Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

A Song of the Sholicola

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Sholicola_albiventris_at_BS_singing_1a(MR)(04)18)

Sholicola albiventris singing in Bombay Shola, Palani Hills. Photographed with a D-800 and 600 f/4 lens. (April 2018).

South India’s shola forests (and their companion grasslands mosaic habitat) continue to be a source of hydrological importance, a site for scientific investigation and a place for sheer wonder. The clumps of moist evergreen forest that were historically found in the folds and deep valleys of the highest ranges of the Western Ghats are recognized for hosting startling biodiversity. We know from various studies that the lofty highlands of the Western Ghats were isolated from lower areas by altitude and rugged geography for long periods of time. It is not surprising then that a host of species evolved unique to these “sky islands.”*

There are several notable species that are confined to sholas and whose populations are closely allied to healthy shola habitat. The White Bellied Blue Robin (Sholicola albiventris), formerly known as the White Bellied Shortwing (Myiomela albiventris), is a Western Ghats endemic bird species that perhaps best reflects the state of healthy sholas. I’ve been watching and listening to the bird for several decades and this short post highlights a few facets about Sholicola albiventris, provides some background reading and shares a portfolio of images that I have been working on for several years.

Sholicola albiventris tends to be a sulky bird that spends its time in dark thickets of the shola understory. It can be difficult to spot since it has dark features and is usually only active at dusk and dawn. Novice bird watchers would be forgiven for confusing it with the Nilgiri flycatcher (Eumyias albicaudatus) or White Belleid Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis pallidipes)-both have which have overlapping habitats/ranges. The musical songs of the Sholicola albiventris, (mixed in with calls of laughing thrushes, scimitar babblers, barbets, jungle fowl and other birds) in the early mornings is a defining feature of sholas at certain times of the year. I have observed and listened to Sholicola albiventris singing incessantly in the sholas of the Palani Hills in the months before the monsoon. It is also found in adjoining gardens in settlement areas-as illustrated by some of the images in this post. According to scientists studying Sholicola albiventris, the Palani Hills individuals seem to call at times different than other populations (in the High Range and Anamalais). Could the onset of the monsoon and the fact that the Palani hills are in the rain shadow of the South West Monsoon play a role in this behavior?

When speaking of the White Bellied Blue Robin, it impossible to not mention the long-term work of V.V. Robin. It is a happy coincidence that Robin bears the name of the bird that he has worked so hard to study and better understand. Robin is an evolutionary biologist with an in interest in biogeography and conservation initiatives, especially in the southern Western Ghats. He frequently collaborates with his wife Nandini Rajamani (see links below). I had the good fortune to bump into Robin in the Carin Hill shola in the Nilgiri Hills many years ago-he was collecting DNA specimens and I was trying to see what would later be renamed as the Nilgiri Blue Robin (Sholicola major). Robin is now an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education & Research (IISER) Tirupati. He was the key person that organized a disparate group, including this author, to map grasslands in the Palani Hills (see PLOS for our article). Robin’s work on the biogeography of the White Bellied Shortwing, using genetic data, led to a split in the original species into three different species. His list of publications, some of which are included below, illustrates his prodigious efforts.

Sholicola albiventris in a garden adjoining Bombay Shola (April 2017).Photographed with a D-800 and 600 f/4 lens. (April 2018).

Looking for Sholicola albiventris and other shola species in the heart of Bombay Shola.

*Sky Islands is a term first used in the south West United States and defined as “isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments.” The concept has appropriate relevance to the high Western Ghats (from approximately 1,500-1,800 to 2,695m) and has been used in popular, as well as scientific publications. I was first introduced to the concept by V.V. Robin through conversations and his website. The INTACH book on the Palani Hills utilized the term and our friend Prasenjeet has incorporated it into his August 2017 National Geographic article and photo essay.

 

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

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

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

Montanari, Shaena (& Prasenjeet Yadav). “Breathtaking Sky Islands Showcase Evolution In Action.” National Geographic. 11 August 2017. Web.

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

Robin, V.V. and R. Nandini. “Shola habitats on sky islands: status of research on montane forests and grasslands in southern India.” Current Science. December 2012. Print & Web.

