We ended up with 224 species, plus isabelline (Daurian) Shrike, Western
Reef Egret, White-cheeked Bulbul and a few others in Qatar. Under 'normal'
circumstances, 250 in Sri Lanka is quite feasible
We booked a birding driver/guide through Perry at Baurs (email@example.com)
- a tried and tested approach. If you possibly can, book Mr Sunil de
Alwis as your guide - he is without any doubt whatsoever the man! Totally
reliable, absolutely committed to your seeing as much as possible, very
friendly, good birding English, stacks of good sites and excellent company.
He is also very good at making himself scarce when you want some time
on your own. We recommend him without reservation.
Getting to Sri Lanka
We flew with Qatar Airways (quite a new operator, so some cheap deals
available) - £380 return by flying on Christmas Day - £100
more a day either side! Their flights go via Doha, and we had longish
stopovers each way - but they provided very good (and FREE!) overnight
hotel accommodation and meals, quite unprompted, at Doha. Could be worth
enquiring about this in advance if booking with QA. We recommend them
- good service, excellent entertainment, although too many screaming
babies on board...
The Sri Lankan rupee's 'background' rate is about 200 to the £UK,
but it appreciated sharply while we were in the country on account of
the massive inflow of $US after the tsunami disaster, and on news of
Sri Lanka's international debt commitments being suspended (to about
180 to the £UK). It's basically a very cheap country - we didn't
do our tour the cheapest way, but it was still great value. (Actually,
we were complete softies, largely staying in very luxurious AC hotels.
Don't tell any of the 'real birding crew' types we know
25th December - Fly from LHR-DOH; overnight Doha
26th December - Fly from DOH-COL; drive to Kitulgala
27th December - Kitulgala
28th December - am Kitulgala; drive to Ratnapura
29th December - drive to Sinharaja
30th December - Sinharaja
31st December - am Sinharaja; drive to Embilipitiya; marshes
near Udawalawe NP
1st January - Udawalawe NP
2nd January - Drive to Tissmaharama
3rd January - Tissamaharama and Yala NP
4th January - drive to Nuwara Eliya; Victoria Park
5th January - Horton Plains (Arrenga Pond); Victoria Park
6th January - Victoria Park; drive to Kandy; Udawattakele
7th January - Peradeniya Botanical Gardens; non-birding time
in Kandy; Udawattakele
8th January - Udawattakele; drive to Colombo; fly COL-DOH
9th January - Fly from DOH-LHR
Birding sites - hints and tips
By the river is a good spot for lunch - around here we had Tickell's
Blue Flycatcher, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Black Bittern and various
waterbirds. About 2km back towards Colombo from the Plantation Hotel,
there is a sign for Sisira's Riverside Lounge, with a Green-billed Coucal
illustration - appropriate really, as this was where we connected with
the species! Also around Sisira's we saw Indian Pitta, Southern Hill
Mynah, Lesser Yellownape, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Orange-billed Babbler,
Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Layard's Parakeet and above all a point blank
Sri Lanka Frogmouth, right by the buildings. Sisira himself is trying
to build up a small eco-lodge business - things aren't very sophisticated
yet, but his heart is very much in the right place, he could do with
the business, and birders' cash will help him preserve and develop the
patch of secondary forest he has on his land. Do support him. And as
a special note - it seems at least likely that Serendib Scops-owl occurs
in this very accessible forest. Will this become "the stake out"
in future years? Brown Hawk-owl is certainly here, too.
However, the best habitats are on the other side of the river - take
the foot ferry (two canoes with a couple of planks between them!) and
head uphill and right, through villages and fields towards the primary
forest reserve. Around the fields, we had Chestnut-backed Owlet, Sri
Lanka Hill Munia, Legge's Flowerpecker and our first Sri Lanka Rufous
Swallows. And in the forest proper, we connected with Sri Lanka (Racketless)
Drongo, Sri Lanka Scimitar-babbler, Black-naped Monarch, Malabar Trogon,
Mountain Hawk-eagle and the briefest Sri Lanka Junglefowl.
Not really very special as a bird site - this was mostly a transit
stop en route to Sinharaja. The road down the valley from the Ratnaloka
Hotel was fairly good, with various common species, plus Chestnut-headed
Bee-eater, White-browed Bulbul, Layard's Parakeet, and our only Small
Minivets, plus Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and Golden-fronted Leafbirds.
Brown Hawk-owl is reputed to roost in the rubber plantation on the left
hand side of the valley.
Plainly a top, top birding site, and stacked full of endemic butterflies,
plants and herptiles. Pretty hard to get a good feel for it in a short
time, although it is quite possible to connect with the really important
species in just one or two visits. We stayed at the fairly new Blue
Magpie Lodge at the foot of the hill - stay no further away than this,
as it's a good 25 minute jeep ride up to the entrance gate. [The well-known
Martin's Place up the hill is in a great location but is quite basic.]
From the road up the hill, we had Sri Lanka Mynah and Sri Lanka Blue
From the entrance gate to the Man & Biosphere Reserve, it's basically
a 2km walk to the research station and the really mature high rainforest,
through decent forest with some good raptor viewpoints. The first section
had invisible Brown-capped Babblers on the left, plus Sri Lanka Blue
Magpie, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Green Imperial Pigeon, and White-faced
Starlings in the open area on the right. We saw two Booted Eagles overhead.
The primary forest was hard work as always, but well worth the time
- Malabar Trogon, up to five Red-faced Malkohas (eventually!), plenty
of Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes, and many other typical forest species.
The Sri Lanka Blue Magpie nest was right above the stream where it crosses
the track by the research station. The tiny wet forest patch immediately
below the research station, by the river, has a good reputation for
Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, but we had no luck.
