Quest for Nature Trip, 3rd October to 14th October 2009
Sri Lanka Tour leader ‘Wicky’ Wickramasekera (Jetwing Eco Holidays), Guest dragonfly expert Karen Conniff and Quest for Nature Guide Dan Powell
Saturday October 3th – Talangama – Villa Talangama
We met briefly at Villa Talangama in the red glow of a stormy sunset. We agreed to meet early the next morning so that everyone could eat and go to bed after their long flight. Denise and Andy were back for a second tour and I was happy to see them and made it my personal challenge to show them some new dragonflies and new territory. I was happy to finally meet Rosie and Dan Powell, the Quest for Nature leader. After wishing Andy an un-happy birthday – since he was not going to celebrate or even discuss it, I went home to see what else I could throw into the van.
Sunday October 4th – Talangama, Bodhinagala, Sinharaja – Martin’s Simple Lodge
We met up again in the morning ready to see some rainforests. We had a short delay since Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (CEO, Jetwing Eco Holidays) was there to meet the group and show everyone a few endemic birds. However, we were diverted from birds by a water snake Andy was lifting from a small drain next to Villa Talangama and then someone noticed a special endemic, newly emerged, on the plants above the drain with an unusual name, the Transvestite Clubtail (Cyclogomphus gynostylus). This happened to be one of the top on Dan’s list to see (I think it was partly due to the name). The drain also had two other local endemics, Adam’s Gem (Libellago adami) and Stripe-headed Threadtail (Prodasineura sita). With Wicky at the wheel, we departed, heading for Bodhinagala. We made one brief stop at the local bathing well to see Yellow Featherleg (Copera arginipes). Bodhinagala rainforest is protected by Buddhist monks that meditate in the upper reaches of the forest. It is famous among birders for endemic species such as the endemic Green-billed Coucal and soon to be famous for endemic Platysticta and Drepanosticta damselflies that we were able to find along the small path leading to a bathing tank. On the way Denise stopped to photograph Nietner’s Shadowdamsel (Drepansticta nietneri) at a small stream in the rainforest when a Millard’s Hump-nosed Pit Viper (Hypnale nepa) was spotted in the leaves next to her foot!
The road to Sinharaja rainforest, a World Heritage Site, is not a pretty sight these days, however the surroundings are fantastic and worth the bone jarring drive. Martin’s Forest Lodge is situated right next to the entrance and we arrived in time to have a late lunch. The view and the sounds were begging for attention. As soon as lunch was finished we got our gear out and went directly into the forest. It gets dark quickly in the forest and at this time it was also relatively quiet. We moved at a slow pace and spotted a few more birds and various other creatures as the light faded. No damsel or dragonflies were found; I was worried. The calm weather and lack of rain had made no difference to the leeches that quickly introduced themselves. I just hoped the dragonflies would show themselves. Andy disappeared before dinner we wondered where he had gone. Denise was not too worried but we still called out into the night for him. It was worth the wait. He showed up with a good story and a photo of the mid-section of a Sri Lanka Krait (Bungarus ceylonicus) on his camera. It seemed he had trouble holding his snake-stick, torch, and camera all at the same time. Naturally, this made him late for dinner.
Monday October 5th Sinharaja – Martin’s Simple Lodge
As we ate breakfast a group of six Sri Lanka Blue Magpies showed up to groom and call from the trees around Martin’s Lodge. I got that anxious feeling again when Rosie showed up with a knee brace on, but she assured me it was not a problem. We slowly started out into the forest and that would be the pace for the whole day. It was one of the slowest walks I have ever had; it took 4 hours to walk from Martin’s to the Research station a distance of 3 Km. A few dragonflies appeared along the edge of the road, ones that are common most places, Asian Pintail (Acisoma panorpoides), Marsh Skimmer (Orthetrum luzonicum) and Shinning Gossamerwing (Euphaea splendens). We had to really search for it but we did find a newly described species Corbet’s Gem (Libellago corbeti). It was perched on the tip top of some leafless branches (a typical location for them). In the distance above the small stream next to the entrance of the park we sighted a large Gomphid flying just above eye level. It was not too difficult, with binoculars, due to the size and coloration to determine that this was a Sri Lanka Giant Clubtail (Megalgomphus ceylonicus).
