Ian Lockwood

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Sri Lanka Mountain Traverse (Part I)

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A collage of diversity: highlights from 10 days of traversing Sri Lanka’s mountain zones.

Sri Lanka’s modest island boundaries hosts a rich assemblage of habitats with unique life forms that contribute to its status as one of 36 global biodiversity hotspots  (together with the Western Ghats of India).  Several of these places-namely Sinharaja rainforest and the Central Highlands -are also recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. In mid-June this year my son Lenny and I took an unforgettable  ten day south-north traverse through the three most important mountain ranges of Sri Lanka looking to explore themes of endemism.

The Rakwana Hills (including Sinharaja), Central Highlands and Knuckles range share certain geographic and vegetation patterns and yet have distinct species with very restricted distributions. They are all in the “wet zone” receiving between 2,500-6,000 mm of rain (see SL Biodiversity Clearing House Mechanism) . In May this year I read a new article by Sri Lankan amphibian guru Madhava Meegaskumbura and colleagues entitled “Diversification of shrub frogs (Rhacophoridae, Pseudophilautus) in Sri Lanka – Timing and geographic context” (see Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution and the summary by Dilrukshi Handunnetti in Mongabay). The authors highlight the genus Pseudophilautus in the three ranges and their connections to shrub frogs in the Western Ghats. They delve deep into the species at a molecular level that is beyond most of us but I was fascinated by the role of mountain geography in the species’ distribution. This got me thinking about doing a single traverse through the same ranges at the onset of the South West Monsoon.

About the same time, Lenny was formulating an approach to his IB MYP5 personal project. This culminating exercise challenges students to pick their own project, make a product or produce an outcome and then reflect deeply on the process. He had been fascinated by our (thus far, futile) search for the rare point endemic marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata) in the Knuckles range. With a little encouragement from his parents, Lenny decided to explore broad themes of endemism in Sri Lanka using the medium of photography.

Primary ridge forest in Western Sinharaja. These relatively inaccessible areas were never logged during the mechanized logging period (1960s-mid 1970s). The prominent tree species is Shorea trapezifolia from the Dipterocarpaceae family.

Sinharaja West

We started our 10 day traverse, driving southwards from Colombo on the expressway in the middle of heavy monsoon showers. Our first three days and two nights were spent in the western side of Sinharaja, staying with the incomparable Martin Wijeysinghe at his Jungle Lodge. There were showers on all days but this was low season and there were few tourists (and no migrant birds). The road that had been re-paved from the Kudawa ticket office up to the entrance to the core zone entrance was nearly complete and opened for the first time. The impact of this controversial project appeared less harmful than had been projected by concerned citizens and journalists (See the Daily Mirror on 12 February 2019). Pavement stones had been used on the road and a concrete lining put on the storm drain that runs parallel down the road. There were some trees that had been felled and large patches of Strobilanthes and other shrubs cleared. But these should recover within a season or two. If there is one lesson from Sinharaja’s conservation story in the last 40 years it is that the rainforest system is resilient and is able to recover from human disturbance remarkably well. That doesn’t suggest that we should be complacent about conservation and restoration efforts but we do need to give the system a chance to rebound.

Lenny, Amy and I had visited Martin’s for two nights in February along with our friend Mangala Karaunaratne and his two kids. That trip had been rewarding with good sighting of the Golden Civet Cat (Paradoxurus zeylonensis), Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata), Hump Nosed Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) and several other species. A few of the images are included here, as they paved the way for a deeper exploration of the area.

The extremely Golden Palm Civet Cat (Paradoxurus zeylonensis) at Martin’s lodge. This individual made regular night visits for several months but has stopped coming (as of June 2019).

Our highlights with endemics in the western part of Sinharaja in June mainly involved birds. We did look for frogs around Martin’s but were not that successful in this early stage of our mountain traverse. During our three days we had rewarding encounters with a Green Billed Coucal (Centropus chlororhynchos), a pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths (Batrachostomus moniliger), Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata) and a Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus). Thilak, the very talented independent guide, helped us locate a solitary Chestnut Backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanotum). We did encounter a mixed feeding flock during our first walk to the research station. It included some of the usual endemics but we didn’t have a good opportunity to photograph them.  A visitor from Singapore staying at Martin’s was very lucky and saw both the Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) and the extremely rare Sri Lanka Bay Owl (Phodilus assimilis) in the same area while we were there.

