Monday, July 19, 2010

Penguin males with steady pitch make better parents

Antarctic penguins come on land for just a few short months each summer to breed and raise their chicks. Raising a family in the coldest place on earth is no small feat. Adelie penguins pull it off by tag-team parenting, the researchers explained. Males and females take turns incubating the eggs and guarding the chicks while their mate forages for food.

Males arrive first to claim a territory and build a nest. When the females arrive, the males serenade prospective mates by throwing their heads back, pointing their beaks to the sky, and emitting a series of hoarse trills and squawks. Males with more consistent pitch were snatched up more quickly. These males were also heavier and more successful at raising chicks, the researchers found. The fat surrounding the male's voice box changes what his call sounds like and body fat appears to stabilize their calls. By listening to male courtship calls, a female can tell how fat a male is and what kind of father he'll be. Fatter males make better fathers because they have the energy reserves to endure long fasts, so are less likely to leave the nest and desert their chicks.

After choosing a mate the female lays two eggs and returns to sea, leaving the male alone to tend the egg until she returns to take the next shift. For the first two weeks penguin dads do the bulk of babysitting duty without breaking to eat. According to the research findings by relying on stored fat reserves, father penguins can lose more than 20% of their body weight over the course of the summer breeding season and as a result their calls changed too. Therefore a skinny male is unlikely to be able to pretend he's a big fat male.

The reference for this article is: Emma J. Marks, Allen G. Rodrigo, Dianne H. Brunton. Ecstatic display calls of the Adélie penguin honestly predict male condition and breeding success. Behaviour, 2010; 147 (2): 165

FOG-Kids Workshop on Survival Skills

A workshop on Survival Skills for kids members of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka was held at the Mirigama scout camp from 19th-20th of June 2010. Eleven FOG kids were accompanied by five parents along with five FOGSL staff members. This was the first trip where kids spent a night out as all other fog-kids trips were one-day trips.

The participants were told to gather at the Fort Railway Station at six ‘o’clock on the 19th morning to catch the train to Mirigama. The participants were picked up from the Mirigama station and taken to the scout camp.

Upon arriving at the camp everyone refreshed themselves with a drink of ‘thambili’. After refreshments, a brief introduction to the workshop was given and the children were divided into two groups. Each of these groups appointed a member to lead the group. After this the participants were taught how to clean the camp grounds with the use of jungle material and how to set up tents. Each group were to set up one tent each. As there were no carpets to prevent sand getting inside the tents, a smart boy collected dead Jak leaves and put them together with sticks in order to make a makeshift carpet.

By now the tired children were quite hungry and everyone tucked into rice packets bought along the way. After everyone had filled their stomachs with lunch the eager kids were briefed about the survival skills. The children were taught the importance of staying together to avoid getting lost, how to tie different types of knots, first aid and how to light a fire using a magnifying glass, using stones and using wood.

After lighting a fire, the participants had the opportunity to fry a fish over the fire. A fish which had been purchased from the town was wrapped in Jak leaves and put over the fire. While the fish was being cooked, the members learnt how to find direction with the use of a needle. A bowl was filled with water and when the needle was put into it the side with the eye of the needle turned towards the north. Most of us had never known how to find directions using just a needle and a bowl of water.

One of the most important aspects of survival is having enough water to drink. A bowl of water was filled, covered with foil and a stone placed over it. This bowl was then buried in the soil. After a few hours water droplets begin to form on the foil and this water can be used to drink.

Participants were then taught how to clean and eat raw sweet potatoes by cleaning them with a penknife.

At dinner time the one of the groups were given the task of making noodles and the other group were to make sandwiches. The parents were not allowed to help the children and all the work was done by the children themselves. It was very nice to see these young kids working as a team in order to get the job done. The prepared dinner was taken to the campfire and everyone enjoyed the dinner cooked by the children.

