This report is dedicated to the memory of our great friend and fellow birding traveller the late D. M. (Dave) Hanford.
Sri Lanka as a birding destination primarily for its large list of endemics and its exotic eastern atmosphere, have been very high on my places to visit list for a long time. Its predominantly Buddhist people have a great respect for all animals and as such the nature watcher has a wealth of opportunities open to him. Its a special place for bird watchers
So after another trip collapsed because of lack of interest I decided to try again late in 2004. So with a great friend confirming his readiness to take part, I contacted the Sri Lankan Nature Tour Company, Baur & Co by e-mail. ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) Im very pleased to say thats all it took to book this 14 day all inclusive guided birding holiday.
The devastation caused by the Boxing days Tsunami resulted in a few extra e-mails. Our concerns were primarily focused on not wanting to get in the way of the relief effort. Reassured that Baurs wanted us to travel and confirming that the airline (Sri Lankan) had not cancelled our flight we decided to travel as planned.
A special thank you to my great mate Gruff Dodd who put a lot of time and effort into making a mini disk of all the Sri Lankan endemics for me. It was an invaluable tool and a great success, a tape is essential for getting several of the endemic species: Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Serendip Scops-owl and Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. Thanks also to our Guide Dhammitra Samarasinghe who was outstanding, he worked his socks off making sure that we all had terrific views of the target birds. His highly honed senses picking up birds that we would have otherwise missed. Not only a great all round naturalist he was also a smashing chap who became a good friend. Recommend him highly and without reservation, a more caring; polite and knowledgeable guide would be hard to find anywhere. Our driver Sarath also deserves a mention for his enthusiasm and attention to our every need. Driving in Sri Lanka is not for the faint hearted and Sarath always got us to where we wanted to go in a very matter of fact sort of way. Highly recommended.
Baur & Co. warrant a special mention for organising our tour. Perry the office manager organised it all with well practised ease, outstanding job well done. I cant recommend them highly enough; they carried out all their duties impeccably.
Flights were booked through ebookers Http://www.ebookers.com and cost approx £530. Direct flights London Heathrow to Colombo with Sri Lankan Airlines. The flight out was approximately 10 hours and it passed without to much fuss. The flight back slightly longer at 12 hours but both flights left without any real delays.
All the ground details were taken care of by Baurs who supplied us with a 10 seater air-conditioned mini bus complete with driver and guide. We travelled more or less in a anticlockwise direction through the South and West of Sri Lanka, covering all the different climatic zones. Travelling in Sri Lanka is never straight forward even short road journeys can take forever. For example the sixty nine kilometre journey from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy took a full four hours, unbelievable.
Dhammitra our guide was fantastic; he scored very highly in every aspect of guiding. His wonderful knowledge of his native jungle birds was a joy to witness. His honed senses of sight and hearing made getting the target birds relatively easy. The one exception was the White-faced Starlings, more of that later. He worked tirelessly in his efforts to put us onto some champion skulkers. All work which was very much appreciated by us both. Dhammitra was also an outstanding all around naturalist when times were slow he entertained us with fascinating insights into the world of butterflies, snails, orchids, trees almost anything that lived and breathed. A truly accomplished guide, companion and friend.
Flight cost - £535
All inclusive 14 birding tour cost $1525
Only other costs were for our alcoholic beverages and tips.
Please dont under estimate the cost of tipping; everyone expects to be tipped its how the tourism industry operates. We always asked the advice of our guide about what was appropriate and we never thought that any of the tips we gave were inappropriate. Generally if we thought they deserved it they got it if not they got less. Including the tips for our guide and driver we spent about £150 each on tips.
We had sorted out our accommodation concerns before we left and what we were provided with was a great mix of first class exotic in Ratnapura and the very clean but basic at Blue Magpie Lodge in Sinharaja. No complaints at all and the Blue Magpie probably had the best food out of all the hotels we stayed at. In another report just before we left we read that the Rock Hotel in Nuwara Eliya was not up to scratch. We contacted Baurs and mentioned this. They came back and said that if we didnt like what we saw at the Rock Hotel they would place us in another hotel of our choice. As it turned out the Rock was a very clean and comfortable hotel and had the added benefit of terrific views over the town. The staff here were also very attentive.
We loved the Sri Lankan cooking, some of it was a tad hot for our cultured western taste and we were always warned by our guide if things like Beef Dynamite were considered to hot for comfort. We generally tasted everything but believe me Sri Lankan hot is very very hot. We usually had eggs, toast, juice, fruit, tea or coffee for breakfast. An assortment of curries for lunch with a fruit dessert. Dinner was a grand affair with options including western style food, soup, main course and dessert. Lots of fruit cocktail and Dhammitra loved to have his fruit cocktail with ice cream.
