Monday, February 27, 2017

Sri Lanka: Part 2 (The Hill Country)

I'm afraid the clock just keeps tickin' while work and play keeps me busy. That means 'Part 2' of our Sri Lanka honeymoon will be fairly abbreviated, even by my standards. We last left off in central Sri Lanka, at the famous Sigiriya Rock. This chapter sees us travel south into the hill country of Sri Lanka, and eventually up to some of the highest plateaus where misty mountains are cloaked in tea plantations and the odd bit of native bush with a bird or two.

After meeting our new driver, 'Sasi,' (Who turned out to be an awesome guy--wish he could have been with us for the entire trip!), we headed SW to the nearby city of Dambulla. Here, as you can see, is the famous 'Golden Temple.' This Buddha is massive (See the guy at the bottom of the stairs) as are the fake lotus flowers that line the building. Tacky or not, it is a spectacle, but it's not even the most famous landmark here! Up on the ridge to the right, after a sweaty climb, are a series of ancient cave temples with some incredible artwork and... yep more Buddhas!

After a lunch break, Sasi took us to this lovely temple--Nalanda Gedige (I've cropped out all the construction signs) which is surrounded by a lake. This structure was built in the 8th century by in the Dravidian style by Hindus but was later used (and still is) as a Buddhist temple. In this part of Sri Lanka it is actually quite common for the 4 main faiths (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity) to share buildings or Holy sites, and the locals seem quite proud of this diversity and tolerance. Many foreigners, myself included, would find this surprising given the decades of violence between Hindu Tamils in the north and the ruling (mostly Buddhist) Sinhalese. Fun fact though, there are actually more Muslims in Sri Lanka than Hindus. Anyway, back to this lovely place of tranquility, its other claim to fame is that it has the only example of Tantric art in Sri Lanka (You know... Kama Sutra-type stuff). Before you get excited though, the rock carvings are so old and weathered it's pretty hard to tell what is going on. 
Birds were doing their thing around the temple. Our only Green Warblers of the trip were here; Black-hooded Orioles were conspicuous, and this Yellow-billed Babbler popped up for the camera.

There were 3 species of kingfisher in this tree: Stork-billed, Common, and this White-throated.

We rolled into Kandy in the afternoon. Known as Sri Lanka's "Second City" or "Cultural Capital" it was, for a time, the political capital of a short-lived kingdom that, among other things, tried unsuccessfully to resit British Imperialism. This is Kandy Lake, with the King's old boat house toward the right, and in behind this, is the famous "Temple of the Tooth"--one of the most sacred Buddhist locations in the world, as it allegedly houses one of Buddha's teeth. We happened to be visiting during a full moon festival, so the temple grounds were packed with white-dressed worshipers... and awkward tourists like us. 
A good profile comparison of Sri Lanka's two crow species: Large-billed (left) and House (right). According to the field guide, House Crow is only found on the coast, but there were easily over 1,000 roosting at Kandy Lake each evening so I think that needs updating!

A pair of crows inspect a row of 'tuk-tuks' (The main mode of transport in Sri Lanka). This is also a good example of the British colonial era buildings that can be found in most Sri Lankan cities.

Lisa walking toward the Temple of the Tooth. As Kandy is a little higher in elevation, the heat and humidity is a little more bearable than it was at Sigiriya and Dambulla. Another tidbit: To enter these holy sites, one must be covered on the shoulders and down toward the ankles (And when you get close to remove hats and shoes). Apparently my sarong-tying skills needed work as I was felt up many times by armed policemen, before being shown how to re-wrap. 

Looking back through the entrance of the Temple of the Tooth. How are we allowed in here during a Buddhist ceremony?

Somewhere within that golden door is a Russian-nesting doll-style set of chests, within lies one of Buddha's teeth. Flower offerings cloak the table in the foreground.

It is hard not to feel like you shouldn't be hear with so many devout Buddhists carrying out rituals such as meditation and prayer while you stride around in the same forum taking pictures. Here a loud guide speaks in Italian to her tour group while a number of East Asian pilgrims pray in what I like to call, "the golden elephant room."

