Saturday, 10 May 2014

8th - 10th April - Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Day Four - 8th April

This morning saw us up a little later than the previous days, but it was early enough to enjoy the quiet time just after dawn along the beach, and around the property.

A single Cattle Egret walked around the lawns, and on the beach there was an Indian Pond heron, again unfortunately I am not able to show them.

The fishermen were also up early, the morning light giving a different perspective on them, and the bay in which they were fishing.  The stilts are in relatively shallow water and the rods have a line with a hook on it that they lift up and down in the water.  The fish go after the shine of the hook, as they do not bait it.

The trees in the grounds were dropping strange flowers that we thought at first were from a Fig.  But it turned out that these were flowers from the Fish Poison Tree.  The flowers when they fall into water, poison the fish.  They look quite beautiful though, this one I mounted on a rock to get a good look.

We set off as the day was just beginning to get hot, we nice and cool in the mini bus air conditioning.  Our journey would take us around the south coast travelling on single roads through the cities of Matara, Tangalle and Hambantota.  We would stop at the most southerly point of the country, Dondra Head to see the lighthouse we had seen while out at sea yesterday.

As usual the roads were busy, and in the towns and cities there were plenty of people out shopping in preparation for the New Year celebrations to take place on the 13th.  In Matara the first large town we came upon there were vibrant colours in the shops, and plenty of Tuk Tuks everywhere slowing us down.

Tuk tuks were also lined up alongside the road, some grandly decorated, others quite plain.

While it was hectic, and busy it didn't seem as over powering as Indian, with the madness was a calm, a paradox maybe, but that was the way it felt.

In many places by the side of the road were piles of pots.  Apparently pots are bought new for the New Year feasts, but looking at the number available, I would think there are going to be many left over.

We got lost  looking for the lighthouse, but this took us down to the waterfront where again we could see the brightly coloured boats and ships.

This Tuk Tuk looks like it is looking at the boats jealously.

At the lighthouse eventually we were able to have a walk around the area.  It was being tidied up, and there was a man cutting down coconuts with a sharp knife blade strapped to a very long pole.

The lighthouse looked like any normal lighthouse, and that is probably because it was built by the British to replace a wooden one that burnt.  The lighthouse is the tallest in Sri Lanka.

We went back on the road, stopping again at a cafe for a drink.  In the main room there was this sharks jaw, from the smell it was a recent catch.  The owners were sheepish about what and where it came from, and a little later on our guide Sampath was able to find out that it was from a Thresher Shark, a protected species.

Outside of the the towns the fields and ditches would be full of egrets, mostly Cattle Egrets they would follow the cattle of workers in the paddy fields, their reason being the cattle or workers would over turn a meal at some stage.

The landscape then changed from the lush green vegetation to a drier environment.  This is known as the Arid Zone, and was to be the landscape we would find in Yala National Park.

Unfortunately this is where the photographs end.  After checking in, and sorting our selves out we took off on an afternoon game drive.  Entering the park we passed large expanses of water and small pools where we saw Water Buffalo, Wild Boar, and Spotted Deer.  Of the birds at the first stop we found a pair of Greater Thick Knee, Pacific Golden Plover, Wood, Marsh and Common Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilts and Avocets.  There were plenty of herons and egrets including Striated and Intermediate.  

We were searching for Leopard, and every so often we would race off following a call to say there had been a sighting.  We would turn up along with many other jeeps, stare into the undergrowth and wait, but to no avail.

Back to the birds, the stars for me were the Little Green Bee-eaters.  They would perch by the side of the road, and then zoom off to catch a passing insect.  We had seen them in India, but they never fail to impress.  More water birds included Open-billed Storks, Painted Storks and Lesser Whistling Ducks.

Highlight of the drive though was an encounter with a group of Asian Elephants, with three youngsters, one being probably only weeks old.  At first they protected the young ones, but as we watched the young ones became a little more braver and became a little more active, and pushed each other to play.

Eventually it started to get dark, and we had to return to the hotel, we did so in the knowledge we had five more drives in which to find Leopard.  Back at the Hotel we were advised to call for an escort when walking from our cabin and the restaurants.  The resort is in the buffer zone of the park, and many animals can wander through, including Elephant and Leopard.

Day Five- 9th April

It was another early start, driving to the park in darkness.  We had to wait to get our permit at the entrance but were on our way in as the sun came up.  Plenty of birds were seen and photographed (!), and there were many false alarms of leopard sighting but nothing turned up.

The park is a mixture of scrub, open grassland, water and large sandstone rocks.  The rocks are apparently a good place to find the Leopards, but despite continual searching we didn't turn up anything.

This rock group is known as the Head Rock, its not difficult to understand why.

We returned to the hotel in time to get breakfast, and then we decided to go for a walk to the beach.  We set off walking around the lagoon by the hotel where there was a European Kingfisher, and plenty of Barn Swallows.  As we approached the beach, it became very hot, and despite the presence of a breeze from the ocean it soon became quite uncomfortable.

You couldn't swim here, there was a fishing village with pots for catching lobsters, but as well you could see a few tuna.