Another area worth a look is up the hill from the Blue Magpie Lodge,
but heading left instead of right up the jeep track. Serendib Scops-owl
occurs here, but again, we dipped
. Plenty of other forest birds
up here, though.
Re leeches - these guys may be small here, but they are very abundant
and not pleasant. TAKE LEECH SOCKS - you will not regret it. Pale colours
are best - then you can see them as they sprint up your calves!
Udawalawe National Park
A really easy site, and pleasingly decent birding from the unfortunately
obligatory jeep. Do go for a "full day" safari if you have
the time - we left at about 0730 and got back at around 1600 - half
day trips do not cover the full range of habitats, and we got the impression
that such trips hare about a bit after large mammals, not leaving enough
time for bird stops.
The key species fell into three groups:
1) Bush/scrub - Sirkeer Malkoha (cracking bird), Blue-faced Malkoha,
Pied Cuckoo, several Barred Button-quails on the tracks, numerous Black-headed
Munias and Jerdon's Bushlarks (n.b. a recent near-endemic Clements split
from Rufous-winged Bushlark), Tawny-bellied Babbler and masses of raptors
- Changeable Hawk-eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Pallid Harrier and Black-shouldered
Kite in particular. Mammals included stacks of Indian Elephants, Fishing
Cat, Chital, Water Buffalo etc.
2) Wetlands - the big reservoir at the heart of the NP has a handy
bungalow with a raised observation platform. Species here included Spot-billed
Pelican, Lesser Adjutant, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Painted Stork, Osprey,
lots of terns and a few waders.
3) Gallery forest - this is probably the habitat for which the NP is
least known. There are several forest bungalows down by the river -
a lunch stop here started worryingly with a six-foot Cobra (!), but
the birding was good, with several Forest Wagtails, Plaintive Cuckoo
and other bits and pieces. The wet forest by the river is supposed to
hold Orange-headed Ground-thrush too.
Special note: Sunil took us to a great little wetland (with a larger
lake beside it) by one of the many transverse roads across from the
main road to the NP - no idea how to find it! But if you ask around,
you might get lucky
. We had Watercock, Spot-bellied Pelican, Black-headed
Munia, Ashy Prinia, a juvenile Ixobrychus bittern in the gloaming, and
the fantastic spectacle of a huge mixed cormorant/darter/heron/egret
roost at dusk.
The birding here is really easy - it's almost all around the big lakes
(tanks) - stacks of Purple Swamphens, Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, kingfishers,
terns and herons everywhere. We also saw our only Ashy Wood-swallows
on wires here. In the coconut palm plantations by the western tank,
we were shown a Brown Fish Owl roost, and a White-naped Woodpecker nest
A very distressing and poignant visit to this famous National Park,
just a week after the tsunami. The habitat can be split into two - scrub
forest and estuarine wetlands. The former produced much the expected
birds, plus Rosy Starling, White-rumped Shama and Indian Nightjar at
dusk. In the wetter areas, there were plenty of waders, including Great
Thick-knee, both Sandplovers, Pacific Golden Plover and various sandpipers.
No real gen to provide - get a good jeep driver and guide, and keep
your fingers crossed for Leopard!
Nuwara Eliya & Horton Plains
Nuwara Eliya can be cold and wet, not to mention changeable! The key
site in town is Victoria Park - head for the rubbish dump / thicket
at the far right hand corner of the park, beside the very noisy bus
station. The key species here is Pied Thrush - mornings and evenings
eventually produced good views. Sri Lanka White-eye and Indian Pitta
were present in the clump, as was a female Kashmir Flycatcher, and there
was a Slaty-legged Crake on the stream, but we missed out on Indian
Blue Robin here, and there was no sign of the reputed Sri Lanka Scaly
Thrush. Also Yellow-eared Bulbul elsewhere in the park. It might be
worth asking for the gardener called 'Tony' at the park - he's pretty
knowledgeable and has rudimentary "birders' English", although
he may be a bit over-optimistic re what you're going to see as he curries
It might possibly be worth visiting the forest patch between town and
the Galway Forest Lodge Hotel - the shorter of the two approach roads
passes through thickets which (we were assured) have Sri Lanka Bush-warbler,
and then enters an area of high forest with a couple of obvious tracks.
Try to avoid the army base in the depth of the woods - they got a bit
. The woods here held Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Scarlet Minivet,
lots of Yellow-eared Bulbuls, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Forest Wagtail
and both White-eyes.
Horton Plains is an absolute must, of course, but you should aim to
leave town by 0500 to be in place for 0615 or so. We heard the Sri Lanka
Whistling Thrush calling almost immediately on arrival, right by Arrenga
Pond, and had good views in poor light as dawn broke - but then no more
sightings! In the wet, cold, swirling drizzle, we had Dull-blue Flycatcher
along the pond edge, along with Yellow-eared Bulbul, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher,
Sri Lanka White-eye and a surprise in the shape of a small Hippolais
warbler - surely a Sykes's Warbler (rama)?
Further towards the NP, just after a set of bungalows, the road passes
through a narrow belt of woodland - stop here to listen and look for
Sri Lanka Bush-warbler, plus Sri Lanka Scimitar-babbler, Dark-fronted
The best site here is undoubtedly Udawattakele forest, just behind
the Temple of the Tooth. It's amazingly quiet up here, a welcome relief
from the chaos and diesel fumes of the town centre. Count on a Rs.100+
tuktuk ride (tourist rates
) from your hotel. We found that nearly
all the best birds were within 500m of the Royal Lake, just near the
entrance. Brown Fish Owls were roosting on the far side of the lake
at the far end as you head up the hill to the right of the pond. Brown-capped
Babblers were common but inconspicuous in low bushy scrub along the
The best single spot was the thicket of bushes at the end of the lake
on the left as you enter the park, by the 'bandstand' - in here we saw
one of two male Indian Blue Robins, plus Indian Pitta and Tickell's
Blue Flycatcher. Further along this same path, as it rises and turns
sharply right, drop down off the path and follow a spur down to the
left, along what was plainly once a road/track. This area is reputed
to hold Spot-bellied Eagle-owl (no joy), but certainly does host roosting
Brown Wood Owl - we found ours in a really dark bit of thick creeper
in the very highest canopy, yet right over the path. You can find your
own owls just by looking in the right kind of place! An additional tip
is that the valley immediately below the dam at the Royal Lake has held
Oriental Three-toed Kingfisher in the past - though we didn't see one!
