Thursday, 31 December 2015

Sri Lanka November/December 2015 Part 12 Whales to Wales

Our week in Mirissa was most enjoyable despite the continued rather changeable weather. A shower was virtually an everyday occurrence still but it didn't effect our enjoyment one little bit. The Spice House has ample outdoor but undercover space and no matter the weather it was always warm.
There isn't a huge amount to do in Mirissa unless you are interested in surfing , sunbathing or whale watching, which actually is enough to satisfy most people for a typical beach holiday. There are lots of restaurants right on the beach but we favoured just wandering down there for a sundowner.
Mirissa beach      Sri Lanka
The food at the Spice House too good to miss!
We decided we would go on a whale watching trip but would watch the weather to try and maximise our enjoyment. Guests at the hotel reported getting soaked to the skin and getting very seasick during the first few days we were there, we waited for 5 days before taking the plunge. Sightings had been sparse so far, we weren't expecting too much, particularly compared to our last trip when we had seen two Orca ( Killer Whale) at very,very close quarters. Still, we might see something new and it would break up the week. We chose one of several whale watching trips available, "Raja and the Whales". They come out number one on Trip Advisor and we were to find out very soon that they fully justify this position.
They are the first boat to leave port, around 6.30am,and they head out on their own. The others hunt in a pack and tend to carry far more passengers on most of them. I think we had 30-35.. Sailing in a pack means you have a better chance of finding a whale but it also means the whale is more likely to be disturbed . 
We took a couple of hours to get out as far as the shipping lanes where you find the whales on migration and despite searching failed to find anything. The sea was extremely choppy and people , including Claire who is normally fine, started to succumb to sea sickness. She went down to the lower deck leaving only myself and a handful of people upstairs where you felt the full sway of the boat.
Eventually the captain must have decided to join the pack as they reported having found a single specimen of Blue Whale. We arrived just in time to see it dive some  distance away but before long it was up again and this time very close however we were facing the sun and my pictures were both badly exposed and the subject blurred.
Whale watching    Sri Lanka
The sea might look flat but acquiring focus was pretty tricky. I was disappointed to say the least.
I had a trick up my sleeve though, I had recently purchased a polarising filter, I'd give it a try out to see if that helped. 
The whale resurfaced but once again my shots where a disaster. They were all far too dark. The filter has a little cog with which you adjust the amount of filtering, I had obviously overdone it. Once again I struggled with the heaving boat as I had to peel back the lenses protective covers before getting at the filter. It was then I realised I'd put it in back to front! Idiot, try again.
The problem was would the whale show again?
For a while we had nothing. The following pack dispersed back to port leaving just three boats, including ours. One of them seemed to be a non standard vessel whose manoeuvres didn't seem to be what you'd expect but rather they were attempting to push in front all the time. Raja and the Whales charge a little bit more than most but you get the best service. After the other two boats fell away and returned to port we carried on to get several more sightings.
The whale was fairly close too, here you can see the  "blow hole".
Blue Whale     Sri Lanka
In fact the views we had were much better than on our previous trip when we'd been far from impressed. Mind you we had just had a very close encounter with the Orcas beforehand.
Blue Whale     Sri Lanka
As the sea was that much rougher more of the whale seemed to be revealed but it's still the tip of the iceberg so to speak.
The main attraction is the tail.
Blue Whale     Sri Lanka
A casual flick as it dives down in to deeper water.
Blue Whale     Sri Lanka
You can clearly see all the Suckerfish that latch on to it's body to hitch a ride.
Blue Whale     Sri Lanka
The true enormity of the Blue Whale remains a mystery to me. You can only imagine what lies below the surface.When viewed at a different angle the tail appears much bigger but it's still relatively small compared to the overall size of it's owner.
Blue Whale     Sri Lanka
A magical sight.
Blue Whale     Sri Lanka
We returned to port well after everyone else, in fact it was 2.00pm whereas normally you get back as the others had done, around 12.00pm. All the boats guarantee a whale sighting or the offer of a free trip for another go and Raja is no exception. You got the impression that the other companies had just provided a whale sighting and called it quits. On the other hand maybe the passengers had had enough too!
Raja and the Whales     Sri Lanka
An early start and the sleepy effect of seasick pills took it's toll and I seemed the only person alert on the boat! Well. besides the crew of course.
I was happy with the outcome. We had seen just one whale but had had quite a few views, 6, maybe 7. It's speed is steady as is the time it spends submerged so it's a guessing game where and when it comes to the surface. Our boat had done well.
After 7 days in Mirissa it was time to head home, OK, I had seen only one new species to add to my bird list for the trip, a White-browed Bulbul
White-browed Bulbul     Sri Lanka
but I had made no attempt other than on the whale trip to take my big camera kit out looking for anywhere else, more than content with the hotel garden.
We did have one other encounter each evening we walked to the beach. The local fish stall has a near permanent resident which I captured with the 18mm lens of my Olympus Tough.
Cattle Egret     Sri Lanka
Who needs an electronic device to keep away the flies when you have this environmentally sound version. Just make sure you wash the fish!
As our flight back to the UK was at 4.00am and we had to arrive well in advance we had decided to take a taxi late on in the evening , after a final dinner at the Spice House in fact. They had kindly made a room available for us to shower and change and the taxi, which departed at 9.00am took the slower route to the airport with our full approval. That way we could catch a nap on the way which was just as well, yet again, and for the 4th time in 6 attempts Qatar Airways failed to get us to the connecting flight to Manchester so we had another 6 hours to add to the journey.
Once again, a letter has been sent questioning their claim to being the "World's Five Star Airline".
I await a reply.
Who knows, it might result in some more flight vouchers and then the decision where we will go next.
I wouldn't discount another return to Sri Lanka!