This celtic cross appears out of place in bustling Kandy. A closer look reveals that it commemorates Sri Lanka's (Then British Ceylon) contributions in WWI. All of the names appeared English and Scottish--likely the sons of tea plantation owners.

This photo doesn't really do the place justice, but we really enjoyed visiting Udawatta Kele sanctuary in Kandy. This forest park covers a ridge directly behind the temple of the tooth, and though it is in the heart of the city, the only sounds you hear are from birds and monkeys, and the odd deer skittering away through dry leaves. This forest was originally a plantation to feed the kings elephants, then as the forest matured it became a favourite place for the royal family to stroll and bathe. Apparently Lord Horton (An early British Governor) had a wife who enjoyed taking the car out for a spit on bush tracks like this one. Birdlife encountered on our morning walk included seeing the endemic Layard's Parakeet, the Sri Lankan ssp. of Square-tailed (Black) Bulbul, great looks at White-rumped Shama and Brown-capped Babbler, as well as our first Pale-billed Flowerpecker.

In the afternoon on our second day in Kandy, we took a tuk-tuk out to the botanical gardens. This massive complex is well-worth the visit, though the only photos I took were of the resident flying-foxes. Apparently 24,000+ roost in the gardens daily!

I'm really speeding ahead here, but after a great 3 days in Kandy, we were tired of the exhaust fumes of the city--it was time to hit the real hills! Fortunately Sasi had agreed to take us to Nuwara Eliya where we would catch a train through the tea country to the small tourist town of Ella. Along the way he stopped to show us some large porcupine quills. Apparently Kandy has some very large porcupines that come out at night to chew on coconuts. 

Out first view of Sri Lanka's iconic tea! (And powerlines)

We arrived in Nuwara Eliya (Spelling always changes in Sri Lanka it seems) just before lunch. It was a cool day (Felt like under 10 degrees with the wind!) and not surprising as this is Sri Lanka's highest town. 

The post office, looking rather British. This was a favourite place for British tea workers to escape the Sri Lankan heat for a bit. The place is known for its misty hills, regular rain, AND it has a golf course and horse track (Rarities in this country). For birders it is famous for some Himalayan breeders that spend the winter at the local 'Victoria Park'--particularly Kashmir Flycatcher and Pied Thrush. Would we get them with only 1 hour to spare before the train?

Not a Kashmir Flycatcher, but still new for me--a Brown-breasted Flycatcher.

This is a juvenile Brown Shrike (Showing greyer cap and back) is of the 'Philippine' subspecies, which misleadingly breeds in NE China and Korea.

Aha! Male Pied Thrush (A member of the 'Turdus' genus, like American Robin and European Blackbird).

Another new one: This is a Sri Lankan White-eye. Sadly we dipped on the Kashmir Flycatcher but I did get my lifer Forest Wagtails which was majorly cool!

Wow, I'm skipping ahead. We ended up missing the first train, having a dodgy noodle lunch at a place called "The Muslin Hotel" which was basically a hole in the wall with food scraps and flies covering the floor, waited around for a bit, then eventually got on the next train for Ella. Wahoo! 

The Kandy--Ella train route is world-famous among train lovers. It's certainly scenic and because it lacks the safety measures of Canadian/NZ trains, you can hang out doorways and windows to your heart's content (If that's what you're into). Make sure you're on the faster blue trains though, as we found out--the red ones stop for 30-40 minutes at each station to wait for the other trains to pass. 

'Little Adams Peak' in the distance as we approach Ella. Tea tea everywhere

Ella turned out to be quite touristy indeed, sort of a mini Banff (or Queenstown for my NZ readers). But a bit of Western food for a change was kind of nice. The following morning we made the mandatory pilgrimage of 'Little Adams Peak' (a fake name for a local hill, referencing Sri Pada--or Adam's Peak--which is where some believe Adam first came down from the Garden of Eden. It's also a major Buddhist site as the Buddha himself stayed there for a time). Anyway, this place is still pretty cool as it offers 360 views of the surrounding tea country. Oh ya--and we had some great birds including the stonking Red-backed Flameback (As opposed to its coastal cousin that sports a golden back).

View from the top

After the hike we had breakfast on the third floor of our hotel--a great place to watch Sri Lankan Hanging Parrots feeding.

