Contact Oscar Campbell at ojcampbell25 @ yahoo.com (omit spaces if emailing)
The purpose of this short report is to provide some up-to-date, specific birding information based on a recently made trip to Sri Lanka in autumn 2008. Whilst there are many reports already available online, almost all are from the peak (winter) season and are written either by guides or by groups that utilised a guide and so, as I found, often lack specific details. Here I will include some details that I picked up or worked out during my trip.
The roads in Sri Lanka must not be underestimated; they are either narrow, winding and studded in potholes or a little bit wider and choked in traffic. Self-driving or using buses and trains would, respectively, represent lunacy or require weeks and so, like everyone else, we hired a driver. We used a friend who runs a taxi and tour firm, Amila Nisoshan (anwind @ gmail.com) and is based in Galle. Amila, and his friend Samit, proved excellent company for the duration of our trip and we would whole-heartedly recommend them. Nothing, from a 0430 departure to Horton’s Plains to a subsided bridge on the A2 as we were trying to get to the airport was too much trouble.
Travelling about in Sri Lanka generally takes a long, long time. Ignore the scale on your map and count on the following times for the route we followed (assuming normal traffic conditions, bridges that hold, cows staying in their fields and buses not breaking down, etc):
• Airport to Habarana 4.5 hours
• Habarana to Kandy 3 hours
• Kandy to Nuwara Eliya 4 hours
• Nuwara Eliya to Kitalgula 3.5 hours
• Kitulgala to Sinharaja 5 hours minimum
• Sinharaja to Galle 5 hours
• Galle to Airport 5 hours minimum
Given limited time and a desire not to squander too much time unduly on the road, our route deliberately concentrated on inland forest sites and hills where avian endemicity is highest. I had made a short visit to Sri Lanka in 1999 and visited Yala and Bundala then, so did not incorporate them this time.
We were taking advantage of a suddenly and unexpectedly extended school holiday to visit Sri Lanka. Autumn is not prime time since, as we discovered to our cost, some key winter visitors have not returned. If you are really hung up on Pied Thrush or Kashmir Flycatcher, don’t come in autumn. Otherwise, we found our trip very pleasant: hotels are virtually empty, the weather was very reasonable (rain on four days in the south, in the afternoon only: never disrupted our schedule) and, importantly, most of the endemics were locatable without due strain. In all, we notched up 168 species, of which 22 to 32 were endemic, depending on which taxonomic viewpoint you subscribe to (see below).
Hotels, guesthouses and guides
See a brief overview of our route in the Getting around section, above. There were a multitude of places to stay everywhere we went (Sinharaja excepted); we merely turned up and called in. Standards varied from reasonable to pretty plush, and all provided epic Ceylonese home cooking night after night.
All prices quoted below are per double room per night. The international code to dial Sri Lanka is 0094. At the time of our visit, 1USD = 107 Rs.
1 Habarana (2 nights): Lancaster Guest House Rs 3000. Run by Dilanka Sebestian (066 2270267 or 071 3465181). On the main (Dambulla) road through the village and 5 minutes walk from a very birdy tank.
2 Kandy (1 night): Green Woods Rs 1500. Run by Mrs Kusum Nanayakkara (081 2232970) or email greenwoodkusum @ sltnet.lk. A 10 minute walk from Kandy Lake and, even better, 2 minutes from Udawattakelle Royal Forest.
3 Nuwara Eliya (2 nights): Glen Fall Inn Rs 3800. Phone 052 2234394 or fax 052 2222588. 5 minutes from Victoria Park and the very chatty, helpful chef also works as a nature and trekking guide at Horton’s Plains.
4 Kitulgala (2 nights): We stayed at the nice, comfy Plantation Hotel (Rs 7500, 036 2287575 or email hauschandra @ wow.lk ), easily found on the main road (A7). However an even better bet for birding would be the nearby Sisira’s River Lounge (riverlounge @ slnet.lk or www.sisirariverlounge.com; located on the river edge beyond the Police Station). This yielded slam dunk Spot-winged Thrushes in the garden and a very helpful and congenial owner. He put me in touch with Karuna, a local guide living on the other side of the Kelani and together we had a nice morning digging out some goodies, not least Green-billed Coucal at 15 feet and my first Malabar Trogon over a magnificent rocky rainforest stream.
