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From Dusk Till Dawn (1 Viewer)

I was hoping to have a bash at the Brown Bats as we crossed on the ferry but there was real mist over the river this evening (thankfully it didn’t extend into the forest, though every tree and leaf was dripping) and the bats weaved in and out of the tendrils of mist which picked up the torchlight and left my camera unable to lock onto them by the time we reached the forest side of the voyage to once again jump ashore and up the steps away from the landing place.

Up past the village we went, our first stop being by the huge flower at the base of a banana bunch. Fulvous Fruit Bats were flying up, nectaring and dropping away again, quick but not impossibly so. Next we found ourselves pausing by a pool in front of one building when Dulan pointed out a Sri Lanka Rock Frog. I stepped up onto a wall to get a decent angle and having taken my picture of the frog found it a little difficult to make the long step back down…. My muscles are less elastic in stretching and for jumping purposes, have no absorbent resilience at all these days!

We carried on and I have a vague feeling we’d been up one path and back down it before someone picked up a moth in their light, hanging from a branch a few yards off the path. It was an Oleander Hawk Moth and we all took turns trooping through the forest margin to photograph it and enjoy its subtle colours merging and fading one into another.

Next up was a Sri Lanka Wolf Snake by the path. It curled its head first underneath itself and then under a wide leaf. Dulan removed this, drawing his hand back briskly as the snake struck at it: no venom but reputedly a hard bite that he just avoided! Thus exposed the snake came in my direction and to a general shot of its coils I now added a couple of portrait shots. An improvement on the previous night’s encounter. This was followed by a new and different enormous spider, over eight inches across its leg span but thinner and racier than the bird-eating tarantula of the previous night.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Dulan led us back to the rice paddy we’d investigated during the afternoon, and as we made our way along its margin an Indian Crested Porcupine rushed towards us with its quills rattling as it came. It definitely knew we were there because every light was upon it but it kept coming: just as we began to wonder about getting stuck by its weaponry Dulan calmly put up a foot and brought it to a brief and not ungentle halt with a boot sole on its forehead for a brake. With little pause, it gathered itself, went by us inches away between us and the fence, then launched itself up the bank and under the strands of wire to disappear between the trees. There was a brief buzz of conversation and relieved laughter. We were then properly startled at the far corner of the field by the sound of a Wild Boar erupting from the vegetation away from us up the same bank and across the fence into the forest! Later we saw probably the same Porcupine ambling along the forest floor as we looked down a tall and very steep bank.

We carried on but found only frogs and toads including an Orange-canthal Shrub Frog, before retracing our steps and heading uphill once more into the rainforest. Time for a biggie…. The forest delivered, with a Brown Palm Civet climbing a naked sapling trunk and pausing part way up lit by our torches and in a perfect position for a photograph. It stayed long enough for us to watch it properly, enjoying its chestnut-brown fur, foxy/bear-like face with big round ears and its obvious arboreal agility. Just phenomenal. Strangely, having now seen more than one of the options we inclined more to the splitting view….

It kept getting better: Dulan found us a Red Slender Loris and though the views were difficult through a narrow gap between trees they were definite and lasted for a good bit more than a few seconds. Then he began finding Yellow-spotted Chevrotains along the line of a stream wending its way down the hill: we saw two or three in a fairly small area and short time. Mind you they didn’t really hang about, fading back away from us into the undergrowth. He suggested waiting a while but for some reason we preferred to get on. In retrospect I think that may have been a mistake. But maybe not, because all wildlife watching is about coincidences of space, time and beings meeting, and we weren’t finished yet….

Big John spotted something sitting up in a tree, not too far, maybe fifteen feet: he thought a roosting bird and he was right because it was a Sri Lanka Frogmouth. I’d never seen any frogmouth so this was a big deal for me, and it was absolutely calm as we manoeuvred around it to take our pictures. Lovely lovely lovely.

The Anthropogenic Shrub Frog that followed wasn’t quite the same quality for my money but it had a certain je ne sais quoi all the same and fitted the pan-species nature of the walk very well.

I remember Dulan suggesting at one point that anyone who wanted to could head home: Big John was definitely suffering with Mr Babbs’s cold by now and we’d had a load of target species. He said we could pay the ferryman – no more than 1500 rupees – and I commented “not till he gets you to the other side” – unable as ever to resist a cheap joke. But nobody wanted to stop, we all wanted the last bits and pieces from the trip. Not everything we saw was amenable to being photographed and that seemed to increase as the night wore on: perhaps our reactions (well mine) slowed down as tiredness set in: so we now added some species I can’t show you with pictures. A Bi-colored Rat in particular that Dulan called, ran down a tree branch right in front of me in the open but was just too fast for me – or perhaps my camera arm froze and I opted to just watch instead. Back at the edge of the village Dulan spotted an Eastern House Mouse in the rafters of an open storage shelter and it took me quite a while to get a not very good view of it. I did manage to get my bins on it in the end and it was just as exciting as you would imagine.

