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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Sri Lanka 14th to 23rd November 2002,Neil Money
Apart from two short business trips to Japan, to which I was able to attach only a limited amount of birding, this was my first birding trip to Asia. Having only limited time and not being familiar with the species of the region nor the logistics I decided to employ the services of a guide. Following recommendations in a couple of trip reports found on the internet I used A Baur Co (Travel) Ltd and this proved an excellent choice.
Contact details for Baurs are: No 5 Upper Chatham Street, PO Box No 11, Colombo 1, telephone (00) 94 1 3220551, fax (00) 94 1 448493 and the website address is www.baurs.com I made arrangements by e-mail through the very efficient Perry at email@example.com Payment was simple and straightforward. Having agreed the price in US$ with Perry I took with me a bank draft in favour of Baurs and handed it over to their rep who met me at Colombo airport. No deposit was requested. The price included transport, all accommodation, all meals and the services of a guide and driver. The service from Baurs was excellent and from the time they picked me up at the airport to the time they delivered me back for the return flight there was not even the most minor of hitches. They even confirmed my return flights for me.
As a guide I was allocated Lester Perera who proved to be an excellent and knowledgeable birder with a particularly acute ear and thorough knowledge of calls, essential assets for successful rain forest birding. He knows the area intimately and was able to locate some difficult species with precision. The driver was Saman who was 100% reliable. He coped admirably with our demands for sudden stops in difficult situations on the one hand while on the other being abandoned in remote locations while we thrashed through the forest. Having, as a passenger, experienced the Sri Lankan driving culture I strongly recommend against self-drive car rental. Employing a good driver like Saman is essential for a safe and trouble free trip.
Internal UK flights from Inverness to London Gatwick I booked direct with BA through their website at www.britishairways.co.uk. International flights I booked through Flynow.com through their website at www.flynow.com. I flew with Emirates changing planes at Dubai, where there was a lay over of a couple of hours in each direction. On the outward journey the Dubai/Colombo leg was with Sri Lankan Airlines under a code share arrangement. The return flight was via the Maldives, which added a couple of hours to the flight time.
The timing of my November trip was dictated by other events and coincided with the northeast monsoon. As a result I experienced a fairly regular pattern of mid to late afternoon rain showers, which on occasions was heavy enough to disrupt birding. January and February would be drier. The advantage of visiting Sri Lanka in the northern winter, from November to March, is the presence of many wintering palearctic species.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
British citizens should check out the advice on the Sri Lankan page of the Foreign Office web site at www.fco.gov.uk. Other nationals will wish to consult their own governments.
At the time of writing, the 20-year civil war with Tamils of the north appears to be edging towards a peaceful solution. The cease-fire agreed in February 2002 has held and talks are in progress under the good offices of the Norwegians. Both sides appear to desire peace. Although there have been bombings in the south in the past, the main effect of the war has been in the north and the area is still closed for birding. Permission to enter has to be obtained from the Ministry of Defence and even if this is given there is a ban on taking optics. Ignoring the ban could result in optics being confiscated by the military of either side. And then there is the problem of land mines! So, in all practical terms, the north will remain closed for serious birding for the foreseeable future, which is a pity because it contains some good habitats and some species that are either rare or absent in the south.
However, these problems should not deter people from birding in the south. Security has been relaxed and the areas visited by birders are unlike to be affected by the civil war troubles. A bonus is that all the endemic species can be seen in the south.
British citizens can obtain information on health issues by visiting the Sri Lanka page at www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk. Although this site contains information that is relevant for other nationals they will wish to seek the advice of their own health authorities. Protection against malaria is essential. I avoided drinking the local water in any form, including cleaning teeth, ice, ice cream and drinks containing none boiled water, relying on bottled water, which is readily available. However, it is probably wisest to stock up at the outset with enough bottles to see you through your stay, If you have to stop to buy one bottle you might as well buy a dozen. I ate mainly local dishes including the excellent locally caught Spanish mackerel and suffered no ill effects. As in all tropical locations, the sun and dehydration are greater risks.
