Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

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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.

Central Highlands (Northern Route) WWW Experience 2020

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Looking south in the high peaks of the Knuckles (Dumbara) range from the newly flooded Kaluganga reservoir.

This year OSC’s Highlands WWW experience took a different, more northern route to Sri Lanka’s loftiest peaks, offering fresh opportunities to explore themes of ecology, landscape and culture in the mountainous interior of the island. The group included 13 MYP5 and DP1 students from a variety of countries. Desline Attanayake supported me in guiding them as we headed north to Yapahuwa, overnighted in Pidurangala and then headed into the Knuckles for three days. Our final night was at Nuwara Eliya where we enjoyed a final night of frogging.

Amphibians were once again a key point of interest on our daily walks. The lingering North East Monsson brought heavy rains to the Knuckles and provided ideal opportunities to look for frogs and their predators. Our main target species was the point endemic Kirtisinghe’s rock frog or marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata). It is restricted to wet rock surfaces at the Pitawala Pantana on the road to Riverston. Our team was assisted by the able and knowledgeable Knuckles-based guide KC. He helped us locate several individuals in an area that Lenny and I had searched in vain for back in June. We were less successful with our planned hike to Manigala where heavy rain and unmarked paths forced us to cut short the walk. Staying at Sir Johns Bungalow was a new part of the experience and it proved to be an ideal base for our Knuckles explorations. Our final 24 hours in Nuwara Eliya were productive with rich frog and bird sightings. We were also happy to enjoy the hill station’s crisp, clear winter weather sans precipitation. As usual, we ended the trip with a visit to Pidurutalagala- something that took an extra effort through Desline and MYP5 student Lithira.

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OSC Highlands group at Yapahuwa steps. This was the first day of our five day foray into Sri Lanka’s highlands. Yapahuwa is not in the highlands, but it was on our way and offered a worthy first peak to climb and explore.

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Approaching the eastern face of the Yapahuwa rock fortress, a splendid archeological site on the road up to Anuradhapura. Yapahuwa was briefly a capital of the ancient kings and hosted the tooth relic in the 13th Century.

The hunt for….

Kirtisinghe’s rock frog or marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata) at the Pitiwala Pantana. This is a Sri Lankan point endemic species located in a very, very narrow geographic area.

First night on the adventures….OSC Highlands group climbs Pidurtalagala for sunset.

 

GOOGLE MY MAP OF ROUTE

PAST WWW TRIPS

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

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.

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.

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 & 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.

Sri Pada Field Study 2018 & 2020

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On our way to the summit of Sri Pada. Looking up at the peak on Day 1 of the three day ES&S field study in Peak Wilderness.

Sri Pada Field Study 2020

The annual OSC Sri Pada field study was revived again last month when a small group of OSC’s DP1 students and their teachers spent three days climbing and staying on top of this sacred pinnacle in the midst of the biodiversity-rich Peak Wilderness area. The learning experience gives the class an important opportunity to learn more about the peak, its biodiversity, vertical changes in forest vegetation, contrasting land uses and its cultural significance as an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is also a physically demanding experience that left our group exhausted and sore yet elated by its concluding day.

2018 Recap

Rewinding back to the last academic year, I had chosen to join Will Duncan’s Physics field study at Norton Bridge. My ES&S class was quite small and I was interested in having my students learn more about hydroelectricity in Sri Lanka. We went to Norton Bridge in December 2018 and spent two nights in the area. The highlight was getting a tour of the Wimalasurendra Hydroelectric Power Station. This station is part of the Laxapana valley cascade generating system that utilizes water coming down from the Central highlands through the Kelani river. The 52 MW pant is named after the “father of Sri Lanka’s hydroelectricity program” D. J. Wimalasurendra and was built in the late 1950s (CEB). The students also had a chance to make their own mini-power generators using a small stream at the guest house where we stayed. I used the same stream to look for frogs and was rewarded with a (Pseudophilautus macropus) while Will found an endemic Chesnut Backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanotum) in the adjoining tea garden (my first sighting after 13 years in Sri Lanka).