At last we all made our way down to the ferry and crossed the unexpectedly still high river together before heading for our respective rooms, a leech check (I had got away with it again but Roy had been had on his upper chest, goodness knows how) and finally the delight of extinction as our heads hit our respective pillows.

Fulvous Fruit Bat
Oleander Hawk Moth
Sri Lanka Wolf Snake X2

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Day 10: April 12

Final day with Dulan, travelling back to Colombo starting at lunchtime. He’d offered us one last forest walk, especially to try once more for the squirrel we were lacking, but only Roy took him up on it: I had simply no appetite for an 0730 start after an all-night walk and indeed I had barely any wearable clothes left for the coming days: I really didn’t fancy putting my icky stuff from the previous night back on!

Roy had a good morning, seeing several new birds and adding Brown Mongoose to his life list and the overall trip list. I had a good morning drying out some clothes in the sun and taking opportunities to photograph some common stuff that had been evading my lenses: Palm Squirrel, Red-vented Bulbul and White-browed Fantail all finally went into the can while I lazed in an armchair on the veranda and occasionally rearranged the shirts and stuff to catch the sun as well as possible.

The big Water Monitor was basking in a clearing across the river and I called Big John from his room to tick it.

Down on the river the ferryman was augmenting his income by taking some tourists on a trip round the backwaters of the stretch he works on. I thought he might disturb some birds from the forested banks and kept an eye on the area he was paddling through. This proved a good move when a Stork-billed Kingfisher zipped out from under the leafy branches and headed off to another less disturbed backwater. This was the other thing my non-birding family had got over me in India and a doubly welcome lifer, also quite satisfying as a genuine armchair tick!

My last lifer at Kitulgala was a Red-backed Flameback in the front garden of the Rest House as we were waiting to board the minibus. Brief but very nice!

It was past midday when we finally left Kitulgala for the run down to Colombo. It was an uneventful run that took less time than the difficult journey to Kitulgala had made me worry about: when we reached the city we had one last treat with a visit to Dulan’s still being improved home for a home-cooked meal of savouries and pastries plus a few wildlife bits in and around his house and garden! Teetering up an iron ladder to a balcony under construction, we got views in a crevice of Pygmy Pipistrelle (stepping back far enough for a picture would have involved a cry and thud as we fell to earth, so no pix!) and then his shy son was encouraged by his father to fetch a small keeping tube in which he had secured a Caecilian snake (Typhlops sp) – apparently they are common in his garden! The tiny pink ribbon (the size of a normal earthworm but with a recognizable face and scales) was let out on the soil surface for us to see properly and photograph – I don’t think any of us had seen such a thing before, it really was a marvellous surprise.

And that was it for our time with Dulan. He’d been a really great guide, shown us a boatload of amazing wildlife and if he’d run us into the ground in the process it was absolutely worth it.

However, we had one major wildlife effort left and for that we had to drive South to Mirissa on the South-western corner of Sri Lanka, where we had a pelagic trip booked on the following morning. Having not originally booked transport there, we had discovered during the trip that our driver for the main period was free afterwards and it was pretty much unanimous that engaging him to head down to Mirissa and back was the way forward. Accordingly we didn’t even have to transfer our bags from the bus and after sincere thanks and farewells away we went.

Unlike most of the roads in Sri Lanka that from Colombo to Mirissa is a dual carriageway and with little traffic the journey went pretty quickly. At speed wildlife watching is difficult and we didn’t record much on the way down. Unfortunately by the time we reached a planned stop for Brown Mongoose it was already dark and although we did see eyeshine during a walk round we couldn’t pin it down. Once at Mirissa it took a little while to find our guesthouse but once there we were quickly sorted and settled, and we headed off to find a restaurant for dinner and beers, as for the first time in a week we had no night wildlife activity planned. I never expected to find that such a relief….. We ate pizza with enjoyment (it wasn’t chicken curry!) at tables on the beach with the soft sussuration of the surf as a soundtrack and sank a few cold lagers amid increasing hilarity before trudging back to fall quickly asleep in our new beds.

Indian Palm Squirrel
Typhlops sp - Caecilian snake

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Day 11: 12 April

Another day, another early alarm going off: we were to be picked up from the guesthouse at 0545 so it was 0500 up and sort out gear for the pelagic trip. No worries about insects but suncream a must and plenty of water to drink.

Next issue was getting out of the guesthouse – the gate was padlocked and the top was, lets say, burglar protected. Our hosts had thought of this, its just that they were prepared to cut it a bit finer than we were used to… when the tuk-tuk arrived to take the first two of us down to the whale watch company office the gate had been opened and beaming smiles were in evidence all round. In addition our host had agreed we could leave our bags in our rooms during the pelagic as there were no incoming guests. This was definitely a help.