From Ella, we trained back to the small village of Ohiwa where a tuktuk driver took us over the hill, then down a very steep, switch-backy, very rough, track to the "Hill Safari Eco Lodge." This place is up around 2000m on a high plateau known as the "Horton Plains"--very Sri Lankan-sounding. The weather here is pretty much the same year-round. Cold clear  early mornings, warm sunny late mornings, then a thick fog comes up from the lowlands (as the tropical heat pushes moisture up) and cloaks these hills in thick cloud. When we arrive at Hill Safari (Which is on a large active tea plantation), the fog was so thick that visibility was less than 50 m). As dusk approached, the rain set in, apparently for the first time in 5 months, and dined with some Danes and Germans who lamented about the declining quality of Sri Lankan beer in recent years. The following morning we rose before dawn, and were driven by tuk-tuk (this time we could see how far down the drop was if we went off the road), to the entrance of Horton Plains National Park. This is a beautiful area of high country moorlands and rhododendron forest that is quite unlike the rest of Sri Lanka. As you can see from the photos, it bears a striking resemblance to the beech forests and tussock country of the South Island in NZ. As we approached the start of the park's famous hike "To World's End" we spotted several Sambar Deer, but sadly no leopards. 

As in NZ, this area suffers from invasive plant-species brought by the British--mainly gorse, blackberry, and a bracken fern. Intensive mangagement is starting to pay off though, and the native dwarf bamboo is making a comeback along creeks and small wetlands. There are several endemic birds found only in this small area--including the secretive Sri Lankan Whistling-Thrush (Which we did not see).

A female Pied Bushchat poses on one of the remaining gorse bushes.

This is called "Little World's End" though I thought this was just as impressive a few as "World's End." The clouds stretching out on the horizon hide the Sri Lankan coastline that is just over 100 km away.

A male Pied Bushchat in a rhodo. These birds are not shy. 

Paddyfield Pipit (I think)--and no I did not measure its hindclaw.

One of the better birds we 'found' on the trip. This Pallas's Grasshopper-Warbler is a fairly scarce migrant to Sri Lanka.

After our half-day hike in the park, we returned to the lodge for a relaxing afternoon. Here we see the place for the first time without fog (It covered the lodge about 1 minute after I took this photo). Birding highlight around the lodge was a female Kashmir Flycatcher--nice to get after dipping at Victoria Park. Other common birds in the tea bushes included Blyth's Reed-Warbler, Common Tailorbird, Ashy Prinia, and Pied Bushchat. 

The stunning view from the lodge (before 11am when the fog rolled in). Below you can see a Tamil village. These Tamil Hindus were brought over from India 100+ years ago to pick the tea. They are different to the Tamils in the north that have lived in Sri Lanka just as long as the Buddhist Sinhalese. Therefore you see a lot of Tamils in the central highlands of this country but they had no affiliation with the 'Tamil Tigers' movement.

So that was Part 2! Apologies for it being brief and kind of jumping around everywhere but that's all I have time for I'm afraid. Join me for Part 3 (At some point), for the final chapter where we visit some pristine jungle in Sinharaja to try to catch up on endemic birds and other jungle critters before hitting the coast for our final 4 days of the trip. Still lots of cool birds to come!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Sri Lanka: Part 1

Well I've finally found some time to sit down and get a blog organised. It's been a crazy summer, with nothing more amazing then January 7th, when I married my soulmate--the wonderful Lisa Jones (now Cannings)! After spending time with friends and family in NZ, we whisked ourselves away to the jewel of the Indian Ocean--Sri Lanka!

"So why Sri Lanka?" everyone asks. We don't really have an answer. There are so many places we want to visit, but since we only had two weeks, we figured Sri Lanka was a nice manageable size and we had heard it's a fairly laid-back country with an impressive mix of food, culture, nature, and beaches. We were not disappointed! 
A map of Sri Lanka. After flying into Negombo on the west coast, we roughly followed the yellow line into the north-central interior, then zigzagged south to the coast, before looping back up to Negombo. The green spots are roughly where we stayed along the way.

