THE OTHER CORNER

Timber tree cottage
Sri Lankan land monitor
Sri Lankan land monitor emerging from termite mound. Photo ©D De Alwis

A place to value the natural world

If there is Paradise on Earth, it could well be a small nature resort nestled discreetly on the shores of Lake Habarana in north-central Sri Lanka.

Within view of the famous Sigirya Rock, the quirkily named The Other Corner (TOC), is very definitely a place of timeless harmony and beauty. And for a bird and wildlife photographer, it teems with possibilities.

It is nearly three years since I was introduced to TOC – via a fairly rudimentary rope and timber swing bridge that later came under threat from floodwaters. But I think about the place quite often. And when some friends recently dropped by on their way to Sri Lanka (including a night at TOC), I was truly envious.

Abundance of nature

This is not an exclusive, high-end resort or one of those over-priced birding lodges that abound all over the world. TOC was created by Sri Lankan entrepreneur Rahula Dassenaieke for avian and nature lovers to enjoy an abundance of nature.

“A place where people will come to realise the value of the natural world. A place as will in all probability be all too rare in the future,” he says.

The gardens in which the resort’s simple timber tree cottages and chalets sit so naturally literally crawl with creatures large and small. And the nearby Habarana lake is favoured by an impressive array of resident water birds – paid scant attention by passing working elephants.

Lesser goldenback woodpecker
A lesser golden-back woodpecker hard at work. Photo ©Tony Neilson

An extroverted resident

And if the porcupines and giant squirrels don’t take your fancy, there are always the butterflies!

But, for me, the most memorable part of the TOC experience was undoubtedly its extroverted resident naturalist, one Dhilip De Alwis.

As a teenager, he sketched wild birds, “So I could remember what they looked like.” And after 21 years coaching tennis at a leading college in Colombo, he gave it all away to become a wildlife photographer.

Prodigious knowledge 

Dhilip De Alwis, photographer
The irrepressible TOC naturalist and photographer, Dhilip De Alwis. Photo ©Tony Neilson

Dhilip has been the TOC naturalist since 2013, and to the best of my knowledge, remains so. A day exploring the area with him is as memorable for his brand of humour as it is his prodigious knowledge of local birds and other wildlife. If there is a down-side, it is laughing so much that you miss the odd shot.

He was kind enough to send me some of his recent images taken around the TOC for exclusive display on the Natural Images website.

(Note: I have no commercial arrangement with The Other Corner, or its owner Starron Nature Resorts Ltd. I just like the place! – Tony Neilson.)

‘FLOORSHOW’ AT A RADAR STATION

Streaked wren-babbler on log
Streaked wren-babbler on log
The ground-dwelling streaked wren-babbler. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Highlands birding, Malaysia-style

They say 6000 ha of ancient Malaysian jungle was cleared to build the Genting Highlands gambling resort in the hills just north of Kuala Lumpur.

It opened nearly 50 years ago and has become one of the world’s largest hotel, gaming and recreational complexes – 1800 m above the steamy heat of the Malaysian lowlands.

The access highway that zigzags up Mt Ulu Kali is a truly impressive engineering achievement. But as the resort’s gaudy new architecture and tatty old apartment blocks reveal themselves through the low cloud and mist, it is easy to wish back the forest that stood there for 100 million years.

Enter James Bond?

But my reason for being in the area was not to visit the resort’s 20,000 sq m of gaming tables. The objective was a military radar station – enter James Bond? No, something more prosaic: the wire-fenced perimeter is a great place to find Malaysian mountain birds.

Access is via a narrow, winding road to the left below the resort, where there is sufficient remnant mountain forest to sustain a surprisingly rich population of local birds and other wildlife.

Snowy-browed flycatcher perched
Snowy-browed flycatcher – widely dispersed throughout South-east Asia. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Extremely challenging

The early morning conditions were extremely challenging: cold, damp and with heavy mist shrouding everything. But local guide Cheong Weng Chun – an excellent KL-based birder with whom I have shared several adventures – was optimistic the weather would improve.

It didn’t. But thanks to the wonders of ISO technology, I could call on four extra f-stops and get ridiculously sharp hand-held images with my 500mm at very low shutter speeds.

What I hadn’t anticipated, however, was the popularity of the radar station site. Despite the hour, a phalanx of photographers was already in place at one of the prime observation spots. And they had come fully prepared: big lenses, Better Beamer flashes, bird call apps being played at max revs and lots of meal worms.

