Donkey of the night

African Penguins were originally called Jackass Penguins not too long ago, in fact the bird book that I use for southern Africa includes them under that latter name. I have to admit I’ve always found that name slightly amusing, although I didn’t know why it was applied to Africa’s only breeding penguin until last week at the Stony Point colony.

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The African Penguins have adapted to their higher latitude environment by possessing a pink gland above their eyes, where blood rushes to in hot weather to hasten heat loss.

There are six species of penguins which have been recorded in Africa, predominantly in South Africa. All except for the African Penguin are vagrants. Even the African Penguin is quite localised, restricted by its requirement for predator-free islands or occasionally mainland sites. These mainland sites are always situated between a major town and the sea, to provide a barrier which predators cannot cross. Examples of these mainland colonies include Boulders Beach and Stony Point, with their barriers from predators being Simon’s Town and Betty’s Bay respectively. Therefore these colonies have only established recently as the towns have developed into a sufficient size, in fact both were founded in the 1980s and now contain between 2000 and 3000 penguins.

Stony Point was the colony we visited on our trip to South Africa. I would highly recommend it for anyone wanting to see the penguins in South Africa. It costs only 20 Rand (£1) to enter, and gives access to a long boardwalk which takes you directly through the colony. The penguins come so close that there are times when you are standing immediately above one which has chosen to shelter underneath the boardwalk! There are also a number of information boards along the boardwalk, one of which informed me of the etymology of the ‘Jackass’ Penguin: the species is known for its donkey-like braying sound which it often produces at night!

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Penguins, a section of the boardwalk and the outskirts of Betty’s Bay in the background

Humans have a long relationship with penguins, which has not always been good. This is particularly regarding guano collecting, which was a big business in the 19th century. Guano was very important during that era for farming as a manure to fertilise crops. It lead to the human colonisation of many offshore bird colonies as guano collecting became a full-time job. The problem with this in relation to African Penguins is that they nest naturally in burrows dug into guano, which therefore has to be very deep. If all the guano (often from other seabirds such as Cape Gannets or Cape Cormorants) has been removed by humans, then the penguins have nowhere to nest.

Fortunately, guano is no longer collected from areas where the penguins nest. Although, the guano layers are still not deep enough in many colonies for penguins to dig a nest. At Stony Point, we saw that artificial concrete nests had been installed. These nests are similar to a very large flowerpot lying on its side, half-buried. These have allowed the expansion of the colony where the quantity of guano available would have limited it.

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An example of one of the artificial nests.

There is another threat to African Penguins posed by humans. Sadly, this one is still an ongoing risk and very unpredictable: oil spills. Ships running aground can spill massive volumes of oil, which can severely harm seabird populations. Penguins are at a particular risk as they spend a lot of time near the surface of the ocean where the oil accumulates. The main problem the oil produces is that it impairs the waterproofing capabilities of the birds’ feathers. This exposes the birds to the full force of the water’s cold temperatures leading to hypothermia. Even the lucky ones who make it back to shore face consequences when they attempt to remove the oil from their feathers: it is often ingested and causes damage to the digestive system.

These threats among others have produced a catastrophic decline of 95% since the beginning of the 19th century, when 4 million penguins inhabited South Africa and Namibia. Now, there are only around 50,000 penguins left. At this rate of decline, we could see the extinction of the African Penguin in the wild by the year 2026 – just 8 years away.

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If the trend continues, this chick could be part of the eighth-to-last generation of African Penguins.

Fortunately there are a number of organisations working towards a happy ending for the African Penguin. Among these, SANCCOB is the predominant group performing rescue operations on penguins, particularly those affected by oil spills, while the Dyer Island Conservation Trust has opened the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary in Gansbaai which will act as a centre for research and education. I am hopeful that iconic African Penguin’s downward trend can be reversed.

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Not grousing about grouse

grouse
verb: to complain; to grumble

Yesterday I returned from a 17-day trip to Namibia and South Africa and after a string of special sightings, grousing is exactly what I wasn’t doing. One particular highlight was sightings of an order of birds I have never been lucky enough to encounter before.

