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Category: Birding

Seeking the elusive and nocturnal Flying Squirrels of Sri Lanka

Seeking the elusive and nocturnal Flying Squirrels of Sri Lanka

The Grey Flying Squirrel is more in number compared to its smaller counterpart. They have a dark silver grey colouration, but some can be even dark brown. Both species are strictly nocturnal and have large beady eyes.

The ability to glide enables these incredible creatures to move between trees at ease. Due to their shy nature, they are seen at night, and even then by a very lucky few. During the daytime, they usually rest in tree hollows and prefer feeding on fruits and flowers after dark.

The Large Brown Flying Squirrel is a widely distributed, nocturnal mammal inhabiting varied kinds of tree-covered forests of India

The appellation ‘flying’ is a misnomer because these squirrels cannot actually fly. They have fairly thick membranes, extending between the front and back legs on both sides, which they use as a parachute to glide down from a tall tree to the branches of another tree lower down.

These membranes reach down to the toes of both fore and hind feet. The forelimbs and the neck are joined by small membranes, as are the hind limbs to the first two or three inches of the tail.

The fairly thick cartilage about six inches long on the edge of this membrane and starting from the front legs keeps the membrane from being limp. Without the cartilage, the flying squirrel would not be able to spread out the membrane and glide.

The flying squirrel is said to have a curious method of getting back to its nest hole, which is generally in the trunk of a tree. If in its nocturnal forays, it has wandered downhill in search of food, the flying squirrel climbs up a tall tree and glides or ‘vol planes’ down to the base of a tree, which is higher up the hill. He then climbs up this tree and repeats this performance till he finally reaches the base of the tree – in which his nest hole is.

Birding with Classic Sri Lanka

Birding with Classic Sri Lanka

Classic Sri Lanka welcomed, world renowned wildlife and birding guide and tour leader Mr Adrian Binns and Ms Debbie Beer from WildSide Nature tours in January 2018.

The tour was a primarily a birding expedition with additional focus on other species of Mammals, Reptiles, Butterflies and Dragonflies as well.

The tour was 12 days, covering the essential habitats of the island, from lowland rainforests to dry zone scrub jungle as well as montane cloud forests.

The tour began from Negombo, with our Classic Sri Lanka naturalist Koushalya taking the lead and heading straight to the world heritage site of Sinharaja. En-route Koushalya’s expert knowledge and eye sight resulted in many stop overs for the guests which covered many of the common resident species of birds, which was a good introduction for Adrian and Debbie into the birds of Sri Lanka. The first endemic bird was ticked off en-route in the Sri Lankan Swallow.

After a late check in at Blue Magpie lodge the group explored the vicinity of the lodge which brought a few species found in the region, including many of the endemics. Being one of the most biologically rich regions on the island the group were well set for two more days of exploring the reserve as well as the surrounding village areas.

Sinharaja proved very fruitful for Adrian and Debbie with 23 of the total endemics covered in this area thanks to the expert guiding of Koushalya as well as local village trackers who are the backbone of our tours. Some of the key species identified were the Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, Serendib Scops Owl, Chestnut Backed Owlet and the Red Faced Malkoha. The elusive Sri Lanka Spur Fowl which was earlier very rare to see, is now possible thanks to the help of border villages where the birds tend to forage during the early hours of the mornings. Adrian and Debbie hence got excellent views of both male and female birds. The only endemic birds which they missed was the Ashy Headed Laughing Thrush, Layard’s Parakeet and Crimson Fronted Barbet, which are generally found in this region.

From other species, the group observed Spectacled Cobra, Sri Lanka Lyre Headed Lizard and Sri Lanka Kangaroo Lizard, along with the endemic Purple Faced Leaf Monkey. From Butterflies Sri Lankan Tree-Nymph, Birdwing, Common Palmfly and Gladeye Bushbrown, along with Black-tipped Flashwing and Indigo Dropwing dragonflies.

After 3 nights of birding in the lowland rainforest of Sinharaja, the group departed towards the Central Highlands, towards Nuwara Eliya, which is a grueling 6 hour drive.

The next day, the group departed early morning towards Horton Plains National Park, one of the most pristine and well known montane regions in Sri Lanka, with beautiful cloud forests and undulating grasslands. The park and the region plays host to unique avi fauna found only in the mountainous regions of the island.  Some of the endemics seen here were Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Sri Lanka White-eye, Yellow-eared Bulbul, and Dull Blue Flycatcher. Also seen were Crested Goshawk, Himalayan Buzzard, Orange Minivet, Hill Swallow, and Indian Blackbird.

