Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

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.

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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).

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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).

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

Further Explorations in the Anamalai Hills

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Lion Tailed Macaque (Macaca silensus) mother and infant getting ready to cross the road in Pudhuthottam, Anamalai Hills. No other mammal in the Westerns Ghats is as closely associated and emblematic of the hotspot’s fragile biodiversity. (April 2019)

The Anamalai Hills drew me back to their forest and plantation-clad contours once again this year. In the recent decades the Anamalais have emerged as a key area of conservation interest in India’s 1,600 km long Western Ghats biodiversity Hotspot. The hills are located in Tamil Nadu south of the Palghat Gap and adjoin important protected areas in Kerala and the neighboring Palani Hills. Rich habitat diversity and distinct vegetation types in the Anamalais provide a home for almost all of the key emblematic Western Ghats species. These include large animals such as tigers and elephants, key endemics including Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus), Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) and charismatic smaller life forms such as the Anamalai flying frog (Rhacophorus pseudomalabaricus) and Purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis). The area hosts significant human populations-there are several indigenous tribal groups living in remote settlements, but most humans are involved in planation agriculture on the Valparai plateau. There is also a small but significant group of scientific researchers studying different aspects of the ecology and working to protect the fragile heritage of the Anamalais. Finally, the Anamalais are attracting tourists- a development with both positive and perilous potential.

My earliest recollection that the Anamalais were distinct from the range of my childhood (the Palanis) and the more distant Nilgiri hills came  from George Roshan, a leading wildlife photographer of his age who lived in Kodai. We both frequented Doveton’s Studio and sometime in 1985/86 George came back with stories of exciting large animal encounters in Top Slip- a place located in the north-western Anamalais. During those same years the school’s tahr camp ended up in Manjampatti Valley-a remote and relatively dry low plateau surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Palani Hills, High Range and Anamalai Hills. On our final hike out we walked westwards through dry deciduous forest with the 2,000 + meter high, grass-covered peaks overshadowing our small group. We had to be careful of large mammals but mostly we were walking alone through a savanna-scrub like environment far from the trappings of civilization. The area is now part of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and trekking is restricted such that school groups are not able to enjoy the experience that was a highlight was so many of us. In 1993 I accompanied my cousin Anna on a trip to Top Slip to meet Ragupathy Kannan and visit his field study site where he was observing the nesting and feeding ecology of Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis). About 10 years ago I visited and spent time at the NCF nursery where  the group’s ecological restoration efforts radiate out from.  Since then I have come back every few years with either Amy or Lenny on enjoyable but all too short visits.

This January Danesh Khan, my friend and co-author from the grasslands study, hiked up to Cloudland’s peak to watch the first light of the day and review the status of remnant montane grasslands in this northern high point of the Palani Hills. The view to the west of the Anamalai highlands was particularly striking. The lofty peaks that are north or Eravikulam loomed over the Manjampatti Valley, Kukkal and Puthuputhoor ridges (see image below). Of course, Eravikulam’s plateau, Anai Mudi and Katu Malai were also clearly visible, though some of it the plateau was obstructed by the Vandaravu, Vembadi and Gundar areas of the Palanis. That view of the Anamalais lodged in my mind and motivated two trips mid-way through the year.

The Anamalai Hills as seen from the east. The grass-covered peaks rise above the Puthuputhoor ridge in the Palani Hills. Manjampatti Valley, the site of numerous magical tahr camps, separates the Palanis from the Anamalai Hills. The Kukkal ridge is on the left with the first light of the day illuminating steep cliffs. (January 2019)

The Anamalai Hills as seen from the north near Pollachi looking south.(June 2019)

In April during our Sinhala/Tamil New Year break Lenny and I took a brief three day visit to Valparai. We were motivated by birds, endemic species and the chance of observing and photographing Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis) in flight. We connected with Sridhar for a morning of rich bird watching and e-bird counting. Lenny and I spent time in the newly refurbished NCF Anamalai Nature Information Centre and were able to pick up copies of the exquisitely produced Pillars of Life book. We crossed paths with Divya and a film crew photographing LTMs for an episode of On the Brink. The increasing tendency of these normally arboreal, forest-dwelling primates to venture into the town of Valparai to forage for food is the subject of some debate and study. In Valparai we stayed at Misty Creek a homestay that is owned by Frank Benjamin-a knowledgeable and helpful gentleman with an interest in snakes and amphibians. However, it was still very dry and thus I planned a return trip to focus on amphibians. We did have good success with LTM and Nilgiri tahr observations and I had a decent view of a GPH in flight (see images below).

