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A Report from

Notes on a trip to Sri Lanka 2nd – 22nd Jan 2006,

Rosemary Royle

These notes are intended to help anyone planning a birding holiday to Sri Lanka by discussing various practical aspects of the trip. The bird species and where to see them are well covered in many other trip reports (many thanks to the authors – we used these extensively as planning aids) so these notes concentrate on topics which have not been addressed extensively elsewhere.

We (that is, Rosemary and Peter Royle) eventually decided on an all-inclusive trip from Baurs which consisted of the standard 14 day route (starting at Kitulgala) with a 3 day extension at the end at Sigiriya plus a day at the beginning to recover from the flight and an evening at a hotel before the return flight. The 18 days cost £1,100 per head and included all accommodation, meals, park fees, entrance fees to temples and historic sites, guides, ferries, jeeps etc. It also included a minibus in which we could spread out all our gear and the services of an experienced driver/guide. This is really outstanding value.

We spent about an extra £300 between us on drinks and tips.

Our guide was Abeydeera (Abey), a very pleasant gentleman but whose English was a little tricky to understand and whose bird ID skills were sometimes suspect (not helped by his cranky old pair of Swift Audobons which were well out of alignment). However, his driving was careful and his knowledge of the bird sites and network of local contacts was first class. He had a number of fallback sites for all the tricky species, so that, for example, we eventually achieved good views of a Fish Owl at the sixth possible location! If you don’t mind doing some of the trickier bird ID yourself (e.g. distant waders and birds of prey) then I would thoroughly recommend him.

Trip dates: We chose to go immediately after New Year in order to avoid the post-Christmas blues but also to avoid the busy end Jan/Feb/early March period when all the bird tours are there (easily checked via We also tried to avoid being at key sites during local holiday times – but failed. No guide book had warned us that Jan 11th  was a Muslim holiday, Jan 13th and 14th  was a double Poya and Jan 14th was a Hindu holiday. The effect was that from Wed 11th to Sun 14th Sri Lanka was on holiday. Although this meant that Yala was busy and Victoria Park was heaving it did not really affect the bird watching and it was fun watching the Sri Lankans have a good time. However Yala is pleasanter when not too busy so it is best to avoid weekends there.

Arriving and departing: We flew with Sri Lankan airlines and both flights were fine, with reasonable food, films and legroom. As we have found many times in the past, when we checked in for the return flight (so early that the flight was still not indicated for check-in) they already had no seats together. They managed to sort something out for us but it is worth checking in as early as possible – at least 2 1/2 hours before the flight.

The outward flight was scheduled to leave at midday and land at 04:40 SL time. This meant that we pretty well lost the night so in order to recover we had arranged to spend the next day at Browns Beach Hotel. This proved a good move – we slept as soon as we arrived then another nap in the afternoon and then all night as well! We were then bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the interesting drive to Kitulgala and wide awake for the cracking first afternoon of birding round Sisira’s where we saw many new species and good few endemics all within 100 yards of our cabin.

The return flight left at 02:45 and arrived in the UK at 08:45 which meant we could have a good night’s sleep and be awake enough for the long drive back to Pembrokeshire when we landed. We had arranged to spend the last evening at the Airport Garden Hotel where we could have a meal, swim, repack etc. but we had not realised what good birding we could have there. In the half hour before dark, walking along the service road (which gives views into an overgrown pond) and sitting by the ornamental pond we saw Watercock and Green Heron (only the second sighting of these two birds on the trip), watched a Shikra catch and eat a bat then watched a Black Bittern (new trip bird!) fly into the bushes.

Weather: During the first 14 days of January northern Sri Lanka had virtually continuous rain resulting in flooding and overflowing dams - these were the heaviest rains for some 16 years.  We were in the southern part of the island at the time but some of the weather came our way. We had some rain every day, usually in the late afternoon, until the 14th Jan when it miraculously turned bright and sunny for our visit to Horton Plains and didn’t rain again. As an example of the problems this caused, at Kitulgala it rained on the first day at 15:00 for an hour though the birdwatching afterwards was very good, on the second day it rained from 16:30 till after dark which virtually wiped out chances of seeing much in the evening and on the third day after very good early morning birdwatching it rained from 9:00 to 13:00 and again in the evening. We got very wet and very bloody due to the superabundance of leeches and virtually the only birds we saw in the rain were two Spurfowl which walked across the path.

The point to this is that the rain does seriously affect the birdwatching especially it if rains in the late afternoon as all the birds just go to roost early. Luckily we had a fairly relaxed schedule but if we had been on a tighter schedule we would definitely have missed some birds. As it was, our attempts at several locations to find the Frogmouth were pretty well scuppered by the rain.