An important imitative on the 2018 ES&S & Physics field trip was the successful search for the endemic Daffodil orchid (Ipsea speciosa). I’ve been searching for this terrestrial orchid for many years in Sri Lanka and it finally took the wise advice of Nadeera Weerasinghe who suggested searching the Watawala area. That happened to be right near to Norton Bridge and so we stopped to walk along the Peradeniya-Hatton tracks and look for it. The flower is associated with mid-elevation pantanas (grasslands) which have been largely converted to tea estates and timber plantations. It seems reasonable to expect that the populations of Daffodil orchids are found in areas that survived the almost nearly complete landscape conversion to plantation land in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The dominance of plantations in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands helps to explain why they are not common. We can think of daffodil orchids as important indicators of an ecology and landscape now lost to plantation agriculture. Its Western Ghats cousin, the Malabar Daffodil Orchid(Ipsea malabarica) is extremely rare and was thought to be extinct for many years (it was rediscovered in Silent Valley in 1982). The Gurukula Botanical Garden has a healthy population now. My father Merrick Lockwood, who has been passionate about orchids for many years, photographed a single Ipsea malabarica in mid-elevation montane grasslands in the north-west Palani Hills in the 1980s on a family camping trip.

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Class of 2020 all together at the start of the science field trips. (December 2018)

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Class of 2021 all together with a few teachers at the start of the DP1 science field trips. (January 2020)

2020 Sojourn on the Summit

This school year (2019-20) the science trip was placed at the beginning of the 2nd semester and we departed a day after returning from the winter holidays. Three of my students got sick but I was still able to take the remaining four with the support of my colleague (and KIS graduate) Andry Dejong as the female chaperone. The other DP1 science classes were in the same vicinity and we started off together.. The ES&S had to have a flexible approach to the journey and we ended being able to spend the night on the summit with other pilgrims.

Our first night was spent at the Blue Magpie Resort, the upscale sister guest house of the Fishing Hut. It is still within the Maskeliya Plantation’s Moray estate but is downstream a kilometer or so from the Fishing Hut. While it doesn’t enjoy the spectacular view of the peak, the stream at the Blue Magpie is better suited for exploring and swimming. It is also a lot less rustic-something that my group appreciated. Similar to past years, the learning of the field study was 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 (llowland & montane tropical forests, cloud forests, pantanas)
  • Theme 3: Vertical Zonation
  • Theme 4: Biodiversity in a ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’

Montane forest in evening light, Peak Wilderness.

After careful consideration I consulted with the team and then made the decision to bivouac with other pilgrims up at the summit of Sri Pada. 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. Working with Andry, we ensured that the group would go at a slow pace and stay hydrated to avoid these challenges.

We had overcast, but dry conditions, as we started the hike up through montane forest at on January 8th. The altitude at the start point above the Fishing Hut is about 1,500m while the summit is 2,243m -so it’s a rather steep 6 km hike up! There were virtually no leeches which pleased the group (and in particular one unnamed individual who has a phobia for them). The trail had been cleared for the season’s pilgrims but other than one small party led by a monk, we were the only ones on it. We hiked up the path under gnarled trees, around mossy boulders and along the ridge that leads up the eastern face of the peak. Occasionally, we had fleeting views of the peak with its summit hidden by a crown of mist. Our pace was slow and I wanted the group to keep an eye out for facets of the forest. At one of the few stream crossings the students found several small frogs. We took a break to refill water bottles there but were not that successful in photographing the amphibians.