Our flight to Negombo (The main international airport, just north of the capital Colombo) was due in around midnight, so instead of paying for a hotel that we would only be spending a few hours in, we decided to arrange for a driver to meet us and take us inland since we had no desire to spend much time in the big city. As we dosed in the taxi, I caught gilmses of Sri Lanka outside in the darkness. It struck me how many people were out and about at such a late/early hour. We even passed a full-on funeral at 2 in the morning. Stray dogs trotted left and right, apparently unconcerned with the dangers of vehicle traffic (They're generally pretty safe in this largely Buddhist/Hindu country).

As we neared our accommodation in Sigiriya, a rural forested area with open patches of rice paddies and banana plantations, our driver warned us against walking on roads at night due to elephants. "Last week and Australian man tried to take a selfie... bad idea..." He pointed out tall electric fences on some stretches of road. While he seemed genuinely concerned as he navigated the narrower country roads (I suspect he's a bit more of a city guy, as locals do not worry about speeding around blind corners as we would soon discover), the excitement of being in a new and exotic place was really starting to hit me.

It was still indisputably dark when we arrived at our accommodation. Instead of knocking on the door, it seemed our driver was still worried about rogue elephants possibly being about so he instructed us to stay in the car while he contuously honked the car horn. This continued for about a minute or more (I'm sure the patrons appreciated this nocturnal chorus), until a sleepy-faced hotelier stumbled out of his quarters and greeted us. After checking in a supping our first Sri Lankan tea, we were shown to our room where we snoozed for another hour or two until dawn broke and I heard my first chorus of Sri Lankan birds. This is the excitement and frustration of forest birding in a new country--I hear them but what are they?!  Eventually birds like White-rumped Shama, Brown-capped Babbler, Dark-fronted Babbler, White-browed Bulbul, and White-browed Fantail showed themselves, and Sri Lanka Junglefowl (the national bird) and peacocks called from somewhere further back in the woods.

Sigiriya Rock rises from the forest and ancient water gardens below.
After breakfast we caught a ride in a tuktuk to the famous Sigiriya Rock. For some background, I've copied and pasted this from Wikipedia: 

Sigiriya or Sinhagiri (Sinhalese for ‘Lion Rock’, pronounced see-gi-ri-yə) is an ancient rock fortress located in the northern Matale District near the town of Dambulla in the Central Province, Sri Lanka. The name refers to a site of historical and archaeological significance that is dominated by a massive column of rock nearly 200 metres (660 ft) high. According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Culavamsa, this site was selected by King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) for his new capital. He built his palace on the top of this rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes. On a small plateau about halfway up the side of this rock he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion. The name of this place is derived from this structure —Sīhāgiri, the Lion Rock. The capital and the royal palace was abandoned after the king's death. It was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
Sigiriya today is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. It is one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning.

The White-throated Kingfisher is probably the most common of its family in Sri Lanka as I think we saw them on every day of the trip. This was my lifer though! It was keeping a watchful eye over the ancient watergardens of Sigiriya.
Toque Macaques... Anyone who has been to Asia knows not to trust these shifty fellows! Even with prior experience from Borneo, one of these guys still stole my samosa. I will get my revenge one day!

Starting the ascent up the north side of Sigiriya rock.
Not for those who are afraid of heights, though imagine how they must have got up before this staircase was put in!

Thankfully, no wasps detected, though apparently noisy Chinese tour groups are attacked multiple times a year according to a local taxi driver. Maybe they should add another language to the sign?

Looking south from the top. Ahh--shade!

Looking back down the front of the lion (Note the paws on either side of the staircase)

Not a great photo but what a great bird!!! Indian Paradise-flycatcher. This all-white version is the Indian subspecies which breeds on the continent and winters in Sri Lanka. An endemic subspecies that nests locally is rufous where this bird is white.

This is a lovely male Indian Robin; a common resident of dry woodlands in Sri Lanka
One of the most common winter migrants to dry forests of Sri Lanka (And much of SE Asia)--this Asian Brown Flycatcher looks a lot like our dull Empidonax flycatchers back in Canada.
After Sigiriya, we walked back to our accommodation and had a nap. In the afternoon we walked around some backroads nearby and discovered that old Buddhist temples are quite common in this area, as we came across several hidden by trees with no one around. We also saw some birds :)

A smart-looking Little Green Beeeater (With a bold bee photo-bombing)

A male Long-billed Sunbird, filling in for the lack of hummingbirds in tropical Asia

A Buddha meditating... does he know there are three king cobras behind him!!!

