Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Having a whale of a time in Sri Lanka (Part 1)

I have not long got back from a wonderful trip to Sri Lanka with Lorna, my parents, sister and Alex. I have wanted to visit Sri Lanka for a long time and in mid March we had the opportunity and explored the south, Yala National Park, Trincomalee and Habarana in the cultural Triangle. This island paradise is most known for its impressive Buddhist temples, fascinating history, stunning beaches, inviting warm tropical waters and highland tea estates, but its natural history treasures are also a big draw.
(Pied kingfishers in Yala National park)
(Dawn in Habarana)

We began in south with a stay at the lovely Mirissa Hills, perched on the top of a working cinnamon estate with far reaching views towards the coast, plus a little pocket of wet zone forest. Here we saw some our first birds of the trip such as blue-naped monarch, black-hooded oriole, shikra, white-throated kingfisher and a variety of egrets, herons and waders in the wetlands at the bottom of the hill.

(Alex enjoying the sunset at Mirissa Hills)

One of the reasons for stopping here was to get out to sea. The continental shelf between Mirissa and Dondra Head has gained a reputation in recent years as one of the best locations in the world to see the largest animal to have ever lived; the blue whale. However we were travelling towards the end of the season here but the start of the season in Trincomalee and narrowly missed a whale sighting here. We did however have an outstanding sighting of a large pod of pantropical spotted dolphins that rode the bow in front of our boat.

(Pantropical spotted dolphin in the sea off Mirissa)

(Pantropical spotted dolphins in the sea off Mirissa)

(Mirissa Harbour)

(Stilt fishermen near Mirissa)
We then popped into a local turtle conservation project and were lucky enough to help with the release of some recently hatched Olive Ridley turtles. Its important when releasing these hatchlings that they are placed down facing inland to imprint their birth beach on to them and we hope that at least one will return in maybe 30 years time.

(Olive ridley turtle hatchling)

("Good luck" Olive ridley turtle hatchling making its journey out to sea)

We then moved to Tangalle, further east along the coast to spend a night at the superb Buckingham Place and also enjoyed an evening on the wild windswept beach here watching an enormous green turtle laying her eggs. A really memorable experience particularly with the sound of crashing waves in the background and just the moonlight to guide you.

(Buckingham Place)

(The garden at Buckingham Place was full of frogs including this Indian green frog)

We then travelled further east via stops at Buddist Stupas to the famous Yala National Park. Yala is a wonderful wilderness (965 square km) of thorny scrub, plains and monsoon forest. It has become most well known for probably having the world's highest density of leopards. A study in 2007 found that Yala's block 1 area has around 18 leopards per 100 square kilometres. It is also a very beautiful park and home to an impressive array of other wildlife.

During our 7 safaris in the National Park's block 1 and 5, we saw 7 different leopards, numerous elephants including a very rare tusker, sloth bear, golden jackals, 20+ ruddy mongoose, spotted deer, sambar, Sri Lankan giant squirrel, tonnes of wild boar, water buffalo, tufted langurs and black naped hares among the mammals. It was fantastic see how abundant birds of prey were very here and we regularly encountered changeable hawk eagle, crested serpent eagle, grey-headed fish eagle, white-bellied sea eagle and brahminy kite. Some of the other avian highlights included malarbar pied hornbill, Sri Lanka grey hornbill, coppersmith and brown headed barbets, yellow crowned woodpecker, blue-faced makloha, Indian pitta, small minivet, pied cuckoo, grey-bellied cuckoo, ashy-crowned sparrowlark and barred buttonquail to name just a few.

(One of my highlights of the trip was this Sloth bear with a wound on his back)
(Golden jackal in Yala National Park)

(Pintail snipe on the lagoon near our lodge)

(Young Sri Lankan elephant in Yala National Park)
(An even younger Sri Lankan elephant in Yala National Park)
(Only 2% of the elephants in Yala have tusks, because the gene for producing them has almost died out in the population due to hunting pressure in the past)

(Juvenile changeable hawk eagle in Yala's block 5)

(The stunning chestnut-headed bee eater in Yala National Park)

(The green bee eater was the most common of the bee eaters and also landed in a photogenic location)
(The blue-tailed bee eater)

(Black naped or Indian hares were very common at dawn and dusk in thorny scrub)

(A very expressive tufted grey langur in Yala National park)

(The impressive Malabar pied hornbill eating soil, this behaviour is probably carried out to bind the poisonous and bitter tasting substances in the fruits and seeds they eat, to make it possible for them to digest them.)

(Orange-breasted green pigeon in Yala national Park)

(Indian peacock strutting his stuff, unfortunately he never turned to face us straight on)

(Painted storks enjoying the last rays of sun of the day)
(Almost every pool in Yala had a flock of egrets, spoonbills or storks feeding from it)
(A typical Yala scene)
(Spot-billed pelican in Yala)
(Ruddy mongooses were surprisingly common in Yala National Park, we even saw one raiding a monitor lizard burrow)
(Indian Wild boar piglets having a skirmish at dawn)
(Wild boar at dawn)
(The Sri Lankan spotted deer is the only known subspecies of the chital)
(Water buffalo of mixed wild and domesticated descent)
Our favourite leopard sighting came right at the end of the day in Block 5; a remote and little visited part of the National park with denser forest dominated by Palu Trees. Here Kasun, one of our excellent guides picked up distant langur alarm calls and directed our driver to an almost dry riverbed. Here as the sun was setting, we were surrounded by alarm calls on both sides of the river. Being in this location at this time of day, it felt like a story was about to unfold and I exclaimed "does anyone else get the feeling something is about to happen..." with Heather following by saying she felt nervous with anticipation of what might emerge from the bushes closest to us. By following where the langurs were moving and the direction in which the troop were aiming their alarms calls, I narrowed down roughly where the predator was and started scanning into the dense scrub and then bingo. I could just make out the a few spots through the undergrowth on the other side of the river around 200 meters away so we reversed back for a clearer view of what was actually a very relaxed leopard sprawled out on a bank.
As if this wasn't good enough to end the day with we then bumped into a second leopard, this time on our side of the river  which obliged us with a stunningly close view. After some time this female leopard got up and to our amazement started stalking along the river bank no less than 10 meters from us, fully hunched down and creeping a few centimetres off the ground. We were only forced to leave this exciting scene because the light had almost gone, park restrictions and also we didn't want to miss dinner. The night drive back to our lodge after this was also productive and had a distinctly Indian theme to it as we found 2 small Indian civets, Indian flying fox, Indian gerbils, Indian nightjar and a roosting Indian pitta!

(Indian flying fox)

(Our first leopard just after dawn)

(Young female leopard spotted as the light was fading at the end of our day in Block 5)

(the same female leopard got up to start stalking along the river bank)


(The female leopard in stalking mode)

(Female leopard yawning)

(Young male leopard)
(Young male leopard crossing the track)
(Sunset in Yala)

We also had some luck with the reptiles and amphibians particular Bengal monitor lizards and fan throated lizards which were very abundant and obliging.
(Fan-throated lizard in Yala)
(Bengal monitor lizard on the prowl)
(Juvenile monitor lizard)
(Getting this picture of a marsh mugger crocodile meant creeping up very carefully and then lying on the ground a few meters away, but I always ensured I was outside of striking distance. A very exciting experience for me and the croc didn't even bat one of its three eyelids)
Best of all though was a rare sighting of a star tortoise, that our driver incredibly spotted as we rounded a bend at high speed. All of us were gobsmacked at how he spotted it hidden in tall grass under those circumstances.
(This tortoise was our star reptile in Yala)