The clearing at 1,850m provides an ideal rest stop and we took a generous break with water, peanuts and chocolate. The group seemed relieved when we reached the main path with its railings, tea shops and steps. However, the novelty of doing monotonous measured steps, ascending concrete steps at 60 degrees soon wore off and they belatedly realized the value of the forest trail. After a tea break we reached the summit by 4:00. Catching our breath, we were able to observe temple rituals and watch the clouds roll over the lower hills as the sun went down. Swathes of mist whipped over the peak; one moment we would be basking in the scarlet light of the sunset and then thick mist would envelop us. As darkness set in I did a short frog search with Rizqi and we found several interesting individuals but were not successful with the photography. The night on the peak was memorable and shared with dozens of other pilgrims as well as a few emaciated dogs who had made the trek up. Early on, our group laid out sleeping bags in a corner of the pilgrim’s quarters under the temple. We snacked on mixture, pita bread and hummus and then tried to sleep. Of course, as more pilgrims and visitors make it up in the early hours the temple and associated spaces of the summit got rather crowded and noisy. I’ve done this before so I managed several good hours of rest but the kids were not happy with the sleep they missed.

By the earliest light the summit of Sri Pada was packed with pilgrims and numerous foreign hikers who had left Nalathani at midnight or after. I positioned my tripod near the lamp-lighting shrine and then coaxed my group out of bed to join me. Andry was up but the kids had a hard time getting out of their sleeping bags. There were clouds in the east which affected the sunrise and mountain shadow. It was more or less clear around the peak and by 7:00 the triangular shadow was being projected down on the western forests of Peak Wilderness. We started down around 8:30 and I guided the group down the Ratnapura steps and then around the mountain on the short-cut back to the main Nalathani route. The path gives you a fine experience of the cloud forest and there were several flowering Rhododendron (R. arboretum) trees below the summit. It wasn’t too long before the strain of the steps set in. Rika sprained her right ankle and I had problems with my knees. We wrapped the sprain and Andry lent me her walking sticks for the last stretch. Although it wasn’t as physically demanding as the ascent, we ambled slowly and carefully down to Nalathani where we met up with our van and started the journey back to Colombo. The group was tired but we reflected back on the significant learning and accomplishments of our journey to the peak.

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Cloud forest below Sri Pada’s summit with a flowering Rhododendron (R. arboretum)- an indicator of this high altitude vegetation type.

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OSC students photographing the shadow of Sri Pada. (January 2020)

Google MyMap of paths from January 2020 Sri Pada field study (click inside to interact with the terrain).

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)
  • OSC Class of 2019 (Sri Pada 2017 trip)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) Laxapana Complex. Web.

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

Hance. Jeremy. “ Scientists discover 8 new frogs in one sanctuary, nearly all Critically Endangered.” Mongabay. 21 March 2013. Web.

Luxman Nadaraja and Sarala Fernando. 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.

Wickramasinghe, L.J. Mendis et al. “Eight new species of Pseudophilautus (Amphibia: Anura: Rhacophoridae) from Sri Pada World Heritage Site (Peak Wilderness), a local amphibian hotspot in Sri Lanka.” Journal of Threatened Taxa. 2013. Web.

 

 

 

Sinharaja 2019 Geography IA Field Studies

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Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) on the Sinharaja boundary. Spotted with the excellent help of Warsha and the good company of Desline, Luca and Rashmi.

In April this year the unprecedented attacks on churches and hotels shook the stability and relative peace that Sri Lanka has enjoyed in the ten years since the conclusion of the Civil War. One of the minor impacts of the events was the suspension of field trips for almost all schools, including OSC. That meant a delay in the annual field study that I have been running in Sinharaja since 2005. My students were disappointed but they understood the situation and I made plans to conduct the study in the early parts of the 2019-20 school year.

The students in the Class of 2020 IBDP Geography class are a special bunch: they enjoy each other’s company, love to engage in field work (regardless of leeches and wet conditions) and are not fazed by time away from their mobile phones. The group of eight includes class clowns, aspiring activists, experts in GIS, individuals determined to get good grades and several dedicated birdwatchers. There are five Sinhala-speaking individuals who played a key role in the interviews that are at the heart of the data collection.

