Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The early birdwatchers: A talk by Tim Birkhead

Birds, a perennial human fascination, entertained medieval homes long before science took them for serious study. "Wisdom of Birds" author Tim Birkhead tours some intriguing birdwatcher lore (dug up in old field journals) -- and talks about the role it plays in ornithology today.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

FOGSL Annual Workshop on the Bird Flocks of Sinharaja

Mixed species feeding flocks of birds are one of the major highlights of the Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Area (SNHWA) as they provide sound to otherwise silent forest and also because most of the birds that one desires to see are found in them. So far 59 bird species (out of 144 found in SNHWA), including 19 endemics have been recorded to form flocks. The two most frequent species observed in these flocks are the Orange-billed Babbler and the Greater-crested Drongo.

Each year FOGSL organizes a field workshop for its members at SNHWA with the objective of providing an opportunity to understand the function and structure of mixed species feeding flocks. This year’s workshop was held from 10-12th September 2010.

We left the University of Colombo on the 9th around seven at night and reached Kudawa at 11.15pm. Thankfully Martin was waiting with his pickup for the luggage, and few of us also managed to get a lift to his lodge where we were stationed for the next three days. Wake up call on the 10th was at 5.30 am and by then the colourful Sri Lanka Magpies were already making noises from nearby trees. We took an early morning short walk to stretch our legs and after a good breakfast entered the protective zone of the forest for serious bird watching. Thirty three bird species were recorded during that day and several bird flock formations were also observed. Species such as Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Sri Lanka White-faced Starling, Black-naped Monarch, Indian Scimitar Babbler, Malabar Trogon together with the Orange-billed Babbler and the Great Crested Drongo were some of the common species observed in association with these flocks. The highlight of the day was observing a Besra that was perched on a tree stalk. After dinner Martin gave a talk on the history of Sinharaja. He was born in a nearby village and in 1958 moved to his present home, which borders the forest and since then has been involved in activities going within the forest. He spoke about the Government’s selective logging initiatives in the early 1970s and thereafter how the forest became a strictly protected in the late 1980s. Further he mentioned about his observations on the receding water levels of the surrounding streams during the past few decades.

Next day we had a very close encounter with two Sri Lanka Magpies, who came and perched on the wooden beams of the dining hall of the lodge. During our morning walk, the adventurous and young at heart decided to climb Mulawella while the rest opted to go in search for day roosting sites of owls. The scenery form the top of Mulawella was worth the strenuous climb, while on the journey various amphibians, lizards, butterflies and fish were observed. We encountered a large bird flock on the way down. Back on the road, we had an interesting observation where a Spot-winged thrush was attacking a Sri Lanka Magpie. The owl searches were very lucky and had close sighting of the Serendib Scops-Owl and the Chestnut-backed Owlet, both endemic to Sri Lanka. Later, we listen to an interesting lecturer given by Prof. Kotagama on Bird Flocks of Sinharaja as well as the milestone happening towards conserving the forest.

At the very start of day three, a Grey Hornbill was observed near to the lodge and during our walk to the research station several bird flocks were encountered, and tagging behind one flock were two giant squirrels. On our way back, we had a rare opportunity of seeing an Oak Leaf butterfly that repeatedly closed and opened its wings to show us its splendor. After the lunch we returned to Colombo with lots of good memories of birds and other animals as well as shared laughter!

Sinharaja is Sri Lanka’s last large viable area of the virgin primary tropical rainforest which used to cover most of the island in the long gone past. 64% of its trees are endemic and many of them are rare. The reserve is also home to 23% of Sri Lanka’s endemic animals, including 85% of the country’s endemic birds and over 50% of its endemic mammals, reptiles and butterflies.

Mr. Dinu Ranasinha, Mr. Tharindu Gunaratne, Mr. Asitha Samarawickrama, Ms. Sulakmi Weragama, Ms. Lakshini Bambaradeniya, Mr. Rohan Kaththiriarachchi, Ms. Komila Stanislaus, Mr. Shivarumar Selvaraj, Ms. Devika Gunawardena, Mr. Nilantha Megasuriya, Mr. P.D.R.C. Karunanayake, Mr. Sethiya N. Perera, Mr. Helaranga P. Perera, Mr. K.K.D.L. Ruvinka, Mr. G.D. Illeperuma, Mr. S.K.K. Suraweera, Mr. Ranathunga Chathuranga, Ms. Amaley Munasinghe, Ms. Nishanthi Perera, Mr. D.S. Perera, Mr. Saman Abesingha, Ms. Sindy de Silva, Mr. Amila Salgado, Mr. Kusum Fernando, Mr. Indrika Pradeepa, Mr. Ravindra , Prof. S.W. Kotagama

Bird list: Indrika Pradeepa
Photos and Report: Nishanthi Perera

Birds List
Sri Lanka Spurfowl (h)
Sri Lanka Junglefowl
Crested Serpent-eagle
White-breasted Waterhen
Emerald Dove
Green Imperial-pigeon
Sri Lanka Hanging-parrot
Sri Lanka Emerald-collared Parakeet
Sri Lanka Red-faced Malkoha
Greater Coucal
Sri Lanka Green-billed Coucal (h)
Sri Lanka Serendib Scops-owl
Sri Lanka Chestnut-backed Owlet
Frogmouth (h)
Indian Swiftlet
Malabar Trogon
White-throated Kingfisher
Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill
Brown-headed Barbet
Sri Lanka Yellow-fronted Barbet
Lesser Yellownape
Black-rumped Flameback
Greater Flameback
Scarlet Minivet
White-bellied Drongo
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Black-naped Monarch
Sri Lanka Magpie
Black-crested Bulbul
Red-vented Bulbul
Yellow-browed Bulbul
Sri Lanka Scimitar-babbler
Dark-fronted Babbler
Sri Lanka Orange-billed Babbler
Sri Lanka Ashy-headed Laughingthrush
Sri Lanka White-eye
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
Sri Lanka Myna
Sri Lanka White-faced Starling
Sri Lanka Spot-winged Thrush
Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush
Golden-fronted Leafbird
Sri Lanka White-throated Flowerpecker
Pale-billed Flowerpecker
Purple-rumped Sunbird
White-rumped Munia

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Birding in the North Central Province

The Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka’s (FOGSL) field trip to Mihintale and Ritigala took place from the 21-24th of August 2010 with the participation of 13 FOGSL members headed by Professor Sarath Kotagama. Our base was the guest house of the Rajarata University which was in very close proximity to the Mihintale archaeological site. On arrival at the guesthouse we were greeted by three Sri Lanka Grey Hornbills and by following them we managed to see two Golden-fronted Leafbirds and a pair of Indian Brown Mongoose.

After lunch and a little rest we set off on a birding walk through the gardens of the university and was amazed by the variety of birds that called the university their “home”. We were very lucky to see a whole family of Malabar Pied Hornbills consisting of a father, mother and a daughter!! Some of us were also able to witness a Crested Serpent-eagle being hawked by a Shikra. Other birds seen included Orange-breasted and Pompadour Green-pigeons, Yellow-eyed and Tawny-bellied Babblers and also Ashy, Plain and Jungle Prinias. Huge rain clouds were the only thing that stopped us from more birding and we had to retreat to the guesthouse to avoid getting wet. After dinner we could not resist going out to search for a Jerdon’s Nightjar which was heard very close to the guesthouse. Our efforts were rewarded when we spotted it on a branch of a tree a few meters away from the path.

Next morning we set off for birding near the archaeological site and were joined by a few keen students from the Rajarata University. Here first to greet us was our national bird, the Sri Lanka Jungle fowl, while the sharp eyes of Indrika spotted a Changeable Hawk-eagle which we observed with the scope for quite a while. The time between breakfast and lunch was spent listening to lectures by Professor Kotagama which was very interesting for all of us as we learnt many things we didn’t know about birds. After lunch it was decided to go birding near the lake just outside the university. The highlight of this expedition was a Brown Fish-owl, while quite a number of aquatic birds including Cormorants, White-breasted Waterhen, Purple Swamphen and a pair of Woolly-necked Storks were also observed.

