Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

GIS Developments at OSC in 2017

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GIS as a tool for teaching and learning in the DP Geography program (the field, Survey Department and in a final Geography EE map).

November 15th marked GIS Day, a time set aside to recognize the important role of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in our lives. With a theme of GIS as the “science of where” it seems like a good time to look at ways in which we are using GIS as a tool for teaching and learning at OSC. Ten years ago, I put in the first proposals to adopt a GIS program at OSC as a part of our MYP and DP Geography courses. Since then the school’s small program has grown steadily while there have also been enormous leaps in the technology. This post reviews the newer applications and data sources that I am using as a tool for geospatial teaching and learning in the OSC environment.

Curricular Links in the International Baccalaureate DP

As far as I know, there are no explicit requirements that GIS skills be taught in any IB course. There are references made to GIS in the revised DP Geography, First Examinations May 2019 syllabus though they are not required (unfortunately, from my perspective). On page 19 it says “it is recognized that the ability to use GIS as a tool is a valuable geographic skill that goes beyond many of those listed below. Where GIS is accessible and practical, its use is encouraged.” Of course, there are many geographic skills listed in the guide that can be taught using a GIS platform. The Environmental Systems & Societies, First Examinations 2017 syllabus in the Investigating Ecosystems (2.5) section mentions GIS as a tool to use when tracking land use change (see p. 38).

At OSC I take time to teach several basic GIS lessons in DP Geography that allows students to use it as a told for case studies and then work on the internal assessment. In the past, I have worked with MYP students to introduce them to skills and methods for using our ArcGIS software. This year we are once again introducing GIS skills for MY 5 so that they can map spatial patterns from their Galle socio-economic survey work.

Survey Pan

Mobile Data Collection & Tracking

The advent of wide spread use of smartphones and improved 4G cellphone networks has opened up opportunities to use mobile data gathering apps on phones. There are a variety of options including open source apps (Open Data Kit, etc.). I am using ESRI’s Survey123 which comes with our ArcGIS site license. For the first time this year we recorded all of the DP Geography Sinharaja field surveys on Survey123. The class set up a common survey with questions about gender, housing, water access, land use and other variables. Before we went to the field we trialed a simpler version in Colombo. In the field, every student had a phone but we also backed it up with paper copies. At times, there was no cell phone access. We were able to upload the data later when we had cell phone connectivity (this worked quite well although photographs attached to the survey slowed down the uploads considerably). It was a much better way to tabulate the data (there were more than 70 individual respondents in total) and the class could map the data points since each had a spatial reference.

At the same time, I have been experimenting with using phone apps to track and record hikes and trails that we walk on CAS experiences. Strava, a fitness oriented app, offers an excellent way to record tracks. I am exporting GPX trails and then putting them onto Google my maps and sharing them with participants. I’ve taught students how to use them as a way to record key paths on their CAS blogs (see Maha’s Off the Grid post or my Mannar account for an example of this). We are currently using Google My Maps for this and layering the GPX trails onto a map that we make public. I would like to use an Openstreetmap for the base layer but this requires a WordPress plugin and $$$.

Hardware & Online Software

In terms of hardware we are operating a basic system with a server/desktop and then four lab desktops (each with decent specs-16 GB RAM, fast processors, graphics cards, large (2tb) drives and wide HD monitors. Geography students have access to ArcGIS Online on their laptops (both OSC and Windows platforms). When it comes to working with imagery I find it easier to use the desktops where I have spatial data stored for specific class assignments.

There are a variety of software options for using GIS as an educational tool. The most widely used open source GIS software package must surely be QGIS. It has an OSX version and the interface is quite similar to ArcGIS. At the school we continue to use the industry-standard, proprietary ArcGIS group of applications and have maintained an advanced license for over the last eight years through GIS Solutions here in Colombo. I am able to get technical advice from IWMI’s GIS lab when there are new operations or application that we want to put to test. I have also developed relationships with other major GIS users who are working on environmental issues in Sri Lanka.

Openstreet Map Contributions

In the last two years we have been using Openstreet Maps and have made minor contributions in our neighborhood and areas of interest. I value the idea of an open platform wiki space where users can contribute spatial knowledge. It is also an excellent source for downloading shapefiles of houses, building, roads, and other features in our Sri Lankan study areas. This data is often more update to shapefiles that are commercially available. We have had students download OSM data and then use the shape files to design studies of land use in the Colombo CBD (see attached image).

