Ian Lockwood

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Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands WWW Experience 2017

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Afternoon composite view of Sri Pada from Horton Plains National Park.

Afternoon composite view of Sri Pada from Horton Plains National Park.

Last week during the surprising, but welcome, return of monsoon conditions OSC’s secondary school set out across our island home to experience Sri Lanka as part of the annual Week Without Walls program. Students and teachers spent the week learning in unconventional classrooms that emphasized Sri Lankan culture, history and ecology as well as service and outdoor education. I had the privilege of leading a modest-sized group of MYP5/DP1 travelers on a circuitous tour of the Central Highlands. The learning focus of this “microtrip” was on photo documentation to better understand the ecology and landscape of Sri Lanka’s mountainous interior.

Aerial image of montane forest canopy at @ 1,000 meters.

Montane forest canopy at @ 1,300 meters near to Belihuloya.

Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii) a rare winter visitor to Sri Lanka. Photographed at Nuwara Eliya’s Victoria Park feeding on a tree () that is also found in the Western Ghats.

Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii) a rare winter visitor to Sri Lanka. Photographed at Nuwara Eliya’s Victoria Park feeding on a tree () that is also found in the Western Ghats.

This is the third year that I have led the Highlands WWW experience. Once again we had a group of enthusiastic students who didn’t’ mind getting up early or living in somewhat primitive conditions while we were on the adventure. We spent the first night in tents at Belhihuloya followed by two nights in a basic dormitory on the Horton Plains plateau. Our final night was spent in comfort in Nuwara Eliya where students and teachers were able to clean up, use their phones, eat well and then participate in several frog and bird outings. A wet snap caused by a low-pressure system in the Bay of Bengal gave us rain (and precious little sunlight) on almost every day. We were able to do almost all the walks but were not able to hike to Kirigalpotta because of wet and windy conditions. I used the extra time to go deeper into the ecology of HPNP and teach photographic skills to the group. All the students brought functioning cameras and they were able to experiment with composition, lighting and photographing lizards, birds and moving water. Joshua, an MYP5 student, got several impressive night shots during a rare clearing of the night skies above Mahaeliya bungalow in HPNP.

From a biodiversity spotting point of view we did well. This year we saw and photographed both the Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii) and Pygmy (Cophotis ceylanica) in HPNP. While in Nuwara Eliya we did the wonderful frog walk with Ishanda Senevirathna. Aside from some of the usual endemic species we spotted the Nest Frog (Pseudophillauts femoralis) that we had not seen last year. Bird-wise the whole group got to see the rare winter visiting Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii) in Nuwara Eliya’s Vitoria Park. At HPNP we saw the Dull Blue Flycatcher (Eumyias sordida), SL Whiteeye (Zosterops ceylonensis), SL Wood Pigeon (Columba torringtoniae), plenty of Yellow Eared Bulbuls (Pycnonotus penicillatus) and several other species. On a damp, misty hike up Totupola Kanda (Sri Lanka’s 3rd highest peak at 2,360 m), we came across at least three different piles of leopard scat and observed scratch marks on tree bark!

One of the new developments this year was to use a drone to better view some of the areas that we were visiting. There were rules against using it in HPNP but we were able to do an excellent series of flights over forest near Lanka Ella falls. The Phantom 3 recorded some amazing scenes of the forest canopy with a new flush of leaves. DP1 student Anaath Jacob did the piloting while I directed the forest sequences. I am now learning how to pilot the drone and look forward to better understanding forest landscapes using this important new tool.

Up close and personal to a female sambar (Rusa unicolor) deer in Horton Plains. They have become habituated to people thanks to the propensity of visitors feeding them (against park regulations).

Up close and personal to a female sambar (Rusa unicolor) deer in Horton Plains. They have become habituated to people thanks to the propensity of visitors feeding them (against park regulations).

Endemic cloud forest lizaed species from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. Left (& possibly center): the Pygmy lizard (Cophotis ceylanica). Right: the Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii).

Endemic cloud forest lizaed species from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. Left (& possibly center): the Pygmy lizard (Cophotis ceylanica). Right: the Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii).

Cloud forest on Pidurutalagala (Sri Lanka’s highest peak) .

Cloud forest on Pidurutalagala (Sri Lanka’s highest peak) .

Pseudophillauts femoralis, a rare endemic shrub frog from Sri Lanka’s cloud forest. Identification courtesy of Ishanda Senevirathna of St. Andrew’s.

Pseudophillauts femoralis, a rare endemic shrub frog from Sri Lanka’s cloud forest. Identification courtesy of Ishanda Senevirathna of St. Andrew’s.

More diversity from the Highlands WW: Montane Hourglass Frog (Taruga eques), fungi (Phallus indusiatus) at Belihuloya and the endemic Yellow Eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus penicillatus) in Nuwara Eliya.

More diversity from the Highlands WW: Montane Hourglass Frog (Taruga eques), fungi (Phallus indusiatus) at Belihuloya and the endemic Yellow Eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus penicillatus) in Nuwara Eliya.

2017 WWW group at (Left) Baker’s falls in Horton Plains and (right) on the 2nd day on the way to Lanka Ella falls.

2017 WWW group at (Left) Baker’s falls in Horton Plains and (right) on the 2nd day on the way to Lanka Ella falls.

2017 Sri Lanka Highlands WWW group photographed at the strange telephone booth in Horton Plains National Park. Note the dry grass-a result of a severe drought and failed North East Monsoon in the months prior to our arrival.

2017 Sri Lanka Highlands WWW group photographed at the strange telephone booth in Horton Plains National Park. Note the dry grass-a result of a severe drought and failed North East Monsoon in the months prior to our arrival.

 

PAST WWW TRIPS

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

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.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.

Learning in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands (Part 1): Understanding Ecology through Landscapes

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Totupola Kanda (2,360m) Sri Lanka’s third highest peak seen from the Maha Eliya bungalow. We hiked up to the summit on Day 2 of the WWW trip.

Totupola Kanda (2,360m), Sri Lanka’s third highest peak, seen from the Maha Eliya bungalow. We hiked up to the summit on Day 2 of the WWW trip.