Sandgrouse belong to the bird order Pterocliformes. This came about after they had previously been placed in two other orders. Firstly, they were included in the Galliformes, where the true grouse reside. They were placed here due to their anatomical similarities to the true grouse, although later on there was the realisation that this was not a result of genetic similarity but of convergent evolution (where two or more unrelated taxa evolve similar features, for example echolocation in the case of dolphins and bats). The next order they were included in was the Columbiformes which also contains pigeons and doves. This was because it was thought that they employed peristalsis in the oesophagus to suck up water – a pumping action which can draw liquid into the gullet – which is unusual in birds. Although now it is thought that this is incorrect, which stimulated the choice to place them in their own order.

There are sixteen species of sandgrouse species, found mostly in Asia and Africa. There are also some species in Europe such as Pin-tailed and Black-bellied which are found around the western Mediterranean. One has even made it to the UK: while most sandgrouse species are sedentary or make seasonal altitudinal movements at most, the Pallas’s Sandgrouse, which is usually found in central Asia, can be irruptive. Large irruptions have not been experienced in Europe for decades although they did occur regularly in the late 19th century. One irruption lead to thousands flooding into the UK and even breeding in a few locations.

As an order, they are well known for their drinking habits. Many species travel for miles to visit waterholes daily, where they can drink enough water in just few seconds to last them the 24 hours until the next visit. They are also famous for how they supply water to their young before they are able to fly to waterholes. The adult’s downy breast feathers are able to soak up lots of water, from which the chicks drink.

To avoid competition, different species visit waterholes at different times. This regularity makes waterholes ideal places to see many sandgrouse species with ease. During our stay at the Okaukuejo Camp in Etosha National Park, Namibia, we noticed that there was a poster by the reception which mentioned that Double-banded Sandgrouse visit the waterhole 40 minutes before sunrise and Namaqua Sandgrouse visit between 9am and 10am. We were lucky enough to have a chalet right next to the floodlit waterhole which is the main attraction at the camp. I was not going to refuse an opportunity to see my first sandgrouse species, so the next morning at 6.10 am I sat on a bench overlooking the waterhole. It wasn’t long before the first Double-banded arrived on the edge of the waterhole; at first it was only one or two at any time but before long there were at least thirty at once. Considering it was pitch-black everywhere around the floodlit waterhole, I was impressed.

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Due to the light my camera was set to a shutterspeed of 1/4, fortunately when they first landed the sandgrouse had a habit of staying stock still for a few seconds to check for danger before proceeding to drink.

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A female Double-banded Sandgrouse.

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Some sandgrouse smudges and a couple of less-blurry males.

After breakfast we headed out on a game drive on the semi-arid plains of the park. It was the dry season so waterholes were in low supply, so much so that individual ones are marked out on the map. At 9.45 am we arrived at the first waterhole of the day, on the edge of the Etosha Pan. This pan, when it wasn’t a pan, would have been the third largest lake in the world after the Caspian Sea and Lake Superior. It is not entirely known how the lake dried up however tectonic movements changing the course of the river that fed it seems to be the most plausible explanation. Nowadays, its dry, salt-encrusted state causes a few small water-bodies to draw in animals from a very wide radius.

Among the springbok, gemsbok and other mammals that this particular waterhole had attracted, I noticed a good number of what I originally thought were Cape Turtle Doves. Although after a closer inspection I realised that they definitely were not these but Namaqua Sandgrouse, at exactly the right time in the morning!

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The light was better for our sighting of the Namaqua Sandgrouse than for the Double-banded Sandgrouse, however the distance was compromised. This image shows a male on the left and a female on the right.

After having never previously laid eyes on these fascinating birds, seeing two species in just one day was certainly more than I expected. Although a few days later, it became evident that the trip was about to become even better for sandgrouse. We were at our final destination of the Namibia leg of our travels, a lodge named Ondekaremba near to the Windhoek Airport. We had dropped our bags off at the lodge before then returning the rental car at the airport (then subsequently hailing a taxi for our return to the lodge and a hotel transfer to the airport the following morning). We were beginning to think this was not a good idea as the access road to the lodge was a four-mile dirt track weaving through the bushveld and a dry riverbed which was unforeseen. However, it certainly became worthwhile when my mum spotted some movement on the side of the road. My dad, seated on the nearest side of the car to the birds, proclaimed that they were sandgrouse which lead to my panicked scramble across the backseats. By the time the car had come to a stop they were so close that I had to lean right out of the window to get a view of them below us. There were two, presumably a male and a female. The female was hard to see in the roadside grass although the male was walking slowly unobscured along the road itself. Compared to the poor light for the Double-bandeds and the distance involved with the Namaquas, I had no excuses with these birds. Luckily, in my opinion I don’t need any! What made this encounter even more memorable was the fact that they were a third species: Burchell’s! I couldn’t help feeling that my luck was well and truly in. Three out of the four species inhabiting Southern Africa in less than a week is not bad going.