5 Sinharaja (2 nights): This is one place that would be worth booking ahead at, as options are limited. The place to be is Martin’s (Rs 2500; 0455681864), right on the edge of the core area, but 4 km uphill from a very rough jeep track from Kudawa. The Blue Magpie Lodge is at the bottom of the hill, where the track starts, but we didn’t check it out.
At Sinharaja you need a guide (arranged when you buy your ticket at the Forestry office) and we were lucky enough to land Sunil Hadwaula, of Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka fame. He was first class, and though we missed Serendib Scops-Owl, it wasn’t through lack of his effort (or mine). Sunil also has sites for this species and a few other tough cookies in nearby areas and would definitely be worth contacting (phone 045 5681977) for his services.
6 Unawatuna, Galle (2 nights): We finished with two days on the beach, a little east of Galle. We stayed at the Unawatuna Beach Bungalow (Rs 3000; 091 2224327 or 091 2234695; unawatunabeachbungalow @ yahoo.com). Here it was very relaxed and there was some good casual pre-breakfast birding close to the hotel.
We used Harrison and Worfolk’s A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (ISBN 0-19-854960-1) backed up by Grimmet, Inskipp and Inksipp’s Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent (ISBN 0-7136-5165-2) for the bigger picture. Both are excellent and fully fit for purpose. However both pre-date Rasmussen and Anderton’s Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide (ISBN 84-87334-66-0) which, true to the spirit of 21st century taxonomy, splits virtually everything that looks slightly different and has a discontinuous range (easy for Sri Lanka, and for similarly isolated sky-islands of India’s Western Ghats). Bits of this taxonomic diarrhoea (to steal one of Ian Wallace’s choicer phrases) are more convincing than others. To save lugging round (and wading through) Rasmussen and Anderton, Grimmet et al does clearly contrast some of the more distinctive Ceylonese (sub)species with their subcontinent counterparts and a detailed trip report checklist, highlighting the new splits (seemingly much approved by local guides, for obvious reasons) can be found at http://www.birdwingnature.com/trip_reports_2008.html.
Other than the road infrastructure, very few. Sri Lanka is sensational country to visit and compared to most of India, very easy and civilised. It also desperately needs visitors; there were very few during our trip and a lot of guesthouses and restaurants were finding the going tough. Watch out for bugs; leeches are prolific in the forest after rain. Also watch out for minor ticket vendors trying to take a cut by charging well over the odds for entry to temples and the like. The government makes it quite easy for these guys by blatantly charging overseas visitors a small fortune to access major cultural sites and national parks, so you get used to parting with a few Rs 1000 notes quite readily.
Locations and Birds
Below, species names follow those used in the hyperlinked list just above. Species seen exclusively at that site alone are asterixed*.
1 Habarana: we used this as a base for three sites:
A Minneriya National Park (15min drive away).
We visited this as it was our only chance for some safari-style birding. The dry forest was unproductive (it was afternoon) but we had a fine time in the grasslands and around the flooded pools.
Key species: many waders and waterbirds including Painted* and Woolly-necked Storks, Spot-billed Pelican, White-bellied (abundant) and Grey-headed Fish-Eagles, Ruddy-breasted Crake*, Jerdon’s Bushlark and Sri Lanka Swallow. We also saw 60 Asian Elephants here.
B Habarana Tank
This is 5 minute walk west from the main road through the village and offered great early morning birding, especially in the leafy grounds of the ‘Village’ Resort.
Key species: Spot-billed Pelican, Cotton Pygmy-Goose*, Black and Grey-headed Fish-Eagles, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Pied Cuckoo, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Forest Wagtail, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Jerdon’s Leafbird, Tawny-bellied Babbler*, Asian Paradise* and Tickell’s Flycatcher, Sri Lanka Swallow.
C Sigiriya (40 minute drive south of Habarana)
It’s worth getting here as early as possible (or staying locally) as there is great (dryish) forest to bird on the walk in to the rock.