Mosquitoes there are, but not to any great inconvenience. I found of greater annoyance the leeches in the Wet Zone forests. This is, to some extent, irrational as, unlike mosquitoes, they cause no pain nor carry disease. Lester was aware of the problem and lent me a pair of "leech socks" which proved effective control. I was bitten twice only, both times after scrabbling around low in the undergrowth looking for Spurfowl. I recommend that anyone intending to seriously bird the Wet Zone forests obtain a pair of "leech socks" before doing so. The Oriental Bird Club sells them for £7 a pair or £8 by airmail. The address is PO Box 324, Bedford, MK42 0WG, UK.
BOOKS AND MAPS
In the field I used:
A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka John Harrison illustrated by Tim Worfolk: Oxford University Press
As additional reference:
A Photographic Guide to Birds of Sri Lanka Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Deepal Warakagoda & T S U de Zylva: New Holland
A Checklist of the Birds of Sri Lanka Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne & Deepal Warakagoda and beautifully illustrated by my guide Lester Perera: Sri Lanka Natural History Society
Sri Lanka Verity Campbell & Christine Niven: Lonely Planet Publications
Insight Guide Sri Lanka APA Publications
Sri Lanka 1:450,000 Nelles Maps
Baurs pre-booked all accommodation.
KITULGALA REST HOUSE: One of a series of hotels managed by a Government sponsored organisation. Of adequate standard but in need of freshening up. The food was good. No facilities for making international telephone calls, but there is a communications centre in the village within walking distance.
MARTIN'S PLACE, SINHARAJA: Set in the hills at over 400m Martin's Place is accessible via a steep, rough track negotiable only by a four wheel drive, high clearance vehicle. It is the place to stay for easy early morning and late evening access to the Sinharaja Rain Forest. Accommodation is clean but basic and a mosquito net was provided. My room had a small adjoining toilet/shower room but there was no hot water. Food has to be taken up (Baurs arranged this) and it is cooked by Martin's family. A generator, which is switched off at 10pm, provides electricity - so take a torch. No telephone facilities. A peaceful place in a beautiful setting.
CENTURIA INN, EMBILIPITIYA: Modern hotel set on a lakeside, servicing an international tourist clientele. International telephone calls possible but only by connection through the Reception.
PRIYNAKARA HOTEL, TISSAMAHARAMA; A modern hotel and the best at which we stayed. International tourist orientation. International telephone calls possible but only by connection through the Reception.
THE ROCK, NUWARA ELIYA: Set above the town and accessed by a steep road. A good two star hotel which provided good food and good service. No international telephone access. Commercial facilities with IDD are available in town but this is a long walk down and a longer pull back up again.
14th November 2002
Arrived at Colombo International Airport, Katunayake in the early morning and completed the formalities by 06.30. I was unable to obtain Sri Lankan rupees in the UK so I took advantage of the fact that even at that early hour the foreign exchange counters in the airport were open and bought rupees. My guide Lester Perera and a representative of Baurs were waiting as arranged and had no difficulty in identifying me from the picture I had e-mailed before leaving. I was able to telephone home from an office just outside of the main entrance of the airport building for a modest R352.
Drove directly to Kitulgala Rest House with the occasional birding stop, including one for good views of Crested Serpent Eagle, and one enforced stop for a puncture. This latter was conveniently close to paddy supporting a range of heron species and Asian Open-billed Stork.
In the afternoon birded the rain forest across the river from the Rest House. The river is crossed by standing in a narrow dug out canoe and it may not be to the liking of anyone with a fear of small boats or a poor sense of balance, particularly as the return was made after night fall. Obtained fleeting flight views of Ceylon Frogmouth and Spot-winged Thrush, but failed to see Ceylon Spurfowl although it was calling close by.
