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A Report from

Sri Lanka, 13 - 27 February 2004 ,

Jim Frost

A trip to Goa in 1999 had whetted our appetitive for Asian birding, but that visit had only been for a week, so we had missed many species. We decided on Sri Lanka for our 2004 visit since it gave us the opportunity to see 26 or more endemic species, as well as to catch up on many birds missed in our short Indian visit.

My wife and I arranged our itinerary through the very efficient local company, A Baur & Co (website: email: They suggested the itinerary, and made all the arrangements. They provide this service for most of the big UK birding trip organisations too.

We flew to Colombo from Birmingham via Dubai on a very pleasant Emirates flight, and were met at the airport by Baurs' rep and taken directly to meet our excellent driver/birdguide, Abeydeera. Our vehicle for the holiday was an air-conditioned minibus. Soon we were on the road to our base for the first three days, the Kitulgala Rest House, which has a wonderful site above a wide river. Our standard birding pattern for the holiday was an early start, a long midday break at the hotel or with a packed lunch, and an afternoon session.

DAY 1    

Once we had unpacked we birded in the grounds of another local hotel for a couple of hours in the late afternoon. The endemic Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Yellow-fronted Barbet and Orange-billed Babbler were all easily seen, along with both Flamebacks and Brown-headed Barbet.

DAY 2    

A pre-dawn attempt to see Sri Lanka Frogmouth failed, despite one calling very near to us. However, when the sun came up, we quickly saw the rare and reclusive endemic Green-billed Coucal, the endemic Brown-capped Babbler and Black-headed Bulbul, and Indian Pitta. All of these star birds were seen down to few yards.

In the afternoon, we went to the rubber plantations high above Kitulgala. This produced two more endemics, Chestnut-backed Owlet, and Layard's Parakeet, as well as Openbill Stork, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and Grey-rumped Treeswift. Finally, an after-dark return trip to the Frogmouth site gave excellent views of this interesting bird.

DAY 3    

We crossed the river by outrigger canoe to the main rainforest. The endemic Spot-winged Thrush was soon seen, and we were lucky to get excellent views of a Red-faced Malkoha perched out in the open. In contrast I had only a fleeting view of a female Sri Lanka Spurfowl crossing a path. As it turned out, this was our only sighting despite three more attempts at Sinharaja. The two organised tours and a group of three Australians whom we met at various points of our holiday all failed to see this vocal but elusive species at all.

DAY 4    

We moved on in the morning to Ratnapura.  In the afternoon, a trip to a rather quiet Gilimale forest produced little other than two more endemics, Sri Lanka Myna and Crimson-fronted Barbet. We stayed overnight at the Ratnaloka Hotel.

DAY 5    

An early start and packed breakfast for a trip to the third rainforest site. Although Sinharaja Biosphere Reserve has all the wet zone endemics, viewing is not as easy as at Kitulgala, so we were fortunate to have seen the Spurfowl, Coucal and Malkoha before we arrived. Birding here depends on locating feeding flocks, always led by the noisy Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and Orange-billed Bablblers, but with less conspicuous species tucked in behind.

This was an excellent day with nine Ashy-headed Laughing-Thrushes (eight in one flock), Legge's Flowerpecker, White-faced Starling, Indian Scimitar Babbler, Malabar Trogon and four stunning Sri Lanka Magpies. A Black-naped Monarch on its nest close to the path was a bonus. This evening and the next were spent at the basic, but clean and beautifully situated Blue Magpie Lodge in the heart of the forest.

DAY 6        

Another full day at the Sinharaja Reserve. We had already seen all 20 rainforest endemics, so this was a chance to catch up on Black Eagle, Brown-backed Needletail and, lurking behind the Lodge kitchen, a Scaly-legged Crake. Spurfowls were heard as close as 20 yards, but never seen here in the dense undergrowth.


As we continued south, and entered the dry zone, the woodlands quickly became much more open. The Udawalawe National Park is essentially savannah, and was excellent in the afternoon for raptors such as Black-winged Kite, White-bellied Sea Eagle and Pallid Harrier. Around the water areas were Spot-billed Pelicans and Painted Storks, together with large Indian Crocodiles. Several Barred Buttonquails scurrying along the track were nice, and Blossom-headed Parakeet, Alexandrine Parakeet and Pied Cuckoo were very smart birds. Not the least of the attractions at Udawalawe is the large population of wild Asian Elephants.

Our overnight stop was the excellent Centuria Hotel in Embilipitiya, where our room was at the edge of a large and bird-rich lake. We saw Oriental Darter and Yellow Bittern from our balcony before changing for dinner.


South again, with some leisurely birding around Kalametiya bird sanctuary. Lesser Whistling Duck, Caspian Tern and Jungle Prinia were new birds for the trip. In the afternoon, we travelled on to Tissamaharama (Tissa), where the Priyankara Hotel was to be our base for three days. An evening session at the nearby Tissa Tanks (shallow reservoirs) produced Black and Yellow Bitterns, and local stakeouts gave us excellent views of Brown Fish Owls and a pair of White-naped Woodpeckers.


Up at 5 am to search for nightjars near Yala. Nine Indian Nightjars were seen in flight or resting on the road, but we were especially lucky to get very close views of the generally less obliging Jerdon's nightjar perched in a roadside bush. The rest of the day was spent in Yala National Park. The huge Black-necked and Lesser Adjutant Storks were impressive, and we had our second Indian Pitta, only Sirkeer Malkoha, and first of several Great Thick-knees here. 

Mammals are an important feature at Yala. Indian Elephant, Wild Boar, Sambar, Spotted Deer, Grey Langur, and Toque Macaque were all seen well, but best of all was excellent close views of the elusive Leopard.

DAY 10 

A morning at Bundala National Park gave us more waders, terns, and Great Thick-knees. We also saw Blue-faced Malkoha and our only Pied Kingfisher of the trip. A nearby site gave us Collared Scops Owl at a range of only w few feet.

The only new birds of note at Tissa Tanks in the evening were Blyth's and Clamorous Reed Warblers.

DAY 11 

The morning was spent on our longest journey of the trip to Nuwara Eliya, 6,000 feet above sea level in the Central Highlands. Despite rain in the afternoon, we connected with a feeding flock crossing a forest road, and saw Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike, Velvet Nuthatch, the endemic Sri Lanka White-eye and Pied Bushchat. Meg had a good view of male Kashmir Flycatcher, but I saw only an unidentifiable LBJ in flight.

A short visit to Victoria Park in the town added Syke's Warbler and the stunning Pied Thrush to the trip list. Our two nights in Nuwara Eliya were at the friendly Rock Hotel on Unique View Road.

DAY 12 

Up early in the morning to be at to Horton Plains National Park for dawn, essential to get the difficult endemic Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. Despite sweaters and fleeces, we were shivering from the cold of the highland night, but were warmed by point-blank views of this easily missed species. The other highland endemics, Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Dull-blue Flycatcher, and the common Yellow-eared Bulbul all gave themselves up in quick succession - we had seen all the Sri Lankan endemics!

We moved on to Surrey Estate tea plantation for Wood Owls, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and Loten's Sunbird, and had an excellent and very cheap lunch from the bakery there. Later, Victoria Park gave us wonderful views of Scaly Thrush.

DAY 13 

A final visit to Victoria Park produced eight male Pied Thrushes together and a female Kashmir Flycatcher. We then left for Kandy, and an afternoon of shopping and culture. The night was spent at the Suisse Hotel.

DAY 14 

A couple of the hours at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya gave Indian Cuckoo as the only new bird, though the huge Flying Foxes were suitably impressive. We arrived at the airport just after midnight, and were whisked onto an earlier flight than the one we had booked, via Malé and Dubai.

General Information

We saw 221 species, of which 93 were new despite our Indian trip. They included all 26 endemics, all seven potential future endemic splits, like Racket-tailed Drongo and the Flamebacks, and all the other near-endemic localised species except Dollarbird.

The weather was excellent, never too hot or humid, and just one afternoon of warm rain in the highland. The scenery was staggering, and people very welcoming and friendly.

Baurs will arrange as much of the holiday as you wish, except the flight. This can include the hotels and the jeeps which are necessary when visiting Uda Walawe, Yala and Bundala NPs.

The food is very good in Sri Lanka, but insist on local rather than tourist food! You have to bring your own food to the Blue Magpie in Sinharaja, although it is cooked for you. This is very basic accommodation, but clean, and used by several birdgroups, since the alternative is a six-hour round trip from Ratnapura

You can pay Baurs on arrival with dollar or sterling travellers cheques. Even if you book a package deal including everything you'll still need some rupees for drinks, some tips, and souvenirs. It is best to use a Nationwide credit card (by far the best rate), for larger purchases where possible. ATMs give a better rate than changing travellers cheques at a bank.

The only field guide I needed was the Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent (2001) by Grimmett, Inskipp & Inskipp. A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka by Harrison and Worfolk deals only with the birds found on the island, but the illustrations are not as good.

Tapes are useful and sometimes required for Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Chestnut-backed Owlet and  Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. Normally the Baurs guides have a tape.

Jim Frost


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