Monday, August 3, 2015

FOGSL in Singharaja …..A rainforest in Sri Lanka

Singharaja is Mecca for bird watchers in Sri Lanka and are the last fragments of a large rain forest that once covered two thirds of the south and south–west of this island nation in the Indian ocean. Over 80% of the endemic birds , trees and shrubs and amphibians occur here. A biological hot-spot in South Asia.

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This remaining forest was earmarked for selected logging fulfilling the needs of a large ply-wood factory that came up in close proximity to the capital Colombo in  the mid sixties. Logging  commenced with skid trails established in the hilly terrain to slip the lumber down and roads set within the forest to manoeuvre the heavy lumber machinery.

With the commencement of the operations the devastation to come by was obvious and the limited environmental organizations then went into protest to protect the forest from this devastation.

A commission headed by the then Minister for Industries gave hearing to the protesters and a scientific committee  was appointed to report on Singharaja. The Wild Life Protection Society [WLPS] the Universities of Colombo and Peradeniya with March for Conservation [a non-governmental organization] came forward together to report on the potential of the forest and its impact on the climate. The committee report spelt out the immensity of the endemism of the  flora and fauna confined to Singharaja, its removal and the immediate impact on the climate and the  dependency of the local community on the forest for their livelihood etc. Based on this report the logging was stopped and the forest let to regenerate and the scientific research was to  continue with funding provided to the universities.

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March for Conservation commenced its research work having built its own makeshift center within the forest which was later upgraded to a permanent research station for private and university researchers. Much are the reports, books and papers published on Singharaja ever since. Many are the academics who have walked through its  trails of knowledge and the crystal  clear forest creeks.
Among them was an exception……….Martin Wijesinghe who is now identified as the Guardian of Singharaja was in this pioneering team from the universities;  employed by the Department of Forestry as the caretaker of the center later turned out to be ubiquitous member in the research work. Exposed to this much of science in his later stage of employment he turned out to be an authority on Singharaja. He was the only continuity of the research facility  while most of the Dons and Students would leave after their research. Martin thus continued his services to all who followed on until his retirement in the mid 90’s.
By now the story of Sinharaja was out and a flood of naturalists was frequenting Singaraja. Martin who was now living in the outskirts of Sinharaja facilitated these enthusiasts providing shelter in his abode, thus he became a legend  in Singharaja and is now felicitated and  decorated by the state.

Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka [FOGSL] was founded in the university of Colombo pioneered by Prof: Sarath Kotagama [SWK] and is the successor for March for Conservation also originated by SWK which was wound up having fulfilled its tasks at Singharaja.

FOGSL in 1996 November went to Singharaja for the very first  time, which later became a routine   annual event for the membership; a Bird count and a Bird Study Workshop  . Its first excursion as always was an exception and one worth remembering.

FOGSL in 1996 had revived its activities with a very successful exhibition and a membership drive. It was this new team of dedicated membership that went to Singharaja for the first time.

Two vans took us all to Kudawa where the Forest Department dormitory is located. There was no dedicated ticket office then as now. We were ticketed by the solitary caretaker of the dormitory to stay at Martin’s lodge and the vans left  leaving us with our belongings and the provisions for four days, They would be back for us on the evening of the fourth day. There was no motorable road to Martin’s lodge then and it was a shear climb from the Forest Department dormitory to Martin’s carrying all our provision by head. Packs of rice, coconuts, dry rations and veggies were distributed according to weight one could carry along on head. The load was to be felt by all halfway up the climb. All ended up at the lodge crossing the bathing spot in the creek down Martin’s home with much stops for birding and panting. A quick meal  prepared and we were to go in the forest as the weather was exceptionally favorable that evening for bird watching.
In the forest we were introduced to the mixed species foraging flocks of Singharaja. This has been one of the research specialties of Sinharaja and an exclusivity of the Singharaja bird behaviors. Mixed species flocking of birds for foraging purposes provide for the usage of the full cross section of the forest canopy by different species from the forest floor to the high canopy, based on their food preferences and body structure and behavior. A flock would consist from a few dozen birds to hundreds of birds flocking together moving in one direction scanning the foliage for lizards, spiders and insects with those low down in the ground turning up the ground litter exposing grub and setting free other  flying insects for the Trogon and the Drongos waiting midway in the canopy.

