LOOKING FOR A SINHARAJA BIRD WAVE
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2011). Looking for a Sinharaja Bird Wave. May – June 2011. Living. Pages 46-47. Volume 6, Issue 5. ISSN 1800-0746.
I wag my finger at Tom, who is puzzled. I move my head up and gaze upwards. I was never good at charades but I manage to motion him to look up. I don’t even want to whisper, ‘look up’. A long tail underlain in white, a blue body with a chocolate brown head, is perched above. It is softly lit by the light which has filtered through the green feeding plates of the sun eating rainforest canopy. A Blue Magpie is perched just a foot above former travel photographer turned diplomat, Tom Owen-Edmunds. The Blue Magpie looks down at Tom quizzically, its eyes fringed with serrated red orbital skin. The eye ring matched the red bill and red legs. I am reminded of some of the colourful designer glasses by the likes of DKNY I have seen being worn by fashionistas. The Blue Magpie has the equivalent of lipstick and boots to match. Perhaps one of its local names which translates into the ‘belle of the forest’ is apt.
Tom can hardly believe this close encounter. We had a game of cat and mouse before with the Blue Magpies who had flitted through the forest, the previous day, in the mist laden evening gloom. I groan inwardly. I am very close to Tom and the bird. Too close to use my Canon 600mm lens which is mounted on my camera. A choice of short lenses are in my camera bag. But I may flush the Magpie if I attempt to retrieve my bag from inside the research hut. I decide to watch and take it all in. The rest of the flock fly in. Blue Magpies are sociable birds, with the whole flock assisting a single pair to raise young. This could be a strategy to give young birds practice in parenting before they go off to have a family of their own. It could also result in a higher survival rate as a result of the extra vigilance and extra help available to gather food for young in the nest. I first began coming here thirty years ago. It had taken me seven trips to Sinharaja, before I had a good luck at a Blue Magpie. The birds were so shy then.
Over the years they have learnt to trust people demonstrating that wildlife is hardly ever disturbed by people if visitors do not engage in any hostile behaviour. The Blue Magpies were a bonus, but I had come with Tom to show him the Sinharaja Bird Wave. This is the largest, longest studied and the best viewing of the bird waves in the world. Sometimes on my way to the former research hut from the ‘barrier gate’ I pass four or five Sinharaja Bird Waves. Today was one of those days when the forest had gone quiet. Arriving at the hut I had busied myself photographing butterflies and dragonflies and pointing out the birds which came into view. Around noon, we were preparing to leave the hut when I heard the distinctive chattering and babbling of the Ceylon Rufous Babblers. This is a nucleus species in the Sinharaja Bird Wave and listening for it is the best way to locate a bird wave. The other clue is the calls of the Ceylon Crested Drongo, another nucleus species. With my hopes lifting, Tom and I looked through breaks in the canopy. Crested Drongos came into view calling loudly. I knew we were onto what may be a good Sinharaja Bird Wave. A little movement caught my eye and I saw the scarlet breast of a stunning male Malabar Trogon.
A bird with a long tail showing a lot of white swooped from the crown of one tree to another. It was the enigmatic Red-faced Malkoha. A few more betrayed themselves, occasionally breaking cover and then scampering along the branches. Whilst they searched the top, Dark-fronted and Rufous Babblers and the dazzling Malabar Trogons hunted in the middle layer. A slightly metallic chattering alerted us to another endemic, the Ashy-headed Laughing Thrush. Sharp, short whistles alerted us to the arrival of the endangered endemic White-faced Starling.
The Sinharaja Bird Wave takes its time in this prey rich lowland rainforest. Elsewhere in the world, they pass through at speed, making it difficult for inexperienced birdwatchers to see and identify all of the species. Fortunately the Sinharaja Bird Wave lived up to form and hardly travelled more than 500 meters in the space of over an hour. We wrote each new species that we saw joining the flock. The count rose to 22 species. This tally ignores the other bird species we saw at around the same time but were not really a part of this Sinharaja Bird Wave.
I had come with Tom especially for him to see the Sinharaja Bird Wave, before he travelled abroad on another foreign posting. I had also taken him whale watching and on leopard safari. Because of his connections with the British press, I knew that he would be a good person to relay some of Sri Lanka’s big stories from wildlife, to the foreign media. Being with someone who was interested in the outdoors and was a friend made the time pass quickly and it never felt like I was working on yet another media trip. Tom was not a stranger to rainforests. He had told me that he had always found it difficult to see animals in rainforests. This is a generally true observation. However, I had promised that Sinharaja would be different, especially in the company of someone who knew the forest. Fortunately, the Sinharaja Bird Wave delivered quite convincingly.