Then again after some searching Fruhstorfer’s Junglewatcher (Hylaeothemis fruhstorferi) showed up. It seemed a struggle to find these dragonflies, but they were some of the best to be found in terms of rarity and endemicity. The rest of the walk was fairly uneventful (slow) with a long stop to watch the endemic Sri Lanka Keelback water snake (Xenochrophis asperrimus) at the fish pond. Andy found a Green Pit viper not a new one for him but always a thrill to find one because they are so well camouflaged. Back for a late lunch, again, and a short rest. We decided since we had so thoroughly and slowly walked through the park we would go to the visitor center for the afternoon. Sometimes we find damselflies there that we would not see in the main forest, but again it was slow but not by walking by dragonfly activity. Oh well…
Tuesday October 6th Sinharaja, Kitulgala, Mahabage – Royal River Resort
Rosie is now with one crutch and I feel sorry for her because we will do a lot of walking. We pack up head up to the visitor’s center one more time to see if we had missed anything the previous evening. Instead of dragonflies we locate a feeding flock with fantastic views of Malabar trogons. By then time is passing and we still need to walk to the van at the bottom of the road. We quickly scanned the visitor center pond for activity, returned to Martin’s to load the jeep and prepared to walk to our van. It was slow with Rosie managing on a crutch and the road is awful – really awful and hard for people with two good knees.
We had become used to looking for reptiles. Andy usually showed up with a vine snakes or tree snake but then one more hump-nosed pit viper showed up in the small stream beside the road. We also found one Blurry Forest Damsel (Platysticta maculata). I had hopes for good activity at the pond next to the new entry gate. In the past this pond has been bustling with dragonflies. Wrong again, we only found Indigo Dropwing (Trithemis festiva), Burmeister’s Glider (Tramea basilaris burmeisteri) and Sri Lanka Cascaders (Zygonyx iris ceylonicus). It was again a slow morning for dragonflies and humans. We continued on to the gate and into the van for the drive to Kitulgala.
It was another late lunch when we arrived at Plantation House situated on the scenic Kelani River. The weather was still good, but the dragonfly sightings were not as numerous as in the past. We headed up to Royal River Resort a lovely small hotel perched on the Ing Oya about 2Km from Beli Lena cave, an ancient man site. The swimming pool was the therapy that Rosie needed for her bad knee and soon everyone was in the water.
Wednesday October 7th Mahabage – Royal River Resort
We spent the morning above the hotel on a small scenic section of the Ing Oya. We had some good dragonfly sightings here. Henry’s Brook Hooktail (Paragomphus henryi), Red-striped, Jungle and Dark Glittering Threadtails (Elattoneura tenax, caesia, and centralis), Nietner’s Shadow Damsel (Drepanosticta nietneri), Wijaya’s Forktail (Microgomphus wijaya), Ultima gem (Libellago finalis), and several other more common Skimmers (Orthetrum species) were found. It was a good morning with high quality sightings. Gehan was again on the move and met us for lunch with Gangath Weerasinghe, Paramie Perera and Luka Alagiyawanna from his team from the Jetwing office. We strolled toward the Beli Lena caves with them and kept an eye on Rosie’s bad knee, thinking the road would be easier. Andy, turning over rocks as usual, came up something I have never seen before – a Three Toed Snake Skink (Nessia burtonii) and a pair of angry blue back scorpions ready for battle. Denise found a lovely black and red spider that would be a great Halloween photo decoration for her shop. Another swim in the cold hotel pool and a noisy evening next to the river ended a great day.