The group were also very luck to spot the endemic and rare Pygmy Lizard near the park entrance as well as the Brown Mongoose.

The next few days Adrian and Debbie along with our naturalist Koushalya explored Nuwara Eliya and its surrounding areas which include Victoria Park, Hakgala gardens and many more “Secret” spots known to a very few, and finally on the last day after many attempts they caught a glimpse of the very elusive and legendary bird the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush also known as “The Arrenga”. Other species seen in the area are Pied Thrush, Kashmir Flycatcher, Grey Headed Canary Fly Catcher, Indian Blue Robin, Forest Wagtail and Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrikes. They also photographed the highland version of the Purple Faced leaf Monkey also known as the Bear Monkey, as well as bold Toque Macaques.

The next day I met up with the group, and was taking over as the guide and naturalist for the next 5 days where we would cover the lowlands of Yala and Tissamaharama. A challenge and worry both Koushalya and myself had was to cover some of the endemics they missed in Sinharaja. We knew it would be virtually impossible to get the Ashy Headed Laughing Thrush given the rest of the tour, but for the rest, I was determined to give it a shot, hence before descending down, we made one more stop in Welimada where after hours of waiting and listening we finally caught a glimpse of around 6 Layards Parakeets.

On the way down we made stops at Ella listening to calls of the Crimson Barbet. At Ravana Falls, I did hear the faint call but we were not able to make a positive visual sighting of the bird.

After few hours of decent we made it to Kataragama. En-route on the Buttala-Kataragama road we caught two Blue Faced Malkoha’s flying across the road. Given this being part of the Yala National Park and an area teeming with elephants we were cautious not to venture off the road.

Afternoon began with the group’s first guided game drive into Block I of Yala National Park via the Katagamuwa entrance. Many of the dry zone species such as the indian Peafowl, Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl, Grey Bellied Cuckoo, Orange Breasted Green Pigeon, Paddyfield Pippit, Jerdons Bushlark and Baya Weaver among many others. Being that it was the first game drive, we didn’t have time to venture too far into the park, as there were many new species of birds to observe. The group got their first glimpse of Asian Elephant and the commonly found Spotted or Chital Deer as well Grey Langur which in fact covered all 3 species of monkeys found in Sri Lanka for Adrian and Debbie.

The next day, we were at the park gate at 5.00 am to be one of the first to enter the park. While waiting for the ticket counter to open, Adrian and Debbie relaxed in the jeep sipping tea and enjoying some Ginger cookies while listening to the sounds of the Jerdons Nightjar.

Inside the park at 6.00 am we rushed towards the center of the park with jeep eyes open for any movement signaling the presence of the true king of Yala, the leopard. Getting towards Komawewa, our driver Supun spotted a leopard seated on the roadside. When we approached, the leopard slowly walked into the bush. It was a female leopard with a noticeable broken tail. Despite waiting almost half hour hoping it would come to the Komawewa tank, we decided to move on as there was very few signs which I normally observe on a leopard being present in the vicinity such as the alarm calls of the Grey Langur and Spotted Deer. From what I observed the alarm calls were getting further and further which signaled the leopard was on the move and highly unlikely to come out again. Hence deciding to move on, we came across another big male leopard near Kotasiyambala area. The leopard slunk into the bushes, and given my experience as well as Supun our jeep drivers knowledge, we predicted the leopard will appear once again from Medha Para further up ahead, hence we drove towards this road, and as we predicted there he was a bruiser of a male who walked slightly towards us before going deep into the bush.

The productive morning brought up a very hearty appetite and hence there was nothing more suitable than breakfast “in the bush” and hence we decided to have a picnic near Karuwala Bokkuwa which is a nice waterhole, while observing our surroundings. We were visited by a young elephant who drank some water and thereafter stood there contemplating whether to dive into the water or not, and after around 20 minutes his doubts got the better of him maybe as the young pachyderm wandered back into the thicket.

