Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Birding in Mannar and its surroundings

FOGSL in collaboration with Naval base in Vankalai organized a briding excursion to Mannar from 4-7th November 2010 with the participation of 23 members. It was a “first in life” trip to few, while others were “going down the memory lane” to re-discover the birding hotsopts in the area. Mannar was out of bounds for most of the past 30 years due to the civil unrest and thankfully it is now being re-awakened with the conclusion of the war in 2009.
We left the Colombo University around 2.15 in the afternoon and reached St Anne’s Central Collage, Vankalai at sharp midnight; our base camp for the next three days. The guys opted to camp in a big hall upstairs while the ladies plus one child were left to settle themselves in two class rooms down below. Wake up call at 5.30 a.m was hard to stomach, yet we managed to be in the bus by 6.30 as all of us were eager to explore the surroundings.
Vankalai Sanctuary was our first stop. Very recently declared as Sri Lanka’s fourth Ramsar wetland of International Importance, Vankalai has also been identified as an Important Bird Area. Covering 4,839 ha, the sanctuary consists of numerous coastal and marine wetlands, and patches of arid zone dry thorn scurb, arid zone pasture and sand dunes. Mangroves, salt marshes, lagoons and sea-grass beds and maritime grasslands are the prominent wetlands. Due to the integrated nature of shallow wetland and terrestrial coastal habitats, this sanctuary is very productive, supporting high species diversity. Civil unrest has kept human activity out of this area and presently there are only few permanent settlements. Local people engage in small-scale livestock grazing, subsistence and commercial fishing.
We did most of our birding along the abandoned rail tracks that joined the main land to Talaimannar and crossed the Ilayadi Bridge near the Alfa 1 Naval camp. Around 74 species of birds including migratory waders were observed on that day. The most notable records were the Spot-billed duck, Eurasian Oystercatcher, and Sanderling. Even though we looked forward to seeing a large gathering of the graceful Greater Flamingos, our wish was not fulfilled during this trip; instead we had to be content with the colourful and common Painted storks!
It seems that the wild donkey or the assess are very abundant in Mannar, and even in the middle of the town itself you will find them in search of food. If uncheked and conservation measures are not taken, this population too will dissapear soon. Other mammals such as hare, jackal, wildboar and mongoose were also observed running through the thorny buhes of the Sanctuary. We also visited the Talaimannar pier, the tip of Mannar island where around four decades ago people used take ferries to India. On the way to the jetty large number of Indian Rollers were observed. The group also wanted to have a look at the Baobab tree, which has the widest recored tree trunk within Sri Lanka. Located near to the Mannar town, this tree’s orgin is the African continent and it had been introduced to our island by Arabian traders in 1476.
On the day two, the morning hours were again spent brding at the Vankalai Sanctuary. After breakfast we headed towards Vidattaltivu lagoon accompanied by two Navy officials, who were a great help in getting through numerous check points. We were greeted by three Crab plovers at the Vidattaltivu lagoon and this bird was a ‘lifer’ to most of us. Other than several and Little Green Bea-eaters who danced in and out amongst the bushes, the lagoons were devoid of birdlife. We headed towards Iluppaikkadavai Navy base, which is siutated sourrounded by a healty mangrove and salt marsh vegetation as well as the open ocean, for our lunch. Thereafter we took a lengthy walk along the banks of the lagoon. A Wimbrel, Grey Plovers, Pacific Golden Plovers, Terek Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, White-winged Terns were observed on the banks of the lagoons near to the base. A Rosy Starling and a Blyth's Pipit were also recorded by few of the birders close to the Iluppaikkadavai.
Although it was planned to return to Colombo through Wilpattu National Park and also to do some birding at Silavaturai, the idea had to be abandoned due to floods in that area. Instead we visited the Giant Tank Sanctuary where aquatic birds such as Common kingfisher, Pied kingfisher, Cotton Pygmy-goose, Little Grebes, Little Cormorants, Indian Cormorants and large number of Lesser whistling ducks were present.
The bird list for the trip passed 120 species with the addition of Wooly-necked stork and the Crested Serpent-eagle observed while travelling from Anuradhapura to Puttalam. Large number of butterflies was also recorded during this excursion. Both Vankalai and Giant Tank area can be considered as “photographer’s paradise” for capturing these vibrant beauties on film!
It also needed to be noted that with deep felt regret we observed the bridges, houses and other infrasturcture that was destroyed during the war and the human suffereing that went with it. All of us, including the Naval officers we spoke with hoped and prayed for long lasting peace where all races in our country can live as Sri Lankans under one flag!