Buceros_bicornis_in_flight_Valparai_1a(MR)(04_19)

Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) in flight over a forest clearing near Old Valparai (April 2019).

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I came back to Valparai on another short visit in June, this time as I traversed the Anamalais on my way to Thattekad and Cochin from the Palani Hills. I was expecting the South West monsoon to be vigorous but it had not set in with its full force yet. That offered a few opportunities for dry exploration and luckily there had been enough rain to get the amphibians croaking. Kalyan Varma was in town with the same On the Brink team and we had a brief chat as one of the Pudhuthottam LTM troops moved into a school compound in Valparai. This time I stayed at Pudhuthottam Annex (run by the Briar Tea Bungalows group) with the idea of getting closer to the frogs, birds and mammals that I wanted to photograph. Working with the naturalist Dharani and manager Abhishek Vaidyanathan, we located and then photographed several key endemic frogs near the Briar Woodhouse. These included Jayaram’s Bush Frog (Raorchestes jayarami) and the Wayanad Bush Frog (Pseudophilautus wynaadensis). I also appreciated waking up to Malabar Whistling thrushes (Myophonus horsfieldii) calling on my roof and the troop of LTMs surrounding the small cottage. Unfortunately, the possibility of leopard and elephant encounters kept us close to the main wood bungalow at night.

This narrative is continued and concluded with the Getting to know Thattekad post(to be published next month).

PAST ANAMALAIS POSTS

Lockwood, Ian. “ Restoration & Revival in the Anamalais” August 2010. Web.

”             “A Bend in the Ghat: An Anamalais Encounter.” May 2015.  Web.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Chakravarty, Rohan. “Valparai Natural History Map.” Green Humour. Web.

Mudappa, Divya, Shankar Raman, Nirupa Rao and Sartaj Ghuman. Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. Mysore: NCF, 2018. Print.

Raman, Shankar, Divya Mudappa and Anand Usuri. “Restoring rainforest remnants: experiences from the Anamalai hills.” Current Conservation. May 2018. Web.

The Pollachi Papyrus. Website.

 

 

Preliminary Analysis of Land Cover in the Sinharaja Adiviya using Planet Dove Imagery

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Figure 1: Sinharaja Adiviya (or greater Sinharaja area) mapped with Planet Dove imagery. Reduced in size to fit this post.

In March this year I attended a fascinating talk entitled “Sinharaja: From a Timber Reserve to a Biological Treasure Trove. What next?” by Nimal and Savitri Gunatillike at the BMICH in Colombo. The lecture was sponsored by the WNPS in their monthly lecture series. There were several aspects of the talk reflecting back on their decades of research in Sri Lanka’s preeminent forest. Initially, Savitri did botanical studies documenting the diversity of plants in Sinharaja in the period before mechanical logging started (1960s-77). They were witness to period of commercial logging and recovery to a world renowned UNESCO-designated world heritage site. The Gunatilleke’s experiments with rainforest restoration were of particular interest to me, given the lessons that these examples hold for similar non-native plantation areas across the Western Ghats/Sri Lankan biodiversity hotspot. In the lecture, both spoke of the broader Sinharaja area of forest fragments and large patches that are connected or satellites to the core area-something they identified as the Sinharaja Adiviya.

At the same time, I was interested in mapping land cover and forest types in study areas that I take students to for field work. Up to this stage, our DP Geography studies in Sinharaja have utilized Survey Department 1:50,000 and 1:10,000 land use data. It comes as a shape file with the data that I have purchased from their map sales office. This data is satisfactory but we have found significant omissions and inaccuracies in the Kudawa area where OSC students conduct field work (much of the data is based on surveys conducted in the early 1980s).

Forest types and land cover are a key part of the Sinharaja story. Literature about the area’s successful conservation refer to primary  and secondary forest as well as Pinus caribaea plantations (along the border). Yet, I couldn’t locate GIS-ready shapefiles of boundaries of these forest types! The Forest Department has files based on its 2010 forest cover map but these are, thus far, not in the public sphere. I had mapped the area using a Landsat tile from 2005 (published in my blog in 2012) but this was before I had learnt how to conduct a supervised classification of a raster image.