This was kept to an absolute minimum. From immigration at the airport through to road blokes we were usually ushered straight through. Even changing money at the bank was an almost painless experience. Especially compared with the nightmare we had endured in India. A great relief all round.
Apart from two afternoon showers of approximately thirty minutes each at Kitulgala we had almost uninterrupted sunshine all the way. It was however 39.8 degrees C in Sinharaja in the shade and terribly humid. At Nuwara Eliya it was a lot cooler but still very sunny. It was like a very pleasant spring day at home. IT was colder again at night but nothing to worry about.
Health & Safety
All the usual jabs should be current for travelling out east. A chat with your local GP will let you know what you should have. Tetanus, Polio, Hepatitis are just some of the jabs that ought to be current. Luckily all my data was up to date. This left the anti malarias. We both took the prescribed two tablets cocktail starting a week before we left. I must say that mozzies were not much of a problem. We were far more concerned with being sucked dry by leeches. Please ensure you get yourself a pair of leech socks. Neither Richard nor I suffered bits from these little devils though all our guides and spotters in Sinharaja suffered. Leech socks and Deet proved very affective in keeping these ogres at bay. Leech socks available from the Oriental Bird Club.
We didnt have any real safety issues usual precautions should suffice. We also had the benefit of a driver who when required stayed with the bus and hence kept our gear safe.
Books A field guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka, John Harrison and Tim Worfolk.
Oriental Bird Club Bulletin 26 from OBC
A Birdwatchers Guide to Sri Lanka (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne et al) OBC. This small booklet is essential pre trip reading.
Lonely Planet Guide to Sri Lanka.
Map Rough Guides 1:500,000 map of Sri Lanka
Bird Sounds Bird Recording from Sri Lanka (Steve Smith)
Bird sounds from Sri Lanka (Steve Whitehouse)
The Bird Sounds of Sri Lanka (Deepal Warakagoda)
Birds of Tropical Asia 2 CD-ROM for Windows (Jelle Scharringa)
03/02/05 Full day birding Horton Plains National Park.
04/02/05 am. Visit Victoria Park, leave for Kandy. pm. Kandy area.
05/02/05 am. Udawattakele sanctuary. pm. Leave for airport.
06/02/05 am. arrive London.
Note on our Itinerary. If we were planning another trip we would probably give ourselves another whole day in Sinharaja and lose a day somewhere else. Sinharaja has to many important and endemic birds just to allow two days. The two day schedule only allows you two attempts at the new scops-owl. If we had had three days we may have had enough time to recover before we left, for another shot at seeing the scops owl.
Day 1. We arrived tired and excited after a ten hour flight, cleared customs and immigration quickly and met up with our tour company rep. We were introduced to our Guide (Dammithra) and our Driver (Sarath) and were whisked off for the two and a half hour drive to our first birding destination Bodingala Forest Reserve. We were there for dawn and the birds came thick and fast. Several endemics and near endemics punctuated by crippling views of birds like Indian Blue Robin (The only one of the trip), Scarlet Minivet, Brown Shrike, Black-headed yellow Bulbul and Blue-tailed Bee-eater. After three hours or so we headed off for the long drive to our overnight stop, the Kitulgala Rest House. The Rest House sits above the River where they filmed The Bridge over the River Kwai the 1957 second world war epic. A wonderful view from the balcony over looking the forest opposite. We showered had lunch and a couple of beers before we left for an evening birding around Kitulgala. Two more endemics in the form of Chestnut-backed Owlet and Yellow-fronted Barbet, finished the day with eleven of the endemics ticked off.
Day2. Left by 7.am for Kitulgala Forest, real Jungle with neck snappingly high trees. Naturally all the birds were right at the very top. Highlight was the stunning sight of a Spotted Thrush (not in the tree tops), the only true endemic of the morning but we did add Black-throated Munia to the list. We travelled back across the river (Kalanity) in a dug-out canoe. After lunch and a quick nap it was back over the river and into another part of the forest. New birds this afternoon included, Sri Lanka Woodpigeon and Sri Lanka Myna, two more endemics. We came back to the hotel had a quick drink and were then whisked off to SISIRAS RIVER LOUNGE. Here we were to bird in the Garden of this exquisitely sighted bar. We were entertained from our seat by Stork-billed Kingfisher and Tickells Blue Flycatcher, but what we were really there to see was Sri Lanka Frogmouth. We left our seats in the bar at 7pm and had had stunning views of this shy bird by 7.15. Four new endemics, total now fifteen.