In September, after receiving the green light to conduct our field work, the class packed up a bus and headed south to Sinharaja. There we spent four days conducting field research in the home gardens on the north-western edge of Sinharaja rainforest. OSC’s logistic coordinator Desline Attanayake provided support in the interviews and fully took part in all aspects of the study. We hired four Sinharaja guides each day and they were essential in leading us through home gardens and helping the students to better understand the area. Some of them like, Chandra (Sri Lanka’s 2nd female guide in Sinharaja) , have been working with OSC groups for more than 10 years and they know our format and aims well. All of the surveys were gathered on foot in rain or shine. We now have a deep and intimate relationship with the area. The Kudawa village and forest on this side of Sinharaja offer ideal conditions for student learning, inquiry and field work on socio-economic, tourist and land-use themes. Martin’s Wijesinghe inimitable Forest Lodge,  was once, again the base of operations. We appreciate the forest access and family-like atmosphere that he extends to our OSC groups.

Nisaetus sp. on the road up from Kudawa to Martin’s Forest Lodge. I’m not 100% sure of the identity of this individual. Most likely a Changeable Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) but also possibly a juvenile Legge’s Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus kelaarti).

Each of the students explored an individual geographic research question but pooled all of their sub-questions into a single survey that small groups could run. The actual survey of 48 questions could take up to 20-30 minutes with introductions and a look around their properties. The respondents were gracious with their time and several teams were invited to have refreshments. With four different teams going in different directions we collected 55 different interviews. Once again, 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 are learning to operate.

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The view south from Moulawella Peak. I take this composite panorama of Sinharaja rainforest canopy every time I have the privilege of sitting on top of this beautiful mountain. Soon after, the first drops started to fall on us and we headed down.

Another view of the endemic Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) on the Sinharaja boundary. Spotted with the excellent help of Warsha and the good company of Desline, Luca and Rashmi.

In addition to conducting the surveys, students got a flavor of being ecotourists in a tropical forest. They walked the different forest trails, encountered birds, snakes and spiders, and soaked their feet in jungle streams. Before returning to Colombo on Saturday we hiked up Moulawella peak to take in the full extent of Sinharaja. It was a challenging adventure and we encountered mid-morning shower that thoroughly soaked the group on the descent. But all members of the team made it up and down safely. A highlight of the trip was having an encounter with the rare and endemic Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni). It helped round off an exhilarating adventure in geographic learning.

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

Geography IA Trip 2017

Geography IA Trip 2018

General Sinharaja Reflections

 

SELECTED 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.

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 & Web.

Liyanage, L. P. K. et al. “Assessment of Tourist and Community Perception with Regard to Tourism Sustainability Indicators: A Case Study of Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest, Sri Lanka.” World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology International Journal of Social and Business Sciences. Vol 12 No. 7. 2018. Web.

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.

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.

Sri Lanka Survey Department. Sheets 80_x & 81_x (1:10,000) 2nd Edition. Colombo: 2017. 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.

 

Preliminary Analysis of Land Cover in the Sinharaja Adiviya using Planet Dove Imagery

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Figure 1: Sinharaja Adiviya (or greater Sinharaja area) mapped with Planet Dove imagery. Reduced in size to fit this post.

In March this year I attended a fascinating talk entitled “Sinharaja: From a Timber Reserve to a Biological Treasure Trove. What next?” by Nimal and Savitri Gunatillike at the BMICH in Colombo. The lecture was sponsored by the WNPS in their monthly lecture series. There were several aspects of the talk reflecting back on their decades of research in Sri Lanka’s preeminent forest. Initially, Savitri did botanical studies documenting the diversity of plants in Sinharaja in the period before mechanical logging started (1960s-77). They were witness to period of commercial logging and recovery to a world renowned UNESCO-designated world heritage site. The Gunatilleke’s experiments with rainforest restoration were of particular interest to me, given the lessons that these examples hold for similar non-native plantation areas across the Western Ghats/Sri Lankan biodiversity hotspot. In the lecture, both spoke of the broader Sinharaja area of forest fragments and large patches that are connected or satellites to the core area-something they identified as the Sinharaja Adiviya.