Blow-by-blow birding account
Christmas Day 2004
An easy drive up to Heathrow, a smooth transfer from the parking lot
to the terminal, and an on-time departure with Qatar Airways, bound
for Doha, arriving there just before midnight local time. To our very
pleasant surprise, QA put us up for the night in a rather plush hotel
in the city - a mild hassle getting transferred (by what turned out
to be the wrong car), but a bonus nevertheless. Somewhat noisy due to
a late night disco, but we got in a couple of hours of crash time.
Up at heaven knows what time by our body clocks (0645 local), a hearty
breakfast (plus a few for the Qatar list, including Common Mynah, Green
Sandpiper, Little Gull and Western Reef Egret), and then back to the
airport. Again, an easy and smooth departure, and then another 4½
hour flight to Colombo (latterly over oddly disturbed seas - all white
horses in strange directions) [and I swear that this was written on
the very night in question
], arriving just before 1700 local.
Straight through immigration etc, and successfully met by Sam, the Baurs
rep, who did the necessary business (i.e. us paying them - quite a relief
to get rid of the stash of £50 notes that had been burning a hole
in my bum-bag!), and linked us up with our driver, "the now famous"
Mr. Sunil de Alwis. The van is massive - a 7-seater with tons of space,
and looking good for photography! Sunil's English is also very good
(including bird names, of course), and in the last hour of daylight
we headed through busy areas with a few paddyfields, scoring early on
with a few common species such as Indian Magpie-robin, Yellow-billed
Babbler (our first life tick), Asian Openbill Stork, several egrets,
Purple Heron, Common Mynah, Blue-tailed Bee-eater and White-breasted
Waterhen and Kingfisher.
It was soon dark, and we slumbered through the night for a couple of
hours, finally reaching Kitulgala shortly after 2000 - to be greeted
by scenes of devastation on the TV caused by flooding on the south coast
hope we avoid the rain!
Jet-lagged, over-tired and with a squeaky fan and dozens of dogs barking
outside, we struggled for sleep
After one of the truly awful "night's sleep" (about 2 hours
in the end!), we gulped down some tea at 0630 (two Sri Lanka Grey Hornbills
getting the endemic tally off to a solid start), and drove a short way
up the road to a place called Sisira's River Lounge. We wandered just
a few tens of yards down the track, amongst little houses and gardens,
and quickly got reacquainted with various bulbuls, drongoes and the
like. Within minutes, Sunil found us a really tough endemic: Green-billed
Coucal. And then we had a quite magical 45 minutes or so - Sri Lanka
Hanging Parrot, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Layard's Parakeet, Orange-billed
Babbler, Lesser Yellownape, and Black-crested Bulbul, with a supporting
act in the form of a very showy and photographable Indian Pitta! Somewhat
blown away, we returned for breakfast (Blyth's Reed Warbler distracting
us), and then headed off on foot, down to the river (where Bridge on
the River Kwai was filmed, no less), across and into the shoals and
scrub on the far bank.
Again, good birds came quickly, with Sri Lanka Rufous Swallow (had
to coin a name for that new split!), Hill Munia (another of the recently
split 'bonus species'), Black Bulbul, Legge's Flowerpecker, Tickell's
Blue Flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Stork-billed Kingfisher and
Indian Swiftlet. We succeeded in luring in a Chestnut-backed Owlet by
tape - it proceeded to call vigorously in full view until we left it
in peace! Giant and Palm Squirrels were also in the trees.
Further on, after tea and jaggery outside someone's house, we hit the
'real' primary forest, and scored with Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Sri
Lanka Racketless Drongo, a female Malabar Trogon, a brief Rufous Woodpecker,
Black-naped Monarch and tantalising views of a Sri Lanka Junglefowl
disappearing into the forest. Overhead, a Mountain Hawk Eagle soared
by with what looked like a Giant Squirrel in its talons, and a Crested
Honey Buzzard circled distantly. By now, it was approaching noon, and
flipping hot, so we route-marched it back to the river, stopping just
once or twice. The boat trip back across turned into a mini-pelagic
when a much-wanted Black Bittern flew across to the near bank - a brief
detour provided excellent flight views!
Back at the ranch, the heavens opened just in time for our lunch (good
timing), and we watched the bus parties stuff themselves and swap stories
of the disruption apparently occurring on parts of the coast due to
severe flooding - it looked bad on the news. And then (bliss) an hour
or so of SLEEP! Not an endemic, but in some ways the best tick of the
We spent the late afternoon back at Sisira's - many of the same birds,
plus Hill Mynah, Shikra and a very confiding Brown-breasted Flycatcher.
We had to wait until dark for the real highlight, however - just after
dusk, a Sri Lanka Frogmouth started calling very close to the buildings,
and some careful tracking through leech-infested grass had us within
a few feet. Sunil turned on the flashlight, and there she was, a stunning,
quite mad-looking rufous Frogmouth! Trusting completely in her camouflage,
she sat motionless about six feet away, allowing all manner of photos,
before we retreated and left her to it. There then followed some discussion
with Sisira and the gardener - they'd been hearing what they thought
could be Serendip Scops-owl recently, and Sunil was far from unconvinced.
