THE SINHARAJA BIRD WAVE
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). The Sinharaja Bird Wave. Hi Magazine. May 2009. Series 7, Volume 2. Page 146-147. ISSN 1800-0711.
The Sinharaja Bird Wave is the biggest, the best for viewing and longest studied bird wave in the world. Rainforests all over the world look the same to the untrained eye. The Sinharaja Bird Wave gives our rainforests a unique selling proposition when it comes to pitching for column inches and television coverage in the international media. This article in Hi, follows a lecture I gave on Thursday 26th February at the Barefoot Galley under the National Trust Lecture Series. The two form a new layer of a campaign to seed in the consciousness of the Sri Lankan public, the notion that the Sinharaja Bird Wave is the biggest, best viewing and longest studied.
The Sinharaja Bird Wave is an interesting biological phenomenon where a highly visible participation of different species can be observed. What is more the participation is not just across one taxonomic group like birds, but involves mammals as well. Layard’s, Flame-striped and Giant Squirrels and even the Yellow-striped Mouse-deer sometimes join a Sinharaja Bird Wave. Its a moving rainforest rainbow of colour and sound. A wave of birds scouring the forest from top to bottom like a giant vacuum cleaner, devouring animals and plant matter in their path. Its a stable and cohesive relationship where time after time individual species play a defined role. It is very remarkable that we here in Sri Lanka have one of the best, no, the best of all the bird waves in the world. Before I go into the biology of the Sinharaja Bird Wave, I will first dwell on the ‘medialisation’ of it.
The Sinharaja Bird Wave is not my discovery. Bird Waves are a common feature around the world and have been observed for centuries. In colder climates they are more prevalent during the winter when cooperative foraging is beneficial. As with many other birdwatchers, I have observed bird waves around the world from North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia to elsewhere in Asia. One of the features of the Sinharaja Bird Wave is that it stays with an observer for a fair amount of time. Sometimes half an hour’s viewing time may be possible. Most bird waves pass the observer very quickly. In many tropical forests they appear to be gone in a flash. As I birdwatched more and more overseas and I realised how special ours were. I discussed this with experienced birding tour leaders who had birded across the world and had extensive experience of tropical forest birds and bird waves. They all confirmed my belief that the best and extended viewing of a bird wave was in Sinharaja.
There are other features, the size of the bird wave and the length of time that they have been studied for which makes what happens in Sinharaja very special. The bulk of the work that supports this belief has been undertaken by many individuals from the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL). Notably, Professor Sarath Kotagama who took birding to the Sinhala reading populace and the late great field naturalist P.B. Karunaratne. My role in this, is as usual to be at the interface between science and commerce and harvest those stories and seed them in the international media. I go a stage further. I create brand labels as media hooks, such as Leopard Safaris, The Gathering of Elephants, Best for Blue Whale and as in here, the Sinharaja Bird Wave.
My efforts to brand this had been hampered by an absence of a brand label focus and easy distillation of its key characteristics or USP in marketing parlance. But my awareness of the Sinharaja Bird Wave goes back a long way. By the age of 13, a few astute observers amongst my father’s friends had already predicted that I will be writing books on birds. I was by then spending my Saturdays attending public lectures held at the University of Colombo by both FOSGSL and March for Conservation (MFC). A charismatic and irascible young Phd in ornithology called ‘Kota’, much feared and also much liked, together with others like Rex de Silva and P.B. Karunaratne were popularizing birds and conservation and broadening the net from an English speaking elite. With my friends Jeevan William and Azly Nazeem I would listen to these lectures and be enthralled by tales from the great forest of Sinharaja.
This was an era when a group of parents from Colombo would let a group of 15 year olds leave home by bus into the hinterland, with no prospect of having any contact for 4-5 days. If something did happen to us, there were no mobile phones or even fixed telephone lines for parents and children to be in touch. One afternoon we took three buses and arrived in the great forest. Arising at 4.00am we shrugged off the cold of the cement floor we had slept on at the Kudawe camp of the Forest Department and walked the three and half miles in the dark to the MFC research camp where ‘Karu’ was working. Karu’s camp aide was Martin, subsequently to become Sri Lanka Thilaka Martin Wijesinghe who runs Martin’s Simple Lodge to which we now are a key provider of clients. I always claim I was his first eco-tourism client, nearly thirty years ago.