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Sri Lanka November/December 2015 Part 11 The Spice House , Mirissa.

For our final stop we had chosen the The Spice House in Mirissa. It's a superb guest house/ boutique hotel and we booked it months in advance to make sure we got in. We were also able to choose which room we had and owner Phil advised me of the one he thought would best suit my photo ambitions.
I wasn't expecting too much ... but how wrong can you be! Our last week was chosen very much with Claire in mind. There's a nice beach, some lovely spots to enjoy a sundowner and then there's the Spice House.
Our room backed on to the woods at the rear of the property, the grounds are beautifully landscaped and there is even a small pond too. When we arrived we were surprised to see how much more change had been achieved in just two years since our last visit.
The hotel has a website which features the garden wildlife
So that was my personal challenge, to see if I could add anything! The newly extended swimming pool would be ideal for Claire and I'd probably spend more time on our room's wrap around balcony half reading, half keeping an eye out.
Within hours I was already delighted to capture what is my best Asian Paradise Flycatcher shot to date.
Asian Paradise Flycatcher
I spent all week trying to capture the males too but they are a much bigger challenge.
They don't often appear in full view, usually heading straight for cover. I guess if you are dragging that tail about it does make you more vulnerable to predation, and there were Shikra about
Asian Paradise Flycatcher breeding male
I cursed my luck when the non-breeding male landed in full view and stayed out for what seemed like an age but I couldn't get my camera off the tripod and aimed at him in time. By the time I was ready he had also retreated in to the bushes too. 
Asian Paradise Flycatcher non breeding male
By deliberately cropping his tail out of the shot I have something presentable though I think, my first ever white morph shot!
It isn't just an obsession I have with Paradise Flycatchers, I'm also hooked on Orioles as they tend to be highly attractive and elusive too. The  Black-hooded ones here were much more co-operative and if you put the time in you eventually got your reward.
Black-hooed Oriole 1

I was so lucky during the course of the 7 days.
Black-hooed Oriole 2
Getting quite a few decent showings and making up for the failure to get one in Waikkal at our first stop.
Black-hooed Oriole 3
A lot of the birds were quite distant, maybe 20m away or more so a big lens was an advantage for this Common Iora
Common Iora
and the Ring-necked Parakeet up a nearby tree.
Ring-necked Parakeet
There were lots of species I'd already seen.
Spotted Dove are really common everywhere we went in Sri Lanka. 
Spotted Dove
So too surprisingly, Brown Shrike.
Brown Shrike
On the other hand this Black-rumped Flameback I only saw once at Yala.
Black-rumped Flameback
I certainly didn't expect a Crested Serpent Eagle in a garden setting.
Crested Serpent Eagle
Although Oriental Magpie -Robin was an almost certainty.
Oriental Magpie-Robin
Common Mynah are exactly that in Sri Lanka although not in all of neighbouring India.
Common Mynah Bird
I was delighted to get my first decent Purple-rumped Sunbird photo our trip too.
Loten's Sunbird
and a Greater Coucal in a more natural setting than some I'd got.
Greater Coucal
The Brown-headed Barbet was a regular visitor.
Green Barbet
The Asian Brown Flycatcher too.
Asian Brown Flycatcher
There were two species I was particularly pleased with.
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater4
Both the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater 3
and the White-bellied Drongo 
White-bellied Drongo 2
showed magnificently.
White-bellied Drongo 1
As did the Orange-breasted Pigeon
Orange-breasted Pigeon
and the Sri Lankan White-eye
Sri Lankan White-Eye 1
but in many ways the stars were the monkey's.
A troupe of Torque Macaque were regulars
Toque Macaque 2
Both adults and youngsters.
Toque Macaque 3
You had to be careful to keep out of the way when there are young ones about, though, the males are very protective.
Not in the least bit afraid of Ginger the dog who was always conveniently elsewhere and not on our balcony when the Macaques were on the move!!!
Ginger  AW9W0559
Without a doubt though the best species on show were the Purple-faced Langurs.
Purple-faced Langur 2
They are much shyer than the Macaques and didn't show signs of aggression whatsoever.
Purple-faced Langur 1
We had visits everyday we were there.
Purple-faced Langur 3
What a privilege to be able to watch these , an endangered and endemic species at such close quarters.
No the Spice House was an outstanding choice to spend a week. Check it out on Trip Advisor , the food is stunning too!

