In Association with:
SRI LANKA – Jan - 2006
244 Bird Species recorded
Leaders: Nick Bray & Upali Ekanayake
Day 1 Sunday 15th January
Our KLM flight landed at Colombo Airport right on time after an uneventful overnight journey, and with immigration and customs formalities taking no time at all we were soon meeting our excellent guide and good friend Upali. The transfer to our hotel at Ingiriya took a little over two hours, during which time we clocked up some of the commoner Sri Lankan birds such as Brahminy Kites, Common Mynas, White-throated Kingfisher, and both House and the newly split Indian Jungle Crow. After a refreshing shower we drove the short distance to Bodhinigala Forest, only stopping to marvel at the colours on several lovely Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, and finally when the track became impassable due to a big ditch. So from here we all went on foot, and there’s nothing like your first morning’s birding in a new country, with everyone soon ticking off a whole new bunch of great birds. No sooner had we left the coach than a pair of White-bellied Drongos appeared, and were quickly followed by a flyover Oriental Honey Buzzard, and our first endemic and recently renamed Black-capped Bulbul (formerly Black-headed Yellow Bulbul) showing very well in some nearby bushes, and as we watched it feeding a Yellow-browed Bulbul flew in and gave a superb display as it sipped nectar from some pink flowers. A troop of Tocque Macaques was enjoyed by some of the group, before a Giant Squirrel showed alongside the path and was joined in the same tree by a Black-naped Monarch. Moving deeper inside the forest the strong sunlight was replaced with much dimmer viewing conditions as the dense canopy hardly let any sunlight in at all, but this lush forest is home to some excellent birds for which it is necessary to be very patient and quiet. Our approach began to pay off although the heat and humidity were both rising rapidly, but a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher allowed us to scope it, as did a close Brown-breasted Flycatcher, and as we watched the latter species a pair of Pale-billed Flowerpeckers flew into some bushes next to us. Meanwhile our first attempt at Chestnut-backed Owlet proved very frustrating as we could only hear it calling from amongst the dense forest on the hillside above us, but some reward came in the form of our first Green Imperial-pigeons. At one point the canopy opened up to reveal the sky and we saw a Crested Hawk-eagle fly over. As we paused here a Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill and a huge Crimson-backed Flameback (recently split from Greater Flameback) bumped up our list of endemics, although brief views were had only of a skulking but incessantly singing Brown-capped Babbler, whilst the confiding Sri Lanka Kangaroo Lizard we saw is also only found on this beautiful island. Returning to the coach Orange (split from Flame Minivet) and Small Minivets were seen, whilst the Emerald Dove that was sat on the dashboard of the coach was unexpected to say the least! After lunch and a siesta we returned to the forest, and it was immediately apparent that bird activity had increased dramatically as a small flock near the coach held several Yellow-billed Babblers, Black-naped Monarch, Bright-green Warbler, Jerdon’s Leafbird and our first and certainly spectacular Asian Paradise-flycatcher. A couple of Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys were then seen, before a Brown-headed Barbet was spotted by Dave nearby, and once inside the forest it didn’t take long to connect with a pair of Malabar Trogons and a Large-billed Leaf-warbler. However, find of the day must go to Gill, who picked up the Chestnut-backed Owlet that had been calling for ages and finally allowed us to scope it. But our day wasn’t yet over, and after a short wait we tried to lure in Sri Lanka Frogmouth – but sometimes things don’t quite go to plan. Yes there were several calling, and yes everyone had flight views of several birds high up in the canopy but we just couldn’t locate one perched close. But by now it was getting late and another fine meal was beckoning us, so after a quick wash and brush up at the hotel we drove to a nearby hotel for some well earned cold drinks and more great food.
