Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

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Dry Zone in a Biodiversity Hotspot

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A collage of Sri Lanka’s dry zone species and habitats (SE coast near Kumana).

Sri Lanka’s climate zones, split between the wet, intermediate and dry zones each have distinctive qualities and biodiversity. While the wet zone has the highest levels of endemism the dry zone shows close affinity to southern India’s flora and fauna. There are even several slivers of the island with arid climates that are sometimes separated from the dry zone (the Jaffna peninsula, Mannar, Yala etc.). On several trips in the last year, and most importantly the summer during the pandemic, I continued to explore, document and better understand the biodiversity and landscapes of the dry zone.

Although the extent of the dry zone covers nearly two thirds of the island it is not a homogenous landscape and there are significant variations in terrain, forest cover, hydrology and land use in its different parts. The area is characterized by seasonal spells of intense rain (the monsoon) and longer periods with relatively little rain. The North-East (winter) Monsoon, active from October to January, provides most of the seasonal moisture. This June we traversed the three climate zones: we left Colombo in the midst of showers from the South West Monsoon, experienced rain in the intermediate zone near Sigiriya and then had almost all rain-free dry days in Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Arugam Bay.

Panthera pardus kotiya at Wilpattu National park. Leopards are not exclusive to the dry but the large protected areas of Yala, Kumana and Wilpattu offer the best places to encounter them. This juvenile male thrilled our small group with a lengthy encounter in the early morning of a visit in July. Special thanks to Achintha Piumal who alerted us to its presence and got us to the location without disturbing his morning rituals.

Conservation Value of the Dry Zone

The lengthy Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot, as demarcated by CEPF, is characterized by India’s west-coast mountainous spine as well as (almost) the entire island of Sri Lanka. It always intrigued me that the Western Ghats portion is made up of mountainous habitats while Sri Lanka’s portion includes significant lowland, plains areas in its dry zone along with its Central Highlands and coastlines. In fact, all of Sri Lanka, with the exception of the Jaffna peninsula, falls under the hotspot boundary. It’s a somewhat arbitrary boundary distinction and meant to give a target area for the governments of India and Sri Lanka to value and protect. The Western Ghats plains areas in the shadow of the ghats have been largely converted to agricultural and other human-dominated landscapes. In contrast Sri Lanka’s lowlands, especially in the dry zone,  still have large areas of natural forest cover and this most likely explains the boundary choices.

The largest protected areas in Sir Lanka, the ones that draw visitors wanting a “safari” experience, are all found in the dry zone. Yala National Park in the south-east draws the largest numbers of visitors. Its north-eastern parts, bisected by the Kumbuk Oya, are protected as Kumana National Park. In the central plains around Dambulla/Sigiriya parks protected as part of irrigation reservoirs such as Minneriya, Kaudulla and Kala Wewa host some of the biggest congregations of Asian elephants in the world. Sri Lanka’s largest national park is Wilpattu located on the Gulf of Mannar and stretching nearly to the center of the island at Anuradhapura. After being contested during the years of fighting, Wilpattu has made a comeback. Classic dry zone mammal species like sloth bears, elephants, grey langur, spotted deer are all found at Wilpattu. I appreciate Wilpattu for its forests. Visitors spend hours traversing mature strands of tropical evergreen forest to get to the open areas and wilus (shallow natural lakes that can either have saline or fresh water) areas with bird and mammal densities. There are many significant species of trees on the drive in. I appreciate the Manilkara hexandra (or palu/palai) that are a favorites species for birds of prey, Malabar Pied Hornbills and occasionally, leopards.

Many of the other large protected areas of Sri Lanka including Wasgamuwa, Gal Oya and Madhura Oya and Somawathiya are all in the dry zone. Satellite imagery shows large tracts of dry zone forest north of Vavuniya in the Vanni. These were areas that were controlled by the LTTE for many years and survived the ravages of war. At this stage few of these are being explored by wildlife enthusiast and birders, as far as I know.

 

Granite rocky outcrops are a feature of many parts of Sri Lanka’s dry zone. The Kudumbigala hermitage on the edge of Kumana National Park has some exquisite rocks that are safe from those blasting and quarrying.