Pygmy wren-babbler
The pygmy wren-babbler, affectionately known as an ‘eggie’. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Standard for Malaysia

Not my scene at all, but apparently standard for Malaysian bird photographers. And given that they had already called in some very good species – all ‘lifers’ for me – it would have been churlish to stomp off in protest.

No room for the tripod, so I settled in at ground level where most of the meal worms had landed and marvelled at the unfolding ‘floorshow’, including: chestnut-crowned laughing thrush, Siberian thrush, large niltava (a glorious blue flycatcher), Siberian blue robin, snowy-browed flycatcher, mugimaki flycatcher and bar-throated minla – not forgetting a very confident Malaysian bush shrew.

Pygmy wren-babbler

We saw many more species on our way back down the track, including my favourite for the day, a pygmy wren-babbler in some bracken – pictured here thanks to the keen-eyed Mr Cheong and Canon technology.

If you are ever in the vicinity of KL with a morning to spare and you are not too squeamish about the local birding techniques, check out the Genting Highlands radar station and environs.

Story & pictures © Natural Images 2017

GRIDLOCK ON SAFARI

Elephant chasing safari vehicle

Elephant chasing safari vehicle
Escaping the attentions of an angry elephant is not easy on Yala’s axle-threatening tracks. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

A great national park is being spoiled by traffic chaos

Sri Lanka is justifiably developing a strong eco-tourism reputation – particularly among birders. But its most famous national park sucks!

Established as a wildlife sanctuary in 1900, Yala National Park (about 300 km from Colombo) covers almost 1000 square km and is by far the country’s most visited such facility.

There is excellent wildlife everywhere, and it should be one of the great nature experiences on the planet. But it is not!

Dawn chaos on Yala National Park tracks
Too many vehicles, inadequate roads and ‘game rush’ equal gridlock. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

There are two main reasons why I think Yala doesn’t work: bureaucracy and logistics.

For a morning game drive, you are picked up well before sunrise in your safari-style vehicle (they range from swanky to manky) and head for the park’s main gates. The operators know the gates will be closed for some time, but they want to get their customers near the front of the queue.

Eventually the park officials arrive and drivers and guides make a dash through the continuing gloom to pay the entry fees and do the paperwork. (You’ve gotta thank the Brits for the local obsession with paperwork.)

Fastest runners

Despite being near the front, it is the fastest runners who get their ‘chitties’ first. So remember to ask for a former Sri Lankan sprint champion as your guide.

In peak season up to 200 of these privately owned safari vehicles (some no more than utes with a cage – standing room only) will converge on the main entrance around the same time.

When everything is in order and you at last begin to move into the park, you are immediately in a convoy. There is thick bush on each side of the narrow, deeply pitted dirt tracks. There is no overtaking and vehicles going in opposite directions almost touch on the way through.

Many safari vehicles assembled under tree
‘Downtown Yala’ – up to 200 licensed safari vehicles could be working the national park at the same time. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Whispered ripple

But the real whatsit doesn’t hit the fan until word goes out that a significant animal, like a giant Sri Lankan leopard, has been seen. A whispered ripple of excitement travels along the convoy – and there is instant gridlock.

The people in the first couple of vehicles will probably get good views, and can sit there for as long as they like. But for the other 198 vehicles – forget it!

After spending most of the morning in this state of enforced inertia, we negotiated a radical change of plan. It was based on the premise that in 1000 square km there must surely be somewhere we can go that isn’t clogged with safari vehicles!

Turn for the better

That’s when things took a substantial turn for the better. Our driver very kindly invited us to his nearby home where we had a great lunch cooked by his wife. And when we returned to the park we headed for the less popular but more open expanses of low scrub, lagoons and grassland.

Most of the images supporting this post were shot in the savannah section of the park, where there is an abundance of birds and animals to observe at close quarters.

Sri Lanka is a great country and the birding is excellent (I’d return in a heartbeat). If you are contemplating a visit, your tour people will inevitably recommend Yala. And all I can say is: you have been warned!