We listened, hearing Brown Hawk-owl in the distance, and then heard
what Sunil was pretty sure was the famous 'new owl', somewhat distantly.
Neither of us was completely convinced, and there was no response to
playback in several spots
.but could this turn out to be a truly
accessible site for the species? Only time will tell.
A real night's sleep - much better. Up at 0600 as usual, and then a
couple of hours of gentle birding in Sisira's gardens once again. The
only new birds were a pair of Black-rumped Flamebacks (of the very distinctive
Sri Lankan crimson-backed form - surely a good bet for a future split?),
but we also heard Green Imperial Pigeon, and had very good views of
Orange-billed Babbler, Lesser Yellownape and Green-billed Coucal again.
Breakfast was enlivened by a close-up Tickell's Blue Flycatcher on the
verandah, but by 0930, we were ready for the off, and the 2 hour drive
We checked in in the middle of a powercut, but no matter (yet). We
birded the gardens for an hour or so (White-browed Fantail and White-browed
Bulbul, Indian Robin), then had lunch. We're hearing worse and worse
reports from the south coast - 12,000 dead, including several hundred
foreign tourists, and tales of absolute horror. It transpires that Yala
NP may even be off-limits next week - though such an inconvenience is
obviously the last of one's concerns just now.
The heavens opened as we went for our siesta, but conveniently the
rain stopped at 1600 when we set off for a spot of roadside birding
down the valley from the hotel. The quality in the degraded woods and
rubber plantation was surprisingly good - a flyover Green Imperial Pigeon
was perhaps the top bird, but we also had Crested Treeswift, Chestnut-headed
and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike, Layard's Parakeet,
Golden-fronted Leafbird, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Small Minivet, Black-rumped
Flameback and Brown Shrike.
Tomorrow will be an early start as we head for Sinharaja, so we're
having an early dinner and an early night - more sleep!
Another bad night's sleep, largely perhaps on account of finally watching
some English language news on the TV - it turns out that the flooding
we've been hearing about is actually the result of a series of tsunamis
right around the Indian Ocean from a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off Sumatra.
Current estimates suggest 50,000 people dead, 20,000+ of them in Sri
Lanka. To be so close to all this is very distressing indeed - though
we are thankfully not directly affected. Yala NP has indeed been closed,
mainly because the village itself no longer exists, and the Jetwing
Safari Hotel there has been completely destroyed. We may need to replan
our route regarding the Tissamahara section - neither of us fancies
venturing to within a few kilometres of an international disaster area.
Back to our own pretty irrelevant adventures. We were up at some ungodly
hour (0430) to be ready for an early start towards Sinharaja NP. We
dozed in the van and munched a bit on our packed breakfast, and after
the sun got up, we started to see some good birds en route, including
a brief Slaty-legged Crake, Green Imperial Pigeon, Changeable Hawk-eagle,
Brown Shrike, Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike and Golden-fronted Leafbird.
We got to the Blue Magpie Lodge at around 0900, and after checking in
and tea, we got hold of our jeep, driver and extra guide, and drove
for about 15 minutes up the precipitate and extremely bumpy access track,
to the forest gate. It was getting pretty hot, and we were ready to
treat this as essentially a recce - in the event, we saw a few good
birds (including a couple of male Legge's Flowerpeckers), but only a
couple of new ones - Oriental White-eye and Booted Eagle in particular,
plus Purple-faced Leaf Monkey and Giant Squirrel.
The heat was now on, and so we retreated down the hill, had lunch,
and finally got to read about the tsunamis in an English language newspaper
- quite appalling, and very upsetting indeed.
And then the torrential tropical rain began - absolutely hammering
it down for over two hours, and then just raining hard until dusk. No
point at all in going out birding! We're really to think we might need
to rejig our time in the south-east of the island, and also realised
that we ought to get in touch with family back home, so Simon got a
lift down to the town (20km away along poor roads!) and the nearest
phone at 1730ish - not back until 1945! It turned out that we did the
right thing - everyone was gratifyingly worried about us, and we'd even
been put on the Foreign Office missing persons list by Julia's brother.
So relief for friends and family. Julia, on the other hand, got very
worried about Simon's whereabouts in the dark - this holiday is becoming
just a bit too emotionally charged!
No contact with Baurs in Colombo - Perry and his boss have gone to
the south-east today to see for themselves, so we'll be in touch with
them in a day or two.
Up at 0600, breakfast at 0630, and straight up the hill in the jeep
to the National Park. En route, we scored with a distant, singing Sri
Lanka Mynah, and better still, a couple of very active, vocal and surprisingly
elusive Sri Lanka Blue Magpies. Two endemics nailed before getting into
the park! Once inside, we connected early on with a pair of displaying
White-faced Starlings (one of the most localised of the endemics - Sinharaja
is the only place on the planet where you can see the species). Brown-capped
Babblers we heard, but would they show? No. More endemics followed in
the form of Legge's Flowerpecker, Layard's Parakeets and Sri Lanka Junglefowl,
and we saw the Large-billed Leaf Warbler much better today. Pushing
on towards the research station, we were shown a Sri Lanka Blue Magpie
nest - and watched the pair building for a little while - a real privilege.
We were rather lacking for active feeding flocks, and were also contending
with the horrors of leeches in abundance - but shortly we located a
party of Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes (yet another endemic), which
took our minds off things!
We teamed up temporarily with a Welsh birder and his guide - they had
a hot tip from another local about an active flock up the hill, so we
followed in hot pursuit! Sure enough, there were stacks of Orange-billed
Babblers, plus a pair of Malabar Trogons, two Black-naped Monarchs,
Sri Lanka Scimitar-babbler and a couple of Paradise Flycatchers. But
the star bird proved elusive - until Julia briefly glimpsed a red cheek
- we were on at last for the Red-faced Malkoha! Much neck craning and
aching later, we got very brief but adequate views. Sunil wasn't satisfied
on our behalf, though, so we stuck it out for another half hour - he
was right to wait, as we had great views of up to five Malkohas close
to the path. Jubilant, we made our way back along the path (yet more
Blue Magpies en route), and as the heat kicked in, we decided to call
it a (very good) day, and descended for lunch.