Connections Across the Straits

Ecologists and others familiar with the plains of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s dry zone have observed the remarkable similarities in climate, soil and geology. It is certainly something I think about every time I fly into Madurai and drive away from this ancient urban settlement. The red soil and occasional patches of thorn forest and sacred Ficus trees, scattered amongst drought-prone fields and granite outcrops, hint at a past that would have looked quite different.

Rom Whitaker, India’s snake man who is based in Tamil Nadu, visited Colombo in 2010 and gave a public talk sponsored by Dilmah Conservation that reminded me of the connection between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. He drew our attention to the fact that Sri Lanka’s dry zone coastal areas were likely representative of what Tamil Nadu’s plains once looked like. Land cover change on the plains of Tamil Nadu, of course, has been happening at an astounding pace in recent decades. However, Rom was hinting at patterns that happened in India much earlier-as in hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Those changes led to a different landscape and perhaps a less-humid climate in plains Tamil Nadu. This topic deserves thorough academic investigation but Rom’s message was conservation- oriented. He was discretely pleading with the Sri Lankan audience to act to protect areas before sand mining, granite blasting, deforestation and other threats destroyed the remarkable magic of the dry zone.

The situation with Sri Lanka’s dry zone is especially remarkable because it historically experienced dramatic land cover change and then recovered. The ancient Sri Lankan hydraulic civilizations that created systems of sophisticated water management and irrigation more than 2300 years ago were all based in the dry zone. The remains of these civilizations and especially their Buddhist sites in places like Ruhunu, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa illustrate of the importance of the dry zone in Sri Lanka’s rich cultural history. It was only later, after repeated attacks and the outbreak of malaria, that the Sinhalese kings moved south-west into the wet zone. That migration left much of the dry zone alone and gave the forested areas a chance to recover. Mark Ashton, Nimal & Savitri Gunatilleke and others in fact state that “the early phases of Sri Lanka’s history therefore suggests that nearly all of the forests now in the dry zone are of secondary origin, having re-established over the last 7-8 centuries.” (Ashton et al. p.12)

The idea that the plains of Tamil Nadu might once have been thickly forested in a way similar to Wilpattu is intriguing. The land cover change and the clearing of these Indian forested areas would have happened so long ago that there are few records of the change. Great kingdoms and empires-the Pallavas, Pandians, Cholas and others-rose and fell over several millennia. Presumably the dry evergreen plains forest was cut back to make room for agriculture during these times. The relatively recent (and well documented) British colonial forestry efforts were focused on wooded, hilly  areas like the Anamalais, Nilgiri and Palani Hills. A modern forest map of Tamil Nadu (see TN Forest Department) suggests that almost all forest cover is in the Western and Eastern Ghats rather than the plains and a few mangrove patches. There are relatively small examples of the dry evergreen forest  in Tamil Nadu and there are efforts in Auroville (see link) to protect and propagate this forest type, but nothing on the scale of what is found across the straits in Sri Lanka.

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Panthera pardus stretching at Wilpattu National park. Special thanks to Achintha Piumal who alerted us to its presence and got us to the location without disturbing his morning rituals.

SELECTED REFERENCES

Ashton, Mark et. al. A Field Guide to the Common Trees and Shrubs of Sri Lanka. Colombo: WHT Publications, 1997. Print.

Conservation International. Biodiversity Hotspots. Web.

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Biodiversity Hotspots. Web. (see link for Western Ghats projects)

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.. Ecosystem Profile: Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot (Western Ghats Region). May 2007. Web.

De Silva, Asoka T., Ed.  Sri Lanka’s Forests-Nature at Your Service. Colombo: Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, 2014.

Ministry of Mahaweli Development & Environment. Biodiversity Profile- Sri Lanka Sixth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity. May 2019. Web.

Ministry of Mahaweli Development & Environment. National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan 2016-2022. May 2016. Web.

Palani Hills Sky Island Landcover Changes at the ATBC Asia Pacific

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ATBC_Devil_Dance_1(MR)(09_19)

The opening ceremony of the ATBC meeting featured several cultural shows including this impressive fire dance.