In the last few months I have had the opportunity to lead groups of OSC students into Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands for two different learning experiences. In December we did the annual field study in Sri Pada based out of the Fishing Hut in Maskeliya plantation’s Moray Estate. As usual, my class and I focused on studying themes of vertical zonation, biodiversity, land use and forest types. We were a small group made up of seven students, one parent and OSC’s Grade 3 teacher, Erika Williams, who accompanied us as a female chaperone. At the end of January I was back in the hills again, this time with my Week Without Walls microtrip. In this second year, we focused the learning though an MYP-inspired Interdisciplinary Unit (IDU). The focus was to learn about the ecology of the highlands through photo documentation with daily hikes being a key aspect. Over five packed days we looped though the hills starting in the south at Belihuloya and ending up on Sri Lanka’s highest peak Pidurutalagala before returning to Colombo.

Learning about the landscapes, both natural and human influenced, was a key part of the WWW learning experience. We started on a hike out of Belihuloya navigating rice paddies and intermediate zone semi-evergreen forest. Later we walked through pine plantations, swam in cold mountain pools, climbed the three highest mountains in Sri Lanka and spent several nights in the high altitude Horton Plains. The weather was dry and in the plains we awoke to frost before we did a brisk hike on the World’s End trail. The group exerted themselves every day- helping to address the Action or Activity IB CAS requirement. There were gastronomical joys –in simple camp food and more lavish spreads on the last day. The 15 students developed a newfound appreciation for hot water, electricity and cell phone connectivity. They did amazingly well and, despite a few stumbles into serious mud, came through in good spirits. In this post I share some of the different landscapes in panoramic format. Part II highlights the biodiversity that we encountered.

OSC students approaching the summit of Kirigalpotta (2,388 m) Sri Lanka’s 2nd highest peak. There is a bit of drop to the north of the peak that, when wet ,can look like from milk from a distance-hence the name of the peak. We had clear, albeit hazy, views back to Totupola Kanda (left peak) and World’s End (under the clouds to the right). Virtually the whole trail to the peak and back is visible behind the group.

OSC students approaching the summit of Kirigalpotta (2,388 m) Sri Lanka’s 2nd highest peak on Day 3. There is a bit of drop to the north of the peak that, when wet ,can look like from milk from a distance-hence the name of the peak. We had clear, albeit hazy, views back to Totupola Kanda (left peak) and World’s End (under the clouds to the right). Virtually the whole trail to the peak and back is visible behind the group.

Healthy evergreen forest on the southern slopes of Horton Plains seen above Bambarakanda Falls. On the right, the land had previously been cleared for either tea or pine plantations. Grasses have now taken over the area and some patches show signs of recent burning. The altitude here is approximately 600 meters.

Healthy evergreen forest on the southern slopes of Horton Plains seen above Bambarakanda Falls. On the right, the land had previously been cleared for either tea or pine plantations. Grasses have now taken over the area and some patches show signs of recent burning. The altitude here is approximately 600 meters.

Calophyllum walkeri sentinels in a path of dieback cloud forest near the Ohiya entrance to Horton Plains National Park.

Calophyllum walkeri sentinels in a patch of dieback cloud forest near the Ohiya entrance to Horton Plains National Park.

Looking across Ambawella farms and Hakgala to Pidurutalagala (Sri Lanka’s highest peak) from the slopes of Totupola Kanda at the end of a quick hike on Day 2 of the WWW experience. This was the first time that an OSC WWW group hiked up to Totupola (the third highest peak). It is an easy gradual trail through “pygmy forest”-literally waste level, wind blown cloud forest covered in mosses and epiphytes. There was also a surprisingly high number of leopard scat on the path.

Looking across Ambawella farms and Hakgala to Pidurutalagala (Sri Lanka’s highest peak) from the slopes of Totupola Kanda at the end of a quick hike on Day 2 of the WWW experience. This was the first time that an OSC WWW group hiked up to Totupola (the third highest peak). It is an easy gradual trail through “pygmy forest”-literally waste-level, wind-blown cloud forest covered in mosses and epiphytes. There was also a surprisingly high number of leopard scats on the path.

Shades of Eravikulam and the high Western Ghats? Actually, the landscapes of Horton Plains are both similar and yet very different than their cousins across the Palk Straits. Here south of the World’s End trials patanas and cloud forest highlight the unique aspects of Sri Lanka’s high altitude landscapes. Note that cloud forest dominates ridge tops while the patanas (grasslands) fill the valleys. This is opposite to what is found in the shola/grassland mosaic vegetation of the high altitude Western Ghats ranges. Similar to the Nilgiri Hills the patanas have healthy populations of fire and frost-resistant Rhododendron arboreum trees.

Shades of Eravikulam and the high Western Ghats? Actually, the landscapes of Horton Plains are both similar and yet very different than their cousins across the Palk Straits. Here, south of the World’s End trail, patanas (grasslands) and cloud forest highlight the unique aspects of Sri Lanka’s high altitude landscapes. The cloud forest dominates ridge tops while the patanas fill the valleys. This is opposite to what is found in the shola/grassland mosaic vegetation of the high altitude Western Ghats ranges. Similar to the Nilgiri Hills, the patanas have healthy populations of fire and frost-resistant Rhododendron arboreum trees.

Cloud forest and frosty valleys of patanas in Horton Plains National Park.

View 1: Cloud forest and frosty valleys of patanas in Horton Plains National Park.

View 2: Cloud forest and frosty valleys of patanas in Horton Plains National Park. Kirigalpotta (2,388 m) Sri Lanka’s 2nd highest peak is undistinguished high point in the middle of the image. It has a more prominent, pyramid profile when see from the west.

View 2: Cloud forest and frosty valleys of patanas in Horton Plains National Park. Kirigalpotta (2,388 m) Sri Lanka’s 2nd highest peak is undistinguished high point in the center-right of the image. It has a more prominent, pyramid profile when seen from the west.

Tree ferns (Cyathea crinita) seen from the road to Pidurutalagala with Sri Pada - out of focus - in the back ground.

Tree ferns (Cyathea crinita) seen from the road to Pidurutalagala with Sri Pada – out of focus – in the back ground.

Sri Pada seen from the summit of Pidurutalagala Sri Lanka’s highest point at 2,524 m. We experienced a spectacularly clear day with crisp views looking at the Central Highlands to the south of the peak.

Sri Pada seen from the summit of Pidurutalagala Sri Lanka’s highest point at 2,524 m. We experienced a spectacularly clear day with crisp views looking at the Central Highlands to the south of the peak. Most of the foreground was once cloud forest and has now been converted to vegetable gardens, timber plantations and tea estates.

