Thursday, 12 April 2018

2nd April - Yala National Park, Day One, Sri Lanka

After two days of early starts it was nice to be able to have some time this morning to get a breakfast, and a little longer in bed.  For the first time we were able to take in the early morning across Weligama Bay.


It was though a late departure, we were in the car around 8.30, and heading east to our next destination, Yala National Park.  The journey would take us along the coast road and through cities such as Matara, Tangalle and Tissamaharama, some of which were affected by the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, and as we drove along the side of the ocean and beach it was very sobering, and at the same time quite frightening how a lot of the settlements even today would be very vulnerable to a similar event.

Passing through Matara and Tangalle we were subjected to blaring music from the shops and main buildings, while in the car we were entertained by some interesting piano versions of familiar if old songs.

We started off in sunshine but passed through an area of quite heavy rain.  On our previous trip we had stopped at Tissamaharama Lake to watch the large colony of Fruit Bats.  Today we stopped to view the lake, which in the grey overcast skies was probably not as impressive as when we saw it back in 2014.


One feature of the journey was the number of Cattle Egrets that were present around human activity and not just the cattle in the fields.  Through the cities and around the street stalls there would be many birds looking for any opportunity for food.  They could be seen perched on the wires, and the roofs of stalls, standing close to the stalls unconcerned by the presence of anyone.  With this adaptability it is not surprising that the range of this small heron is increasing now into the UK, they seem able to adapt to all possibilities.

As I stood looking out across the lake one appeared alongside me in the same way that feral pigeons and crows do when there may be the chance of food.



 It was a long journey, mainly because at any time it is not possible to achieve any significant speed, slowing up to pass tuk tuks, and trucks, while buses steam up behind hooting to get by.  The distance is around 140 kilometres, which on UK roads would take about an hour and a half.  It took us just over 3 hours to reach the hotel.  about thirty minutes out from the hotel we started seeing many more birds.  Passing salt lagoons there were Spoonbills, Spot-billed Pelicans and various unidentifiable egrets.  Small waders fed on the waters edge, and terns hawked over the water.  

On the approach road into the hotel, Green and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters were on the wires, and in one large puddle a White-breasted Waterhen sat.  On arrival in the hotel as we waited to check in we were greeted by a family party of wild boar that just filed through the  reception area.


Our villa was not to far from where we had stayed last time, but this time tucked off the main track.  We were reminded that the hotel is within the park boundaries and that animals freely wander through, and that we need to be escorted after dark.  We settled in, and had some lunch before setting off on our first safari in the park.  We were going to have four, two morning and two afternoon.  The hotel has a large lagoon close by that has herons, storks and crocodiles in it.  There was also this pair of Spot-billed Pelicans.


As we ate lunch a medium sized Land Monitor walked past us.


We were picked up at 14.15, and to our delight found out that we were the only ones inthe jeep, our own jeep and driver.  I don't know who was happier Helen and I and both for different reasons!  Leaving the hotel we experienced the suspension of the truck, something that would become a feature of the trips.

Just outside the park offices there are a series of large lagoons, and close by was a large flock of Spoonbill.  All adults they were in breeding plumage, the yellow tip on the bill and rusty yellow breast patch.


A wider view.


The jeeps turn into the office to check in, and then head out to the park entrance.  After passing through the gate we slowed up as we transitioned onto the graded roads.  A little further and the jeep pulled over and our driver pointed out a Crested Serpent Eagle in a tree close to the track.


The Crested Serpent Eagle is found widely across the Indian sub continent in forested habitat.  It feeds as it names suggests manly on snakes.


Nothing had changed from our visit in 2014.  Close to the entrance were several large lagoons, and I can recall passing the opportunity to photograph birds last time, not knowing my cards had been corrupted.  We slowed to look across the lagoon, a Black-headed Ibis fed close in.

 
As ever on shallow water there were Black-winged Stilts feeding with that elegant approach.
 


First safari drive is a time for the driver to gauge what interests his passengers, so far he was doing OK, and we stopped for a Green Bee-eater that perch on exposed branches by the side of the road.


Next stop was as a result of a loud call from the bush, a Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl.  These are always proudly pointed out as they are the national bird of Sri Lanka.


Jungle fowl are found on the Indian continent, but this bird is one of the thirty three endemic birds in Sri Lanka.


From this bird has come the many chickens that are served up all around the world, but no domestic chicken looks like this.



 Another stop produced a rather hot Paddyfield Pipit.



 Open grassland produce a buck Spotted Deer.



The Green Bee-eaters were always an attraction, and his was aided by their close proximity to side of the track and the jeep.





The driver had quickly realised that we were interested in the birds, and were not here just for the Leopards, and was picking out birds from nowhere.  A White-bellied Fish Eagle.



And a lovely Brown Shrike.




In a small pool a Common Greenshank cooling off, out of focus Wood Sandpiper in the foreground.



 Another abrupt stop, and in a tree opposite A Changeable Hawk Eagle.  While having the name "eagle" it is a member of the Acciptridae family




They keep a sharp lookout perched bolt upright on a bough amongst the canopy foliage of some high tree standing near a forest clearing. There, they wait for jungle fowl, pheasants, rabbits, and other small animals coming out into the open. The bird then swoops down forcefully, strikes, and carries the prey away in its talons.




Other jeeps would pull up curious at what were looking at, and on realising it was a bird move on and unfortunately flushing the Hawk Eagle.



 Next a Sri Lanka Woodshrike.