Day 2 Monday 16th January
After breakfast at the other hotel we decided to check out the surrounding area rather than visit the forest again, and what a good decision that turned out to be. We didn’t stray more than a couple of hundred metres from the hotel and managed to see quite a few species, starting with a close and confiding Indian Pitta perched on a horizontal branch a few metres above the ground. A nearby tree held a Black-hooded Oriole, several Ceylon Hanging-parrots, as well as Oriental Magpie Robin, White-browed Bulbul and a Brown-headed Barbet. The surrounding area also gave us White-breasted Waterhen, Rose-ringed and Alexandrine Parakeets, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Ashy Woodswallow, Small and Orange Minivets, and a brief Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher as well. So we loaded our luggage onto the coach and drove for a couple of hours through the picturesque Sri Lankan countryside to Kitulgala, and our excellent hotel situated alongside the Kelani River. It was here that the film Bridge on the River Kwai was made and the hotel is steeped in history, and certainly has a lot of character whilst giving access to some superb birding opportunities. With a little spare time before lunch a quick scan from the grounds produced an Indian Black Eagle flying over which was really appreciated by everyone, and there was also a flock of Indian Swiftlets above the forested hills, an Oriental Honey Buzzard and a Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill. So after lunch and a little rest we drove upriver and made our way across the suspension bridge, with the song of a Golden-fronted Leafbird ringing out from the forest. The trail passed numerous small settlements with villagers going about their daily business (and most seemed to know Upali), but the surrounding forest was a little quiet except for a Chestnut-backed Owlet which Rod found calling from a rather exposed perch. However, dark clouds then rolled in from the surrounding hills and we took shelter under the eves of a cottage from a heavy downpour, seeing Square-tailed Black Bulbul (1 of 2 splits from Black Bulbul) and Lesser Hill-myna. But the rain seemed destined to continue for the rest of the day, so we walked back to the coach and returned to the hotel rather bedraggled.
Day 3 Tuesday 17th January
As we were about to board the coach this morning a quick check of a large tree in the gardens produced Oriental White-eye, Jerdon’s Leafbird (now split from Blue-winged Leafbird), Pale-billed Flowerpecker and a Sri Lanka Hanging-parrot. From here it was just a short drive to the suspension bridge once again and within a couple minutes of crossing the other side we were enjoying good views of 3 Brown-capped Babblers feeding on the forest floor. Continuing along the path, we entered a dense section of forest and immediately heard a Spot-winged Ground-Thrush which eventually showed well after a bit of searching. The views through the scope were breathtaking, but just as we were leaving it or another bird hopped out of the undergrowth and proceeded to feed just a few metres in front of us and right out in the open! The path then took us parallel to the Kelani River, where at an open area a Shikra was seen perched in a palm tree, with our first flock of Ceylon Rufous Babblers performing admirably alongside the path, and shortly after we reached a good viewpoint where we could look down on the forest. Here we saw Black-rumped Flameback, Yellow-fronted and Brown-headed Barbets, Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike, with an Indian Black Eagle, several Ceylon Swallows (a recent split from Red-rumped Swallow), and Indian Swiftlets in the clear blue sky above. A short while later we heard a Green-billed Coucal, but try as we might never managed decent views, despite a pair song-duetting across a narrow stream from us. In the afternoon we returned to the same area, seeing Sri Lanka Hanging-parrot, Common Iora, more Ceylon Swallows, cracking views of at least 3 Ceylon Grey Hornbills coming down to feed on a Jack Fruit, Greater Coucal, and an extremely close encounter with a roosting Sri Lanka Frogmouth just before dusk rounding the day off in spectacular fashion.
Day 4 Wednesday 18th January
With the sun not yet even glimmering above the distant hills we were ready and waiting for another shot at the mystical coucal, and with an air of expectation we stood in the gloom listening to Asian Koel and Common Hawk-cuckoo calling from the surrounding forest. Once there was sufficient light we walked down a narrow path and waited for what seemed like an eternity, before using a little ‘tape’ persuasion that resulted in racing heartbeats when a likely looking bird was spotted by Dave flying above us into the dense canopy. In fact at least 2 birds were initially present, and when one of these was positively identified as a Greater Coucal everyone felt more than a little deflated. However, after a few heart-rending minutes our target species called close by and with some good fieldcraft and a little luck the much-wanted Green-billed Coucal placed itself on several life lists! In fact over the course of the next 20 minutes we were treated to several decent views of a pair before one bird sat out on a bare branch in a gap in the canopy for a good 5 minutes allowing us to scope it at leisure. All I can really say is Wow!! So after much celebration we drove back to our hotel for breakfast before boarding the coach for the journey to our lunch stop at Ratnapura.
