NATURE WATCHING IN THE KANDYAN HILLS

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). Nature Watching in the Kandyan Hills. Serendipity. May 2002. Page 4.

Sri Lanka’s eco-tourism industry is thinking beyond Elephants says Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, who visited the Hunas Falls Hotel to see what is on offer.

The torchlight played on the rough surface of the granite rock facaded outhouse. It was close to midnight and my companion Amila Salgado let out an excited shout as a lizard crept into view. Staring at us was a magnificent Great Forest Gecko (Cyrtodactylus frenatus), an eight inch long forest gecko. I stared deep into its eye, which was intricately and abstractly patterned. It gazed back at me without flinching, its pupil narrowed to a slit like a cat’s eye. Flashes popped as we started taking pictures. The lizard wriggled back in through a hole and in a matter of minutes was gone. Amila, a keen naturalist was beside himself with excitement. We were on the night trail of Hunas Falls Hotel, a recent addition to the hotel’s repertoire of eco-tourism activities.

After dinner we had left for an easy walk around the hotel’s lake, relying on our ears more than the limited vision offered by the beams of light from our torches. Soon we had picked up a Common Bullfrog (Hoplobatrachus crassus) betrayed by its harsh grating, almost barking like call. A few Philautus species of tree frogs uttered their metallic single notes, but proved devilishly difficult to locate. A frog we located was Ferguson’s Tree Frog (Racophorus fergusonii) an endemic, confined to the Knuckles are of Sri Lanka. A few years ago we might have been dismissed as cranks. But now, this was serious business. The night trail to see Sri Lanka’s endemic amphibian fauna is one example of the diversification of tourism. The positive side to this is the increased awareness and impetus to conserve groups of animals which had been previously overlooked.

We paused beside a wall illuminated by a tubelight. Dozens of moths were clustered in all shapes and sizes. Many were cryptically coloured and intricately patterned. I wondered how many of these are yet awaiting description by scientists.

Night trails are not everyone’s cup of tea. I suspect for many eco-tourists, the prime attraction would be the birdlife. The Elkaduwa area has a high diversity of bird life due to the presence of a mix of habitats. The most comfortable hotel for birders is the lake at Hunas Falls Hotel. The following day, we breakfasted on the lakeside terrace, regularly bringing up our bins (binoculars to non birders) to examine new birds that flew into view. Bins on one hand and a freshly served cup of coffee on the other hand bordered on indulgence. A pair of White-bellied Sea Eagles and a pair of Brahminy Kites seemed to have come to an agreement on sharing the flight paths over the lake. Little Cormorants, White-throated Kingfishers and Common Kingfishers worked on the smaller fish. Around the fringes, White-breasted Waterhens, explored noisily. The trees attracted a mix of birds from Black-headed Cuckooshrikes, Oriental White-eyes, Minivets, Sunbirds, Blue-winged Leafbirds etc. The calls of Yellow-fronted Barbets resonated and the bubbling call of the Scimitar Babbler would be heard long before the author could be seen. Layard’s Parakeets would occassionaly screech overhead. One morning, we did the easy trek up the Shaheen Peak, through patna grasslands occupied by Tawny-bellied Babblers and Ashy Prinias. The Shaheen did not appear but a Black Eagle had put in an appearance earlier to compensate.

Although birds are the most visible, with perhaps 60 plus species possible in a day, the flora and other fauna is as interesting. A few striking endemic plants such as the tree fern Angiopterix evecta are found around the hotel. Striking butterflies are found. A Commander flitted into view and fearlessly perched a foot away. A Tamil Yeoman broke cover and a Gladeye Bushbrown stayed frozen in the dim undergrowth. The fast flowing stream feeding the dammed lake held dragonflies. One of these is the Azure-winged Damselfy. At rest it looks like a nondescript dull damselfly, with just a hint of colour on its undersides. When it takes wing, it is transformed into a magical object of iridescent green with black markings.

In the hills above lie remnant patches of sub-montane forest. The real bio-diversity treasures, are here. One evening we drove up a couple of kilometers and stopped at a forest patch. Amila’s sharp eyes spotted a freshwater crab. All of our freshwater crabs are considered endemic. We could only assume that this species had already been described. A Greater Flameback and a Lesser Yellownape, two species of woodpeckers, threaded their way along the tree trunks. A flock of Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrikes foraged on the canopy. The unmistakable sweet song of a Spot-winged Thrush emerged above the more raucous calls of Sri Lanka Hanging Parrots and Southern Hill Mynas. Rather unusually, we located the thrush singing on an exposed perch about 30 feet above the ground.

Light faded and mist rolled in enveloping the hills below in a white shroud. Our torches came out and our attention turned to the calls of Philautus Tree Frogs. In the distance, tiny points of light twinkled, against the darkness. As we set back, we wondered how long such small fragments of forest could continue to hold our vanishing bio diversity.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is an Executive Director of Jetwing Eco Holidays (eco@jetwing.lk, www.jetwingeco.com) which specializes in eco and adventure travel. He is the lead author of A Birdwatchers Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). Contact him to subscribe for his free, wildlife e-newsletter.