My non-birding wife and I decided at the last possible minute to visit Sri Lanka, a country we had never been to before. We had both had heavy winters, and initially the plan was simply to veg in the sun. However the more I read, the keener I became to include some birding. This is not a report of a standard birding tour to the southern half of the country. It describes how, at extremely short notice, I managed to enjoy really classy birding at Sinharaja Forest Reserve (with some up to date information on access) and decent birding at some off-piste locations in the north, whilst enjoying the many other things that Sri Lanka has to offer.
Sri Lanka, an island about the same size as Ireland, has lots of endemics: 33 if you include additions proposed in 2005. Sinharaja in the south west is one of the best places for seeing these endemics. Since the end of the war with the Tamil separatists several years ago, tourism has picked up. The peaceful election of a new President earlier this year will probably stimulate more. There are excellent facilities, in the shape of quality hotels and guest-houses, throughout the country. Sri Lankans are very friendly and helpful. The country is cleaner than India, and felt less crowded. Crime rates are low. The weather was mostly good (about 32 C), and never too hot for us. Above all, it seems that Sri Lankans do not kill birds, do not trap birds and do not cage birds, at least not compared with people in other parts of Asia. The happy result is that birds remain abundant and often tame.
Various international operators run bird tours to Sri Lanka. There are also Sri Lankan-based birding outfits (you can try email@example.com or Amila Salgado at firstname.lastname@example.org ) that are long-established and very knowledgeable and which can create guided birding tours for you.
From what I saw, driving yourself in a rental car is a bit of a non-starter; the traffic conditions are very difficult for the uninitiated; road signs are either non-existent or only in Sinhalese away from the most important roads; and the cost of having your own driver is surprisingly low.
The endemics, including those proposed in 2005, are marked (E).
We stayed at the admirable Club Palm Bay at Marawila, nearly half way up the western coast of Sri Lanka. The hotel is set amidst lagoons and mangroves, and I saw many wetland species: nothing special, though Yellow Bittern was nice. The 22 acres of gardens held a limited range: three sunbird species, Purple-rumped, Purple and Loten’s; plus Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker, Pale-billed Flowerpecker and Yellow-billed Babbler. To the mild annoyance of some guests, countless House Crows drank from the pool in the late afternoon.
STONE THE CROWS.
Management’s response was to equip a couple of desultory pool boys with catapults to sling stones at the crows. However the boys made quite sure that they never actually hit any: the guests on the loungers were in much greater peril.
The hotel was quite strategically sited for visits to the ancient cities of the north and for visits to birding hotspots in the south west such as Sinharaja, as well as the southern coastal zone. Outside the front gate we found a guy called Susila Fernando (email@example.com)) who was able, overnight, to conjure up a four day tour to the north and a three day tour to the south west. He laid on a car, an outstanding driver named Gishan, and booked us into (mostly) really good small hotels (half board). Susila and Gishan between them also arranged by phone some local guides, notably Mr Somadasa at Sinharaja. All this worked out at about half the cost of (inflexible) tours offered by our holiday company reps. I reckon it likely that many other hotels have similar operators trading outside their gates.
IT'S A SLOW ROAD TO POLONNUWARA.
Apart from a very fast expressway/toll motorway from the south side of Colombo that runs along the south coast for about 200 km, and some of the roads traversing the plains in the north, the roads we used were seriously slow: they were narrow, hilly, bendy, obstructed by road works and overcrowded.
On 26th January we started our 4 day tour to the north by driving to Kandy in the hills. That first day yielded few birds: two pairs of Sri Lankan Grey Hornbills (E) flying over the road were the best (a much anticipated visit to Peredenya Gardens was unproductive as we did not get there till midday). In the evening a pair of Lesser Hill Mynahs perched outside the hotel.
The next day we set off for Sigirya and Pollonuwara. A local guide who knew his birds quite well showed us round the ancient ruins and gardens at Sigirya, and led us up the rock face to a cave filled with murals: fabulous views. En route we found 15 Intermediate Egrets, 1 “Shaheen” Peregrine, a Crested Serpent Eagle, 1 Indian Cuckoo, 1 Banded Bay Cuckoo, a pair of Black-headed Cuckoo Shrikes, 2 Jerdon’s Bush Lark, a male white-phase Asian Paradise Flycatcher, more Yellow-billed Babblers (turned out to be really common) and 3 Indian Robin. We then drove back towards our hotel near Dambulla. This was surrounded by paddyfields and scrub. A late afternoon walk along a quiet side-road produced Asian Openbill, Black-headed Ibis, 3 Brown-headed Barbet, 2 Crimson-fronted Barbet (E), 6 Small Minivet, 1 Jerdon’s Leafbird, 1 Grey-breasted Prinia, 1 Ashy Prinia and 1 White-browed Fantail. This was getting a bit better.
