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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Sri Lanka March 25 - April 10 2005,
Participants: Alf King, Jeannine King
General Note: Sri Lanka is a great place to visit for a birding holiday, a cultural visit, general nature trip or any other kind of holiday. The island is highly dependent upon tourism as are many of the reserves and, following the terrible events of December 2004 this industry has suffered enormously. If you have any doubts about the wisdom of visiting Sri Lanka put them aside now, visit this lovely country and make your contribution to the recovery of their economy.
Emirates flights from Manchester to Colombo via Dubai were arranged through Flight line, cost £509.00 pp. As usual these were very comfortable flights with the benefits of the roomier seats found in the Airbus cabins. Food was tasty and service attentive whilst the transfer times at Dubai were reasonably short.
Processing formalities at Colombo airport were thorough but friendly and took around 30 minutes, which most British airports would struggle to emulate. No visa is required in advance and they are issued without charge to visiting tourists on arrival. A departure tax of Rs 1500 is payable but this is now included in the majority of scheduled ticket prices.
The timing of our visit was selected as it fitted with school holidays so our options were limited. Many of the migrants which visit Sri Lanka begin their return journeys between mid February and mid March so this was not an ideal time to choose for a Birdwatching visit. This probably resulted in the trip list being around 20 birds shorter than it might have been. The best time would probably have been about one month earlier.
All arrangements on the ground were made through Jetwing Eco Holidays based in Colombo. The details and itinerary were arrived at following extensive communications via e-mail with a number of changes being made by me to the schedule originally suggested. Any shortcomings in the ultimate arrangements were down to my lack of detailed understanding of the sites and geography and the possibility that I hadn't emphasised enough that this was a birding trip first and foremost.
Overall the arrangements were very satisfactory indeed, catering to the needs of a couple of "softie" birders of advancing age. All of the accommodation was good, and some of it was excellent.
Travel on the ground was by air-conditioned car and very comfortable. Distances and duration of travel in Sri Lanka are very reasonable compared with many other countries (e.g. India) so the time available for birding was plentiful. Road conditions and infrastructure are good at least in the areas that we visited and the standard of driving maintained the keen interests of the passengers at all times. Dogs in particular appeared to have a suicidal streak coupled with last-minute reflexes that saved their skins; we only hit one a glancing blow in two weeks. Travel in the parks and forests was in jeeps and land rovers which were of course, more basic but still quite acceptable.
|Our chauffeur/guide was Hetti (see elsewhere) who was a good and fairly knowledgeable birder, at his best in the woods and forests, who did everything in his power to make our trip as enjoyable, successful and comfortable as possible. We were very happy with his services at all times and his driving was efficient and safe, especially by Sri Lankan standards.|
It is most important to both parties to establish your trip objectives at an early stage, both in general and in specific terms. This enables the guide to manage the trip to your greatest satisfaction and also lets him know that he is doing the right things for you. We had a great time with Hetti, who showed particular forbearance to my frequent inability to get onto birds that he could see as well as my regular misnaming of the birds. My attempted pronunciations of local town names also provided him with real opportunities to show Sri Lankan patience at its best.
All costs in the country are quoted in Sri Lankan Rupees (Rs) which at the time of our visit had a tourist exchange rate of Rs175 = £1, Rs 95 = $1. Credit cards are accepted by most hotels but the transactions can be slow due to the idiosyncrasies of the Sri Lankan banking system. Most hotels change currency and the rates were quite acceptable; although we didn't try the banks they have a reputation for officiousness and slowness.
In general prices were very reasonable comparing favourably with those to be found in India for example. A visit to a roadside bakery will provide a bag full of food for Rs 200.
Eating & Drinking
The quality and availability of food in Sri Lanka is very good and, in our experience, very reliable. We ate salads, ices and everything else that was thrown at us with relish and no unfortunate consequences. The Sri Lankan approach to visitors is sophisticated and thorough, albeit a little relaxed at times. The standard meal of rice & curry is very good and filling and could be obtained from Rs 500 down to Rs 80. Of particular note are the many bakeries and pastry shops which sell excellent products with an obvious European influence. These should be visited and patronised wherever possible, waistlines permitting.
Attitudes towards the consumption of alcohol in Sri Lanka are relaxed with beer and spirits being easily bought through many establishments. One exception as in all countries with a Buddhist influence is that alcohol is not sold on Poya days (full moon). Sound planning can overcome any problems that this might present. Drinks in hotels are quite reasonably priced at first glance, but venture outside to a bar when available and you will get a real bargain. A very large gin & tonic could be obtained for Rs 160 for example and a bottle of local beer was Rs 120 for 650 ml. It would be difficult to overspend on drinks in Sri Lanka, although I didn't really try.
Local beer is of a fairly standard lager type quality and acceptable, whilst some interesting local stouts are also produced. Imported beers can be bought but are not worth the money. Local spirits are quite cheap and of good quality with, once again, imported varieties being poor value. An interesting local spirit is Arrack which is fermented from coconut milk and tastes somewhere between rum and brandy. As a good quality bottle (750ml) can be bought for Rs 500 and makes a very acceptable drink with cola or lemonade I would recommend this as an evening refresher.
Last but not least is Sri Lankan tea. When made properly and sympathetically this is the best drink on the island producing a deep honey brown coloured liquid of exquisite taste and excellent thirst-quenching and cooling properties in the heat of the day. Avoid tea-bags and insist upon tea brewed in the pot for the real thing.
Equipment and Essentials
Much information is available on the internet and I made great use of this resource. It should be remembered that the majority of information to be found was posted before the tsunami devastated parts of the coast and may not now be completely accurate.
If visiting any wet zone areas and rainforest in particular then a pair of leech socks is a very good investment. These little creatures will easily get through knitted socks and cause unpleasant sores with the possibility of infection to running wounds. These can be bought in some places on the island e.g. Sinharaja.