Home garden landscape on the border with Sinharaja rainforest (north west side). (September 2019)

Pinus caribaea plantation in the Sinharaja buffer zone undergoing ecological succession as part of an ecological restoration effort. This area was once dominated by a monoculture community. The intervention of conservationists in thinning pine trees and planting appropriate native species is helping to return it to the climax lowland rainforest community. See linked articles by Professors Mark Ashton, Nimal Gunatillike and others for details of these efforts. (September 2019)

Primary/ridge forest below Moulawella Peak in the Sinharaja core zone. This area did not experience any logging in the period of commercial exploitation in the 1960s-70s. (September 2019)

A Brief Literature Review

A review of land cover analysis in Sinharaja shows that only a few studies have been published to date. The most significant, publicly available study looking at land cover change in Sinharaja was conducted by Buddhika Madurapperuma and Janak Kuruppuarchchi in 2014 (see link). Their analysis used Landsat ETM data between 1993 and 2005 in an area slightly larger than the Sinharaja boundary provided by the Forest Department. They used a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) and Burn Index (BI) to assess changes in three years (2001, 1993 and 2005). The study is thorough but the data that they use is coarse and it is difficult to get a sense of the land cover patterns at a large scale. They conclude with an acknowledgment that ground surveys need to be conducted to better understand the change. Thanura Madusanka Silva published a study entitled “Land Cover Changes of a Tropical Forest Buffer Zone” in 2018 that used Sri Lanka Survey Department data to assess changes in land use in the Kudawa area (see link). This study is based on secondary data and not satellite imagery and it concludes that major change has occurred in home garden areas. There may be other studies that I have missed but the field of land cover change in Sinharaja, as seen in satellite imagery, is ripe for further study.

Figure 2: Supervised classification of land cover based on Planet Dove imagery. Because the images were not collected on the same flight, there are some unavoidable gaps and seams, that are visible on close inspection.

Planet Dove Methodology and Results

Two years ago I became familiar with Planet Dove imagery and saw that it might provide a solution in my attempts to classify land cover in the Sinharaja area. Planet Dove’s constellation of 120+ satellites, which revisit the same areas every day, offers a new opportunity to visualize and analyze any area of the earth. At the beginning of 2019 I successfully applied to Planet’s Education and Research program and was able to download a host of tiles of study areas. I found a series of cloud-free scenes from December 2018 and downloaded them. These are from around December 18 but some were collected at slightly different dates. Using ArcGIS, I mosaiced these various tiles so that I had most of the area Sinharaja Adiviya covered. Because the images were not collected on the same flight there is some unavoidable gaps and visible seams, that are visible on close inspection. The improved spatial resolution of 3-5m means that it is easier to distinguish between different land cover types (lowland rainforest, vs, Pinus caribaea plantation, for example). Initially I worked on a map using the non-visible near infrared (NIR 780-860 nm) layer to highlight vegetation (see figure 1).

In the second part of my efforts I conducted a supervised classification using tools in ArcGIS’s Spatial Analyst extension toolbar. For land cover type, I collected between 5 and 10 training samples and merged each of them into their own distinct land cover type. The classified image (Figure 2) clearly highlights the dense lowland rainforest pockets in a landscape dominated by home garden and tea agriculture. The effort to categorize the Pinus caribaea plantation was partially successful. However, there are errors with some of the classification. For example, plantation in the midst of dense (primary) forest near Moulawella peak.

Conclusion/Future

In the next attempt I plan to collect more training samples in the hopes of getting a more accurate picture of the land cover patterns. A focused study on the pine forest in the buffer area near Kudawa deserves attention. Some of these areas are being successfully restored to their original lowland rainforest vegetation type and time a change study would be illuminating. There are areas of the landscape that I am very familiar with (the Kudawa tourist and village zone) while I have far less personal experience in other areas like western Sinharaja and the various forest fragments. Further studies of landcover need to be verified with ground truthing in the field.

Figure 3: The Kudawa area of Sinharaja with classification of land cover based on Planet Dove imagery. In this image I have highlighted the popular tourist area around the settlement of Kudawa.  The lower part of the map experienced mechanical logging 40+ years ago (some of it is encircled in red). The stream running down to the Sinharaja ticket gate is not depicted on this map and is missing from Survey Department 1:10,000 sheets that were used for the hydro/stream layer.