Julia decided to give it a rest this afternoon - Simon (having one
of those moments where you just hate being a birder) found himself forced
(by that little demon we all know) to go on what he knew was a wild
owl chase after a 'maybe' site for Serendib Scops Owl. Guess what -
no owl! No big surprise there - but he did get to see Brown-capped Babbler,
plus Pompadour Green Pigeon, two more Sri Lanka Mynahs, and lots more
Green Imperial Pigeons, plus a Lesser Yellownape.
The post-dip shower was significantly enlivened by our first attached
leech - Simon had the honour
yuk. And after dinner, we had a plate
sized spider on our wall - creepy-crawly city. Ah well - out of the
wet zone tomorrow.
Away by 0700 for a Sri Lanka Spurfowl stakeout up the road - plenty
heard calling (and many leeches) but sadly invisible. Another one slips
never mind. Saying goodbye for now to various upland species,
we dropped down by very attractive roads along the northern side of
the Sinharaja ridge, and eventually hit the main road south towards
Embilipitiya. We stopped to call Perry at Baurs - it was a relief to
find that his thinking was exactly the same as ours. Four nights in
Tissa was going to be daft with Bundala and Yala both out of bounds,
so we're adding an extra night at Embilipitiya, and another in Kandy
- a very satisfactory outcome.
We reached the Centauria hotel in time for a late lunch (and the obligatory
snooze) - a lovely airy room overlooking a large lake, with various
distracting birds such as Malabar Pied Hornbills flying around!
At 1630, we drove off towards the outskirts of the Udawalawe National
Park, and a raised road with swamps either side. Pretty much straight
away, we scored very heavily with a pair of extremely showy Blue-faced
Malkohas right by the road. And the birding continued extremely well
- the swamp was alive with waterbirds, including a single Spot-billed
Pelican, hundreds of Cattle, Intermediate and Great Egrets, Pheasant-tailed
Jacana, Oriental Darter, three kinds of Cormorant, Common and White-breasted
Kingfishers, Purple Swamphen, and other goodies like Black-headed Munia,
Little Green Bee-eater, Black-shouldered and Brahminy Kites, and Coppersmith
Barbet. As dusk fell, we saw a Watercock, and had difficult views of
a small juvenile Ixobrychus bittern - we need to sort it out between
Cinnamon and Yellow later!
Partaking of the New Year's Eve gala buffet as early as possible, and
politely avoiding the absolutely disgusting Sri Lankan white wine on
offer, we stuffed our faces and retreated for an early night - our traditional
way of seeing in the New Year!
1st January 2005
New Year's Day safari! Unfortunately, we woke up to rain, but undeterred,
we set off at 0645 for the "full day jeep drive" option in
Udawalawe NP. It was still raining when we got in our open-backed Land
Rover with Sunil, our driver and a very entertaining retired park ranger,
now a volunteer guide, complete with bottle-top glasses and no bins!
The park has a distinctly 'African savannah' feel to it - scattered
trees and some denser patches of bush, with plenty of gallery forest
and a significant reservoir in the middle, dotted with dead trees for
raptors and large waterbirds to perch on!
Very quickly, we connected with the target mammal, Indian Elephant
- in all we saw about 30 or so, in small groups or as lone males. Value.
The other mammals ticked off were Water Buffalo, Langurs, Toque Macaque,
Chital, Wild Boar (mother and two piglets) and Fishing Cat (Simon only
- thus joining Ocelot on Julia's cat jinx list). Non-avian highlights
were Mugger Crocodile, Land Monitor, big Turtles (sp?) and top of the
list a quite scary Cobra - at our lunch spot.
But the birds were outstanding. Top of the list were Lesser Adjutant,
Grey-headed Fish Eagle, White-bellied Sea-eagle, Spot-billed Pelican,
Woolly-necked Stork, Sirkeer and Blue-faced Malkohas, Tawny-bellied
Babbler, Forest Wagtail, Pied and Grey-bellied [Plaintive] Cuckoo, Pallid
Harrier, Barred Button-quail, Jerdon's Bushlark, Malabar Pied Hornbill
and Orange-breasted Green Pigeon. But the supporting cast was also superb
- Blossom-headed Parakeet, Hoopoe, Crested Tree-swift, Osprey, many
Blue-tailed and Little Green Bee-eaters, numerous Crested Serpent Eagles
and Changeable Hawk-eagles, any number of Black-headed Munias, Paddyfield
Pipits, Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns by the hundred, Marsh, Green,
Wood and Common Sandpipers, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Painted Stork
and Oriental Darter. Fantastic stuff.
It was a long and action-packed day in the field - and by 1600, we
had had about enough, and decided to have the rest of evening off back
at the hotel. En route, we scored with Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Ruff,
another Pallid Harrier and White Wagtail, and back at Embilipitiya,
we added Black-headed Ibis to the list, plus Night Herons, Little Swift
and some Flying Foxes overhead.
A very pleasant evening indeed - wine on the verandah, then a (too
large) buffet dinner, and a chat with an Aussie woman called Catherine,
who survived the tsunami - she had an amazing story to tell.
Continuing our "we're on holiday" theme, we got up an hour
or so late, enjoyed the birds around the lake, and then set off after
a proper breakfast. We made several stops as we made our way south-east
towards Tissamaharana - we had a good look at Pompadour Green Pigeon,
Coppersmith Barbet, Asian Koel and Malabar Pied Hornbill, but the most
frustrating sighting was of what was surely a Drongo-cuckoo briefly
on wires before flying off into the bush. Drat.