Karu very graciously asked Jeevan not to address him as Professor and to call him Karu. We basked in the glow of greatness just to be in the presence of Karu, brimmed with self importance that we could address the great man as Karu and walked into the forest. We paused to examine pugs of leopards, each individual whom Karu knew through his non-visual encounters. Before long we had the famous Sinharaja Bird Wave. It is easy to be distracted by the Ceylon Rufous Babblers, one of the nucleus species. They occupy the mid canopy and keep a constant cacophony of grumbling calls. It is their presence which makes these waves the biggest in the world in terms of the number of species. The Crested Drongo, a very special bird is also highly visible because it darts hither and thither and has a beautiful repertoire of belling calls enriched by mimicking the calls of as many as another twenty species or so of other birds. The Crested Drongo is the leader, the CEO of the flock. It utters a special flock gathering all to summon the species together. AS CEO it is also responsible for the security of the flock and will fearlessly attack much larger predators such as Serpent Eagles, Crested Hawk-eagles and Black Eagles. But it is also a bit of a Madoff, the disgraced financier and former Chairman of NASDAQ. The Crested Drongo will sometimes steal from its own flock, something scientists call klepto-parasitism. Apparently, a little bit of theft can be tolerated if it helps the greater good. It seems like the Sinharaja Bird Wave has read the books on donor funded development aid in the developing world.
Karu, the pioneer of flock research in Sinharaja, taught us not to be too distracted by the authors of the wave’s auditory signature. This is maintained by the Ceylon Rufous Babblers and at times the endangered Ashy-headed Laughing-thrush with it shrill, almost metallic whinnying calls, a bird which keeps low and close to the forest floor. We looked for the strong silent type Red-faced Malkoha, an enigmatic bird now confined to just a few forests such as Sinharaja, Morapitiya and Kithulgala.
The alert reader will now be able to see my role at the interface of science and commerce. One needs brand labels and the USPs, but to take it to the media one also needs to know how to drill down into the technical journals and come out with stories which stick in the minds of the media. Hence the stories of a Madoff like CEO and not reciting about ‘optimising foraging behaviour in mixed species feeding flocks’.
Over the next thirty years I attended more lectures on and off at the University of Colombo. I listened to P.B. Karunaratne, Professor Sarath Kotagama, Devaka Weerakoon, Rahula Perera, Eben Goodale amongst others who disseminated the findings of the FOGSL team on the Sinharaja Bird Wave. I began to integrate the findings into the commercial tour itineraries we sent out to clients as early as 2001 when I became CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays. My all round naturalist cum Manager at that time was Amila Salgado who soon after time in the field with me became a passionate birder. Not only did we write about the bird wave in our itineraries we gave talks and personally joined clients in the field to talk about it. As the team from FOGSL published their work, our pitch became stronger. In 2004 Professor Kotagama and his PhD student Eben Goodale published a paper in Forktail, the scientific journal of the Oriental Bird Club (OBC). It was titled ‘The composition and spatial organisation of mixed-species feeding flock in a Sri Lankan rainforest’. They also published in 2006 a booklet aimed at a lay audience titled ‘Bird Flocks of Sinharaja’. However it was the 2004 paper in Forktail which provided me with the much needed technical ammunition to approach the media.
In January 2005 Antero Topp, the Editor of Alula, an European Birding magazine travelled in Sri Lanka with us. He came with a birding group which Chandrika Maelge the manager at that time had had put together with Antero and a Finnish company. With a strong creative sense, she had overseen the use of images of Sinharaja’s endemic birds for creating a strong visual impact for Sri Lanka. I need to make the technical impact. On a field visit to Kithulgala, in the presence of a bird wave, I talked about the Sinharaja Bird Wave. In January 2006 Antero returned and I used the technical merits of what had been published by Kotagama and Goodale, to persuade Antero Topp that the Sinharaja Bird Wave was story worthy material. I wrote and photographed this story and it was subsequently published in the an of Alula in 2007.
Meanwhile, during the Brtish Birdwatching Fair in August 2006 I was invited for dinner with Caroline Mardall and Hilary Bradt. The latter had founded Bradt Travel Guides. Also with us were wildlife writers and celebrities Dominic Couzens and Mike Unwin. Dominic was working on a book for New Holland publishers on the ‘Top 100 Birding Sites in the World’. I made case for Palatupana Salt Pans for waders, Yala National Park for Asian wildlife and most of all the Sinharaja Bird Wave. The last did eventually make it to the book which was launched at the 2008 British Birdwatching Fair.