 

SELECTED REFERENCES (Land Cover Focus)

Ashton, Mark et al.  “Restoration pathways for rain forest in southwest Sri Lanka: A review of concepts and models.” Forest Ecology and Management 154(3):409-430. December 2001. Web.

Ashton, Mark et al.  “Restoration of rain forest beneath pine plantations: A relay floristic model with special application to tropical South Asia.” Forest Ecology and Management 329:351–359. October 2014. Web.

Gunatilleke, Nimal, C.V.S. Gunatilleke and M.A.A. Dilhan. “Plant Biogeography and Conservation of the South Western Hill Forests of Sri Lanka.” The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, 2005. No. 12 9-22. Web.

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.

Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Wet: Field Notes From Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone.” Sanctuary Asia. August/September 2007. 3-11. Print. PDF.

Madurapperuma Buddhika  and Kuruppuarachchi Janaka.“Detecting Land-cover Change using Mappable Vegetation Related Indices: A Case Study from the Sinharaja Man and the Biosphere Reserve.” Journal of Tropical Forestry and Environment Vol.4, No 01 (2014) 50-58. May 2014. Web.

Madusanka, Thanura. “Land Cover Changes of Tropical Forest Buffer zone A case study of Kudawa Village, Sinharaja forest buffer zone; Sri Lanka.” International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications. October 2018. Web.

Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. Proceedings of the Stakeholder Workshop on Landscape Planning & Management. 29 September 2017. Web. See page 10 for Sinharaja map.

Planet Team. Planet Application Program Interface: In Space for Life on Earth. San Francisco, CA. 2017. Web.

Sri Lanka Survey Department. District Land Use Maps. 1983. Print/Web.

UN-REDD Programme. Sri Lanka’s Forest Reference Level submission to the UNFCCC. January 2017. Web.

Wijesooriya W. A. D. A. and, C. V. S. Gunatilleke. “Buffer Zone of the Sinharaja Biosphere Reserve in Sri Lanka and Its Management Strategies.” Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka. 31(1–2), 57. June 2003. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2019-09-16 at 7:41 pm

Sri Lanka Mountain Traverse (Part I)

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A collage of diversity: highlights from 10 days of traversing Sri Lanka’s mountain zones.

Sri Lanka’s modest island boundaries hosts a rich assemblage of habitats with unique life forms that contribute to its status as one of 36 global biodiversity hotspots  (together with the Western Ghats of India).  Several of these places-namely Sinharaja rainforest and the Central Highlands -are also recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. In mid-June this year my son Lenny and I took an unforgettable  ten day south-north traverse through the three most important mountain ranges of Sri Lanka looking to explore themes of endemism.

The Rakwana Hills (including Sinharaja), Central Highlands and Knuckles range share certain geographic and vegetation patterns and yet have distinct species with very restricted distributions. They are all in the “wet zone” receiving between 2,500-6,000 mm of rain (see SL Biodiversity Clearing House Mechanism) . In May this year I read a new article by Sri Lankan amphibian guru Madhava Meegaskumbura and colleagues entitled “Diversification of shrub frogs (Rhacophoridae, Pseudophilautus) in Sri Lanka – Timing and geographic context” (see Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution and the summary by Dilrukshi Handunnetti in Mongabay). The authors highlight the genus Pseudophilautus in the three ranges and their connections to shrub frogs in the Western Ghats. They delve deep into the species at a molecular level that is beyond most of us but I was fascinated by the role of mountain geography in the species’ distribution. This got me thinking about doing a single traverse through the same ranges at the onset of the South West Monsoon.

About the same time, Lenny was formulating an approach to his IB MYP5 personal project. This culminating exercise challenges students to pick their own project, make a product or produce an outcome and then reflect deeply on the process. He had been fascinated by our (thus far, futile) search for the rare point endemic marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata) in the Knuckles range. With a little encouragement from his parents, Lenny decided to explore broad themes of endemism in Sri Lanka using the medium of photography.

Primary ridge forest in Western Sinharaja. These relatively inaccessible areas were never logged during the mechanized logging period (1960s-mid 1970s). The prominent tree species is Shorea trapezifolia from the Dipterocarpaceae family.