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The male Burchell’s Sandgrouse.

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This species is known for travelling around 100 miles each day to its favourite waterhole.

 

 

 

 

 

Thick-headed

At the end of March I had the good fortune to be able to visit North-east India for a few weeks. For the first part of our trip, we stayed at the Sunderban Jungle Camp on the edge of the Indian Sunderban Tiger Reserve. Each day we would take a boat and explore the unique habitat of the mangroves and hope to find some of the special species that inhabit it.

Luckily we had several great sightings of restricted-range birds in particular, such as Brown-winged Kingfisher. This species is restricted to the mangroves on the coast of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea from Odisha to the southern tip of Myanmar. It was one of six Kingfisher species encountered in the Sunderbans, surely the Kingfisher capital of the Indian subcontinent.

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Brown-winged Kingfisher

Although my personal highlight was not the intricate beauty and variety of the many kingfishers seen, but the drab Grey Thickhead. Unsurprisingly this is not the modern accepted vernacular name for this species, although it is the literal translation of the Mangrove Whistler’s scientific name, Pachycephala cinerea. Although is is unclear to me what warranted their scientific name, the genus appears to me to be just like typical flycatchers albeit with a slightly broader bill and perhaps chunkier. However it is not the appearance that drew me to this species, but the melodic song.

The voice of the Mangrove Whistler rises high and proud above the accompanying chorus of the mangroves. It consists of a series of tuneful notes which crescendo to a concluding flourish which is audible even above the din of the motorboat as it chugs along down the wide mangrove channels.

Having heard the distinctive tune, our guide Sujan ordered our boat to be stopped at the edge of the mangroves near where the whistler was whistling. To him it sounded abnormally close, the species usually prefers to remain deep within the mangrove forest without access by boat. This is why they are very tricky to see in the Sunderbans: walking is forbidden due to the danger of tigers. So when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, I knew that I was very privileged.

The small nondescript bird flew up to a convenient perch on one of the higher mangrove bushes along the river. From there it began to sing, occasionally switching position but almost constantly in view for several minutes. So hard to find, so unexpected that this species wasn’t even on our trip checklist – a cumulative list from around 9 years of running this trip with 2 or 3 trips a year. Our guide has the honour of having seen over 1100 species of birds in India, yet the elusive thickhead only 5 or 6 times before.

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The Mangrove Whistler sitting dignified on its mangrove perch

Sri Lanka 2017 Part 3 – Lunugamvehera & Sinharaja

We certainly made the right decision on the morning of the 18th July. The previous day we had been touring Block 1 of Yala National Park, seeing very little. Yala is the worst nightmare of anyone who likes to watch wildlife in peace and in near-solitude, as no less than 125 Jeeps were crammed into this tiny section of the park that day.

However, the following morning we decided to go that extra bit further to Lunugamvehera National Park, which is attached to Yala however significantly less popular. I have no idea why that is, because as soon as we entered the park were we racing towards our first Leopard sighting of the day.

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We had brilliant views of this Leopard, much better than I’ve ever had before. In most other places where Leopards are found, there are other big cats inhabiting the area which drive the leopards into cover for a lot of the day and they become very shy. In Africa, it is lions and in India, there are Tigers. However, in Sri Lanka, there are no predators larger than Leopards and therefore they’re far more relaxed. We were able to watch this Leopard for a long time as it rested within a thin thicket, before getting up and moving slowly into the shade of a tree where it would probably spend the first few hours of the Sri Lankan day-time heat.

Lunugamvehera is not a huge park, and therefore we made a few circuits during the day. There are always new things to see on every circuit, such as Lesser Adjutants and a Stripe-necked Mongoose on the dry river bed, a pair of Stork-billed Kingfishers above a beautiful secluded river, and on the open plains an Indian Roller perched on a bare tree for all to see.