Last September Sri Lanka hosted the Association for Tropical Biology & Conservation (ATBC) Asia Pacific chapter meeting at the MAS Athena center outside of Colombo. This was an important gathering, drawing scientists, conservationists and NGOS from across the country, South Asian region and globe to review different studies and approaches. The theme was “Bridging the elements of biodiversity conservation: Save, Study, Use.”

Earlier in 2019 I had met and interacted with Nimal and Savitri Gunatilleke, the distinguished Peradeniya University professors. They have been deeply involved with forest scientific studies and restoration efforts in Sinharaja and the rest of the island. We had enjoyed several conversations about similarities and differences in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity Hotspot. Nimal encouraged me to submit the findings of the grasslands group published in PLOS ONE. The idea of using satellite imagery to show the drama of land cover change in the WG/SL hotspot is a powerful tool for conservationists that is only just being realized (see the May 2018 blog post for details). After consulting with Robin Vijayan, Arasu and some of the other co-authors I submitted a proposal was invited to share the conclusions at ATBC in a poster display.

Poster designed by the author for the ATBC conference.

I was able to get PD time away from normal teaching duties that allowed me to attend the opening and first day of ATBC events. There were some fascinating presentations and interactive workshops. Maithripala Sirisena, the president of Sri Lanka at the time (and also the minister for Environment), was the chief guest. The main thrust of his talk was the remarkable legacy that Sri Lanka’s farmers have with producing abundant food surpluses without endangering the country’s wildlife (both historically and to some extent today). The keynote talk by Sejal Worah from WWF-India on adapting to rapid change to better protect biodiversity. Madhu Verma, from the Indian Institute of Forest Management, spoke of environmental economic and how putting environmental value on ecosystem services is a key step to more effective conservation. There were a whole series of shorter talks and workshops over the next three days. I went to interesting talks by Nimal (on restoration in fern lands) and later on presentations by representatives from ATREE the French Institute of Pondicherry. I enjoyed several excellent session on Wednesday morning. Anjali Watson& Andrew Kittle’s (Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust) “cat talk” about their work with leopards in the Central Highlands was a highlight.

Cover from ATBC journal and copy of page 243.

 

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Arsumani, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.”  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Association for Tropical Biodiversity & Conservation (ATBC) Asia Pacific . Proceedings Book. Web.

Land cover changes. (* posts are in chronological order)

  1. “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment.” Ian Lockwood Blog. August 2014. Web.
  2. “Mapping Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills. Ian Lockwood Blog. August 2016. Web.
  3. “Landcover Changes in the Palani Hills-A Spatial Study.” Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2018. Web.

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2020-03-26 at 11:36 am

Further Explorations in the Anamalai Hills

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Lion Tailed Macaque (Macaca silensus) mother and infant getting ready to cross the road in Pudhuthottam, Anamalai Hills. No other mammal in the Westerns Ghats is as closely associated and emblematic of the hotspot’s fragile biodiversity. (April 2019)

The Anamalai Hills drew me back to their forest and plantation-clad contours once again this year. In the recent decades the Anamalais have emerged as a key area of conservation interest in India’s 1,600 km long Western Ghats biodiversity Hotspot. The hills are located in Tamil Nadu south of the Palghat Gap and adjoin important protected areas in Kerala and the neighboring Palani Hills. Rich habitat diversity and distinct vegetation types in the Anamalais provide a home for almost all of the key emblematic Western Ghats species. These include large animals such as tigers and elephants, key endemics including Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus), Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) and charismatic smaller life forms such as the Anamalai flying frog (Rhacophorus pseudomalabaricus) and Purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis). The area hosts significant human populations-there are several indigenous tribal groups living in remote settlements, but most humans are involved in planation agriculture on the Valparai plateau. There is also a small but significant group of scientific researchers studying different aspects of the ecology and working to protect the fragile heritage of the Anamalais. Finally, the Anamalais are attracting tourists- a development with both positive and perilous potential.

My earliest recollection that the Anamalais were distinct from the range of my childhood (the Palanis) and the more distant Nilgiri hills came  from George Roshan, a leading wildlife photographer of his age who lived in Kodai. We both frequented Doveton’s Studio and sometime in 1985/86 George came back with stories of exciting large animal encounters in Top Slip- a place located in the north-western Anamalais. During those same years the school’s tahr camp ended up in Manjampatti Valley-a remote and relatively dry low plateau surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Palani Hills, High Range and Anamalai Hills. On our final hike out we walked westwards through dry deciduous forest with the 2,000 + meter high, grass-covered peaks overshadowing our small group. We had to be careful of large mammals but mostly we were walking alone through a savanna-scrub like environment far from the trappings of civilization. The area is now part of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and trekking is restricted such that school groups are not able to enjoy the experience that was a highlight was so many of us. In 1993 I accompanied my cousin Anna on a trip to Top Slip to meet Ragupathy Kannan and visit his field study site where he was observing the nesting and feeding ecology of Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis). About 10 years ago I visited and spent time at the NCF nursery where  the group’s ecological restoration efforts radiate out from.  Since then I have come back every few years with either Amy or Lenny on enjoyable but all too short visits.

This January Danesh Khan, my friend and co-author from the grasslands study, hiked up to Cloudland’s peak to watch the first light of the day and review the status of remnant montane grasslands in this northern high point of the Palani Hills. The view to the west of the Anamalai highlands was particularly striking. The lofty peaks that are north or Eravikulam loomed over the Manjampatti Valley, Kukkal and Puthuputhoor ridges (see image below). Of course, Eravikulam’s plateau, Anai Mudi and Katu Malai were also clearly visible, though some of it the plateau was obstructed by the Vandaravu, Vembadi and Gundar areas of the Palanis. That view of the Anamalais lodged in my mind and motivated two trips mid-way through the year.

The Anamalai Hills as seen from the east. The grass-covered peaks rise above the Puthuputhoor ridge in the Palani Hills. Manjampatti Valley, the site of numerous magical tahr camps, separates the Palanis from the Anamalai Hills. The Kukkal ridge is on the left with the first light of the day illuminating steep cliffs. (January 2019)

The Anamalai Hills as seen from the north near Pollachi looking south.(June 2019)

In April during our Sinhala/Tamil New Year break Lenny and I took a brief three day visit to Valparai. We were motivated by birds, endemic species and the chance of observing and photographing Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis) in flight. We connected with Sridhar for a morning of rich bird watching and e-bird counting. Lenny and I spent time in the newly refurbished NCF Anamalai Nature Information Centre and were able to pick up copies of the exquisitely produced Pillars of Life book. We crossed paths with Divya and a film crew photographing LTMs for an episode of On the Brink. The increasing tendency of these normally arboreal, forest-dwelling primates to venture into the town of Valparai to forage for food is the subject of some debate and study. In Valparai we stayed at Misty Creek a homestay that is owned by Frank Benjamin-a knowledgeable and helpful gentleman with an interest in snakes and amphibians. However, it was still very dry and thus I planned a return trip to focus on amphibians. We did have good success with LTM and Nilgiri tahr observations and I had a decent view of a GPH in flight (see images below).

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Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) in flight over a forest clearing near Old Valparai (April 2019).

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I came back to Valparai on another short visit in June, this time as I traversed the Anamalais on my way to Thattekad and Cochin from the Palani Hills. I was expecting the South West monsoon to be vigorous but it had not set in with its full force yet. That offered a few opportunities for dry exploration and luckily there had been enough rain to get the amphibians croaking. Kalyan Varma was in town with the same On the Brink team and we had a brief chat as one of the Pudhuthottam LTM troops moved into a school compound in Valparai. This time I stayed at Pudhuthottam Annex (run by the Briar Tea Bungalows group) with the idea of getting closer to the frogs, birds and mammals that I wanted to photograph. Working with the naturalist Dharani and manager Abhishek Vaidyanathan, we located and then photographed several key endemic frogs near the Briar Woodhouse. These included Jayaram’s Bush Frog (Raorchestes jayarami) and the Wayanad Bush Frog (Pseudophilautus wynaadensis). I also appreciated waking up to Malabar Whistling thrushes (Myophonus horsfieldii) calling on my roof and the troop of LTMs surrounding the small cottage. Unfortunately, the possibility of leopard and elephant encounters kept us close to the main wood bungalow at night.

