Initially we were going to do the trip in September but soon realised that the best timing, in order to avoid the monsoon rains, was between November and March, with the peak birding season during January and February. Many of the birds visiting Sri Lanka are northern hemisphere winter migrants and thus birding during summer in Sri Lanka is not as rewarding as the winter months.
|Temple of the Sacred Tooth|
Mannar Island has formed a land bridge with India on at least 17 occasions over the past 500,000 to 700,000 years. Adam’s Bridge (or Rama’s Bridge) as it is known, is evident from satellite images and still links Sri Lanka with India via a shallow reef.
|Map of Sri Lanka with the Mannar Island link to India|
|Wetlands at Tissa|
|Coastline at Bundala National Park|
|Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher|
|Sri Lanka Bay Owl (about 27cm high)|
The Lesser Whitethroat was first spotted by Amila in the Uda Walawa National Park and luckily Amila was able to get some fairly decent photos of the bird.
Amila then sent the photos to a warbler expert Lars Svensson from Sweden who responded with, “Your bird is a Lesser Whitethroat, Sylvia curruca. I personally do not separate between curruca or minula (not between althaea or margelanica either). The taxonomy is complex but I prefer to see them all as one polytypic species. This Lesser Whitethroat looks most like ssp. blythi, but I cannot safely exclude ssp. halimodendri. In the case of minula and margelanica, these either winter in Pakistan or NW India, or their wintering grounds are poorly known. I think we can exclude them. It is also a little too dark brown above for being a typical minula.”
Saturday: 8th February 2014
Departed Melbourne at 19:00 on the Emirates flight to Singapore. After a short changeover in Singapore, we flew to Sri Lanka on Emirates arriving at 01:40 on Sunday morning. An ETA is necessary for Australian nationals prior to arrival and this was easily obtained through the internet at a cost US$30.
Colombo is a modern airport and we were quickly through customs and collected our luggage. Our prebooked transport to our accommodation didn’t materialise, so the very helpful help desk made a few phone calls and arranged for alternative transport. We later heard that the driver had fallen asleep in the car park, not surprising given the time we arrived.
Sunday: 9th February
We had booked accommodation at the Airport Villa for two nights (Saturday/Sunday) to give us a chance to get some decent sleep and relax before our birding trip. We had the entire villa to ourselves, which was very spacious, comfortable and had a great swimming pool. The villa had a live-in chef who was available to cook your meals if required. Located in Seeduwa it was conveniently close to the airport, whilst being in a quiet location.
|Eastern Garden Lizard|
After a hot breakfast, we were picked up at 07:30 by Athula who was to be our driver for the next 17 days. Given the very poor driving standards in Sri Lanka it’s advisable to have a local driver. In addition to driving, Athula assisted with bird guiding and was very talented at finding the difficult rainforest birds.
Tuesday: 11th February
We started off with some early morning birding around the lodge area with Alexandrine Parakeet, Layard’s Parakeet, Black-capped Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Green Warbler, Sri Lanka Swallow and Spot-winged Thrush being seen.
|Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill|
After breakfast we drove down to another lodge, where we saw the attractive Chestnut-backed Owlet in the adjacent woodland, and then took the local dug-out canoe across the Kelani River. We walked up into the lowland rainforests, with Crimson-backed Flameback being seen along the way. Whilst waiting for the guides to locate some owls, we saw a number of nice birds, such as Jerdon’s Leafbird and Dark-fronted Babbler, and had great views of the stunning Red-faced Malkhoa.
Wednesday: 12th February
We had early morning start with another trip into the Kithulgala rainforests. This time Amila was successful in locating our main target, the Serendib Scops Owl. We managed to get some half-decent photos of the owl and it’s apparent when comparing the photos with the field guide illustration, that the field guide doesn’t show the ear tufts. We were very pleased to see this owl and to have great views, particularly as it’s a recently discovered species and difficult to locate.
|Serendib Scops Owl (about 17cm in height)|
Whilst we were waiting for Amila and Athula to locate the owl, we found the stunning Sri Lanka Blue Magpie in the trees alongside the stream.
|Sri Lanka Blue Magpie|
We birded till lunch time and then headed back to the lodge to clean up, before driving to Sinharaja in the afternoon. Other good birds seen in the morning included Indian Black Eagle, a pair of Malabar Trogon, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Sri Lanka Hill Myna and Black-throated Munia.
Whilst Martin’s Place is conveniently situated adjacent to the Sinharaja Rainforest, it was the most basic and uncomfortable accommodation that we had for the trip. It’s a choice between travelling the awful last section of road in a jeep every time you want to visit the forest or staying at Martin’s Place. I think that the lesser of two evils is a stay at Martin’s Place, which after all does have great views of the rainforest and great birds around the accommodation.
In the early morning, we had Sri Lanka Blue Magpie and Spot-winged Thrush visiting the dining area, really quite special to see these birds up close. Today was an important day to get the balance of the rainforest endemics and we headed off early into the forest.
|Stripe-tailed Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis caudolineolatus) - very small tree-snake|
|Boulenger's (Sri Lankan) Keelback (Xenochrophis asperrimus) - water snake doing some fishing|
|Sri Lanka Frogmouth (about 23cm in height)|
|Indian Scops Owl|
|River at Uda Walawa|
|Sri Lankan Crested Hawk Eagle|
|Hibiscus Garden Hotel|
Today we had an early morning start and arrived at Bundala National Park before sunrise. Bundala became the first wetland to be declared a Ramsar site in Sri Lanka in 1991. This is an outstanding national park with plenty of wetlands and we had seen 95 species of birds by the time we left at 10am.
|Great Thick-knee or Stone-curlew|
|Malabar Pied Hornbill|
|Sunset over wetlands at Tissa|
After breakfast, we started our journey northwards, up into the hills, to reach Nuwara Eliya in the late afternoon.
|Stripe-necked Mongoose - seen once at Yala NP|
Whilst bird watching we were joined by a tour group from India, with one gentleman introducing himself. Turns out that he is a Mechanical Engineer who has a son at RMIT studying for a masters degree in engineering, the same university as my son who is studying Chemical Engineering. During our trip we met many Sri Lankans who had relatives in either Sydney or Melbourne and we were told that Melbourne has about 300,000 Sri Lankan residents. We also met up with a family who had a father living in Melbourne, who had been a boat refugee and had left his family behind. In fact Kevin Rudd seems to have been very popular in Sri Lanka, probably because he encouraged refugees to come to Australia using boats.
Thursday: 20th February
After an early breakfast we headed into Nuwara Eliya to visit Victoria Park arriving there before sunrise at 6:30am. There was light rain which slowed down the birding but we did see two Pied Thrush in the early morning and then the vagrant Eyebrowed Thrush later on, which was very nice. Other good birds included Indian Pitta, Sykes’s Warbler, six Forest Wagtail, Grey Wagtail and Indian Blue Robin. We battled to find the Kashmir Flycatcher and Amila took us to another one of his hotspots, one he hasn’t used for a while, and we had good views of the Kashmir Flycatcher.
|Athula looking pleased with himself after finding the Eyebrowed Thrush|
I spent the afternoon visiting some swamps along the shores of Gregory Lake which was quite pleasant, with some close-up views of Pin-tailed Snipe, a pair of Pied Bush Chat and a female Kashmir Flycatcher.
|View of Kandy from restaurant at lunchtime - away from the busy town|
|Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic|
In the evening we went to see some of the local Sri Lankan dancers, which were impressive, some firewalking and then the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic. The temple was very busy as hordes of worshippers, locals and tourists crammed in to see the tooth relic. The temple was very impressive and worth visiting, although probably a lot better when it’s quieter.
|Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic|
Highlights of the afternoon and evening birding were Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Oriental Scops-owl, Spot-bellied Eagle-owl, Sri Lanka Frogmouth (on nest), and Jerdon’s Nightjar. The Spot-bellied Eagle-owl was particularly difficult to see and we could hear it as it moved around the forest. I saw it glide into a tree as a silhouette against the stars but then we couldn’t find it even though we knew more or less where it landed. We eventually did see it fly off from another tree, as it flew through the torch light and that was the best view we managed to get. The Oriental Scops-owl was heard calling from a number of locations but it also gave us the run-around until we finally managed to get good views of the bird.
In the afternoon we did some more birding along the wetlands and around Sigiriya Rock, with highlights being Square-tailed Drongo-cuckoo, Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike on nest and a Wooly-necked Stork flying past, spotted by Yvonne. It then started to rain quite hard and that put an end to birding for the day.
Monday: 24th February
After breakfast we drove to Mannar Island with a 15 minute stop at Giant’s Tank along the way. We kept a look out for Brown Fish Owl on the way but didn’t have any luck. At around Cheddikulam we saw our first Black Drongo. At Giant’s Tank it was quite hot and windy, which made viewing unpleasant, however we did see our first Eurasian Coot and Long-tailed Shrike of the trip.
We did some early morning birding on the Causeway where we saw some Broad-billed Sandpiper in amongst a nice range of birds. At the Mannar wetlands we had some nice views of Pallas’s Gull on the ground then flying over. At Giant’s Tank we had a single Cotton Pygmy Goose and a couple of Indian Reed Warbler. We stopped to look for Brown Fish Owl on the way but didn’t have any luck. At Puttalam Saltworks we saw some more Broad-billed Sandpiper amongst hundreds of Common Redshank, Lesser Sand Plover, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint.
|Painting at Lodge 19|
|Fishing boat off Negombo Beach|
|Painting at Lodge 19|
Overall it was a very successful trip, thanks to Amila and Athula, going pretty much to plan and with no major upsets.
The list of birds according to the IOC taxonomy, with subspecies identified where possible, was as follows: