Saturday, April 16, 2016

Sinharaja–A rain Forest in Sri Lanka

Ever since joining the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka [FOGSL] in 1996, attending the annual workshop at Sinharaja was a routine event for me. This was to continue for almost 10 years until occupational and family priorities overrode. However it was always an urge to be at Martin’s Lodge in Sinharaja whenever time permitted. The creek flowing by with its ice cold water and the dip in it after a day’s wondering in the forest was the most soothing feeling one could achieve in this pristine patch of forest called Sinharaja.

As it is generally said that your kids follow your habits………both may son and daughter also turned out to prefer the outdoors and enjoyed the wildly stays at Sinharaja or Horton Plains whenever they wanted to be away from home and the city.

Sinharaja was the choice this year when Naveen came over for holidays since his last visit in 2012 when we stayed over at Horton plains.

Sinharaja still has the virgin touch.

As agreed by all we book Martins Lodge from the 22nd to 24th of May 2016. This time we have a new kid in the group our second grandchild Arun. However we miss our daughter Hiruni who is away for higher studies.

Our regular trip driver Tharindu gets us to Kudawa in Weddagala where Martin’s son Gumasoma is waiting for us with the old 1940’s Willys 4X4 to get us up on the only motorable dirt track to their lodge. A continuous jerky climb of almost twenty minutes we are at the lodge greeted by our good old companion and friend Martin. We are all veterans at this facility excepting the kids and their mother being here for the first time.

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Vista from Martin's Lodge

A very late lunch had we decide to spend the last four hours to sundown relaxing at Martin’s with ample plain tea enjoying the vista across the dining room and doing some long range bird watching with binoculars. I recall that a few of the older trees that were iconic of this vista are no more and Martin says that they had died and fallen. The natural regeneration process in a rain forest. The older ones fall for those that have stayed years to catch the sunlight to gain heights……a competitive process.

Research has shown that Pinus could be grown with an indigenous undergrowth in the Sinharaja buffer zone 

Being the month of March it is generally warm…. but this year the rains have failed miserably compared to 2015 that was above average. The forest is dry and the streams too have parched. In this climate we were not to expect the large bird flocks in the forest says Martin. But for one consolation……..the blood sucking leaches have all gone deep in the ground until the rains occur and we are safe without leech socks.

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The kids enjoyed the stay so far as now there is electricity up here unlike in the past when paraffin lamps gave light for an early dinner and to bed for an early rise for birding. The plan to go frogging was not to be with the lack of water and moisture around. Mevan was so adamant that he locate a frog by the light of his head lamp was finally gifted with a large Bufo toad that had burrowed under a dripping water pipe.

After an early dinner we retire for the day planning that Naveen with me would go down to the ticketing office by 6:00 a:m to collect the passes and get a forest guide assigned for the day in the forest.

The night was dry and silent without the cicada and the croaking toads. There was no rain dripping on the larger leaves creating a melody that is special to a rain forest.

Dawn brakes to the whistle of the Spot-winged Thrush and Naveen is dressed up ready to trek downhill with me for the passes. Breakfast had we are ready to go in the forest with a cherubic faced guide… Sujith.

Sujith our guide
The dryness of the forest was imminent with the crushed up leaf matter from the foot traffic on the forest path. A silent stalk on the birds was hard to come and in return the Jungle-fowl in the undergrowth was also very noisy turning up the leaf matter for grubs. A closer look we find a number of Jungle fowl females turning up the leaf matter for the chicks to pick. It’s the mid of the spring time and the birds have just flushed the fledglings off their nests giving them the first lessons on foraging.

Jungle fowl with brood

A little further on we come across a brood of Brown-capped Babblers also turning up the dry leaves, marching on with their young. We are so close to them and are not alarmed which is strange…. and Sujith our guide says that it's because of the many young in the flock that they would not abandon them.

Brown-capped babblers with brood
The kids are also fascinated in the dark and gloomy forest just as their parents who are both practicing biologists a similarity running in the family.

Dark and gloomy an  art of its own - Sinharaja
Midway on the path Sujith who knows the forest better says this is the locality for the Malabar Trogon and with a little ambling around in silence we hear them……… and staining our eyes and necks we see a pair high up in the canopy. The flaming frontal view of the male and the back view of the female.