Key species: Woolly-necked Stork, Shaheen (scan the rock face above the ‘Mirror Wall’), Pied and Grey-bellied* Cuckoos, Small Minivet, Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike*, Green Warbler
We spent only night in this beautifully situated, if grubby, town. As well as being tourists (and logging Shaheen hawking bats at dusk over the main market) we also visited:
A Peradeniya Botanical Gardens (20min drive).
This was very busy on our visit but we easily located Lesser Hill Myna, Sri Lanka Small Barbet, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon and Black-rumped Flameback.
B Uttawatakelle Royal Forest
A splendid, cathedral-like patch of rainforest right above the town. I had a prolific 4 hours here, a few minutes from bed at Green Woods (but note that this entrance is the [currently] unofficial one: I had to blag a bit and proffer some rupees to save 30min of prime post-dawn birding time on the walk round to the main entrance. There are security concerns here due to the close vicinity of The Temple of the Tooth, but I only had to browbeat a local forest official and not a Sri Lankan commando.)
Key species: Sri Lanka Hanging-Parrot, Brown Fish Owl* (check the canopy around the pool by the main entrance; this are also held three species of kingfisher and two Forest Wagtails), Yellow-fronted Barbet, both flamebacks, Lesser Yellownape, Brown-capped and Dark-fronted Babblers, Golden-fronted Leafbird* and Lesser Hill Myna. Also Barking-Deer and a Mouse Deer which almost ran over my foot, and the epic hump-nosed lizard Lyriocephalus scutatus.
3 Nuwara Eliya
A Our full day in this area was spent at Horton’s Plains.
Give yourself a good 1½ hours to get from the town to the main entrance gate.
The best birding spot seems to be at Arrenga Pool, a narrow slither on the right, 1 km from the main gate. I put 2 hours in here from 0645 and was rewarded with Sri Lanka Whistling-Thrush* at 0800, taking berries from a streamside bush at the further end of the pool (at the much quoted but now very faded ‘have you seen a leopard today?’ board). Most of the other highland endemics were straightforward here including Yellow-eared Bulbul, Sri Lanka White-eye (abundant), Dusky-Blue Flycatcher*, Sri Lanka Scimitar-Babbler* (easily seen; heard only in the lower tropical forests). Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and cheery Grey-headed Canary-Flycatchers plus, on the nearby grasslands, Pallid Harrier, ‘Himalayan’ Buzzard and Pied Bushchat (abundant) made for a great morning’s birding.
We made it to World’s End for the view (and Hill Swallows*: easy here). There were other feeding flocks in the cloud forest en-route but activity was much lower than at dawn.
The steep switch-backs below the main entrance produced Sri Lanka Woodpigeon* (on the track on the dawn ascent; only heard at Arrenga Pool) and, as targeted on a 2km hike down on the return, Sri Lanka Bush-Warbler* (common on call, a repeated ‘pwhitt!’) but only one exposed.
B Victoria Park and Hakagala Botanical Garden
Three hours in the park pre-breakfast produced the only significant (although not totally unexpected) dip of the trip; no amount of staring at grass dumps, peering along litter-strewn streamsides or creeping round drains behind the public toilets (!) yielded Pied Thrush, or any other evasive, desirable winterers. However, contrary to suggestions in at least one other report, the habitat still looks great here: concentrate on the area along the stream to the left as you enter. Instead I had to settle for Brown Shrike, Grey Wagtail (delightfully abundant, and jousting with Forest Wagtails) and the commoner highland endemics.
A short visit to Hakagala (8km out of town) later was worthwhile for ferns but birding was limited to one busy mixed flock of common species.
This is hilly, lush, lowland tropical forest along the Kelani River. It’s not as totally essential as Sinharaja but still is great birding. Several key species were much easier to see here than at Sinharaja and it was also possible to freely hike into some idyllic rainforest (at the latter you are mainly on a broad trail passing through some non-pristine forest). I found the best areas at Kitalgula to be:
A Around Sisira River Lounge: Spot-winged Thrush is easy here, and it is definitely worth persevering for Chestnut-backed Owlet (I only heard this at Sinharaja).
B You can cross the river at several points: at the vehicle bridge close to the former site of the ‘Kwai’ bridge, or by a narrow canoe (from, for example, close to the Plantation hotel, or from Kitalgula Lodge). The third option provided the quickest access to fairly extensive, pristine forest. All are easily locatable from the A7.