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A male Malabar trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) that was part of a mixed species feeding flock near the Sinharaja research station.  Regular readers may recognize that this species is one of my favorite species to encounter and photograph. Previous posts from Silent Valley and the Palani Hills have feature Malabar Trogons and a future post from Thattekad (Kerala)will highlight another exquisite individual.

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Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) near the upper Core Zone entrance on Sinharaja’s west side.

Sri Lanka Blue Magpie (Urocissa ornata) visiting Martin’s lodge, in search of months and insects around tea time before breakfast.

Sri Lanka Keelback (Xenochrophis asperrmus) at the ticket gate of the Kudawa entrance to Sinharaja.

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The endemic and diminutive Chesnut Backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanotum) was one that took special help to find. Lenny and I were assisted by Thilak, the independent guide, in our search for owls and he found this individual outside of the park boundaries. Just was we were setting up and getting shots with a 200-500 the skies opened up and we were forced to leave before we wanted to. The light was so low and the bird was at least 20 meters away and I was forced to use a strobe.

(to be continued in Part II/IV)

REFERENCES (for all four parts)

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, 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.

Knuckles

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

 

MAP OF THE JOURNEY

 

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.

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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 very rough 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.

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Pseudophilautus auratus at Morningside.

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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 (for all four parts)

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, 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.

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

Mannar: Feathers & Frogs on a 2019 Visit

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Black-headed Gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)(non-breeding plumage) on the beach at Pesalai fishing beach (northern coast of Mannar) .

The island of Mannar and Wilpattu National Park continue to be must visit destinations for birdwatchers in Sri Lanka. Last November our friend Pippa Mukherjee visited and we took her up to Wilpattu for an introductory visit.  More recently, in February, we had a long poya weekend that allowed us an opportunity to revisit this far corner of Sri Lanka.

On the February trip we had four days to get up to Mannar and back. That’s not a long time given the distance (@ 320 km from Colombo) and all the nice things to explore on the way. On the journey driving from Colombo we overnighted at the Backwaters Lodge north of Puttalam before continuing on the next day up to Mannar. The Backwaters offers a convenient place to access Wilpattu’s south-western entrance and to do local birdwatching in excellent dry zone thorn forest. This was my second visit and I was interested in trying to see the Indian Chameleon (Chamaeleo zeylanicus)in the surrounding thorn forest. The owners Tarique Omar and Ajith Ratnayaka were both on site for this visit and I enjoyed speaking to them about the area and their story in setting up Backwaters. The family took a rest (it was hot and dry) while I went out to look for Chameleons with their guide Sanoos. It was the middle of the day with hot, bright conditions-perfect for these reptiles I thought. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, no Chameleons were to be found. The area where Chameleons are found hosts some excellent arid zone tropical thorn forest. I marveled at the unappreciated vegetation and was reminded that much of the south-eastern Indian plains also hosted similar systems. Unfortunately it is also the site of a lime stone pit mine and the proposed solid waste dump of Aruwakkalu.

Moonrise over the Nelum Wewa wetlands and tank near to the Wilpattu south-west entrance.

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Jerdon’s Nightjar(Caprimulgus atripennis) at Backwaters.

Rather than drive around via Tantirimale, we went to Mannar driving through the western dirt track that runs through Wilpattu. It is shorter (in terms of km traveled) and there are opportunities to see and appreciate Wilpattu’s forests, wetlands and classic wildlife. The only hitch is the approach over a sometimes flooded causeway and the few kilometers of seriously beat up road. There had been rains and we drove over the causeway with about 10 cm of water-not too dangerous but getting close, it seemed to me. On the road we enjoyed an encounter with a bull elephant, Malabar pied hornbill flyovers and numerous mongoose encounters. We were happy to have our high clearance 4×4 vehicle for the journey. The stretch from the northern Wilpattu entrance to the Mannar causeway passes through an exceedingly dry landscape. Some of this has been controversially cleared of the appreciated thorn forest and allocated to house former IDPs from the conflict and tsunami. The arid conditions make it an exceedingly difficult place to eke out a living it seems to me.  Very few the newly constructed houses showed signs of life. It is only on the approach to Vankalai Sanctuary that the road runs through rich agricultural lands that benefit from tank (especially Giant’s Tank) irrigation. The area that once house the famous Pearl fisheries is fascinating. The beaches are desolate and seemingly pristine- all very eerie given that this stretch of coastline hosted the immensely productive pearl fishing communities for several hundred years before being overfished at the end of the 19th Century . The ruins of Fredrick North’s bungalow are the only reminders about a very different past. He was the Governor of Ceylon (1798-1805) soon after the British took over.