This narrative is continued and concluded with the Getting to know Thattekad post(to be published next month).

PAST ANAMALAIS POSTS

Lockwood, Ian. “ Restoration & Revival in the Anamalais” August 2010. Web.

”             “A Bend in the Ghat: An Anamalais Encounter.” May 2015.  Web.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Chakravarty, Rohan. “Valparai Natural History Map.” Green Humour. Web.

Mudappa, Divya, Shankar Raman, Nirupa Rao and Sartaj Ghuman. Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. Mysore: NCF, 2018. Print.

Raman, Shankar, Divya Mudappa and Anand Usuri. “Restoring rainforest remnants: experiences from the Anamalai hills.” Current Conservation. May 2018. Web.

The Pollachi Papyrus. Website.

 

 

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.

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

(to be continued in Part II/IV)

REFERENCES (for all four parts)

Amphibian Survival Alliance. Web.

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

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.

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Norther approach to Morningside bungalow- showing a mix of montane forest, tea and weeds.

Having left Kudawa in the morning Lenny and I met up with Professor Gunatilleke in Rakwana, bought our supplies and then proceeded to Morningside together. In Suriyakanda, Lenny and I switched into a hired Bolero pickup that took us on the last hour to the FD bungalow. There was no rain cover and the road was very rough. We were relieved to arrive dry, though a bit stirred and shaken. Nimal and his driver followed us in a well-used Mitsubishi pick up from the university.

During our first two days Lenny and I enjoyed several insightful conversations and slow walks with Professor Gunatilleke where I learnt a great deal about the area’s plants and efforts to restore the degraded landscapes. Photographically-speaking, daylight hours were relatively unproductive but when it got dark a host of creatures came to life in the mossy forest behind the bungalow. Lenny and I went in prepared for leaches and rain but were lucky that it was not pouring on either nights and there were very few blood suckers. We honed our frog sighting skills on the first night and tripled our species count on the second night. Our approach was to locate the frogs listening to their calls in the dark, used torches to locate them and then photographed them in situ with minimal changes using two and sometimes three portables strobes.

It was only after we returned to Colombo that we got confirmation on what we had photographed on the FB pages of the Amphibian of Sri Lanka  (and Reptiles & Amphibians of Sri Lanka) groups. Another key resource for Morningside’s frogs was Meegaskumbura et al.’s “Conservation & biogeography of threatened amphibians of Eastern Sinharaja” from Froglog (published in 2012). (Nimal Gunatilleke is one of the authors on this short, but helpful publication)

Our first frog spotted was the critically endangered Morningside Hourglass frog (Taruga fastigo) – we actually mistook it for the endangered Montane Hourglass (Taruga eques) that I have previously photographed in Nuwara Eliya and Peak Wilderness. The Morningside species is a point endemic with very restricted distribution. Lenny located at least two bright green Poppy’s Shrub frogs (Pseudophilautus poppiae) and I found a third. This endangered frog is one of the most distinguished at Morningside. We also found the Golden Shrub frog (Pseudophilautus auratus) as well as several others that we are still working on identifying. We desperately wanted to photograph the lizards (Desilva’s Erdelen’s Horn, and Karunaratne’s Horn) that Morningside is well known for but aside from one that ran across the path in front of me, we had no worthy sightings.

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Pseudophilautus auratus at Morningside.

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Pseudophilautus cavirostris at Morningside.

My personal highlight was the very camouflaged Tibetan Bubble Nest/Hollow Snouted Shrub Frog that I located from its call clinging to the mossy bark of a medium-sized tree. Based on other photographs on the FB group, I believe that this is Pseudophilautus cavirostris. Trying to get its eye in focus while aiming two strobes at different angles in a wet tangle of vegetation was a challenge but we both got decent photographs.

Several years ago we had stayed at the Rainforest Ecolodge (see my 2012 posts) – a place that is in a similar montane habitat on the edge of tea and rainforest. On the map it is a short distance away but the area between the two locations is seemingly impenetrable with thick, barbed cane (Canus sp.) stands and dense forest. There was no obvious path to follow other than the stream that flows westwards to the lodge.

