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A GLIMPSE INTO THE FEATHERED FLOCKS OF SRI LANKA...

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Birding begins now. If you are looking for that ideal location to spot as many birds in a season then, with binoculars in hand, and with the support of an experienced a good bird and wildlife team, you will be amazed by the variety of Sri Lanka’s avian species.

 

They conquer the vast space above, endless and wide, and only they know all the secrets of being airborne. They need no via to travel to any continent around the globe. Alive, in every corner, in every place imaginable, able to withstand extreme conditions of the coldest northern pole to the hottest desserts, and the highest mountain ranges. It is their interminable flight, across unimaginable distances, not a mile or two but tens of thousands of miles across the earth each year, landing precisely on the exact same location with pin point accuracy, navigating better than any human device ever created, that alerts us to the beginning of yet another birding season.

Sky is the limit to these avian heroes where the island of Sri Lanka is home to 237 resident birds, with a further 216 recorded as being purely migratory. Thirty-four of the residents, vibrantly plumed and awkwardly dressed, are found only in Sri Lanka.

The shores of the dry coastal lowlands are inhabited by a plethora of shorebirds in millions, from sandpipers, to sand plovers, redshanks, greenshanks. The glimpse of rare winter visitors such as the Great Knot and the Red Knot will add sheer delight signalling good season for a birder. The migratory season also heralds the arrival of those inland species to the high altitudes. Especially the Indian Pitta, Indian Blue Robin, Pied Thrush, Orange Headed Brown Thrush, and the Kashmir flycatcher. About 90 percent of the total population of the latter which migrates from the Kashmir region, flies to Sri Lanka while the rest stop in the Western Ghats of India. They are a Globally Threatened species that’s a beauty to watch.

Rosy Starlings too migrate in large groups that cloud the skies and can easily be sighted in the drier parts of the Island. The Greater Flamingos fly here each year in their thousands. Now very rare in the south-eastern and the earstern coasts, this bird has become common in the northern parts of the island.

The forest cover of Sri Pada is the only location in Sri Lanka where one can watch all the endemics in one place. The Sinharaja Forest is perhaps one of the ideal location to see many lowland rain forest endemics and large groups of birds ‘flock feeding’. With the high pitched loud whistles of the team leader and the greatest of deceivers able to mimic the calls of other birds and mammals is the ‘Crested Drongo’. Some flocks may even have as many as one hundred individuals in a group.

Speaking of color, tiny hot red feathers closely patched on its face, as if masked with black and white body is a rare beauty found in the wet and the dry zone and riverine forests and known as the ‘Red faced Malkoha’. The ‘Sri Lankan Blue magpie’ is no exception with its red beak, and red eye-ring, blue plumes all over, and its tail feathers edged as if laced call not altogether a melodious one.

Another shy endemic bird, the ‘Spur fowl’,will be heard more often than seen. A birder’s dream while in this mesmerizing island, is to catch a glimpse of the endemic owls that loom the night skies, especially the very rare, recently described Serendib Scops Owl, and the Chestnut back owlet. The tiny intriguing parrot hanging upside down, the smallest of them all, the ‘Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot’, is indeed a magical beauty that roams commonly in the wet zone.

Each bird’s dress code is uniquely fashioned with a beak or a bill with those of the Upper and Lower Mandibles tailor made to suit their needs. Some remarkable works of wonder are those that are acquired by the Flamingo to feed on algae. From the Spoonbills, Hornbills, and Openbills, to the Woodpeckers, Kingfishers and the Flowerpeckers, their bills are all different. Those of the flycatchers and bee-eaters, as the name implies feed on flying insects, are like chopsticks snatching on files and bees. And that unique bill of the endemic ‘Grey-Hornbill’ can crack the hardest of fruits.

The birds of prey that hover in the skies from the smallest ‘Besra’ to the largest Black eagle, flying high up with the thermal currents looking way down below for a meal to prey on, are nature’s machines well built for the hunt. The Black-necked Stork is the largest of all Sri Lankan birds as it has the longest body length. To spot one is a tough job as their population is very low and can only be found in the south-east coastal region.

In Kurunegala we once observed ‘Brood Parasitism’ first hand. It was an unbelievable sight. A mother babbler feeding an altogether different species, a chick ‘Hawk Cuckoo’ much larger than its own size. Not only the mother but the members in the flock all teamed in to feed a never ending hungry gigantic baby. Little did they know that they have been deceived by a Hawk Cuckoo who had laid its egg in their nest, and the chick hawk cuckoo in turn pushed away all the babbler eggs and survived to be protected by Babbles. In yet another instance the ‘Hill mynah’ which is responsible for that high pitched very loud piercing vocalization of the high altitudes, with yellow wattkes, was for the first time observed to be feeding their chicks not with fruits but with a feast of lizards, frogs and geckos.

For millions of years these avian heroes have conquered the skies, dispersing seeds, pollinating, and controlling pests for us as bio indicators, indicating seasonal changes, and habitat changes, and acting as climatic parameters. May they survive for millions of years more!

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