Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Archive for July 2019

Sri Lanka Mountain Traverse (Part II)

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

Sinharaja East

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

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

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

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

Ride_to_Morningside_2a(MR)(06_19)

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

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

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

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

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

Pseudophilautus_auratus_ES_1a(MR)(06_19)

Pseudophilautus auratus at Morningside.

Pseudophilautus_sp_dark_green_ES_1(MR)(06_19)

Pseudophilautus cavirostris at Morningside.

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

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

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

(to be continued in Part III/IV)

 

REFERENCES (Morning Side)

Amphibian Survival Alliance. Web.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protected Planet. Sri Lanka PA Boundaries. August 2019.

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

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