Recent OSC Student GIS work

Support from Local Contacts

OSC’s GIS initiatives continue to enjoy support for several key Colombo-based players. The International Water Management Institute’s (IWMI) GIS lab has been our main resource. They provide us with technical guidance and share public data that can be used for student learning. Their Water Data Portal is an important source of publically available spatial data.

Dr. Ajith Gunawadena at the Central Environment Authority’s Research and Development (GIS) unit  has become a good friend. He has helped me understand the ways in which the CEA and other government agencies are using GIS to tackle a range of national challenges. He helped guide the production of district level spatial databases (resource profiles).

I have developed good relations at the Sri Lankan Forest Department. Their GIS unit is working on updating the forestry map of Sri Lanka (last completed in 2010) and I have had a chance to see how they are using remoted sensed imagery to inventory different types of forest cover. The best way to access their basic forest data is on the FAO-sponsored REDD+ National Forest Monitory System portal. At the invitation of Anura Sathurasinghe, several of our DP2 students and I participated in the recently held 27th Asia Pacific Forestry Commission meetings here in Colombo.

Colombo is now growing rapidly and this has given students an opportunity to study process of urbanization and urban environments first hand. The port city project, still controversial but speeding ahead, is moving at a rapid pace. While the Urban Development Authority used to be the key agency for getting urban data, the Western Region Megapolis Planning Project  now seems to be the main agency with data and information about Colombo’s urban projects. Master plans are available on their website for download.

SL Survey Department Developments

The Sri Lankan Survey Department continues to be a remarkable government agency that supports geographic teaching and learning in the country. I have always appreciated their open view to public access to maps and spatial data. At the GIS Day 2017 event several of their team members spoke about developments at the SLSD. Sarath Jayatilaka and N. Wijeyanayake, traced the historical development of mapping at the department. Mr. Sivanantharajah bought the audience up to date with new developments in remote sensing including the use of lidar to generate highly accurate elevation models. The Survey Department is at work on a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) platform but this is expected to be another six months or a year before it is unveiled to the public. Meanwhile some of their maps and data can be viewed on an interactive portal and their land information system. What would be nice is if Sri Lanka’s larger neighbors would be willing to learn from the island nation’s open approach to making spatial data and maps available to the public to improve overall geographic knowledge and understanding!

Accessing Population, Development, Environmental, Energy & Poverty Data

When addressing core concepts of the Geography and ES&S syllabi there are now an amazing variety of map-based data portals to access up-to-date statistical data.

  • I have been using the Washington DC-based Population Reference Bureau data tables to study and analyze population patterns for nearly 20 years in my teaching and they now are accompanied by interactive map portal.
  • World Resources is sponsoring a useful Data portal on deforestation called the Global Forest Watch. Their data is built on a Google Earth Engine
  • World Bank data, a leading source of data on economic development and poverty, can be found on their data portal. DP1 students made an important discovery when they accessed the Interactive Bangladesh Map. We were able to download the GIS-ready data and then view and manipulate it in an ArcGIS environment. I understand that they will be doing similar sites for country and global data.
  • For data on the Himalayan region ICMOD maintains the Mountain Geoportal.
  • The Sri Lanka Census & Statistics department has always been a good source of data. They now have an interactive geoportal to access some of this data. It is layered on an Openstreet base map.

PAST GIS BLOG POSTS

REFERENCES FOR GIS TEACHING & LEARNING (2017 Update)

Bolstad, Paul. GIS Fundamentals: A First Text on Geographic Information Systems, Fifth Edition. Acton, MA,Xanedu, 2016. Print. Web Resource Link, (GIS lessons).

Brown, Clint and Christian Harder Eds. The ArcGIS Imagery Book: New View. New Vision. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press. 2016. Print (Web version).

ESRI. Advancing STEM Education with GIS. Redlands, CA. 2012.   Web.

ESRI. K-12 Education portal. Web.

Harder, Christian and Clint Brown, Eds. The ArcGIS Book, 2nd Edition. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press. 2017. WebPDF.

Jensen, John R. Introductory Digital Image Processing: A Remote Sensing Perspective, 4th Edition. Glenview, IL: Pearson GIS, 2016. Print.