Robin, V.V. Anindya Sinha and Uma Ramakrishnan. “Ancient Geographical Gaps and Paleo-Climate Shape the Phylogeography of an Endemic Bird in the Sky Islands of Southern India.” PLOS One. October 2010. Web.

Robin VV et al. “Two new genera of songbirds represent endemic radiations from the Shola Sky Islands of the Western Ghats, India.” BMC Evolutionary Biology. January 2017. Web.

2017 Taxonomy update for Indian birds. E-Bird. 24 August 2017. Web.

 

Striated Heron at Beddagana

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Striated heron (Butorides striata) in morning light on the edge of parliament lake.

Colombo’s wetlands, as especially the ones that surround Sri Lanka’s parliament in Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, continue to provide a fine place for birdwatching and ecological teaching and learning. This post highlights the Striated Heron (Butorides striata) which I have had the chance to photograph at Beddagana Wetland Park over the last month. The species is associated with wetlands and mangrove habits where it feeds on small aquatic and marine creatures. There are close similarities between the Striated Heron and the Green Heron (Butorides virescens) found across North America. The striated heron is not easily seen in our wetlands, but I have observed it more than the Cinnamon and Black Bitterns which are both found in similar wetland habitats. Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lists it as “an uncommon resident”. Professor Kotagama categorizes the same species as the “Green-backed Heron” in his recently published Birds of Sri Lanka: An Illustrated Guide.

Lenny on an early morning birding and Odonata walk on the Beddagana walkway

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The Striated Heron (Butorides striata) in the midst of a hunt. Taken from quite a distance (@50 meters) at Beddagana.

 

REFERENCES

ARKive. “Striated heron (Butorides striata).” Web.

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

Lockwood, Ian. “Teaching & Learning in Colombo’s Suburban Wetlands.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2016. Web.

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

Ryder, Craig. “The Growing Importance of Colombo’s Shrinking Wetlands.” Roar. 2 February 2018. Web.

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

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

 

Written by ianlockwood

2018-04-01 at 7:35 pm

Geospatial Teaching & Learning 2018

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Geospatial Teaching & Learning website home page featuring a  Landsat image of one of my favorites areas-the Sundarban. Processed by the author using raw NASA tiles in an ARCGIS environment. Click on the image to access the website and PDFs of presentation folders.

In February, the American School of Bombay held its regional technology conference and workshop ASB Unplugged. The three days of presentations, interactive sessions and discussions gave me a chance to observe and check in on a school well known for into innovative use of technology in the classroom. I participated in the event and was also presented my workshop entitled: Geospatial Teaching & Learning: Opportunities, Applications and Ideas for International Educators. The workshop offered an opportunity to review recent developments in the fields of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) & Remote Sensing (RS) with a special emphasis on potential applications for international school teachers. Geospatial fields continue to experience rapid changes as technology develops, data become cheaper and more assessable and software is easier to use. That is good news for educators interesting in incorporating geospatial applications in their classrooms.

There were several themes that were updated or new in this workshop:

