Forests and Birds: Ruminations from five days in Sri Lanka’s Evergreen Forests (Part 2)

Text and Images by Anand Krishnan; paintings by J.G. Keulemans from Legge (1880), sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

As the day wears on, the calls of the endemic Purple-faced Leaf-Monkey are audible throughout Sinharaja, and the traveller may pause to listen to them at his or her own peril, for the ever-present leeches await everywhere. A multitude of butterflies, giant millipedes and beautiful lantern bugs may be found on or beside the forest trails, as may several beautiful reptiles such as the Green Garden Lizard and the Sri Lanka Kangaroo Lizard. Hiding unobtrusively in the foliage by the side of trails, one may locate the endemic Sri Lanka Pit Viper, a gorgeous green snake patterned in black, and perhaps a roosting Sri Lanka frogmouth, a curious, poorly-known nightbird restricted to these forests and India’s Western Ghats. Sinharaja also boasts populations of the rare Sri Lanka Bay-Owl and the recently discovered Serendib Scops Owl, this last endemic to a few forests in Sri Lanka. Several roosting sites for both birds are known, although they were quite empty of owls when I visited (possibly because of the rain). Overhead, there are possibilities of finding rare raptors such as Jerdon’s Baza or Legge’s Hawk-Eagle, and noisy flocks of the endemic Layard’s parakeet wheel above the forest canopy to settle in lofty trees. This bird, a purplish, shorter-tailed relative of India’s Blue-winged parakeet, is restricted largely to evergreen forests, although it may wander out into adjacent gardens in search of food. In the lowland forests of the Kelani Valley Forest Reserve at Kitulgala, where the forest abuts a village and is somewhat more open than Sinharaja, Layard’s parakeet wanders out of the forest, and here may sometimes be seen feeding at close range on palm nuts, in the same habitat as Alexandrine and rose-ringed parakeets. Kitulgala, famous as the filming location of the classic ‘Bridge on the river Kwai’, also harbors the Serendib Scops Owl (although, again, we drew a blank; one of two endemic birds I did not see or hear), and affords better opportunities for study of several other endemic birds. The more open habitat across the Kelani river and presence of human habitation means that several forest birds here may overlap with more open-country relatives. The Yellow-fronted barbet may here be heard calling alongside the larger Brown-headed Barbet, for instance.

 Perhaps one of Kitulgala’s most interesting birds, for me at any rate, is the Sri Lanka or Green-billed Coucal (or ‘aeti-kukula’), a large member of the cuckoo family with a deep sonorous call and a heavyset greenish bill. This rare and threatened bird inhabits dense forest understory, particularly along rivers with tree-ferns and canebrakes. Legge describes his difficulty in finding and collecting specimens of this species, although he heard their ‘sepulchral’ calls frequently: ‘scarcely ever emerging from the impenetrable fastnesses in which it lives’. Although regularly heard at Sinharaja, it is very difficult to see, and after an unsuccessful. hours-long, leech-infested slog looking for it there, I was quite keen to find one at Kitulgala after hearing one calling. Eventually, we located one perching in the backyard of one of the village houses, surreptitiously looking for food in the garden! Interestingly, this village, the boundary between forest and habitation, also marks the habitat boundary between the forest-dwelling Green-billed Coucal and the common, widespread Greater Coucal, and we could hear both calling at multiple points within the village, the Green-billed closer to the forest. The presence of both these species in Sri Lanka suggests two colonization events of coucals (and many other species of birds), and is thought to have resulted from Sri Lanka’s geological history, being intermittently linked to India by land bridges over time. There have been concerns that competition with the Greater Coucal is further threatening the Green-billed Coucal, and Kitulgala is therefore a potentially interesting place to study the interaction between the two.

Picture5
Top row, left to right: a roosting Sri Lanka frogmouth at Sinharaja, and a male Layard’s parakeet from Kitulgala. Middle row: Keulemans’ painting of a Green-billed coucal, and a Sri Lanka Woodpigeon, one of over ten that flew into a fruiting tree. Bottom row: Keulemans’ painting of the Sri Lanka Whistling-Thrush, and a Dull-Blue Flycatcher perched out on a snag in morning sunshine.