On June 13th, the jeep driver, picked us up and drove us back towards Suriyakanda via the longer norther approach. The morning was damp and cool with a veil of mist hanging just above the gnarled rainforest canopy. We heard the loud chattering of Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata) and the distinct call of Sri Lanka Spur Fowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata) but other than a fleeting glimpse of Yellow Eared Bulbuls (Pycnonotus penicillatus) there were few birds to be seen. Overhanging branches and lianas crowded the road and the drive was far more exciting than any roller coaster ride. The bench seat was recycled from another vehicle and only attached with nylon rope to the back bed of the pickup. When the wheels hit a bump, the rope stretched and gave flight to the seat and us passengers. Trying to stay in the vehicle on the anything-but-smooth trail and dodging branches was an exciting, albeit  life-threatening part of getting back to our own vehicle. We passed the junction of the once proposed road that would connect Suriyakanda with Pothupitiya/Illuokanda (see Malaga Rodrigo’s Sunday Times 2011 article). Thankfully it is overgrown and there is no evidence of a road or plan to build one. We unloaded the pick up and repacked our truck for the onward traverse-heading north to the lofty Central Highlands.

(to be continued in Part III/IV)

 

REFERENCES (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.

Bamboolands: Scales & More on Two Visits to Mizoram

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Trimeresurus grouping at the MZU Department of Zoology.

In the winter of 2017 and then summer of 2018 our family was in Mizoram for family weddings. Both visits gave me an opportunity to reconnect with like-minded naturalists look for and photograph some of the area’s unique biodiversity. This post share some of the visual highlights.

My brother in law, Kuka (a.k.a Rochamliana  or Khuluaia Aineh) now spends a good deal of time photographing different species, especially birds across the state. In the last year he has also been collaborating with others on an effort to get a birdwatching guest house set up at Sailam (about fours south of Aizawl). Through Kuka I met Phelly Pachuau and several other young wildlife photographers. Phelly and her husband found the Green Cat Snake (Boiga cyanea) that was photographed at Kuka’s home. Another important contact in Aizawl is HT Lalramsenga of Mizoram University’s Department of Zoology. He and his team (Bza Chawngthu and Lal Muan Sanga) gave us a tour of their lab and allowed me to photograph the pit vipers and other interesting residents.

Green Cat Snake(Boiga cyanea), Aizawl, Mizoram

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Spot-tailed Pit Viper (Trimeresurus erythrurus) at Aizawl. (December 2017)

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Striped Trinket Snake (Orthriophis taeniurus) at Aizawl. (July 2017)

Pope’s Pit Viper (Trimeresurus popeiorum).(July 2018)

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Tails of pit vipers (Trimeresurus popeiorum & T. erythrurus) at the Department of Zoology at Mizoram University. (July 2018)

PAST MIZORAM POSTS

Lockwood, Ian. “New Hope for Wildlife in Mizoram.” Ian Lockwood Blog.  July 2014. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Bamboolands: Land Use Patterns in Mizoram’s Rural & Urban Areas.” Ian Lockwood Blog.  March 2012. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Bamboolands…Mizoram in the winter of 2008.” Ian Lockwood Blog.  March 2009. Web.

REFERENCES

Ahmeed, Firoz, Abhijit Das and Shushil Kr. Datta. Reptiles & Amphibians of the North East: A Photographic Guide. Guwahati: Aaranyak, 2009. Print.

Das, Indraneil. A Field Guide to the Snakes of Southeast Asia. London: Bloomsbury Natural History, 2016. Print.

Das, Indraneil. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Snakes of Southeast Asia. Oxford: John Beaufoy Publishing, 2015. Print.

Grimmett, Richard, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, 2nd Edition. Helms Field Guides. 2011. Print.

Lalremsanga, H.T. & Sailo, Saipari & , Chinliansiama. “Diversity of Snakes (Reptilia: Squamata) and Role of Environmental Factors in Their Distribution in Mizoram, Northeast India.” Conference: Advances in Environmental Chemistry.  September 2018. Web.