Thursday October 8th Mahabage, Lakshapana, Nuwara Eliya – St. Andrew’s Hotel
There was a light rain in the morning. We set off quickly after breakfast so that we could cover some new territory – to fill my promise to Andy and Denise. We took a different route to Nuwara Eliya via Lakshapana, where one finds the 7th tallest waterfall in Sri Lanka (126 meters) and a new endemic Platysticta sp. The trip was lovely with some new sights, a Corrugated Frog, a new Shield-tail snake (Uropeltidae sp.) for Andy and the new Platysticta species. It was just a short detour and we ended up at Nuwara Eliya for a late lunch, again. An afternoon stroll in Victoria Park at Nuwara Eliya is tradition for our tour and we have always had our first view of the Mountain Reedling (Indolestes gracilis), this one did not disappoint us. We found plenty around the pond in the park. Wicky said this was the perfect time (dusk) to go to a nearby jungle/forest just outside of Nuwara Eliya to look for the Ceylon Whistling Thrush. Rosie’s knee was not in shape to go down the steep path in the dusky light and Denise and I felt it was best to wait with Rosie plus the path was not appealing. We were entertained while we waited by a lovely yellow eared bulbul and a vegetable seller that was equally entertained by us. The thrush was heard and spotted so it was a good trip for everyone.
Friday October 9th Nuwara Eliya, Hakgala Gardens – St Andrew’s Hotel
Our day was spent at Hakgala Botanical Gardens (27ha) located within the Hakgala Strict Natural Reserve. The gardens are famous for many reasons including the huge rock sitting above the gardens is supposedly the site where King Rawana held Sita captive according to the Ramayana an Indian epic; and it was established in 1860 as an experimental Cinchona plantation from which the anti-malarial drug quinine is derived. We decided not to rush things here since there was so much to see in these amazing gardens. To begin with the ponds gave great views of Fiery Emperors (Anax immaculifrons), Mountain Reedlings, Red-veined Darter (Sympetrum fonscolombii) and Triangle Skimmers (Orthetrum triangulare). The garden is home to several endemic bird and reptile species which thrive in the impressive collection of trees from around the world. Wicky was locating the Yellow Eared Bulbul and I hunted for Rhino-horned Lizards which are supposed to be found there. After searching without success I found Andy and asked if he had seen any. Well, he immediately produced a male and a female that were so docile I could have photographed them for hours. After lunch and a short rest we had an afternoon stroll to an area above St. Andrews Hotel. There was not much happening there except for a few lovely amphibians but it was getting late and (I thought) rather cold.
Saturday October 10th – Nuwara Eliya, Kotemale, Kandy, Hunas Falls Hotel
While waiting for Wicky to bring the van someone pointed out a Black-lipped Lizard (Calotes nigrilabris) on a tree in front of St. Andrews Hotel. Again trying to change the tour routine for Andy and Denise we drove to Kandy via Kotmale. Wicky said it was a bit tricky since part of the road is under strict security. We still managed to hop out and look around interesting streams and drains on the way. At one of these stops Andy found some great and first time views for us of two Worm Snakes (Typhlops sp). Dan found another Brook Hooktail (Paragomphus henryi) in the security zone and was busy photographing it when we decided we might be attracting too much attention. Arriving in Kandy again at lunch time we decided to skip the Peradeniya Botanical Garden for the Temple of the Tooth. Dan and Rosie wanted to go have a quick trip to the temple, while Denise, Andy and I went to the lake. A few photographs later Dan and Rosie returned and we went headed up to Hunas Falls Hotel. We stopped first at the tiny golf course at the entry to the hotel and did not see much in the way of dragonflies or snakes. Wicky showed us the Ceylon Small Barbet before we went on to sign in at the hotel. Before dinner Andy and Denise had already found a several geckos including the Kandian Gecko, Spotted Bowfinger Gecko, and Rough Bellied Gecko.