Our route passed thoroughly typical Sri Lankan countryside, consisting of rice fields with the odd Asian Openbill and various egrets on view, and lush tropical forests which at one site held a large roost of Indian Flying Foxes. On arrival at a lovely hotel in the middle of the gem mining area of Ratnapura we were ready for lunch, but the temptation to keep on diving outside into the extensive grounds was far too tempting! And over the course of an excellent meal and a short walk afterwards we had some good sightings, including Asian Paradise-flycatcher, Scaly-breasted Munia, close perched Ceylon Swallows, several Crested Serpent-eagles, Small Minivet, brief Pied Flycatcher-shrike, White-browed Fantail, Land Monitor, and a Common Skink. But it was very hot and with a couple of hours drive in front of us we decided to head off to the Blue Magpie Lodge at Sinharaja. Situated right next to the premier rainforest in the country, this is the place to stay in the area, with spacious rooms, hot showers and good food. Everyone met at the dining hall for tea and biscuits, and which also gave us the opportunity to scan the wet meadow below us and adjoining forest, where practically the first bird we saw was a Brown Shrike of the Phillipinus race, and were quickly followed by several Layard’s Parakeet feeding in a nearby tree. Several flowering Bombax trees were attractive to numerous species and held our first lovely Legge’s Flowerpecker, along with lots of Square-tailed Black Bulbuls, Ceylon Hanging-parrots, and flocks of Oriental White-eyes. Other species seen included a couple of White-breasted Waterhens walking across the field and Asian Palm Swifts flying over, as well as Ceylon Junglefowl and Banded Bay Cuckoo calling from nearby.
Day 5 Thursday 19th January
We awoke to a dense mist this morning, which proved very frustrating as we could hear many birds singing and just about make out some movement high up in the flowering Bombax trees in the lodge’s grounds. During breakfast the weather began to clear and it was finally possible to make out at least 3 Sri Lanka Mynas and several Lesser Hill-mynas through the scope, which enticed some of the group to leave their scrambled eggs! However, everyone was eager to set off shortly after breakfast, and we boarded two Landrovers for the bone shaking uphill journey to the entrance of the National Park. On arrival at the entrance gate we began to walk along the main path and it didn’t take us long to score with the first of 9 endemic White-faced Starlings to be seen today, shortly followed by a pair of Ceylon Blue Magpies scoped across the meadow. As we followed the track towards the Research Centre, the distinctive call of Ceylon Spurfowl could be heard from the dense forest above us, and shortly after we saw a lovely white Asian Paradise-flycatcher and a small flock of Ceylon Rufous Babblers (formerly called Orange-billed Babbler). Several species of butterfly were very much in evidence this morning including the impressive Tree Nymph and several Lemon Emigrants. As there is only one main path transecting the park, we took our time and were rewarded with very close views of a confiding Brown-breasted Flycatcher and shortly after a male Legge’s Flowerpecker feeding right beside the path. At the Research Centre a pair of Pied Flycatcher-shrikes was scoped at the top of a very tall tree bordering the clearing, and there was also a Spot-winged Ground-thrush feeding on the forest floor as we took a side trail, but on the whole things were a little quiet. So we had a break here and scanned the surrounding tree tops, seeing Brown-throated Needletail and Little Swift overhead in the clear blue sky. But probably the highlight here was 3 Ceylon Blue Magpies that flew in and began to feed at the back of the Research Centre just a few metres away from us. As we walked back to the entrance gate for our picnic lunch, a flock of Ceylon Rufous Babblers crossed the track in front of us and this time we managed to pick out our first Ceylon Scimitar-babbler and a Ceylon Crested Drongo. We hadn’t gone further than 200 metres when another flock of Ceylon Rufous Babblers began calling from the hillside across from us, and pretty soon they began flying across the small meadow and across the track in front of us. There must have been nearly 100 present as we could hear a real din from inside the canopy, and slowly but surely more and more came into view. We waited for a good while hoping for some different species, and finally a pair of Red-faced Malkohas was spotted perched in a tall tree for several minutes allowing everyone good scope views before they flew to join the rest of the flock in the dense canopy. More Ceylon Crested Drongos and Ceylon Scimitar-babblers and a White-faced Starling also joined in the fun as well. But we were not finished yet, as Upali spotted the first of at least 25+ Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes feeding below us along a small stream. In fact everyone was treated to crippling views as the flock fed close to the path, some birds even clambering along tree trunks and branches in plain view.
As our picnic lunch was delayed due to all this activity we decided to call it a day after lunch so we returned to the lodge for some cold drinks, during which time a pair of Indian Pygmy Woodpeckers (formerly called Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker) appeared in one of the trees bordering the lodge, and we also found the first record for the area of Yellow-eyed Babbler which was feeding along the edge of the meadow by the dining hall. Later in the afternoon we drove back up the hill towards the entrance gate and made our first attempt at Serendib Scops-owl, but the hand of fate was against us and nothing was heard or seen at all.