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Stripe-necked Mongoose

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Lesser Adjutant

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Stork-billed Kingfisher

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Indian Roller

The second circuit was a little more exciting than the others, however. We were driving through the arid woodland when the guides noticed huge tracks on the side of the road that could only belong to one animal: a Sloth Bear! We increased our speed slightly as we drove in the direction the rather fresh tracks were heading, and after a bit of driving back-and-forth we heard from the other vehicle that they had just seen the Sloth Bear heading our way. We waited on the road and sure enough, we managed to spot a bear slowly ambling through the small trees towards the road in front of us. As it reached the road it increased its speed suddenly and lolloped across the track: a wonderful sight.

The rest of the day in the park continued as one would expect it to in the searing heat of the Sri Lankan arid zone. There was not too much happening mammal-wise, although as the sun and the temperatures began to sink, that all changed.

The Jeep drivers and the local guides all know each other really well, and therefore an efficient network is maintained that allows drivers to know about sightings in the vicinity. This came into play very nicely as our Jeep driver became aware of a Leopard that had just been seen near the reservoir in the centre of the park.

It’s a huge reservoir, with an impressive dam that is featured on Sri Lankan currency (the 5000 rupee note). It is surrounded by a forest of skeletons, the remains of the forest that had stood in the area before the construction of the dam. The washed-out trees still stand sturdy like statues, creating a unique landscape, dotted with large ponds left behind by the receding water of the dry season. These ponds are full of a plethora of water birds, such as the Painted Storks struggling with fish far too large and the Indian Pond Herons chasing each other around the muddy edges.

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The bird-filled ponds

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Indian Pond Heron

It was just after we pulled up beside one of these ponds that we spotted the Leopard strolling nonchalantly towards rim of the pond basin – scattering the storks, herons, plovers and ibises – where it lay down. It just seemed completely oblivious to the vehicle, and everything else around it. As the setting sun cast an awe-inspiring glow over the Leopard’s beautiful coat and the bizarre landscape, it really was a memorable moment.

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Unfortunately, we soon had to get going to avoid being fined for a late exit. However, even as we were rushing back to the gates, our experience in Lunugamvehera was not over. All of a sudden, one of the guides knocked three times on the side of the vehicle, meaning ‘stop’. As we halted and began to reverse, none other than our third Leopard of the day came into view. It was drinking from a watering-hole no more than 15-20 metres from the road! An amazing end to a brilliant day in Sri Lanka.

The following morning, as we were leaving our hotel at Yala, I realised that we only had a limited amount of time left in Sri Lanka. However, I think we had saved the best until last. We were leaving Yala for the Sinharaja Rainforest: a serious birder’s dream and a leech-hater’s worst nightmare!

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We were lucky to have two full days within the rainforest. My ambition for the trip as a whole was to manage to see as many of the endemics as possible, and we were already doing well. I had 13 left to see, and all of them could be found in the Sinharaja Rainforest and the surrounding area. It would be very tricky to see them all; however I would try my best.

Entering the Sinharaja Rainforest with a guide is compulsory, and the tour leaders made sure that we had a guide that would be able to show us as much of our target wildlife as possible. It turned out that the leaders had made a very good choice; within only about 45 minutes we had already seen a number of the target birds, including Green-billed Coucal, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Sri Lanka Myna and Sri Lanka Crested Drongo. This was because it’s a long drive up from the ticket counter to the reserve entrance, only about 1km however incredibly bumpy due to the floods the month before. We were travelling in a Toyota Pickup, meaning that our local guide was able to stand up in the back and spot all the birds that we would otherwise have missed!

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Sri Lanka Myna

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Sri Lanka Crested Drongo

By the time we arrived at the entrance it was around 8am and too late for the morning activity; however I only had 9 more endemics to see. Although due to the rainforest canopy keeping out a lot of the hot sun, birds are active to some extent throughout most of the day. Many species form bird waves that travel through the forest feeding on anything in their path. These we were actively seeking out, as they almost always have a few goodies among them!

It wasn’t long before we came across our first bird wave of the morning. The bird waves are usually dominated by Orange-billed Babblers, and Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes were also a key part of them (another new endemic!). We were also able to add Red-faced Malkoha to our list! Unfortunately, birds in the bird wave are always quite mobile; the rainforest is thick with vegetation, meaning that these birds were incredibly hard to take photos of!

After the bird wave passed through, it was almost as if it was becoming night-time! We heard two and possibly even three Spot-bellied Eagle-owls began to call to each other. It was quite a surreal experience! Meanwhile, our guide was down among spiny vines in a large, deep ditch trying to locate another bird of the night, which is known to roost here in roughly the same place every day. These were Sri Lankan Frogmouths, a near endemic, and it was great to be able to see them at such close quarters. The males and the females are very sexually dimorphic, which the males being the more drab and dull of the two. This is because he is in charge of incubating the eggs.