We reached Colombo around 7 p.m on Sunday with lots of shared memories of the rich natural and cultural heritage of Mannar and its surroundings!
Participants: Mr. Ranjith Silva, Miss. Uraji Karunaratne, Mr. R.K. Jayarajah, Mr. Sivakumar Selvaraja, Mrs. Chitra Devi Ranasinghe, Mr. Adrian Gadriel, Mr. Osanda Senapathiratne, Mr. A. Nishantha Kulathunga, Mr. M.M. Casseer, Mrs. Sriyani Perera, Ms. Ziniya Nisam, Ms. Nandachitra Hewaga, Mr. G.Herath, Mr. Paba Bandara , Mr. Nilantha Megasooriya, Ms. Nishanthi Perera, Mr. Prasanna kobeesuuaram (Vauniya), Mr. Kuhapreetham, Mr. Kusum Fernando, Mrs. Shamila Perera, Mr. Chaminda Jayaratne, Mr. Kasun Dayananda, Mr. Indrika Pradeepa

Reported by Nishanthi Perera
Photos by Nishanthi Perera and Chaminda Jayaratne
More Photos

Birds List of Mannar
(Wankalai Sanctuary, Vidattaltivu Lagoon & Gaint’s Tank)
Grey Francolin
Indian Peafowl
Lesser Whistling-duck
Cotton Pygmy-goose
Spot-billed Duck
Little Grebe
Painted Stork
Asian Openbill
Black-headed Ibis
Eurasian Spoonbill
Yellow Bittern
Black Bittern
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
Oriental Darter
Black Kite
Brahminy Kite
White-bellied Sea-eagle
White-breasted Waterhen
Purple Swamphen
Barred Buttonquail
Great Thick-knee
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Crab Plover
Black-winged Stilt
Yellow-wattled Lapwing
Red-wattled Lapwing
Pacific Golden Plover
Grey Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Kentish Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
Pheasant-tailed Jacana
Pintail Snipe
Black-tailed Godwit
Eurasian Curlew
Common Redshank
Common Greenshank
Wood Sandpiper
Terek Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Little Stint
Curlew Sandpiper
Red-necked Phalarope
Indian Courser
Brown-headed Gull
Gull-billed Tern
Caspian Tern
Great Crested Tern
Little Tern
Whiskered Tern
White-winged Tern
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-dove
Spotted Dove
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Pied Cuckoo
Chestnut-winged Cuckoo
Asian Koel
Greater Coucal
Asian Palm-swift
Alpine Swift
Crested Treeswift
Indian Roller
White-throated Kingfisher
Common Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher
Little Green Bee-eater
Blue-tailed Bee-eater
Eurasian Hoopoe
Brown-headed Barbet
Black-rumped Flameback
Indian Pitta
Ashy Woodswallow
Common Iora
Brown Shrike
Long-tailed Shrike
Black-hooded Oriole
Black Drongo
White-bellied Drongo
Asian Paradise-flycatcher
House Crow
Jungle Crow
Barn Swallow
Jerdon's Bushlark
Oriental Skylark
Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark
Zitting Cisticola
Jungle Prinia
Plain Prinia
Red-vented Bulbul
White-browed Bulbul
Common Tailorbird
Yellow-billed Babbler
Common Myna
Rosy Starling
Oriental Magpie-robin
Indian Robin
Pale-billed Flowerpecker
Purple-rumped Sunbird
Long-billed Sunbird
House Sparrow
Scaly-breasted Munia
Tricoloured Munia
Paddyfield Pipit
Blyth's Pipit

Monday, November 8, 2010

FOGSL Field Trip to Peak Wilderness

On a warm, sunny day, on 22nd October, peaceful and calm Eratne lay before us, twelve members comprising veterans and novices of FOGSL who were to enjoy two days in Peak Wilderness. Adawikanda was our last stop before the long climb to our abode; Seetha Gangula nawathanpola began by foot.

Peak Wilderness nestles in the centre of the Western ridge of the Central Highlands, north-east of Ratnapura. The wilderness also stretches towards the borders between Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces. With the abundance of treasures and mysteries, Peak Wilderness has been classified as the most constantly wet part of Asia, West of Borneo.

Our slow and tedious walk lasted for about 4 1/2 hours. In spite of the fatigue, we were in awe of the surroundings. We had lunch near a site where a dam was built, to make use of waters of a cascading waterfall to generate electricity to the villagers as well as the national grid. Cool winds and water, replenished us for awhile. Back on the route, we increased our pace, knowing we had to reach our destination before nightfall.

The valley spread before us, as we climbed higher. Through trees and shrubs we could get a peek at the vast expanse of greenery beyond. After walking, stumbling and panting along the distance, we spotted the Ambalama with relief. The waters of Seethagangula beckoned us quietly. Tents were put up, by the able men while Mahatun Mama, a faithful guide and friend of members of FOG for the past 5 years, along with his aides, Bandara and another, got the hearth going for the preparation of tea and dinner.

The only females in the herd, Komila and I hurried to the river to take a wash before it grew too dark. While we attempted to hide behind a rock for privacy, we later heard that a troupe of monkeys had apparently been watching us from a tree!

Morning dawned on the 23rd, after a terribly cold night. The few Buddhists in the group were hoping to climb Shri Pada. After much thought, I decided to join the 7 members to climb the rock. We began the long journey around 6.00 a.m. Four members stayed back to go birding in the surroundings adjacent to the Ambalama.