The following morning we arranged for transportation to another ancient capital--Polonnaruwa--which had its glory days from the 11th and 12th centuries. The ruins are quite extensive with many different quadrangles and temples spread out over a large area. Here are a few snapshots of the place.
Lisa, ticking off another mammal for the trip list. That's one way to keep the ancient city grounds well-groomed.

And let's here from Wikipedia on this impressive stupa: "Rankoth Vehera is structure made entirely of brick, and has a base diameter of 550 feet (170 m) and a height of 108 feet (33 m). However, the original shape of the stupa, particularly its upper portion, has been changed during renovation work carried out by later rulers and it is estimated that the original height of Rankoth Vehera may have been almost 200 feet (61 m).Despite this, it remains the largest stupa in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, and the fourth largest stupa in the country."

I must admit, I had never heard of these "reclining Buddhas" but they're quite popular in Sri Lanka. I believe it has something to do with the moment that he achieved enlightenment. These carvings in the rock are massive (I would probably be the height of the two feet stacked up).

A few birds were spotted around the ruins. Here a Yellow Bittern tries to look green, among some flooded grass.

This was a bird I really wanted to see: Pheasant-tailed Jacana (related to coots)

Sinhalese Buddhists in traditional white dress for prayer. If you look closely the umbrella brand is "BARF"

After a long hot day "temple-ing", we thought--hey why not keep the sweat train rolling and go on a safari? So from Polonnaruwa, we met up with one of our hosts back at Sigiriya who had called up a friend with a jeep. We hopped in the back (These jeeps are set-up for safaris so the front seats are normal but there is a raised platform on the back with seats for 12 or so people). This jeep was just for us so it was great to stop where and when we wanted while visiting Kaudulla National Park--which we were assured had a lot of wild elephants. Since we hadn't seen any of the ones that supposedly roam around near our accommodation, we were keen to get out to a proper wildlife refuge and see what we could see.

First big animal in the park: Marsh Crocodile.

Mixed flock of cormorants taking in the afternoon sun: Mostly Indian but also Little and Great Cormorants.

Asian Openbill, refusing to angle its head so that I could get a good shot of his perpetually open bill.

Elephants! Our guides didn't lie to us. There they were (Over 200). And while there were plenty of other jeeps taking in the scene, the wide open parkland and large number of pretty chilled out saggy-panted giants made for pretty peaceful and pleasurable viewing.

Blue-tailed Beeeater (A migrant from India)

Painted Stork, showing a pink wash in some feathers.


Great Stone-Curlew. According to the guidebook this species isn't supposed to be inland but I was not complaining.
Note: Baby elephant alert (left). Also note that elephant mammary glands are between the front legs (Sort of like humans, and unlike cows, deer, etc--see the 'breasts' on the righthand female). 

Our first glimpse of the elusive national symbol... the Sri Lankan Junglefowl

Peacock going for gold. (Cattle Egret in foreground)

All in all it was a fabulous evening, watching the sun go down over the lake with all these cool animals around. In addition to elephants we also saw jackals, a few leaf-monkeys and close to 100 species of birds. That night we capped things off by seeing a Grey Slender Loris near our hotel! If you have never heard of this big-eyed primate--google it now!!!

On our last morning in the Sigiriya area, we decided to get up and climb Pidurangala, a less famous rock in the area but arguably even better than Sigiriya. Here's why (See below)

For one thing, to get up it, you have to weave your way up through an array of old Buddhist temples and statues, including this gorgeous reclining Buddha that takes in the dawn rays of sun.

But then up pop out on top, with virtually nobody else around, and you get unspoiled views of Sigiriya Rock to the south, surrounded by seemingly endless forest. What a beautiful place to spend a morning!

Nice view.

And thus concludes PART ONE of our honeymoon to Sri Lanka. Join us again soon for Part 2, as we make our way south into the hill country city of Kandy, where we take in some more cultural sites, before heading up into the mountains famous for tea and much more!