  • Story Telling With Maps: One of the most useful aspects of the workshop focuses on how interactive stories based on maps and imagery are a great way to highlight the cases studies that are central to the teaching of DP Geography. These can be viewed but can also be created by students and teachers as a means of developing knowledge about case studies that are not well publicized. ESRI’s Storymaps and Google’s Tour Builder are two excellent web based options.
  • OpenStreetMap offers opportunities for students and teachers to get involved in mapping their own neighborhoods in a wiki-based global mapping project. Users can then access this spatial data and a vast treasure trove of vector data that has been contributed by users all over the world, as a part of a local-based research project.
  • New Data Sources: I highlighted some of the emerging sources for spatial data. On the workshops companion site I have a long list of data options and surely there are numerous other sites that I have missed. These are global in outlook but there is a focus on South Asian geography issues. I shared the exciting emergency of Planet, a US-based company that has a constellation of 150+ micro satellites that are imaging the earth and providing daily data on almost all areas of the earth. I first read about the Planet Dove program in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic. The data that I downloaded during the 14-day trial period is impressive with four bands and 3m spatial resolution. I am using the data for projects that we have to map Colombo’s wetlands. You can acquire premium commercial Digital Globe imagery at 30-70cm cm spatial resolution but it is expensive and I have not yet been able to get educational discounts through our local provider. I am working on getting an evaluation sample but for the moment this will be out of reach for most school geography programs. You can browse recent Digital Globe imagery here and of course they provide much of the imagery that you see when you zoom in on Google Earth. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel 2 satellites (through the Copernicus program) provides an excellent public service of earthy imagery that compliments what USGS and NASA have been providing. I find the best way to access Sentinel data is through the USGS’s EarthExplorer
  • Field Data Gathering With Mobile Apps: The development of mobile data gathering platforms has been a significant boon for geography and science teachers looking to collect survey data and then to enhance it with locational information. The December post highlighted how we are using Survey 123 here at OSC.
  • Mapping With Drones: Most international schools have drones as part of their maker spaces or technology departments. OSC has two that are beginning to be used, mainly for providing cool aerial perspectives of the campus and special events. I am working on using our drone to map the campus and other key study areas (wetlands, forest areas etc.). At the recently concluded GIS Users Conference I was impressed with a real-time demonstration by a Ministry of Defense R&D team to map a small area. I am working with the OSC tech team to get Drone Deploy (to pre-establish the flight path and order of images taken) and Drone2Map to create the orthomosaic or 3D model of the area.

PAST GIS BLOG POSTS

Written by ianlockwood

2018-03-27 at 8:33 pm

Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands WWW Experience 2018

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OSC’s annual Sri Lanka Central Highlands trip, was once again an experience of significance with many important group and individual learning highlights. This choice WWW learning experience is part of the broader secondary school Week Without Walls program that I have had the privilege of coordinating since its inception. OSC’s WWW program was first run in January 2010 as an outgrowth of the MYP outdoor education program (2003-2010) and has now matured into a key experiential learning highlight for all of the secondary school. Through a variety of grade-level and choice experiences there are several goals that define the program:

  • Fulfill the OSC mission statement of developing the whole person within a safe environment.
  • Expose students to our host country Sri Lanka’s culture and environment.
  • Enable opportunities for service learning and outdoor education.
  • Use Interdisciplinary Units (IDUs) to support and strengthen existing secondary curriculum (including the DP CAS program) for the benefit of student learning.

Cloud forest at Horton Plains National Park

The five-day excursion into Sri Lanka’s high elevation interior exemplified some of the best outcomes of field-based learning beyond the normal confines of a classroom. The learning focus was on using photo documentation to better understand the ecology and landscape of Sri Lanka’s mountainous interior. This year we had a smaller sized group-10 students and three of us adults to guide them. I was supported by Kamila Sahideen and Desline Attanayake who both played key roles in organization and participating in all of our activities. We also had two veteran drivers from Yamuna Travels who got us to our different destinations safely. The students were enthusiastic and cooperative as we took on new challenges every day. Accommodation for the first three nights was on the cozy-rustic side of things, but on the last night the group was treated to very comfortable rooms in Nuwara Eliya’s St. Andrew’s Jetwing hotel.

Belihuloya_hike_1(01_18)

The five-day excursion into Sri Lanka’s high elevation interior exemplified some of the best outcomes of field-based learning. The learning focus was on using photo documentation to better understand the ecology and landscape of Sri Lanka’s mountainous interior. All of the students had some sort of DSLR or point and shoot camera where they could learn basic controls and composition as we had different encounters. This year we had a smaller sized group-10 students and three of us adults to guide them. I was supported by Kamila Sahideen and Desline Attanayake who both played key roles in organization and participating in all of our activities. We also had two veteran drivers from Yamuna Travels who got us to our different destinations safely. The students were enthusiastic and cooperative as we took on new challenges every day. Accommodation for the first three nights was on the cozy-rustic side of things, but on the last night the group was treated to very comfortable rooms in Nuwara Eliya’s St. Andrew’s Jetwing hotel.

