A huge call for a small country | Sunday Observer
Endemic Birds of Sri Lanka

A huge call for a small country

12 August, 2018

Rich. That’s what you can call this small island nation Sri Lanka. It hides jewels not only in its soil but in the air as well. Famous for its biodiversity, the country boasts having 464 bird species (varieties) recorded of which 34 are found only within its shores. According to wildlife experts this is a huge claim for a small country. Endemic birds enthralled wildlife enthusiasts when renowned naturalist Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne recently delivered the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society’s (WNPS) monthly lecture titled, Endemic Birds of Sri Lanka. Here are some excerpts from the lecture and presentation.

What makes Sri Lanka a ‘super rich wildlife destination’?

Sri Lanka’s richness of wildlife rests in physical, evolutionary and human factors. Being an island with land bridges to the mainland had brought in a variety of wildlife into the country. The mountainous core and two diagonally blowing monsoons had created a luscious wet zone making it the richest rainforest in the region. The mountains also work as rain shadow creating dry conditions in other areas. The mountain ranges had further cut off some areas of the country isolating them as niches of specific biodiversity conditions. This had created ideal conditions for speciation or for wildlife to get conditioned to the specifics of a geographic area and evolve to be different from other members of the same group.

Thirty four bird species had been identified as ‘endemic’ in Sri Lanka. The number of endemics could change from time to time. Modern technology, such as, molecular studies had helped the identification of endemic birds. Molecular studies had revealed that the Ceylon White-eye is of a different origin and not a sister species of the Oriental White-eye, as was believed. It had also helped in identifying the Red-Backed Woodpecker as a different species.

Where do you find endemic birds in Sri Lanka?

Endemic birds of Sri Lanka could be found at the most unexpected areas if one is alert. Some species such as, the Ceylon Small Barbet could even be found in the heart of Colombo. Ceylon Red-backed Woodpecker is spread through three fourths of the country while the Ceylon Swallow could be seen throughout.

However, endemics are mostly found in the wet zone rainforest and montane area. Sinharaja, Kithulgala, Bodhinagala and Horton Plains are the best sites to visit for sighting of endemic birds.

The Sinharaja Bird Wave is the easiest place where one could see many endemic birds. A bird wave is a flock of birds from different species who move together foraging. The Sinharaja Bird Wave is a natural marvel and is called the largest mixed species flocks in the world. Unlike in other countries where bird waves are gone within minutes, the Sinharaja Bird Wave happens at a very leisurely pace and could last a few hours. On average, a bird wave consists of about 41 individual birds from 12 species. However, the number of species could be as high as 21. The Sinharaja bird wave acts like a super organism with a fascinating social structure with some species playing key roles. Different species occupy different levels of the canopy. Some are fruit eaters, some catch the insects, while others are omnivores. There are different bird waves that form in different parts of the forest. They have their routine and their order of crossing. The Ceylon Crested Drongo is the species who calls the gathering and one of the first to cross along with Ceylon Rufous Babblers. Next in the order to cross over are the Ashy Headed Laughing Thrushes. The Red-faced Malkohas are some of the last species to cross and could be seen in the canopy. White-faced Starlings, Layard’s Parakeet, Ceylon Hanging Parrot are some of the birds who join the wave from time to time though not permanent members of any flock.

While most endemics could be found within the wet zone the Montane forest and the dry zone are not without its share of the birds. The Yellow-fronted Barbet, Ceylon Wood Pigeon and the Ceylon Whistling Thursh (Arenga) could be seen at Horton Plains.

Ceylon Bush Warbler, Dusky Blue Flycatcher, Ceylon White Eye and Yellow Eared Bulbuls are some others found at higher elevations. The Ceylon Jungle fowl, Ceylon Green Pigeon, Ceylon Grey Hornbill and Ceylon Woodshrike are some of the endemic birds that frequent the dry zone.

Specialities of the endemic birds

Serendib Scops-Owl is a special bird, as it is a new species discovered in the early 2000s. They like secondary growth and could be found in places such as Morapitiya, close to human habitat. The Chestnut-backed Owlet is a day bird though many regard all owls as nocturnal.

Nine of the bird species show pronounced sexual dimorphism (difference of appearance between the two sexes) the Ceylon Jungle fowl, Layard’s Parakeet and Ceylon Spurfowl being a few species where the male appear bright coloured and beautiful. The Ceylon Blue Magpie sports face decoration different to that of the female.

They have specialities in behaviour as well. The Blue Magpies are social breeders where the juvenile birds help taking care of the younger broods. The Yellow Billed Babblers are social nesters, everyone pitching in to share in the nesting process.