Keranen, Kathyrn & Lyn Malone. Instructional Guide for the ArcGIS Book. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, 2016. Print (Web version).

Kimerling, A. Jon. et al. Map Use, Eighth Edition. Redlands, ESRI Press, 2016. Print. Web Link. Review by Daniel G. Cole.

O’ Connor, Peter. GIS for A-level geography. Geographical Association/ESRI, 2008. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2017-12-01 at 11:39 pm

Mannar: Far Corner of Sri Lanka

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Baobab on the north shore of Mannar.

Off the Grid (OTG), OSC’s outdoor and adventure club explores different corners of Sri Lanka seeking adventure, new destinations and fresh opportunities to learn from our host country. In October we took a three-day visit to the island of Mannar on Sri Lanka’s west coast. The low lying, bone-dry island is steeped in myth but distant from the well-worn tourist track of most visitors. Mannar is most often visited by birdwatchers looking for flamingos and wintering birds (see my post from March 2017). On this trip, OTG was looking for opportunities to build a relationship with a local NGO engaged in mangrove and coral reef conservation.

We originally had a large group signed up but, in the end, only three students joined the trip. Theo from DP2, Madeleine from DP1 and MYP3 student Lenny. Kamilla Sahideen, the other OTG faculty leader, joined us and we were driven by Anthony who is fluent in three languages and one of the best drivers that the school hires. The Recycling & Sustainability service group (represented by Lenny and myself) and Reefkeepers (represented by Madeleine) were particularly interested in how a small community was dealing with solid waste management and coral reef conservation.

Tantirimalai_Buddha_1b(11_17)

Tantirimale Buddha.

Getting to Mannar was a significant part of the adventure and we had stops at Negombo, Tantirimale, Madhu, and Vankalai sanctuary on the way up. On the island we had an opportunity to visit the historic fort, the grave site of Adam & Eve, Talaimannar pier and the last point of land before Adams bridge. Each of these places is interesting in their own way-for me it was the living mythology of the location that stood out. In Mannar we stayed at the Four Tees guest house, a place well known to birders. They have reasonable rates and the owner Laurence is friendly, hospitable and surely one of the most knowledgeable hoteliers on the island. Our meals were simple (but scrumptious) and mostly taken at Mannar’s City Hotel and other road- side eating joints. Out visit coincided with the onset of the North East (Winter) monsoon and the showers that we experienced were beginning to fill up tanks and ponds that are dry for most of the year. In this arid, near desert part of the island, the relief for people and wildlife was palatable.

Vidataltivu_abandoned_house_PAN_1(11_17)

In Vidataltivu

The focus of our trip was to spend time in a small village, Vidataltivu, located off of the Mannar-Jaffna road. Vidataltivu’s location in an area once trapped in the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and LTTE is still haunting. Many of its buildings, built with generous quantities of cement in an art deco style during the 1960s, lie abandoned and empty. There are signs of normalcy returning in the active fishing harbor but the town seems far short of full recovery. The Vidataltivu Ecotourism Society (VETS) is a small organization that was started to help protect the area’s mangroves, sea grass beds and coral reefs from unsustainable fishing practices. They are composed of a handful of young people who have worked with their neighbors to protect the area. UNDP has helped to support their efforts and worked with the community in fixing up the fishing harbor’s docks, providing VETS with a boat and sponsoring various capacity building exercise. Santhiapillai Augustine was out contact from UNDP who helped try to line up the permissions. Edison, one of their leaders now works with the DCW while working on a graduate degree in Ruhuna University and worked to help facilitate our visit.

Because this was formerly in territory controlled by the LTTE there is a strong SL Navy presence in Vidataltivu. Their base at the edge of the Vidataltivu harbor blends in with the surroundings and it is a non-threatening arrangement from the point of view of a visitor. The harbor is active with fishing boats who specialize in catching crabs just off shore. However, the Navy’s concerns about security have made it very difficult for tourists to take short rides into the water from the harbor. The jurisdiction of the coastal area has recently been transferred to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). I had worked in the weeks before our trip to get the necessary permissions and we came with written permission to conduct a study tour from the DWC. We thought that our group might be allowed to visit both the mangrove and the coral reef. In the end, we were only able to see the mangrove and will have to wait to visit the reef on a future visit.