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On this visit we returned to the Palmyrah House, the island’s most comfortable accommodation that the kids and I had stayed at several years ago. It has since been refurbished and it was a treat to have the whole family enjoy its site and situation. What I appreciate most is the presence of a naturalist who assists with birds and natural history. This time it was Gayomini, a young woman who is working on completing her dissertation at Colombo University. Our stay was relatively short but we visited Talimanar, Vankalai and several other places on Mannar. The Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) were present in large numbers but at a great distance. Lenny and I went out before sunrise to try and get pictures and had reasonable success. Perhaps more importantly, we located pied avocets (Recurvirostra avosetta) -apparently some of the first sightings of the season. Ajay and other would later go on to record large flocks (40+) of this rare visitor. The other highlight of the time in Mannar was looking for saw scale vipers and frogs at night. There were large numbers of the Common Tree Frogs (Polypedates maculatus) and it was good fun photographing them with studio flashes. We returned to Colombo via Madhu and Tantirimale -our only regret was that the actual time in Mannar was unsatisfying short!

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Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) at Mannar (December 2017).

Black-headed Gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)(non-breeding plumage) at Pesalai fishing beach (northern coast of Mannar) .

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Common Tree Frogs (Polypedates maculatus) at Palmyrah House.

The Pearl Banks in the 19th Century. A two part painting from Palmyrah House.

Landsat map of the north-west coast of Sri Lanka processed by the author. Double click on image for large 150 DPI version.

PAST MANNAR POSTS

Lockwood, Ian. “A Season of Birds-Mannar.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2017. Web.

“     . “Mannar: Far Corner of Sri Lanka.” Ian Lockwood Blog.  November 2017. Web.

 

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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.

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

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

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

Bitterns in the City

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Black Bittern (Ixobrychus flavicollis) stepping out of the shadows at Nugegoda Wetland Park (17 March 2019).

During the last three months I have been making frequents visit to Colombo’s urban wetlands, looking to photograph interesting species and build enough material for an article on birding in these sometimes overlooked spots. The visits follow a pattern of exploring the urban wetlands as places for teaching and learning that highlight biodiversity and urban water issues. I started going more frequently when Colombo’s wetlands started to be better protected several years ago (see the list of past posts below).

Bitterns (Ixobrychus sp.) have been the focus of these recent efforts but I have also been looking to see and photograph other wetlands species. The article has now been completed and awaiting publication-recent tragic events in Sri Lanka have regrettably put on hold the publication. This post shares a few samples of some of the avian highlights.

There are a variety of other species that are associated with Colombo’s urban wetlands.

 

Striated heron (Butorides striata) at Nugegoda Wetland Park. (3 March 2019).

Colombo Stamen Watercolor (Ver 1 MR) 2019

Colombo’s wetlands and waterways in a map by the author.

PAST COLOMBO WETLAND POSTS

Lockwood, Ian. “Rock Star Crake at Diyasaru” 8 February 2018. Web.

”     . “Striated Heron at Beddagana.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 1 April 2018. Web.

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

REFERENCES

“18 cities recognized for safeguarding urban wetlands.” Ramsar Secretariat. 18 October 2018. Web.

Amerasinghe , Priyanie. “What’s next now that Colombo’s an official Wetland City?” Sunday Times. 25 November 2018. Web.

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

Ramsar. Web.

Ranasinghe, Piyumani. “Rebranding Colombo as a Wetland City.” Sunday Times. 18 November 2018. 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.

Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands WWW Experience 2019

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Horton Plains cloud forest canopy study in black & white.

In the third week of January every year I have the opportunity and privilege of being involved in some rather cool teaching and learning in our home of Sri Lanka. The Experience Sri Lanka! Week Without Walls program gives OSC teachers the opportunity to share our passion for adventure, discovery and learning beyond the barriers of our classrooms. This year I once again led a group of students and teachers in and around the Central Highlands while exploring themes of landscape an ecology through an interdisciplinary unit involving visual arts and science (ecology).

The Sri Lanka Central Highlands trip, was 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 been 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.

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 13 students and three of us adults to guide them. I was supported by Loretta Duncan and Desline Attanayake who both played key roles in organization and participating in all of our activities. We also had two 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.

Pseudophilautus femoralis at Nuwara_Eliya.

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Montane Hour Class Fog (Taruga eques) at St. Andrews/Pidurutalagala.

We experienced consistently clear, beautiful weather 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 the dormitory neat 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. On all of these morning we were blessed with exquisitely clear conditions that allowed for crystal clear views to Sri Pada and the neigboring ridges.

Early morning view to Sri Pada from the slopes of Thotupola.

Kirigalpotta adn Horton Plains from Thotupola Kanda.

 

PAST WWW TRIPS

*** for this blog post I have borrowed reflections (written by me) from past Highlands excursions.***

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.

Knuckles Explorations

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High peaks of the Knuckles and Meemure valley from Corbet’s Gap. (April 2007)

The Knuckles or Dumbara Kanduvetiya mountain range is a vital refuge for Sri Lankan biodiversity. Cloaked in mist, both literally and figuratively, they sit at the center of the island but are one of the least-understood natural landscapes in Sri Lanka. In 2010 UNESCO recognized the Knuckles conservation area as part of the Sri Lankan Central Highlands World Heritage Site  (UNESCO). That helped draw positive attention to the area. Located north-east of Kandy, the range is spread over about 210 square kilometers and includes a collection of rugged peaks just under 2,000 meters. I’ve been interested in the Knuckles for some time, especially since there is a strong ecological and geological affinity with the Southern Western Ghats. Last term’s school break and a family road trip gave me a chance to continue my explorations that first started in 2005.

It is difficult to move through the Knuckles area, a landscape dominated by steep escarpments, craggy peaks and isolated valleys. Dense forest makes movement difficult. I have thus far visited the two different corners on four separate family trips and I feel like we are just starting to scratch the surface of getting to know the area. When we first arrived in Sri Lanka in 2005 our family took two short visits to the Corbet’s Gap side of the Knuckles range. Now, in the last two years, we have been to the Riverston area twice. I was particularly interested to observe and document parallels in the landscape and ecology of the Knuckles with the southernmost Western Ghats. I had heard anecdotal  reports that the Agasthyamalai range, one of the richest biological zones in the Western Ghats, shares affinity with the Knuckles area. Thus, I was interested to see the pantanas and see to what extent they mirrored patterns of mid-elevation grasslands in the southern Western Ghats. These links continue to drive my ongoing interest in the Knuckles.

 

The Knuckles or Dumbara range, as seen from the summit of Sri Pada on a crisp December morning in 2013.

 

On our recent visit we took an afternoon to visit the Pitawala pantana, an area of mid elevation grasslands that is home to several rare species. Most notable is the presence of a population of the rare Kirtisinghe’s rock frog or marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata). We found tadpoles on the stream surface but did not actually see an adult. That was disappointing but it gives us a reason to revisit the area in the next year. We were give excellent guidance by Nadeera Weerasinghe the manager of Sir John’s Bungalow, the fine accommodation that we stayed at for two nights. He also helped us identify the large Knuckles Bent Toed Geckos (Crytodactylus soba) that frequented the bungalow at night. The best shot, however was found while walking with the kids on the Riverston road at night

There are several species of reptiles and amphibians that are closely associated with the Knuckles area and are, in fact, endemic to the range. The Leaf Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii) and Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Caphotis dumbara) were on my list and with advice from Nadeera we found several individuals on the Riverston pass. In the coming months we plan to return to learn more about this fascinating corner of Sri Lanka.