Sunil took a 'long cut' through some less populated country, and we
saw plenty more along the roadside, including Booted Eagle, many Little
Green Bee-eaters, Paddyfield Pipit and
.Drongo-cuckoo! Much better
(if more distant) views of a single bird.
We arrived in Tissa at around 1230 (numerous Flying Foxes in the trees,
and very good views of a juvenile Yellow Bittern in the swamp), and
checked in at the Prikaryana Hotel - bland and very comfortable, if
again slightly over-staffed!
After lunch and a siesta, we headed out once more, but only locally,
around the Tissa tanks and palm plantations. There were simply hundreds
of waterbirds, many very close to the bunds, and plenty of good passerines
to enjoy, including Ashy Woodswallow and Scaly-breasted Munia. We were
shown through a family's garden and scanned successfully for a roosting
Brown Fish Owl - spectacular as all large owls always are! Later still,
as dusk gathered, we staked out a White-naped Woodpecker nest - the
female popped her head out from time to time, but eventually the male
appeared on a nearby coconut palm, and showed magnificently until dusk.
Dinner was quite an affair - 30-odd Taiwanese relief workers have arrived
(all ultra-organised, with extremely smart matching kit, identical dinners
and lots of introductory briefing speeches), along with a crew of four
distinctly more laid-back Brits from the High Commission, out here trying
to gather information about the dead and missing from more remote coastal
resorts. Quite how we are bringing ourselves to keep going when all
around is this horror, I can't say. Sometimes we are feeling guilty,
sometimes not, but mostly it's just unreal.
A leisurely 0800 start today, and gentle birding around some of the
more distant tanks. Lots of waders today - Little Stint, Lesser (Mongolian)
Sandplover, Stone-curlew, Spotted Redshank and Greenshank were all new,
and we were also able to add Garganey, Little Grebe, Little Tern, Caspian
Tern and Pied Kingfisher this morning.
We put our bins away mid morning, as we drove down to the coastal town
of Hambantota, just west of Bundala NP. Upwards of 5,000 people are
reported to have died here last Sunday. The place was essentially trashed
for up to 100m inland from the beach. Almost no structures remained
on the low-lying ground, apart from the Buddhist temple and the mosque,
bizarrely, and a few shacks which must have been protected by the high
sand dunes. Even a week later, it was a truly distressing scene, with
parts of people's lives scattered everywhere, up trees, in ditches,
all over the place. It was the little things that stuck with us - a
dead Christmas tree, still with tinsel attached, on its side in the
mud under barbed wire. A bag, a shoe.
Sobered, we left after half an hour or so, and returned to Tissa, for
a cold drink at the Vikum Lodge. There, Sunil gathered the rather surprising
news that Yala NP was actually open for business, so we decided to take
a deep breath and make an afternoon visit - this was truly a bonus,
as we had given up Yala as a wholly lost cause. The one thing we can
do here is try to carry on.
So at 1430 we drove down to the park gate, picking up Great Thick-knee
and Pacific Golden Plover (at last!) en route. Once jeeped-up, we were
soon into thick bush with criss-crossing red dirt tracks. The devastation
caused by the tsunami was restricted to wide swathes up three estuarine
creeks that we crossed - most of the park was protected by the sand
dunes. But in those swathes, it was mayhem - trees and dead vegetation
everywhere, and in the bush inland from the tourist bungalow, more scattered
remnants at cock-eyed angles - shirts, a suitcase, even pages from a
bird book. The beach bungalow had been a reinforced concrete structure.
It was gone, apart from the foundations and pillars buckled past horizontal.
On we birded - there is no point pretending that we aren't finding
this hard, but we are alive, and so is most of the world around here.
It's a truism, but life does go on.
New and exciting species included Black-necked Stork, Greater Crested
Tern, Turnstone and Greater Sandplover, and we scored with yet more
Barred Button-quails, Hoopoes, Rosy Starlings and the usual supporting
cast of exotics. In addition to several Marsh #### Crocodiles of various
sizes, the mammals were pretty good - Ruddy Mongoose, Chital, Sambar,
Wild Boar, and later a Civet in the headlights. Sadly, there was to
be no Leopard - although we did find a set of pug-marks in the sand
at one point.
As dusk fell, we torched a couple of Indian Nightjars, and then it
was back home to ponder what can only be described as a day of incredible
contrasts and mixed emotions. We continue to process what has happened
here, both intellectually and emotionally.
Another relatively late start (0800 departure - what a bunch of lightweights!),
and then travelled all morning with a few snack stops towards Nuwara
Eliya - a very young Besra on the wire was the best bird from the road.
We did make one proper birding stop at a tea estate (and bizarrely,
bakery) just a few kilometres from NE - the target bird here was Brown
Wood Owl at a regular roost, but we failed to score. However, the recompense
was rather great, in that we had two new endemics, Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon
(devilish at first, then finally showed well) and Dull-blue Flycatcher,
as well as the briefest (wholly untickable) flight views of Pied Thrush.
In good spirits despite the lowering sky, we arrived in the hill town
of NE and went to The Rock hotel up the hill. We were clearly the only
guests, they did not appear to be expecting us, and to be honest it
was not great. The room was grubby and cold (window didn't shut fully),
and lunch (which was going to be a sandwich, until they found they had
no bread) was tepid and unpromising. After some consultation, we decided
to give Perry another call! Sunil was helpful, as ever, and within minutes
he had us rebooked, at the Galway Forest Lodge. Just after 1600, we
relocated - much more like it!
Having dumped our kit, it was straight back out to Victoria Park -
on a cold, cloudy day, it felt very like an autumn vagrant trap in somewhere
like Brighton! We marched straight through the beautifully manicured
areas to the far corner - as usual, rare birds always pick the rubbish
dump down by the open sewer round the back of the densest thicket!