The usual injections and antimalarials need to be used although we didn't find mosquitoes to be such a problem, but they may be at other times of the year. Do watch out for scorpions in the bathroom, though, and always check the contents of your boots before putting them on.
We used Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp, Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent which wasn't ideal covering as it does all of the Indian birds but was sufficient in most cases. As always the distribution maps had been based on historical data so needed to be viewed as guides only. In addition the illustrations often referred to northern races so had to be scrutinised carefully when looking at Sri Lankan birds.
Our guide used Harrison, A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lankawhich, whilst having some idiosyncratic illustrations was most helpful in a number of circumstances
We also had de Silva Wijeratne, Waragoda and de Zylva A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (ISBN 1-85974-511-3) which isn't really a birder's book but quite handy as an alternative reference for some species.
I had a species check-list provided free by Santa Barbara Software Products which I had imported into an Excel spreadsheet and this proved very useful for record keeping. In addition a glossy bound checklist was provided by Jetwing Eco. I used Nelle's map of Sri Lanka which is really just a tourist map; there are many more comprehensive maps available within Sri Lanka itself and they are also considerably cheaper than in Europe so I would recommend buying one on arrival.
There are many trip reports on the internet in particular those found via the Travellingbirder site. One report in particular that I found most useful is on the Splatzone site. This contains a host of useful information for the more independent traveller. I also made use of the Birdtours and Fatbirder sites which are both good resources. Mention must be made here of the Oriental Bird Club site which is very useful for general information and can also be used to obtain leech-socks etc. Anyone with plans to visit oriental parts for birding should also seriously consider joining the OBC as a small contribution towards conservation efforts in these regions.
Trackers and Guides
There are many good trackers and guides in the various reserves of Sri Lanka and in some cases it is compulsory to use them. Obviously some are more used to finding mammals, particularly leopards and elephants, for the more casual visitor and may be less knowledgeable about birds. In the specialist bird areas such as Sinharaja the abilities of the trackers are quite exceptional and their knowledge of the birds very good indeed. We found that the efforts and enthusiasm of all of the people allocated to us was very good and excellent in some cases. It should be remembered that the pay that these guys get for their services is quite poor and a good tip will go a long way to improve this situation.
The use of tapes to lure a number of birds into view is a common practice in much of Asia, it being encouraged or insisted upon by some visiting birders. Trip reports that I have read regularly refer to the almost casual use of such lures. Considering that many studies have shown that the use of lures can be prejudicial to the long-term interests of the target species I cannot understand this selfish attitude. If a bird cannot be seen without luring then so be it, unless you regard the tick on your list to be more important than the interests of the bird in question. To my knowledge the use of such tapes would be illegal in many European countries so I see no reason why different rules should be applied in countries to which I am just a visitor.
Hence no tapes were used during this trip. Jetwing Eco prefer not to use tapes and the guide was pleased that I didn't want any to be used. Most of the trackers carry tapes because that is how they can attract the difficult species quickly for their clients. My refusal to use such tapes may have resulted in missing out on up to 5 species, but that was my choice.
March 25/26 Travel from Manchester to Colombo via Dubai
March 26 Colombo, overnight at Mount Lavinia Hotel
March 27 To Sinharaja, overnight at Blue Magpie Lodge
March 28 Overnight at Blue Magpie Lodge
March 29 To Hambantota, Overnight at Oasis Hotel
March 30 Overnight at Oasis Hotel
March 31 To Yala, overnight at Yala Village Hotel
April 1 Overnight at Yala Village Hotel
April 2 Overnight at Yala Village Hotel
April 3 To Nuwara Eliya, overnight at St Andrews Hotel
April 4 Overnight at St Andrews Hotel
April 5 To Elkaduwa, overnight at Hunas Falls Hotel
April 6 Overnight at Hunas Falls Hotel
April 7 To Negombo, overnight at Blue Oceanic Hotel
April 8 Overnight at Blue Oceanic Hotel
April 9/10 Travel from Colombo to Manchester via Dubai
After only a slight delay we caught the flight from Manchester for the long and tiring journey to Colombo enlivened by many second-rate videos during the trip. The food on Emirates is consistently good and the drinks service efficient. After the two hour transfer at Dubai we proceeded to Colombo arriving at 9.00 a.m. Following the usual immigration procedures we emerged to be met by our driver/guide Superna Hettiarachchi (Hetti) as arranged. We then transferred to the Jetwing office in Colombo to pay the balance of the holiday. (Note: we paid this balance by credit card as it offered the most secure system, avoiding the hazards of carrying cash and the expense of purchasing traveller's cheques. The banking system in Sri Lanka is suspicious of large CC transactions so I had to go through a number of telephone security checks first. As this was effectively protecting my own interests I couldn't really complain but this is one area where Sri Lanka lags behind a little. I later discovered that we effectively got surcharged by our CC company who used the tourist rate (ca. 180) rather than the commercial rate (190) that was used in the payment process.)
We then transferred to the Mount Lavinia Hotel which was a fairly standard tourist class hotel clearly used mainly on a one-night basis by tour groups. Despite this it was perfectly comfortable and was our first introduction to the service levels that were common throughout our trip.
After some lunch we went to the Talangama wetland area to see our first Sri Lankan birds. This is a typical mixture of tank and paddy and a very pleasant place for our introduction to the Sri Lankan countryside. It which yielded a good number of interesting species, notably Purple Heron, Yellow Bittern, Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Great Egret, Indian Pond Heron, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Black-headed Ibis, Garganey, Lesser Whistling Duck, Little Grebe, Spot-billed Pelican, Darter, Indian Cormorant, Brahminy Kite, White-breasted Waterhen, Purple Swamphen, Common Moorhen, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Black-winged Stilt, Red-wattled Lapwing, Common Greenshank, Common Tern, Feral Pigeon, Spotted Dove, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Asian Koel, Greater Coucal, the ubiquitous White-throated Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Black-rumped Flameback, Barn Swallow, Paddyfield Pipit, Red-vented Bulbul, Common Tailorbird, Oriental Magpie Robin, Yellow-billed Babbler, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Loten's Sunbird, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Black-hooded Oriole, White-bellied Drongo, House Crow, Large-billed Crow, Common Myna and Scaly-breasted Munia. Despite the fact that many of these species would turn out to be quite common and certainly familiar to us it was quite an impressive list to generate from the first couple of hours in the field.
