introduced several generations to the joy of birdwatching and he was actively involved in promoting the protection of wilderness areas in an age of aggressive large scale industrial development and hydroelectric dam building. His visits to Kerala in the 1930s, when the area was part of the Travancore Princely State, led to the landmark publication of the Birds of Travancore and Cochin (1953). He famously associated Thattekad with being the richest area for birds in peninsular India.

Thattekad Bird Sanctuary sits at the junction of the Periyar and Idamalayar rivers just 50 km east of Cochin (Kochi). It has a mix of forest types but is notable for its small remnants of lowland tropical evergreen forests. The actual protected area of Thattekad is quite small (@ 25 km2) and many of the interesting species are found in home gardens and patches of forests and wetlands outside of the PA. In recent years Thattekad has become a must see location for serious birders and others looking to see and check off the Western Ghats endemics. With its growing popularity, a number of home stays have sprung up near to its entrance on the north side of the Periyar River.

Palanis_Anamalai Landsat Mosaic_2 (10_2019)

A new and updated version of the Anamalai Hills, High Range Palanis Hills map created by the author for the Nature in Focus talk in 2016. Click on the image for a larger 150 DPI A3 version.

In Thattekad I stayed with the legendary K.V. Eldhose. Almost all serious birdwatchers and photographers interested in the endemics species of the Western Ghats have either visited him or planned to visit Eldhose’s homestay. Eldhose’s is located south of the Periyar river in a sparsely populated rural landscape with secondary forest, open patches and marshy areas.  There aren’t any signs so you need to book ahead of time and then Eldhose comes to meet you on his scooter. The habitat around his place are composed of rubber tree groves and small patches wetlands/paddy fields. He maintains five neat Kerala-style bungalows for visitors and then facilitates excursions to see different key species. Eldhose grew up appreciated the natural history of the area and learnt about their feeding habits from his grandmother. Over the years he has developed a complex series of feeding routines to attract key species in different habitats. His specialties include the Southern tree Pie (Dendrocitta leucogastra), Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura) , Red Spurfowl (Galloperdix spadicea) , Blue Winged or Malabar Parakeets (Psittacula columboides) and Gray Headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus priocephalus). These can be viewed outside of the Thattekad protected area in a rural landscape. Eldhose and/or his guides escort you into forest patches within a 15 km radius of his homestay for forest species like the Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger), White-bellied blue flycatcher (Cyornis pallipes), Ceylon Bay Owl (Phodilus assimilis), Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) etc.

My goal was to get a sense of Thattekad and then come back during the winter migration season. June may have been “off season” but being at Eldhose’s before the rains started in earnest provided several unique natural history viewing opportunities. There were no other guests so enjoyed great attention and support. During the day I used Eldhose’ hides to get up close and personal with Blue Winged Parakeets, Greater coucals,  Woodpeckers, Jungle Babblers, Common Mynas and more. The lowland rainforest was at least a 15-20 drive, across the Periyar River up the road. Here giant trees with enormous sweeping buttresses shade out most of the sunlight and provide a diverse set habitats for most of the rare forest bird species of the Western Ghats. In a leisurely outings our notable encounters included two Sri Lanka Frogmouths, a White-bellied blue flycatcher, two different Malabar trogon pairs  and a Heart Spotted Woodpecker.

At dusk I enjoyed the extraordinary experience of watching two Mottled Wood Owls (Strix ocellata) scare the bejesus out of other birds and then come swooping into Eldhose’s garden to dine on several field mice that he had put out for them. Their calls-all of the distinctive vocalizations- are  something quite unforgettable. Later I went out with Ajomon looking for frogs and snakes. We found several Malabar Gliding Frogs (Rhacophorus malabaricus)  at a neighbor’s house but the most photogenic individual was in a pepper vine behind Eldhose’s house (see images).

Harpactes_malabaricus_Thattekad_(F)_1a(MR)(06_19)

Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) female in the primary forests of Thattekad.

Harpactes_malabaricus_Thattekad_1a(MR)(06_19)

Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) male posing for me in the primary forests of Thattekad. I can never get enough of these birds that are so intimately associated with some of favorite areas in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot!

Strix_ocellata_at_Thatekkad_1a(MR)(06_19)

Mottled wood owl (Strix ocellata) making an appearance at Eldhose’s home at exactly 6:45. A snack of lab mice gives these rare birds an incentive to visit. Their calls are eerie, exiting and quite hard to reproduce.

My visit to Thattekad wrapped up all too soon and I found myself on a flight back over the same hills traversing the Western Ghats from 8,000 meters on my way home to Colombo. Plans are already in place to revisit Thattekad and spend more time with K.V and other contacts that I met on the June trip.

Cleared_Land_near_Thattekad_1(MR)(B&W)(06_19)

At first glance, this image might depict a landscape of devastation while, in fact, it is one of hope. Here a plantation of forest department-managed non-native acacia trees has been cleared and an effort is being made to restore the tropical evergreen rainforest that is the climax vegetation. Taken near to Thattekad, looking north-east. (June 2019)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

Amphibians of India. Web.

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

Daniels, Ranjit. R.J. Amphibians of Peninsular India. Hyderabad: University Press. 2005. Print.

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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