 Another of the thirty Three endemic Sri Lankan birds



We were not getting very far down the main track.  This time we stopped for a pigeon.  Who stops for a pigeon, well when it is a Sri Lankan Green Pigeon I bet everyone would.



Also for a Green Imperial Pigeon



And a Orange-breasted Green Pigeon
 

Finally we pulled off the main track, and past a pool with a crocodile on the far bank and a distant Open-billed Stork feeding.  In the trees above were Rose-ringed Parakeets.



They are always an attractive bird to photograph.



Feeding on the lichen



While at another pool a small group of Samba Deer.



There was always something to see when the landscape opened up.  Water being the main attraction to both the animals and birds.  Here a spectacular Painted Stork feeding in shallow water.



A Mongoose scuttled past the jeep on the track before heading into the bush and out of sight.



Many of the Peacocks did not have a full tail of feathers but the heads and crown feathers were in place, and looking splendid.



 Another Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl was by the side of the track digging with its feet.  Not this one but we watched another breaking up a pile of Elephant dung for insects and seeds.



Speaking of elephants we finally came across one, but with its back to us, then Helen found another and we sped off down a track to catch up with it.  It was a bull Elephant and very black with a distinctive tear in the ear.  We stopped, but the Elephant didn't and it walked slowly towards us.  At firs just filling the frame as it was very close.



Then very close, almost in the back of the jeep.



Being so close the perspective had to be different and this is a special portrait.



The eye does not give away what is going on its mind.



We edged away, and the Elephant followed us, pausing to have a quick splash in a small pool.



 Then it crossed the path behind us and headed out across the open plain.



A close encounter with an Elephant is always a special occasion.



We had come across distant crocodiles around some of the pools but this was the first that could be considered to be closer.  A Mugger Crocodile as found in India, they can grow to up to four metres, and represent a real danger in the lakes and rivers.
 

Perched on a dead tree stump around the pool was a Brahminy Kite


Our driver then took us off the main track and up onto a ridge that rose up above a lagoon.  I instantly remembered the place as it was here in 2014 where we had stopped and watched what was then a Lotus covered lagoon, with Langar Monkeys and Spotted Deer.  Today though the Lotus were gone, and there was very little about.  The path now led to public washrooms close to the beach, which meant we could not have stopped if we wanted to.  The track was lined with large light green plants with light purple flowers that were attractive to the large Carpenter bees.


Leaving the beach area, we came across another bull Elephant that was feeding in the bushes close to the track, and once again it passed us very close to the jeep.



 Then crossed the track and into the bush on the other side of the jeep.



Another stop, and another surprise as our driver pointed into a tree.  It took a while to work out what it was, and then where it was but finally I managed to pick up an unusual shape that turned out to be a Brown Fish Owl.




The Brown Fish Owl is a fairly large owl with tousled, horizontally oriented ear-tufts and long legs.  It is semi-diurnal, roosting in large trees during the daytime and leaving well before sunset.


It is generally found in thick lowland forest and open but well-wooded country, always near water.  They feed mainly on fish, frogs and crabs, but will also take rodents, birds, reptiles and large beetles. Hunts by watching for prey from a perch overlooking water - such as a stump or rock on the edge or in the middle of a stream. They will often fly up and down, sometimes almost skimming the water. Fish are scooped up from near the surface.


The temperature had been a lot less than we had been experiencing as there was quite a lot of dark cloud cover, and there had been rumbles of thunder in the distance and it always seemed like there would be the threat of rain.  In fact there had been rain prior to our visit and this had managed to keep the dust down considerably.  I recall on our last rip dust being a big problem.

With the overcast skies photography was a challenge for the birds perched up on the branches.  Our driver pointed out a Thick-billed Flowerpecker at the top of one dead tree.



 And then we found the other Bee-eater found here, the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater.



 And we were able to get closer for some better views.




 A short stop at a large open wetland produced some distant Pheasant-tailed Jacana and a good number of Purple Swamphens.



As it became darker and gloomy it was clear it was time to head back, on the main track jeeps passed us on either side and it became clear that they were chasing something.  We came across a gathering of jeeps (not sure what the collective noun is), and were informed that a Leopard had run across the road into the bush and up into the rocks.  As we waited to get a good position to look at the rocks my attention was taken by a Peacock on the other side of the track.  It was preening and showing off the incredible colours in the feathers.



 Absolutely stunning colours.



And yes I know I could do this around Stately Homes in the UK, but I know these are wild birds in their natural habitat, and that makes it special.





It was clear there was not to be a Leopard (we had realised that s we pulled up!), it was time to move on.  As we passed the lake close to the park entrance I asked to stop to photograph two small waders on the sand close to the water's edge.  First a Greater Sand Plover.


While close by a Kentish Plover.


Then a little further on a Wood Sandpiper in the water.


And probably the same Black-headed Ibis


As we left the park I picked up a Common Sandpiper inspecting Buffalo dung for possible insects.


In twilight we made our way back to the hotel.  In the gloom an Indian Pond Heron stalked the edge of the hotel lake.


OK so no Leopard, but we are not under the pressure to see Leopard as we managed this previously.  The drive though was superb as we had the chance to see the birds with out any concerns regarding other travelers, and our driver was excellent at finding them.  Unfortunately he was not going to be available for the morning drive tomorrow.

We returned to our villa, and then spent the evening with dinner and the odd drink before an early night once again ready for the next early start for the early morning drive.



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