We proceeded from there to the Villa Talangama for some tea (our first of the trip and a revelation) and sandwiches. This is a guest house which had originally been scheduled as our first night's residence and looked an excellent place to begin a stay in Sri Lanka being small and peaceful with an attentive staff and a splendid position overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit they were constructing a swimming pool and it was felt, rightly in my view, that it might be a little noisy for the first nights stay. When I visit Sri Lanka in the future I shall make it a priority to stay here for at least a night.
After a good breakfast we set off in good time for Sinharaja where we were looking forward to connecting with our first endemics of the trip. The journey also provided us with the first opportunity to experience Sri Lankan roads which certainly roused us from any feelings of jet-lag that we might have been harbouring. On the way we stopped off at Bodhinagala Forest Reserve this being a patch of remnant lowland rainforest where we might find some interesting species, notably Green-billed Coucal; as it turned out this was to become the real bogey bird of the trip, but it's always good to have a real reason to return to a country that you've enjoyed visiting - this is what I kept telling myself.
Bodhinagala used to have a reputation for being the most reliable place to connect with Green-billed Coucal but this reputation has declined severely in recent years. The main reason for this is the excessive intrusion into the forest by local villagers and the general degradation of this remnant by localised agriculture, wood-gathering etc. When we visited it was very good to be able to walk a little in a new environment and enjoy getting to grips with the more common species but it was also quite busy. The main roadway through the forest, leading to a local monastery, was in the process of being rebuilt and despite the majority of this work being only manual it was still quite noisy and disruptive for seeking birds. We waited for some time around the well below the monastery, a renowned spot for the Coucal, and whilst we heard at least two birds calling from some distance we couldn't obtain any views at all. Tape-luring would have drawn them in but my aversion to this has already been explained. In addition to some of the more common species seen the previous day we also had our first sightings of Green Imperial Pigeon, Indian Swiftlet, Grey Wagtail, Small Minivet, Black Bulbul, Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Indian Blue Robin.
We continued on to the Sinharaja region seeing Oriental Honey Buzzard and Black Eagle on the way. This area is a really fascinating place for a birder or any one with any kind of naturalist bent to visit; the rainforest is so lush and verdant, brimming with life of all kinds that it could have occupied our interests for a number of days. As it was we were destined to spend only two nights here. In retrospect I would advise anyone visiting Sri Lanka for birding to spend at least three nights at Sinharaja as there is so much to see that even repeat trips are rewarding. In addition, if it were possible I would suggest visiting after a few days had been spent getting to grips with the more common species. There are generally so many birds to be seen and heard in the rainforest that it pays to be familiar with the sight and sounds of the commoner species. Otherwise you follow every red-vented bulbul that you see; into our second weeks we were quite adept at filtering out many such species.
Our stay in Sinharaja was at the Blue Magpie Lodge. This is one of only two places that are at all convenient for this area, the other being Martin's Simple Place and we had the option to choose which we wanted to stay at when we made the original arrangements, opting for the Blue Magpie. Martin's (which we visited the next day) is very basic but clean and no doubt comfortable, providing wholesome food and good tea on demand and also having the advantage of 24 hour electricity. It has the particular advantage of being right at the entrance of the reserve so that you can literally walk out and into pristine rainforest in minutes. Also, apparently there are various owls in the vicinity that might be tracked down at night. The Blue Magpie is slightly more comfortable in my view, although there isn't a huge amount of difference, with bigger rooms and better bathrooms, but with the disadvantage of limited availability of electricity. Whilst not being as close to the forest reserve it is still within the rainforest and many birds can be found in the immediate vicinity either by simply standing and watching, or by taking short walks. Our balanced view was that we made the best choice, although others would have a different preference I'm sure. What is for certain is that the feeling of welcome and friendliness in both establishments were boundless.
To get to either of these establishments it is necessary to abandon the car at the reserve offices and to be transferred by four-wheel drive jeep along some pretty rough roads. We were thus transferred a distance of less than one kilometre to the Blue Magpie where after a quick wash and brush up we took a walk in the local woodland and were introduced to the real meaning of rainforest. After walking for some little way, seeing our first Yellow-browed Bulbul, Black-naped Monarch, Dark-fronted Babbler, Orange-billed Babbler and Crested Serpent Eagle amongst other things we felt a few spots of rain, which we thought would soon ease off. Having walked a little further the rain had become more persistent and after some deliberation we turned back. Too late! The heavens opened within seconds and do what we might we couldn't gain any shelter until the Blue Magpie where we returned looking like drowned rats, much to the raucous amusement of the staff and sheltering locals. Our clothing dried easily over the space of the next three days, however, so no harm done. This was a salutary lesson to always take an umbrella with you in the wet zones.
As the rain faded we had a welcome pot of tea and then the birds began to arrive into the trees surrounding the Lodge. These included Golden-fronted Leafbird, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Black-rumped Flameback, Shikra, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Sri Lankan Hanging Parrot, Layard's Parakeet, Asian Palm Swift, Crested Treeswift, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Oriental White-eye, Southern Hill Myna, Legge's Flowerpecker and White-rumped Munia.
After sunset we had a very pleasant simple meal in the open-air dining area and thoroughly enjoyed the peace and quiet of the rainforest. I later sat outside enjoying a drink and being bombarded by the weirdest collection of insects that I've seen - I don't know what it was that crawled across my back during the night, and I think that I don't want to know either.
(Next day it was amazing to see the children walking to school along previously muddy tracks dressed in the whitest school uniforms we have ever seen. We couldn't imagine the task that their mothers faced in washing these articles on a daily basis. I think we'd have opted for khaki.)
