Ian Lockwood

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Sri Lanka Mountain Traverse (Part I)

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

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

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

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

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

Sinharaja West

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

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

The extremely 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.

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

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

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

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

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 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.

Pseudophilautus_sp_green_Riverston_1a(MR)(06_19)

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.

Knuckles Explorations

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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Crestless lizard juvenile (Calotes liocephalus) at Riverston.

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

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

knuckles range elevation 2019 (mr)

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

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

REFERENCES & PUBLICITY

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

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

De Silva, Anslem, Ed.  The Diversity of the Dumbara Mountains. (Lyriocephalus Special Issue). November 2005. Amphibia and Reptile Research Organization of Sri Lanka. Print.

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

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

Lakdasun Trips. “Knuckles.” ND. Web.

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

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

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

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

 

Written by ianlockwood

2019-01-12 at 9:14 pm

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