Our trip was much too short but it did allow for us to get a sense of Mannar, Vidataltivu and the surrounding area. In general, I think all of us were impressed with the serene beauty of the low lying island, the palmyra trees, lagoons and infinite horizons. People were friendly and gracious in our interactions. We were, however, dismayed to observe large quantities of plastic waste on the roadsides, lagoons and beaches: it is clear that issues of non-biodegradable solid domestic waste pose a serious challenge for the citizens of Mannar. Some of this waste may be coming over the sea but most of the waste that we saw (broken buckets, plastic bags, shoes, wrappers and water bottles) that was on roadsides and near to Mannar’s human settlements. It is of course a problem felt at a national and global scale and Mannar is not alone in this challenge. On the positive side, I was happy that Laurence the proprietor of Four Tees welcomed us and then politely reminded us not to bring any plastic whatsoever into his premise.

As we were heading back to Colombo we stopped by the Mannar salterns and were treated to a sighting of the Greater flamingos-about 60 of them who are apparently resident all year long.  OTG looks forward to returning to Mannar to build on the relationships that were started on this visit.

Greater flamingos taking flight near Mannar town. These are apparently a resident group of about 60 individuals.

 

Google My Maps showing trip route and significant points.

 

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

Gnanam, Amrith. Discover Mannar Sri Lanka. Colombo: Palmyrah House, 2017. Print.

Naraikadu- The Grey Forest

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Amy accompanies a Dhonavur sister on a walk through the community campus.

In a few weeks the Dhonavur Fellowship will celebrate 100 years of Naraikadu-the grey forest in the southernmost Western Ghats that they have been the guardians of for the last century. I have had the privilege of being their guest and visiting Naraikadu with Dhonavur communities on several occasions. This week to help mark the event and acknowledge the unique conservation effort by non-state actors and citizens working with the Forest Department I have contributed a short photo-essay and narrative on Naraikadu in Frontline, the respected newsmagazine of the Hindu newspaper group.

Fronline Screen Grab

The association that I have with Naraikadu is very personal. Over the last 25 years I have been fortunate to make several visits to Dhonavur, Naraikadu and parts of the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) with my friends in the community. I first wrote to David Rajamanian in 1995 about visiting. Through his sons Jerry and Ezekiel and their families I got to know the area and its history and made my first visits to Naraikadu. We have taken unforgettable journeys into the area, notably two epic journeys to Pothigai (Agasthyamalai) in 2002 and we are planning further forays into this little understood area of the Western Ghats. I have also had a chance to take several members of my family there including my wife Raina who fell in love with Nariakadu after cursing me on the hike up (with good reason-she was carrying 1.5 year old Lenny on her back). When our daughter Amy Zopari was born 11 years ago we named her in honor of Amy Carmichael in recognition for her remarkable personality and dedication to the wilderness area of Naraikadu.

Earlier this year, during our April Sinhala and Tamil New Year break, Amy accompanied me on a week-long adventure to Kodai, Dhonavur and Naraikadu. The season of heat had set in on southern India and the area was experiencing a severe drought. The highlight was a three-day hike to Naraikadu. It was this visit and the experience of taking Amy back (she had visited on two prior occasions) that set in motion the conversations that led to the article being written. You can read the full article on Frontline’s website.

The photo essay in the Frontline article utilizes a variety of evolving camera technology: there are 6×6 black & white film and digital SLR pictures but most of the key images were taken on a phone. I created two maps of the area for the article. The first shows elevation and utilizes high resolution digital elevation models and Swiss shade tints in ArcGIS. There was too much information in it for the article so I simplified it. The first map is  included here.

The physical geography of the area plays an important part in the story of Narikadu. To understand the southernmost Western Ghats one needs to appreciate the diversity of geography and consequently ecosystem diversity that exists in a relatively small area. The Tirunelveli plains are flat and separated from the wet western coast of Kerala by the rugged Ashambu ranges of the Western Ghats.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Carmichael, Amy. Lotus Buds. Dhonavur, India: 1909.  Web version on Gutenberg

Ganesh, T. et al. Treasures on Tiger Tracks: A Bilingual Nature Guide to Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Bangalore, ATREE 2009. Print. Web Link.

Gazetteer of the Tinnevelly District. Madras 1917. Web.

Johnsingh, A.J.T. “The Kalakad–Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve: A global heritage of biological diversity.” Current Science. February 2001. Web.

