Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Archive for April 2020

Colombo Curfew Birding in the time of COVID-19

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Indian Robin (Copsychus fulicatus) at Eden Gardens boundary.

These have been strange days with a world turned upside down by an invisible yet society-altering virus. Here in Colombo, our city and suburban neighborhood has been locked down under a curfew since March 21st. At this stage these efforts seem to have contributed to the relatively slow spread of the disease in Sri Lanka, though it is still too early to be sure. Teaching and learning have not ceased for those of us in the Overseas School of Colombo (OSC) community but it has changed as the school abruptly transitioned into a Distance Learning Program (DLP). An important part of the new routine has been ensuring that we balance our screen time with regular exercise and time spent outdoors while maintaining social distancing norms. I didn’t need much of an excuse to get outside but I was pleasantly surprised with just how much wildlife our immediate neighborhood has to offer-something that the curfew and lockdown facilitated.

Since March I have been spending several hours every day walking with binoculars in large circles, cycling up and down the access road and lurking at a few lonely corners of our housing compound. These confined journeys have given me a chance to observe birds, a variety of animals, flowering trees, reptiles, the movement of clouds and more. It has been a remarkable time as the air has cleared up and human sounds that used to drown out the natural world have disappeared. After several rewarding avian sightings I started taking my camera and telephoto lens on these neighborhood strolls. At first, the modest but versatile 200-500 f/5.6 lens sufficed. However after some surprising sightings of skulking wetlands birds I changed into drab, earthy colors and brought out the 600 f/4 lens.

We live in a gated complex of 90 or so houses, each with modest gardens and ample tree cover (Cassia fistula, Mangifera indica, Mesua ferrea, Couroupita guianensis, Jacaranda mimosifolia, Elaeocarpus serratus, various palms etc.). On the north side an overgrown rubber estate grows up against the compound fence. To the west the property runs alongside a paddy area that is only partially cultivated. A significant part is not managed and this provides a habitat for some interesting wetland species.

Curfew Collage 2020(100 dpi) copy

A collage of trees, flowers & views in the Eden Gardens residential area.

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Green Imperial Pigeons (Ducula aenea) a forest bird that is frequently seen in many leafy neighborhoods in Colombo.

The most common birds that we see include Yellow-billed babblers (Turdoides affinis), Magpie Robins (Copsychus saularis), Red-Vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus cafer) Spotted doves (Spilopelia chinensis), Red Wattled Lapwings (Vanellus indicus) and Palm Swifts (Cypsiurus balasiensis). Even forest birds such as Green Imperial Pigeons (Ducula aenea) and Crested Serpent Eagles (Spilornis cheela) are seen on a daily basis.

My personal discoveries of rarer species came from the overgrown wetland areas that is outside of our compound. I can only view it from some distance through a fence so most of my pictures are not as clear and crisp as I would like. These observations picked up when I was out early participating in one of several bird races organized for OSC and FOGSL friends. On our first race I spotted a medium-sized brown, chicken-like specimen lurking at the edge of the wetland. Based on repeated observations and photographs this turned out to be one of two immature Watercocks (Gallicrex cinereal). These are shy and rarely seen wetland birds but I have been observing them in the same place on a daily basis during the curfew. A day or two after while finishing my morning exercise routine I saw a dark shape sitting on a tuft of grass above the wetland in the same area where the watercock had been. When I returned with binoculars the shadow was still there and turned out to be a Black Bittern (Ixobrychus flavicollis). This is, of course, one of the shyest wetland birds found in Colombo’s urban wetlands and it has been my quest to find and photograph it over the last several years (see my April 2019  blog post and National Geographic Traveller article). Prior to these encounters my most significant success with this search has been at Weli Park in Nugegoda where I photographed a Black Bittern in 2019. Earlier this year, before the COVID-19 crisis and curfew, I had experienced several productive visits to Weli park where I had photographed all three bitterns (the subject of a future post).

The bird races were a great way to focus our observations but they also contributed to broader understanding of bird population and migration patterns since we submitted lists to E-bird. Will Duncan (of OSC) got us started and there were parallel lists being conducted by Gary Allport (Birdlife International), Sampath Senveratne (Colombo University), Moditha Kodikara Arachchi, Luca Feuerriegel, Rashmi Bopitiya (both OSC students), Scott Hawkins (OSC faculty) and a few others. I completed a bird race list and then a general list over a longer time period. The Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka organized a Avurudu Bird Count (ABC2020) to celebrate the Sinhala/Tamil New Year bird race. They were able to garner 200+ birdwatchers across the island to contribute lists in the week around April 14th. All of us were in lockdown and facing similar movement restrictions. Malaka Rodrigo and Sampath Senevirathna have worked with other to process this data. All in all the experience of logging into E-bird on a regular basis during this restricted time has been very productive.