Sunday October 11th Hunas Falls grounds, Elkaduwa – Hunas Falls Hotel
We started the day next walking around the lake and up the path to the waterfall behind the hotel. The trip to the waterfall didn’t even locate one Gem. We circled around through the top of the forest where Andy was busy moving stones and produced another Spotted Bowfinger gecko (Geckoella triedra). More first time events were in store – these included a Caecelian, and Spotted Supple Skink that Andy found plus a female Yerbury’s Elf (Tetrathemis yerburyi) next to the lake at the hotel. We continued on to the bridge toward the waterfall end of the lake and found a mating pair of Yerbury’s Elf with the female ovipositing light orange colored eggs on stick in front of us. It was a decent morning after all.
Above Hunas Falls Hotel is Simpson’s Forest Trail, during past tours we have taken a long walk along this road. Still trying to diversity the trip and with Rosie’s knee problem we decided to drive toward Elkaduwa for the afternoon. My goal was to find a Mountain Shadowdamsel (Drepanosticta montana). We started out after lunch driving slowly and checking the various drains along the way. Butterflies were numerous, Red Pierrot, Blue Mormon, and Danaid Eggfly to mention a few of the more spectacular. Again disappointed by the lack of dragonflies, I decided to walk down the road and check the small drains beside the road. Finally, at a rather dirty area next to tea plant and with lots of human activity I found several Mountain Shadowdamsels and a perfectly posed Blue Mormon. We were driving back when a small barking deer jumped in front of the car.
Monday October 12th Hunas Falls, Dambulla – Amaya Lake Resort
Driving from Hunas Falls toward the dry zone we pass the Sudu Oya, a muddy river above Matale. Rains have become so unreliable the farmers here have given up planting rice here. It was their paddy fields that have given us wonder busy dragonfly activity in the past. Still with a bit of luck and persistence we found what I was looking for – the Metallic-backed Reedlings (Indolestes divisus) and Paddyfield Parasols (Neurothemis intermedia), and Pruinosed Bloodtail (Lathrecista asiatica). We needed refreshment after that and Wicky found a King Coconut stand on the road to Amaya Lake Resort in Dambulla.
We thankfully just missed a huge political gathering next to the Kandalama tank as we pulled into the Amaya Lake Resort. It is a large area with lots of endemic medicinal trees – good habitat for birds and butterflies. There are many tanks (reservoirs) new and old surrounding ancient Sigiryria that have been continuously used for hundreds of years for agriculture. Sadly, delayed rain gave us only dried up mud in these old tanks. We went to one of the bigger tanks that surely would have some water in it. Well some water but not the usual amount. It was not a tremendous success. We saw many of the more common dragonflies and one new one for our list the Blue Percher (Diplacodes trivialis). That night Andy and Denise found another new gecko, a Termite-hill Gecko (Hemidactylus triedrus lankae). I asked how he found it and he said he just stuck his hand down inside the termite mound – it is no wonder I have never found one before.
Tuesday October 13th Dambulla, Vil Uyana, Minneriya Tank Reserve, Amaya Lake Resort
Gehan and Gananath from Jetwing Eco Holidays was again in range and able to meet us at Jetwing Vil Uyana, a special hotel within a wetland agricultural environment. We met him and several other naturalists to have a walk along the paths looking for anything flying or crawling around in the marshes and water ways at the hotel. We found two large species there the Blue-eyed Pond Cruiser (Epophthalmia vittata cyanocephala) and Rapacious Flangetail (Ictinogomphus rapax).
Next we went as a group to a tank nearby. The dragonfly display was pretty good considering the low water conditions. Here we found the usual pond taxa Lillysquatter, Waxtails, and Sprites (Paracercion, Ceriagrion and Pseudagrion). We took time to watch many wading birds then decided to move on to Sigiriya where the inner and outer moats are good places visit. The water level in the moat was low and in some places completely dry. The species from 2008 were not there this time, but there were other things to find such as the crocodile Andy spotted in one section of the moat that still had some water. No wonder they have no swimming signs up – they just don’t say why! The outer moat had water in it and some lovely butterflies and good dragonflies for us to find. One that is reliably found there is the Dancing Dropwing (Trithemis pallidinervis).