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Sri Lanka Frogmouths, Male (L), Female (R)

The next bird wave came through slowly afterwards, with more Red-faced Malkohas and Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes in the mix. And after being shown a particularly co-operative Spot-winged Thrush, I only had 6 more species to get!

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Spot-winged Thrush

Finally, we noticed that the 3rd and final bird wave was coming through. And it carried a surprise! I noticed a small, brown bird fly up on round wings onto a branch where it was half-hidden. ‘Owl’, I exclaimed! Despite all my efforts, I was unable to get anyone else onto it other than the guides. Thank goodness I had a few ‘record shots’ as proof! While the bird was actually in view, I didn’t have any time to think about what it could be. However, on looking back at my photos, I saw that it could be nothing other than a Chestnut-backed Owlet, an endemic! This species is actually diurnal like the other owlets, which would explain why it was out in the daytime. It still wasn’t something I was expecting at all!

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We moved on through the rainforest, seeing plenty of interesting invertebrates. We came across so many butterflies, including the Sri Lanka Birdwing, and I also spotted an incredibly long-legged tiger beetle. On arrival back home, it was kindly identified by Fabian Boetzl as a Sri Lankan endemic, Calochroa discrepans

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Eventually, we arrived at where I would hopefully see my number one target for the whole trip. The Serendib Scops Owl was first described as new to science in 2004 from this very rainforest, and it still remains the best place in the world to see it. However, it’s not easy to get to! First, we had to descend a steep and slippery slope to get down into a very large ditch, and then we had to wade through treacherous mud and dodge very thorny vines for quite a while. It certainly all paid off however, as we were treated to excellent views of not one but two of these brilliant owls roosting in the giant ferns. I think this was the highlight of my entire Sri Lankan holiday, being able to look right into the eyes of a ‘mythical’ bird.

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Serendib Scops Owl

The next day was very similar; however we were focused on the two species we had left to see: the Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush and the Sri Lanka Spurfowl. Being perhaps the hardest of all the endemics to see, I knew it was going to be a challenge. There were a few known places where the former could be seen, and I was eager to try some out. The first is just beside the path not too far from the entrance, and it appeared we were in luck when we heard one calling. The call is not loud and not distinctive either, and the bird was clearly moving. We crept along as silently and as quickly as we could in order to catch up to the bird, which was clearly moving unseen along the dark forest floor in front of us and to our left.

Eventually, we spotted a movement. We had caught up with the bird quicker than we anticipated. It was feeding just behind a patch of plants in front of us, right next to the path. I eased forward as slowly as I could manage, in order to get a good view of it. I have never seen a bird so camouflaged! The scales that give it its name really allow it to blend into the forest floor. Despite being only 10 metres away, if I took my eyes off it, it would take some finding to re-locate it! Not only were we able to watch it feeding so well but it also hopped up a log and flew into a tree, where it perched in the open quite high up. For an almost completely ground-dwelling species, this really was a special encounter!

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Scaly Thrush

The time of this sighting was only around mid-morning, so we were off to a good start. However, despite marvelling at a superb array of rainforest wildlife, the Sri Lanka Spurfowl eluded us for the whole day. As we headed back down the bumpy track to our lodge, I thought that we would have seen 33 out of the 34 endemics, which I wasn’t too displeased about.

Originally, I had planned to have a lie in on our final morning before heading back to the airport hotel. However, I’m glad I changed my mind at 6am! I knew I couldn’t miss the pre-breakfast bird walk, just in case something exciting was seen. You never know! And it turned out that I made the right decision…

We walked along the road from our lodge, seeing many common birds such as Green Imperial Pigeons and Thick-billed Flowerpeckers. It’s not a large or dense village, with very few houses, and soon we were walking along a cobbled road through thick forest towards some outlying buildings. Unlike the Scaly Thrush, Sri Lanka Spurfowls are very territorial and have a very loud call, which starts low but builds to a climax as the pair are duetting. Suddenly, we heard it rise up from the depths of the forest, I couldn’t quite believe it at first! They sounded quite far off but they were getting closer, toward an area of open ground beside a stream. We kept our eyes on that area of open ground and sure enough, two spurfowls  walked into view! They were quite distant, however they completed our set of endemics for the trip, which I was elated about. A super end to a super trip!