Sri Lanka’s Central highlands are, as the name suggests, located at higher altitudes, with a corresponding change in temperature and vegetation. Rising to over 2,000 metres above sea level, the temperature can drop very low at night, and frosts are not uncommon in the early morning. This is Sri Lanka’s tea country, and the hill station of Nuwara Eliya is nestled at the heart of it. A major tourist destination, this town offers easy access to many surrounding sights and attractions, chief among which is the spectacular Horton Plains National Park. One of the few national parks where visitors are allowed to enter on foot, and the largest remaining montane forest block, polythene and littering are strictly prohibited, and visitation is confined to a few hiking trails. Horton Plains is Sri Lanka’s answer to South India’s shola forests; a mosaic of dense montane rainforests (with dwarfed, somewhat stunted trees), and open grasslands over undulating hills, dotted with rhododendron bushes. Although thronged with hiking tourists, it is not very difficult to catch a few precious moments in isolation within these dense woods, and listen to the calls of the upland form of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, or watch a montane Grizzled Giant Squirrel going about its business. The upland forests (and gardens in Nuwara Eliya itself) harbor a number of migratory birds from the Himalayas, including, if one is very lucky, the rare Kashmir Flycatcher. Buzzards may be observed in flight over the grasslands, and tiny streams threading their way through the jungle feed most of Sri Lanka’s rivers further down in the plains.

It is, however, the endemic birds here again that are most in evidence, and all of these may be seen in the dense forest patches of Horton Plains (along with other denizens such as the Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike). Singles or small parties of the threatened Sri Lanka Woodpigeon may be seen flying between forest patches, and are very shy and easily disturbed by tourist crowds. These forest-dwellers are closely related to South India’s Nilgiri Woodpigeon, possessing a black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the nape. They are nomadic, sometimes moving to the lowlands in search of fruit, but Horton Plains has long been a stronghold. If one is lucky, a flock may fly into a fruiting tree, affording ample opportunity for observation as they gorge themselves on fruit. They may be joined by the distinctively-patterned Yellow-eared Bulbul and noisy flocks of the Sri Lanka White-Eye. The Dull-Blue Flycatcher, a relative of the Nilgiri Flycatcher and the widespread Verditer Flycatcher, may be seen perched on an exposed branch, and the unobtrusive Sri Lanka Bush-Warbler may be seen creeping through the dark understory almost in the manner of a mouse, every now and then uttering its distinctive call. These birds are all found in upland forests, and may be located with relative ease at Horton Plains if the weather permits; cold and rain may reduce visibility considerably. One of Sri Lanka’s rarest endemic birds is entirely confined to the highest, densest jungles in these montane forests, where it numbers just a few thousand individuals. The Sri Lanka Whistling-Thrush or Arrenga is a relative of the Malabar Whistling-Thrush of South india, but is considerably smaller and also sexually dimorphic, the female being largely brown. The male is a dark blue, appearing black in low light, both sexes possessing a small blue shoulder-patch. This endangered bird is crepuscular, meaning it is only active at first light, preferring dense forest near streams and pools, and is very shy, skulking in the dense woods. These, together with its rarity, render it a much more difficult bird to observe than its Indian cousin. Seeing it requires a predawn start to be first in line at the ticketing centre, and then a wait in the morning cold by a little pool with grassy edges (a site known to birdwatchers as the ‘Arrenga Pool’). The Sri Lanka bush-warbler may be seen here as well, as one waits for the Arrenga to show itself. Just after first light (and well before sunrise), we were privileged enough to see a male hop down to the grassy edge of the pool for about 15 seconds, before melting back into the forest, not to be seen again. Once again, unlike its Indian congener, I never heard it make a sound, and I was struck by its relatively small size and retiring habits. This bird has always been considered one of the rarest of Sri Lanka’s birds, dating back to Legge in the 1800s, who warned of its impending extinction in the face of forest clearance for tea plantations. Habitat loss and stream degradation continue to threaten the Arrenga, and the protection afforded by Horton Plains and a couple of other sanctuaries are vital to its survival. 

The similarities and striking differences between the habitats and birds of southern India and Sri Lanka are both immediately apparent to the visitor, and of great scientific interest. Both regions have a long history of scientific exploration, and face a number of threats to their biodiversity, ranking as some of the ‘hottest’ biodiversity hotspots in the world. Ongoing research in these areas will no doubt illuminate not just how this unique diversity was established, but what it can tell us about global biodiversity and the threats facing it. Sri Lanka’s intermediate and dry zone are also home to a great diversity of birds, many shared with India, and a mammalian fauna largely protected by the country’s Buddhist traditions against hunting. Hill-forest strongholds such as the large Peak Wilderness hold many faunal secrets, including such bizarre animals as the Sri Lankan leaf-nosed lizard and the fantastic Rhino-horned or unicorn lizard. After five days in Sri Lanka, I feel as if I have only begun to glimpse the secrets of its forest fastnesses, and much yet remains for the intrepid traveller to see.

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