©Tony Neilson June 2017

LAWN HILL IS OVERRATED

Water-level view entering Lawn Hill Gorge
Water-level view entering Lawn Hill Gorge
The red sandstone at Lawn Hill Gorge was deposited about 1560 million years ago. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

After about six years thinking about it, I finally made it in May to Lawn Hill (Boodjamulla National Park) and nearby Adels Grove in northwest Queensland.

Just about every birder I know who has been to those locations has spoken excitedly of their avian and scenic wonders. So expectations were high.

Maybe it was the razor-sharp rocks on the gravel road just after the Gregory Downs turnoff that totally munted a rear tyre and rim that set me off.

More likely, it was the $8.00 for a can of beer when we finally got to Adels Grove. It was a hot day and we had to have two each to wash down the road dust. ‘That’ll be $32 thanks.’

Buff-sided robin close-up
The inquisitive buff-sided robin of Adels Grove is endemic to northern Australia. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Generator-free

At $36 a night, my unpowered (but thankfully generator-free) campsite in The Grove beside the Lawn Hill Creek was outrageously expensive. But the setting was beautiful: akin to a Japanese garden in autumn with its golden carpet of fallen leaves.

Most of the grove trees are Cassia Siamea from Indonesia and Peninsula Malaysia. But you will also find African sausage tree, bamboo, mango trees, lemon trees and the fried egg flower tree from South Africa – all established in the 1930s by French botanist Albert de Lestang. Native species include gums, bauhinia, acacias, hakea and terminalias.

Red-capped robin developing breeding colours
We were a bit early to catch this red-capped robin in full breeding colours. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Unfortunately, Tony my fellow traveller, missed most of The Grove’s botanical bliss. He’d badly damaged a knee and his tent was a descent too far, so he asked for a cabin: $130 pn for a donga just big enough for a bed, or $182 pn for one with a shower!

Plug pilferers

Talking of showers, the ones servicing the main camping area were hot – sometimes. And then there was the $5 deposit required to get a plug for hand basins and laundry tubs. Seems the peripatetic plug pilferers had cleaned the place out.

But none of that spoiled my enjoyment of the local birds, especially at Adels Grove where lifers such as the buff-sided robin, purple-crowned fairy wren and white-gaped honeyeater were all easily found.

Birding down at Lawn Hill Gorge and surrounds was much harder, although there was a cooperative but not fully coloured red-capped robin in the car park. Boodjamulla offers some good walks and the ‘promise’ of the wonderfully mellifluous sandstone shrike-thrush, but I’ve not met anyone who has seen it.

Despite the feature image (above), for me the gorge itself lacked the drama, scale and jaw-dropping beauty of some of Australia’s other chasms. But the electric-powered boat trip did provide an unexpected highlight – a black bittern marching along the water’s edge.

In summary, Lawn Hill and Adels Grove are too ‘touristy’ for my taste – and I wasn’t there in the high season!

Tony Neilson, May 2017

TO CATCH A MACKEREL

Wide shot of stilt fishermen, Sri Lanka
Three stilt fishermen on their poles in the tide
These stilts are probably rented by ‘actors’ performing for tourists. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Survival through adaptation

When it comes to sustainable fishing, the pole fishermen of Sri Lanka are in a class of their own.

Although more to do with the limitations of their angling model than any conscious attempt to conserve fish stocks, there is method in their madness.

These days, the real target of the baitless hooks dangling in the surf is not so much the small herring and mackerel skittering about below. Tourists, like me, are easier and more lucrative prey.

But who can begrudge them: lean men perched precariously on slender wooden poles, wafting sometimes violently above an incoming late afternoon tidal surge.

Adapt or die

The scene before me captured the essence of why we must adapt, or fall off our respective perches.

The stilt fishermen are apparently unique to Sri Lanka, and the group I watched from the rocks down the road a bit from the historic Dutch fort of Galle had just started their third shift of a normal, searingly hot day.

They sit a couple of metres above the water, facing the prevailing breeze on the crosspiece of a triangle of sticks held together with twine. They usually curl one arm around the pole and the other flicks a bamboo rod with a small hook at the end. No bait or lures.

Alstonia wood

Their stilts of alstonia wood (Alstonia macrophylla), driven a metre or more into the reef, are adorned with water bottles and plastic bags for the catch.

Close-up of brightly coloured stilt fisherman on his pole
Their stilts of alstonia wood are driven a metre or more into the reef. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The whole thing looks like a hangover from ancient times, but it’s not.

There were no Sri Lankan stilt fishermen until World War II, when food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots encouraged some lateral (or, in this case, vertical) thinking.

At first they used the wreckage of capsized ships and downed aircraft, but the wooden poles have proven much more durable.

Meagre catches

After a couple of generations selling meagre catches at local markets – plus the massive impact of the deadly 2004 tsunami – there are few legitimate stilt fishermen left.

Where once 500 men perched above the tide in a 30 km stretch between Unawatuna and Weligama, now there is just a handful. And most of them are ‘actors’ on rented stilts.

Brightly garbed

These often brightly garbed stooges are there to put on a show for the tourists, who happily fork out considerably more than the value of a bag of herring to watch and photograph the anglers doing their stuff.

How do they collect the money from way out there on their stilts? Simple. They have a very efficient commission agent on shore. And in case you were wondering, I think 1000 rupees (about $10) is a fair price to watch the show for as long as you like.

Story ©Natural Images 2017

KAPITI ISLAND NATURE RESERVE

New Zealand tui feeding on flax flower nectar

 

New Zealand tui feeding on flax flower nectar
The beautifully marked and vocally gifted New Zealand tui. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Protecting New Zealand’s endangered species

It is a rare day indeed when you can take the boat trip to Kapiti Island – a nature reserve northwest of Wellington, New Zealand – on a mirror-like Tasman Sea.

“They don’t come much better than this,” said the Department of Conservation (DOC) guy while rummaging through my camera bags before boarding the boat. (Presumably he was referring to the clear blue sky and positively balmy morning temperatures, rather than the quality of my packing.)

“Apologies,” he added apologetically, “but I’m just checking for rodents, ants, seeds and soil before you head off.” The island is predator-free and DOC intends to keep it that way.)

Endangered natives

Clearly visible just 5km off the west coast of the lower North Island – Kapiti is an important sanctuary for some of New Zealand’s most endangered native species. About 10 km long and 2 km wide, access is by permit only and numbers are restricted.

Although all precautions are taken to protect the birds and other animals, they are not totally safe. In 2010 a stoat – an introduced mustelid responsible for decimating New Zealand’s birdlife – was seen on the island. Three were eventually caught and killed by DOC. It is likely the ‘killers’ swam the 5km from the mainland.

New Zealand bellbird on a flax bush
Forget the drab plumage, the New Zealand bellbird (korimako) has a voice to die for. Photo: ©Tony Neilson.

Waged savage war

I spent most of my life in New Zealand and observed Kapiti from afar on many trips to Wellington. But it was only recently, while on a visit from my current home in North Queensland, that I finally set foot on the island where Maori tribes once waged savage war on each other, and Europeans slaughtered and boiled down passing whales.

It is a happy irony that much of the modern day birdlife is comfortable with human presence. Almost everywhere you walk there are tui (a very large and strikingly marked honeyeater) and bellbirds (the only living member of the genus Anthornis) – both gorging on nectar from abundant native flax.

The explorer Captain James Cook apparently said the bellbird (korimako) song “seemed to be like small bells most exquisitely tuned”.

Complex speech

Its morning chorus companion the tui is even more impressive in the vocal department. Of similar intelligence to parrots, it was trained by Maori to replicate complex speech, and includes clicks, cackles and timber-like creaks and groans, and wheezing sounds in its repertoire. Indeed, some of its range is beyond the human register.

As every Aussie birder is quick to point out to the Kiwi cousins, New Zealand is no longer blessed with a great number of endemic bird species. In fact, there are just 89 left, according to Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society (Forest and Bird) figures.

An inquisitive New Zealand North island robin
Like so many of the species, the North Island robin (teutouwai) on Kapiti Island is a friendly and inquisitive resident. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Terrestrial species

Forty-seven per cent of the country’s terrestrial species have gone extinct since human occupation 700 years ago. Including ‘imports’, Forest and Bird says that leaves 231 species, with 69 globally threatened.

But the scale of that devastation is easy to forget when you sit under a tree on Kapiti Island and listen to the sounds of the bird-filled forest and watch a huge pod of dolphins cavorting in the clear, cool water just a few metres from the beach.

Thirty-five bird species are known to inhabit the island and I managed to photograph, hear or see 22 of them without too much effort.

I suggest you include a trip to Kapiti Island on your birding bucket list.

Story and pictures ©Tony Neilson