 

Sri Lanka 2017 Part 2: Kandy & Nuwara Eliya

Kandy is a major Sri Lankan city, known for its tea and also the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most sacred locations for Buddhists. Located in the intermediate zone, between the dry zone and the wet zone, the climate is akin to that of a rainforest. We were staying just outside of the city, at the Tree of Life hotel. All around us was rainforest.

We could tell that the area was going to be great for birdlife on the first afternoon of our stay there. Just walking a little distance from my room, I encountered a bird wave, or more formally a mixed-species foraging flock, that was moving through the hotel gardens. Bird waves often occur during the heat of the day when the flocks result in a higher feeding efficiency. Another reason for these flocks is the increase in the number of pairs of eyes, which makes spotting predators easier.

Usually flocks form around a particular species that initiates it, the so called ‘nuclear species’ and these are usually the centre of the flock and keep its form. Often these are babblers as their obvious vocalisations probably draw in birds from the surrounding area. However, in this flock there did not seem to be a ‘nuclear species’ but more or less equal numbers of each participating species.

As we had just left the dry zone and this was our first stay in the intermediate or wet zones, the birdlife was markedly different. Within the feeding flock we came across our first Jerdon’s Leafbirds, Golden-fronted Leafbirds, Sri Lanka Woodpigeons and Great Tits of the trip. The latter may not sound very exciting however it was distinctly paler than the Great Tits we get back in the UK,  and is treated by a lot of authorities as a separate species, the Cinereous Tit (Parus cinereus).

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Sri Lanka Woodpigeon

The highlight of my stay in Kandy was the session we spent in the hotel gardens during the evening, past nightfall. The hotel gardens are one of the best places to see the Giant Flying Squirrels, a species I was not expecting to see before going on this trip. Giant Flying Squirrels are mainly nocturnal animals, which have to travel from where they spend the day to where they feed at night. For the squirrels here this means crossing a road. However, they don’t do so on foot.

As it got darker, we waited on the road and scanned the canopy with our torches. Despite the tour group being unlucky last year, it wasn’t long until we spotted the eyeshine from the first flying squirrel. We watched it run along the branch right to the edge where it waited and assessed the situation. Soon it simply jumped into the air, splayed open its legs and glided into the trees on the other side of the road. Wow!

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Nuwara Eliya, the coolest town in Sri Lanka, was our next stop on our Sri Lankan tour. The town has a climate very similar to the UK’s, which made it popular with British pioneers looking for a taste of the country they came from. This has influenced several aspects of the town, especially the architecture. This town was very different to every other town we visited or passed through on our journey.

Sitting at quite an altitude, overlooked by Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka, its surroundings host lots of special birdlife including some species found solely in the Sri Lankan high hills. During our stay in the town, the first site we visited was Hakgala Botanical Gardens. The gardens were surprisingly good for wildlife, considering that it’s a very popular place for schoolchildren to play in at that time of day, once classes had finished. One of the highlights was the ‘Bear Monkeys’ – a speciality of the area.

Bear Monkeys are a subspecies of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, a Sri Lankan endemic. This subspecies was given the name ‘Bear Monkey’ due to their long shaggy coat which keeps them warm in this chilly climate.

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The following day we were out very early for our trip to Horton Plains, the main reason we were staying at Nuwara Eliya. Upon arrival at the national park, the only one in Sri Lanka where you can walk freely and don’t have to stay in a vehicle, we split into two groups. I chose the slower paced group as I thought that it would give me a greater chance of seeing more birds, and I was right!

I had two main targets for this walk, the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler and the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. I hadn’t very high hopes for the Whistling Thrush as its a very elusive species that usually only shows itself in the open at dusk or dawn, and by the time we had arrived at the park it was a bit too late in the day.

However, we did have luck with the other target, as not long after we set off I heard a short, clear call coming from the dry, scrubby montane forest. A small brown bird hopped into my view, only metres away, and began hopping around on a bank right next to the path. It was highly mobile and in deep cover, but it was a great sighting, especially after another Sri Lanka Bush Warbler joined it.