Also our visit of Bundala was limited to a small area as most of the tracks were under water and some tracks in Yala were impassable. Many of the tanks and ponds were very full which reduced the shallow areas for waders etc.

Wet weather is more likely in Dec. and Jan. so if you are on a tight schedule I would avoid these months. But the weather in Sri Lanka is never entirely predictable.

Birds: A brief mention of the actual birds! We were very happy with our list of 221 including all the (now 33) endemics except Scaly Thrush which we spent al least 8 hours trying to track down in two locations. Apparently they are easier in February as they are breeding. We had excellent views of most birds including Blue Magpie, Whistling Thrush and Red Faced Malkoha and eventually good views of Green Billed Coucal. Just or prove that birds are never reliable, our first two days at Sisira’s – reckoned to be the best place in SL to see Green Billed Coucal as it is a “garden bird” – drew a complete blank. No sign at all. Only on the third day did we see a bird across the river and on the last morning when it was barely light they were in the garden and just outside our balcony! One couple who were there for two days trying to photograph both Coucal and Frogmouth saw no sign of either.

One non-endemic that gave us a headache was Blue Faced Malkoha which is apparently a “fairly common scrub and garden bird” – not for us it wasn’t. We think we may be the only people ever to do a bird trip to Sri Lanka and not see it! (We saw Sirkeer Malkoha easily and had terrific views of Red Faced Malkoha!)

Of the migrants, Kashmir Flycatchers and Pied Thrushes are scarce in Victoria Park this year. After two vigils by the rubbish dump we eventually had excellent views of Pied Thrush (also Pitta, Slaty Legged Crake and a selection of rats and squirrels) but no sign of the Flycatcher. We had cracking  views of Orange Headed Ground Thrush at Sigiriya just across the road from the hotel.

Our favourite birds (in no real order) were Orange Headed Ground Thrush, Indian Blue Robin, White Rumped Shama, Brown Wood Owl, Brown Fish Owl, Blue Magpie, White Naped Woodpecker, a hepatic Grey Bellied Cuckoo and the Serendib Scops Owl which we were very lucky to see roosting during the day. We also enjoyed the Jacanas in their stunning breeding plumage, the Greater Thick Knees with their huge yellow eyes and the Small Pratincole gyrating around catching flies on the sand like a wagtail. We were also very relieved to catch up with Forest Wagtail in Victoria Park, a bird we have been trying to see for a number of years.

Using tapes: We prefer not to use tapes wherever possible and in the event we only needed to use them for Jerdon’s Nightjar (which zoomed in after only one play despite the rain) and the Whistling Thrush which we saw (both male and female) in the evening at a site quite near Nureya Eliya thus avoiding the necessity of a 4:30 start for Horton Plains. In fact I have no idea why such an early start is necessary – it is only an hour to the “Arrenga Pool” and it is still pitch dark until 6:15. After a later start we arrived at the pool at 7:30 and not only had excellent view of the male thrush (called up by another birdwatcher who was taking photos) but the pool contained two otters that were very tame and gave excellent views.

Hotels: Our favourite place was Sisira’s River Lounge – excellent food, good beer (Three Coins and Irish Black which is actually more like mild and goes very well with curries), fantastic situation and brilliant birds. The rooms could do with more storage areas and the very cold water in the showers is a bit of shock to the system but altogether excellent.

Next was the Blue Magpie – solar heated hot water, good food, good situation very close to the Park entrance, great views from the dining area, very friendly people and perfectly adequate rooms – what more could you want? (Interestingly access to both these places was problematic when we were there as washed away roads were being repaired).

The Forest Glen at Kandy had good rooms (we had the best one), an excellent view from the balcony and was close to Udawattekele Forest but the food was a bit bland and often virtually cold. Friendly people though.

Sigiriya Hotel was much classier and very good (though a bit too touristy for our tastes). The food and service was excellent.

The Centauria Hotel in Embilipitiya was good and does a first class laundry service. We handed in an embarrassing pile of blood, sweat and mud soaked shirts and trousers at lunchtime and they were back by the evening all clean and pressed.

We were not overly impressed with Vikum Lodge. The accommodation was just OK but the food was a bit basic and not very generous. The rice and curry was alright though the rice was poor, but the packed breakfasts and lunches were not really adequate – the contents of the sandwiches were so miserly as to be virtually invisible. (I notice that the comments about the food at Vikum Lodge vary widely in other trip reports).

Other hotels – The Rock at Nureya Eliya (a bit gloomy and old fashioned but very friendly), Ratnaloka Tours Inn at Ratnapura, Browns Beach at Negombo and the Airport Garden were all fine.

