Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne Horton Plains


Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne Horton Plains

This is a report from a press trip run by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Wicky Wickremsekera, Jetwing St Andrews Naturalist Nadeera Weerasinghe with Ifham Nizam (Island) and Faye Ruck-Nightingale (writer and photographer).

Tuesday 18th June 2009.
We left Jetwing St Andrews Hotel at 6.00am. Near Ambewela Farm, a flock of 3 Velvet-fronted Nuthatches passed through and I had a chance of taking some hand held grab shots.

Near the Arrenga pool we heard a bird wave. The core was a flock of Ceylon Rufous Babblers. There were more than ten. Accompanying them was a pair of Ceylon Scimitar-babblers. Their bubbling calls carried through the mist swirling mist. The bird wave passed through a territory of a small flock of Dark-fronted Babblers. Loosely associating with the bird wave were Ceylon Hill-white-eyes and a Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher (heard). A Common Tailorbird and a Ceylon Bush-warbler were also present but perhaps not moving with the flock. Other birds seen or heard included Yellow-eared Bulbul (h), Dull-blue Flycatcher (h). On the grasslands we had Indian Pipit and Zitting Cisticola. Hawking overhead were Indian Swiftlet and Hill Swallow.

We also had our first observation of Black-headed Munias in the park. We saw a pair on the plains.

One Sambar near the dormitory was in velvet. One male on the plains guarded a harem of 7 females and spent some time with its tail raised, looking away. We were not sure if it was responding to a predator or another male. Much later at another location we heard the Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys uttering a brief alarm call.

The others glimpsed a Stripe-necked Mongoose which was beside the road.

The park staff seem to come across leopard sightings every few days. Ruwan who was previously at Bundala had photographed a leopard with his mobile phone on Monday 15 June 2009 and we saw the pictures.

Around 9.30 am it was cold and drizzly and we decided after a cup of tea to take the road towards Anderson Lodge (Ginihiriya). The weather cleared and we noticed a lot of Tawny Costers and Ceylon Treebrowns on the wing. I have never seen so many Ceylon Treebrowns, an endemic butterfly. One pair were photographed mating on the road. Nadeera saw a Banded Peacock. We also had Bluebottle, a possible Painted Lady and what was probably an Albatross.

The pools on the plateau besides the B512 were investigated  by us. We saw 2 male Red-veined Darters (Sympetrum fonscolombii). A species confined to the highlands in Sri Lanka but also found in Europe. Near the Ginihiriya Lodge, a large dragonfly hawked in the air. We suspect it was a Fiery Emperor (Anax immaculifrons).
Finally when we left the park it was around 2.30pm.

Monday 17 June 2009
We had arrived at Jetwing St Andrews Hotel close to 3 pm. On arrival at the hotel, we encountered a flock of the endemic Ceylon White-eye with a pair of Great Tits. I photographed them and a male Oriental Magpie-robin. I could hear Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes calling. We then drove up to the Horton Plains National Park gate after lunch.

The last tickets are issued at 4.00 pm. Nevertheless we decided to drive up to the ticketed gate so that we could take in the montane wildlife. We left the hotel around 4.15pm. Just before the milk factory which sells yoghurt, we saw 3 Purple-faced Leaf Monkey. Two were mothers with very young. This is a reliable site for the leaf monkeys. Prior to this, by 5pm or so we reached the Ambewela Cattle Farm. We saw 5 Red-wattled Lapwings. They were on some grassy fields which had been freshly dug. I noticed many fields were now brown fields. I suspect they have been dug to re-plant.

Nadeera, Wicky and I have no recollection of seeing Red-wattled Lapwings this high before. I wonder whether this could be part of a gradual range extension altitudinally upwards. There were also 90+ Cattle Egrets on the fields. We took the trouble to count them as it would be useful to monitor if we are seeing a altitudinal range extension of these birds as well. I am still not seeing them on Horton Plains (others have recorded them) which has Sambar and similar conditions to the fields at the Ambewela Cattle Farm.

We stopped at a bend which has a nice view point of the cloud forest below. This is before the 22 km post of the B512 which runs through the park. Around 6.15pm we heard an Arrenga utter its screeching call close to us. Both the male and female were seen at close quarters as they actively moved in and out of the foliage. At one time the female flew up to a line of small trees that were about 8 feet in height and moved through the crown.

(The Arrenga or Ceylon Whistling-thrush is confined to cloud forests in Sri Lanka. Horton Plains National park and other cloud forests around Nuwara Eliya is its main stronghold).

The mist was writhing and swirling and travelling at great speed. Patches of sunlight would open and close in a matter of seconds. I don’t recollect watching mist or low flying clouds scudding along at such speed before. It could be the South-west Monsoon which is carrying the clouds at speed. The endemic Rhododendron seems to be in the peak of flowering.

After sunset we listened for nocturnal animals and heard none. It was windy and cold. We passed a few Black-naped Hares. At the Ambewela Cattle Farm we looked out for Barking Deer (Muntjac). One animal was standing besides the road and we had good views. It was the first sighting for Wicky in this area and the third or so for Nadeera.