We walked through the hot sand, and eventually turned off and walked back around the cabins to the pool area.  Our next drive was at 14.30, so it was off to relax and to get ready for our next attempt.

On this drive we were successful, but for awhile I thought we were going to miss out due to the crowds, and lack of any order around who and how long you claimed the pole positions.

There had been a report of cubs and an adult out at the west end of  the park.  We set off in the general direction, but it was a long and uncomfortable drive with very few stops.  Finally we came around a corner to run into a group of Jeeps that were clearly trying to look at something.  There then started an incredible sequence of jostling Jeeps, queue jumping and bad tempers.  I must admit to a bit of bad temper, but there were clearly no rules about how to ensure everyone saw something.

There was a Leopard there, but it seems the view was not that clear.  We tried to position ourselves, but with no luck, we could not get a clear view, and every time we moved somebody else filled the space behind us.  By now the general opinion was the Leopard had gone, and no one could see it.  The best thing to do in this situation would probably be to sit and wait, but we were not in a good position, but we could see the open area.  Incredibly our driver set off, and our space went.  We drove up the road, then turned around and came back.  The guide stopped the Jeep as he had seen something moving.  Yes it was a Leopard, and it was walking back to where we had been.  We raced back and again fought our way with the others.  We finally saw the Leopard, it had come down to drink at a pool and we watched as it drank, and looked around.  Again I had pictures, they did look good on the camera, but there we are.  

Finally the Leopard stood up, turned and walked off into the scrub.  It tail being held high, the black tip moving as it walked, the scene I have always wanted to see, and at last have achieved.  It is a magnificent cat, the markings looking even more beautiful in real life.

The mood in the Jeep changed, there was a air of relief, and nothing elese really mattered after that.  We drove around to continue the search, but our hearts weren't in it, we had seen Leopard, and we wanted more.

Day Six - 10th April

It was another early start, and the same pattern as yesterday, straight to the park centre, wait for the office to issue the permit, and then off into the park.  As we headed towards the first set of lakes the sun was just coming up over the distant trees.

All the Jeeps ahead of us were hurtling down the road, but we stopped to look at the dusty road.  The guide saw tracks, and we turned off and followed the pug marks which were clear made by a Leopard, but they were heading in the opposite direction to where we were going.  We continued on along the track, and also came across tracks made by a Sloth Bear, they too were going in the other direction.  

The track brought us to a series of rocks, that I would imagine a Leopard would look wonderful on, but all we could see was a single male peacock, and the sun now getting higher, and warmer.

What then followed was a frustrating drive, stopping in places, but only to wait to see if anything would emerge.  The stops became less and the drive more uncomfortable.  The positive mood we ended the day with yesterday started to evaporate.  Finally we came to an area where there was an open space of green with a series of dead trees.  We could see Water Buffalo and Wild Boar in amongst the Lotus, and of the birds Purple Heron, Spot-billed Pelicans and Brahminy Kites on the nest.  We also saw a Land Monitor on the path in front of us warming up in the morning sun.

Then it was back on the bumpy dusty roads, and we were heading back to the hotel.  We did stop once to witness a strange bit of behaviour.  A Changeable Hawk was on a dead branch that was lying close to some bushy scrub.  The hawk was being mobbed by a pair of White-browed Fantails, who probably had a nest close by.  Nothing unusual in that you may think, but it was all about the way they were mobbing the hawk.  They would jump literally on to the back of the hawk and peck at it while sitting on the neck and back.  The hawk though made no effort to move, and just put up with it.

Back at the hotel, we spent the time up to the next drive by the pool.  This gave me the opportunity to photograph Purple Sunbirds around the pool, and to find at last the owner of the most annoying song around the hotel and scrub land, the Asian Koel, a dark blue black bird with a red eye. 

As we boarded our Jeep for the afternoon drive an Asian Elephant was feeding in the trees close by, and about 30 metres for our cabin.  As we headed off the Green Bee-eaters were jetting around us on either side of the track.  Waiting at the park centre a flock of five Malabar Pied Hornbills flew across in front of us, and then perched in the trees alongside the track.

The plan was to head back to the site we had seen the leopard yesterday, but this changed when Sampath received a call, we turned off in the opposite direction, and raced along a track.  We thought Leopard, but it turned out to be a tusker elephant which really did not give a very good view, the elephants feeding in the scrub by the track.

Here is a picture taken by Dan of me taking a picture of one of the elephants that unfortunately was lost!

Leaving the Elephants it was back to the plan, but another call detoured us once again, this time though with good intent, a possible Sloth Bear, but as usual we couldn't find it after some more traffic problems.  By now then there was not enough time to head off back to the previous days leopard site, so we drove around the area, with no luck at all.  As we came out of the park we came across a group of Elephants with a couple of youngsters that entertained us for a while, as they pushed each other about.

Back at the hotel we realised we had but one more drive to get that special view of leopard.  Today had not been a good one.  A combination of tiredness, and the failure to see anything today had deflated us.  The mad dashes only to find out it was elephants was also a rather frustrating tie, we could have been asked.  But who knows what may happen tomorrow. 

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