28th January found us arriving at the ancient remains of Polonnawura: best birds were 6 Orange-breasted Green Pigeons. Later that day our journey took us to Anuradhapura via Minneriya Sanctuary, where we saw 2 Spot-billed Pelicans on a big lagoon. Anuradhapura is another ancient city. Star bird here was a stunning White-naped Woodpecker, feeding at close range at 5 pm on trees in the car park for visiting the Sacred Bodhi Tree. Both Brown-headed Barbet and Crimson fronted Barbet (E) were common in the nearby gardens.
This big National Park lies about 40 minutes’ drive west of Anuradhapura. There are lakes, areas of grassland and patches of forest. There seem to be few reports of visits by Western birders: the sparse information that there is suggests many exciting possibilities, and I had high hopes. Fernando and Gishan had asked the Park to lay on a guide who knew the birds. We arrived at dawn, and spent the morning in the Park.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the only means of traversing Wilpattu was in the back of a noisy Park jeep. There were only two small areas where you could walk about, one being the Park HQ. A further misfortune was that the guide was no good: he spoke no English, his sole mission was to find a leopard (failed) and he did not look for or know any birds. Nonetheless, we did see 10 Sri Lanka Junglefowl (E), Lesser Whistling Duck , Painted and Woolly-necked Stork, 1 Grey-headed Fish Eagle, 1 Crested Hawk Eagle, very large numbers of very tame waders on the lake margins, including Pacific Golden Plover, Lesser Sand Plover and 6 Pin-tailed Snipe, tame Emerald Doves, 1 Green Imperial Pigeon, 2 Sri Lankan Grey Hornbill (E) again, 1 Malabar Pied Hornbill, 3 Jerdon’s Bush Lark, a pair of Brown-capped Babblers (E) and Indian Robin. We heard a Drongo Cuckoo.
How to get more out of Wilpattu? I heard that a couple of Eco Lodges or Eco Resorts have opened up not far outside the Park boundary. It might be profitable to contact one of these and ask how to do it better.
NOW FOR A REALLY UNPRONOUNCEABLE DESTINATION.
After lunch we drove down to the west coast and decided to call in at the Ramsar wetland site at Anaiwilundawa, roughly 14 km north of Chilaw. Your driver will probably need to ask a local for directions as there are no signs. There are two access routes running west off the main road, which itself runs parallel to a railway line. You want the one that starts off as tarmac. You then pass some coconut trees on your right before the road turns into gravel and earthen bunds that divide up an endless vista of lagoons filled with water lilies and water hyacinths, with paddyfields on the outside. That day we just stayed for an hour. But, as it was only one hour or so from our hotel, I went back there on 3rd February. On this occasion, venturing further, I followed the main bund access to a T junction, turned right, followed this bund as it swung to the right, and then turned left at an intersection. A large breeding colony of water birds could be seen across a lake to the right perhaps 200 metres along that bund. A scope is needed.
Birds seen on these two visits included Lesser Whistling Duck and Cotton Pygmy Goose, sundry herons and egrets, Asian Openbill, Black-headed Ibis, breeding Eurasian Spoonbill, breeding Spot-billed Pelican, White- bellied Sea Eagle, a probable Besra, Crested Serpent Eagle, many Purple Swamphens and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker, 1 White-naped Woodpecker (in the coconuts along the access road: one tree had woodpecker holes), a pair of Large Cuckoo Shrikes, Yellow-billed Babbler and sunbirds. This is a vast area, and I only got to a small part of it.
On 31st January we set off on our tour to the south-west, stopping at a couple of standard touristy places on the coast. We then headed inland towards Sinharaja. This world-famous but relatively small reserve is an oblong-shaped strip of forest straddling a ridge at a height of about 470 to 500 metres. There are 3 different entry points, including one on the south side accessed from the village of Deniyaya, mentioned in some reports. We were advised to use a different entrance, one on the north side accessed from Kalawana –Weddagala – Kudawa. The roads to Kudawa are OK, though the final 6 km are fairly rough.