In the morning drove up to a residential area about 15 minutes from the Rest House in a successful search for Chestnut-backed Owlet and then walked down to the same forest area as yesterday before crossing back over the river by canoe to the Rest House for lunch. In the late afternoon again crossed over to the rain forest and obtained excellent views of a perched male Frogmouth,
Very early morning start for the five-hour drive to Martin's Place in the Sinharaja Rain Forest. Birded the rain forest in the afternoon and evening finding one large feeding flock with a good variety of species. Heard Ceylon Spurfowl on a number of occasions but failed totally to get any sightings of this common but very elusive endemic.
Pre-dawn start to try again for the Spurfowl from the track below Martin's Place and again failed to get a sighting though we obtained excellent views of Spot-winged Thrush which approached to within 4 metres.
In the morning birded the rain forest finding a good range of species, including four raptors. Spent the best part of an hour unsuccessfully trying to locate a calling Green-billed Coucal and had similar lack of success with calling Ceylon Magpie. Returned in the afternoon in light but persistent rain and we were rewarded with excellent close views of the Magpie and satisfactory views of the Coucal.
Early morning start on the journey to Embilipitiya to give time to try again for the Spurfowl. One male came very close, calling loudly, but we were unable to locate it visually. However, having given up any hope, a pair was seen off the path as we were returning to the vehicle. Lunched at Embilipitiya.
In the afternoon birded the Uda Walawe National Park. Some excellent birds including Lesser Cuckoo, a Sri Lankan rarity, and Indian Pitta. Ironically. Having moved from the Wet Zone to the Dry Zone we experience more rain in the afternoon than we had seen in total in the Wet Zone and two very heavy showers curtailed birding.
Early morning start on the journey to Tissamaharama. On route bird Kalamatiya and Karagan Lewaya which between them produced a suburb variety of shorebirds and terns. A stop at a small reed fringed lake near Hambantota produced goods views of a Black Bittern. The obliging owners of two houses in Badongiri Road allowed us to invade their gardens to see two roosting Indian Scops Owls. A flock of 10,000+ Rosy Starlings flew over near Hambantota.
Lunch at Tissamaharama followed by birding around the Tissa Tanks, during which we found two Pale Martins, only the second record for Sri Lanka since the species was split from Sand Martin. 110 species seen in the day.
Early start to be at Yalla National Park by 6am. Birded the park during the morning. One of the Park rules is that the top canopy on the back of the Landrover had to be fitted, which seems to serve no purpose other than to restrict vision.
Lunch at Tissamaharama followed by a visit to Bundala National Park where they allow birding from an open top vehicle. Between them the parks produced a fine variety of birds, particularly shorebirds, and a flock of 15,000 Northern Pintail and 5,000 Garganey. In the evening looked for Nightjars near Bundala and we were successful in seeing a number of Indian Nightjars but only heard Jerdon's. The total species for the day was again 110.
Left Tissamaharama early for Nuwara Eliya so that on the way we could bird the forests in the closed section of the Yalla National Park from the road which runs alongside. We got good views of the beautiful Pompadour Green Pigeon.
Lunch at Nuwara Eliya followed by birding in Victoria Park where we found the endemic Yellow-eared Bulbul, after some searching, Pied Thrush.
A 4.30am start so as to arrive at the Horton Plains National Park in time for first light. We were rewarded with good views of all four endemic species (Ceylon Whistling Thrush, Ceylon Wood Pigeon, Dull Blue Flycatcher and Ceylon Bush Warbler) before 9.00. Spent the rest of the morning birding the Park seeing a number of raptor species and the endemic subspecies of Blackbird, which some authorities treat as a full species. Returned to Nuwara Eliya for lunch. Afternoon visit to Victoria Park.
After a 7.00am breakfast set of for Gregory's Lake to look for possible Pallas' Grasshopper Warbler; no success with the warbler but got good views of two Pin-tailed Snipe including flight views. A quick look around Victoria Park with only Blyth's Reed Warbler of note, before setting of for Kandy. The journey produced a few raptors including a Booted Eagle, a scarce species in Sri Lanka.