Looking down at Nuwara Eliya’s Gregory Lake (altitude @ 1,868 meters) seen from Pidurutalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest point (2,524 m). The area in and around Sri Lanka’s premier hill station is well known for its tea, tourism and productive vegetable plots.

Looking down at Nuwara Eliya’s Gregory Lake (altitude @ 1,868 meters) seen from Pidurutalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest point (2,524 m). The area in and around Sri Lanka’s premier hill station is well known for its tea, tourism and productive vegetable plots.

View south from the lower slopes of Pidurutalagala. The panorama is snitched together from nine different images and greatly reduced in size in order to upload it here. Key mountains are labeled on the image.

View south from the lower slopes of Pidurutalagala. The panorama is stitched together from nine different images and greatly reduced in size in order to upload it here. Key mountains are labeled on the image.

OSC Highlands microtrip group on Pidurutalagala, 29 January 2016.

OSC’s Highlands microtrip group on Pidurutalagala on Day 5 (29 January 2016). Back Row from left to right: Rosanne, Shenali, Leoni, Aryaman, Sanoj, Khalis, Ifane, Jamaal, Mohamed & Amir. Front Row: Kamila, Alejandra, Diana, Malaika, Maya, Yoon Hwan, Anindo & Ian

 

The 2016 Sri Lanka Highlands WWW route map. Click on the link below for it to open in ArGIS online.

The 2016 Sri Lanka Highlands WWW route map. Click on the link below for it to open in ArGIS online.

MAP LINK

References provided in Part II:

Written by ianlockwood

2016-02-20 at 2:48 am

Learning in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands (Part 2): Understanding Ecology through Biodiversity

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Male Pseudophilautus femoralis in cloud forest above Nuwara Eliya.

Male dull green shrub frog (Pseudophilautus viridis) in cloud forest above Nuwara Eliya.

Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands have been recognized for their significant biodiversity. The area is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site yet (adopted in 2010) and there is a growing awareness about its unique flora and fauna. The Highlands are composed of the mountainous region at the heart of the southern island and include significant areas such as Peak Wilderness, Horton Plains National Park, the Pidurutalagala forests, the Knuckles protected area and several smaller tracts of forest. Most of the Central Highlands have largely been cleared of original vegetation in support of the plantation (mainly tea) industry. This happened during the 19th and early 20th centuries during colonial rule though recent decades have seen loss of forest to hydroelectric dams, plantations expansion and other human land uses. Today the remaining protected areas may be a small percentage of the total area, but they are well protected and offer the opportunity to experience some of Sri Lanka’s unique biodiversity.

Collage of low res snapshots taken of life forms and waste on the trail to Sri Pada during the DP1 ES&S field study there in December 2015.

Collage of low res snapshots taken of life forms and waste on the trail to Sri Pada during the DP1 ES&S field study there in December 2015.

The elusive Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii) one of the most difficult birds to see in Sri Lanka. Spotted at Nuwara Eliya’s Victoria Park with the expert guidance of Ishanda Senevirathna, the naturalist at Jetwings’ St. Andrew’s Hotel.

The elusive Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii), one of the most difficult birds to see in Sri Lanka. Male above and female in the inset image. Spotted at Nuwara Eliya’s Victoria Park during the Week Without Walls with the expert guidance of Ishanda Senevirathna, the naturalist at Jetwings’ St. Andrew’s Hotel.

Calotes nigrilabris, the black-lipped lizard, basking in the sun just off the precipitous slope of Kirglpotta’s summit. This agamid (dragon) species is endemic to the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.

Calotes nigrilabris, the black-lipped lizard, basking in the sun just off the precipitous slope of Kirglpotta’s summit. This agamid (dragon) species is endemic to the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.

A study of Pseudophillauts femoralis, a rare endemic shrub frog from Sri Lanka’s cloud forest. All females except the bright green male in the upper right. Identification courtesy of Ishanda Senevirathna of St. Andrew’s. Kamilla found the male that is photographed here and the MYP5 students helped with holding lights.

A study of Pseudophillauts viridis, a rare endemic shrub frog from Sri Lanka’s cloud forest. All females except the bright green male in the upper right. Identification courtesy of Ishanda Senevirathna of St. Andrew’s. Kamilla found the male that is photographed here and the MYP5 students helped with holding lights.

Several different shrub frogs including Pseudophillauts sp. and others (to be updated shortly) from the Nuwara Eliya nocturnal frog walk.

Several different shrub frogs including Pseudophillauts schmarda and others (to be updated shortly) from the Nuwara Eliya nocturnal frog walk.

The Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii), an edemic cloud forest species from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. This female (top image) and male (middle and lower image) were photographed in Horton Plains National Park where their populations are stable though not always easily seen.

The Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii), an endemic cloud forest species from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. This female (top image) and male (middle and lower image) were photographed in Horton Plains National Park where their populations are stable, though not always easily seen.

 

PAST WWW TRIPS

PAST SRI PADA STUDIES

  • OSC Class of 2010 (Sri Pada 2008 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2011 (Sri Pada 2009 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2012 (Sri Pada 2010 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2013 (Sri Pada 2011 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2014 (Sri Pada 2012trip)
  • OSC Class of 2015 (Sri Pada 2013 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2016 (Sri Pada 2014 trip)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

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.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.

Class of 2017 stopping at the clearing on their way up to the summit of Sri Pada. We had clear views of the peak and surrounding forest all the way up to the temple at the summit.

Class of 2017 stopping at the clearing on their way up to the summit of Sri Pada. We had clear views of the peak and surrounding forest all the way up to the temple at the summit. Back row: Carolyn, Brittany, Ahnaf, Sanoj, Shenali & Erika. Front row: Ian, Ariana and Jamaal. Photograph by Abbi Pilapitiya.

 

Explorations in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands

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Early morning mist burning off above cloud forest at Little World's End. Trail to Kirigalpota passing through expansive patanas (grasslands).

Early morning mist burning off above cloud forest at Little World’s End.  (Lower image) Trail to Kirigalpota passing through expansive patanas (grasslands).

