In the tropical dry lowlands of Sri Lanka, there is thin sliver of time when there is both light for photography and the coolness of dawn. An interval of time when the sun hovers on the horizon, as if seemingly undecided whether to usher in another day and there is just enough light for photographers to shoot a landscape which has not been punctured by harsh and contrasty light.
In July 2018 , I was at Backwaters Lodge in Eluvankulama around 5 kilometers from Wilpattu National Park. I knew that as the sun edged over the horizon, daggers of light would rake through the surrounding scrub forest. For some early morning photography in non-contrasty light I had slipped out onto the viewing deck outside my window. It was still dark when I came out and I could hear an endemic Brown-capped Babbler uttering its characteristic ‘pritee dear pritee dear’ call. Thanks to its call we now know that it is one of the most widespread endemic birds. It is also common wherever reasonably sized patches of forest, even if only a few hundreds of acres, remain. But it is a shy and discrete bird and someone not familiar with its call or song could spend a lifetime in a forest where the bird is common and not be aware of its existence. The babbler called for nearly half an hour and then fell silent as the sky brightened and the canopies of the forest trees slowly resolved into view.
Each room in Backwaters Lodge is mounted on stilts and has been carefully inserted into scrub forest without cutting down any trees. I was not high up, but the few feet of elevation gave me a view above the ground level tangle of scrub onto the branching canopy of trees from where I could see a Giant Squirrel. This was the dry zone race in shades of brown and yellow. The highland race is black and yellow. Giant Squirrels become used to people and this one only kept a half watchful eye on me. Of more concern to it would be raptors such as the Crested Hawk-eagle and Serpent Eagle which would prey on an unwary squirrel. The Giant Squirrels in the wet zone have the additional problem of the Black Eagle which can thread its way through the forest canopy and has squirrels as an important component of its diet.
A White-rumped Shama began to sing a subdued song. The Shama is a beautiful bird with a conspicuous white rump and a long tail. It would seem to be one of the most conspicuous birds in the forest. Although they occasionally do show themselves off, they have a habit of singing from the dense undergrowth and are more often seen than heard. They are one of five birds found in Sri Lanka with a double larynx which are accomplished songbirds. They are the Sri Lankan equivalent of the Nightingale found in Europe. From the deck I scanned the forest around it and I noticed another Shama perched in view a few feet away from my room. At Backwaters, the Shamas are very comfortable with people. I was even shown a nest constructed inside a vent coming out of one of the rooms. I noticed the Shama in view was adding a subdued end note or two to the subdued song of the singer in front of the room which was concealed from view. I listened and watched for a few minutes as the pair duetted. I had not been aware that Shamas duetted. It is known in other birds. The endemic Ceylon Scimitar Babbler is a well-known example where the male sings a lovely bubbling song which ends with a ‘krik’ note uttered by the female who has the last word.
As the morning light flooded in and temperatures rose, my wife joined me on the deck and we decided to go for a nature walk around the property. The lodge has 500 feet of waterfront and 7 acres of forested grounds. A nature trail circles the property and on it we could see dung deposited by at least one elephant which visits the property. The previous night a few of us had spent half an hour looking for the nocturnal Grey Slender Loris using red filters on our torch to avoid disturbance. Due to the risk of elephants, our search was confined to the section around the lodge’s dining area and we did not venture into the areas of closed canopy where the prospects of seeing a loris were best.
As the scrub forest was only minimally disturbed during construction, a profusion of butterflies was quartering the ground. Small Orange-tip Butterflies whizzed around at dizzying speed and settled down under a Keeriya tree in the car park allowing me to take photographs. I also noticed a number of Silverlines and after much trying Sanoo, one of the staff who doubles as a naturalist found one which was obligingly perched and still. The butterfly I was keenest on photographing was the Banded Peacock. Several were constantly in flight; even flying around the dining area. I eventually found one perched on a plant in a deeply shaded section of the trail. A bird had snipped through its hindwings. At that time I thought it was a perfect example of the eyes of the hindwing acting as a target for birds and drawing a strike away from the head and body of the butterfly. A couple of weeks later I was at Cheshunt in the Lee Valley Country Park near London on one of the many walks organised by the London Bird Club. I noticed a Comma Butterfly which had similar wing damage and was still actively flying around. The Comma does not have ‘eyes’ on the wing and this dents the theory that the eye spots have evolved as diversionary targets for predators. However, I won’t rule out that an ‘eye’ may serve a defensive purpose.
The Backwaters Lodge is one of many properties that are now providing lodging for people who are accessing Wilpattu National Park through the Eluvankulama entrance. It complements the long established Hunuwilagama entrance which is used by the majority of the visitors. On a previous visit to Wilpattu National Park I observed that it has a limited number of guides available from the Eluvankulama entrance and visitors planning to use their own vehicle may need to wait until a guide becomes available. For anyone visiting the national park, I would recommend using one of the local safari operators whose vehicles are allowed in without a guide from the park office. Although the national park was only a few kilometres away from the lodge, on this visit I skipped the park and opted instead to use the grounds of the Backwaters Lodge as a private nature reserve and spent most of my time on the property photographing wildlife.