An early start saw us having a quick breakfast of tea and toast before being loaded into the jeep for the 3.5 km drive to the forest entrance. Whilst this wouldn't be much of a distance along a normal road it seems a long way when travelling up muddy rutted tracks. We eventually parked up at Martin's where we were to take lunch and from there proceeded on foot towards the rainforest. First though we had the sight of two White-headed Starlings sitting on an aerial for a few moments together with a number of Sri Lankan Mynas whistling for our benefit. We had earlier heard Sri Lankan Spurfowl calling but all efforts to find these were to no avail.
The rainforest was glorious and an absolute riot of overpowering vegetation, with towering trees, massive succulent leaves and colourful blossoms in profusion. There was also a significant lack of birds initially, which can be a little confounding in such areas if you have never visited them before. Birdlife in forests often occurs in flocks and in Sinharaja the flocks to look out for are very numerous and generally mixed, containing 20 or more species at a time. They are a key highlight of visiting this site and something that I had been particularly looking forward to. Would you believe that we never encountered one despite being in the forest for a considerable period of time? We heard quite a number but they consistently moved away from us (and we weren't making any noise at the time) or headed in our direction before veering away once more. Despite this we made good contact with Crested Serpent-eagle and Shikra as well as encountering our first pair of Sri Lankan Woodpigeon perched in a tree. Ceylon Junglefowl were readily seen on many occasions but Sri Lankan Spurfowl failed to put in an appearance despite being heard again close to Martin's. Rainforest can engender special frustrations all of its own at times! A Scaly Thrush was briefly seen by our tracker at what is apparently the best site for this bird close to the study centre. It lived up to its elusive reputation, however, by just giving the briefest of glimpses before disappearing entirely. A Spot-winged Thrush showed well, however, to provide some compensation.
A family group of Sri Lankan Blue Magpies were easily located given the noise that they were making together with their confiding nature. Doves and pigeons were well represented by Green Imperial Pigeon, Emerald Dove and Orange-breasted Pigeon whilst Sri Lankan Hanging Parrot, Layard's Parakeet and Rose-ringed Parakeet frequently passed overhead. The best bird of this visit turned out to be a Crested Drongo which we had heard calling on a number of occasions but could only gain brief glimpses of. As with most birding, however, patience was rewarded when it eventually gave excellent views of its iridescent sheen. Green-billed Coucal continued to be heard in the undergrowth but still couldn't be located. A Sri Lankan Scimitar Babbler was also calling and gave me good views but unfortunately eluded everyone else at this point. Many Asian Paradise Flycatchers were seen, both of the red and white variety, as well as the ubiquitous Indian Magpie Robin and a few Black-naped Monarchs. Dark-fronted Babblers could be located in the bushes from time to time
We returned to Martin's Place for some welcome lunch and the chance to sit in some shade for a while. Once more a large pot of tea proved to have amazingly refreshing qualities. When the heat of the day had declined a little we once more entered the forest determined to dig out some new species. Eventually, after long bird-free periods we connected with an impressive Malabar Trogon together with more Small Minivets, Scarlet Minivets, White-browed Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul and Black Bulbul. We decided to return to Martin's after walking some distance and connected again with many of the birds that we had seen on the way, but once again didn't encounter any feeding flocks. Suddenly a Coucal erupted from the bushes about five metres in front of me and shot across the path at high speed. Despite our efforts to relocate it there was no sign to be found. It was only later that I learned that Great Coucal in very uncommon in that area and that the probability was that this had been Green-billed Coucal. Still, in such a nice place I couldn't be too upset about dipping once more, could I?
Returning by jeep to the Blue Magpie we got the chance to wash up and divest ourselves of the leech socks whilst enjoying the local birdlife that occupied the many large trees around the site. This included the ever-present Sri Lankan Hanging Parrots, Layard's Parakeets, Legge's Flowerpecker, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Black-rumped Flameback and Yellow-fronted Barbet, whilst Grey Wagtail, Indian Swiftlet and Crested Treeswift regularly passed overhead. This was a truly magical place.
I later went to bed only to find that Jeannine had allowed about a dozen fireflies to get into the room. This provided an amazing spectacle as I attempted to sleep with their constantly flashing illumination in the room.
Whilst Jeannine had a lie-in I got off to an early start with Hetti and Sunil, the tracker, to follow up reports of possible Green-billed Coucal in the locality of the Lodge. Despite much searching (without my leech socks for once) we failed to turn up anything of major interest other than the usual range of babblers and Junglefowl, both wild and domesticated varieties, although I did manage to miss a rapidly departing Black Bittern by turning the wrong way at the crucial moment, not for the first or last time in my life I'm sure.
\on returning to the lodge we found Jeannine sunning herself outside saying that she had been watching a wealth of birdlife from the veranda. We were offered a diversion on departure to see a "stake-out" Sri Lankan Frogmouth for a "small" additional payment but, as we weren't on a zoo trip we demurred. We had a more substantial breakfast then bade farewell to the Sinharaja region with some regrets that we couldn't stay just a little longer.
Back in the car once more we made our way towards Hambantota which was to be our base for the next two nights. En route we stopped for a very pleasant lunch at a roadside Chinese restaurant then proceeded to Udawalawe National Park. Whilst this park is best known and visited for its wild elephants it can also be good for birds. As with most of the parks in the South you can only enter in jeeps and you must stay within these at all times, mainly for your own safety. We saw plenty of elephants at fairly close range and they were impressive as well as a little agitated. Birdlife in the park was quite numerous and the list was surprisingly long with first sightings of Changeable Hawk Eagle, Black-shouldered Kite, Indian Peafowl, Small Buttonquail, Little Ringed Plover, Common Redshank, Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Little Stint, Little Tern, White-winged Tern, Alexandrine Parakeet, Common Kingfisher, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Green Bee-eater, Indian Roller, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Brown-headed Barbet, Coppersmith Barbet, Rufous-winged Bushlark, Yellow Wagtail, Zitting Cisticolla, Grey-breasted Prinia, Plain Prinia, Indian Robin, Brown Shrike, House Sparrow and Black-headed Munia. In addition we had our first sightings of the Sri Lankan race of Red-rumped Swallow displaying their amazing all-over orange/red bellies; quite a contrast with the birds that we see in Europe or even with the Indian birds.
