de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). On the Frogmouth Trail. LMD. March 2002. Page 136. Volume 08, Issue 08. ISSN 1391-135X.
A walk through the forest in search of the nocturnal frogmouth reveals the magical sights and sounds of the forest by night.

Birder & Wildlife Photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne walks the rainforest at night, in search of the nocturnal Frogmouth

A half moon rendered the sky with a pale silvery glow. Trees so familiar by day, took on almost sinister, dark shapes, whose outlines took on phantasmagoric shapes moulded by one’s imagination. Here and there, where the canopy opened, a few stars twinkled dimly through a thin veil of cloud. Four of us waited, motionlessly, silently, ears attuned for the strange call of the even stranger Frogmouth. Vicky Wickramasekera and I were accompanying Brian and Margaret Sykes of the Oriental Bird Club on a birding visit to Sinharaja. The ‘target species’ to use birding slang, for that evening, was the rarely seen and nocturnal Sri Lanka Frogmouth. This strange troll like bird, is confined to the Indian sub-continent and is a mesmeric draw for visiting birders. I had been fortunate a few months earlier to photograph in daylight a pair, which had taken to roosting in a clump of the endemic Giant Tree Ferns (Cyathea walkeri) near Martin’s. Thanks to this pair, finally, many Sri Lankans saw a bird, which had previously been observed almost entirely only by foreign birders.

The birding grapevine had informed us of a bird which called regularly from the Mango Tree in front of the Visitor Center. We waited patiently, each wrapped in their thoughts, half asleep, half awake. The day had started well for me with a brief visit to Morapitiya where I had rendezvoused with the Green-billed Coucal, the subject of an earlier article in LMD. The Coucal had given me the slip the first time and it looked like the Frogmouth would do the same. As the night wore on, it became apparent that the Frogmouth had skipped its schedule and we decided to walk into the forest and see what luck would bring us in there.

The torch beam sliced though the forest, casting long shadows where the beam was intercepted by tree trunks. Where the light played, the forest was illuminated in a geometry of light and shadow, like a strange abstract without real colour. The gorgeous green of the rainforest was replaced by a lukewarm yellowish tone where the torchlight fell and pitch-blackness everywhere. The forest at night is a place of shadows, where predators hunt using sonar and acute ears. It is an aural landscape, and deafening too. Tree Frogs of the type Philautus, croaked constantly. Their crick crick calls seemed to emanate from every bush. From the trees, a strange medley of whoops, barks and sonorous belling calls emerged as the amphibians got on with their daily business of establishing territories and securing mates. The forest at night is also a place of concealment. None of the amphibians could be seen, although so audible. They have learnt that visible amphibians end up as prey for the night hunters. To us as birders, the forest was quiet, there was no evidence of Frogmouths or Owls being afoot.

If we were surveying a little studied forest patch, there was a technique we could have used to increase our chances of establishing the presence of a Frogmouth, tape playback. Tape play back as the name suggests involves playing back a bird’s call or song through a portable tape recorder with a portable speakers. Many birds respond to the call of what they see as an intruder into their territory. A species such as the Frogmouth will often fly in close, and call back aggressively at the perceived intruder. There is a consensus amongst many birders that tape playback should be limited, used sparingly and responsibly to avoid disrupting the natural behaviour of a bird, to its detriment. As we were simply birding, we were happy to be content with enjoying the forest at night and accept the Frogmouth’s absence.

The passage of night into dawn was announced by the far carrying kruk kruk kruk call of the Chestnut-backed Owlet, which holds territory in the patch of dense secondary forest near Martin’s simple lodge. A pall of mist hung over the forest-clad hills, as if it was the earth’s breath condensing in the cool morning air. The ridge tops looked like slumbering giants. As light broke, an endemic Spot-winged Thrush broke into song, its sweet melodic notes announcing another day. Perhaps we would have more luck in the morning. Our daytime target was a mixed species feeding flock.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is an Executive Director of one of Sri Lanka’s leading eco-tourism companies and the lead author of A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka and A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka. To subscribe to his ad hoc, e-mail based wildlife newsletter, contact him on gehan@jetwing.lk.