Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Archive for June 2019

Sri Lanka Mountain Traverse (Part III)

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Tree ferns (Cyathea gigantean) at the Hakgala Botanical gardens. These plants with ancient features are a key part of montane ecosystems in Sri Lanka’s Central highlands as well as the Western Ghats of southern India.

The Rakwana Hills are separated from the Central Highlands by several valleys and lesser east-west ridge lines. Just above Rakwana you get a glorious view out across to Sri Pada, Horton Plains, and the dramatic southern escarpment of the Central Highlands. We drove from Suriyakanda, down to Rakwana and then to Pelmadulla, Balangoda and Belihul Oya before making the gradual ascent to Haputale-the virtual gateway to the upper Central Highlands. The geographic barrier of the lower valleys has been significant enough to lead to speciation and distinct characteristics of each habitat. Now, as we neared the half way point of our 10 day adventure, Lenny and I were eager to continue our search for the endemic amphibians, lizards and birds of the Central Highlands.

Looking north from near Handapana over Rakwana town to the distant hills of the Central Highlands.

The view at Belihul Oya: looking up to the southern escarpment of the Central Highlands and the edges of Horton Plains National Park. The steep slopes have a mix of grasses and Pinus sp. plantations.

June 15th, the view at Haputale: Looking south from the southern escarpment back over the lower plains to Hambantota and the Indian Ocean. The pilgrimage site of Katragama and its hills as well as large container ships were visible through binoculars.

Breaking for a night in Haputale (altitude: 1,400 m) we refreshed ourselves, charged camera batteries and prepared for a brief exploration of the Central Highlands. On June 14th we drove the newly paved road from Haputale to the eastern entrance to Horton Plains National Park. It crosses train tracks, meanders through densely cultivated valleys of cool-climate vegetables and then ascends steeply through eucalyptus plantations before ending up on the plateau of Horton Plains (altitude: 2,100 m). The drive, with its narrow, extremely steep approach was challenging but we made it and were rewarded with good weather and clear views out across to Hambantota and the Indian Ocean.

Arriving at the eastern edge (altitude @2,100m) of Horton Plains National Park with good views looking south.

The highlight in Horton Plains was a successful search for the endemic Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii) near the entrance. There is a Ceratophora species in each of the three ranges that we were visiting and eventually we would see and photograph two of the three. We also looked for the Pygmy lizard (Cophotis ceylanica) and the enigmatic Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush (Myophonus blighi) but were not able to find either of them. The drive to the hill station of Nuwara Eliya took us off the high plateau to a slightly lower area of rolling hills. These areas are used for dairy agriculture and the Ambawella farms has stunning fields of green with scattered cloud forest trees (notably the distinctly shaped Calolphyllum walkeri).

Mist at the Arenga pool in Horton Plains National Park.

Our two nights in Nuwara Eliya were focused on doing the night frog tours at Jetwings’ St. Andrew’s Hotel. I had told Lenny about previous tours on OSC’s WWW trips and they had been central to our plan of exploring endemism in Sri Lanka. The hotel’s naturalist Dinesh Sampath, who had provided guidance for my students in January, took us out on both nights. It was surprisingly dry-so much so that the ponds and stream had very little water in them. Nevertheless, we did well with our amphibian treasure hunting. The highlight was finding an unusual orange morph of the Leaf-nesting Frog (Pseudophilautus femoralis). As the name implies, this is usually a bright green frog but the three juveniles that Lenny found on a raspberry bush thicket had a distinctly orange coloration! We spotted the other six endemics that are normally seen on the frog tour so it was two worthwhile nights.

 

During the full day we had in Nuwara Eliya Lenny and I took a short visit to the Hakgala Botanical Gardens. It was a terrifically bright blue-sky day with crisp mountain air. Our highlight in Hakgala was having the opportunity to spend an extended period of time with the Bear Monkeys (Semnopithecus vetulus monticola) and Toque Macaques (Macaca sinica) that are resident in trees near the rose garden. Both are endemic species and it was good to check off some mammals.

An unusual morph of the Dull Green shrub Frog (Pseudophilautus viridis) at Nuwara Eliya

On June 16th we wrapped up the Central Highlands leg of our journey and headed for the final destination-the Knuckles range!

 

(to be continued in Part IV/IV)

REFERENCES (HPNP/NUWARA ELIYA)

Amphibian Survival Alliance. Web.

De Silva, Anslem. Amphibians of Sri Lanka: A Photographic Guide to Common Frogs, Toad Caecilians. Published by author, 2009. Print.

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

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. “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.  Horton Plains National Park

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.

Sri Lanka Mountain Traverse (Part IV)

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The Knuckles Range, also known as the Dumbara Hills, as seen from the east with the South West monsoon billowing up over the edges.

The Knuckles Range, also known as the Dumbara Hills, are a relative enigmatic area that was the last point on our Sri Lankan three-mountain-range traverse. Lenny and I had been on the Riverston side in October of last year with the whole family (see blogpost) but we wanted to go back with a focus on amphibians. This time, with the goal of visiting the last of the three major mountain ranges of Sri Lanka on a single journey, we planned a route that would take us to the Knuckles on a new approach.