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Sri Lanka November/December 2015 Part 10 Tissamaharama

We were down to one whole last day before leaving Kirinda and heading up the coast to our last stop at Mirissa. I wasn't expecting too much in the way of birding there although there was an option to make an early start and head for the Sinharaja Forest. That would be a £100 trip and from what I could gather, entering from the southern end a possible waste of money. I knew I also had the option of whale watching trips from Marissa too so once again I had to decide what to do on the last day. It would be a shame to waste an opportunity, I might never come back but did I really want to spend another £100 going back to Yala ? No, I had to draw a line really and I felt the return visit may well be an anti climax as the first one had been so outstanding.
Then I remembered!
I'd read about the Wirawila Tissa sanctuary which wasn't very far away. Doable by TukTuk perhaps ? I asked how much it might cost and the hotel manager reckoned you could hire a TukTuk for a whole day for 2000 rupees, that's about £9. That was the answer! I ordered a Tuk Tuk for the next morning and off we headed towards Tissamaharama ( say that after a few beers!) which is the largest town in the region. The TukTuk driver must have had an idea of where I wanted to go and off we went passing hoards of people transferring from coaches to safari jeeps heading to Yala. Most of them appeared to be Sri Lankans and I guess it's a great way to spend a Sunday, however my thought was avoid weekends if possible. It's even more crowded than normal weekdays.
Anyway, we passing alongside a lake which had a sort of promenade and I spotted some Jacanas. I asked him to stop and sure enough I was soon snapping away.
The sun was still coming up and the light a bit iffy but I was getting better views than anything I'd seen in Bundala.
In fact the sun was coming up quite quickly now.
A pair of Pelican were out on the lake.
and a Darter fishing very close in.
Better still a pair of Cotton Pygmy-Geese were a little way out too. My best ever views.
This was pretty good. Where next I wondered and off we went first stopping at a temple where in a nearby tree there were dozens of Night Heron, some still arriving at the roost.
A few hundred yards further and trees packed out with hundreds of Fruit Bats, again some of them still flying.
Others doing their Dracula impressions.
Off we went again and this time turned up a rough track that followed another lake.
A Little Cormorant was sunning itself.
I got out of the TukTuk and told the driver I was going to walk around the lake. The main reason was the noise from the TukTuk was pretty deafening and was scaring everything away. I wandered on and the TukTuk followed at a distance behind. He'd warned me to be careful of Crocodiles so perhaps he was keeping an eye on my safety. I did actually come across a huge one but it was a distance from the track and no threat. I walked past a man keeping an eye on the field on the opposite side of the track and just as I settled down to photograph some Grey-headed Purple Swamphen he started banging and clapping. The Swamphens were off and I wasn't too pleased either. I can only assume he was scaring off birds on his side of the track but he did me a favour too. Looked what he flushed from the reeds in front of me!
It settled out in the open too!
I approached with trepidation and care but it had no effect. Crepuscular and shy says my guide book.
Really ?!
It wandered out in to the open
and out came the neck!
I doubt I'll ever get such prolonged and close views ever again. OK so the bokah might be wanting but hey! The Yellow Bittern might have stayed longer but unfortunately for me a local came and opened the sluice gates in front of where I was stood and the Bittern flew off. Still I had had enough time to get as many shots as I needed.
I had barely got to terms with that experience when a pair of Tawny-bellied Babblers appeared in the scrub alongside the road.
I'd only had a brief glimpse of one on my last trip and certainly no decent images.
I was already feeling well rewarded before finding some more Swamphens that looked good in the bright sunshine compared to the dull light at Bundala.

Nice looking birds but a slight anti-climax! I was being spoilt now.


I was still photographing the Swamphens when a young lad on a pushbike approached my TukTuk driver. It appeared he was offering to show me some Owls if I was interested.
Interested ?   You bet!!!
We followed the boy on the bike for a short distance before stopping outside a small bungalow. There in the eaves a pair of Oriental Scops Owls were roosting.
Moving to the other side it was quite bizarre as whilst I was setting up the camera I was also saying hello to the boy's mother who was ironing just inside the open front door.
With people coming and going all day it seemed this pair were bomb proof.
Would I like to see some Brown Fish Owls next?
Of course I would!
The driver suggested that I gave the lad a few rupees which I had intended doing anyway but I hadn't anything smaller than a 1000 note so we stopped at a shop to get some change and he was delighted with the 300 I gave him so off we went to see the next Owl. Sadly though it was a non starter. We were shown a narrow footpath that took us down to a river where there was a tree the Owl favoured, however, the river was a raging torrent and had flooded over the banks. No way was I going anywhere near it. Getting a photo suicidal as far as my gear went if not for me too. We thanked the lad and bade him farewell.
My driver took it I'd had enough and headed back to the hotel. It was still quite early at around 10am but I didn't argue. I had had an amazing morning and was happy to spend the rest of the day by the pool. On our return I asked him what I owed him and the reply of give me what you think you should pay always makes you realise that they know they will end up getting a lot more than they probably should be getting. Gave hime 1700, and he seemed happy. My morning trip albeit fairly short had delivered more than Bundala had and all for less than £10.
My 8 days had gone well, so well I didn't even bother going out in the evening. I knew I had some decent images in the bag so no matter what I got in our final week was a bonus. A whale perhaps?