Johnsingh, A.J.T. Walking the Western Ghats. Mumbai: BNHS & Oxford, 2015. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Kanyakumari and the Ashumbas in the South West Monsoon (Part 1)” July 2010. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Kanyakumari and the Ashumbas in the South West Monsoon (Part 2)” July 2010. Web.

Updates to High Range Photography

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Old (2007) and New (2017) versions of High Range Photography.

Over the last several months I have been working at overhauling the www.highrangephotography.com website that showcases my fine art photography and published work. The website was originally designed in 2006 and went live on January 1st 2007. Over the last 10 years much has changed: most significantly, while still working in black & white, I have shifted to digital tools and no longer use film and a wet darkroom. The focus of my work remains South Asian ecology, landscape, conservation and culture with a focus on the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. Web design has become more sophisticated but easier to do for non-design novices like me. People are using larger, high definition monitors so small images just don’t cut it anymore. It was the right time for a change on the site.

The Colombo-based web design company Vesses, led by Prabhath Sirisena and Lankitha Wimalarathna, had helped me set up the original website back in 2006. We designed the pages to be minimalist and to highlight the photography. Most of the images were black & white low resolution scans of 8×10 prints. Vesses was an excellent team to work with and it was natural to go back to them to help with the updated content on an overhauled website. There efforts were led by Amila Sampath over the last year.

  • For the 2017 changes, Vesses once again helped me out with ideas and setting up templates and the layouts. My goal was to be able to learn how to make a necessary changes myself. WordPress has a great platform to work with but it did take tinkering and some basic coding to get the pages to look like what I had visualized. There are several news changes:
  • The Galleries have been overhauled and updated with new content at a larger, higher resolution. I rescanned many of the images from the original 6×6 and 6×12 negatives.  Several important galleries (Bangladesh, for example) are still in the process of being updated.
  • There is a new Stories tab to highlight in-depth photo-essays and writing on themes from the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka. These are built on a WordPress template similar to what was used by NIF to present my panchromatic to multispectral photo story (metamorphosis of a landscape) in 2016.
  • The Blog page has thumbnails of recant blog posts using a RSS link (featuring content from this WordPress Blog page).
  • The About page combines the old Biography and Technique pages
  • A new page about Exhibitions has been added.
  • I redrafted the logo and had it converted into a vector image to use as a watermark on new content. An exploration of the site will give you a good sense of the view that inspired my sketches that I used to draw the logo.
  • I plan to use the site to highlight geospatial work that I have been learning about and experimenting with. I have started adding simple Google maps to the Stories but hope to have either ESRI maps or OpenStreetMaps embedded in the near future.
  • The Sales page has been taken out (at last until I can set up a better printing and marketing system)

To accompany the website changes I have also set up a Facebook page and I have a Twitter account (that I struggle to find time to use).

High Range Photography Facebook page (click on image to access page)

Written by ianlockwood

2017-10-23 at 8:06 pm

Glimpses of Polonnaruwa

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Polonnaruwa Vadatage as seen from the west side in late afternoon light. (October 2016)

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa offers visitors glimpses into Sri Lanka’s rich lithic history. Set alongside the large man-made tank Parakrama Samudra in the north Central part of the island, Polonnaruwa is one of the great ancient cities of Sri Lanka. King Parakramabahu (1123-1186) is thought to have been responsible for much of the enormous sculptures, temples, dagobas, palaces and other buildings that were once part of a thriving cosmopolitan city. . After upheaval and invasion the city was abandoned in 1293. Nature took over and it was not until the 19th Century that the Polonnaruwa’s sublime treasures and architecture were revealed by the nascent Ceylon Department of Archeology.Joseph Lawton, a British photographer based in Kandy in the mid to late 19th Century, documented Polonnaruwa before it was being excavated and restored to what we now appreciate (see the album of his images courtesy of the Victoria a& Albert Museum below).

Our family has visited Polonnaruwa on several different occasions. On our first visit in January 2006 I used medium format cameras and black & white film to photograph the notable points of interest. In October 2016 we made a short visit to the area as we explored major site and places off the beaten track in the Cultural Triangle. Reflecting the change in technology my 2016 images were all taken with a DSLR camera and phone. While the restoration activity of several site at Polonnaruwa is of a high caliber it has also involved the controversial erection of steel roofing over key monuments, notably the Gal Vihara. These structures change the ambiance and impose a modern veneer on the original rock cut carvings.