Following this pleasant excursion we pressed on to Hambantota, a place which had been particularly badly affected by the tsunami. Recovery from the devastation was proceeding albeit slowly and we were told that bureaucracy was the major culprit in this, coupled with skills shortage. We stayed at the Oasis, a comfortable but fairly characterless tourist hotel on the Southern coast.
||A visit down to the water's edge before dinner revealed a sea remarkably devoid of birds with just one Little Tern wandering by in 20 minutes. On our return we were able to have close up views of one of the common land monitors determinedly excavated the burrow of a land crab, eventually emerging in triumph with his victim after much effort.|
After yet another hearty breakfast we embarked for Bundala National Park for a further bumpy jeep ride but this time with the emphasis firmly on birds. This park supposedly has a reputation for flocks of Greater Flamingos but it turns out that they are in fact very scarce here, with their arrival in any particular year being heavily dependent upon the weather conditions in the North of the island, hence there were none present during our visit.
|This didn't detract in any way from the excellent views that we had of a host of birdlife including a most impressive "rookery" of egrets, cormorants and ibises with many being accompanied by young in various stages of development. As we were in a vehicle we were able to approach this rookery quite closely without causing any distress; a sight and smell to impress even the most hardened of birders.|
In general Bundala is a very impressive place to visit with much birdlife on offer. The only problems are those associated with climate which makes it necessary to be there for a reasonably early start then take time out in the middle of the day when it is simply too hot. This also means that to really make the best of the park it would be necessary to revisit; Sri Lankan park regulations being what they are would mean they require you to pay their substantial fees twice over to do this, so you really need to make the best of your single visit.
As well as the more common birds that we saw for much of the time Bundala also gave us good sightings of Indian Darter, Little Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Yellow Bittern, Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Eurasian Spoonbill, Lesser Whistling Duck, White-bellied Sea Eagle, our first Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, more excellent views of displaying Indian Peafowl, Purple Swamphen in abundance, Common Moorhen, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Pacific Golden-plover, Grey Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Lesser Sandplover, Greater Sandplover, Black-tailed Godwit, Spotted Redshank (the only one of the trip), Common Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, the ubiquitous Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper (the most common of the sandpipers), Gull-billed Tern, Common Tern, Little Tern, Whiskered Tern and White-winged Tern. Pompadour Green-pigeon, Pied Cuckoo, Lesser Cuckoo and Blue-faced Malkoha were good sightings away from the water but we kept missing out on Sirkeer Malkoha that seemed to be very easily spooked, with all that we saw being a brown blur together with a clatter of wings as they disappeared into the scrub. The usual kingfishers abounded and we had a good first view of Chestnut-headed Bee-eater as well as Indian Roller, Rufous-winged Bushlark, Richard's Pipit, Large Cuckoo-shrike, Common Iora, Indian Robins in abundance, Purple Sunbird for the first time, Brown Shrike and Common Woodshrike.
The remainder of a very hot day was spent at leisure in the hotel then trying without success to run some scarcer species to ground at a number of minor sites in the area.
After breakfast we undertook the relatively short drive to Yala Village Hotel via the Palatupana Saltpans. My arrangements had succeeded in going somewhat awry at this point and we really had a day too long in this area but this did provide us with the opportunity for a couple of long spells at the saltpans in order to do some "real birding". In general, unless you are really enamoured of searching for leopards for half a day, I would suggest that two nights at Yala would be ample for Birdwatching with a visit to Palatupana being made during the afternoon before your first night.
For those who like wader watching, and I'm one, Palatupana offers a number of hours of simple pleasurable study. In particular a number of the birds with which I am quite familiar were in plumages that I don't normally encounter so that made for some fun too. The saltpans are quite extensive with ready access past the works barrier then a driveable track around much of the East side. Plenty of stopping points coupled with some welcome shade and the ability to wander about at will made it one of my favourite spots to date. Amongst the highlights of the birds seen were Spot-billed Pelican, Eurasian Spoonbill, Eurasian Thick-knee (Stone Curlew), Great Thick-knee, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Pacific Golden-plover, Grey Plover, Kentish Plover, Greater Sandplover, Lesser Sandplover, Black-tailed Godwit, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Brown-headed Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Caspian Tern, Great Crested Tern, Asian Palm Swift, Eurasian Hoopoe, Paddyfield Pipit and Ashy Woodswallow.
After some lunch and resting up at the hotel we took a short drive into a few areas of scrub on the approach to the national park. Here we found Brahminy Kite, Small Buttonquail, Hoopoe, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark, Oriental Skylark, Grey-breasted Prinia, White-browed Fantail, Common Woodshrike and White-throated Munia. The plan then was to try to track down some Nightjars on the entrance road but a torrential rainstorm brought a halt to such proceedings fairly quickly, so we were forced to abandon any further birding for the day.
The Yala Village Hotel is a quite luxurious place with accommodation in individual single storey buildings complete with all mod cons in extensive grounds. The usually attentive staff and a quite excellent restaurant made for a very comfortable stay. An interesting aspect is that the hotel is actually within a part of the National Park so visitors are instructed quite firmly not to wander "out of bounds" during the day. In addition, after sunset you are required to summon assistance to take you to dinner in the main building, just in case there are any dangerous animals around. During the stay we saw lots of groups of Wild Boar, which look fairly placid but apparently can be dangerous, and one evening whilst on the veranda I was lucky enough to get a brief sighting of a pair of Jungle Cats.
Another hearty breakfast was followed by a revisit to the Palatupana saltpans for a couple of hours study. On the way out of the hotel grounds we caught sight of a brightly coloured bird moving in the scrubby undergrowth and a couple of minute's patient watching turned up the first Indian Pitta of the trip. Their habit of standing fairly still for long periods means that really good views of their complex patterning and colouration was possible.