Weather in the Central Highlands is always hard to predict but this year we were blessed with classic, crisp winter conditions. There had been frost earlier in the month but by the time that we got to the high reaches of Mahaeliya bungalow in Horton Plains it was at least 10-15 degrees C° above freezing. The highlight of the time in Horton Plains was climbing the 2nd and 3rd highest mountains in Sri Lanka. Kirigalpotta (2,388 m) was the focus of a seven-hour round trip hike on Wednesday and Totupola Kanda (2,360m) was a short walk that we did on Thursday morning. For good measure we visited Sri Lanka’s highest peak Pidurutalagala (albeit by van, as walking is not allowed) on the final morning of the experience.

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Grasshopper (Orthoptera sp.?) love fest near Lanka Ella Falls on Day 2 of the Highlands experience.

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Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora_stoddartii) at Horton Plains National Park on Day 3, views from the same image file.

Encounters with biodiversity were integral to the Highlands experience. On the first day as we hiked along the Belihuloya stream we had sighting of several eagles (Black, Crested Hawk and Serpent). In Horton Plains we appreciated cloud forest flora and endemic lizards (Rhino horned and). On our final afternoon we visited Victoria Park to observe Pied Thrushes and other rare birds. That evening before dinner Ishanda Senevirathna took us on the amazing frog tour behind St. Andrew’s. The students were extra enthusiastic and we were able to see all of the six highlighted endemic species. This has become a real highlight of the highlands WWW experience, something that has been written up in Ishanda’s newly published book The Peeping Frogs of Nuwara Eliya.

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2018 Highlands group on Totupola Kanda (2,360m)  with view to Ambawella, Pidurutalagala and the north behind them.

The Horton Plains area as seen with a Planet Dove 3m multi-spectral satellite. Imagery acquired soon after our visit and then processed by the author to emphasize vegetation and land use patterns.

PAST WWW TRIPS

EXEMPLARY STUDENT CAS REFLECTIONS (HIGHLANDS)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

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

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.

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

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

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

Rock Star Crake at Diyasaru

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Ruddy-breasted Crake ((Porzana fusca) ) emerging in sunlight at the Thalawathugoda Biodiversity (Diyasaru) Park. (January 2018)

Colombo’s urban wetlands have been deservedly in the news as the world celebrates World Wetlands Day. Our local bird watching and conservation group the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) has been organizing a variety of events, with a focus on wetlands around the parliament lake area of Colombo/ Sri Jayewardenepura. The Thalawathugoda (Diyasaru) Biodiversity Park as well as the Beddagana Wetlands Park are two excellent locations in our neighborhood to appreciate urban wetlands.

The Thalawathugoda (Diyasaru) Biodiversity Park is composed of wetlands in an an area reclaimed during the process of expanding the parliament lake in Sri Jayewardenepura. The government agency tasked with its management is the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation & Development Corporation.

Coinciding with this celebration, there is one conspicuous rock star of a bird that has got all of us bird watchers and nature photographers out to appreciate the urban wetlands. The Ruddy-breasted Crake (Porzana fusca) is generally a rarely seen, shy water bird. However, for the last two months a resident individual has been on display at Thalawathugoda (Diyasaru) Biodiversity Park. I first observed the Crake on December 10th on a camera-free walk with colleagues from OSC. More than a month later after the winter holidays I returned with Lenny and we photographed it on January 21st. We saw the Crake in fairly good light but I had a faulty battery. It took me a week or more to get back with the right equipment.

On January 31st, a poya holiday, I was rewarded with lengthy opportunity to observe and photograph the crake as it went about its morning feeding routine. I was joined by several other photographers and birdwatchers on the boardwalk that passes through of water plants and over channels. The Crake came out at first light like clockwork! It seemed quite unconcerned about all the attention. People were mindful of the bird and kept their distance. Yet at certain points, the crake walked so close to the reeds at the edge of the boardwalk that our long lenses could not focus on it! Nevertheless, I came away with several pleasing images that I share here as modified, low-resolution versions.

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Ruddy-breasted Crake (Porzana fusca) in reflection at Thalawathugoda (Diyasaru) Biodiversity Park (January 2018)

 

The Slaty-breasted Rail (Gallirallus striatus) is a rare resident (or visitor) at Diyasaru. This individual was photographed at dusk in May 2017 with Will Duncan. It has not been seen as often as the Ruddy-breasted Crake.