Reflection of the Polonnaruwa lion at the king’s council chambers.

Seated Buddha at Gal Vihara (“stone shrine”); rightly considered to be one the finest examples of Buddhist rock sculptures. (October 2016).

Gale Vihara cave Buddha. Study from two slits in the bars with an 85 mm lens. October 2016.

The colossal recumbent Buddha hewn from the granite bedrock in the 9th Century CE at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa. See Joseph Lawton’s image from 1870 to get a sense for the original setting prior to it being protected by scaffolding.(October 2016).

Mirror study of the Polonnaruwa Vadatage moonstone facing north. (October 2016)

Study of Polonnaruwa Vadatage (south) guard stone in evening light.

Vadatage at Medirigiriya, as seen from the south side. This stunning archeological monument and site of spiritual importance is slightly off the beaten track in the Polonnaruwa vicinity. It dates back to between the 7th Century CE.

SACRED SPACES BLOG POSTS

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

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

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

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

 

SELECTED REFERENCES

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

Dhammika, Ven S. “Polonnaruwa.” 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.

Lankapura: Historic Images of Ceylon. Web.

Neranjana, Gunetilleka et al. Sigiriya and Beyond. Back of Beyond Sigiriya: Colombo, 2016. Print.

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

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

Victoria & Albert Museum. Joseph Lawton’s Polonnaruwa Images from 1870. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2017-03-30 at 8:10 pm

A Season of Birds in Sri Lanka- Mannar

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Flight of Greater flamingos (P roseus) at Vankalai Sanctuary near Mannar.

Flight of Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) at Vankalai Sanctuary near Mannar.

Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus rosesus) and visitors. The larger numbers- in the thousands-were behind me in the glare of sunlight.

Greater flamingos and visitors. The larger numbers- in the thousands-were behind me in the glare of sunlight.

For a relatively small island Sri Lanka has a number of different landscapes, each of them hosting diverse assemblages of life and rich cultural traditions. The island of Mannar on the north west coast is a place that is quite different from the wet forest of the Central Highlands and southern ranges that feature prominently in this blog. The land is low, barely a few meters above sea level, the climate is exceedingly dry and the area is sparsely populated (with humans). Other then the rich layers of Mannar’s history, now mostly lost in sand and surf, or the quirky feral donkeys that wander the streets, it is the non-human migrants that draw visitors up to this isolated corner of Sri Lanka.

I first heard stories of Mannar from my father who used to cross with his family to Rameshwaram from the pier at Talimannar. Prior to flight availability in the 1950s (initially in war-surplus DC-3s) and later the protracted conflict in Sri Lanka (1983-2009), the ferry service offered one of the easiest ways to get between Sri Lanka and India. It is a short journey across to Rameshwaram (there were unverified stories of people swimming over to watch a film and return the same day!). These were the sort of romantic stories, as well as those of shipwrecks, pirates and pearl divers that I grew up with. In 1984 my father Merrick, brother Brian, school friend Kevin and I had tried to explore the coral-fringed islands near Rameshwaram, but by then the political situation had deteriorated and we made little progress in exploring beyond the famous temple town.

Of course, the history goes far, far back to mythological times when Hanuman’s monkey army helped build a sea bridge (Ram Situ) from Rameshwaram across to Lanka to battle Ravana and rescue Sita. Those shoals in the Palk Straits, Adam’s Bridge, are still there as the maps below illustrate. There have occasionally been disputes about their origins and satellite imagery has been used to prove supporting and counter claims. At the moment the ferry is history and the sand banks and tiny islands of Adam’s Bridge are quiet. It is difficult to get out to Adam’s Bridge because of the international boundary and contemporary fishing controversies between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. Mannar island, however, is a destination that has few restrictions. There is a crumbling Dutch-era fort, scattered Baobab trees, long quiet beaches and little else to see unless you are into birds…

Birds are what took my kids and me up to Mannar on our first visit in 2016. The shallow mud flats and saline lakes between the mainland and Mannar attract large numbers of wintering birds. In fact, Mannar and in particular Vankalai sanctuary, must be one of the best places in Sri Lanka to observe waders, water fowl and -if you are lucky- some of the thousands of flamingos that fly in to spend several months in the area. In 2016 the kids and I had a wonderful introductory trip along with the Duncan family. We got a sense of the area’s geography and enjoyed seeing many different birds. I’m still a bit of novice when it comes to identifying water birds and I was happy to have Will Duncan’s expert guidance identifying the myriad birds that we were seeing. In early 2016 there were no flamingos that made it south of the Jaffna lagoons. But by the end of year they had arrived in the thousands, prompting the necessity of a visit.