In 2010 Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands, the rugged assemblage of hills and mountains in the middle of the island, were recognized as a UNESCO designated World Heritage site. This came a full two years before the neighboring, sister range in India’s Western Ghats received a similar designation (UNESCO). Both areas are blessed with high levels of biodiversity and are under pressure from plantation agriculture, changing land use patterns, mining, large hydroelectric projects and other activities associated with human populations. Conservation International in its designation of biodiversity hotspots (based on the paper in Nature by Norman Myers et al) placed the two areas in its first list of 25 biodiversity hotspots in 2000. The similarities in vegetation, climatic zone, fauna, topography and other factors and makes sense for anyone familiar with the two areas. Looking to learn more about these themes a group of students and teachers from the Overseas School of Colombo recently explored deep and high into the Central Highlands.

OSC’s Week Without Walls program is now in its seventh year of operation and it continues to develop as a model experiential education program here in Sri Lanka. It has been my privilege to be actively involved with the program and coordinate the different learning experiences. The planning is a continuous process, but it starts in earnest at the beginning of the school year. Soon after the winter break, when the second term starts, the entire secondary school fans out across the length and breadth of the island. The program is rooted in a belief that learning is often best achieved through experiencing what you are learning and not simply talking about it or getting lectured in it (see the David Kolb link below for more on this). OSC’s WWW learning experiences all have strong curricular links that are intended to incorporate active learning rather than be a passive sightseeing trip.  In the Middle Year’s Program (MYP) that comes though individual classes (science, humanities, etc.) while in the DP it is channeled through the Creativity Action and Service program.

The WWW program also has a key goal of helping OSC’s students and teachers get to know our host nation of Sri Lanka better. This aspect of learning was inspired by place-based pedagogies developed by the Orion Society. I was exposed to these ideas while participating in Lesley University’s ETL (MSc) program. International schools in our part of the world are good at organizing field trips outside of their host countries-often at considerable expense. With OSC’s WWW program we have tried to do something quite different. We want to help students better understand and engage with issues at home. Sri Lanka is, of course, a wonderful place to be experimenting with this pedagogy and there is a diversity of locations and issues to engage with. The OSC WWW program focuses on issues of culture, geography, ecology and history. A few of the older groups grapple with deeper, more complex issues of post conflict reconciliation and rural poverty. We still have a long way to fully develop the ideals of this pedagogy but it has been a rewarding journey of learning thus far.

Exploring the trail towards Lanka Ella falls.

Exploring the trail towards Lanka Ella falls. This is roughly 1,000 meters elevation and just south-east of the HPNP boundary.

Approaching Kirigalpotta though a landscape  very familiar to anyone who knows the upper Western Ghats. Note that the

Approaching Kirigalpotta through a landscape very familiar to anyone who knows the upper Western Ghats. Note that the cloud forests occupy hill tops while valleys have the patanas (grasslands). This is a reverse of what is found in the shola/grassland mosaic of the upper Western Ghats.

The Central Highlands learning experience was one of four options that the two upper classes (MYP 5 and DP1) could choose from. The other trips included a visit to the Jaffna peninsula with a service component at the SOS Village, the “coast to coast” cycling trip based out of Arugam Bay and an art/culture/history experience in the Cultural Triangle. I designed and facilitated the Highlands trip with the active support of Will Duncan (DP Physics and Science HOD) and our school’s doctor, Indrika Senaratna. In a sense it was a logical outgrowth from past WWW learning programs that I designed in Sinharaja (2013) and the Dry Zone (2014). Will and Indrika have similar interests in the ecology (and especially bird life) of Sri Lanka. We were a good team and the 15 students were engaged and enthusiastic bout the daily walks, dormitory accommodation, chilly conditions and general flow of things.

Our five-day journey circumnavigated and delved into the highest ranges of the Central Highlands and exposed student to the unique ecology of the cloud forest/patana mosaic. Each day had one or more hikes with key hikes being taken to Kirigalpotta (Sri Lanka’s second highest peak at 2,390 m), World’s End and a surprise visit up Sri Lanka’s highest peak at Pidurutalagala (2,535 m). We started at Belihulhoya, which sits immediately below and to the south of Horton Plains. For this stage of the trip we were assisted by the Ecoteam Sri Lanka company. They have a camp at Kinchiguna and did a fine job with taking care of us. Our itinerary in Belihuloya included several walks and water fall explorations before we moved on the next day. Highlights included several important rare bird sightings including an Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, two different Coppersmith Barbets and a Chesnut-backed Cuckoo (with spotting provided by Will’s sharp eyes). Three different Grizzled Giant Squirrels (Ratufa macroura) also gave us good sightings of what is a relatively rare mammal in the Western Ghats.

At the heart of the learning experience was a two-night, three-day stay at Horton Plains National Park. The park is an important protected area in Sri Lanka because it hosts a relatively large area of undisturbed cloud forest/patana (grasslands). Biodiversity is especially high here in these highest-most highlands of the island. In recent years it has also become exceedingly popular with tourists, such that it is the most visited national park in Sri Lanka (see Sarath Kotagama’s review of Rohan Petiyagoda’s outstanding book for more on this).

You would think that staying in a basic dormitory with limited hot water, a few solar powered light bulbs and no cellphone connectivity would drive teenagers crazy. On the contrary, our group thrived and there were no complaints. We ate delicious, suitably spicy Sri Lankan food cooked up by the two caretakers for almost every meal in the park. At night we looked (mostly in vain) for the stars and more successfully with a few small shrub frogs attracted to the lights of the building. The students kept field journals, with some producing fine sketches, water colors and written reflections. They also enjoyed being with each other but when it came to lights out at 9:30 there were few complaints and the group fell into a fatigued slumber soon after.

In the park our primary task and highlight was to do a day hike up to Kirigalpotta, Sri Lanka’s 2nd highest peak. It is not a strenuous hike but is remarkable for the vegetation and views of the landscape that one encounters along the way. We were also fortunate to be the only group on the trail while just down the valley hundreds of tourists were doing the World’s End walk. There was a new maroon/red flush in the Calophyllum walkeri trees and the cloud forest canopy was dazzling. Will was able to get his Dull Blue Flycatcher and share the sighting with several of us. I had good sightings of Sri Lankan Wood Pigeons and a Black Eagle. We didn’t see any mammals on the trail in contrast to the road near Farr Inn where the sambar approach tourist vehicles (see image below). On the way back it rained heavily on the group.

From the lowlands to the highlands: OSC's WWW group on the move.

From the lowlands to the highlands: OSC’s WWW group on the move at Belihuloya (looking up to the highlands), take a breather on Kirigalpotta slopes and then posing  on the summit of Pidurutalagala (photo courtesy of Will Duncan).