Food: I could write a long essay on this! Basically, Sri Lankan Curry and Rice is generally excellent. The rice is variable – it may be tasty with beautifully separate grains or may be tasteless and lumpy. With the rice will be served from 4 to 7 bowls of curries. There will be one of fish or meat, which is usually the hottest (i.e. most chilli). There will usually be some kind of daal, and then several vegetable dishes. You will have vegetables you have never heard of – beetle gourd, snake gourd, ash plantain – as well as many more familiar – potato, sweet potato, pumpkin, aubergine (always excellent), beans, cabbage, okra, breadfruit and a selection of unnamed green leafy things. These will have different sauces with different degrees of hotness. Almost all are delicious.

However, curry and rice as served to western tourists is somewhat modified compared to that served to Sri Lankans. The latter consists of much more rice and much less curry. What there is, is very hot. If you don’t believe me try something which has been prepared for your guide! We tried the chicken curry and sambol which Abey had for breakfast with string hoppers and it was very hot indeed.

If you are finding the curries at a particular place to hot or too mild you can always ask for more or less chilli next time. In general, the curries we had at Sisira’s were the hottest and those at the Forest Glen the blandest.

At buffets in big hotels, the genuine Sri Lankan curries are often served from earthenware containers rather than stainless steel trays. The earthenware container is a coded message – “for Sri Lankans or strong constitutions only”. Of course we did try some and they were not always ludicrously hot.

A general pattern was that curry and rice was served at lunchtime and something simpler in the evening – maybe noodles with chicken. Or at bigger hotels there was a buffet if it was busy. The noodles were very good and fish was also excellent – especially “seer fish”, often described as “darn of seer fish”. At some places (e.g. Vikum Lodge) you could get curry and rice in the evening if you booked in advance though it did not appear on the menu. This was handy if you had had a packed lunch. At Sisira’s we had rice and curry for both lunch and dinner but this got a bit much after a while!

A word about curd. We became completely addicted to “curd and treacle”. The curd is buffalo curd, which is sold by the roadside in terracotta bowls, and is available in rice growing areas where there are usually water buffalo. The treacle is the sap of the kitul palm and had a distinctive smoky taste. No two portions of curd are the same. It can vary from being quite sour, like natural yoghurt, to being very rich and creamy. It is always delicious and probably good for the stomach (“friendly bacteria” etc)

All the hotel buffets we came across were excellent.

Desserts were variable – jelly and ice cream slipped down very well after the hot curries at Sisira’s whilst curd was often an option. You could always have fruit, which was usually papaya, pineapple and banana. Once or twice we were served a genuine Sri Lankan concoction like a brown solid caramel flavoured egg custard – very good.

Breakfasts were excellent – typically fruit, eggs of some sort, toast and often good marmalade – those Scottish Tea Planters certainly left their mark.

Tea was usually excellent. If you want milk it will be hot. Coffee is not worth bothering with unless you are in a big hotel or are very keen on Nescafe.

A note on food hygiene – it appears to be very good. We have been to the Indian subcontinent on a number of occasions and this is the first time our digestive systems have remained totally unperturbed.

Other things: We found the visit to a tea factory fascinating – not least for the ingenuity and the great age of some of the machines.

The spice garden was a disappointment. I expected to see commercially grown spices for cooking but instead there were just a few examples of some of the spices and plants used in Ayurvedic medicine together with the offer of a massage. Unless you are interested in Ayurvedic remedies I would give it a miss. I didn’t even enjoy the massage – it left me all tense because it was painful and the oil smelt horrible!

We enjoyed all our “culture” – we went to Sigirya Rock, Polunnawarra, Kandy Temple of the Tooth (at night and during the day), Dambulla Rock Temples, a large Hindu temple dedicated to Parvati (can’t remember where) and a monastery Abey took us to in order to show us writing on ola leaves. We also went to a dance performance – great fun.

I have slightly mixed feelings about Polunnawarra. It dates from the 10th to 13th centuries and is basically a ruin, albeit on a grand scale. In the UK we have plenty of places from those dates that are still in use and are more impressive. However, the Gal Vihare (Buddha figures carved from a huge granite rock) and the temple containing the ruined standing Buddha were impressive. (The latter also contained one of Sri Lanka’s few Barn Owls!) The Lotus Pond will remain in our memory forever, as it was the place where we eventually caught up with the Fish Owl – fantastic views of a bird we had just missed by a few seconds on two previous occasions. 

Birding locations:  Just a few words on this. When we totted up our lists we were surprised to find that top of our list in terms of number of species seen was Sigiriya (including Polunnawarra). By the time we got there we had few new birds to see, but it is potentially a good place to start so that you can get to grips with the common birds. But you would need to dedicate the first day to birdwatching so that you did not spend all your time as you were going up the rock trying to look at the birds!