 

REFERENCES

IWMI. “World Wetlands Day.” Web.

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

Lockwood, Ian. “Teaching & Learning in Colombo’s Suburban Wetlands.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2016. Web.

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

Ryder, Craig. “The Growing Importance of Colombo’s Shrinking Wetlands.” Roar. 2 February 2018. Web.

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

Sri Pada Field Study 2017

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Lights of the Ratnapura and Kuruwita trails from the summit of Sri Pada.

In December of 2017 OSC’s DP1 classes journeyed into the Central Highlands to explore and experience field studies in biology, physics and environmental systems & societies. These excursions are now a solidified and key learning highlight for DP science classes. The physics students looked at and experimented with hydroelectricity near Norton Bridge and the Biology class did field ecology exercises on Castlereigh Lake. Once again, I took the Environmental Systems & Societies (ES&S) group up to Peak Wilderness for a study of biodiversity and human impact. It was a very small group (three students), supported by Kamila Sahideen who was on her first visit to the sacred mountain. We enjoyed three days of learning, basic accommodation and an overnight stay at the summit of Sri Pada (this is only the second time that I have taken students on the overnight component -the last time was in December 2012).

As usual, we 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 (lowland, montane tropical forests, cloud forests)
  • Theme 3: Vertical Zonation
  • Theme 4: Biodiversity in a ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’
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Composite view looking north of Nalathani (Delhousie) and the Hatton Trail at dawn from the summit of Sri Pada. Pidurutalagala is on the horizon above clouds in the right corner. Wolfgang Werner’s book on Cloud Forest uses a view of the forest and falls to the left.

Because the group size was small this year, I consulted with the team and then made the decision to bivouac up at the summit. 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. Our hike on December 12th was in persistent rain that lasted all day. The wet conditions and abundant leeches made it difficult to stop to conduct field observations and we pretty much walked straight up to the summit at a slow, but steady pace (see Google My Map below with metadata from Strava). At the top, we were not able to get one of the few rooms that are sometimes available and instead bedded down in the pilgrim’s shelter. We were at the summit by 1:30 and so the class got to spend the afternoon taking in the rhythms of the temple in season. There was a slow stream of pilgrims and pujas but for the most part it remained relatively empty all the way until the next day.

There were several important highlights from this trip. I was treated to a 10-minute observation of a solitary otter (presumably the Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra nair) at the Fishing Hut. I had observed a group of them at twilight a few years back so it was good to see that the species still visits the area. At the summit of Sri Pada there were more moths at lights than I have ever witnessed before. Many of these would eventually perish but hundreds were hanging out on walls, rock faces and sacred cloth. Birds included Blue Magpies at the Fishing Hut and then Yellow Eared Bulbuls, Dull Blue Flycatchers, Great Tits at the Sri Pada summit. No SL Whistling Thrushes on this trip (see 2010 post for my notable encounter) but another pilgrim posted a photograph of a male on Facebook shortly after our trip. On the way, home the group enjoyed a good sighting of a Legge’s hawk-eagle in a tea plantation on the edge of Peak Wilderness.

Mosaic of moths on the summit and slopes of Sri Pada.

On the morning of December 13th I was thrilled to see the clouds clear to reveal misty valley below. The view to the east was free of clouds and when the sun came up it provided the right atmospheric conditions to produce the magical mountain shadow that is a rare, ethereal phenomenon to experience. As usual, the shadow dropped as the sun rose and soon merged with the conical mountain that had cast the light. We lingered beyond the time that most pilgrims stay on the summit,

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Composite image of the mountain shadow seen look to the west from Sri Pada’s summit. We were blessed with a fine sunrise and a clear shadow-an awe-inspiring phenomenon that is not guaranteed to pilgrims at the summit of Sri Pada.

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)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

Fernando, Sarala and Luxman Nadaraja. 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.

 

Google My Map showing our trail (collected on Strave and then exported as a GPX file)

Written by ianlockwood

2018-01-31 at 9:34 pm

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 tool for case studies and 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