Sinharaja West

We started our 10 day traverse, driving southwards from Colombo on the expressway in the middle of heavy monsoon showers. Our first three days and two nights were spent in the western side of Sinharaja, staying with the incomparable Martin Wijeysinghe at his Jungle Lodge. There were showers on all days but this was low season and there were few tourists (and no migrant birds). The road that had been re-paved from the Kudawa ticket office up to the entrance to the core zone entrance was nearly complete and opened for the first time. The impact of this controversial project appeared less harmful than had been projected by concerned citizens and journalists (See the Daily Mirror on 12 February 2019). Pavement stones had been used on the road and a concrete lining put on the storm drain that runs parallel down the road. There were some trees that had been felled and large patches of Strobilanthes and other shrubs cleared. But these should recover within a season or two. If there is one lesson from Sinharaja’s conservation story in the last 40 years it is that the rainforest system is resilient and is able to recover from human disturbance remarkably well. That doesn’t suggest that we should be complacent about conservation and restoration efforts but we do need to give the system a chance to rebound.

Lenny, Amy and I had visited Martin’s for two nights in February along with our friend Mangala Karaunaratne and his two kids. That trip had been rewarding with good sighting of the Golden Civet Cat (Paradoxurus zeylonensis), Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata), Hump Nosed Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) and several other species. A few of the images are included here, as they paved the way for a deeper exploration of the area.

The extremely rare Golden Palm Civet Cat (Paradoxurus zeylonensis) at Martin’s lodge. This individual made regular night visits for several months but has stopped coming (as of June 2019). (photo taken in January 2019)

Our highlights with endemics in the western part of Sinharaja in June mainly involved birds. We did look for frogs around Martin’s but were not that successful in this early stage of our mountain traverse. During our three days we had rewarding encounters with a Green Billed Coucal (Centropus chlororhynchos), a pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths (Batrachostomus moniliger), Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata) and a Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus). Thilak, the very talented independent guide, helped us locate a solitary Chestnut Backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanotum). We did encounter a mixed feeding flock during our first walk to the research station. It included some of the usual endemics but we didn’t have a good opportunity to photograph them.  A visitor from Singapore staying at Martin’s was very lucky and saw both the Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) and the extremely rare Sri Lanka Bay Owl (Phodilus assimilis) in the same area while we were there.

Harpactes_fasciatus_Sinharaja_1(MR)(06_19)

A male Malabar trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) that was part of a mixed species feeding flock near the Sinharaja research station.  Regular readers may recognize that this species is one of my favorite species to encounter and photograph. Previous posts from Silent Valley and the Palani Hills have feature Malabar Trogons and a future post from Thattekad (Kerala)will highlight another exquisite individual.

T_trigonocephalus_at_Sinharaja_tongue_1a(MR)(6_19)

Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) near the upper Core Zone entrance on Sinharaja’s west side.

Sri Lanka Blue Magpie (Urocissa ornata) visiting Martin’s lodge, in search of months and insects around tea time before breakfast.

Sri Lanka Keelback (Xenochrophis asperrmus) at the ticket gate of the Kudawa entrance to Sinharaja.

Glaucidium_castanotum_at_Sinharaja_3a(MR)(06_19)

The endemic and diminutive Chesnut Backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanotum) was one that took special help to find. Lenny and I were assisted by Thilak, the independent guide, in our search for owls and he found this individual outside of the park boundaries. Just was we were setting up and getting shots with a 200-500 the skies opened up and we were forced to leave before we wanted to. The light was so low and the bird was at least 20 meters away and I was forced to use a strobe.

(to be continued in Part II/IV)

REFERENCES (for all four parts)

Amphibian Survival Alliance. Web.

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.

Gunatilleke, C.V.S. A Nature Guide to the World’s End Trail, Horton Plains. Colombo: Department of Wildlife Conservation, 2007. Print.

Gunatilleke, I.A.U.N, and C.V.S. Gunatilleke and M.A.A. Dilhan. “Plant Biogeography and Conservation of the South Western Hill Forests of Sri Lanka.” The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, 2005. No. 12 9-22. Web.

Handunnetti, Dilrukshi. “How India’s shrub frogs crossed a bridge to Sri Lanka – and changed forever.” Mongabay. 1 May 2019. Web.