Mathew, R., and N. Sen. 2010. Pictorial Guide to Amphibians of North East India.  Kolkata, India: Zoological Survey of India.

Snakes of India. Web.

Whitaker Romulus & Captain, Ashok. Snakes of India: The Field Guide. Draco Books, Print. 2004.

Written by ianlockwood

2019-03-31 at 9:34 pm

Aerial & Terrestrial Snapshots of the Southern Western Ghats

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Madurai airport publicity with classic Coaker’s Walk view (misidentified as Theni). (January 2019)

Southern India and Sri Lanka’s winter months provide unique opportunities to look deep, across ridges and forested valleys to ranges of hills that are normally obscured in clouds and haze. The retreating North East monsoon leaves the hills lush and the air washed clean just as temperatures drop to relatively low levels. People unfamiliar with the area can sometimes be surprised at the grandeur of the southern Western Ghats and neighboring Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. Viewpoints and high mountain peaks in Kodaikanal, Ooty, Nuwara Eliya and other places are the best terrestrial places to take in the landscape. Timing is everything and most of these same places mist up while dust and pollution on the plains rises up in the afternoons.

An ideal way to appreciate the mountains in this biodiversity hotspot is to fly over or alongside the mountains. My family and I had the good fortune to be on a London-Colombo flight on January 1st just after the sun had risen over the Nilgiri Hills. Our plane crossed southern India just north of Cochin (Kochi) and then traversed the Cardamom Hills giving the left side a fine view over the High Range and Palani Hills (see flight path image below). Just 24 hours later I flew on a different flight to Madurai for a short visit to Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills. The snapshots in this post were taken from the flights and this short trip. Later on the month I led students to the Central Highlands – the subject of an upcoming post. I also worked on processing several raw Sentinel data files last year of the same area (used in the Hills of Murugan exhibition). The common denominator of these experiences was the crisp clear air and unique opportunities to appreciate and document sublime landscape.

Aerial shot looking east through a not-so-clean window to the Malabar Coast and Nilgiri Hills. The Camel’s Hump mountains are in the far left. The Bangitappal ridge and other points in Mukurthi National Park were distantly visible on this clear morning ! (1 January 2019)

Aerial shot looking north at key points in the Palani Hills and High Range from the UL 508 flight at about 10,000 meters. Note the fire in Eravkulam’s grasslands and key points such as Cloud Lands Peak and Pampalam Malai (Kukkal). (1 January 2019)

Screen shot of the airplane map monitor as we were over the Cardamom Hills looking north to the High Range and Palani HiIls. (1 January 2019)

Southern escarpment of the Palani Hills looking south towards the flight path that I had been on a few days earlier. (4 January 2019)

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Sky Islands as seen from the southern escarpment of the Palani Hills. The distant ranges include the Highwavies (Megamalai). The Agamalai range is just over the Vattakanal-Vilagavi ridge.

Sentinel imagery from February 2018. Processed by the author for the Hills of Murugan exhibition at DakshinaChitra in July 2018. Click on image for A3 150 dpi image

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Flying back to Colombo from Madurai with views to the Ashambu Hills on the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Tuticorin and Gulf of Mannar coastline is visible in the lower image. (5 January 2019)

 

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

Lockwood, Ian. “Palani Hills from the Air.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 22 April 2010.  Web.

 

 

Written by ianlockwood

2019-02-12 at 9:06 am

Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands WWW Experience 2018

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OSC’s annual Sri Lanka Central Highlands trip, was once again an experience of significance with many important group and individual learning highlights. This choice WWW learning experience is part of the broader secondary school Week Without Walls program that I have had the privilege of coordinating since its inception. OSC’s WWW program was first run in January 2010 as an outgrowth of the MYP outdoor education program (2003-2010) and has now matured into a key experiential learning highlight for all of the secondary school. Through a variety of grade-level and choice experiences there are several goals that define the program:

  • Fulfill the OSC mission statement of developing the whole person within a safe environment.
  • Expose students to our host country Sri Lanka’s culture and environment.
  • Enable opportunities for service learning and outdoor education.
  • Use Interdisciplinary Units (IDUs) to support and strengthen existing secondary curriculum (including the DP CAS program) for the benefit of student learning.

