de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). The Pitfalls of Birding. Living. March-April 2006. Page 96-97.
In search of a shy and simple bird, Gehan is side tracked by a subtle yet confident reptile.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne avoids a Pit Viper in the search of the Scaly Thrush in Sinharaja
The Hump-nosed Pit Viper lay on the damp, leaf litter strewn ground beside a small footpath. If it was lucky, a small rodent may appear along on the path. Perhaps a small lizard or other animal on a nearby tree might catch its hungry attention. A ‘pit between its nose and eyes acted as a heat sensor allowing it to even locate warm blooded animals which was outside the line of sight. The heat seeking sensor is especially useful for an animal such as this which hunts at night. As it lay on the ground, it picked up vibrations. Heavy vibrations which announced the arrival of two warm blooded mammals coming along the path. Three had already passed worrying close. To the right of the approaching two, another of the large mammals was gingerly stepping through the undergrowth, occasionally pausing to pull off a leech, another animal which has evolved to detect its prey by sensing heat.
The Pit Viper flattened itself on the ground, merging invisibly against the leaf litter and twigs. Its earthy colours blended well. Two longitudinal stripes of dark flecks broke its outline. Its pronouncedly triangular head, with an up turned ‘hump nose’ with a dark line passing through the eye looked like a knot on a broken twig. The vibrations grew louder and louder as two pairs of feet approached it confidently. The mammal in front veered a bit to the left directly in line with where it lay, frozen still. It was at risk of being trodden upon. It could deliver a nasty bite. But for the Hump-nosed Pit Viper, avoiding death or injury by accident was more important. Just as one leg menacingly appeared over it, the viper hurled itself off the path and looped its body furiously to move a few feet away.
Not knowing that she had almost stepped on a viper, my colleague chose to pause and look ahead at that very moment. “Go forward, go forward” I yelled to Chandrika Maelge who could not understand the sudden urgency. “Viper on your left” I added. She understood and leapt. Minutes ago Tim, Wicky and Ratnasiri had passed though. Coming behind us was Carol and Chandrika, with me walking off the trail, hoping for a glimpse of the Scaly Thrush. The confidence of the viper was amazing as it had settled down again only a few feet away, trusting in its ability to lie camouflaged on the leaf litter. It lay still hoping we would not see it. We walked around it, admiring its pattern and marvelous cryptic camouflage. Seeing it in its natural habitat like this was a bonus. The viper was a consolation for having missed our target species for the day.
This area was good for a discrete, nondescript brown bird, the Ceylon Scaly Thrush. The epithet “Ceylon” was a recent addition in 2005 following the publication of The Ripley Guide: Birds of South Asia by Pamela Rasmussen and John Anderton. For many years the bird, our bird, was considered a sub-species or geographical race of the Scaly Thrush which is also found in mainland Asia. Many ornithologists had suspected that the bird in Sri Lanka was a different species. It differed in size and habits and vocalizations. The vocalizations of animals have become important to taxonomists in distinguishing species of animals. Pamela Rasmussen’s work was helped by the vocalizations of many birds in Sri Lanka having been recorded by Deepal Warakagoda. Ironically despite the scientific importance and non intrusive nature of sound recording, at the time of our visit, sound recording in Sinharaja had been banned. But that’s another story of officialdom over-reacting in a way which is self defeating.
We resumed the search for the ‘Scaly”. About fifteen minutes earlier, Wicky Wickremesekera with forest guide Ranjit Premasiri had encountered a Scaly Thrush at close range. While it preened for around five minutes, they had watched with Tim and Carol Inskipp. The Inskipps are two Britons famous in the birding literature of the Indian Subcontinent. They are two of the three authors of Birds of the Indian Subcontinent published by A & C Black which has spawned a series of smaller titles. Carol Inskipp is also the author A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Nepal. The Inskipps were on their first visit to Sri Lanka on a nineteen day birding tour. The previous night at Martin’s had seemed like a birding convocation. Marianne Taylor from Birdwatch magazine was on a tightly focused endemic birds tour with Hetti to research an article on Sri Lanka. Deepal Warakagoda, the discoverer of the Serendib Scops Owl was there to take Keith Betton, on an owling session. Keith is an avid birder and the spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). The Sri Lanka Tourist Board had invited him to take a first hand look at Sri Lanka one year after the Tsunami. Not surprisingly Keith could not resist setting aside a day to go in search of one of Sinharaja’s elusive nocturnal birds.
We had started off that morning, breaking up into little groups as we walked the old logging road, which provides access to the interior. A crash in the branches above alerted us to the southern race of the endemic Purple-faced Leaf monkey. The pale rump and sides to the rear legs and the pale tail was striking. A feature which is not so marked in the other three races. A feeding flock crossed the road. Wicky decided to press on with the Inskipps as they had already cleaned up on most of the endemics. I was distracted and delayed. An error of a few minutes which subsequently cost me a good sighting of the Scaly Thrush. But I was not too worried. The Hump-nosed Pit Viper was a good alternative. I will be back for the Scaly Thrush. But next time, I will pay more attention to the forest floor.

Averaging weekly media appearances, Gehan is a well known writer, photographer, wildlife populariser and tourism personality. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.