de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). Highland Hunter. LMD. May 2002. Page 136. Volume 08, Issue 10.

Birder & Wildlife Photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne goes in search of Arrenga and Leopard in Horton Plains

Two pairs of headlight beams, snaked around the curving mountain sides, bumping along rutted roads, as we sped for a morning rendezvous. Our mission was to position Sri Lanka as a Leopard Watching destination. Riding in the lead vehicle was Alan Blanchard a Briton, who specialises in taking wildlife enthusiasts and photographers on big cat viewing trips. In the lead vehicle, accompanying him and my colleagues Hiran Cooray and S. Ravindran, was Ravi Samarasinha who together with Jehan Kumara has already brought Sri Lanka international publicity for its leopards. Ravi and Jehan Kumara had started a study on the Leopards in Yala, which centered on the photographic identification of individual leopards. Their work featured in the BBC film Leopard Hunters, which was complemented by a front cover article by Jehan Kumara in the BBC Wildlife magazine. Very few people have studied the Sri Lankan Leopard so intensively. Two others who have, are French Canadian Andrew Kittle and his Sri Lankan wife Anjali Watson who have joined Ravi in a study of the Leopards in Yala. They rode in the second vehicle, together with Lal de Silva, an environmentalist and talented naturalist, who had gripped my imagination with stories of leopards who still roamed the forests of the Pedro range, within sight of the busy and over built Nuwara Eliya Town.

Despite the overtly leopard watching mandate with some of the country’s best ‘leopard hunters’ accompanying us, we were hoping for a first date, with something smaller and equally enigmatic. The Arrenga or Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, was our first target species. A small, drab, dull bird, with furtive habits, it is rarely seen other than by serious birders. Arrenga Pool in Horton Place is one of the best places and we pulled in. We were not the first, a pair of foreign birders had arrived with a local birding guide. We chatted in whispers and waited patiently beside the pool, in the darkness, the cold biting only mildly. As light stole away the darkness, we listened intently, for the shrill whistle which would betray the presence of an Arrenga. A splash alerted us to an Otter, always a treat to see one in the wild. It did not stay long and melted away to its mountain fastness. A male Pied Thrush was a bonus. Ironically, Sri Lanka is the best place to see Himalayan birds such as this which have escaped the Himalayan winter. A Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, another montane endemic clattered overhead, barely visible through the patches of mist which had rolled in with the rising sun.

We broke up, with Alan and the others heading for World’s End and Bakers Falls whilst Ravi and I prowled the area around Arrenga Pool, with cameras cocked. The endemic Sri Lanka Rhododenron was in bloom with flowers of vivid red, offset by leathery green leaves. At least four species of Strobilanthes were in bloom. According to local tradition, the ‘Nillu’, blooms only once every seven years. Junglefowl and Blackbirds vied with each other to gorge themselves on this floral feast. I have never seen so many of these birds, with a pair seemingly at every hundred meters.

We re-grouped after tea and set off in earnest to look for Leopard. A Common Buzzard, a winter migrant to our uplands, watched us with a steely gaze. Across the rolling plains, in the horizon lay a jagged outline of forested peaks. On our left, was Kirigalpotha, one of the highest peaks in Sri Lanka. A sheer 45 degree slope, marked one face of the mountain. The rock face appeared to have been sliced off with a giant knife. The conical peak of the holy mountain, Adam’s Peak, thrust up to the sky, to the right of Kirigalpoththa. On our right, were gently rolling hills clothed with superb montane forest. Unlike the lowland rainforests, the montane forests are conspicuous for the varying shade of colour, donned by its trees. Reds, greens and yellows, simmered in the evening glow, reminiscent of an impressionist painting by Monet. We alighted to enjoy the landscape.

A sharp, but faint bark of a Sambar echoed across the plains. Alan hurried us back to our vehicles and we nursed the vehicles stealthily up a slope for a better view of the rolling plains. Our quarry was not in sight. Neither was its prey the Sambar. We edged further along, the Samabar’s alarm call faded away, leaving only the sound of the wind whipping against the vehicle. The vehicle with Lal, Andrew and Anjali gained distance over us as we began prowling the plains in the evening light.

We caught up and they had a story to tell. The alarm call of a Junglefowl and broken the stillness of the evening. Suddenly a bird had shot out of cover, followed by three, distinct sawing calls of a Leopard. We listened, intently, but there was no more evidence of the spotted hunter. We had come close, close enough to reassure ourselves that the top cat still ruled the plains. I will come back, for the Arrenga and the spotted cat.

The writer manages a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter. e-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk.