Sri Lanka

26/12/04 - 09/01/05

See photo page here

The Tsunami Disaster

It was with great sadness that we spent much of our time in Sri Lanka hearing tales of utter horror from the eastern and southern coastal regions, as a result of the tsunami caused by the R9.0 Indonesian earthquake of 26/12/04. We were incredibly fortunate to have arrived in Colombo just hours after the tsunami - we were not affected directly in any way. We had seriously considered travelling exactly a week earlier - had we done so, we would have been in Yala NP on Boxing Day - many foreign tourists died there that day. We found some caked, torn and blasted pages form a bird book among the ruins. If you ever feel that missing a rare endemic bird even approaches being bad news, this sort of thing will make you think again.

There were times when we felt like stopping or going home, but we did go on, we had a fantastic birding trip, and we bear witness here to the beauty of Sri Lanka, and the dreadful tragedy that has affected this lovely, friendly, bird-filled island.

99.99% (or more) of Sri Lanka has been unaffected by the tsunami, and even areas like Yala, which experienced the full fury of the 20m ocean wave, remain accessible and bird-filled. BIRDERS - GO TO SRI LANKA! Support the economy and the people, enjoy the wonderful birds and other wildlife, help directly if you can, and remember the dead.


Why Sri Lanka? Two reasons - an excellent and quite easy South Asian destination in the dead of a European winter (a friend of mine described it as "India-lite"! He was right…) and absolutely stacks of great birds and photographic opportunities, including a newly boosted total of 34 (yes! count them!) endemic species. We saw 29 of them - the ones we missed were:

  • Serendib Scops-owl (unlucky, but perhaps should have tried harder!)
  • Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush (possibly the hardest of them all)
  • Sri Lanka Spurfowl (easy to hear - hard to see)
  • Crimson-backed Flameback (plain unlucky)
  • Sri Lanka Woodshrike (should have seen it at Yala or Tissa - didn't!)

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

The trip

We booked a birding driver/guide through Perry at Baurs ( - 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 Magpie.

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 site.

Yala NP

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 your favours!

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 jumpy…. 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 Babbler etc.


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 path itself.

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.

Boxing Day

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….let's hope we avoid the rain!

Jet-lagged, over-tired and with a squeaky fan and dozens of dogs barking outside, we struggled for sleep….

27th December

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 day….

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.

28th December

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 to Ratnapura.

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!

29th December

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.

30th December

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.

31st December

Away by 0700 for a Sri Lanka Spurfowl stakeout up the road - plenty heard calling (and many leeches) but sadly invisible. Another one slips away…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.

2nd January

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.

3rd January

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. Simply unimaginable.

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.

4th January

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 life ticks.

5th January

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 Babblers.

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….

6th January

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….

7th January

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 smelly!

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 elephant was…er…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.

8th January

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 return home.

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!

9th January

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.


Simon Woolley

January 2005