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The endemic and rare Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Cophotis dumbara) photographed at Riverston. November 2018

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Crestless lizard juvenile (Calotes liocephalus) at Riverston.

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Shades of the shola/grasslands mosaic? These are mid-elevation pantanas (@700-1200 m) with coarse grasses on the Riverston road.

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Morning view looking north from the Riverston road. The foreground is dominated by the pantanas- native grasslands at a mid-elevation (@700-1200 m) with coarse grasses.

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Author’s map of the Knuckles region (updated version)

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The broad sweep of the Knuckles range seen from the border of Wasguma National Park looking due south. October 2016.

REFERENCES & PUBLICITY

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, Toad 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.

Ekanayake, Sarath and Channa Bambaradeniya. Trekking in the Knuckles Forest: A Trekking Guide to Alugallena, Dekinda and Nitre Cave Nature Trails. Colombo: IUCN. 2003. Print.

Lakdasun Trips. “Knuckles.” ND. Web.

Lindström, Sara.  Eskil Mattsson and S.P.Nissanka. “Forest cover change in Sri Lanka: The role of small scale farmers.” Applied Geography. May 2012. Web.

Meegaskumbura, Madhava et al.  “Amphibian Research in Sri Lanka.” Froglog. (via ResearchGate). January 2014. Web.

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

Weerawardhena, Senarathge R. and Anthony P. Russell.  “Historical land-use patterns in relation to conservation strategies for the Riverstone area, the Knuckles massif, Sri Lanka: insights gained from the recovery of anuran communities.” Taprobanica. October 2012. Web.

 

Written by ianlockwood

2019-01-12 at 9:14 pm

Sinharaja 2017 & 18 Geography IA Field Studies

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Sinharaja’s rainforest canopy under the Milky Way- an unusual sight given that high humidity often prevents clear view of the heavens. (May 2017).

Two successful OSC Geography field studies have come and gone in the last 15 months. Both learning experiences gave an opportunity for small groups of motivated DP1 students to investigate an individual research question in a rural Sri Lankan landscape.  Sinharaja rainforest, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage site, is located the south-western “wet zone” of the country and is well known for its rich biodiversity. OSC classes have been conducting field work in Sinharaja since 2005. The location offers ideal conditions for student learning, inquiry and field work on socio-economic, tourist and land-use themes. Many years ago, we used to do more ecology/ecosystems studies but the changes in the DP Geography syllabus has influenced how students craft their research questions around human aspects of the landscape. On both trips we were privileged to stay at Martin’s Wijeysinghe’s Forest Lodge; it continues to offer an ideal base for student field work, with access to the protected area, a range of habitats and home gardens.

The Sinharaja canopy from Moulawella showing the extensive rainforest over the core part of the World Heritage Site. (May 2017)

May 2017 Experience

The Class of 2018 geography class included eight enthusiastic students representing a diverse range of countries (eight different nationalities, with half the class being dual nationals). They embraced the learning opportunities, didn’t complain about the leeches (it was relatively dry this year) and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the Sri Lankan cuisine cooked up by Martin’s daughter. In 2017 Kamila Sahideen provided support in the interviews and was once active with finding frogs and other forest creatures. We were also happy to have Salman Siddiqui (Malaika and Maha’s father) along for one night. With his role as the head of IWMI’s GIS unit, I appreciated having Salman’s insights on how we might better use GIS/RS & drones to emphasize spatial dimensions of our data collection.

May 2018 Experience

The Class of 2019 geography class was slightly smaller but no less enthusiastic. There were six students and we were supported by Sandali Handagama, OSC’s multi-talented math teacher (and a former student of OSC). We hired four Sinharaja guides each day and they were essential in translating the surveys and helping the students to better understand the area. We have now developed a strong relationships and they have played a key role in the success of OSC’s field work in Sinharaja. Most of the surveys were gathered on foot but at times we hired local jeeps to take us further away from the ticket office at Kudawa.