At the same time, I was interested in mapping land cover and forest types in study areas that I take students to for field work. Up to this stage, our DP Geography studies in Sinharaja have utilized Survey Department 1:50,000 and 1:10,000 land use data. It comes as a shape file with the data that I have purchased from their map sales office. This data is satisfactory but we have found significant omissions and inaccuracies in the Kudawa area where OSC students conduct field work (much of the data is based on surveys conducted in the early 1980s).

Forest types and land cover are a key part of the Sinharaja story. Literature about the area’s successful conservation refer to primary  and secondary forest as well as Pinus caribaea plantations (along the border). Yet, I couldn’t locate GIS-ready shapefiles of boundaries of these forest types! The Forest Department has files based on its 2010 forest cover map but these are, thus far, not in the public sphere. I had mapped the area using a Landsat tile from 2005 (published in my blog in 2012) but this was before I had learnt how to conduct a supervised classification of a raster image.

Home garden landscape on the border with Sinharaja rainforest (north west side). (September 2019)

Pinus caribaea plantation in the Sinharaja buffer zone undergoing ecological succession as part of an ecological restoration effort. This area was once dominated by a monoculture community. The intervention of conservationists in thinning pine trees and planting appropriate native species is helping to return it to the climax lowland rainforest community. See linked articles by Professors Mark Ashton, Nimal Gunatillike and others for details of these efforts. (September 2019)

Primary/ridge forest below Moulawella Peak in the Sinharaja core zone. This area did not experience any logging in the period of commercial exploitation in the 1960s-70s. (September 2019)

A Brief Literature Review

A review of land cover analysis in Sinharaja shows that only a few studies have been published to date. The most significant, publicly available study looking at land cover change in Sinharaja was conducted by Buddhika Madurapperuma and Janak Kuruppuarchchi in 2014 (see link). Their analysis used Landsat ETM data between 1993 and 2005 in an area slightly larger than the Sinharaja boundary provided by the Forest Department. They used a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) and Burn Index (BI) to assess changes in three years (2001, 1993 and 2005). The study is thorough but the data that they use is coarse and it is difficult to get a sense of the land cover patterns at a large scale. They conclude with an acknowledgment that ground surveys need to be conducted to better understand the change. Thanura Madusanka Silva published a study entitled “Land Cover Changes of a Tropical Forest Buffer Zone” in 2018 that used Sri Lanka Survey Department data to assess changes in land use in the Kudawa area (see link). This study is based on secondary data and not satellite imagery and it concludes that major change has occurred in home garden areas. There may be other studies that I have missed but the field of land cover change in Sinharaja, as seen in satellite imagery, is ripe for further study.

Figure 2: Supervised classification of land cover based on Planet Dove imagery. Because the images were not collected on the same flight, there are some unavoidable gaps and seams, that are visible on close inspection.

Planet Dove Methodology and Results

Two years ago I became familiar with Planet Dove imagery and saw that it might provide a solution in my attempts to classify land cover in the Sinharaja area. Planet Dove’s constellation of 120+ satellites, which revisit the same areas every day, offers a new opportunity to visualize and analyze any area of the earth. At the beginning of 2019 I successfully applied to Planet’s Education and Research program and was able to download a host of tiles of study areas. I found a series of cloud-free scenes from December 2018 and downloaded them. These are from around December 18 but some were collected at slightly different dates. Using ArcGIS, I mosaiced these various tiles so that I had most of the area Sinharaja Adiviya covered. Because the images were not collected on the same flight there is some unavoidable gaps and visible seams, that are visible on close inspection. The improved spatial resolution of 3-5m means that it is easier to distinguish between different land cover types (lowland rainforest, vs, Pinus caribaea plantation, for example). Initially I worked on a map using the non-visible near infrared (NIR 780-860 nm) layer to highlight vegetation (see figure 1).

