Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka [FOGSL] is the largest membership of bird loving personnel in Sri Lanka. Established in 1976; is based in the University of Colombo and is in to the scientific study of birds in Sri Lanka. The pioneers of FOGSL being Dr. Sarath W Kotagama, Dr. S U K Ekaratne, M/s P B Karunaratne, Rex I de Silva, L B Ranasinghe and G L de Silva; the organization went to the masses beyond the university only in 1996 with a well publicized exhibition dedicated to Mr.P B Karunaratne a renowned personality on the Natural History in this country. Today the membership is well passed the 3000 mark.
Further to the University based scientific activities, bird study workshops at Sri Lanka’s premier birding locations is an annual event that is conducted to the membership. These visits commenced in a primeval way in the mid 1990’s, when the organization was lacking for resources but armed with a very dedicated membership.
Sinharaja, Bundala, Nilgala and Horton Planes being the premier birding locations in the country, FOGSL was to commence bird studies and counts in these locations on an annual basis.
The very first visit by FOGSL to these locations were significant and is worth be recorded.
The visit to Nilgala in 1999 was exceptional. The dates being 4th, 5th, 6th and the 7th of February. It was with much planning and reluctance that a selected few [around 15] of the tough ones used in roughing out took up the task of recording birdlife in Nilagala.
We left the University premises about mid day and reached the Nagala Buddhist Temple in Bibile in the night. The logistics required that we be at the Nilgala access very early in the morning in order to make the best use of daylight on the hike to the base camp in the Savannah forests of Lower Uva located within the catchment of the Senanayake Samudra [Inginiyagala Tank].
Food was never planned for the first and the last days but was had on the wayside as was available and when required, but carried with us the bare minimum dry rations for the other days, keeping in mind of the load that was to be carried on are heads and backs.
We slept in the sermon hall of the temple and were up by 04.00 a.m. to be at the Pitakumbura junction which is the entrance to the Nilgala Sanctuary on the Bibile-Ampara road. A police check point was located here, for it being a warring time in the country. We had rusk bread with plain tea for breakfast. The tea was like sugar syrup at this kiosk, the only one that had come up to cater the policemen manning the checkpoint.
On inquiries about the hike to the camp; everyone in Pitakumbura cautioned us of the difficult terrain and the beasts that were to be encountered on the way. They suggested that we travel light, while our baggage and the provisions be delivered to camp by an ox drawn cart.
FOGSL had no camping gear then, tents were a luxury during that time and leisure excursions into the countryside were not welcome with an on going war a few miles away in East Sri Lanka.
An hour and a half passed, and we are still at Pitakumbura waiting for the cart, when we hear a “Sokade” [ a neck bell carved out of solid timber for the bullock ] and a funny looking cart driven by two oxen is here for us to load our baggage, and the few utensils borrowed from the temple. The distance of five kilo meters to walk was always a doubt; the distance measure in these parts of the country are based on assumption and local techniques.
|Funny looking cart|
We had to be mindful that the we would not be abandoned on the last day, so we would be paying the cart only on the return trip and the agreed fee was Rs. 200.00 both way.
The digital era was yet to come and photography was on light exposed celluloid. Mr.Upul Wickramasinghe who made photography his profession was the official photographer of FOGSL and the only one who had a camera. We were all limited to a few field glasses while some of us carried G M Henry’s Field Guide and the FOGSL’s official Field Guide of 1995 by Kotagama and Prithiviraj.. Armed with these limited resources we kept close to the cart helping the bulls on difficult terrain.
The cart-man knowing the terrain better vanished in a speed after the ravines were crossed leaving us to follow with ample birdwatching to be done at leisure. An hour passed with the cart gone, we are in the Aralu, Bulu, and Nelli groves; thought to be the Aurvedic Herbal gardens of ancient Sri Lanka.
There being no habitation around unlike today the birdlife was in plentiful. It was here that I recorded my perfect clear naked eye sighting of the Red Faced Mal-koha on a Kahata tree just five feet away almost at touching distance. I was petrified with nobody around for testimony…. enjoyed this godsend blessing for almost ten minutes. It was feeding on the tender Kahata flowers, looking around tilting its red face staring at a petrified me as if to say you are most welcome in this land.
Most animals are approachable until it fears man in its habitat. We were about the earliest to go here after a long lapse of human visitation. The Wildlife Department had only a beat office which was hardly habited by the officer then.
Nilgala an ancient village was absorbed in to the Gal-Oya Multipurpose Development Scheme which came up after independence. The villagers were resettled in new farmlands and the village Nilgala was acquired into the catchment of the Inginiyagala Reservoir. However the existent paddy cultivation was permitted to continue. The famers had their watch towers on the trees in the periphery to keep the elephants at bay in their nightly raids. The stately house of the village head-man was spared and is used as the beat office
Almost two and a half hours of trekking and birding we reach camp. The cart had already been unloaded the two bulls were grazing in the shade.
The timely priority was a meal….and every one got together to prepare a basic lunch with the available facilities at the beat office kitchen. The bulls and the cart gone we venture into the savanna with the sun on the setting side for birding with all ears and eyes scanning for the Painted Francolin the biome special bird of Nilgala.
Many of the birds seen on the first day were lifers to many,……the Drongo Cuckoo, Three toed Kingfisher, Red faced Mal-koha, the Racket tail Drongo were special to everyone but for the Partridge not seen or heard yet. Towards evening a heavy drizzle came down and all of a sudden we hear the raspy call of the Painted Francolin. Everybody rushed in the direction of the call, the fading light and the grass being tall we could not see it but was so near. Though not proper,through temptation we decide to flush it. Two of us venture into the tall maana grasses and the call ceased ……….we had startled two axis deer instead. The light fading quicker we call it a day.
Of the birds seen for the day there was to be much of the biome restricted species of the Uva Avifaunal Zone. The Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, the Scaly-bellied Woodpecker the Southern Sirkeer ,the Rufous Woodpecker and some had even seen the Yellow – legged Green Pigeon. Dinner was taken early as we had no illumination facilities and laid down with two old earthen pots stuffed with coconut husks that bellowed smoke into the verandah to keep the teeming mosquitoes under control. That night was truly a very long one?
Up very early as usual the morning scores took time at the single loo house and the very deep well. Those who went to the bush knew how to blend with the environment and there was ample ablution water in the irrigation canal. A clear and clean trickle of water at the a culvert close to camp was for those who were particular about the water. They were the first to be gifted with the sighting of the Painted Francolin……..a lifer to all no doubt. The bird came out on a rock boulder in the morning streaks to call for its mate……. that call was not answered by its mate but by all of us. We had seen the biome special bird of Nilgala.
Breakfast had, we venture into the jungle single file along the canal bund up to the weir on the Gal Oya, passing elephant tracks that lead to the paddies.
More birds seen but the Racket-tailed Drongo being the sighting of the day at the weir site. My friend Wilson later wrote about it in the ‘Malkoha’ the official journal of FOGSL describing the racket as two black beetles following a black bird .. The two extended tail feathers have only the tips broadened with feathers depicting them to look as beetles. Many preferred the return to camp via the river bed exploring the deep rock pools of the Gal Oya.
Evening was spent at leisure around camp where we saw the Red Faced Mal Koha again on the high canopy of the riverine trees. There was the Grey Hornbill feeding its imprisoned mate in a tree cavity for all to see in seated comfort. It was only towards late evening that Wilson and Amudesh decide to explore deeper in the savanna with me. We follow the tracks of the stray cattle and within half an hour we smell cattle and and they are now visible in the distance. Not far from them we see movement and hear the rumble ……its three elephants and we are back on the road as fast as we could in just half the time we took to see them. Towards night during dinner we hear them closer to camp feasting on the ripened jack fruit of the abandoned jack trees the villages left behind. Wilson and Amu had an arrangement with the farmers that night to spend the nightly hours on a tree hut. Their yearning to see elephants in moonlight was not to be a reality that night.
The last day at Nilgala was dawned and we have a half a day for birding. The organizers had firm orders set; that lunch will be had by 12.00 noon and departure no sooner the cart comes. On the return the hikers proceeded before the cart to be at the creek on time to help the bulls.
We visited the only abode that was seen within the sanctuary that of a humble farmer. It was the season for Oranges. Bibile being the locality famous for Oranges in the country. At the farmers house was an old abandoned plough complete with its yoke and all. He was generous enough to part with it………….today this yoke hangs over the entrance door at Professor Sarath Kotagama's abode in Pelawatte welcoming all who visit him.
The search for a Sokade to be hung on that yoke as a call bell is still on…….
We are at Pikakumbura earlier than expected. The cart man seem to have tricked us at the end by demanding more money. Negotiating to what was agreed was not to be ……we pay him more and the deal is closed happily.
The last bird greeted us differently at Pitakumbura ……an Indian Cuckoo kept on calling on its descending whistle kwer…kwah kwar….khur [folklore interpret it as ..botuwa kapang.. meaning cut your throat ]
Not a wish that we would expect from a bird after four memorable days in Nilgala. That Cuckoo being the last bird seen we are back on the road leading to Colombo.
Definitely a trip to remember with lifelong memories for every participant ……. and I have used the old bird names for nostalgic reasons in keeping with yester-time .