However you cross, you need to take any track uphill and away from the river. I followed my nose on the first morning, and was accompanied by Karuna (see above) on the second. The paths run through a mosaic of subsistence plots, secondary forest and primary patches, with the latter becoming more frequent as you ascend. Any decent forest patch proved worth scanning and scouring; I saw Sri Lanka Spurfowl* both mornings (the first walking through as I glegged my first Blue Magpie) and, with Karuna’ s help, Green-billed Coucal*.
Other key species: Black Eagle, Sri Lanka Hornbill, Lesser Yellownape, Malabar Trogon, Crested Drongo, five species of bulbul, Lesser Hill Myna, Legge’s Flowerpecker.
The uniqueness of this area is best illustrated by stating that in the 1½ days I spent here, I recorded 44 species, of which 18 were endemic by anyone’s standards, or 22 (50%!) by Rasmussen and Anderton’s. Eight of these had not been recorded earlier at Kitalgula (or elsewhere).
One important note about Sinharaja: it really is remote and takes ages to get to from anywhere. You should approach Kudawa from the north-west, via Ratnapura and Kalawana; whatever you do, stay off the road linking Wedagulla with (ultimately) the A18 to the east; this has sufficient hairpins to stretch Lance Armstrong and is more potholed than the road to Baghdad.
Birding is mostly done on the forest edge; either from Martin’s or from the old logging track that runs into the research centre. Bird activity is often sparse, until you hit a feeding flock, then you need to be firing on all cylinders; this is how we located six (6!) Red-faced Malkohas*, good candidates for bird of the trip.
• Your guide will, hopefully, spend a lot of time peering into tree fern canopies and tangles of dead leaves. We were very unlucky to draw a blank and really did deserve at least a frogmouth.
• We logged Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush* where the stream meanders on the right hand side a little short of the research station (from the ‘Giant Tree’) trail. Listen for the barely audible ‘seeeep’ notes above the cicada din for as long as you can bear the leeches.
• The large clearing at the very start of the track is worth scoping at dawn for Sri Lanka Myna*, White-faced Starling* (three in two mornings) and Layard’s Parakeet* (20 in a seeding tree very close to the ticket-check booth).
• Check out any dense, shady sloping streams for Brown-breasted Flycatcher*. I had one just below Martin’s; it was subtly but quite distinct from Asian Brown (and in exceptional habitat for the latter).
Other key species: Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Green-billed Coucal, Chestnut-backed Owlet and Sri Lanka Scimitar-Babbler (all heard only), Malabar Trogon, Sri Lanka Hornbill, Brown-capped Babbler and Ashy-headed Laughingthrush* (in mixed flocks; exceptionally close), Blue Magpie, Sri Lanka White-eye and Spot-winged Thrush (suddenly numerous and confiding on the track after rain. Hopefully gorging on leeches).
6 Unawatuna and Galle
The birding was essentially over by the time we got here, but there was a bit to see in this very nice part of coastal Sri Lanka.
• Species seen while wandering from the hotel included notables such as Brown Flycatcher, Sri Lanka Small Barbet, Sri Lanka Swallow and Green Imperial Pigeon.
• Koggala Lake at dusk (access by a small road just east of the airfield) produced a good roost of Brahminy Kites (45!), Striated Heron* and lots of aerial swirlers, including Ashy Woodswallow.
• Hiyare Forest is c12km inland, but a 45min drive via a maze of minor roads. It is definitely worth a visit, but seek local directions. I went there at Amila’s suggestion and found friendly and enthusiastic staff in the forest centre and a flourishing tree nursery, as well as some decent forest. Chestnut-backed Owlet and Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl are both apparently present, although, as ever, not too easy to see.
In addition to the guides mentioned above, I need to say:
• Thanks a million to Amila and Samit for doing everything they could to make our trip as fulfilling and memorable as possible
• Well done (again) to Gillian Ensor who survived another trip with me, replete with dawn starts, prolific leeches and the odd (slightly) mouldy bathroom.
• Finally, kind regards to the Priority Pass Lounge at Colombo airport whose free-flowing gin well and truly kicked this report off.
Should you require any further information, please feel free to email me at the above address.