RENDEZVOUS IN A RAINFOREST
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2001). Rendezvous in a Rainforest. LMD. December 2001.
In search of the Green-billed Coucal at Morapitiya rainforest.
Birder and photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne thinks its time to publicise a liitle known rain forest jewel
An explosive, scolding note rang out across the valley. The Green-billed Coucal, one of Sri Lanka’s most elusive endemic birds had betrayed its presence. My target species for the day was within photographic range. I strained my ears and looked around intently to locate the author of the sharp tchowk tchowk scolding notes, uttered almost as if in disapproval of my presence. A double noted whoop whoop call followed, as it sought to make contact with its mate. Then silence. The valley was quiet, but only temporarily as if to catch its breath, before a flock of Black Bulbuls filled the air with a raucous medley of calls, purrs and squeaks in gay abandon.
A Blue Mormon, a gorgeous butterfly in a pale shade of blue, flew past purposefully. A Tree Nymph, yet another one of Sri Lanka’s endemic butterflies, drifted lazily overhead. It looked like a piece of white paper with Chinese writing, caught aloft in the breeze. My quarry, the Coucal was gone. It had slipped away like a ghost. I picked up my tripod mounted camera and trudged on. Vicky Samarasinghe who had accompanied me, slowly edged my Montero towards me, to give me a ride. I waved him on. He could go on for breakfast, a bit late at 3.30 pm, after a 5.00 am start. But meals take a low priority when you are in photographic pursuit of Sri Lanka’s vanishing wildlife. I chose to walk back along the former logging road, back towards the first settlement likely to serve a cup of plain tea. I paused again, to photograph an un-named dragonfly, red with a black head. I wondered whether it was one of the 52 species of Sri Lankan dragonfly found nowhere else in the world. Well, at least 52 of those described to science so far.
I was in a secret place, which is publicly owned. There is an inherent contradiction in this statement. The site in question is a forest reserve under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department and is hence owned by the state for the greater good of the nation. It is a site invaluable for the conservation of the country’s bio-diversity and for maintaining the life giving hydraulic cycle. It is a secret, because a few outside a small core of naturalists and birders have ‘discovered’ it. The place, Morapitiya.
At some time, Morapitiya would have been contiguous with the better known and richer Sinharaja. As land was cleared and our forests were fragmented, sometime in the 19th century or before, the two forests would have become disjunct. Then in the 20 th century it was logged, damaging it irreparably, robbing it of its mighty giants and reducing it to a poor cousin of Sinharaja. Nevertheless, it remains rich in its fauna, especially its bird life. Morapitiya is as much as an hour shorter from Colombo than Sinharaja. To birders, the presence of endangered endemics like the Red-faced Malkoha and Green-billed Coucal, makes it an outstanding site.
The future however is not rosy. A few kilometers into the forest is a forest village. With each visit I notice that beside the former logging road, the houses and their gardens become bigger. Each time, someone new seems to have put up a house. I voiced my concerns with Professor Sarath Kotagama who agreed that if this trend continues it won’t be long before a bus runs all the way through the reserve, fuelling the arrival of new emigrants and the accelerated destruction of a rich reserve.
Can Morapitiya be saved? Help may arrive from an unlikely corner. The eco-tourism industry. Imagine, the secret is made public and tour loads of birdwatchers arrive from all over the world. The economics of having a permanent staff presence with an office and entry barrier may suddenly become viable. With a steady flow of eco-tourists and permanent Forest Department staff, Morapitiya will receive the vigilance and attention it deserves. Then successive generations of Sri Lankans can feast their eyes on a forested stream where shoals of endemic Combtails swim and Stone Loaches fasten themselves to the stream bottom with sucker like discs on their undersides. Many more will experience the joys and frustrations of looking for the enigmatic Green-billed Coucal. As for me, I will return for another rendezvous with the Coucal.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the lead author of A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka and A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka. He is an Executive Director of one of Sri Lanka’s leading eco-tourism companies.