Day 6 Friday 20th January
A few Ceylon Hill-mynas appeared once again in the flowering Bombax tree in the lodge grounds this morning, before a Ceylon Blue Magpie greeted our arrival at the entrance gate to Sinharaja this morning, and no doubt was going to join a flock that had started to form across the meadow from us. Also caught up in the activity were a few White-faced Starlings and a Ceylon Crested Drongo, both of which were seen well as we followed the main path, along with Ceylon Junglefowl and a Brown-capped Babbler before possibly the main highlight of the tour happened. Noticed simultaneously by Rod and Roger, at least 4 Ceylon Spurfowl showed incredibly well to the entire group as they made their way alongside a small stream below us and we could look down on them as they picked their way slowly along the forest floor. Indeed they had nowhere to go but along this narrow strip of forest that was bordered on the other side by an open field, and inevitably they sought the sanctuary of the dense forest and came onto the path in front of us before flying off into thick cover. This was certainly the best view the leader could remember and to have such prolonged views is something none of us will ever forget. Wow! Further along we came across another flock containing Ceylon Rufous Babblers, Ceylon Crested Drongo, Malabar Trogon, Asian Paradise-flycatcher, Red-faced Malkoha and a few brief Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes. Some more calling spurfowl were heard before Large-billed Leaf-warbler and 3 Ceylon Blue Magpies showed well at the Research station, along with several species of unidentified frog and a perched Crested Goshawk. However, if we thought the spurfowl views were great, then the sight of the near-mythical Serendib Scops-owl at a daytime roost amongst dense cover was absolutely breathtaking. All credit to Upali, who has a network of contacts unparalleled on this island and it was one of the guides who he knows very well that had somehow tracked down this roost. But a word of caution, as there was another day roost the same guide had found a short distance away, but the birds had been disturbed by repeatedly noisy bird groups – some of them from the UK. I’m pleased to report that with a small modicum of common sense everyone was able to see the bird several times through my scope (after queuing quietly some distance away) and we left the site as we had found it, with the owl totally unconcerned by our presence. The walk back to our jeeps at the entrance gate was a leisurely affair as everyone was full of high spirits, but we still saw another Brown-capped Babbler and a Malabar Trogon, plus a Green Forest Lizard. Several cold beers were consumed back at the lodge later that afternoon as we celebrated seeing the owl, and having the afternoon off to relax. A Fan-throated Lizard appeared near the dining hall as we were finishing off an excellent lunch, before we had a siesta. Later in the day a few of us took a short walk seeing Brown-headed Barbet, Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, and 2 Ceylon Grey Hornbills.
Day 7 Saturday 21st January
We left the wonderful Blue magpie Lodge after an early breakfast this morning and drove to our next hotel situated beside a large lake at Embilipitiya. With some time spare either side of lunch, a few good birds were seen including Indian Cormorant, Spot-billed Pelican, Striated Heron, Great Egret, Red-wattled and Yellow-wattled Lapwings, White-bellied Sea-eagle, Whiskered Tern and Stork-billed Kingfisher. Afterwards we drove the short distance to Udawalawe National Park, and boarded our two jeeps for a fascinating few hours birding amongst rolling grasslands more reminiscent of Africa than Asia. As we entered the park an Indian Roller perched in one of the numerous dead trees got the ball rolling, and was quickly followed by a pair of Ashy Prinias, with this latter species proving to be very common here. The scenery here was unlike anything we had encountered so far, and as we scanned the distant escarpment a Woolly-necked Stork soared into view, and closer at hand an Indian Black Robin (formerly called Black-backed or Indian Robin) perched up on a dead branch for all to see, before a close Indian Elephant provided a fitting photo stop. Further along the same track, with so many good eyes scanning the tall grassland we found a further excellent selection of species such as a Blyth’s Pipit in a dead tree, singing Plain Prinia, the first of many Tricoloured (Black-headed) Munias, a nice pair of Plum-headed Parakeets, as well as a White-browed Fantail flying across the track in front of us, plus a pair of Yellow-eyed Babblers perched up in the open. Then a superb Little Green Bee-eater came into view, and was followed by a Coppersmith Barbet singing from on top of a tall tree, and there followed in quick succession another Woolly-necked Stork, 2 Jerdon’s Bushlarks, Crested Hawk-eagle, Rosy Starling, female Montagu’s Harrier, an awesome Grey-headed Fish-eagle, and a herd of 10 Indian Elephants. Shortly after watching a gang of Common Langurs crashing through the trees, a Sirkeer Malkoha put in an all too brief appearance, before the first of at least 5 Grey-bellied Cuckoos were seen. As we watched the first of these, a Pied Cuckoo was also found, and then a Blyth’s Reed Warbler skulked as is the norm in some low bushes, but a pair of Yellow-fronted Pied Woodpeckers (formerly called Yellow-crowned Woodpecker) were much more obliging. Then the first of several good views of Barred Buttonquails had us screeching to a halt, and further stops were made for some perched Ceylon Swallows, soaring Crested Treeswifts, and several Orange-breasted Green-pigeons before reaching the reservoir. What a scene confronted us here, as several Spotted Deer, Water Buffalo, Golden Jackal and a bathing Indian Elephant completed the non-avian highlights. At the edge of the water stood Painted Storks, along with Spot-billed Pelicans, Black-necked Stilts and Oriental Darters, whilst a pair of Lesser Whistling-ducks were perched in a dead tree. A large flock of Whiskered Terns patrolled the area, as a huge White-bellied Sea-eagle looked down on proceedings from his lofty perch. Leaving here a close Crested Hawk-eagle provided stunning views in the clear evening light, but unfortunately the Jungle Cat running across the track provided only fleeting glimpses. To round off proceedings we had first class views of several more Barred Buttonquails, along with a pair of Malabar Pied Hornbills perched briefly in a large tree before flying across the beautiful landscape and into the distance. Wow!
Day 8 Sunday 22nd January
We departed around 6.30am for the hour long drive to Bundala National Park, where on arrival a male Asian Koel flew over the reserve centre a couple of times. After a short wait for the park staff to sort out permits, we drove down to a marshy inlet which kept us occupied for a while, with several wader species present including Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Black-winged Stilt, Marsh and Wood Sandpipers, a flock of Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers, Kentish Plover, and a few Pintail Snipe. An Asian Openbill walked across the marsh into full view, whilst our first Purple Sunbird sang from a small bush behind us. Driving towards the entrance gate produced more Yellow-wattled Lapwings, as well as a single Purple Swamphen, before reaching the entrance gate where a Jungle Prinia sang from the top of a bush. The first section of track was bordered by dense bushes and scattered trees, so we had to stand on our seats to get an overview of the surrounding habitat, and we saw a pair of confiding Crested Hawk-eagles squabbling at the top of a tree, an Indian Black Robin and several Indian Peafowl that appeared in quick succession, followed by a few Lesser Whistling-ducks on a small pond. Moving on, a Pied Cuckoo flew across in front of us, before we had reasonable views of a lovely Blue-faced Malkoha perched amongst a group of bushes. A couple of Golden Jackals then followed, as did Purple Heron, before we reached the saltpans. There were literally birds everywhere here, but our attention was initially drawn to a flock of terns congregated on a small sand spit in a large lagoon, and which held several Caspian as well as a few Gull-billed Terns, plus Common and White-winged Terns. In front of us were several small pools holding Lesser Sand Plovers, Kentish Plover, plus several Little Stints. After sifting through the flocks of Curlew Sandpipers and stints, a cracking Broad-billed Sandpiper was found and it was great to be able to compare size and structure with the other waders. A larger roost a few hundred metres further along the bund held over 20 Great Crested Terns, a few Lesser Crested Terns, several Common and some Little Terns as well. There were also several hundred Black-tailed Godwits, many more Lesser Sand Plovers, plus Common Greenshank, lots of Marsh Sandpipers, as well as big numbers of all the previously mentioned species. Then a dark phase Western Reef Heron showed in another spot, and a flock of Greater Flamingos were seen in flight. As we moved along the bund we could view lagoons either side of the jeeps and were able to look right down on the waders feeding just a few metres below us, and we saw Ruddy Turnstone, plus a lone Ruff and a small party of 5 Red-necked Phalaropes on another salt pan. We got out of the vehicles at one spot and scoped these last birds, also picking up Oriental Skylark, Paddyfield Pipit, Garganey and Common Ringed Plover which is a scarce bird in Sri Lanka. Driving back along the same route we saw a brief Marsh Mugger and a White-bellied Sea- eagle flying over. At a secluded marsh surrounded by scrub and bushes several Pacific Golden Plovers were stood amongst the grass, along with Eurasian Curlew, with White-winged Terns flying all around. A few Alpine Swifts picked up by Rod were a surprising sight here, before we returned to the visitor centre and drove to the garden of a friend of Upali where a pair of Indian Scops-owls looked down on us from their daytime roost. So after lunch and a rest at our hotel in Tissamaharama, we drove the short distance to a ‘tank’ or reservoir where Purple Swamphen and Pheasant-tailed Jacana showed well. An Indian Reed-warbler (a recent split from Clamorous Reed Warbler) sat out in full view quite close to us in the late afternoon sun, whilst some flight views of a Yellow Bittern were appreciated. Just then a young boy whom Upali knows led us to view a roosting Brown Fish Owl amongst the palm trees and what views we were treated to. Apparently this bird lost an eye 4 years ago but still manages to survive against the odds! We then knew our luck was well and truly in as a female White-naped Woodpecker was sunning itself on a palm tree as we walked along a path, and it stayed there for ages allowing everyone great views. Whilst here Carol spotted our only Black Bittern of the trip along the drainage ditch and it showed quite well perched amongst some small trees and there was also a male Asian Koel calling from a tree above the path. So we decided to quit while we were ahead as all target species had been seen and returned to the hotel a little earlier than planned! What a day!
Day 9 Monday 23rd January
We entered Yala National Park shortly after sunrise, seeing Little Ringed Plover around a small pool, then Ceylon Woodshrike, Ashy Drongo, a flock of House Swifts overhead with some Ceylon Swallows, female Asian Koel, and the first of many Ceylon Junglefowl. The track wound its way through dense scrub jungle and numerous tall trees, which played host to several perched Crested Treeswifts, and we carried on around some large rock formations to a series of pools where Green and Wood Sandpipers and a huge Marsh Mugger were seen. Sightings came thick and fast and we made numerous stops, starting with a herd of Spotted Deer that appeared on the far side of the pool, and a brief Indian Baya Weaver also put in an appearance, before an inquisitive Ruddy Mongoose came into view. A female Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike flew into the top of a tree, and a pair of Barred Buttonquail paused long enough for us to get a decent view as they crossed the track in front of us, and a great looking Stripe-necked Mongoose walked past the jeeps. We then came to a large lake, covered in lily pads where a small bushy island was home to a colony of nesting Oriental Darters, and around the water we also saw a few Black-crowned Night-herons, Spot-billed Pelicans, Black-headed Ibis and some Wild Boar. The next pond held a fine trio of Green, Wood and Marsh Sandpipers, with some lovely Orange-breasted Green-pigeons feeding on the ground. Next up was a dark-looking Eurasian Hoopoe feeding in an open, grassy area, before we drove along the main ‘highway’ through the park, seeing a flock of Brahminy Starlings in a big tree, a close Indian Pitta skulking in usual fashion at the base of some bushes, and a Crested Hawk-eagle, before taking a side track to view a marshy inlet where a huge female Black-necked Stork literally dwarfed a nearby Grey Heron. The area bordering the inlet held several Ashy-crowned Sparrow-larks, and a distant Malabar Pied Hornbill was also seen here. Back on the main track a short while later, a very confiding White-rumped Shama flitted from perch to perch alongside the jeeps, and a Sambar was seen before reaching the beach. Here a male Black-necked Stork was present, along with White-bellied Sea-eagle, and a close Pale-billed Flowerpecker. Continuing on, a pale race of Giant Squirrel was seen, before we reached another lily-covered lake with numerous dead trees that held a Grey-headed Fish-eagle, and nearby we saw Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, a pair of closer Malabar Pied Hornbills, and had several more views of Indian Elephant. We left shortly before noon and drove to Yala Village where as we waited for our rooms to be made ready we scanned the lake from the observation platform, seeing many Marsh Sandpipers, as well as Curlew Sandpipers, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, and a pair of Great Thick-knees. After lunch and a siesta we drove back to the entrance gate to Yala NP seeing a Sirkeer Malkoha and an Ashy Drongo along the way, and checked out a huge lagoon, seeing more Ashy-crowned Sparrow-larks, Eurasian Hoopoe, Indian Thick-knee (split from Eurasian Stone Curlew) and Paddyfield Pipit. As we watched a large flock of Rosy Starlings in a nearby tree, we became aware that a fine male Indian Baya Weaver was visiting a nest below them and got good views through the scope. Along the shores of the lagoon several more Great Thick-knees were present, with several Lesser Sand Plovers and Pacific Golden Plovers, and another Broad-billed Sandpiper was present amongst the flocks of sandpipers and stints. As the sun slowly set, Dave picked up a Jungle Cat slowly walking along the far shore, and there was also an Indian Elephant and Wild Boar as well. To round off another good day, we saw at least 4 Indian Little Nightjars (formerly called Indian Nightjar) with one bird in particular giving very good views as it flew around us.
Day 10 Tuesday 24th January
We set off on the long drive up to the highlands of Nuwera Eliya, stopping along the edge of Yala National Park to walk along the road. The habitat is really good here, with mature trees and a dense understorey providing lots of cover which is attractive to numerous species, and we had good views of Ashy Drongo, several Thick-billed Flowerpeckers (at last), at least 3 Blue-faced Malkohas, a flyover Indian Cuckoo, several perched Crested Treeswifts and Ceylon Swallows, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Small Minivet, Common Tailorbird, and a few Brown-headed Barbets. After a packed breakfast we settled back in our comfortable coach and continued the drive out of the lowlands, with the scenery changing to reveal steep hillsides and impressive waterfalls. At one such scenic location we stopped at a small café for drinks and ice cream and saw Blue Admiral and Blue Mormon Butterflies, although great hilarity ensued when a very bold macacque stole my packet of biscuits. A couple of hours later we arrived in time for a late lunch, before visiting Victoria Park where 2 new endemics duly made their way onto our ever growing list in the form of Ceylon White-eye and Yellow-eared Bulbul. With a rather uncharacteristically obliging Indian Blue Robin, our first Forest Wagtail and an Indian Pitta, there was never a dull moment, although it was surprising not to find any Pied Ground-thrushes (we later learnt they had become extremely elusive and may not be present here on a regular basis any more). As we drove back towards the hotel, Upali suggested we walk through a small patch of woodland, which provided further close views of a pair of Indian Blue Robins.
Day 11 Wednesday 25th January
After a reviving cup of tea by reception we were away very early and set off in two small minivans for the trip up to Horton Plains. Arriving just as the sun was about to break above the horizon we positioned ourselves alongside the small pool, where right on cue we heard the elusive Ceylon Whistling-thrush. After a series of high pitched calls the male was picked up perched on a branch overhanging the water, but quickly disappeared before all but a few of the group could get onto it. A few minutes later the call could be heard behind us and we were extremely fortunate to relocate him on a branch more or less at eye level and were able to watch it for several minutes singing from an exposed branch. Wow! So with that traditionally tough endemic under our belts we set off after the few remaining birds for our list, with a Sri Lanka Bush-warbler providing a few glimpses below us, before a pair of Eurasian Otters began playfully crossing the pool. What a show they gave, and were seemingly in the middle of some private game as they splashed and splashed in front of us, giving a series of snaps and squeaks. Continuing along the road, a Dusky-blue Flycatcher (formerly called Dull-blue Flycatcher) appeared next to us and gave a fine show, as did another Sri Lanka Bush-warbler that crawled in mouse-like fashion over and around a tussock just a couple of metres away from us. Several Yellow-eared Bulbuls and Ceylon White-eyes were also seen, before a Sri Lanka Woodpigeon began calling from the hillside above. After what seemed like an eternity, during which frustrating time we grilled every tree on the forest above, the woodpigeon kept on calling but remained out of view, until Upali picked one up not too far away, and we watched it feeding right out in the open. So from here we returned to the vehicles, with Dave catching a glimpse of Ceylon Scimitar-babbler, and just as we were about to board the vehicles a female Kashmir Flycatcher appeared on the other side of the pool. So everyone jumped out and was treated to prolonged views of this excellent bird. We then drove up onto Horton Plains and walked a little way along the road that transects the moorland, seeing Paddyfield Pipit, Pied Bushchat, and plenty of Sambar in the bleak habitat. We took breakfast outside a small canteen which served delicious hot tea before returning along the same road. This time we chanced upon a buteo species perched on a tree stump near the road, which turned out to be the newly split Himalayan Buzzard, and whilst watching this bird a Mountain Hawk-eagle flew by. Our next stop produced several Hill Swallows, a Philippine Shrike, a few Black-throated Munias and an absolutely superb full breeding plumage male Kashmir Flycatcher. Further along the road we saw another Himalayan Buzzard, as well as Black-shouldered Kite, and had close views of Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher to round off an excellent morning’s birding. The afternoon session was taken at one of Upali’s secret sites where after a slow start searching for our last endemic along a narrow stream we eventually came up trumps. First of all an Indian Blue Robin was seen doing what it does best, ie skulking, and that was followed by at least 2 Grey-headed Canary-flycatchers. As afternoon turned into early evening a male Pied Ground-thrush was scoped in some trees below us, and that was followed by a female Sri Lanka Whistling-thrush stood on a rock mid-stream below us. Then a Sri Lanka Bush-warbler and a male Kashmir Flycatcher were seen by some of the group, before a pair of Jerdon’s Baza made their way on to several life lists as they flew through the trees at eye-level. What a great couple of hours!
