Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

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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 continued 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’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.

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.

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