New flush of Calophyllum walkeri flanking the World's End trail.

New flush of Calophyllum walkeri on the Kirigalpotta trail flanking a scene from the the World’s End trail.

OSC group on the Kirigalpotta trail & Lanka Ella Falls (lower left).

OSC group on the Kirigalpotta trail & Lanka Ella Falls (lower left). Rusa unicolor being a little too friendly than one would like in a national park (there is a significant problem with people feeding them from their vehicles).

Before leaving Horton Plains on Thursday we woke up early and took the group on the World’ End trail. With  a name like “World’s End” it is understandable that visitors and Sri Lankans all want to see what it is all about. As a result, it is very well worn path that leads to several point along the escarpment of the Central Highlands. There are very steep slopes and cliffs with vegetation that fall abruptly into the southern plains near Belihuloya. I wanted to be at the trailhead by 6:00 am before the entrance gates opened and the busloads of tourists started arriving (we could do this because we were staying in the park). It was misty when we set out from the dormitory but the clouds soon burnt off and it felt like the beginning of time on the cloud forest shrouded trail. We reached the escarpment edge at Little World’s End just as the sun was coming up over the eastern edge of the Central Highlands. World’s End was equally stunning with clear views back to the rice paddies of Belihuloya and the large tanks on the plains. Our group slowed down to take pictures and take in the view, which is when the large numbers of tourists caught up to us. On the trail back to Farr Inn via Baker’s Falls I took in the scenery paying special attention to similarities and differences to the shola/grasslands systems that a few months ago I had walked though in Eravikulam.

World’s End ;looking south before the tourists arrive. We had clear views down to Belhuloya where we had just been before moving up to Horton Plains.

Little World’s End, looking south before the tourists arrive. We had clear views down to Belihuloya where we had just been before moving up to Horton Plains. The Suiyakanda part of Sinharaja (Rakwana Hills) is on the horizon at the center of the image.

Study of an endemic  shrub frog () found in the Maha Eliya dormitory toilet.

Study of an endemic shrub frog (Pseudophilautus schmarda) found in the Maha Eliya dormitory toilet.

Endemic reptiles from the Central Highlands. Clockwise from top: A bent-toe gecko from a toilet in Belihuloya (species awaiting confirmation). The Rhinoceros Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii) from cloud forest near Nuwara Eliya. Aspidura trachyprocta from the entrance of HPNP.

Endemic reptiles from the Central Highlands. Clockwise from top: A bent-toe gecko from a toilet in Belihuloya (species awaiting confirmation). The Rhinoceros Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii) from cloud forest near Nuwara Eliya. Aspidura trachyprocta from the entrance of HPNP.

Our last night was spent in the hill station of Nuwara Eliya located at the middle of the Central Highlands at 1,860 meters. Our stay was designed as a chance to allow students to clean up and eat well after three days of camp food. It also provided an opportunity to go looking for the very hard-to-find Pied Thrush (Ficedula subrubra) and Kashmiri Flycatcher (Zoothera wardii) in the town’s Victoria Park. That exercise proved to be a good opportunity for showing students to what lengths people will go to find hard to see birds! There were Yellow Eared Bulbuls, Forest Wagtails and Will saw a single Kashmir flycatcher but no one saw the thrush! The next morning while looking for the difficult to see SL Whistling Thrush (see my image of it from Sri Pada here) we had a good encounter with the endemic Rhinoceros Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii) in a cloud forest patch near the town dump.

Cloud forest on Pidurutalagala: An appreciation.

Cloud forest on Pidurutalagala: An appreciation.

My highlight of the Nuwara Eliya part of the trip was taking an unplanned visit up to the summit of Pidurutalagala. This unassuming mountain marks the highest point (2,524 m) on the island. It hosts a large area of undisturbed cloud forests and has a commanding 360° view of the island. However, for the last 30 years it has been off limits as there is a military radar station on the summit. It has been my habit when in Nuwara Eliya to inquire about how to get up and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it is now open to the public. You can’t walk it but after showing your ID you can drive up the steep, concrete road. It winds its way though a mature eucalyptus plantation and then exquisite cloud forest. Gnarled, stunted trees dripping with epiphytes and mosses crowd the road and signs warn you about leopards in the area. I would have loved to have stopped, especially when Sri Pada came into view, but we followed the guidelines not to and drove steadily along the 7 km road to the summit. At the top is a complex of buildings, antennas and different radar. After checking in, visitors are allowed to walk around it and take photographs looking away from the station. We had good views over Nuwara Eliya town but the more distant peak in Horton Plains and Peak Wilderness were under cloud cover.

From the highest point in Sri Lanka at mid-morning, our group coasted down the curvy, beautifully paved A7 highway to sea level, arriving back in Colombo by late afternoon. School has now resumed after several holidays and SAISA sports interruptions. This week the school is hosting an exhibition of student learning on the WWW program. Speaking for myself as well as most- if nota all- of the group it was an unforgettable exploration. Here is what one of our students wrote about the trip:

“This WWW was i think the best trip i’ve been on since i have arrived in Sri Lanka. It was the right amount of people and gave us a good balance between being isolated from technology and being in contact with nature as well as giving us some free time at the end to relax and appreciate the time we had. I think the sleeping arrangements and the food were good the way they were, that way us kids learned how to appreciate what we have down in Colombo.”

Elevation map of the Central Highlights emphasizing areas that the 2015 WWW Highlands WWW group visited.

Elevation map of the Central Highlights emphasizing areas that the 2015 WWW Highlands WWW group visited. I utilized a mosaic of newly released 30m (1 arc second) USGS digital elevation models (DEM) to show relief and elevation. It marks an important personal cartographic milestone for me as it has taken several attempts to understand how best to use GIS data to make these representations of relief.

As part of their learning experience all of our DP students use a reflective blog to record their thoughts about and evidence of their learning. For student perspectives on this highlands trip, take special note of Prerna Das’ entry and Nandini Hannak’s post.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

Kolb, D. Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1984. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Amongst the Sacred and the Sublime in the Dry Zone.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2014. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “A Week Without Walls in Sinharaja.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2013. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Explorations in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2014. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “ Getting to Know Sri Lanka Intimately.” Sunday Times (Education Times). February 2015. Print & Web.

