The central highlands in Sri Lanka give access to their interior through a high mountain pass in Ella. The A2 which winds down from the pass loses elevation fairly sharply to drop into the lowlands passing through the agricultural town of Wellawaya. Here one is at a cross road. Go East and one reaches the East coast with sandy beaches and warm seas. Go West and the lower slopes of the drier Uva hills are met. This is the intermediate zone where species from both the wet zone and dry zone meet and mingle. The intermediate zone around the small town of Moneragala is particularly special with plants and animals not found anywhere in Sri Lanka.
My tour to exploring the wildlife potential of Eastern Sri Lanka was starting at Jetwing Kaduruketha, a hotel bordering paddy lands in Wellawaya, close to the enigmatic rocky outcrops of the Moneragala range which are rich in archaeological remains. The drive of around 6 hours from Colombo had taken us past the southern boundary of Uda Walawe National Park. If I had not been pressed for time, I would have stayed here one night and taken two game drives. This would have also broken the road journey to Kaduruketha into two legs of short and pleasurable drives. Kaduruketha is a former estate bungalow which had fallen into disrepair. Sunela Jayewardene, the architect of Jetwing Vil Uyana has used the old bungalow as inspiration and created a reception and dining area which looks across the paddy fields bounded in the distance by a small range of hills. Looking to the right the fields are bordered by tall riverine forest that flanks a forest stream. During the rains it would turn into a gushing river. The riverine forests hold some of the tallest and largest Kumbuk trees I have noticed. They reminded me of Antoni Gaudi’s work; tree-like columns in the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
With Ishandha Senevirathne the resident naturalist of Kaduruketha, we met for a pre-breakfast bird watching walk. As I walked from the chalet to the reception, loud cries of Indian Peafowl and a Crested Serpent Eagle circling in the air reached me. Just outside the main building a pair of endemic Ceylon Red-backed Woodpeckers was exploring the trunks of old trees for grubs. Brown-headed Barbets were joined by the endemic Ceylon Small Barbet which is more typical of the wet zone. Occasionally another endemic, typical of the wet zone, the Ceylon Hanging-parrot would fly overhead. We birdwatched around the reception area where within half an hour or so we saw over twenty species. On one of the larger trees was an endemic Painted-lipped Lizard. Sri Lanka has twenty-one species of agamid lizards (or Dragon Lizards) and all but two are endemic; an unusually high rate of endemism thanks to parts of the island being long isolated from peninsular India.
On the paddy fields, a grove of trees held the intricately woven nests of a colony of Baya Weavers. The male builds a nest and invites a female to inspect his handiwork. Other open country birds such as Jerdon’s Bushlarks as well as seed eaters such as Scaly-breasted Munias were present.
Butterfly species lay their eggs only on specific larval host plants. Several species of skippers in Sri Lanka require certain species of grasses. Seeing a skipper, we paused to photograph it. I thought it may come in useful in a further edition of the Naturalist’s Guide to Butterflies and Dragonflies of Sri Lanka I have authored which was published by John Beaufoy Publishing. Some skippers can be quite wary, this one was confiding and allowed a close approach.
We entered the riverine forest and listened to Small Minivets and Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes in the canopy. In the distance a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher sang its little musical ditty. A Stork-billed Kingfisher flew by, a flash of blue against a dull green background. A juvenile Crested Serpent Eagle was walking on the exposed rounded pebbles on the bed of the shrunken river. Some ripe yellow figs caught my attention and I explained the horrific story of how fig trees perpetuate themselves, a story given a full page in the Naturalist’s Guide to the Trees of Sri Lanka published by John Beaufoy Publishing.
Each fig tree requires a specific fig wasp to pollinate it. A female will enter a fig which is a spherical enclosure for the flowers which are arranged on the inside surface of the hollow fig. The figs produce three kinds of flowers; male, female and gall flowers. The female lays its eggs in the gall flowers and dies. Amazingly, the fig tree even provides nutrients to the eggs of the fig wasp which are in its gall flowers in an act of inter-species parenting. The male wasps hatch first and mate with the females that are still developing. The males born into darkness then die in darkness having never seen daylight and having only lived for a few hours as adults. The females leave the fig through a tiny opening collecting male pollen as they leave which will fertilise the female flowers of a fig they enter. The females will never eat. They lay their eggs and die.
My companions on the walk, Ishanda, Isuri, Senal and Nilushan listened with astonishment at the dark deeds of the fig tree to get itself pollinated. Back in the dining area we asked one of the kitchen staff to cut one of the figs neatly into halves. Viewed through the close-up camera of a smartphone we could make out newly hatched fig wasps wriggling inside the fig.