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White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)on our garden wall. These commonly seen water birds frequently move into habitats that are not wetlands including lawns, gardens and forest groves.

 

Black Bittern (Ixobrychus flavicollis) at the wetlands adjoining Eden Gardens. Photographed in the first two weeks of April.

Other highlights and rarities from the watching included a pair of Lesser Yellownapes (Picus chlorolophus) and two Golden-fronted Leafbirds (Chloropsis aurifrons). Just as the curfew was starting off I had photographed a rare Indian Golden Oriole (Oriolus kundoo). The final highlight of the migrant season at Eden Gardens was a single Cinnamon/Chestnut Bittern (Ixobrychus cinnamomeus) in the same wetland area at some distance. I have seen them both on occasion right up to the time of publication.

As I finish this post the sweep of COVID-19 continues to grow and our curfew has been extended into the month of May. Most of the migrant species have all flown north but there are still all kinds of winged creatures to observe and learn about during this uncertain time.

Lesser Yellownape (Picus chlorolophus) on a Cassia fistula tree at Eden Gardens. We don’t see these very often-this was my first sighting in three years of living here.

A rare Cinnamon/ Chestnut Bittern (Ixobrychus cinnamomeus) photographed through a wire fence on April 19th at the wetland area near to Eden Gardens.

References on my desktop.

REFERENCES

FOGSL Avurudu Bird Count Padlet 2020. Web.

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

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

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

Rodrigo, Malaka. Garden Birdwatch 2020. Blog.Warakagoda. Deepal et. al.  Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.

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.

Thattekad Winter 2019 Visit

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A kaleidoscope of Thattekad’s birds from the December trip. Clockwise from upper left: Gray Jungle Fowl (Gallus sonneratii), Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger), Fairy Bluebird (Irena puella), Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus), White Bellied Blue Flycatcher (female) Flycatcher (Cyronis pallipes), Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata), Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides), Streak-throated Woodpecker (Picus xanthopygaeus), birding group in action, Forest Eagle-owl (Bubo nipalensis), Flame-throated Bulbul (Pycnonotus gularis), Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura), Orange-headed Thrush (Geokichla citrina), Jerdon’s Nightjar (Caprimulgus atripennis), Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus).

A highlight of the winter holidays was spending time in Thattekad with Lenny looking for and photographing the key endemic bird species of the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. My time staying with KV Eldhose at Thattekad last June (as documented in an earlier post) was quiet but rewarding. The December visit was during  peak season and Eldhose’s place was full up and rocking. Our four days and three nights were a fast-paced series of birding encounters with many highlights that have taken me months (and an unplanned curfew/lock down thanks to COVID-19) to process and appreciate. Unlike my normally solitary bird forays, the December outings in Thattekad were accomplished as part of a group(s). Lenny and I were there with guided teams of photographers from Pune and Chennai and then independent birders from the US and UK. As usual, either Eldhose or his trusty lieutenants Adjomon and Vimal accompanied the groups out.

In mid-December Lenny and I took a scenic drive from Kodai down to Bodi, over the Ghats and through the Cardamom Hills to reach Thattekad (about six hours of driving). We had an auspicious start when our arrival coincided with the pursuit of one of the most difficult birds to see in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. A pair of Sri Lanka Bay Owls (Phodilus assimilis) was roosting in the primary forest and we were invited to take a peak. After a short 20 minute drive up the road Vimal guided us into a thick tangle of canes, dense shrubbery and towering rainforest trees. My 600 mm lens was still cold from having been up in Kodai and it fogged up when I took it out of the pelican case. It took nearly an hour to acclimatize so the shots of the Bay owl were taken with the 200-500 mm lens that Lenny used on the trip (we had taken it out to photograph Euphorbia trees for Bruce Dejong on the Bodi ghat).

SrI Lanka or Ceylon Bay Owls (Phodilus assimilis) at Thattekad primary forest. Guiding courtesy of KV Eldhose & Vimal Niravathu.

Thattekad primary forest area in winter light.

All of Eldhose’s cottages were full and we stayed in the main house. He was busy running his operation with key support provided by his wife Amy and daughter Ashy. The groups from Chennai and Pune were friendly and during the brief moments where we weren’t out finding birds we shared stories and images. The Chennai group was composed of middle aged and older men from the Photographic Society of Madras and was led by Saravanan Janakarajan. We spent time with them in the hides, in the primary forest and in the evening looking for owls. Lenny and I also got to know Jim and Maggie, a friendly couple from Seattle.

