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A Report from

Sri Lanka 20 October to 4 November 1997,

Michael Bowman

This report is republished here with the kind permission of Bren McCartney of the Berkshire Birds Web Page (see links)

Travel, accommodation, etc.

I had sufficient frequent flyer miles with British Airways to fly free from Geneva to Colombo and return.

This determined my routing via London. I flew from Geneva to London, then on via Dubai to Colombo. I arrived in Colombo late on Sunday 19th October in a heavy tropical storm. Clearing immigration and customs inbound into Colombo was fast and efficient, however when leaving Colombo a good three hours should be allowed before planned departure time due to stringent security checks. The flight from London to Colombo left from Gatwick on a DC10, the return flight, (winter schedule), was into Heathrow on a new 777. Our arrival into Heathrow was delayed by another aircraft having a landing incident and blocking one of Heathrow's two runways.

I made my reservations though a Colombo tour agent, Quickshaws, whose address I had obtained via a correspondant in EBN. I reserved a car with driver for the duration of my stay together with bed and breakfast accomodation. Note: It is normally cheaper in Sri Lanka to rent a car with driver than drive oneself for reasons of insurance, and I had no regrets at all as driving conditions are not very good. In particular the buses drive both fast and often dangerously, in addition the road signs are also not easy to follow. I do not recommend self drive other than for those with a real sense of adventure and experience of driving outside Europe or North America.

October/November are amongst the wettest period of the year in the wet zone but the advantage is that the hotels are mostly empty and few tourists are encountered. It was extremely wet in both Nuwara Eliya and Kandy during the afternoons and unless one is particularly attracted by these towns it is probably worth giving them a miss at this time of year and spend more time in the dry zone. I stayed generally in small hotels with a dozen rooms or so and in many cases was the only guest. I was very pleased with Quickshaws (e-mail, attention Miss Nirama De Mel), and their driver/guide who was a mine of information about all aspects of Sri-Lanka, although not a birding specialist.

The population is extremely friendly and most people speak some English and in the hotels and other places catering to the tourist trade English is universal. Generally speaking there is also almost no begging, other than the odd small child who is mostly interested by "bon-bons". Some of the beach resorts are not so good however and are in any case not likely to be of much interest to the serious birder!. (I did see my only Black-capped Kingfisher on the beach in Bentota!

Several of the trackers in the national parks spoke little or no English and do not count on them to provide you with a great deal of information about the birds that you are likely to see, a kingfisher is a kingfisher irrespective of which species it is, there are exceptions of course. This is where your driver/guide might be useful as a translator! The Sri Lanka Field Guide does have the names in Sinhalese as well as English but I did not find many people who could recognise the local names.

My schedule resulted in changing hotels every day or so and in some cases this was too often to leave time for adequate birding in the more interesting spots. While distances are not very great visitors should make allowances for low average speeds resulting from the state of many roads. I did not spend all my time birding as there are many other things to see in Sri Lanka. My first night in Sri Lanka was spent at the Galle Face hotel, a 1860s colonial style hotel and a last moment replacement for my city centre hotel which was blown up by a lorry bomb three days before. I was glad to get out of Colombo as many roads are blocked off and there is relatively little to see. The national museum in particular is in very poor shape. There were relatively few birds to be seen around Colombo other than the very common India House Crow, Common Myna, House Sparrows, the odd Greater Coucal, a few Little Green Bee-eaters and big flocks of Spot-billed Pelican flying over Beira Lake, my hotel also had a couple of White-breasted Kingfishers diving for fish in an ornamental pond outside the main entrance!

After Colombo I followed the itinery listed below. Many authors of other trip reports that I have read did much better than I in the rain forest zones such as Sinharajah, and particularly Udawattakelle which was almost bird free the day I visited. I think that this is possibly due to the time of year. Many of the best spots in October/November seemed to be in the dry zone or areas where northern migrants gather, however this is based only on my limited experience. The tracker in Sinharajah told me though that he had seen very few birds over the preceeding 3 or 4 weeks and that this was due tolittle or no fruit remaining on the trees in the forest. I never managed to see the Ceylon Blue-Magpie which should be normally not be too difficult in Sinharajah. Many other of Sri Lanka's endemics are fortunately quite easy to see. I saw far more Ceylon Wood-pigeons than I expected as some other reports I had read listed almost none, I saw this species in several locations and around the bungalow in Bandarawela they were quite common and four or five were always in the trees around the house. I bird watched on my own and with more pairs of eyes I would have seen more, I also saw several birds which I was unable to identify from any of my guides. In particular at Horton Plains what appeared to be a thrush with olive/brown upper parts and orange under parts which I was unable to find in either of my guides. One area where I would have like to spend more time was the lake at Giritale which was teeming with birds and the flight of many hundreds (thousands?) of assorted parakeets over the lake from their roosts at dawn was particularly striking. The Alexandrine Parakeets standing out by their much greater size, later on I was to get close up views of this attractive species in the hotel garden in Sigiriya. Another area where I would have liked to have spent more time was the Kuda Oya camp, the camp itself was fun and many dry zone birds were to be found in the grounds, a reservoir was also within walking distance with many waterbirds as well as very large numbers of Peafowl, an early morning walk to the reservoir with a friendly and knowledgeable employee from the camp was well worthwhile and every tree seemed to have a Peafowl roosting in it. This is also an excellent place to see wild Elephants, even though it is not a nature reserve as such. The camp has a Jeep and tracker and runs "safaris" into the forest area.


(I stayed overnight at the locations in capitals)


My primary guide was "A field guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka" by Sarath Kotagama and Prithiviraj Fernando with as a useful backup A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia by King, Woodcock and Dickinson. The Sri Lanka guide is very useful in that it provides good information on what one is likely to see but the illustrations are not as good as some I have seen and identifying birds that one has never encountered before is not easy with this guide as both colours and "jizz" are often misleading. I also had a copy of Woodcock's pocket guide "Birds of India" which provided alternative illustrations for some species. I was not able to get hold of a copy of G.M.Henry's Guide to the birds of Ceylon before I left.

Systematic List, and principal locations where sighted:

For my convenience I used names supported by the database used in Bird Recorder for Windows, which is primarily based on "A complete checklist of birds of the world", Howard & Moore 1984.

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