If you live in the suburbs of Colombo, all it takes is a quiet walk in your garden to enjoy the sights and sounds of an amazing variety of avifauna. Nilu and I were able to capture these lovely feathered visitors, wondering about our neighbourhood in Kiribath Gala Watta Road, Malabe.
As soon as we stepped out on our trek, we were able to capture one arboreal friend in stupefying action. It was a Rose-ringed Parakeet, who was caught taking flight off the dried stem of a banana leaf (see above). This parakeet is quite a noisy and social bird, chattering away and foraging in small flocks of five to ten.
The White-bellied Drongo seen above, a subspecies of the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, is the wise guy of the shrub jungle in Malabe. Brave, versatile, and able to imitate the calls of other birds and mammals, it is a formidable predator of insects, and strangely enough, a protector of small birds from prowling predators such as cats. It will mock and mob predators, and attempt to distract them from their hunting.
Species such as the Black-hooded Oriole (above) or the Flame-backed Woodpecker (bottom right) are endemic, and yet they seem to magically grow in abundance as Winter approaches in the North. Perhaps there is some kind of cross-species synergy, where the migrants’ chirpy activities energise the locals into action.
Sri Lanka has a dense avifauna, with around 433 species being recorded by experienced ornithologists. There are around 233 species of resident birds, of which 26 are endemic to the island. In addition to the many resident birds, around 200 migrant species can be spotted during the Northern winter season, as they try to escape the harsh weather and go in search of warmer climes and abundant feeding grounds.
Many of the resident species are also found in nearby India, but over 80 species have developed distinct Sri Lankan races. Some of these races are very different in their plumage characteristics from the related forms in India, while others such as the Brown-headed Barbet (below) look more or less the same throughout the Indian Subcontinent.
The brown-headed barbet is common in gardens throughout the city. It eats fruit and insects. It is tolerant of humans and is often seen in and around Colombo, hidden amongst the dense greenery.
The Barbet nests in a tree hole, laying two to four eggs. It consumes mangos, jack fruit, papaya, banana, figs and similar cultivated fruit. Its habitat includes urban and country gardens and dense forest. It will find a suitable hole in a tree that it will often excavate out, not unlike a woodpecker (hence the Sinhalese name “Polos Kottoruwa” or Jackfruit Woodpecker).
A breeding pair will take turns to incubate the eggs, communicating closely with each other using their Currrrrooook, Currrrooooook calls.
Nilu and I have been able to spot over 60 species of birds in our neighbourhood in Malabe, ranging from the common crow to rare migrants such as the Indian Pitta. Interesting common genera of passerines to watch out for in Colombo include Flycatchers of all sorts, Woodpeckers, Kingfishers, Robins, Babblers, Coucals, Mynas, Bulbuls, Drongos, Munias, Orioles, Ioras, Sunbirds, Tailorbirds, Doves (such as the Spotted Dove seen below) and Sparrows. If one is lucky, one is able to get a glimpse of a less common species of these common passerine genera, such as the Green-billed Coucal or its White-morph, the Indian Paradise Flycatcher.
A Spotted Dove, a very common form of pigeon found throughout the Indian Subcontinent, is seen below roosting on a coconut leaf at dusk, its feathers fluffed due to the chilly breeze. Doves are more or less entirely herbivorous, feeding on grain, seeds and other edible plant matter. The arrival of a nesting pair is easily noticed, because of their noisy, flamboyant courtship.
The spotted dove is found across a range of habitats including woodland, scrub, farmland and habitation. It has also proliferated as an introduced species, in countries like Mauritius, Australia, Hawaii, and even the south-western coast of the United States.
The best place to photograph the more restless species is of course on dried twigs high up in the canopy. As luck would have it, there is just such a dried branch opposite our bedroom balcony. This Ashy Prinia (below) was perched on it, happily crooning away its distinctive che-che-chip, che-che-chip song. Prinias (or Old-world warblers) are a genus of small insectivorous birds belonging to the passerine family.
Another very common but handsome bird is the Red-vented Bulbul (Sinhala: Kondaya, see below). It’s cry is quite similar to the Oriole’s, and its easy to mistake the two if one is not experienced. The oriole’s cry is more flute-like and resonant, while the Bulbul’s is a bit harsh.
The Red-vented Bulbul is usually an insectivore, and we have observed them consuming butterflies, grasshoppers and bees. However, its also a famous killer of the house Gecko, perching near habitations and swooping down upon the unsuspecting little house-gators when whey come out into the open. Together with the common Magpie Robin and its Indian migrant counterpart the Black Robin (left), the Bulbul makes short work of most garden parasites like slugs, snails and earthworms.
I thought it appropriate to end this brief essay with a photographic tribute to two more common, lovely (and sometimes nasty) arboreal denizens of gardens in Colombo: the Coucal (below) and the Common Babbler (further down).
The Coucal (Centropus sinensis) seen below eats anything from nestlings to baby squirrels. It is the true devil bird of the city, a badass who makes no bones about killing. The male is a good papa though, looks after his young, sharing parental responsibilities with mom.
The best time for spotting passerines is just after Dawn (6.30 AM – 7.30 AM) and at Dusk (5.30 PM – 6.15 PM). The biggest problem for photographers though is the low ambient lighting at these times. The Babbler below required ISO 800 to compensate for the early morning gloom. Common perching places for the bolder birds include the large leaf complex of Coconut Palms and Banana Plants.
The migrant season for birds is said to be hotting up, so fish out your binoculars and get moving!
Story | Ruwan Rajapakse (all technical info sourced from Wikipedia)
Photography | Nilu Rajapakse (Oriole, Drongo), Ruwan Rajapakse (Parrot, Woodpecker, Barbet, Dove, Prinia, Bulbul, Robin, Coucal, Babbler)