The saltpans provided more excellent birding with the opportunity to get to grips with new birds seen the previous day. Although no new species were being encountered we did get to make long studies of such as Great Thick-knee and especially Broad-billed Sandpiper as well as watching the antics of nesting Ashy Woodswallows in a stand of palms. At the base of these palms there was a sudden flurry of activity which turned out to be a pair of Tawny-bellied Babblers collecting nesting material. Another flash of colour was spotted by Hetti, who had a remarkable ability for spotting and hearing woodpeckers. Sure enough this turned out to be a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker also searching the palms for potential nest sites.
A relaxed lunch at the hotel was accompanied by some casual birding around the waterhole before we made our first trip into the National Park after completing the necessary formalities. Being in the dry zone the bird species encountered are quite specific to these areas yet are, in general reasonably easy to see and often in good numbers, provided that they are there at all. This is a typical region for hosting migrants and their main season appeared to have ended a few days before our arrival, but such is birding.
|The park contains a lot of mixed scrub together with a number of waterholes as well as "lagoon" areas so the variety is interesting. In addition the Mugger Crocodiles of the region present an awesome sight at close quarters.|
During the course of the afternoon we encountered many common and more interesting species with particular pleasure being derived from two very obliging Black-necked Stork of which there are only around ten breeding pairs in the whole of Sri Lanka. We later had a sighting of two small owls that caused some initial confusion but were later confirmed to have been Jungle Owlets. Other birds on view included Little Heron, Eurasian Spoonbill, Grey-headed Fish-eagle perched obligingly in a nearby tree, Changeable Hawk-eagle also tree bound, Yellow-wattled Lapwing and the only Common Snipe of the trip with Pin-tailed Snipe being most notable by their absence. We also encountered a number of Indian Pittas at various places in the park as well as on the road leading back to the hotel.
We rose early to collect a packed breakfast and get into the park as soon as possible. Given the high temperatures and the exposed nature of the terrain this is necessary and many other safaris also set off early in the hope of finding leopards etc. Fortunately we headed in different directions to the "leopard hunters" so avoided unnecessary traffic. Yala National Park as a whole is huge and most visits are limited to one area strictly known as Ruhunu National Park (also Yala West). It is possible to access area further East but only with specific permission and a minimum of two 4WD vehicles.
Great Crested Tern and Caspian Tern put in appearances, whilst Orange-breasted Pigeon and Pompadour Green-pigeon added some colour. Black-crowned Night Heron were seen in large numbers at a lagoon with a number of immature birds adding some confusion for a time. Purple Swamphen were in good number, Sri Lankan Junglefowl were also much in evidence whilst Indian Peafowl seemed to be everywhere. Asian Koel was actually seen once again, rather than simply being heard, whilst a very good find was a Grey-bellied Cuckoo that gave brief but good views. A Blue-faced Malkoha gave better views than the bird we had encountered some days earlier but Sirkeer Malkoha continued to evade us. Hetti's radar once more detected a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker whilst Brown-headed Barbet put in another appearance.
A repeat visit was made late in the day after the heat had started to dissipate at around 3.30. Here we tried some different habitat in search of more species including some very tight and obscure tracks leading to the "elephant rock". This area provided some quite different habitat complete with interesting butterflies and treacherously smooth rock slopes. On one of these I caught the briefest glimpse of what I believed to be a Blue Rock Thrush but it failed to return despite much searching, so it remains on the "might have been" list. We must have been the only people in the park not searching for leopards so needless to say we encountered a pair alongside a stream in our travels.
I am sad to say we had begun to encounter so many Indian Pittas that we had long since ceased to remark on the next sighting, whereas in other places and contexts we would have been quite excited by the merest glimpse. Such is the capricious nature of birders. We did get good views of Black-headed Cuckooshrike, new for the trip, Malabar Pied Hornbill and both Scarlet Minivet and Small Minivet whilst Common Ioras were in good numbers, yet Brahminy Starling was encountered on a couple of occasions. Late excitement was created by finding both Tickell's Blue-flycatcher and Yellow-eyed Babbler within a few minutes of each other. A Scaly-breasted Munia flock ended the day's birdwatching.
The tracks through Yala seemed complicated on first encountering them but, naturally the drivers and guides know them extremely well. Given that we were specifically targeting birds they worked very hard on our behalf to seek out what was there. The real limitation was the fact that the vehicles are hard covered for safety (i.e. no standing is possible) and that you are only allowed to leave the vehicles at two or three specific points within the park. In addition the novelty of being bounced around in one of them does begin to pall a little after four hours. Despite that we saw a number of good birds and had some extremely good views of many of them. Yala is highly recommended but as previously advised one full day and two nights would be sufficient for birding needs.
Leaving the Yala Village Hotel we needed a brisk start to make the long journey to Nuwara Eliya. Clouds had been gathering through the night and followed us on our way soon turning into irregular bursts of rain. A longish and uneventful journey was enlightened by a lunch break at the splendid Bandarawela Hotel in the town of the same name. This is a throwback to the British occupation of the island both in architecture and atmosphere and is highly recommended provided that you can afford an hour lunch (40 minutes to be served 20 minutes to eat). After this we pressed on to Nuwara Eliya with ever darkening skies following us along our way. We saw many birds on the way, albeit that they were mostly the common egret and heron species. An obliging Eurasian Buzzard gave good views as did an Oriental Honey Buzzard.
The town, which is one of the most popular resorts in the island, was preparing itself for the impending national holidays and the excitement amongst many of the young people was palpable. It is also the highest town in Sri Lanka and has the reputation for a most agreeable climate during the hot weather.