Myers, Norman et al. “Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities.” Nature. 24 February 2000. Print & Web.

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.

Sobel, David. Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities. Great Barrington: Orion Society, 2004. Print.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.

2014 OSC Field Study to Sri Pada

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Sri Pada Collage 2014

Last December OSC’s Diploma Program students once gain explored the Peak Wilderness area and made a pilgrimage to the summit Sri Lanka’s sacred mountain, Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak). The idea behind this annual field study is to better understand the mountain’s ecology and appreciate its value as a stronghold of biodiversity in a rich Sri Lankan cultural landscape. As this blog has recorded the experience started out as an Environmental Systems and Societies (ES&S) field study but it now incorporates the three major DP1 science classes. This year the DP Physics students, led by HOD Will Duncan, accompanied us part way and then stayed at a guest house near Maskeliya Lake. They focused on themes of power generation and were able to visit a CEB hydroelectric turbine and later use natural stream flow to test electricity generating devises built by the students. They were supported by Dr. Indrika Senaratna. Tim Getter, the DP Biology teacher and I with the support of colleagues Dawn McCusker and Taiga Shipley took our students deeper into the wilderness to conduct our learning activities at the Fishing Hut.

OSC's Class of 2016 taking a breakfast break at Kitulgala on the way up to Sri Pada.

OSC’s Class of 2016 taking a breakfast break at Kitulgala on the way up to Sri Pada.

Ground orchid () in grasslands in collage with montane forest canopy view.

Ground orchid (Satyrium nepalense) in grasslands in a collage with montane forest canopy view.

As we have done for the past several years, we were based at the Moray Estate Fishing Huts. These rustic cabins are rented out to people willing to put up with simple amenities in order to experience a uniquely beautiful location. The huts lie at the boundary between manicured tea estates and mid-elevation sub-montane tropical rainforest. The Environmental Systems and Societies (ES&S) class focused on four themes of study:

  • Theme 1: Land Use Variation (anthropocentric vs. natural ecosystems, plantation agriculture etc.)
  • Theme 2: Forest & Vegetation Types (lowland, montane tropical forests, cloud forests)
  • Theme 3: Vertical Zonation
  • Theme 4: Biodiversity in a ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’

Our principal study day was on Tuesday December 9th when the ES&S class ascended the peak and the biology class conducted a series of ecological studies around the fishing hut. The ES&S class went with light packs for the day. The idea was to observe and record changes in plant diversity as we traversed human and natural landscapes and gained altitude on the peak. The hike is physically demanding, but it is a beautiful, wooded trail that is hardly use by pilgrims. Large clouds gathered over us by midday and we navigated several rain showers on the final step section just below the peak. We arrived at the temple around 1:00. It was wet and so, after ringing the newly installed temple bells, we started back down the hill. Originally we had intended to stay on the summit but several students were not outfitted with sleeping bags and warm gear, which necessitated a return to the hut.

(Elattoneura tenax) in a stream emerging from a mixed plantation of eucalyptus and degraded montane forest.

Red Stiped Threadtail (Elattoneura tenax), an endemic damselfly, in a stream emerging from a mixed plantation of eucalyptus and degraded montane forest.

On the final morning the ES&S class left the hut early in order to study stream diversity and look for dragonflies in degraded forests. The biologists completed a biotic index study of two streams and by mid-morning all our groups were heading back to Colombo. There was heavy traffic that delayed our arrival back at school. In spite of itchy leech bites and sore legs it was a memorable learning experience of applied science in a unique part of our Sri Lankan host nation.

OSC's DP ES&S class and their teacher at the Adam's Peak Falls viewpoint.

OSC’s DP ES&S class and their teacher at the Adam’s Peak Falls viewpoint.

 

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Aksland, Markus. The Sacred Footprint: A Cultural History of Adam’s Peak. Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2001. Print.

Carpenter, Edward. From Adam’s Peak to Elephanta. London, 1910. Print.

Cowley, Les. “Mountain Shadow Effect.” Atmospheric Optics. 14 October 2006. Web.  also see Sri Pada shadow.

Dhammika, S. “Sri Pada: Buddhism’s Most Sacred Mountain.” Sacred Island: A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Guide to Sri Lanka. Web.

Iyer, Pico. “The Holy Mountain.” Time Asia. August 8-14, 2006. Print.

Living Heritage Network. Sri Pada. 10 October 2006. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “2013 OSC Field Study to Sri Pada.” Ian Lockwood Blog. January 2014. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. Primal Peak.” Outlook Traveller. March 2007. Print & PDF.

Lockwood, Ian. “Sri Pada: A Naturalist’s Pilgrimage.” Serendib. Print & PDF.

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

Skeen, William. Adam’s Peak: Legendary Traditional and Historical Notices. Colombo: W.L.H Skeen & Co. 1870. Print.

Tennent, James Emerson. Ceylon: An Account of the Islands Physical, Historical and Topographical, 2nd Edition. London: Longman, 1859. Print.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2015-01-15 at 10:27 pm

Kirigalpotta & Horton Plains

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Sunrise over Totopula (view#1)

Sunrise over Totopula Kanda (2,360m) Sri Lanka’s 3rd highest peak.

Kirigalpotha (left) as seen from near to Mahaeliya.

Kirigalpotta (far left) as seen at sunrise from near to Mahaeliya.

Horton Plains National Park in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands is a unique high elevation ecosystem with intriguing parallels to the uplands of India’s southern Western Ghats. I was reminded of its mazing biodiversity and similarities with the shola/grasslands systems of the Western Ghats on a recent visit with my daughter Amy and friends Britton & Tracy. Our aim was to visit the plains, climb Kirigalpotta, stay in Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC) quarters, and assess the suitability of the place for a future OSC Week Without Walls experiential learning visit.

Kirigalpotta is Sri Lanka’s 2nd highest peak at 2,390 meters. Given that there is a military radar station on Pidurutalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest peak (2,524m) and it is out of bounds, Kirigalpotta offers the next best opportunity to get seriously high in Sri Lanka! The table land of Horton Plains is already at almost 2,100 meters so there is not much of an elevation gain as you do the Kirigalpotta hike but it offers an unparalleled experience in walking though relatively undisturbed cloud forest and patanas (grasslands).