Legs aching, panting madly, slipping and struggling we trekked for about 1 1/2 hours before stopping over for a breakfast of ‘Kadala’ and coconut at a dilapidated ambalama, which during the season, would have been thriving with free meals and hot cups of tea for pilgrims.

The long trek began again with us being determined to spot a few birds to add to the list! It was treat, therefore, to see a Legg’s flower pecker having its own breakfast, feeding on some small fruit. A pair of Nuthatches was making a racket on a tree, presumably pecking away at some insects they had scented and spotted. We saw yellow eared bulbuls, hill mynahs and red vented bulbuls chirping away, on that glorious morning. The air was fresh and pure, and the sun shone bright and hot on us.

“Start climbing early, try to make it to the summit before 1.00 p.m. If you can’t and even if the summit is just there to reach, you need to climb down looking at it, by 1.30 p.m and reach the ambalama by 6.00 p.m.” were the instructions we got from Dr. Newton Jayawardane and Chaminda Jayaratne. We knew we had to keep to the deadlines and we were chasing time! There were traces of Elephant dung as we passed ‘batakelle’. A few blood thirsty leeches were making an effort to get on us, and some succeeded in making us bleed a fraction.

We reached the summit around 12.45 p.m. and the experience was awesome! Below, the montane forest cover spread. Vast, pure untouched and spellbinding, the canopy was an umbrella amidst the clouds. We could see the Blue waters of Castlereigh and Mousakelle Reservoirs, and of course the winding path we took was also visible, making us aware of the long trek back on the same route. It was hot and sunny up there. The winds fanned us. After prayers, and a steaming cup of tea given to us by the security officers at the summit, we began our descend. It was disheartening to see volumes of polythene carelessly strewn down the slopes of the summit. Pollution, a burning matter of concern where ever we happened to go, was not strange even to Peak Wilderness. We collected as much garbage as we could, and burnt them all at Galwangediye Kade Ambalama.

Descending was tedious as climbing was. After lunch at Ahala Kanuwa Ambalama, we began a steady descend making sure to pass Batakelle, before 3.30 p.m. We had to avoid elephants incase we ran into them! A prayer to see the Dollar bird was not answered. However, there were species of yellow eared, and black capped bull bulls which greeted us on the way down. Mahatun Mama, bare footed, chirpy and agile, guided us through out this tedious and exhilarating journey.

We reached our Ambalama by 6.05 p.m., much to our delight and probably to the relief of the others who would have been waiting for us. After the check list was done, and dinner taken, we retired to our respective tents, to get whatever sleep we could before returning to base, Adawikanda the next morning. Back at Adawikanda the following afternoon, everyone waited to have a dip in the river. Bandara welcomed us to his humble home, to give us a delicious meal for lunch. We relished the waldel kos ata curry, a novelty and a rare meal for city dwellers.

A few of us had to bid farewell to the group at Avissawella because we were Kandy bound. Back at home; to reminisce and re-live moments, it was a journey worth, making the effort of going! An important learning outcome was, to stay fit and healthy. Life becomes easier when one is in good health!

Bird List

Sri Lanka Jungle fowl
Great Tit
Sri Lanka yellow fronted barbet
Black Crested Bulbull
SriLanka grey hornbill
Red Vented Bulbul
White throated Kingfisher
SriLanka Yellow eared bulbul
Blue tailed bee-eater
Black bulbul
Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot
Yellow browed bulbul
Indian Swiftlet
Sri Lanka White eye
Spotted Dove
Oriental White eye
Emerald Dove
Greenish Warbler
Green Imperial Pigeon
Large billed leaf warbler
Crested Serpent Eagle
SriLanka Brown capped Babbler
SriLanka Schimiter Babbler
Brown Shrike
Dark Fronted Babbler
Sri Lanka Blue Magpie
Sri Lanka Orange Billed Babbler
Black Hooded Oriole
Yellow Billed Babbler
Scarlet Minivet
Thick Billed Flower Pecker
Bar winged Flycatcher shrike
Sri lanka Legge’s Flower Pecker
White bellied Drongo
Pale Billed Flower pecker
Crested Drongo
Purple rumped sunbird
Black Naped Monarch
Grey Wagtail
Asian Paradise Flycatcher
White Rumped Munia
Common Iora
Sri Lanka Spot winged Thrush
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Brown breasted flycatcher
Sri Lanka Dull Blue Flycatcher
Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher
Grey Headed Canary Flycatcher
Sri Lanka Myna
Hill Myna
Velvet Fronted Nuthatch

List of Participants:

Mr. Chaminda Jayaratne, Dr. Newton Jaywardena, Ms. Sulakmi Weragama, Mr. Rohan Kaththiriarachchi, Ms. Komila Stanislaus, Mr. Ruwan, Mr. Ranjith Fernando, Mr. Chana, Mr. Nashad Hafi, Mr. Faris, Mr. Amudhesh

Bird list and Report: Sulekshmi Weragama
Photos: Sulekshmi Weragama, Rohan Kaththiriarachchi and Chaminda Jayaratne

To see more Photos