By now I was convinced that the Sinharaja Bird Wave was story worthy to an international audience. But I was persistently using the term ‘mixed species feeding flocks’ which was the technical term appearing in the literature. The Antero Topps and Dominic Couzens and the more techy birders were comfortable with this. But in the search for a brand label I coined the term ‘Rainforest Rainbow’ which we started testing in a new version of our tour brochure taken to the 2007 Bird Fair. But this required too much explanation. Finally, the correct label sank in one cold and misty morning at Fraser’s Hill in Malaysia in July 2008. I had taken a team of two naturalist guides (Wicky and Hetti) and one operations staff (Ajanthan Shantiratnam) to expand our product suite to include tours to Malaysia. I had already made two private visits to watch the bird waves in Fraser’s Hill and I had brought the team to see the Jelai Resort Bird Wave which is spectacular but short-lived, just long enough for a morning burst of feeding around the resort. As the term bird wave was well known to birders, I had called this the Jelai Bird Wave. I pointed out Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes, Long-tailed Minlas and Silver-eared Mesias as the Jelai Bird Wave had us mesmerized. It then it struck me, why should I not label the ‘mixed species feeding flocks of Sinharaja’ as the Sinharaja Bird Wave? It is easy to remember and intuitive and requires little explanation. The change of brand label was too late for our tour brochure. But the new name went into a publication we did for the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau published in July 2008.
In the early 1980s, P.B. Karunaratane was studying the Sinharaja flocks under a grant from the Smithsonian. More than two decades later a wealth of information was known. Researchers had documented how the flock have a crossing order. First the Crested Drongos, then the Ceylon Rufous Babblers and last of all the Yellow-naped Woodpecker. A staggering 59 species have been recorded participating in the flocks. 21 Species are regulars meaning that they have been documented in at least a quarter of all flocks encountered by researchers. We know which species follow the flock and others which like the Dark-fronted Babblers and Black-naped Monarch only join the flock as it passes through their territory, but lends the impression of being a species which travels with the flocks. The compositions of the flocks are understood with sometimes as many as 50 Ceylon Rufous Babblers beefing up the numbers. However the average number of individual birds in a flock is 41 birds, which on average make them the largest in the world. I have on countless occasions observed over half a dozen of Sri Lanka’s endemic birds within a flock. A flock may have endemics such as Ceylon Rufous Babbler, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Ceylon Crested Drongo, Red-faced Malkoha, Green-billed Coucal and be opportunistically joined by other endemics such as Ceylon Hanging-parrot, Layards Parakeet, Black-capped Bulbul, Ceylon Blue Magpie, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Ceylon Myna and White-faced Starling. Other gorgeous birds such as the Malabar Trogon also follow these flocks and in winter Asian Paradise-flycatchers and an occasional Chestnut-winged Cuckoo may be seen.
Why do birds flock like this? One answer is that the feeding behavior of one bird may flush insects into the air which others catch. Fruit or caterpillars dislodged may fall to birds foraging at the bottom. Although there is increased competition there may be an overall net gain in feeding efficiency. Another reason may be enhanced security from more eyes and the Dutch courage which allows a larger flock to more effectively harass and chase away a predator. Individuals may also benefit from the dilution effect which reduces the statistical likelihood of being the victim of a predator. On the whole there seems to be a benefit and an evolutionarily stable relationship of participatory behavior between different species have evolved.
As a regular observer in Sinharaja I have noticed how the Sinharaja Bird Wave behaves like a super organism with its own home range and resting places. The local guides know the individual Sinharaja Bird Waves and have a sense of where they will cross the road just as the behavior of an individual leopard is known. Photographers now know about positioning themselves for the Sinharaja Bird Wave known as the ‘barrier flock’.
So nearly thirty years after my first visit to Sinharaja, I have finally begun to popularise a brand label, the Sinharaja Bird Wave, which Sri Lanka Tourism can use as a concise and intuitive label to showcase to the local and international media the work done by researchers primarily from FOGSL. In the 1980s, P. B. Karunarate working on a Smithsonian Grant showed a bird wave to a group of school boys. He could not have imagined that thirty years later one of them would brand the Sinharaja Bird Wave to create livelihoods in wildlife tourism.