Just this evening we  encountered five such flocks traversing the  secondary forest alongside the road which is now regenerating since the stopping of logging. Three such flocks took turns crossing the road making them clear in the open expanse keeping to their dedicated levels allocated in the canopy. This flocking is said to be for  the convenience of foraging keeping predators at bay in this otherwise dark forest  with poor visibility. The noise of the birds and the multiple eyes watching for predators and the intermittent alarm calls of the drongos keep the system going. If one is to continue with the movement of the  flock for a long time he too would be accounted as a member devoid of fear for a predator.
My visits to Singharaja have been numerous since and I have never encountered such populated flocks as on this first trip ever. The sketch below is a comprehensive illustration of the flock population and their distribution in the canopy based on the research publication  by Neela de Zoysa and Ryhana Raheem.

Birds in Forest paste copy

Distribution of Birds within the Forest Canopy

No Species No Species
1 Crested Serpent Eagle 21 Legge’s Flowerpecker
2 Mountain Hawk Eagle 22 Crested Goshawk
3 Black Eagle 23 Sri Lanka Rufous Babbler
4 Black Bulbul 24 Southern Scimitar Babbler
5 White-headed Starling 25 Purple-rumped Sunbird
6 Broad-billed Roller 26 Green-billed Coucal
7 Sri Lanka Lorikeet 27 Yellow-browed Bulbul
8 Sri Lanka Grackle 28 Black-capped Bulbul
9 Red-faced Malkoha 29 Trogon
10 Layard’s Parakeet 30 Common Iora
11 Orange Minivet 31 Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
12 Crested Drongo 32 Crimson-backed Woodpecker
13 White-vented Drongo 33 Yellow-naped Woodpecker
14 Grey Tit 34 Ashy-headed Babbler
15 Gold-fronted Chloropsis 35 Orange-brested Blue flycatcher
16 Yellow-fronted Barbet 36 Black-fronted Babbler
17 Pied Shrike 37 Sri Lanka Brown-capped Babbler
18 Sri Lanka Blue Magpie 38 Spot-winged Thrush
19 Azure Flycatcher 39 Sri Lanka Spurfowl
20 Sri Lanka White Eye 40 Sri Lanka Junglefowl

Species names are as they appeared in nomenclature then 

40 members of the mixed species foraging flocks in Singharaja are listed and positioned here for reference.  It should be noted that there are other members taking part in these feeding flocks at different times of the year while it is the Rufous  Babbler which is the dominant species and the flock gatherer.

We trekked all the way up to the research center  with the sun going down over the forest canopy watching a pair of White–headed Starlings high up on the canopy. It’s time to call it a day and we commence the trek back to Martin’s lodge.

It was only then that someone looked up overhead; a spectacular site of five Brown-backed Needletails circulate quiet low  above the forest canopy. They were silhouetted against a white sky but the needle points of their tail spread  being so prominent. We missed to photograph them as they would get covered in the canopy only to emerge for a glimpse before they got hidden in the canopy again. That was the very first time that I saw this bird and have never seen it anywhere since then.