The next morning we were up early as we had planned a day birding trip to Kebithigollewa and Padaviya. The university students also joined us for this expedition. Our guide for this leg of the journey was a FOGSL member from Kebithigollewa named Harsha. We were taken to two birding hotspots on the way to Padawiya wewa. The first was a lake where we were able to observe some spoonbills, Gull-billed Terns and a Wood Sandpiper. The second path also led to a lake but it was completely dry as it was the dry season. We were able to view a pair of Pied Cuckoos and also a Black Drongo. Lunch was at Padawiya wewa where most of the members had a refreshing bath in the wewa. On the way back an unexpected stop was made at a lake at the edge of the road which proved to be a very good birding area. By the end of this stop we were all quite tired and couldn’t wait to go back to the guesthouse for some hot tea and a shower.

Next morning we headed to Ritigala. On the way we stopped at two lakes of which the second lake was very good for birding. The sharp eyes of Professor Kotagama spotted Lesser Sand Plovers, Wood Sandpipers and also a lone Little Ringed Plover. After we reached Ritigala we were given a briefing about the archaeological site by one of the lecturers from the Rajarata University. We walked up to the designated point while viewing the ruins. It was a shame to see many groups of people acting in a manner which was not suitable within an area which is legally protected for safeguarding its rich heritage for future generations. It was around 12 noon when we said our final goodbyes to our friends from the Rajarata University. It was a trip where we made new friends and managed to observe 118 bird species!

Mr. Ranjith Silva, Miss. Uraji Karunaratne, Mr. Asitha Samarawickrama, Miss. W.A. Harsha Abewickrama, Ms. Sindy de Silva, Mrs. Tharidra de Silva, Kids Rahul and Shahal, Mr. Amila Salgado, Mr. Rohan Kaththiriarachchi, Ms. Shamila Perera , Mr. Indrika Pradeepa, Prof. S.W. Kotagama

Reported by Asitha Samarawikram

Bird List by Indrika Pradeepa

Photos by Amila Salgado (read his report here)

See more photos here.

Bird List

Sri Lanka Junglefowl
Indian Peafowl
Lesser Whistling-duck
Cotton Pygmy-goose
Painted Stork
Asian Openbill
Woolly-necked Stork
Black-headed Ibis
Black-crowned Night-heron
Indian Pond-heron
Cattle Egret
Grey Heron
Purple Heron
Great Egret
Intermediate Egret
Little Egret
Spot-billed Pelican
Little Cormorant
Indian Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Oriental Darter
Oriental Honey-buzzard
Brahminy Kite
White-bellied Sea-eagle
Crested Serpent-eagle
Black Eagle
Changeable Hawk-eagle
White-breasted Waterhen
Purple Swamphen
Black-winged Stilt
Red-wattled Lapwing
Lesser Sand Plover
Pheasant-tailed Jacana
Wood Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Gull-billed Tern
Whiskered Tern
Spotted Dove
Emerald Dove
Orange-breasted Green-pigeon
Pompadour Green-pigeon
Green Imperial-pigeon
Alexandrine Parakeet
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Pied Cuckoo
Asian Koel
Blue-faced Malkoha
Greater Coucal
Brown Fish-owl
Jerdon's Nightjar
Indian Nightjar
Asian Palm-swift
Little Swift
Crested Treeswift
Indian Roller
Stork-billed Kingfisher
White-throated Kingfisher
Common Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher
Little Green Bee-eater
Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill
Malabar Pied Hornbill
Brown-headed Barbet
Crimson-fronted Barbet
Coppersmith Barbet
Black-rumped Flameback
Greater Flameback
Ashy Woodswallow
Common Iora
Common Woodshrike
Large Cuckooshrike
Black-headed Cuckooshrike
Small Minivet
Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
Black-hooded Oriole
Black Drongo
White-bellied Drongo
Asian Paradise-flycatcher
House Crow
Jungle Crow
Barn Swallow
Red-rumped Swallow
Jerdon's Bushlark
Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark
Zitting Cisticola
Grey-breasted Prinia
Jungle Prinia
Ashy Prinia
Plain Prinia
Black-crested Bulbul
Red-vented Bulbul
White-browed Bulbul
Yellow-browed Bulbul
Common Tailorbird
Brown-capped Babbler
Tawny-bellied Babbler
Dark-fronted Babbler
Yellow-eyed Babbler
Yellow-billed Babbler
Oriental White-eye
Common Myna
Oriental Magpie-robin
White-rumped Shama
Indian Robin
Tickell's Blue-flycatcher
Jerdon's Leafbird
Golden-fronted Leafbird
Thick-billed Flowerpecker
Pale-billed Flowerpecker
Purple-rumped Sunbird
Purple Sunbird
Long-billed Sunbird
House Sparrow
Baya Weaver
White-rumped Munia
Scaly-breasted Munia
Paddyfield Pipit