Each of the students explored an individual geographic research question but pooled all of their sub-questions into a single survey that all could run. The actual survey of 45-50 questions could take up to 20-30 minutes with introductions and a look around home garden properties. The respondents were gracious with their time and several OSC teams were invited to have tea. With several different teams going in different directions we collected 72 different interviews in 2017 and 42 in 2018. We collected responses using Survey 123 a GIS-enabled data gathering app that all the students could run off their phones (we also recorded every response on paper). This allows students to map their results and do basic spatial analysis on the findings using ArcGIS, the GIS software package that they learn to operate in my class.

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The elusive and rarely seen Golden Civet Cat (Paradoxurus zeylonensis) making a short visit to Martin’s Lodge during the course of our final meal of idiyappam (string hoppers) and kiri hodi (potato curry).Food was dropped in a slightly messy panic in order to trigger the camera and flashes during its brief time with us.

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Sri Lanka frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) female on left and male on the right in a patch of tree ferns. These pictures are only possible-like almost any frogmouth image-with the sharp eyes of a guide! I was assisted by Thandula, Ratnasiri and several others. Students got impressive pictures with their phones. (May 2018).

In addition to conducting the surveys, students got a flavor of being ecotourists in a tropical forest. They walked the different forest trails, encountered mixed species feeding flocks, appreciated small rainforest creatures and soaked their feet in jungle streams. Looking for frogs, insects and snakes at night is always a special treat. On the 2017 trip the class had me wake them up in the middle of the night to take in the majesty of the Milky Way in unusually clear, moisture-free skies. A highlight of the 2018 trip was having an encounter with a rare Golden Civet Cat (Paradoxurus zeylonensis) while eating dinner at Martin’s. The shy nocturnal mammal graced us for a few brief minutes and fed on bananas put out by our hosts. We completed our Sinharaja visits with a hike up to Moulawella peak to take in the full extent of the Sinharaja rainforest landscape. The views in 2017 were especially clear but 2018 also offered the team a chance to take in this remarkable rainforest and home garden landscape.

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Class of 2019 DP Geography Class and several of the Sinharaja guides (May 2018).

The Class of 2018 DP Geography Class with Martin at his Forest Lodge. Back Row: Easmond, Thiany, Aanaath, Zoe, Adrian & Ian.  Bottom Row: Malaika, Salman S, Martin, Kamila, Fatma & Yuki. (May 2017)

The Class of 2019 DP Geography Class with Martin at his Forest Lodge. Back Row: Joran, Dominic, Devin, Lukas, Martin’s grandson and granddaughter. Middle Row: Sandali, Martin, his wife and daughter. Bottom Row: Sarah, Maha and Ian (May 2018)

 

Past Blog Posts on Sinharaja

Geography IA Trip 2007

Geography IA Trip 2008

Geography IA Trip 2009

Geography IA Trip 2012

Geography IA Trip 2013

Geography IA Trip 2014

Geography IA Trip 2015

Geography IA Trip 2016

General Sinharaja Reflections

 

SELECTED REFERENCES

Abeywickrama. Asanga, Sinharaja Rainforest Sri LankaWeb. 2009.

DeZoysa, Neela and Rhyana Raheem. Sinharaja: A Rainforest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.

Gunatilleke, C.V.S, et al. Ecology of Sinharaja Rain Forest and the Forest Dynamics Plot in Sri Lanka’s Natural World Heritage Site.Colombo: WHT Publications, 2004. Print.

Harrison, John. A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. UK: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Kotagama, Sarath W and Eben Goodale. “The composition and spatial organization of mixed-species flocks in a Sri Lankan rainforest.” Forktail. 2004. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Wet: Field Notes From Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone.” Sanctuary Asia. August/September 2007. 3-11. Print. PDF.

Lockwood, Ian. “Montane Biodiversity in the Land of Serendipity.” Sanctuary Asia. July 2010. Print.

Sri Lanka Survey Department. Sheets 80_x & 81_x (1:10,000). Colombo: 2015. Maps & Spatial Data.

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

Wijeyeratne, Gehan de Silva.  Sri Lankan Wildlife (Bradt Guides). Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Ltd. 2007. Print.

Vigallon, S. The Sinharaja Guidebook for Eco-Tourists. Colombo: Stamford Lake Publications, 2007. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2018-08-27 at 10:50 pm