Leaving Nuwara Eliya on a crisp morning, we drove out on the north-eastern side of Pidurutalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest peak (2,524m). Other than a crown of cloud forest, this side of the Central Highlands is heavily cultivated and populated. The road (B332) passes through Kandapola and Walapne before descending into the Mahaweli valley through the Victoria Randenigala Rantembe Sanctuary. The Randenigala dam, controlling the outflow of Sri Lanka’s longest river is a major landmark in the dry forested landscape. W the southern Mahaweli  flood plains we passed through Mahiyanganaya on posun poya and the road was crowded with families out for dansal. The surrounding area has relatively low rainfall but enjoys the fruits of the massive Mahaweli Valley irrigation system. The landscape seems to be perpetually green and gold with paddy being grown and harvested throughout the year. Driving along the plains to the east of the Knuckles, we observed dramatic activity of the south west monsoon over the hills (see B&W)cover pictures and panorama).

Knuckles_Range_&_Monsoon_from_East_3a(B&W)(MR)(06_19)

Dramatic activity of the south west monsoon over the Knuckles range north of Mahiyanganaya

The recently filled Kalu Ganga dam on the Hettipola-Rattota road.

Looking south on the steep drive up to the Pitawala Pantana and Riverston on the Hettipola-Rattota road.

Knuckles_drive_up_2(MR)(06_19)

Northern valleys of the Knuckles range as seen from the road north of Riverston.

The drive up to Riverston from Hettipola took a route around the recently flooded Kalu Ganga reservoir-Sri Lanka’s newest large hydroelectric project. The town of Pallegama, that we had driven through in October 2018, is now fully submerged. When we passed through, families were removing their last door frames, roofs and materials in anticipation of the flooding. Conditions in the exquisite dry and semi evergreen forest on the ascent were parched-the area is clearly in the rain shadow of the  Knuckles.

Once again, we enjoyed the comforts and hospitality of Sir John’s Bungalow, the small boutique hotel located just below Riverston. This was low season and, generally speaking, tourists numbers in Sri Lanka were thin as a result of the Easter Sunday bombings. But we didn’t complain about being the only guests. Nadeera Weerasinghe, the manager and super naturalist at Sir John’s, warmly welcomed us and we immediately started to plan amphibian outings.

Looking_for_Nannophrys_marmorata_Pitiwala_Pantana_1(MR)(06_19)

Lenny searching (in vain) for the rare point endemic marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata) in the Knuckles range. Conditions were simply too dry and we could not find any sign of them on this trip.

The cloud forest at Riverston provides a rich area for amphibians and reptiles. The area receives significant of rain from the South West Monsoon and is located above 1,400 meters. Riverston is named for the peak with TV transmission towers on the Ratotta-Hettipola road (B274). The saddle or ‘gap’ where the road crosses a high point is quickly becoming a local tourist point of interest and now has several temporary shops selling carbonated drinks and hot snacks. Visitors come to walk up to the towers and a few come for the biodiversity. However, the area lacks any formal conservation management and the usual issues of solid waste, noise and carelessness are growing into alarming threats to the area’s serenity. During our full day we went with Nadeera up to Riverston to look for lizards. Lenny and I were able to find several fine examples of the endemic Leaf Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii) and Nadeera tracked down a single but rather shy and difficult to photograph Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Caphotis dumbara).

Our search for amphibians was quite successful in spite of the dry conditions. We did look for Nannophrys marmorata but their stream habitat on Pitawala Panthana was almost completely dried up (a normal situation given that this was the direst time of the year at these natural grasslands). Further down the hill, Nadeera took us on a productive night outing in the dry evergreen forest with his naturalist friend Kais (KC). Notably we found two different female Hump Nosed Lizards (Lyriocephalus scutatus) and an array of intermediate zone frogs. During our 2nd and last night I went with Nadeera up to Riverston, where the forest is of course wetter and has different species. In about 90 minutes of looking we came across almost a dozen Pseudophilautus individuals including the green P. stuarti. At the time of writing I am still working on identifying the species from both of these walks.

Pseudophilautus_sp_green_Riverston_1a(MR)(06_19)

Most likely Pseudophilautus stuartii at Riverston, Knuckles.

On June 18th after ten days in the field, Lenny and I bade goodbye to the Knuckles and headed back to Colombo. Our final leg took us down the steep Ratotta valley into Matale and then over the low hills to Kurunegala. We knew that we would have to return to find our reticent Nannophrys marmorata that had kick started the search but we felt accomplished in all that we had seen, experienced and photographed.

Knuckles_dawn_upper_pan_1a(MR)(06_19)

Dawn panorama above the panthana on the road to Riverston.

REFERENCES (KNUCKLES)

Amphibian Survival Alliance. Web.

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

De Silva, Anslem. Amphibians of Sri Lanka: A Photographic Guide to Common Frogs, Toads Caecilians. Published by author, 2009. Print.

De Silva, Anslem, Ed.  The Diversity of the Dumbara Mountains. (Lyriocephalus Special Issue). November 2005. Amphibia and Reptile Research Organization of Sri Lanka. Print.

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

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.

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

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

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