After lunch at the Queen's Hotel in Kandy visited a couple of areas in the surrounding hill in a successful search for Crimson-fronted Barbet but failed to find Shaheen Falcon, the local form of Peregrine.
On the journey back to the coast the only species of note were Stork-billed Kingfisher and White-bellied (as opposed to White-vented) Drongo.
Baurs had arranged for a room at the Hotel Sirimedura so that I was able to shower and have dinner before they transported me to the airport to catch the 00.45 flight back to Gatwick via Dubai.
THE ENDEMIC SPECIES
A minimum of 23 endemic species are recognised in Sri Lanka although some authorities claim up to 26. It is, however, likely that a number of endemic subspecies will be elevated to species status in the near future. I have treated only the basic 23 species as endemic.
The fact that I was able to see all 23 endemics was in no small way due to the skill, knowledge and persistence of Lester Perera. Without him I would have missed the more difficult species. While I am by means expert in finding the Sri Lankan endemics the following comments, based on my own limited experience, may help other visiting birders.
CEYLON SPURFOWL: A common species but difficult to see. Responds to tapes but even then can be very close without revealing itself. In the end I was just plain lucky!
CEYLON JUNGLEFOWL: A common species and easily seen.
CEYLON WOOD PIGEON: Probably easier to see in January when larger flock appear. Sits under the canopy and can be very difficult to locate. Horton Plains the best site.
CEYLON HANGING PARROT: Fairly easily seen in small noisy parties.
LAYARD'S PARAKEET: Should be seen at Kitulgala and Sinharaja
RED-FACED MALKOHA: Scarce, but joins mixed feeding flocks
GREEN-BILLED COUCAL: A very difficult, skulking species best located by call and then diligent and patient searching.
CHESTNUT-BACKED OWLET: Heard more often than seen. Diurnal and responds to tapes.
CEYLON GREY HORNBILL: Seen only once.
YELLOW-FRONTED BARBET: Easily seen in Wet Zone and hills.
CEYLON MAGPIE: Fairly noisy and joins mixed feeding flocks.
CEYLON WHISTLING THRUSH: Local knowledge required to find this crepuscular and skulking endangered species.
SPOT-WINGED THRUSH: A ground feeder and difficult to locate against the leaf litter. Best bet is early morning when it forages more openly on tracks. Heard more often than seen.
WHITE-FACED STARLING: Very scarce. Joins feeding flocks in Sinharaja.
CEYLON MYNA: Not difficult in Sinharaja.
DULL-BLUE FLYCATCHER: Seen only once - Horton Plains
YELLOW-EARED BULBUL: Easily seen Victoria Park and Horton Plains.
CEYLON WHITE-EYE: Easily seen.
CEYLON BUSH WARBLER: A skulker with very restricted range and local knowledge will help.
ASHY-HEADED LAUGHINGTHRUSH: Joins mixed feeding flocks when it forages at low level and easily overlooked.
BROWN-CAPPED BABBLER: Not difficult in Wet Zone.
ORANGE-BILLED BABBLER One of the core species in mixed feeding flocks in the Wet Zone. Easily seen.
WHITE-THROATED FLOWERPECKER: Easily seen in the Wet Zone.
Sri Lanka is a small country so it is possible to visit a variety of habitats without too much travelling. On my ten days trip there were only a handful species that I did not see that I could have expect to have done so. On the other hand, I saw some species which were not expected. For a ten days trip in November a species total of between 230 and 240 is a perfectly reasonable expectation. A January trip might add additional cuckoo and duck species, and a longer trip taking in the north west coast, the eastern slopes of the hill country and the east coast would add considerably to the total.
For recording I use the Bird Area/Bird Base database produced by Santa Barbara Software and based on Clements. The differences in English names between Clements and Harrison & Worfolk are listed below. I have not listed case where "Sri Lanka" has been used instead of "Ceylon"
Full Species List (embedded pdf)