En route to the hotel we detoured to Victoria Park, a well-manicured small public park in order to see what was around. One of its major advantages is that the number of people using the park means that the birds are very used to people and hence confiding. Almost immediately we picked up a number of new birds for the trip with Sri Lankan White-eye being much in evidence, together with a most obliging Forest Wagtail and a pair of Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike. A noisy flock of Yellow-eared Bulbuls made this the easiest of the endemics to date. Whilst Plain Prinia and Grey Wagtail may seem more mundane a Great Tit showing the almost monochrome markings of the resident race was most welcome. There was disappointment in the complete absence of any flycatchers in the park and once again migrant movements seemed to have been against us. Birding around the hotel turned up many House Sparrows plus a Booted Warbler to add to the tally.
The St Andrews Hotel is another splendid establishment having its origins in the late 19th century yet offering levels of comfort that were a real surprise to us. In particular the dining experience was a particular novelty to birders used to eating whatever is available, whenever. The food and service were both excellent, there being no other description.
An early night had preceded an early start this morning complete with packed breakfast once again. We left the hotel at 4.30 in order to reach Horton Plains in search of Sri Lankan Whistling Thrush. This bird is a notorious skulker and the best chances to see it come only at dawn and dusk, hence the need for such an early start. The day was dull with low cloud and a little cool for delicate individuals. After a winding journey through the dark we finally arrived at Horton Plains at 5.30. Here a barrier prevents further access until 6.00 a.m. for some obscure reason but, it being very quiet we carefully let ourselves in so that we could take up station next to the Arrenga Pond, the bird's favourite haunt. As dawn slowly broke the bird began to demonstrate why it has such a frustrating reputation with just a number of very short calls being issued at intermittent intervals. Three times we had the briefest of glimpses of a small thrush flying rapidly along the pond, but these were so limited to be insufficient to allow any identification. Suddenly after an hour the male showed himself briefly but clearly across the water, then disappeared. This was followed by a lengthy period of silence with no other views and Jeannine still hadn't seen the bird. After another twenty minutes the male appeared again, but at a completely different place, this time giving an extended view of his deep colouration and novel shape. He disappeared once more and that seemed to be that when another bird then appeared, this time the female, and she was showing herself very clearly in a most unexpected fashion. Then a further bird appeared which was either another female or a fairly mature juvenile bird. These two birds continued to show themselves for 15 minutes after which they all completely disappeared, proving the value of an early start.
Other birds also seen around the pond were Eurasian Blackbird showing the deep orange colouration on the bill of this local race, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Greater Coucal, Sri Lankan Bush Warbler, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Common Tailorbird, Greenish Warbler, Thick-billed Flowerpecker and Sri Lankan White-eye.
|After this excitement we pressed on along the main road through the parkland looking for grassland birds but the weather was very uncooperative with low cloud keeping most of the birds down. A Paddyfield Pipit and a Richard's Pipit gave a useful opportunity for comparison whilst Pied Bushchat was on every post and hedge. Following this anticlimax we made our way slowly back to town and the hotel. Along the way we encountered yet another Oriental Honey Buzzard and then got the chance to compare Barn Swallow and Hill Swallow side by side, both perching and in flight. Grey skies and peremptory drizzle welcomed us back to the hotel.|
After lunch we had planned to have a look around town then take in Victoria Park once more to see if we could turn up a flycatcher or two. We looked around some of the town before one of the famous local rain "showers" set in. Fortunately we had cagoules with us and returned to the hotel for hot tea and sustenance with the continuing rainfall putting paid to any further exploration that day. It turned out to have been a strange day with one of the lowest bird counts of the trip yet also one of its most exhilarating periods. Despite its obscurity Sri Lankan Whistling Thrush is an exciting bird when eventually found and well worth the effort when visiting the island.
In future I would limit Nuwara Eliya to only one night on the itinerary as the park can be covered on the afternoon and Horton Plains the next morning; after that little birding interest remains. Tiredness resulting from the early start would need to be taken into account of course, particularly in the case of the driver.
Following the previous day's early start and cold and damp afternoon we felt quite justified in having one more hearty breakfast before leisurely making our way to Elkaduwa and the Hunas Falls Hotel. This was only a short journey of a couple of hours with a possibility of stopping off to visit the Botanical gardens at Kandy if required. In addition we were scheduled to pay a visit to the Temple of the Tooth which is a most important site for Buddhists as well as having major significance in Sinhalese history. Without wishing to be disrespectful we weren't terribly interested and were more into the birding right then, so we took a rain-check on that one.
The Botanical Gardens may have held some interest but out timing was poor once again and traffic around Kandy was heavy and slow. We passed the gates to the gardens at around 11.00 when the heat was rising steadily and promised only a short opportunity for birding before it became very difficult. Having previously read about the main possibilities in the gardens we decided to press on to our hotel where we could do more birding in the grounds. On the way we stopped of at a large bakery where you could buy a days provisions for about Rs200 and it was all jolly good indeed.
|A winding drive out of Kandy eventually brought us to Hunas Falls and the hotel that goes by the same name, once more of an excellent standard. This is an area of really outstanding beauty and we were particularly pleased to have visited here if only for that reason. The hotel stands in a very large tea estate intermingled with quite fascinating collections of plants most of which have been deliberately placed to add interest. A long twisty road makes its way to the hotel and this can be walked for hours birding on the way.|
In addition a number of walking trails make their way from the hotel, each offering different points of interest. For anyone with a penchant for walking this would be an excellent base; the hotel also had its own resident naturalist and many of the staff had a real interest in the local wildlife.
