Monday, March 30, 2015

2015 March 23-28: Steve's Report: Trip to the South

We got back Saturday night to find our internet service gone, and didn't get it restored until just now (Monday AM). We left Monday morning for Mirissa on the south coast a beautiful touristy resort city with a lovely (but boring) beach. We stayed in a very interesting hotel built in a series of levels up the side of a hill. It had a rooftop swimming pool, so it was quite luxurious. I have no interest in beaches; our real motive for going to Mirissa is that it happens to be the place where the blue whale tours -- now famous worldwide -- originate. It was only recently discovered that large numbers of blue whales live year round off Sri Lanka's south coast.

Tuesday morning we climbed aboard one of more than a dozen smallish whale tour boats (ours seated thirty people or so) and headed out into the Indian Ocean. On the way out, we saw flying fish, very bizarre creatures that erupt from the waves and glide rapidly along, banking and changing direction as their long fins flutter like wings. There were few seabirds aside from the ubiquitous whiskered terns. To everybody's (and especially Elanor's) delight, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge school of acrobatic spinner dolphins (as many as 200 individuals) that leaped and pirouetted in groups of five or ten at a time. We watched them for quite a while. Much farther out to sea (about 15 miles) we finally found blue whales -- five in all, and one pair that we were able to approach within a hundred yards. They are truly enormous, visibly much larger than the humpback and even the fin whales we see so often in Newfoundland, and do quite a bit of rolling and fluke-displaying between dives. One of them must have been nearly 100 feet long. Standing in the presence of the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet (or perhaps, anywhere else!) was a nearly religious experience. On the was back to shore, three pomarine jaegers -- very rare birds this far south -- flew past the boat. Elanor and I spent quite a bit of time in the hotel swimming pool, and she's now really learning to swim quite well. She learned to do a passable crawl while we were there, as well as to swim on her back all over the pool and to tread water. She's now fearless in the deep end, and I've ceased to worry about her drowning.

On Wednesday we went over to Tissamaharama (near Kataragama in southeast Sri Lanka), a lovely town near both Bundala and Yala national parks. We stayed at a small hotel beside a lake full of lotuses that absolutely brimmed over with birdlife, including such beauties as pheasant-tailed jacanas, purple swamphens, lesser whistling-ducks, and black bitterns. The woods and paddies around the lake were also alive with birds. The huge pipal tree at the Buddhist shrine near the hotel usually had green imperial pigeons roosting, and the newly-cut rice paddies were full of little birds like ashy prinias, scaly-breasted munias, and the dauntingly-named zitting cisticola. I racked up quite a number of new species for my growing ebird list just walking around the lake. Also, several mugger crocodiles lived in the lake; one fair-sized individual often lay out in the sun on an islet, daring the lapwings, cormorants, and other waterbirds to come within reach. Elanor enjoyed observing the epic numbers of geckos around the hotel and following around the large monitor lizard that patrolled the grounds.

We headed out at 4:30 AM for Yala National Park in a safari jeep. The driver was pretty knowledgeable. We told him we didn't want to participate in the mad rush into the park when the gates opened to go to the spot where leopards were usually seen. If we saw a leopard, fine, but we wanted to go at a leisurely pace, along less-traveled roads, and see lots of birds. We arrived at the park gates while it was still dark and waited in the gloom for dawn to break. Accordingly, when the gates opened, the other jeeps tore off in the direction of the main leopard sighting area, and we took "the road less traveled" by ourselves. As a result, we didn't see any leopards, but we saw many other things, mostly without other vehicles around. The first prize of the day was a lesser adjutant, a very rare giant stork species, standing in the middle of the road. We got a good long look at him. We found large, very entertaining flocks of Malabar pied hornbills that cackled and cavorted in the trees along the road. Also present were plenty of grey langurs and tocque macaques, as well as wild water buffalo (one of the few places in the world where they can be seen), and lots of mugger crocodiles, including one that was more than 15 feet long. The landscape was surprisingly beautiful, with scrub jungle punctuated by ponds and lakes, as well as ranges of striking rocky hills and tors, one of which resembled a human profile. We stopped at every pond and tallied species, with Pam taking oodles of photos. Near the sea, we found a beautiful flock of herons, painted storks, and spoonbills probing in the mud for snails and whatever. Behind then stood two great thick-knee (the first burrhinids I've ever seen) and a host of shorebirds. While we were watching these, a grey-headed fish eagle sailed up and landed on a log; Pam got nice shots of him.

Back inland, we found many more birds, including the crested treeswift, the golden-fronted leafbird, and the ashy-crowned sparrow lark, among many others. We saw several mongooses and at least three Indian monitor lizards, hers of spotted deer, a pair of sambar, quite a few wild boar, and finally, a number of elephants. The first one we encountered was a large tusker walking down the middle of the road, which we followed, along with several other jeeps. Eventually, he let us pass -- so close that we could see his cheek glands. Elanor, of course, was ecstatic. A little further along, we came across a female elephant with two half-grown calves bathing in a pool. We watched them blow water on each other for a while. We later encountered another large tusked male. by the day's end we had tallied more than 90 bird species.

Friday we went to Bundala National Park, known primarily for its birds. Here we were accompanied by a park guide who knew where to find the birds. We racked up lots more species, including a pied cuckoo and common thick-knee. Our real hope was to find the black-necked stork, of which only one lives in Bundala and the other ten or eleven (Sri Lanka's entire population) in remote corners of Yala. At one point, we came upon two huge saltwater crocodiles mating at the edge of a lagoon; they glared at us and began swimming slowly out into the lagoon, passing within a few feet of our vehicle. Bundala also had enormous numbers of langurs and macaques all along the roads, and Elanor happily kept a tally. Finally, just past noon, in a remote salt pan full of painted storks, spoonbills, and smaller shorebirds of many kinds, we found the black-necked stork, a very shy bird that stayed just close enough for a good long look in the spotting scope. As a bonus, I spotted a small group of rare pratincoles, a sort of cross between a swallow and a sandpiper. Once again, we ended up with nearly a hundred species for the day.

After we got back to Tissa, we took a took-took (!!) up to Kataragama, one of Sri Lanka's two holiest places, revered by Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists alike. The sprawling complex of temples and shrines extended over many acres. For me the most interesting thing was the cell phone tower built of reconditioned sewer pipes, which had become a preferred roost for the Malabar pied hornbills that frequented the area. The place was of course full of hawkers and beggars, as well as Hindu holy men and Buddhist monks, and monkeys were everywhere. The temple elephant was getting its daily bath in the Menik river when we arrived, which Elanor watched with rapt attention.

Saturday we took the only air-conditioned bus of the day back to Colombo (a six hour trip, including a rest stop in Matara). We got home to a dead internet and a new water leak in the upstairs hallway, but it was a great trip. Elanor is now a very seasoned jungle adventuress, and can't quite decide if she likes the monkeys, elephants, or dolphins the most. I've nicknamed her "Elanor of the elephants."