de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Time to Nest – Gehan’s Journal. Sunday Times Plus. April 23rd 2006.
On Monday 14th March, I found an e-mail from Bandara, one of two naturalists of the Hunas Falls Hotel. It was a small poster designed for the hotel notice board announcing the regular presence of Common Hawk Cuckoo and the endemic Ceylon Wood-pigen on the hotel premises. The third item was even more riveting. It announced that the Shaheen Falcons were nesting. To prove it, there was a picture of a Shaheen on its nest and another showing three eggs.
The Shaheen Falcon is one of the rarest resident Sri Lankan birds. A pair is usually seen around Sigiriya and Hunas. There are other regular sites, with characteristic steep cliff faces. Many a time I had watched them soaring around a sheer cliff face of 150 meters in height, on what is named the Shaheen Trail. With Lester Perera I had watched them at a distance from the balcony of the restaurant of the hotel. Lester commented the best chance of photographing them would be as and when a nest is discovered. At least 5 years had gone and no one had reported a nest although it was certain that the birds bred regularly on theses craggy cliffs.
Then, there was this e-mail from Bandara. The opportunity to observe a pair of nesting Shaheen Falcons was of great ornithological interest. With rare birds, it is even more important to understand their ecology, especially relating to their breeding for effective conservation measures to be implemented. I immediate got in touch with Kithsiri Gunwardana who had undertaken the first detailed observation of the nesting of Black Eagles. Information of the nest’s discovery had been communicated to him in confidence and he had undertaken what was a physically very demanding study, because of the nature of the nest site.
Kithisri who had just returned from Giritale forgot his fatigue and picked me up at five in the morning the next day, which was a Poya day, we had both set initially aside for spending with the family. At Hunas, we set off on the Shaheen Trail, with Bandara who had discovered the nest a few days ago. Kithsiri who is very knowledgeable on butterflies pointed out a Slate Flash and Dark Cerulean. I paused to photograph a female or immature dragonfly in the genus Anax. I will ask Karen Coniff or Matjaz Bedjanic to identify it and use it for a guide we are working on. A pair of male Lemon Emigrants whirled around a female. Both courting the female and both trying to fend off the other male. On the trail, we observed soil which had been excavated by Wild Pigs. Bandara had also come across the scales of a Pangolin. Muntjac are also found and later we hear two barking.
At the top of the crag, Bandara pointed out the nest. Over there he pointed. We could see nothing. A boulder by boulder commentary was called for and finally we noticed a bird that was near invisible. The nest was no nest at all. The female was brooding, seated on a small rocky ledge, less than a foot and a half in depth. An overhang gave it some shadow from the sun which at 11.00 am was overhead. The slate grey of its upperparts matched the colour of the boulders around it. One egg was outside. The nest was around 100m away from us. Far enough for the birds not to be disturbed by us.
To our concern one egg was away from the incubating bird. Had it rejected that egg? As time went by the female moved and we saw that one egg had hatched and a tiny chick covered in white down was present. Another egg was being incubated. Later on in the day, when it became cooler with cloud cover, she kept both eggs outside.
After a couple of hours the male arrived with some food. The female ate and also regurgitated some food for the chick. She also seemed to feed it slivers from the bird that had been brought by the male. The pair did not spend much time together. The male flew away. Bandara was used to seeing the birds in the thicket of conifers where we were and he located the male perched about thirty meters from us. I edged into view and began photographing. Although Bandara was used to visitors approaching the bird closer, we decided as the birds were breeding and to avoid any risk of disturbance, we should give the perched bird a lot of room. Nevertheless, to be within 20 meters of a perched Shaheen falcon was just unbelievable.
Around noon it was quiet. The male had flown away. The female covered the chick but kept the remaining two eggs out. Lunch was nearly forgotten, but Bandara obligingly departed to fetch some club sandwiches and a flask of coffee from the hotel. Around 4.15pm the male returned with more prey. The female and male did a few fly bys before the female settled back on the nest. The Shaheen looks and flies like a combat aircraft. An arrowhead of slate grey hurtles across the sky, sometimes with an audible swish. It is the fastest flier in the world of birds. We noticed that the birds would rocket over the nest a couple of times, then drop down and rise up the cliff face and approach the nest. Birds usually scout around the nest for danger before approaching. The Shaheens were quite fearless and we watched the male dive bomb a Serpent Eagle which approached too close. The Serpent Eagle is several times the size of the Shaheen, but nowhere near as adroit in the air.
The male who was clearly used to walkers coming up from the hotel, once again perched about 20 meters from us. Kithisiri and I both set up our tripods from where we were, without attempting to get any closer. As we had to shoot between the trees, there was just one narrow line of sight between the foliage. Kithsiri and I were literally cheek to cheek as we photographed the male. Keeping our distance paid off. The male began to doze off. Around 6.15 pm, the male flew off again and with half on hour’s light left we began our descent. The Otter was not on the lake as I had hoped, but a Brown Mongoose was inspecting the flower beds for prey. Once again, the Brown Mongoose gave me the slip.
Postcript: The chick was lost to natural predators a few days later. A forest fire burnt the grassland near the next. The falcons abandoned the nest. The window for viewing was open for a very brief interval.
Gehan’s Journal is an ad hoc series of lightly edited extracts from the ‘on the hoof’ notes maintained on his laptop by writer and photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (gehan@jetwing.lk)