We reached our excellent accommodation, the Rock View Motel, mid-afternoon. This was about 20 minutes drive from the Kudawa entrance. Standing on our balcony we had a great view across a deep valley, and saw a pair of Sri Lankan Drongos (E) feeding nearby and some swifts including 5 Indian Swiftlets hawking over the ridge. We were then engulfed by the most apocalyptic thunder and electrical storm I have ever seen: apparently this was fairly normal in the late afternoon.
1st February. Happily the morning brought clear weather, and we drove to Kudawa Conservation Centre, arriving at dawn. Gishan had earlier realised that, because the day of our visit was a Sunday, the usual local birding guides would not be waiting at the Centre, and he had specifically arranged for Mr Somadasa to be there. This worked very well. Mr Somadasa had lived in the area for 25 years and was perhaps the doyen of the local guides. Whilst he did not trouble to carry binoculars, let alone a scope, sound equipment or a laser torch, he had an uncanny ability to see and faultlessly identify the birds. His fee was very modest. So, it is true, was his English.
Birders arriving at the Centre have a choice: this is where the lower gate is situated and where you have to park your car and buy tickets. From here there is a spine-jarring jeep track that runs steeply up to the upper gate for about 2-3 km. Many birders do it on foot. Because of time constraints we decided to get a jeep (pre-arranged the day before) up this section, stopping frequently for birds.
There are various buildings near the upper gate, including a very good restaurant and some very basic accommodation: people call this area “the village”. This upper gate marks the boundary of the protected zone. On passing through the gate, we found a very easy, very wide track that took us, without any steep bits, for about 2 km to a Research Centre in a forest clearing.
We spent the morning walking slowly on this trail. There were no leeches, save for when we left the track and went 20 metres into the forest to look for the roosting frogmouths. Two loped towards me. My wife did better: none touched her. The weather was fine (perhaps 29C) and windless and did not feel particularly hot: this meant that, though the birding was obviously much the best in the early morning, some activity was still continuing when we left at 2.30 pm. And even though it was a
Sunday, there was hardly anybody else there. All in all, perfect conditions. Amongst others, we saw 6 Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl (E); 1 Malayan Night Heron (quite a rarity, but familiar to Mr Somadasa, walking away from a trackside pool full of minnows); 1 Besra, 2 Sri Lankan Wood Pigeon (E); several Sri Lankan Green Pigeon (E); 10 Sri Lankan Hanging Parrot (E); 3 Red-faced Malkoha (E) – one fly-by and then two superb adults giving fantastic views just below the upper gate --; 3 Sri Lankan Frogmouth – I’ve waited 69 years to see a frogmouth, and was overjoyed to see these, especially at such close range: a pair roosting side by side, cuddling up to each other, roughly half way to the Research Centre; and then an invisible grey male sitting on a tiny grey nest on an exposed grey branch just above the upper gate --; a pair of Malabar Trogons; 2 Yellow-fronted Barbets (E), 1 Crimson-backed Woodpecker (E); 1 Sri Lankan Blue Magpie (E) – there were none near the Research Station, but Mr Somadasa said we might find one at the “village” just below the Upper Gate and, sure enough, we had good views of one in the trees on the edge of the clearing --; 2 Sri Lankan Swallow (E); 10 Sri Lankan Drongo (E); several Black-capped Bulbul (E); 1 White-browed Bulbul; several Yellow-browed Bulbul; 3 Black Bulbul; 1 Green Warbler; 10 Dark-fronted Babbler; 8 Orange-billed Babbler (E); 2 Sri Lankan Hill Mynah (E); 2 White-faced Starling (E); 6 Spot-winged Thrush (E); 1 Sri Lankan Thrush (E); 1 Indian Blue Robin; 3 Brown-breasted Flycatcher; 1 Oriental White-eye; 1 Sri Lankan White-eye (E). So 17 endemics (if you accept the splits) seen in one morning. We also heard Sri Lankan Spurfowl (E), Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Sri Lankan Scimitar Babbler (E) and Ashy-headed Laughing Thrush (E).
The most glaring omission from this list of birds is the Serendib Scops Owl. I was told (no idea if it’s right) that finding the SSO at Sinharaja was tough: only a 20% chance. I was also told that it was much easier to find at Kithulgala in the foothills closer to Colombo (though one group of birders I talked to hadn’t seen it there either). Amila Salgado says he has a good success rate there.We also saw loads of wonderful butterflies, including the Birdwing, and some weird lizards.
As we drove back down the jeep track, somebody shouted at us “Do you want to see a Cobra?” We scrambled down, to be shown a 3 metre Indian Cobra mooching round somebody’s garden. None of the numerous onlookers made any effort to harm it.
What a day!
We will be back.