We spent the rest of the day in the hotel grounds searching for a number of birds with an especial interest in flycatchers. Whilst we did have a couple of very fleeting views of two birds they refused to co-operate and once again we were left without. As compensation we did see Common Kingfisher, Little Cormorant, Indian Cormorant, Shikra, Peregrine Falcon of the endemic shaheen race, Alexandrine Parakeet, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Plum-headed Parakeet, Layard's Parakeet, Sri Lankan Hanging Parrot, Little Swift, Palm Swift, Yellow-fronted Barbet, a very co-operative Crimson-fronted Barbet, Hill Swallow, Red-rumped Swallow, Large Cuckooshrike, Scarlet Minivet, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Blue-winged Leafbird, Oriental Magpie Robin, White-browed Fantail, Asian Paradise-flycatcher, Indian Scimitar Babbler, Yellow-billed Babbler, Great Tit, Loten's Sunbird, Oriental White-eye, Black-hooded Oriole, Brown Shrike and White-bellied Drongo all in these grounds. When eventually followed by a refreshing shower then watching a glorious sunset over majestic hills to be completed by an indulgent gin and tonic and an excellent meal this was a wonderful example of the best of Sri Lanka.
In case our abundant breakfasts were proving unwise we set off on the steep climb up the Shaheen trail, reputedly many kilometres long and many hundreds of metres high. Whilst it was a steady pull you could still carry your tripod in comparative comfort and safety as long as you watched your footing. The trail has the reputation of providing the best views of Shaheens in the area but naturally, as we were around there wasn't one to be seen. Whilst this may be unusual it could have been influenced by the presence of a pair of Black Eagles that were circling the ridge at quite low heights, at times coming within ten metres of where we were standing - a stunning sight. The birdlife on and around the ridge wasn't abundant but it provided wonderful views of the surrounding countryside as well as much needed exercise for all involved. Other birds seen around the path included many Hill Swallows, Red-rumped Swallows, Southern Hill Myna, Scaly-breasted Munia and a group of Dark-fronted Babblers.
|Lunch was followed by the heat of the day, as always, and when it began to fall slightly we visited a small area of woodland known only to Hetti to try to find some of the species that we had missed to date. Whilst we failed to find anything new we did see some good birds the highlight of which was a Crested Serpent Eagle in a tree complete with a snake (serpent) that it was proceeding to devour.|
Other birds seen in this area included Oriental Honey Buzzard, Brahminy Kite, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Shikra, Pompadour Green Pigeon, Alexandrine Parakeet, Brown-headed Barbet, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Scarlet Minivet and Grey Wagtail as well as the usual suspects. Unfortunately I didn't learn the name of this woodland but it certainly seemed to hold promise and Hetti was certain that it should be good for owls.
After returning to the hotel I took a last turn around the gardens for an hour before dusk in the hope of finding flycatchers. All I did encounter, besides mosquitoes, were Sri Lankan Hanging Parrot, Greater Coucal, Common Kingfisher, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Blue-winged Leafbird, Indian Blue Robin, White-browed Fantail and a very confiding Indian Scimitar Babbler.
More eating and indulgence followed.
The rest of the trip was deliberately designed to provide some relaxation by the coast in the expectation that we would have been birding hard to date. Whilst much of the birding had been fairly intensive overall it was not as much as we had expected so we decided to squeeze in a little more at the coast, encouraged by Hetti of course.
From Elkaduwa we drove straight to Negombo where we were staying, but with a couple of stops along the way attempting to connect with such as Black Bittern or crakes; interesting but not too productive this time. One particular spot, however, at a Boy Scout camp ground did turn up Sri Lankan Grey Hornbill at last; for such a supposedly common bird it had proven hard for us to track down. Notable birds on the journey included Changeable Hawk-eagle, Eurasian Buzzard, Pompadour Green Pigeon, Brown-headed Barbet, Crimson-fronted Barbet, and White-browed Fantail.
At Negombo we checked into the hotel and then behaved like regular tourists for the rest of the day, which we found very easy to do.
As a final attempt to boost the list a little we went with Hetti to a wetland near to Annaiwilundawa. This was a quite beautiful place, a RAMSAR site as well, composed of large tanks that were filled to profusion with water lotus plants in full flower. Amongst these strode the usual Pheasant-tailed Jacana together with White-breasted Waterhen. Also in profusion were Little Grebe, Indian Cormorant, Little Cormorant, Darter, Purple Heron, Great Egret, Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Indian Pond Heron, Cattle Egret, Asian Openbill, Black-headed Ibis and Lesser Whistling Duck. We soon spotted a group of small white water birds that turned out to be our first Cotton Pygmy Geese of the trip complete with numerous young. Also to be found were quite a few Common Coot, an unusual trip tick for a European birder. Many water birds were to be seen across this large expanse of wetland including Garganey, Purple Swamphen, Common Moorhen and Black-winged Stilt, whilst hundreds of Whiskered Terns constantly quartered the area. There were smaller but significant numbers of Gull-billed Terns, Caspian Terns, Great-crested Terns, Little Terns and Common Terns to be seen.
White-throated Kingfishers, Large-billed Crows and Common Mynas provided their almost constant companionship throughout the trip. There were a few raptors around with two young White-bellied Sea Eagles calling from a bare tree. Also seen were Shikra and Common Buzzard, whilst Spotted Dove and Rose-ringed Parakeets made their presence known. Greater Coucal were calling and eventually showed clearly with Indian Roller and Brown-headed Barbet giving good views in the dryer areas. As previously stated this is an exceptional area to visit and should be added to the itineraries of those who like to actually watch birds.
We returned via Chilaw Sandspit after passing through a lively and aromatic marketplace. The beach seemed to be pretty well deserted with only a few terns scavenging further up the coast and a Grey Wagtail to alleviate the quiet. A sudden flurry of movement near to the waterline revealed a group of waders flying off, which quickly returned to reveal themselves to be Sanderling. Finally a brown head poked above a ridge in the sand and on closer inspection we had a Whimbrel, the last new bird of the trip and a fine one at that. We returned to relax at the hotel.
Tourism, beers, lunches, G&T's etc.
After a late check-out arranged without any additional charge by Jetwing we made our way to the airport for an early morning departure and a final farewell to Hetti. We had an excellent time with many highs and no lows to speak of, which is unusual for a birding trip. There were birds that we might have found that we didn't but as previously stated its all part of the fun. We will most definitely return to Sri Lanka again both for birding and as more "normal" tourists.
Cold and damp Manchester awaited us on our return.