Brown-backed Needletail
Picture Curtsy [Mike Prince]

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The earliest pictures of Red Faced Malkoha on celluloid by Upul Wickramasinghe

Martin had just begun his facility for visitors in a very roughly built structure with jungle timber poles  but with a asbestos sheet roof. The walls were of  outer planking of lumber that are generally discarded. Them too being only to a height of around a meter from the floor. The rest of the wall was of plastic sheet and jute lining. There were no beds to lie down, but the total length of the hall about 10 meters had an elevated timber decking right through out with about a meter wide walkway on one of the longer sides. The decking had coco fiber mattresses on which we spread our  bed sheets with our bags improvised as pillows. About 20 of us lay tight next to each other.  I am unable to show you the condition of this abode but a sketch  through memory.
Old Martin lodge copy copy

Tired and weary we retired for the night….. when out of the blues there came thunder and the skies came down very hard on the asbestos roof sheets. The plastic sheeting  and the jute lining couldn’t do much to keep us nor our belongings for better use the following day. Nevertheless we managed to catch sleep with the warmth from our body heat in the pitch of darkness as there was no electricity then and the last of the candles had blown out in the breeze.

The following day everyone was up at the crack of dawn for birding around the lodge when we notice we have had companions sleeping with us through the rainy night. Martin’s two mongrels too had made use of the space on the decking tucked under someone's bedding to be warm and safe from the inclement weather.
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Breakfast had and ready for birding, but the day was to be dull and gloomy with a heavy drizzle met with intermittent rain. We seem to have had all the luck the previous day, no bird calls heard as we proceeded to the research station and back. The evening was assigned for the adventurous ones to climb the Mulawella nature trail. Jagath an all weather enthusiast, a chemical engineer by profession was ready dispensing drumstick like sticks to everyone with a node of chemical attached to one end that would dislodge leaches from the body on its contact. Everyone ready with rain attire and leach repellent are on the 2.4 km trail rising in elevation from 457m at the trail head to 758m at trail end . On the descend all were well except Jagath with all his technology having been bitten by a leach at his neck. It was his neck and face the only exposed  parts of his body that day.

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Jagath in boots with his bosom pal and country cousin  Rasika the Artist in the rain cape…. note the rugged road to Martin’s premises then. The timber lodge was to the left of the photo standing on stakes on the slope. This is the road shown in the drawing alongside the lodge.

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In 1996 digital photography had not really come to Sri Lanka and it was Upul Wickramasinghe who possessed an able camera for long range pictures and much of the photos here belong to him.

Day three was no better with almost all our clothes in a soggy damp condition there was no use in going into the forest with tickets…. killing time in-house was not what was intended in this trip. It was in unison that we all decided to explore the buffer zone of the forest known as the PITA KELE. We all trekked over 8 km though the villages and their fields discussing their activities and the use of the forest for their living etc. We managed to get the purest Kitul Hakuru with no sugar added as binding agent.. The juggery was all good in the dry banana leaf packing till we left Singharaja the following day. Once home my juggery was no more…… had blended with my pair of denim trousers ………what more to do I only had to bite into my trousers with greed. [Pure Kitul Juggery melts at temperatures slightly above  room temperature.]

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Erica plantations and Pinus cultivation of the buffer zone [Pita Kele]

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With them humble folk of Pita Kele

Day four dawned with better weather but with not much time for birding as we had to trek down with all the soggy garments wearing only those that had a permissible scent.

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The team before departure with Martin Jagath and Ruwan squatting in the foreground

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This vista may have pleased many who frequented Martin’s in the past and will please many in the future as well.

My second visit the following year was made with the same enthusiasm but at better times avoiding the rains. This time the flocks as said before was not that refreshing but for a Green-billed Coucal nesting downside Martin’s and all were hiding alongside the road to get a glimpse of the  bird that came out of the nest  almost at every fourth hours to fend for grubs for the chicks.

This time we were more interested in the non-flocking birds in Singharaja; the Sri Lanka Chestnut-backed Owlet, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill and the migratory Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon. The elusive Spurfowl and the Scaly Thrush were always a challenge to view. We also stalked the Frogmouth by its nightly calls around the Information Center that sounded more like a Turkey being straggled.

Singharaja is sure to stay in tact for many more years if the birds are safe and the visitor is well behaved in this otherwise fragile habitat.
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Sri Lanka Green Billed Coucal

Some of the flowering plants of Singharaja

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