Cloud forest at Horton Plains National Park

The five-day excursion into Sri Lanka’s high elevation interior exemplified some of the best outcomes of field-based learning beyond the normal confines of a classroom. The learning focus was on using photo documentation to better understand the ecology and landscape of Sri Lanka’s mountainous interior. This year we had a smaller sized group-10 students and three of us adults to guide them. I was supported by Kamila Sahideen and Desline Attanayake who both played key roles in organization and participating in all of our activities. We also had two veteran drivers from Yamuna Travels who got us to our different destinations safely. The students were enthusiastic and cooperative as we took on new challenges every day. Accommodation for the first three nights was on the cozy-rustic side of things, but on the last night the group was treated to very comfortable rooms in Nuwara Eliya’s St. Andrew’s Jetwing hotel.

Belihuloya_hike_1(01_18)

The five-day excursion into Sri Lanka’s high elevation interior exemplified some of the best outcomes of field-based learning. The learning focus was on using photo documentation to better understand the ecology and landscape of Sri Lanka’s mountainous interior. All of the students had some sort of DSLR or point and shoot camera where they could learn basic controls and composition as we had different encounters. This year we had a smaller sized group-10 students and three of us adults to guide them. I was supported by Kamila Sahideen and Desline Attanayake who both played key roles in organization and participating in all of our activities. We also had two veteran drivers from Yamuna Travels who got us to our different destinations safely. The students were enthusiastic and cooperative as we took on new challenges every day. Accommodation for the first three nights was on the cozy-rustic side of things, but on the last night the group was treated to very comfortable rooms in Nuwara Eliya’s St. Andrew’s Jetwing hotel.

Weather in the Central Highlands is always hard to predict but this year we were blessed with classic, crisp winter conditions. There had been frost earlier in the month but by the time that we got to the high reaches of Mahaeliya bungalow in Horton Plains it was at least 10-15 degrees C° above freezing. The highlight of the time in Horton Plains was climbing the 2nd and 3rd highest mountains in Sri Lanka. Kirigalpotta (2,388 m) was the focus of a seven-hour round trip hike on Wednesday and Totupola Kanda (2,360m) was a short walk that we did on Thursday morning. For good measure we visited Sri Lanka’s highest peak Pidurutalagala (albeit by van, as walking is not allowed) on the final morning of the experience.

Grasshopper_love_fest_Mosaic

Grasshopper (Orthoptera sp.?) love fest near Lanka Ella Falls on Day 2 of the Highlands experience.

Ceratophora_stoddartii_at_HPNP_Mosaic

Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora_stoddartii) at Horton Plains National Park on Day 3, views from the same image file.

Encounters with biodiversity were integral to the Highlands experience. On the first day as we hiked along the Belihuloya stream we had sighting of several eagles (Black, Crested Hawk and Serpent). In Horton Plains we appreciated cloud forest flora and endemic lizards (Rhino horned and). On our final afternoon we visited Victoria Park to observe Pied Thrushes and other rare birds. That evening before dinner Ishanda Senevirathna took us on the amazing frog tour behind St. Andrew’s. The students were extra enthusiastic and we were able to see all of the six highlighted endemic species. This has become a real highlight of the highlands WWW experience, something that has been written up in Ishanda’s newly published book The Peeping Frogs of Nuwara Eliya.

OSC_Group_at_T_P_Kanda_1a(MR)(01_18).jpg

2018 Highlands group on Totupola Kanda (2,360m)  with view to Ambawella, Pidurutalagala and the north behind them.

The Horton Plains area as seen with a Planet Dove 3m multi-spectral satellite. Imagery acquired soon after our visit and then processed by the author to emphasize vegetation and land use patterns.

PAST WWW TRIPS

EXEMPLARY STUDENT CAS REFLECTIONS (HIGHLANDS)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

Senevirathna, Ishanda. The Peeping Frogs of Nuwara Eliya. Colombo: Jetwings, 2018. Print.

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

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

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