I returned with Lenny to photograph the flamingos that had returned en masse this year. I had been alerted by Sadeepa Gunawardana, a very talented Colombo-based wildlife photographer, of the opportunities to see the flamingos in Mannar. A poya three day weekend earlier this month provided the window that we needed to do the six hour drive up. In Vankalai we spent time with the Department of Wildlife Conservation guide Irfan to get a sense of the location and where best to go for early morning photography. Several other groups of Sri Lankan birders and photographers were also staying at Four Trees. The owner, Laurence is an outstanding and knowledgeable local resource who was clued into all the places to see birds. The food (Sri Lankan prawn curries etc.) was delicious and clearly this was the place to be to swap stories and share advice. Lenny and I had two days of good birding and photography. We started early (4:45 am), waded through lagoon sand and mud and waited in a hide for the light to illuminate the masses of pink and white. It was an amazing experience though I learned that it is quite tricky to get close to flamingos without them being disturbed. All in all it was a fulfilling trip and my next task is to plan a field study around some of the ecological and human interaction issues in Mannar.

 

GIS-generated map of the Mannar area.

GIS-generated map of the Mannar area. Double (or triple) click for larger A3 version.

Landa nd surface cover study of Mannar island based on a Landsat image from January 2016. Double click on image for larger A3 version.

Land and surface cover study of Mannar island based on a Landsat image from January 2016. Double click on image for larger A3 version.

Sunrise at Vankalai Bird Sanctuary (January 2016)

Crimson sun at Vankalai Bird Sanctuary (January 2016)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Birdlife International Asia. Web.

Birds Guide for Vankalai. Vankalai Bird Society. ND. Pamphlet.

de Livera, Lankika. “Haven for birds in war-ravaged Mannar: Vankalai declared a sanctuary.” The Sunday Times. 24 January 2009. Web.

Hettiarachchi, Kumudini. “ A cry from the wilds of Mannar.” The Sunday Times. 26 June 2016. Web.

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

Pethiyagoda, Rohan. “An Electric End to Vankalai Sanctuary?” Daily Mirror. 6 June 2016. Web.

Vankalai to be a Sanctuary. The Sunday Island. 21 January 2009. Web.

Warakagoda, Deepal et al. Birds of Sri Lanka. London: Christopher Helm, 2012. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2017-02-28 at 9:55 pm

Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands WWW Experience 2017

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Afternoon composite view of Sri Pada from Horton Plains National Park.

Afternoon composite view of Sri Pada from Horton Plains National Park.

Last week during the surprising, but welcome, return of monsoon conditions OSC’s secondary school set out across our island home to experience Sri Lanka as part of the annual Week Without Walls program. Students and teachers spent the week learning in unconventional classrooms that emphasized Sri Lankan culture, history and ecology as well as service and outdoor education. I had the privilege of leading a modest-sized group of MYP5/DP1 travelers on a circuitous tour of the Central Highlands. The learning focus of this “microtrip” was on photo documentation to better understand the ecology and landscape of Sri Lanka’s mountainous interior.

Aerial image of montane forest canopy at @ 1,000 meters.

Montane forest canopy at @ 1,300 meters near to Belihuloya.

Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii) a rare winter visitor to Sri Lanka. Photographed at Nuwara Eliya’s Victoria Park feeding on a tree () that is also found in the Western Ghats.

Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii) a rare winter visitor to Sri Lanka. Photographed at Nuwara Eliya’s Victoria Park feeding on a tree () that is also found in the Western Ghats.