Since my first visit to Sri Lanka as an adult I have been drawn to the Central Highlands for their montane landscapes, unique biodiversity and similarities to the higher ranges of the southern Western Ghats. In 2010 the Central Highlands were recognized as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. Now after nearly a decade here I have had the opportunity to visit Horton Plains on a number of personal visits with friends and family. This school year I am getting ready to introduce a new Week Without Walls learning experience that will highlight the geography and ecology of the Central Highlands. Horton Plains and its peaks will feature largely in the planned experience.

Looking north at newly installed wind turbines installed at the Ambawella farms with Horton Plains rising into the mist in the background. Sri Pada as seen from the western edge of Horton Plains National Park. The turbines were not in place when I last visited and made a long panoramic images that was features in the Si Pada: Paths to the Peak exhibition.

Looking north at newly installed wind turbines at the Ambawella farms with Horton Plains rising into the mist in the background. The turbines were not in place when I last visited and made a long panoramic images that was featured in the Si Pada: Paths to the Peak exhibition.

Pidurutalagala and Hakgala (right) as seen from the road up to Horton Plains National Park.

Looking north to Pidurutalagala (center left) and Hakgala (right) as seen from the road up to Horton Plains National Park. Taken on the November 2007 trip.

Sri Pada as seen from the western edge of Horton Plains National Park.

Sri Pada as seen from the western edge of Horton Plains National Park (taken on the December 2010 trip)

Most people visiting HPNP-and there are a lot of them on weekends-make the long journey up to the Plains in order to do the leisurely World End trail. We had booked into the Maheliya bungalow through the DWC and were able to wake up in the Plains and head to the trail before the van loads and buses arrived. The Kirigalpotta trail starts at the same museum and parking lot (once known as Farr Inn) that is at the center of HPNP. There is a sign (see pictures below) and it leads off down the hill and along several long stretches of marshy patanas in a south-westerly direction. The path is well worn and on this trip we walked it without a guide. The patanas are intriguing with their different grasses, dwarf bamboo (Arundinaria densifolia) and scattered Rhododendron arboreum trees. Unlike in the south Indian highlands the cloud forest is on ridgelines and the patanas (grasslands) are in the valleys. I had made a memorable trip here with colleagues Ray Lewis and Dan Snyder and on that first trip it had been helpful to have a guide.

The path crosses a tributary of the Belihul Oya and after some exquisite patana walking you dip in and out of the cloud forest. There had been a major flowering of the Strobilanthes in the understory a year ago (something I regrettably missed –see the Sunday Observer and Sunday Times) and on this visit the forest floor was covered in their dried out, woody detritus. The trail is at times rather muddy and Tracy and Britton took turns handing Amy across or just carrying her through these obstructions. After about a leisurely two hours the bath crosses a small rivulet and then makes the final climb up to the ridge and summit of Kirigalpotta. On the final stretch it follows the exposed ridge amongst mossy rock faces and stunted, dwarf trees and shrubs. We experienced a mix of sun and brief showers as we made the climb. On the Kirigalpotta ridge we got a brief view looking back towards the plains and Totopula Kanda (see panoramic images below). Amy zipped along with the careful attention of Tracy shadowing her as they negotiated the slippery ridgeline. The summit is composed of a small clearing in dense vegetation and a window over the western edge. On a boulder there are barely discernable markings of the Survey Department, left from their 19th Century survey of Ceylon. The serenity and natural state is a reminder of what the summit of Sri Pada probably once looked like. We enjoyed a quick snack, took a few snap shots and then decided to head back as clouds rolled in and brought with them rain.

Snapshots in silver, black & white from the hike up to Kirigalpotha peak.

Snapshots in silver, black & white from the hike up to Kirigalpotta peak. The center image features a Vaccinium sp, with its distinct maroon/red bark. A similar example featured in my September 2011 post on Secret Shola in the Palani Hills.

Looking north from Kirigalpotha over the cloud forest and patanas of Horton Plains National Park.

Looking north from Kirigalpotta over the cloud forest and patanas of Horton Plains National Park.

Left: Calotes nilgilabris on a Rhododendron arboreum tree in open grasslands on the Kirigalpotha trail. Right: Rhino horned lizard (Cerathopora stoddartii) found in HPNP but photographed in Hakgala sanctuary.

Left: Calotes nilgilabris on a Rhododendron arboreum tree in open grasslands on the Kirigalpotta trail. Right: Rhino horned lizard (Cerathopora stoddartii) found in HPNP but photographed in Hakgala sanctuary.

 

Rhododendron arboreum is a unique species with link tot he Western Ghats and distant Himalaya.

Rhododendron arboreum is a unique temperate species with links to the Western Ghats and more distant Himalaya.

Generations of Lanka Lockwoods visiting Horton Plains National Park. Upper left: Merrick, Ian and Lenny in December 2010 at the World End trail head. Lower right: Ian and Amy in 2014 at the Kirigalpotha trail head.

Three generations of Lanka Lockwoods visiting Horton Plains National Park. Upper left: Merrick (in his inimitable chapals), Ian and Lenny in December 2010 at the World End trail head. Lower right: Ian and Amy in September 2014 at the Kirigalpotha trail head. Photos courtesy Brian Lockwood and Tracy Ramberg.

A parting sunrise over Horton Plains National Park. Taken near Mahaeliya.

A parting sunrise over Horton Plains National Park. Taken near Mahaeliya.

In 2012 Rohan Pethiyagoda of the Wildlife Heritage Trust published the seminal book Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. It is an exquisite publication both in production and the sweeping content that examines ecological, historical and contemporary aspects of the park. While Rohan is the editor and force behind the book Horton Plains includes articles and contributions by the leading natural history personalities in Sri Lanka. The book is supported with a dazzling wealth of color photographs, line drawing, aerial shots and high-resolution satellite (IKONOS) images of the Plains. The fine photography of Vimukthi Weeratunga is featured and stands out in the book. The book has intriguing chapters on the history of the Plains and articles on the ecological origins of the patanas (an anthropocentric-influenced system or a climax natural system?….you’ll have to read the book to see what conclusion is arrived at!). For anyone interested in the ecology and landscape of the Central Highlands and their similar systems in the southern Western Ghats in India, the book is a must have resource.

SELECTED REFERENCES & FURTHER LINKS

De Silva, Anslem. The Diversity of Horton Plains National Park. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2007. Colombo. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “In the High Altitude Grasslands of Horton Plains.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 28 February 2011. Web.

Pethiyagoda, Rohan, Ed. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2012. Print. Weblink.