The afternoon was special for everyone, a new detail in the tour, elephant watching. This time it was fortunate the rains were late because it meant that the Elephants had stayed on longer at Minneriya National Wildlife Park, where they could find water and food. Our first elephant group was having a bath and there were several babies and younger ones rolling around and submerging themselves with only their truck above water. The next group was moving slowly across an open area from the scrub jungle toward the tank. We parked as they quietly advanced, eating, tossing dirt onto their backs, and making the low humming pleasing sound elephants make when they are content. It was sunset and magical with the fading light and tranquilly swaying elephants grazing beside us. It was hard to leave such an amazing scene.
Wednesday October 14th Dambulla, Arankele, Kurunegalla, Wariapola, Negombo – Blue Oceanic Hotel
We left Dambulla early trying to get to Arankele earlier than we have in the past. The dry season was hard on this area too. The small tank, originally a bathing pool, located in the center of the ruins was dry, and even though it had rained in Dabulla the previous evening it must have soaked through the upper layers. Last year it was dry but had a small amount of water but this year it was bone dry. The main goal was to find the Indian Rockdweller or Granite Ghost (Bradinophyga geminata), since this is the place where we always expect to see it. We searched and searched and had no luck. There was no point in spending more time there.
Keeping in mind the objective I set to show Andy and Denise some new territory I called a friend with a coconut estate near Kurunegala to see if they had any water in their tank. Their home garden is a butterfly paradise and carefully cultivated to keep it that way. I knew it would be a great opportunity for them to see this wonderful place. I was lucky; they were home and said a visit was fine. We bought our lunch in Kurunegala and took it along to eat on their porch. When we arrived we had a problem getting through the mass of butterflies to eat on their porch. Everyone got out their cameras and forgot about food. Eventually, lunch was accomplished and we had to move on. As we said good bye and gave our thanks for such a great visit Rosie looked on the cement column next to the gate and found….. the Indian Rockdweller! A farewell present for all of us.
Driving to Negombo we tried a few ponds but the light was not great and we gave up. The last entry on the list was still the Rockdweller. We arrived at the Jetwing Blue Oceanic beach hotel where my husband would meet us for one last meal together. I am fairly sure I will see Andy and Denise again; I know they can find more snakes and geckos. It was a great pleasure work with Dan and Rosie. I hope to see them again next year with another group.
Again, I gained as much as everyone else did from the trip. It was sharing our mutual and diverse interests that made this trip so motivating and produced some of the best sighting Sri Lanka has to offer both above and below the ground. I had many firsts on this trip. I want to thank everyone for their individual and collective contributions to the success of the trip. My special thanks go to Wicky, who had to do it all, drive, spot birds, keep everyone fed and happy – he did a wonderful job.
Odoanta = 71 Endemics = 30
Birds = 159 Endemics = 26
Butterflies = 65 I am sure there were many more tiny ceruleans that we missed.
Mammals = 16
Reptiles = 29 We will expand the list for next year – many were not on the ID sheet.
Amphibians = 14 (minimum)
This year Andy made an effort to identify them and it made a big difference. Next year we will add more names to the list.
Fish = lots but identification of individual species was not possible. I hope someone comes out with a good ID guide.
Crabs & Snails = again lots of crabs all are endemic to Sri Lanka but individual species were not identified – anyone interested in producing a guide?
Moths = lots but no key for identification.
Miscellaneous Insects = Cicadas, grasshoppers, fireflies, praying mantis, millipedes, scorpions, crickets, flat worms.
Leeches – not so bad this year – well behaved leeches.
Most common – We saw the Indian Palm squirrel, White Four-ring and Common Sailor Butterflies every day. The Indian Swiftlet and Oriental Magpie Robin were seen almost every day but one.