But it paid off! Within seconds, we had a female Kashmir Flycatcher
showing superbly, and just a short time later, a cracking Pied Thrush
showed very well in the open. A Sri Lanka White-eye buzzed us in the
thick trees overhead, along with a Tailorbird of the endemic Sri Lankan
highland form (crypto-species? One to bank for later!). A smart Indian
Pitta finished the show for this spot, and we left the dunghill happy.
Elsewhere in the park, we had a Forest Wagtail, plus at least two more
Pied Thrushes overhead and briefly in trees, but supposedly the easiest
target species here proved to be the toughest. We had only poor, but
tickable views of a single Yellow-eared Bulbul - with luck, we'll be
able to visit the park again later on to try again. Still, it's been
a pretty good haul for a mostly transit day - four endemics and six
An obscenely (but necessarily) early start - 0500 in the van for the
80 minutes drive up the hill to Horton Plains NP, or more precisely
the famous 'Arrenga Pond' by the "Have you seen a Leopard yet?"
sign. Our target was, of course, primarily Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush,
certainly one of the rarest, and also one of the trickiest endemics.
The weather was pretty foul - essentially, we were birding in a cloud,
with constant swirling mist, heavier showers, low temperatures and grotty
visibility. Atmospheric it may have been, but we weren't terribly optimistic.
However, within moments of leaving the van, Sunil heard the distinctive
call we were after, and we started straining our eyes in the dawn light.
Connection! At point blank range on a low bush, there was the Whistling
Thrush - sensational! OK, so the light could've been better, but this
was more than we had really hoped for on our one and only attempt. Very
swiftly after the bird's disappearance, a wave of small passerines started
feeding in the lee of the forest along the edge of the pond - several
Yellow-eared Bulbuls, Green Warblers, Sri Lanka White-eyes and Grey-headed
Canary-flycatchers, plus a Dull-blue Flycatcher and a single Hippolais
warbler, of the Booted/Sykes's type. Neither of us is very expert on
this pair, but this bird didn't look much like a classic autumn British
Booted Warbler. It was much more Acro like (although with a squared
off tail and shortish undertail coverts), with a spikey bill and a fairly
'sharp' facial expression. Sykes's? More research needed!
We also had a brief hepatic phase Indian Cuckoo in the bushes by the
pond, but as the weather improved marginally, we drove a little way
further on and worked a patch of forest straddling the road. They shoot,
they score! Very quickly, we had a calling Sri Lanka Bush Warbler showing
occasionally in the understorey - yet another endemic nailed. As the
sun even made a brief appearance, we also saw Zitting Cisticola, Sri
Lanka Scimitar-babbler, more Yellow-eared Bulbuls and some Dark-fronted
The mists soon closed in once more, and we descended the hill, stopping
for a moment outside a small farmstead. Panic! A male Kashmir Flycatcher
appeared from nowhere on the fence by the road - a mad scramble resulted
in absolutely crippling views of a stunning bird. Tired but very happy,
we made our way back down the hill, arriving back at the hotel by shortly
after 1100, just in time for a pre-lunch nap
Suitably refreshed, Simon went for a walk in the woods this afternoon,
getting only mildly lost and only being challenged by the military once!
Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike was new, and also present were Scarlet
Minivet, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, both White-eyes,
Yellow-eared Bulbul, Emerald Dove and Forest Wagtail. With Julia feeling
a bit gripped by the first of these, we headed out with Sunil at 1600
to do a tour of Nuwara Eliya's rubbish dumps - literally. And almost
the first bird we saw was - Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike! So marital
harmony was restored. We did not manage to see a Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush,
however, either out in the sticks or back in Victoria Park, nor Indian
Blue Robin. In fact, it was much quieter in the Park than yesterday,
although we did see the female Kashmir Flycatcher and Blyth's Reed Warbler
again, and ticked Tree Rat! One more roll of the dice tomorrow morning
So, as promised, a final attempt for some forest floor (i.e. rubbish
dump) skulkers. We had good views of Pied Thrush and two Indian Pittas,
and tantalisingly brief views of what Sunil assured us was an Indian
Blue Robin, but we simply couldn't get a tickable view. Much more satisfactory
was a rather showy Slaty-legged Crake in the stream. Saying goodbye
to Victoria Park, we went back to the hotel for a slap-up breakfast,
and then set off. First stop was the little marsh near the hotel, which
has a slight reputation for holding Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. Well,
it might, but we didn't have a sniff of one, and had to make do with
Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ashy Prinia and a Snipe sp. (probably Pintail).
After we left Nuwara Eliya, the road snaked steeply down through tea
plantations and market gardens - we have never seen so many leeks in
our lives as in the last two days! After an hour or so, we stopped for
a brief tour of the Glenloch tea factory - a really interesting insight
into something we take for granted. For example, we learned that: 20
tonnes of tea leaves are picked each day, which when prepared make just
5 tonnes of finished tea; the Arabian taste is for the tannin-rich stems,
as opposed to the tender tips; the lowest quality tea 'dust' is used
for teabags in the European market - quick brewing but inferior in taste.
We had the obligatory cup of tea, and bought some B.O.P.F. - Broken
Orange Pekoe Finest - for ourselves and friends. The non-birding part
of the trip has begun! Mind you, we did score with a Rufous-bellied
Hawk-eagle over the factory as we left
At around 1330, we finally reached Kandy (busy, bustling and very urban)
and checked in at the gloriously old-fashioned Hotel Suisse - all dark-stained
wood, clouded mirrors and absurdly high ceilings. After lunch, we went
through the now ritual process of complaining about the room (there's
a noisy wedding party on downstairs), and duly got upgraded to a fabulous,
big airy room overlooking the gardens - result!