Rodrigo, Malaka. “Lanka’s central highlands win heritage battle.” 8 August Sunday Times. 2010. Web.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: WHT, 2001. Print.

 

NOTE: With regards to spelling you will see “Kirigalpotta” spelt in several different ways. I have used the spelling from the Wildlife Heritage Trust’s publications.

2013 OSC Field Study to Sri Pada

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Collage of native flora on the forest trail to Sri Pada's 2,243 meter summit.

Collage of snapshots of native flora on the forest trail to Sri Pada’s 2,243 meter summit.

Every December it is my privilege and pleasure to lead a group of DP I (Grade 11) OSC students up the slopes of Sri Pada in order to study the mountain’s ecology and appreciate its value as a stronghold of biodiversity in a rich Sri Lankan cultural landscape. This year I invited the DP Biology class and their teacher Tim Getter to join our group of eleven DP ES&S students. We were supported by our teaching colleagues Sonalee Abeyawardene and Celine Dary  (so there were added opportunities to explore ideas of pilgrimages in literature and converse in French during our three days out!). Several students had just completed a heart-pounding SAISA tournament in Muscat and hopped from their airport bus onto ours as we headed up into the Central Highlands on a clear Monday morning.

Vertical zonation studies of floral diversity on the forest path to Sri Pada

Vertical zonation studies of floral diversity on the forest path to Sri Pada (center and right) and degraded forest near the Fishing Hut (left). Max, Chadoo and Teresa laying the transect and looking for plant diversity.

The Moray Estate Fishing Hut#1.

The Moray Estate Fishing Hut#1.

ES&S task sheets from the 2013 Sri Pada learning experience.

ES&S task sheets from the 2013 Sri Pada learning experience.

A contrast in habitats. A monoculture landscape of tea and non-native shade trees overshadowed by undisturbed sub-montane tropical rainforest in the Peak WIlderness area.

A contrast in habitats: a monoculture landscape of tea and non-native shade trees overshadowed by undisturbed sub-montane tropical rainforest in the Peak Wilderness area.

Looking for orchids  and other delights in the grassy meadow below the peak (altitude 1900 meters). John visits a favorite area..

Looking for orchids and other delights in the grassy meadow below the peak (altitude 1,900 meters). John visits a favorite, familiar area…

For all students, be they biologists or ecologists in ES&S, the three-day visit to Sri Pada and the Peak Wilderness area offers a unique opportunity to conduct field studies in a biologically rich but anthropogenic influenced landscape. The trip is a unique learning experience, one that is perhaps less appreciated by students in the moment but invariably remembered with great fondness. As usual, we based ourselves at the Moray Estate Fishing Huts. These three rustic cabins are rented out to ecotourists and people willing to put up with simple amenities in order to experience a uniquely beautiful location. Significant time was spent simply getting to the huts and back but once at the Fishing Huts there were all sorts of opportunities for learning. The huts lie at the boundary between manicured tea estates and mid-elevation sub-montane tropical rainforest. This year I highlighted four themes of study for the trip:

  • Theme 1: Land Use Variation (anthropocentric vs. natural ecosystems)
  • Theme 2: Forest & Vegetation Types
  • Theme 3: Vertical Zonation
  • Theme 4: Biodiversity in a ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’
Appreciating abiotic factors and the role of decomposers: snapshots from the study on the slopes of Sri Pada.

Appreciating abiotic factors and the role of decomposers: snapshots from the study on the slopes of Sri Pada.

Our main study day was on Tuesday December 10th (my brother Brian’s birthday!) when the ES&S class ascended the peak. Based on the fitness and gear that the group, I decided to make it a day trip and not spend the night on the top. We went with light packs for the day and were able to conduct a series of line transects as we gained altitude on the peak. The idea was to observe and record changes in plant diversity as we traversed human and natural landscapes and gained altitude on the peak. I had decided to leave my heavy camera gear in Colombo and was armed with a lightweight Canon Powershot, GPS and small temperature probe. The small allowed me to take quick snapshots of the wealth of plant life on the forest trail- and the detail isn’t too bad. Because the hike is physically demanding, there was little time to linger but the group managed at least five transects at different elevations and habitats. We got to the temple around 1:00 –it was pleasantly empty as the season was still a week away from starting. Our lunch of peanut butter and Nutella wraps was shared with a wandering Australian, we rang the temple bells, appreciated the summit temple and then headed back down. One of the students- Max who had been in Muscat playing football for OSC -had a sore knee and we took the last bit slowly. This facilitated a meandering conversation and time to observe the forest much more closely. It was dark by the time we got back to the Fishing Hut.

Snapshots of the OSC Biology class and their teacher Tim Getter in action. On the right the ES&S  class descends from the Peak through sub-montane tropical rainforest.

Snapshots of the OSC Biology class and their teacher Tim Getter in action. On the right, the ES&S class descends from the Peak through sub-montane tropical rainforest.

On the final morning we were able to look at a patch of degraded forest and a eucalyptus plantation. These habitats offer a fascinating contrast to the sub-montane forest. There are numerous invasive species colonizing these disturbed areas but also a gratifying number of native species also making a start. Down below us the biologists completed a biotic index study of two streams (one from the forest and one from the tea estate). We were moving back to Colombo by 10:30 and school wrapped up two days later. Now, as we begin a new term, the classes will be sifting through their data, science journals, photographs and memories to consolidate their learning on Sri Lanka’s sacred mountain.

Past OSC school trips to Sri Pada have been reported in this space:

  • OSC Class of 2010 (Sri Pada 2008 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2011 (Sri Pada 2009 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2012 (Sri Pada 2010 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2013 (Sri Pada 2011 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2014 (Sri Pada 2012 trip)
OSC's ES&S students on the last steps and then summit of Sri Pada.

OSC’s ES&S students on the last steps and then summit of Sri Pada.

Looking over the Peak WIlderness area to the east of the peak from the summit temple. The Fishing Hut and Moray Estate is on the far left.

Looking over the Peak Wilderness area to the east and south of the peak from the summit temple. The Fishing Hut and Moray Estate is on the far left.

Scenes from the Sri Pada temple area.

Scenes from the Sri Pada temple area. This was a week before the pilgrimage season officially opened up and the temple area was serene and quiet.

Sunset over Sri Pada.

Sunset over Sri Pada. Taken on Monday December 9th after a cold stream traverse.