In the second part of my efforts I conducted a supervised classification using tools in ArcGIS’s Spatial Analyst extension toolbar. For land cover type, I collected between 5 and 10 training samples and merged each of them into their own distinct land cover type. The classified image (Figure 2) clearly highlights the dense lowland rainforest pockets in a landscape dominated by home garden and tea agriculture. The effort to categorize the Pinus caribaea plantation was partially successful. However, there are errors with some of the classification. For example, plantation in the midst of dense (primary) forest near Moulawella peak.

Conclusion/Future

In the next attempt I plan to collect more training samples in the hopes of getting a more accurate picture of the land cover patterns. A focused study on the pine forest in the buffer area near Kudawa deserves attention. Some of these areas are being successfully restored to their original lowland rainforest vegetation type and time a change study would be illuminating. There are areas of the landscape that I am very familiar with (the Kudawa tourist and village zone) while I have far less personal experience in other areas like western Sinharaja and the various forest fragments. Further studies of landcover need to be verified with ground truthing in the field.

Figure 3: The Kudawa area of Sinharaja with classification of land cover based on Planet Dove imagery. In this image I have highlighted the popular tourist area around the settlement of Kudawa.  The lower part of the map experienced mechanical logging 40+ years ago (some of it is encircled in red). The stream running down to the Sinharaja ticket gate is not depicted on this map and is missing from Survey Department 1:10,000 sheets that were used for the hydro/stream layer.

 

SELECTED REFERENCES (Land Cover Focus)

Ashton, Mark et al.  “Restoration pathways for rain forest in southwest Sri Lanka: A review of concepts and models.” Forest Ecology and Management 154(3):409-430. December 2001. Web.

Ashton, Mark et al.  “Restoration of rain forest beneath pine plantations: A relay floristic model with special application to tropical South Asia.” Forest Ecology and Management 329:351–359. October 2014. Web.

Gunatilleke, Nimal, 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.

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.

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

Madurapperuma Buddhika  and Kuruppuarachchi Janaka.“Detecting Land-cover Change using Mappable Vegetation Related Indices: A Case Study from the Sinharaja Man and the Biosphere Reserve.” Journal of Tropical Forestry and Environment Vol.4, No 01 (2014) 50-58. May 2014. Web.

Madusanka, Thanura. “Land Cover Changes of Tropical Forest Buffer zone A case study of Kudawa Village, Sinharaja forest buffer zone; Sri Lanka.” International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications. October 2018. Web.

Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. Proceedings of the Stakeholder Workshop on Landscape Planning & Management. 29 September 2017. Web. See page 10 for Sinharaja map.

Planet Team. Planet Application Program Interface: In Space for Life on Earth. San Francisco, CA. 2017. Web.

Sri Lanka Survey Department. District Land Use Maps. 1983. Print/Web.

UN-REDD Programme. Sri Lanka’s Forest Reference Level submission to the UNFCCC. January 2017. Web.

Wijesooriya W. A. D. A. and, C. V. S. Gunatilleke. “Buffer Zone of the Sinharaja Biosphere Reserve in Sri Lanka and Its Management Strategies.” Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka. 31(1–2), 57. June 2003. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2019-09-16 at 7:41 pm

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 rare 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). (photo taken in January 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.

Harpactes_fasciatus_Sinharaja_1(MR)(06_19)

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.

T_trigonocephalus_at_Sinharaja_tongue_1a(MR)(6_19)

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.

Glaucidium_castanotum_at_Sinharaja_3a(MR)(06_19)

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.

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

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

Pethiyagoda, Rohan. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2013. Print.

Protected Planet. Sri Lanka PA Boundaries. August 2019.

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.

 

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.

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.

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 concluded 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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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