The next morning everyone was up early to go on an early morning walk. Common birds such as the Myna and Red-vented Bulbul were observed. The children were also taught how to find a footpath if ever they got lost in the jungle. After arriving back at camp, breakfast which had been made by the parents was eaten and the kids had a break and played card games with each other.

Soon after lunch it was time to leave and all the participating FOG kids were given a gift each.

This workshop was a great experience for the kids and the parents as well and no doubt it everyone who participated benefited from this workshop.

Reported by: Asitha Samarawickrema

Kids: Kalindu Premarathne, Minandi Wilathgamuwa, Jayath Manura, Thusith Venura, Senuja Weerasinghe, Thilina Weerasinghe, Savindu Weerasinghe, Thenusha Jayathilake, Maneesha Jayathilake, Vinuja Weerasooriya, Namesha Perera
Parents: Mrs. D.H.N. Wijeratne, Mrs. Karini Kathriarachchi, Mrs. R.D. Ranawaka Arachchi, Mrs. Chandima Weerasinghe, Mrs. Sunethra Jayathilake
fogsl Staff: Mr. Upul Wickremasinghe, Mr. Susantha De Silva, Mr. Chaminda Rathnayake, Mrs. Shamila Corea, Ms. Shyama Weerakulasuriya

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Birding at Horton Plains National Park and the Hakgala Botanical Gardens

The annual field trip to the hill country for the year 2010 organized by the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) took place from 25-27th of June with the participation of 18 members. It provided unique opportunity for us to spend two nights in the dormitory at Horton Plains National Park (HNP) and experience the “watershed effect” of the place to its maximum. Horton Plains, a gently undulating highland plateau lying at 2,100m at the south end of the central highlands is the birth place of tributaries of three major rivers of Sri Lanka, namely the Mahaweli, Kelani and Walawe, as the grasslands act as a sponge in storing rain water. The South-West monsoons bring ample rainfall to the area, and the day we arrived was governed by very strong gusty winds, rain and fog. The visibility was very low as most of the time thick mist seeped in and out. Although it was not a good day for birding, we were fortunate enough to spot two Eurasian Blackbirds and a Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher during the evening hours just outside the dormitory.

The next morning we had a closer encounter a Sambur, which is known as the “beggar” right outside our dormitory. This particular Sambur is quite tame and now habituated to humans and likes to steal or beg a meal from the occupants of the dormitory. After photographing the sambur in all angles, we set off to the Arrenga Pool in order to catch a glimpse of the rare endemic Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush or the Arrenga. Even though it is an extremely shy bird our group had high hopes of seeing one. But, the thick mist kept the bird hidden and we only heard its call. Although we were disappointed at not being able to see the Arrenga, we were thankful to the weather gods as we started our hike to Baker’s falls and Worlds End. Blue skies appeared above us and we immensely enjoyed the panoramic views of the mountain ranges covered with patana grasslands and cloud forests. The bright red flowers of the Rhododendron trees added colour to the scenery even though concerns have been expressed about the rapid spread of this plant.

There was never a dull moment on the long trek to Baker’s falls as we were always on the look-out for birds. Seeing Baker’s falls cascading down was indeed worth the long trek. After the trek to Baker’s falls we all stopped to catch our breath and to re-hydrate ourselves. As we were tucking into some biscuits we were able to spot a very cute Dusky-striped Squirrel foraging on the ground.

On our way to World’s end, Chaminda our guide, who is blessed with very sharp eyes, spotted three Greater Flamebacks, a species of woodpecker which is also a proposed endemic bird on the trunk of a dead tree. All of us had a great opportunity to observe them through binoculars. When we reached the top of World’s end we were greeted with a clear view of the surrounding areas as all the mist had cleared. We were able to identify many distinctive land marks including the reservoirs, roads and buildings located far below us.