We had considered doing the trip in this order – Sigirya first and finishing with Sinharahjah and Kitulgala. This leaves the physically most challenging sites to the end when you have acclimatised a bit. But it does mean you leave all the key endemics to the last few days – a bit nerve racking! In the event, if we had done it in this order the weather would have caused severe problems.

Just a note about the actual birding at Kitulgala. There is very good birdwatching around the lodge, but every time you go into the forest you have to cross the river. This can be achieved by the small ferry which consists of a very narrow canoe (with an outrigger) which you stand up in. We found this OK as the outrigger makes it very stable and you can brace your legs against the side of the canoe, though some people don’t like it. I guess maybe it helps that we are short! The alternative is a scary bridge where the central section has been repaired with flattened oil drums that have since split in many places. Once was enough for me!

Once across the river you can walk through the village along the river (very interesting, as well as good birds) or up into the forest. This involves a climb of several hundred feet of rocky path. This can get pretty hot and sticky but the main problem is doing it on the way down in the dark and the wet on the way back from owl sorties – you need a good torch and confident feet.

Sinharajah involves a very bumpy jeep ride to the forest entrance and then a walk of a couple of kilometres to the main bird areas. On one day Peter covered this piece of track backwards and forwards 3 times (Scaly Thrush site at one end and White Faced Starling at the other, and still didn’t see the Scaly Thrush) though I retired after the first foray. Anyway, both these sites can be fairly energetic.

Footwear: At Sinharajah and Kitulgala our waterproof boots were invaluable for soggy bits of path and wet stream crossings. The path back via Baker’s Falls at Horton Plains was also very boggy – like a peaty path in the Peak District, and the waterproof boots were again very useful.

Leeches: Leech socks were essential at Sinharajah and Kitulgala though the locals adopt the technique of flip flops and bare legs and just brush them off from time to time. We bought ours from the Oriental Bird Club. They were “one size” and extremely large (designed for size 14 feet I think) and the material was also very thick – sort of twill. Although I reduced the foot size before we went I did not realize how much walking we would be doing wearing them. If I had known I would have spent more time improving the fit as after several days my feet were getting painful where the seams were digging in and the material was bunching up.

If I had known what they were like I would have made my own. You could use thinner material – it will be OK as long it has a close weave (I should think curtain lining would be fine and cheap) and make them to fit. They are simply a foot shaped object (like a Christmas stocking) with some means of holding them up – a shoelace through a hem at the top or simply an elastic garter worn over the top. They need to be easy to get on and off for ferry crossings (you have to wade to get into the canoe).

Note that leech socks do not protect you from leeches higher up. On our rainy day at Kitulgala we had leeches on our arms, chests and most revoltingly I had a ring of the horrid objects round my midriff because I had not tucked my shirt in! A generous application of DEET will deter them however. It is worth carrying sticking plasters to put over the wounds because they are very reluctant to stop bleeding especially on the inside of your arms.

Leopards: You need to make it clear to your guide whether you are interested in seeing leopard. If you are and there is time in the itinerary you will probably do a whole day in Yala. This gives time to get to the inland part of the park near the big rock that affords the best chance of a leopard sighting. We did indeed see one there – a grizzled old male perched on a rock at some distance but very clear through the scope.

(Note that Baurs have a relationship with a driver and his vehicle who operates in Yala, Bundala and Uda Walawe. They have trained him and he is first class at bird spotting – he found our Sirkeer Malkoha).

Summary: We had had marvellous time in Sri Lanka – it was a thoroughly enjoyable trip.

We found Sri Lanka very different from India – much quieter, less frenetic, less smelly, cleaner and generally less of a culture shock. Really quite calm and laid back. Even the driving is quieter – when an oncoming bus overtakes in a stupid place and you have to pull off the road to avoid it hitting you there is no hooting or shaking of fists – just calm acceptance. I suppose Buddhism must be a factor here.

I have not mentioned the tsunami because it didn’t figure very much on our trip except in the Yala area. Abey showed us places where the tsunami had hit and explained some of the damage it did though most of the areas have been cleared and it is difficult to spot the impact. We also saw a new village being built for some of the displaced people.

At Yala, the place where you now eat your picnic breakfast is the same place where, at breakfast time on 26th Dec 2004, a number of German and Japanese tourists together with drivers and the staff of the little restaurant were all killed by the tsunami. The wrecked restaurant is still there as are piles of debris. There is a new memorial there to the people who were killed but it seemed a strange spot to have breakfast and we had little appetite for it. But I am glad we went there as it was good that we were not completely insulated from the disaster. However the Sri Lankans do not make a big issue of the event. Please do not let it put you off going.


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