Kotagama, Sarath and Gamini Ratnavira. An Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. Colombo: FOGSL, 2010. Print.

Meegaskumbura, Madhava et al. “Conservation and biogeography of threatened Amphibians of Eastern Sinharaja.” Froglog. Issue 100. January 2012. Web.

Meegaskumbura, Madhava et al. “Diversification of shrub frogs (Rhacophoridae, Pseudophilautus) in Sri Lanka-Timing and geographic context.” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 2019. Web.

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

Protected Planet. Sri Lanka PA Boundaries. August 2019.

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

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

 

MAP OF THE JOURNEY

 

Sri Lanka Mountain Traverse (Part II)

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Montane forest interior with remnant cardamom plants under the low canopy of the rainforest.

Sinharaja East

Moving on from Kudawa, Lenny and I rejoined the Kalawana-Rakwana (B181) road and followed its winding course eastwards and parallel to the norther borders of Sinharaja. We left the heavy monsoon clouds of the wet zone as we drove up and then descended into the drier side of the hills that Rakwana sits in. Our time in the intermediate zone was brief as we were headed back up into the higher hills that are exposed to the South West Monsoon. Our destination was Morningside: a relatively remote area that is renowned for its plant and amphibian diversity.

Looking south to Handapana from the Kalawana-Rakwana road. This is technically not part of the Sinharaja protected area but it is a critical forest habitat harboring many key species.

The forest department bungalow at Morningside sits at about 1,000 meters in an area of dense montane rainforest. The species composition is unique and the forest structure is noticeably different (shorter) than the lowland rainforest of western Sinharaja where we had just been. Tea estates, with patchy gardens that look difficult to maintain, form a barrier between the Suriyakanda (A17) road and the forest interiors. We entered on the shorter south road through the Morningside tea estate and later left on the northern road. The area near the Morningside bungalow was once cleared for tea cultivation and plantations of Australian Acacia sp. There had been efforts to plant cardamom in the area and we came across the plants surviving on the forest floor. Most of the plantation efforts failed and cleared areas are gradually reverting to the native montane evergreen forest (with some assistance from restoration planting activities). Because of the physical differences (especially altitude) with the rest of Sinharaja  there are species not found in either Kudawa or Pitadeniya to look out for. Amphibians and lizards were what we were focused on but we were interested to learn more about the area and all its life forms.

Learning more about Morningside and Sinharaja was greatly helped along when we were joined by Nimal Gunatilleke, distinguished professor emeritus from Peradeniya University. I had attended the fascinating public talk on Sinharaja in March sponsored by WNPS on Sinharaja by Nimal and his wife, professor Savitri Gunatilleke. In May I had spoken with them and shared stories about Sinharaja and my interest in similar areas in the Western Ghats. By happy coincidence Nimal was going to be conducting a workshop in Deniyaya in June and so I had invited him to join us once I had made the Morningside booking with the FD.

Ride_to_Morningside_2a(MR)(06_19)

Norther approach to Morningside bungalow- showing a mix of montane forest, tea and weeds.

Having left Kudawa in the morning Lenny and I met up with Professor Gunatilleke in Rakwana, bought our supplies and then proceeded to Morningside together. In Suriyakanda, Lenny and I switched into a hired Bolero pickup that took us on the last hour to the FD bungalow. There was no rain cover and the road was very rough. We were relieved to arrive dry, though a bit stirred and shaken. Nimal and his driver followed us in a well-used Mitsubishi pick up from the university.

During our first two days Lenny and I enjoyed several insightful conversations and slow walks with Professor Gunatilleke where I learnt a great deal about the area’s plants and efforts to restore the degraded landscapes. Photographically-speaking, daylight hours were relatively unproductive but when it got dark a host of creatures came to life in the mossy forest behind the bungalow. Lenny and I went in prepared for leaches and rain but were lucky that it was not pouring on either nights and there were very few blood suckers. We honed our frog sighting skills on the first night and tripled our species count on the second night. Our approach was to locate the frogs listening to their calls in the dark, used torches to locate them and then photographed them in situ with minimal changes using two and sometimes three portables strobes.