After world’s end and mini world’s end were both ticked off from our things-to-do list, we all had a welcome lunch as well as a rest before walking along the Dayagama road searching for more birds. We managed to spot a species of snake called the Boie’s Rough-side, known commonly as the “Le Medilla” in Sinhala along the path. The adventurous and enthusiastic went after a bird flock into the forest where species such as Orange-billed Babbler, Great Tit and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch were sighted. We were extremely lucky to see a wild boar close to our vehicle when we were returning to our dormitory after our walk.

All of the highland endemics as well as several rare migrants such as the Kashmir Flycatcher are found at Horton Plains and the area has been identified as an Important Bird Area of the country. The most suitable season for birding is from September to April. Other than birds, the most prominent animal of Horton Plains is the Sambur. Presently there are over 2,000 individuals within the 3,160 hectares, a fairly high number for a single species of herbivore. It has been suggested that the growth of the Sambur population might be triggered by the introduction of new grass species (e.g. Pennisetum glabrum) and the lack of predators, the only predator being the leopard with around 15 recorded individuals.

Many people flock to Horton Plains just to see World’s End and therefore sadly many miss the point of enjoying and protecting the unique biodiversity Horton Plains has to offer! Removal of plants and flowers, drunken behaviour, lighting of fires, littering, harassment of fellow visitors and noise pollution are some of the major problems associated with tourism. It is highly vital to educate visitors to Horton Plains before they are allowed to enter into this important watershed and a true laboratory of nature.

Our wake up call on the 27th was 4.30 a.m. as we left Horton Plains to Hakgala Botanical Gardens at 5.30 sharp to evade the large crowds that invade the gardens during weekends. Our arrival was greeted by a slight drizzle and a Sri Lanka Dull-blue Flycatcher who was enjoying picking insects near a pond. The highlight at Hakgala was the close encounter with a Brown Fish-owl.

We left Hakgala and breakfasted on the windy shores of Gregory Lake in Nuwara Eliya before returning to Colombo.

The nights were certainly cold and we would all have preferred another day at Horton Plains but the birds, animals and friendly people who joined us on this once in a lifetime trip more than made up for it.

Reported by: Asitha Samarawickrama and Nishanthi Perera
Photos and Bird list: Indrika Pradeepa

Participants: Sanjeewa Udawatta, Chaminda Jayaratna, Nishanthi Perera, Ranjith Perera, Mohamad Faris, Asitha Samarawickrama, Janaka Disanayaka, Wernon Fernando, Sulakshi Weragama, Lakshini Bambaradeniya, Rohan Kaththiriarachchi, C.R.I. Gomez, Shamila Perera, Sindy de Silva, Asoka Jayasekara, Malaka Rodrigo, Indrika Pradeepa, Chaminda Mahanayaka

Bird species recorded
Sri Lanka Spurfowl
Sri Lanka Junglefowl
Indian Pond-heron
Crested Serpent-eagle
Rock Pigeon
Sri Lanka Wood-pigeon
Spotted Dove
Sri Lanka Hanging-parrot
Brown Fish-owl
Alpine Swift
White-throated Kingfisher
Yellow-fronted Barbet
Greater Flameback
Scarlet Minivet
Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
Jungle Crow
Great Tit
Jerdon's Bushlark
Zitting Cisticola
Black-crested Bulbul
Red-vented Bulbul
Yellow-eared Bulbul
Asian Black Bulbul
Common Tailorbird
Sri Lanka Bush-warbler
Brown-capped Babbler
Sri Lanka Scimitar-babbler
Dark-fronted Babbler
Orange-billed Babbler
Sri Lanka White-eye
Oriental White-eye
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
Common Myna
Eurasian Blackbird
Oriental Magpie-robin
Pied Bushchat
Dull-blue Flycatcher
Tickell's Blue-flycatcher
Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher
Pale-billed Flowerpecker
Long-billed Sunbird
House Sparrow
Black-throated Munia
Scaly-breasted Munia
Tricoloured Munia
Paddyfield Pipit