Day 12 Thursday 26th January
With some time free before leaving this area, we made a vain attempt for the elusive Ceylon Scaly Thrush, with only the leader catching a glimpse, but a little compensation came in the form of a female Ceylon Whistling-thrush and a brief Velvet-fronted Nuthatch. So after breakfast we set off on the journey to Kandy, stopping at a tea factory along the way, before arriving at our next hotel. After lunch a quick stop was made at a souvenir shop on the way to Peredinya Botanical Gardens. Here Sri Lanka Hanging-parrots and Alexandrine Parakeets were very evident, whilst along the river a Ceylon Small Barbet was scoped before we found a Common Hawk-cuckoo. Also seen here were Brown-headed Barbet, Black-rumped Flameback, and a flowering Bombax tree was full of Lesser Hill-mynas. Overhead Brahminy Kites and White-bellied Sea Eagle were seen, although the Eurasian Collared Dove seen by Noel was the rarest species present!
Day 13 Friday 27th January
A fine Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher was soon joined by a Brown-breasted Flycatcher in a poolside tree at Udawatakele Reserve this morning to get the ball rolling. The pool here was made famous by Bo Derek taking a swim in a Tarzan movie, but the best we could come up with was a Stork-billed Kingfisher and a Soft-shelled Terrapin! We followed a track through some excellent forest, and at one point we had a very close White-rumped Shama, and equally crippling views of a Brown-capped Babbler and a male Indian Blue Robin all in the same spot. Around the corner a Common Hawk-cuckoo put in an appearance, before we staked out a clearing where there were numerous birds feeding. Several Square-tailed Black Bulbuls, Crimson-fronted and Yellow-fronted Barbets, Pied Flycatcher-shrike, Orange Minivet, brief Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Layard’s Parakeet, and many Lesser Hill-mynas completed the picture. So from here we drove to our next hotel at Sigiriya, stopping to scan a tank in the rain and where we found a male Cotton Pygmy-goose on the way, along with Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Purple Swamphen and Purple Heron. Unfortunately the rain would continue to hamper our birding efforts all afternoon, but in between showers we did find a superb Shaheen Falcon perched on the rock face, as well as White-browed Bulbul, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, Ceylon Woodshrike, a Shikra being mobbed by a pair of White-browed Fantails, and several more White-rumped Shamas. Probably the highlight this afternoon was the point-blank views of an Indian Pitta just outside the rooms of some of the group!
Day 14 Saturday 28th January
The rain continued all morning with just a few brief pauses, during which we ventured out once, seeing Malabar Pied and Ceylon Grey Hornbills and White-rumped Shama, with a huge moth providing some distraction in the lodge. So we took the opportunity to relax, before having a fine buffet lunch and then setting off on the long drive to Colombo. Just 20 minutes down the road and the coach had to return for a missing jacket, during which time a few of us hopped out as the clouds seemed to be lifting and took the opportunity to scan a large lake, finding 7 Cotton Pygmy-goose, Large Cuckooshrike and Grey-breasted Prinia to take our group tally up to a very respectable 244 for the trip. There was also a fine selection of commoner birds present and it was nice to get out and stretch our legs before rejoining the coach. On arrival at our hotel we said our goodbyes to Upali, who had been an excellent guide and good friend, and we sat down that evening to our last meal together before retiring for the night. Our coach picked us up very early the following morning and took us the short distance to the airport. Unfortunately our flight was delayed by a couple of hours which meant we missed our connection in Amsterdam, but after a little delay we finally boarded a flight later in the evening and eventually arrived at a somewhat chilly Heathrow Airport.
On behalf of Upali and myself I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the group for making it such a pleasure to lead.