That evening we headed towards Tissahamarama where we explored the village tracks along with the help of local guides in search of some elusive species of owls. Our first owl was the Jungle Owlet, seen on a bare block of land on a small village road. Thereafter we walked down to the riverbed of one of the tributaries of the Menik River and after some searching we finally managed to spot the Brown Fish Owl, camouflaged among the Kumbuk Trees. Finally we found an adorable Collared Scops Owl on the beams of a small home. Elated over our sightings, we headed to the Deberawewa Tank to search for Watercock. Despite scanning far and wide we couldn’t find them but were lucky to get great close ups of over 30 Pheasant Tailed Jacana’s. Thinking of calling it a day, we were headed back when along one of the tank bund’s we spotted two female Watercock’s flying away. Stepping out of the van, we observed two more flying from one reed bed towards another clump of reeds. In addition we also spotted two Black Bitterns flying away. The sun was getting low, and I suggested to head towards some of the big trees along the Tissa Lake which is home to tens of thousands of Flying Foxes, which use these trees as their daytime roost. The amazing sight was further enhanced when the bats were flying out of the trees as night approached and thousands of egrets from the region were taking their place for their night roost. It was one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles, to offer in our country and the scale at which is seen in very few places around the world.

The next two days we covered no only Yala Block I but also Yala Block V which gave us very good sightings of the endemic Sri Lanka Woodshrike as well as some great elephant encounters which included a few mock charges by an over ambitious young male.  Adriana and Debbie were delighted to see the beautiful Malabar Pied Hornbill, which were seen quite numerously along Kota Bendhi Wewa area in the park. We also tried the main Palatupana Entrance of Yala Block I and were rewarded with sightings of Greater Thickknee, Small Pratincole and a very lucky sighting of a Western Reef Egret along the Nimalawa and Palatupana saltpans and mudflats.

We are getting close to our target of 200 species of birds by now, and hoped to visit Bundala National Park early the next day after checkout.

Bundala is Sri Lanka’s first Ramsar Wetland and a great place for birding. This is a very dry region with thorny scrub, coastal lagoons and dunes, which are home for many resident and migrant birds. There were many shorebirds such a Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers along with Pacific Grey Plovers and Lesser Sand Plovers. We even managed to spot a Eurasian Curlew on the other side of the waterbody as well as the loud calling and subsequent sighting of the Clamorous Reed Warbler. But one of the key sightings was of the Lesser Adjutant which we actually missed while in Yala, and we were overjoyed to sight one lone individual among the reeds. Other key sightings were of Small Pratincole and Yellow Wagtail as well as a gruesome sighting of a Crested Hawk Eagle feeding on a Purple Heron. As the sun was surging up overhead, we decided to call it a day and head out and back towards the airport in Colombo which was a long 4-4.5 hours’ drive to catch the flight back home to USA.

Along the way one of the key things which was in my mind was to try and find Adrian and Debbie one last endemic which we missed in the form of the Crimson Fronted Barbet. As a last ditch effort I decided to drop into a hotel nearby to the airport which I had a hunch might have this bird in their garden. Ordering a pot of tea, I walked around the property listening to the distinctive “popping” call. And my guess was right as I heard the call of this tiny barbet as we all ran around the property craning our necks to look at the treetops, when Adrian finally managed to spot the bird by the poolside. It was a perfect ending to this amazing trip and I was overjoyed to have managed to show Adrian and Debbie all but one endemic, and the final one at the last moment just before they boarded their flight. It was not only a humbling and amazing experience for me, but was also an extremely enjoyable tour with some amazing guests who are very knowledgeable and easygoing. It was truly an honor to have hosted this experience for Wild side Nature Tours and we hope to be of service to them for many years to come.

2018-Jan Sri Lanka-Birders at Tissa wetlands-by DEB BEER 2018-Jan Sri Lanka-Adrian Victoria Park-Nuwara Eliya-by DEB BEER 2018-Jan Sri Lanka-Pied Thrush in Victoria Park-Nuwara Eliya-by DEB BEER 2018-Jan Sri Lanka-Adrian Deb Rajiv Supun-Mandara Rosen Hotel near Yala-by DEB BEER2018-Jan Sri Lanka -Sampeth Adrian Deb Rajiv Supun-Bundala National Park-by DEB BEER 2018-Jan Sri Lanka-Birders at Tissa wetlands-by DEB BEER

Brahminy Starling Crimson Fronted Barbet Baya Weaver Jungle Owlet Grey Bellied Cuckoo- Female Tri Colored Munia