Roy and I had a bit of a wait but soon enough we were also in a tuk-tuk and puttering down to the “Raja and the Whales” office to pay our fee and join the crowd walking down to the boat. Ship. Boat. I dunno. Bigger than a cabin cruiser but a lot smaller than the Scillonian. Chalice size maybe. It had two passenger decks with most people including us choosing the uppermost for its better view over the sea: it was a single continuous deck over most of the ship except the bow, with an awning high enough not to be in the way and low enough to cut out most of the sun’s glare. Good. Not likely to get burnt to a frazzle then.

The skipper, the “Raja” of the company title (I wonder if this is a nom de guerre) was a robustly muscled bearded Sri Lankan with long hair tied up out of the way, a jovial boom to his voice and a nice line in patter about the forthcoming trip which included a safety brief that for the first time I’ve heard on a tourist vessel included the phrase “one hand for the ship and one for yourself” which is good sense. I was encouraged. His boat handling seemed efficient and effective getting away from the very crowded quay area first into the harbour and then the open sea. As we left I discovered that sitting in the back meant sitting over what seemed to be a very vibratory engine, but as the ship (for the sake of argument) gathered way over what was thankfully a near flat Indian Ocean, this subsided to a sensible level and my eyeballs stopped rattling in sympathy.

The harbour was frequented mainly by Whiskered Terns with a couple of larger birds that I didn’t get a good look at: later I realised they must have been Great Crested Terns. No gulls, which felt weird in a mainly fishing harbour.

The East point of the bay, which we passed on our way South-east towards our hunting grounds along the coast, was a substantial rocky affair guarded by quite high vertical rocks at the landward end, with the result that local Peafowl had adopted it as a roost and a number were posed on the ridge – not what you expect to see at the start of a pelagic!

After a while and only a couple of miles out if that, we encountered our first pod of dolphins – I found it difficult not to think it a bit of a let-down as they were Bottlenoses. In theory this could have made them Indo-Pacific but in practice they looked exactly like normal Common Bottlenose Dolphin to us and Raja and his spotters weren’t suggesting anything different. All dolphins are nice to see anyway and it meant we were off the mark for the day…. Attention sharpened somewhat.

We passed individual fishing boats and one or two small groups of them. We didn’t deviate from our course to go nearer them so the birds round the first few went unidentified but eventually we passed close by a boat with a flock of Great Crested Terns loitering around it and I even got a shot or two of them. This kept the interest going until we found a fair-sized pod of Spinner Dolphins, a tick and a species I’d really wanted to see. Unfortunately only one youngish individual decided to give us a display of spinning but interestingly that individual had a large pale blue remora attached to the underside of its jaw. I suppose remoras do attach to cetaceans as well as sharks but I had no idea they could be that colour!

Although they weren’t spinning the Long-snouted Spinner Dolphins were occasionally breaching as they travelled and even those not doing that were sticking their heads well out. One or two family groups came over to our ship and rode the bow for a bit though I didn’t try to scuttle down the stairs to the main deck and then forward to look down on them. A great sighting (and of course a tick!)

We were not by any means the only whale watching ship in the area and one in particular, a mere speed boat with only about four passengers, began to be an irritation as it drove straight to the best action at speed, probably risking the dolphins somewhat and certainly tending to make them move on or away, not exactly enhancing everyone else’s experience. Unfortunately these idiots continued their practice throughout the day… but I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Common Bottlenose Dolphins
Greater Crested Tern
Long-snouted Spinner Dolphins X 3

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Eventually we reached what Raja had reckoned was the most likely area for great whales (by the way we had been fed a fairly substantial breakfast on the way, within the trip fee: much appreciated). By then we had seen several Flying Fish zipping out of waves and gliding over the sea before dropping back in. Proper tropical ocean stuff! Sightings over the previous week had involved Fin Whales (not a tick though definitely something worth seeing, being the second biggest cetacean species) and it was not only really late in the Blue Whale season but there hadn’t been the numbers seen this year as a few years previously. So we might not be on a winner….

The little fleet of whale watching boats drifted gently on the almost non-existent swell. Suddenly everyone else’s boats opened the throttles and after a few seconds we could work out which way they were going (so which way to look for the whale). I saw nothing. We all waited, after the animal dived to feed, for over fifteen minutes until it surfaced, and as the spotting boat hit the burners so did everyone else, again. I saw nothing, again, before it commenced its next long dive. Raja moseyed on over to the fleet and manoeuvred around its fringes, telling us he (a) didn’t trust the other skippers not to hit him in their eagerness to get to a surfacing whale and (b) wasn’t going to compromise his ethical practice to try to beat them to the draw.