Giant Squirrel
Today Sinharaja too has turned out to be a location for guaranteed species sighting. I ask Sujith of the possibilities in seeing the Serendib Scops Owl. He tells me that there is a place outside the reserve in the buffer zone and that he would check out after the tour and come back for us if it is in the day roost. Of the endemic Sri Lanka Spur-fowl, he tells me that one needs to go out in a jeep to an adjoining village where a group has been almost domesticated by lure to feed on cooked rice.

We now come over to a location dominant with ‘Ginihota’ trees [Cyathea crinite] when Sujith tells us…. let’s check for the Frogmouth. Again we have closed up on a recorded day roost of the rare Sri Lanka Frogmouth [Batrachostomus moniliger]. We go down from the road with difficulty into the ferny groove and notice there is no vegetation on the ground due to excessive foot traffic everyday looking for the Frogmouth. We are lucky today there is a solitary male bird roosting for us to watch. There had been none roosting the last week says Sujith. The Frogmouth being nocturnal is not excited or disturbed at human presence; as most nocturnal birds are yet to be subjugated by us.

Sri Lanka Frogmouth

This being a noteworthy sighting I tell our group that we would not see anything significant from here on. This is based on an irrational belief that I have on these wildly tours. If a special bird is sighted by chance you would not see anything significant from there on. This worked out to be true today as well. From here on no noteworthy bird observation was made excepting for the ones very common to Sinharaja. But something special was seen outside birds. It was the first time that I saw the lantern moth in Sinharaja thanks to Sujith.

The Lantern Moth

Fish in the Maguru wala

In a short while we reach the “Maguru Wala’ a marker point on this Sinharaja trek. Mevan spots something moving in the leaf litter and we follow it. The kids are impressed with the Rasbora’s and many other fish species in the crystal clear water in the Maguru Wala. The one that moved in the leaf litter is photographed and identified as the difficult to locate ground lizard the “Cerataphora aspera” the Rough Nose Horned Lizard.


Cerataphora aspera” - Rough Nose Horned Lizard.

Calotes liocephalus” - Spineless Forest Lizard

Calotes calotes” - Green Garden Lizard
Yellow-browed Bulbul
We continue up to the Research Station the termination point on this trek encountering small flocks of Orange-billed Babblers, Sri Lanka Laughing Thrush, Crested Drongo, and Crimson backed Flameback, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Sri Lanka Hill Mynah, and the numerous flycatchers.

Spiders in Sinharaja

Flora in Sinharaja
Another of the rear lizards were spotted …. the “Calotes liocephalus” or the Spineless Forest Lizard. Its closest resemblance being the very common “Calotes calotes” the Green Garden Lizard who are in plentiful here and their body scales grow upwards while those of the former grow backwards and down.

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While resting in the summerhouse just before the climb on the Mulawella hike Mevan and Arun find the other lizard common to Sinharaja the “Otocryptis wiegmanni”, also called the Sri Lankan Kangaroo Lizard. They have startled the lizard to run on its hind legs mimicking the name Kangaroo Lizard.

Kids play with “Otocryptis wiegmanni”, - Sri Lankan Kangaroo Lizard.

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Mevan with Water Monitor

We are now at the research station the end of the walk which is a distance close to two kilometers. The Jungle fowl and the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie named the damsel of the forest in Sinhalese over here are research samplings wearing identification rings and are attached to people. They are so attached that they are of the habit of snatching food from the unsuspecting visitor. Arun nearly lost his snack and started to boo……… we had to making it back from here soon to keep the other visitors happy.

A marked Sri Lanka Blue Magpie

We called it a day after a late lunch and said goodbye to Sujith requesting him back tomorrow with the passes looking forward to another prospective trek in the forest.

The colorful Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl Gallus Lafayetti - The National Bird

The trek in the forest the following day was not fruitful as the previous day. The Frogmouth was not in the roost. Of anything significant seen it was the extra-large earth worms that had come out in the night and the excessively dry weather had made it lose their body mucus making them immobilized ending up a feast for the forest ants.

Giant Earthworms
We are back at Martin’s for an early lunch and packed up and ready for Gunasoma to take us downhill in his 4X4. We say goodbye to Sujith and wish Martin and his family good health…. Giving a positive assurance of our return again when the rains are in....once again to brave the leeches of Sinharaja.

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