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A SUPERB DAILY ROUTINE

Our pattern was to visit a hide visit close to Eldhose’s home at first light. That offered a chance to photograph the reclusive Slaty-breasted Rail (Gallirallus striatus) and then the more reliable starlings, trees pies, woodpeckers and drongos. The hide is close to the house and cottages but it is tiny and we had to take turns. My photographs were taken on the 2nd last morning. Rather than have breakfast at home, all the groups headed out to the primary forest 7:30 and ate breakfast on the way at Kuttampuzha. A simple road side café overlooking a tributary of the Periyar river offered classic Kerala breakfast fare (appam, puttu, paratha, beef curry, chickpeas etc.)

The primary forest, where most of the key birding is accomplished, is actually not a large forest area like Parambikulam, Periyar or Vazhachal. It isn’t even technically part of the Salim Ali Sanctuary, the protected area that Thattekad is associated with. But there is enough habitat diversity and remnant lowlands tropical rainforest to offer opportunities to see all sorts of key Western Ghats birds. It’s not the sort of place that you can wander around on your own and we were accompanied by Adjomon and Vimal. They had their hands full and it would have been better to be in a smaller group but we did fine. The habitat is ideal for Malabar Trogons (Harpactes fasciatus), which I never tire of photographing. They are shy but will sit still in a shaded area if you are fortunate. We saw Sri Lankan Frogmouths (Batrachostomus moniliger) on three different occasions and the guides have several spots that they check reliably.

Our birding mornings typically stretched on to about 1:00-2:00 PM and then we headed back to Eldhose’s to eat, rest briefly and get ready for the afternoon programs. There was a rotation of hides to visit and the groups took turns visiting them. Just behind his newly constructed rooms, a rare Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides) appeared like clockwork every afternoon at the edge of the wetland to look for mealworms. The other two hides are the “Treepie” and “Flycatcher hides.” Both of these are located on privately owned land that adjoins forest patches. They offer unparalleled opportunities to see and photograph key species up close and personal. White-bellied Treepie (Dendrocitta leucogastra), Chestnut-tailed Starling (Sturnia malabarica), Red Spurfowl (Galloperdix spadicea) and Fairy Bluebird (Irena puella) were my personal favorites at the Treepie hide. Lenny and I spent a wonderful afternoon-almost three hours- at the Flycatcher hide with Jim and Maggie. The diversity of flycatchers and other birds was truly dazzling and it was difficult to keep track of the different species as they came in for an afternoon bath and feed. The key flycatchers included the Blue-throated flycatcher (Cyornis rubeculoides), White-bellied Blue Flycatcher (Cyronis pallipes), Rusty-tailed Flycatcher (Muscicapa ruficauda) and Indian paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi). We were also treated to exquisite views of an Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura), Orange-headed Thrush (Geokichla citrina) and Malabar Whistling-thrush (Myophonus horsfieldii).

Evenings at Eldhose’s always started with an effort to see the Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata) at twilight. This experience had been a highlight of the June trip and sure enough an individual of this rare endemic species came back this time. All of us photographers, armed with tripods and lenses (see images), were lined up and seated for the show. We had one excellent sighting and then two nights where it decided not to visit. Before dinner we had the opportunity to go out looking for rare night birds in the nearby secondary forest. Here the rarities included the Great Eared-nightjar (Lyncornis macrotis) and Forest Eagle-owl (Bubo nipalensis). The nightjar sat in the same place very evening while the Forest Eagle-owl was shy and hard to see. I did manage a blurry image on the 2nd evening.

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Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura) bear Thattekad. Hide courtesy of KV Eldhose.

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Hilltop birding inside the primary forest. The open rock faces provide good views of the canopy. There are remnants of ancient humans living here in disused grinding stones and what might be collapsed dolmans. A family of adivasis was camped at the spot and had permission to collect minor forest products.

On our last morning before Lenny and I returned to Kodai we had a chance to photograph the Grey Jungle Fowl (Gallus sonneratii). This is a bird that I have been listening to for much of my life and I’ve frequently seen it on hikes in the Palani Hills. But the sighting near Eldhose’s gave me a whole new appreciation for its beauty (especially in the male individuals). Soon after we packed up, said goodbye to Eldhose, Amy and Ashy and headed back to Kodai to be there in time for a Christmas in the hills. The sightings of birds and experiences in Thattekad left us with an overwhelming sense of awe and appreciation for the diversity of winged life forms in the southern Western Ghats.

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Bird watching and photography gear at KV Eldhose’s on a brief break from the action.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Ali, Salim. Birds of Kerala, 3rd Edition. Kerala Forest & Wildlife Department. Thiruvananthapuram, 1999.Print.

Birding South India. (Eldhose’s website). Web.

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

Kazmierczak, Krys. and Raj Singh. A Birdwatcher’ Guide to India. Devon, UK: Prion,1998. Print.

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

Sreenivasan, Ramki. “Thattekad Check List and Trip Report.” Birds of India. ND.  Web.

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