After another round of not seeing the huge beast at the surface (which was agreed by those who’d had views to be not a Fin but a Blue Whale, just to ratchet the tension up a few more notches) I was ready to sell my soul to the devil for a look at it, let alone act just a bit unethically: luckily I wasn’t driving. Helming. Whatever.

Raja continued explaining what he was doing: timing each dive and noting the whale’s movements, getting a feel for what it was doing. He advised us on each occasion as time got towards its likely surfacing time, so we could relax to some extent (ha!) between surfacings. He reckoned sooner or later this must give us an advantage in getting views. He also remarked that since the weather was good, everyone seemed happy and nobody was seasick, we could stay with it for a while longer than usual, which certainly relieved some of my worries about not actually seeing the thing before we headed homewards. I do get twangingly tense on these occasions… can’t help it.

Anyway, as I scanned between two of the other boats and their screws began to churn the water I saw a tall blow go up and there was a broad, shining wet, ocean blue back rolling up to which I gave an uncontrolled roar of “she blows!” – followed by not too incoherent directions, and Blue Whale, the largest species of animal that ever lived on Planet Earth, finally arrived on my list.

Over at least the next hour (because there were definitely at least four appearances by the whale involved) we got better and better views, hampered only by that speedboat thundering up to the whale and quite plainly causing it to dive prematurely on more than one occasion. Eventually the boat headed off towards the coast, presumably at the end of its hire or perhaps to pick up more passengers. We had definitely had a more than adequate performance from the great beast by then. Really wonderful and the icing on an already amazing cake.

More than a bucket of.....
Blue Whale X 4

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Lunch was served on the way back to Mirissa and that was the main cause of me not getting a good look at a shearwater that went past our vessel as if it was standing still. I shouted but the others didn’t get much on it either: the few photos I attempted once I’d put my plate safely somewhere showed only razorblade end-on views. I wasn’t all that bothered. I was even less bothered as we rounded the Eastern point masking Mirissa harbour and found there was a Brown Noddy fishing by the wave-splashed rocks at its outer end.

I got some pictures of that, and of a Whiskered Tern perched on a post as we drew in through the densely packed moored boats towards our own jetty. Then we effusively thanked Raja and his team for a fab experience and were whisked back to our guesthouse by a pair of tuk-tuks to meet up with our driver, hoik the cases into the minibus and, with another pause at the nearby Brown Mongoose site (and another dip, though we had nice views of a different race of Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, a pair of White-breasted Kingfishers and a Chocolate Soldier butterfly), onto the autoroute back to Colombo.

This was really starting to be the last knockings now and I don’t think I was the only one already looking forward to getting home. However, we had one more night in Sri Lanka and it was at the Climax Guesthouse in accommodation that was air-conditioned wriggly tin boxes (very comfortable mind you) with a central open office/dining area/lobby. Our driver dropped us there amid more farewells and thanks for his efforts during our stay and then we were offered welcome drinks. We’d been drinking the local Lion Lager since our arrival (well, a bottle with dinner occasionally if we didn’t think it would put us straight to sleep….) but the tall bottles with which we were presented were Lion Strong which was 8.8%! Handle with care…

Actually it slid down quite nicely, I should say very dangerous stuff that didn’t drink at all like its strength should imply. Dinner was, as a special farewell to Sri Lanka – chicken curry! After that Big John went to bed with his cold at its worst so just Steve, Roy and I sat up for a few more beers, Roy on Sprite as he usually avoids alcohol.

It was New Year’s Eve in Sri Lanka so our relaxed celebration was occasionally punctuated by the heart-stopping detonation of nearby fireworks. I expect they continued and increased as the clock ticked past midnight but by then we’d run out of steam and collapsed into our respective beds, a room each to ensure sound sleep before tomorrow’s long flight.

Day 12: 13 April

Not much more to say really. Sitting quietly in a chair on the veranda of my tin hut I had White-browed Fantail, House Crows that wouldn’t sit for pictures and a Common Myna likewise. Most of the morning was waiting around for things to happen, queuing at the airport and finally boarding the A330 for an eleven hour flight to Heathrow. During that I managed to watch all three of the last Star Wars trilogy films plus most of Return of the King, got outside a couple of G&Ts and ate… airline curried chicken (you couldn’t make it up!)

Roy drove me back to Farnborough before setting off home: perhaps inevitably the M25/M3 westbound slip was shut so we had to use the A30 but on his return trip he was fine with the motorway route. That’s all folks!

Brown Noddy
Whiskered Tern
Purple-faced Leaf Monkey
White-breasted Kingfisher
Spot-billed Pelicans on typical roost

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Very jealous of all the mammals and thanks for you bringing back memories of my own 2004 trip. A rusty-spotted cat running past me about 10’ away was a highlight then... And a serendib scops

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