At one point along the walk, I stopped by a stream and waited a little while to see what turned up. This is the favourite habitat of the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, which nests in stream banks and patrols the streams to look for food. Although I predictably had no luck with the thrush, I did sense a movement behind me. I looked around to see, on a log barely a few feet away, a small dark squirrel hopping along. There are several species of squirrel in Sri Lanka, ranging in size from the Grizzled Giant Squirrel, about the size of a monkey, to this, the Dusky Striped Squirrel. An uncommon species, Horton Plains is one of the best places to see it.

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Now that we had explored the mid- and high-hills, we then headed back down into the lowlands. Next stop: Yala NP.

A few other photo-highlights from our stay in the hills:

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Sri Lanka 2017 Part 1: Sigiriya

A few weeks ago I was embarking on a trip I had been looking forward to for quite a while. I was heading on a fortnight-long Naturetrek tour around Sri Lanka with a focus on the nation’s fantastic mammals and vast array of endemic birds. After an afternoon and a morning of familiarising myself with the birdlife around the Airport Hotel gardens, the tour formally began and we were setting off on the long drive from Colombo to Sigiriya.

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A White-breasted Waterhen with a chick, seen at the pond in the hotel gardens.

During our stay in Sigiriya we were based at Hotel Sigiriya, near Sigiriya Rock. On two of the three days we resided here we would do an early morning bird walk in the area around the hotel, including a lotus-filled lake next to the rock itself. It was here where most of the birds were, including Grey-headed Fish-eagle, Black-headed Cuckooshrike and Jungle Prinia.

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Jungle Prinia

However, I think that the highlight of this area was this beautiful bird:

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Sri Lanka Junglefowl

The reason that the photo isn’t excellent is because there was poor light in the strip of waste-ground between the tiny local market and the dry scrub next to it – a favoured site of the Sri Lanka Junglefowl.

Sri Lanka Junglefowl is the national bird of Sri Lanka and as the name suggests, it is an endemic. This means that its global distribution is limited to Sri Lanka. It is one of four species of Junglefowl and one, the Red Junglefowl which is very similar in appearance, is likely to be the ancestor of domestic chickens.

On the second day of the tour, we visited the nearby Minneriya NP. This park is famous for its large gatherings of wildlife and especially elephants. These elephants come from all around to drink at the huge tank at the centre of the park, however they sometimes have a little trouble getting there.

We were taken around the park in Jeeps, and I was surprised at the number of vehicles within the park at one time. Although it was great to see all the elephants congregating in such large numbers (often up to 300), it was hard not to notice that the elephants were getting a little hindered by all the vehicles that would suddenly rush to where the elephants were leaving the forest to go and drink. Although they must be used to the numbers of vehicles, a couple of times their route to the tank was blocked by Jeeps. Once, an elephant got quite aggravated and rammed into a Jeep, damaging the vehicle and pushing it many metres away. I personally think that limiting the number of Jeeps entering the park per day might be a good idea, perhaps by making pre-booking compulsory, however I understand that the logistics behind this must be complicated.

Otherwise, the birding was excellent especially around the quieter sections of the tank. Huge numbers of Painted Storks, Spot-billed Pelicans and Spoonbills congregated around the edge, with a Lesser Adjutant mixed-in and loads of Black-winged Stilts a bit more spread-out. Other waders were also present with species including Kentish Plover and the bizarre-looking Great Thick-knee. Meanwhile, on the open grasslands of the park it was enjoyable to watch and listen to the display flight of Oriental Skylarks, and to see the Paddyfield Pipits attending to their nests.

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A small group of Painted Storks. There was a huge group just behind these ones!

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The Paddyfield Pipits would often allow close approach in the Jeeps

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We came across a number of Indian Peacocks and Peahens in the park, the first of the trip.

The following day, after a morning of birding around the hotel, we had lunch at a great local restaurant on the banks of a small river. Immediately after our arrival, the chefs threw some fish onto the bank of the river, although it wasn’t clear what they were for. However, we soon found out when a huge Water Monitor, which must have been at least 5 feet long, lumbered out of the water and swallowed the fish. It wasn’t long before others arrived, however the first monitor was the largest and fiercely protected its lunch. The smaller monitors got a few scraps but the largest one wouldn’t budge. It even tried to whip the chef with its very powerful tail every time it was given more fish, which was incredibly dangerous!

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Our next stop on our tour around Sri Lanka was Kandy, nearer to the hills and within the wet zone. There would be quite a change in landscape and wildlife! I’ll end this post with a slideshow of some of the highlights of our stay in Sigiriya.

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