After a bit of a rest, Julia decided to extend hers, and Simon went
out with Sunil into Udawattakele forest reserve, just up the hill on
the other side of the lake. In general, the forest was very quiet, but
it did contain several real cripplers - a male Indian Blue Robin showing
briefly under a thicket, two separate small parties of Brown-capped
Babblers, a very obliging White-rumped Shama, a roosting Brown Fish
Owl, an Indian Pitta, and several Forest Wagtails and Sri Lanka Mynahs.
Julia was slightly gripped - but tried hard not to show it
Breakfast at 0700, then off in the van with Sunil to the Peradeniya
Botanical Gardens - very grand and attractive, with stacks of wonderful
specimen trees, cycads, palms and giant bamboos, and several good wild
species - first and foremost must come surely our last endemic (Crimson-fronted
Barbet - phew!), but we also saw Southern Hill Mynah, Stork-billed Kingfisher,
Alexandrine Parakeet, Pompadour Green Pigeon and about 5000 Indian Flying
Foxes flapping about and roosting in the trees - very noisy and equally
After an hour or two of gentle meandering, we drove back to town and
sent Sunil home for the rest of the day. We changed into 'street clothes'
and went and did some non-birding tourism for about two hours - as long
as we can handle!
The Temple of Tooth was well worth visiting - much less claustrophobic
and frantic than some Indian temples we've visited! Raja the stuffed
interesting, and the town centre itself can
only be described as noisy and vibrant. Much commerce going on! We limited
ourselves to a paperback, some snacks and a shalwar for Julia, and then
took the motor boat back across the lake to the tranquillity of the
Hotel Suisse - except there's another wedding reception on today! We
watched the groom arrive earlier - all Kandyan drum and bass, frantic
dancers and gold braid.
Post lunch and a laze about, we donned our leech socks and hailed a
tuktuk to take us up to Udawattakele forest again. After a few wrong
turns (via the Police Academy
) our driver got us there, and we
worked the forest in search of you-know-what. Mission half accomplished
- Julia found a couple of Brown-capped Babblers in the undergrowth,
which showed very well, unblocking the species for her! We also saw
not one but two Brown Fish Owls, plus a treeful of four endemic species
- Yellow- and Crimson-fronted Barbets, Sri Lanka Myna and Hanging Parrot.
Tickell's Blue Flycatchers were especially visible (including a family
party), an Indian Pitta hopped about in the darkness, and we heard what
was surely the same Indian Blue Robin - maybe tomorrow? More bats flying
out from their roost this evening, and a White-bellied Sea (?) Eagle
harassed by any number of crows over the lake.
An early breakfast once again, then out with Sunil at 0730, again to
Udawattakele forest. Almost at once, we lucked in with the male Indian
Blue Robin, exactly where Simon saw it two nights ago - Julia gets another
one back! Remarkably, we found another, more obliging male later on
in the morning, too. Overall, the forest was still very quiet, but as
before, quality shone through. Sunil took us off the paths into an area
where he'd found roosting owls before, and sure enough, Simon somehow
managed to find an extremely obscured Brown Wood Owl high in the darkest
canopy. It flushed, but there turned out to be another one there too
- great views of a bird we thought we'd missed.
Also in the woods were more Brown-capped Babblers (easy in the end!),
Stork-billed Kingfisher, Black Bulbul, Forest Wagtail and the usual
barbets and flycatchers. A really great way to finish the birding trip.
But not the trip as a whole! Having packed up, we left the hotel at
1100, and headed off westwards towards Colombo. After about an hour,
we turned off the A1 main road, and visited the Pinnewala Elephant Sanctuary
for a couple of hours - well over 60 orphaned and captive bred elephants
to watch and pat, plus a very cute bottle feed for the babies, and then
over lunch by the river, a mass washing and splashing about session
for them all. Great fun, and despite our usual reservations about captive
mammals, probably more good done than harm in this case. And we scored
with our final lifer, in the shape of a distant pair of Black Eagles
circling over the distant forest.
By 1500, it was time to hit the road once more, in order to be at the
airport in good time for our flight. We said goodbye to Sunil - he and
we were genuinely emotional to be saying farewell - I believe we've
all had a good fortnight together, and one we'll not forget in a hurry,
for both good and truly appalling reasons. Sri Lanka will, inevitably,
hold a special place in our hearts, and we absolutely will be doing
what we can to educate and help regarding the tsunami disaster on our
Not surprisingly, the airport was much, much busier than on arrival,
with various cargo freighters on the apron, and some US Marines wandering
about the departures lounge! The QA flight for Doha left pretty much
on time, and as I write this, we sail gently somewhere over Oman, probably
just about to begin our descent.
Without too much effort, we persuaded QA that they really ought to
put us up for the night once more, and we were quickly shuttled with
several other British people in the same boat (as it were) to a perfectly
functional little hotel in the middle of town. Good!
A good night's sleep, although a slightly dodgy breakfast. We took
ourselves out for a 20 minute birding walk down to the marina, and were
rewarded by White-cheeked Bulbul, a few gulls and doves, but especially
fantastically, an elaborately-marvellous isabelline Shrike (probably
Daurian). Off to the airport at 0900, and a slightly late departure
at about noon - once again, an alarmingly high screaming baby quotient
on the plane, unfortunately
This trip report is a record of an ultimately frivolous
and unimportant fortnight in the lives of two very, very lucky,
relatively wealthy and rather humbled European tourists. It
is dedicated to the memories of the 150,000+ people who lost
their lives in the tsunami of 26th December 2004 - Europeans
(certainly including people out birding), Indonesians, Thais,
Burmese, Indians, Somalis, but above all in our hearts, over
34,000 Sri Lankans. This was one birding trip we shall never
be able to forget.