This is the third year that I have led the Highlands WWW experience. Once again we had a group of enthusiastic students who didn’t’ mind getting up early or living in somewhat primitive conditions while we were on the adventure. We spent the first night in tents at Belhihuloya followed by two nights in a basic dormitory on the Horton Plains plateau. Our final night was spent in comfort in Nuwara Eliya where students and teachers were able to clean up, use their phones, eat well and then participate in several frog and bird outings. A wet snap caused by a low-pressure system in the Bay of Bengal gave us rain (and precious little sunlight) on almost every day. We were able to do almost all the walks but were not able to hike to Kirigalpotta because of wet and windy conditions. I used the extra time to go deeper into the ecology of HPNP and teach photographic skills to the group. All the students brought functioning cameras and they were able to experiment with composition, lighting and photographing lizards, birds and moving water. Joshua, an MYP5 student, got several impressive night shots during a rare clearing of the night skies above Mahaeliya bungalow in HPNP.

From a biodiversity spotting point of view we did well. This year we saw and photographed both the Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii) and Pygmy (Cophotis ceylanica) in HPNP. While in Nuwara Eliya we did the wonderful frog walk with Ishanda Senevirathna. Aside from some of the usual endemic species we spotted the Nest Frog (Pseudophillauts femoralis) that we had not seen last year. Bird-wise the whole group got to see the rare winter visiting Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii) in Nuwara Eliya’s Vitoria Park. At HPNP we saw the Dull Blue Flycatcher (Eumyias sordida), SL Whiteeye (Zosterops ceylonensis), SL Wood Pigeon (Columba torringtoniae), plenty of Yellow Eared Bulbuls (Pycnonotus penicillatus) and several other species. On a damp, misty hike up Totupola Kanda (Sri Lanka’s 3rd highest peak at 2,360 m), we came across at least three different piles of leopard scat and observed scratch marks on tree bark!

One of the new developments this year was to use a drone to better view some of the areas that we were visiting. There were rules against using it in HPNP but we were able to do an excellent series of flights over forest near Lanka Ella falls. The Phantom 3 recorded some amazing scenes of the forest canopy with a new flush of leaves. DP1 student Anaath Jacob did the piloting while I directed the forest sequences. I am now learning how to pilot the drone and look forward to better understanding forest landscapes using this important new tool.

Up close and personal to a female sambar (Rusa unicolor) deer in Horton Plains. They have become habituated to people thanks to the propensity of visitors feeding them (against park regulations).

Up close and personal to a female sambar (Rusa unicolor) deer in Horton Plains. They have become habituated to people thanks to the propensity of visitors feeding them (against park regulations).

Endemic cloud forest lizaed species from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. Left (& possibly center): the Pygmy lizard (Cophotis ceylanica). Right: the Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii).

Endemic cloud forest lizaed species from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. Left (& possibly center): the Pygmy lizard (Cophotis ceylanica). Right: the Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii).

Cloud forest on Pidurutalagala (Sri Lanka’s highest peak) .

Cloud forest on Pidurutalagala (Sri Lanka’s highest peak) .

Pseudophillauts femoralis, a rare endemic shrub frog from Sri Lanka’s cloud forest. Identification courtesy of Ishanda Senevirathna of St. Andrew’s.

Pseudophillauts femoralis, a rare endemic shrub frog from Sri Lanka’s cloud forest. Identification courtesy of Ishanda Senevirathna of St. Andrew’s.

More diversity from the Highlands WW: Montane Hourglass Frog (Taruga eques), fungi (Phallus indusiatus) at Belihuloya and the endemic Yellow Eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus penicillatus) in Nuwara Eliya.

More diversity from the Highlands WW: Montane Hourglass Frog (Taruga eques), fungi (Phallus indusiatus) at Belihuloya and the endemic Yellow Eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus penicillatus) in Nuwara Eliya.

2017 WWW group at (Left) Baker’s falls in Horton Plains and (right) on the 2nd day on the way to Lanka Ella falls.

2017 WWW group at (Left) Baker’s falls in Horton Plains and (right) on the 2nd day on the way to Lanka Ella falls.

2017 Sri Lanka Highlands WWW group photographed at the strange telephone booth in Horton Plains National Park. Note the dry grass-a result of a severe drought and failed North East Monsoon in the months prior to our arrival.

2017 Sri Lanka Highlands WWW group photographed at the strange telephone booth in Horton Plains National Park. Note the dry grass-a result of a severe drought and failed North East Monsoon in the months prior to our arrival.

 

PAST WWW TRIPS

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

De Silva, Anslem. The Diversity of Horton Plains National Park. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2007. Print.

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

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

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