It was only after we returned to Colombo that we got confirmation on what we had photographed on the FB pages of the Amphibian of Sri Lanka  (and Reptiles & Amphibians of Sri Lanka) groups. Another key resource for Morningside’s frogs was Meegaskumbura et al.’s “Conservation & biogeography of threatened amphibians of Eastern Sinharaja” from Froglog (published in 2012). (Nimal Gunatilleke is one of the authors on this short, but helpful publication)

Our first frog spotted was the critically endangered Morningside Hourglass frog (Taruga fastigo) – we actually mistook it for the endangered Montane Hourglass (Taruga eques) that I have previously photographed in Nuwara Eliya and Peak Wilderness. The Morningside species is a point endemic with very restricted distribution. Lenny located at least two bright green Poppy’s Shrub frogs (Pseudophilautus poppiae) and I found a third. This endangered frog is one of the most distinguished at Morningside. We also found the Golden Shrub frog (Pseudophilautus auratus) as well as several others that we are still working on identifying. We desperately wanted to photograph the lizards (Desilva’s Erdelen’s Horn, and Karunaratne’s Horn) that Morningside is well known for but aside from one that ran across the path in front of me, we had no worthy sightings.

Pseudophilautus_auratus_ES_1a(MR)(06_19)

Pseudophilautus auratus at Morningside.

Pseudophilautus_sp_dark_green_ES_1(MR)(06_19)

Pseudophilautus cavirostris at Morningside.

My personal highlight was the very camouflaged Tibetan Bubble Nest/Hollow Snouted Shrub Frog that I located from its call clinging to the mossy bark of a medium-sized tree. Based on other photographs on the FB group, I believe that this is Pseudophilautus cavirostris. Trying to get its eye in focus while aiming two strobes at different angles in a wet tangle of vegetation was a challenge but we both got decent photographs.

Several years ago we had stayed at the Rainforest Ecolodge (see my 2012 posts) – a place that is in a similar montane habitat on the edge of tea and rainforest. On the map it is a short distance away but the area between the two locations is seemingly impenetrable with thick, barbed cane (Canus sp.) stands and dense forest. There was no obvious path to follow other than the stream that flows westwards to the lodge.

On June 13th, the jeep driver, picked us up and drove us back towards Suriyakanda via the longer norther approach. The morning was damp and cool with a veil of mist hanging just above the gnarled rainforest canopy. We heard the loud chattering of Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata) and the distinct call of Sri Lanka Spur Fowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata) but other than a fleeting glimpse of Yellow Eared Bulbuls (Pycnonotus penicillatus) there were few birds to be seen. Overhanging branches and lianas crowded the road and the drive was far more exciting than any roller coaster ride. The bench seat was recycled from another vehicle and only attached with nylon rope to the back bed of the pickup. When the wheels hit a bump, the rope stretched and gave flight to the seat and us passengers. Trying to stay in the vehicle on the anything-but-smooth trail and dodging branches was an exciting, albeit  life-threatening part of getting back to our own vehicle. We passed the junction of the once proposed road that would connect Suriyakanda with Pothupitiya/Illuokanda (see Malaga Rodrigo’s Sunday Times 2011 article). Thankfully it is overgrown and there is no evidence of a road or plan to build one. We unloaded the pick up and repacked our truck for the onward traverse-heading north to the lofty Central Highlands.

(to be continued in Part III/IV)

 

REFERENCES (Morning Side)

Amphibian Survival Alliance. Web.

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.

Gunatilleke, I.A.U.N, and C.V.S. Gunatilleke and M.A.A. Dilhan. “Plant Biogeography and Conservation of the South Western Hill Forests of Sri Lanka.” The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, 2005. No. 12 9-22. Web.

Handunnetti, Dilrukshi. “How India’s shrub frogs crossed a bridge to Sri Lanka – and changed forever.” Mongabay. 1 May 2019. Web.

Kotagama, Sarath and Gamini Ratnavira. An Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. Colombo: FOGSL, 2010. Print.

Meegaskumbura, Madhava et al. “Conservation and biogeography of threatened Amphibians of Eastern Sinharaja.” Froglog. Issue 100. January 2012. Web.

Meegaskumbura, Madhava et al. “Diversification of shrub frogs (Rhacophoridae, Pseudophilautus) in Sri Lanka-Timing and geographic context.” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 2019. Web.

Protected Planet. Sri Lanka PA Boundaries. August 2019.

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

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