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Do migrating birds spread Bird Flu?

It’s the bird migratory season again. With the start of the season, another threat comes. The Bird Flu.

In 2005 an outbreak of the H5N1 'bird flu' virus in South East Asia led to widespread fear with predictions that the intercontinental migration of wild birds could lead to global pandemic. Such fears were never realised, and now research published in the Journal of Applied Ecology reveals why the global spread of bird flu by direct migration of wildfowl is unlikely.

The highly pathogenic H5N1 virus is primarily a disease of poultry, often resulting in mass mortality. However, the virus can also infect other species, including wild birds and humans. Some wild ducks, geese and swans can carry the virus asymptomatically, (without showing any symptoms) meaning that they have the potential to spread the virus as they migrate.

"The actual risk of H5N1 spread through migratory birds depended on whether infected individuals were capable of migratory movements while shedding virus, and the distance over which such individuals could travel. Our research has answered these questions using analysis of infection and migratory routes and timings for many bird species" says Dr Nicolas Gaidet.

His team analysed 228 birds from 19 species using satellite telemetry from 2006 to 2009 over the bird flu affected areas of Asia, Europe and Africa. The results indicated that migrating wildfowl are capable of dispersing the virus over extensive distances as much as 2900km before symptoms become apparent.

However, while this is theoretically possible the team found that direct virus dispersal by migrating birds would require asymptomatic infection to coincide precisely with the migration season. The results revealed a very small 'window' of between 5 to 15 days when dispersal of the virus over 500 km could occur.

It is crucial to the spread of disease over such a distance that an infected bird must not be showing the symptoms of infection. If the symptoms are evident then it is highly likely that the individual may not migrate, or at least they will be unable to cover the distance as well as a healthy bird.

Read the research paper here

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Bar-Tailed Godwit Sets Record for Long-Distance Flight

How is it possible to fly 11,000 kilometers without a single break? The record holder for long distance flight outdoes all human-made aircraft. Every year the Bar-tailed godwit undertakes an eight-day journey of 11,000 km between Alaska and New Zealand twice. The bird flies non-stop, without once breaking the journey to rest or eat.

Professor of Ecology Anders Hedenström from Lund University has pondered over how this species of bird can fly so far without stopping. The distance is twice as far as previously known non-stop distances for migratory birds.

Professor Hedenström emphasises that the bar-tailed godwit is far superior to all aircraft constructed by humans when it comes to the art of flying for a long time without a break. The best man-made flying machine with a record closer to that of Bar-tailed Godwit is QiniteQ's Zephyr, an unmanned solar-powered craft which remained in the air for 82 hours, (around 3.5 days), compared with the Bar-tailed Godwit's eight-day flight.

But what is it that makes the bar-tailed godwit able to fly 11 000 kilometres without a single break? How can these birds manage without sleep or food for eight whole days? One explanation is that they consume unusually little energy compared with other species of bird. Anders Hedenström has calculated that the bar-tailed godwit consumes 0.41 per cent of its body weight each hour during its long flight. "This figure is extremely low compared with other migratory birds," he says.

There are still pieces of the jigsaw missing that could explain the bar-tailed godwit's record non-stop flight. Could the bird's success be due to a particularly good ability to navigate with the help of an inner compass that makes use of the earth's magnetic field, for example? Anders Hedenström notes that there are a number of exciting questions surrounding the bar-tailed godwit's ability not to get lost up in the air.

Read the full story here.

Read the journal article “Extreme Endurance Migration: What Is the Limit to Non-Stop Flight?
Photo: Lars Hedenström (www.sciencedaily.com)