AN ELUSIVE TRAIL
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). An Elusive Trail. LMD. July 2002. Page 143. Volume 08, Issue 3. ISSN 1991-135x.
Gehan explores the rich bio-diversity of Nuwera Eliya, no matter that the “Arrenga” gives him the slip again.
Birder & Wildlife Photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne explores the forest backdrop of Nuwara Eliya, allowing the Arrenga to give him the slip once again.
A thin flap of canvas hung between two aluminium poles flapped slightly in the morning gloom. Concealed behind it, crouching on the embankment of an upland stream was Lad de Silva, Udaya Siriwardana and myself. We shivered slightly as the dampness in the soil worked its way into our clothes, exacerbated by a slight breeze which chilled us in the pre-dawn cold of Nuwara Eliya. The peaks around us were clothed in tea and shrouded in a grey gloom. As time ebbed by, the first rays of light lit up the peaks and slowly began to steal down to the valley where we were. I had described the place to Udaya as a ‘dead certain’ site for the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush or Arrenga as it is popularly known. That prediction was being put sorely to the test.
Udaya stood up and walked away to warm his frozen fingers. I stayed on with Lal, listening intently, for the shrill call of the Arrenga, which would carry over the bubbling of the stream. A few frogs croaked and an endemic Yellow-eared Bulbul joined the chorus. With yellow tufts on a black and white face, it looked faintly ridiculous like a bird which had over-dressed for the holiday season. Its noisy and active behaviour heightened the festive air about its personality. A flock of the endemic Sri Lanka White-eyes came by, chattering noisily. An exotic, Colius bush, was beside us. Its leaves were covered in mat of hairs, on which dew drops had coalesced. In the morning light, the dew drops glistened like jewels.
Still no Arrenga! Our target had a history of remaining elusive. It was first described to science 132 years ago and still has only been seen by a tiny handful of Sri Lankans. Even at the time it was discovered, it was considered to have been overlooked on account of it mountainous habitats not being sufficiently explored. In 1827, Edward Blyth a pharmacist from London who had become an authority on Indian birds, predicted that a Whistling Thrush species from Sri Lanka may yet to be discovered. A year later, in 1828, the prediction was borne true when Samuel Bligh, collected a specimen of the bird in forest on the banks of the Lemastaota Oya. Bligh was honoured with the species being named after him Bligh’s Whistling Thrush (Myiophonus blighi) although of late the common name in use is Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush or Arrenga. More foreign birders have seen this drab, almost black looking bird, than Sri Lankans themselves have. Its appeal lies in the fact it is one of the 27 species of birds recognised as being endemic to the country.
Lal had seen and heard this bird from many sites around Nuwara Eliya, including from the Golf Course. From our observations, we are confident that this bird may turn out to be more resilient to human presence than has been previously supposed, although it undoubtedly rare by being confined to montane habitats with fast flowing streams. Lal and I had seen the bird before at this site at 12.30 pm, actively hunting and characteristically fanning its tail, intermittently. However, it is generally a crepuscular bird. By 7.30 am, the sun was quite high and our chances of seeing the Arrenga had faded away. A warmed up, Udaya re-joined us an we explored a forested stream which ran close to the main road coming into Nuwara Eliya from Kandy. A splash in a nearby pond alerted us to a visiting Otter. But it vanished without a trace.
Close to us lay the Pedro Forest Range. A precious reservoir of the country’s vanishing bio-diversity. It is also a part of the critical forest cap of the island which is so vital to maintain life giving streams throughout the year. But I could see that year by year, the forest was being encroached upon. Sections of forested ridge were even being carved out for housing schemes. In this forest, descending to a few hundred meters from the town center, lives Sri Lanka’s top predator the Leopard.
Lal gave a shout. On the edge of a rocky protrusion on the ground were a cluster of pale animal faces, with traces of Sambar hair. This was Leopard scat. We did not disturb the scat as Leopards use their droppings as a chemical marker to advertise their presence. The Arrenga had given us the slip, but the Top Cat had been kind enough to leave its calling card behind. How many towns in the world can boast of Leopard, only a few hundreds of meters away. How many towns will have endemic frogs and lizards within the town in its parks and the gardens of its hotels. Nuwara Eliya, is a bio-diversity city. An aspect, Sri Lankan tourism and conservationists need to awaken to, before it is too late.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.