Day3. We were out birding by 7.am. We spent the first hour at SISIRAS looking for and finding Green-billed Coucal. We had our first endemic of the day safely in the bag. We returned to the hotel to finish our packing and after saying our goodbyes eventually left the hotel at 10am. En route to Ratnapura new birds noted: Sri Lanka Swallow, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, White-browed Fantail and Bright Green Warbler. Our new hotel the Ratnaloka was very grand and luxurious and a cut above everything else we encountered on our trip. Unfortunately we were more or less the only guests. A sad symptom of the after effects of the Tsunami. It really is hurting the tourist industry. After showering we spent an hour or so scanning the grounds, added Little Swift, Little Egret and White-browed Bulbul. We left for the hour long journey to Gilimale Forest. Another leech infested jungle, not much bird activity initially but it soon hotted up with Malabar Trogon, Black-rumped Flameback and Black-naped Monarch. Our driver Sarath found us Greater Flameback on the way home. While enjoying a coffee before going for a pre-dinner shower we added Indian Pitta, found in the hotel Garden. Three new endemics total now eighteen plus eight of the near endemics.
Day4 Birding by 6.30 in the vicinity of our luxury hotel. Birds noted Grey-rumped Tree-swift, Black-headed Cuckooshrike and Small Minivet. Back for breakfast at 9.30 and we had left the hotel at 10am. It seemed like we spent the rest of the day in the bus. It took over three hours to get to Sinharaja where we transferred to a four wheel drive Jeep for another thirty minutes to get to the Blue Magpie Lodge. It was more than adequate with a comfy bed and good bathroom facilities. After dropping off our bags we prepared for the six hour round trip for the Serendip Scops Owl site. We heard several of the owls at three different sites but try as we might we couldnt coax one into view. We had the consolation of watching a Besra disembowelling its prey, we also ran into a couple of Green-billed Coucals. The journey home was horrendous. It involved yomping five kilometres then a Jeep journey from the last Owl site to the bus which took forty five minutes and was torture. It was then another two and half hour bus trip followed by another twenty minutes in the Jeep. We arrived back at the Blue Magpie Lodge after Midnight, a full eighteen hours after we first rose. We were absolutely knackered. On the way back we both decided not to repeat the journey the following evening. Thereby giving up the possibility of seeing this the newest of Sri Lankas many endemics. We decided that as more and more sites for this bird are found the odds are that they will discover one not to far from the Blue Magpie Lodge. Its also a good reason to come back to this wonderful birding destination.
Day5 A bit later than we wanted we entered the World Heritage Site at Sinharaja. We immediately hit Blue Magpie and had a calling Sri Lanka Spurfowl. We also ticked off Brown-capped Babbler not far from the entrance. We entered the wet low lying area of the forest in an area reportedly good for Scaly Thrush. This bird hadnt been seen for a while and all the guides we spoke to were not very hopeful of us seeing it. However to everyones delight we came across not one but two superb Scaly Thrushes. We also had a Spotted Thrush in the same area.
On the way out of the forest for lunch we happened upon a Red-faced Malkoha building a nest. We had our lunch at Martins Lodge sitting in the dining room with panoramic tree top views of the forest. Back out birding at 14.30. We spent the next couple of hours retracing our movements of the morning. No new birds but we did have superb views of a very confiding Blue Magpie. We spent approx thirty minutes at the forest entrance hoping for a view of the White-faced Starling. No luck there but on the return to Blue Magpie Lodge we did have Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike and Blossom-headed Parakeet.
Day6 Morning birding in Sinharaja Rain Forest as we still had a couple of birds to see. We got our first and second relatively easy. As soon as we hit a feeding flock our two target birds came in quick succession. Ashy-headed Laughing Thrush and Scimitar Babbler. The other bird still required was the endemic and only found in Sinharaja the White-faced Starling. We had just about given up on ever seeing this bird when 2 dropped into the tree tops. Elated we retired back to the Blue Magpie Lodge for a well earned lunch before leaving for Embilipitiya. As we had left Sinharaja much later than planned we missed out the afternoon Land Rover Safari into the Udawalawe National Park opting instead to do the Safari the following morning. We arrived at the hotel Centuria at about 5pm just in time to do a quick lake watch from the hotel balcony. Birds noted from here: Spot-billed Pelican, Whiskered Tern, Black-winged Stilt, Darter and Lesser-whistling Duck.
Day7 Up early for the Land Rover Safari into Udawalawe National Park. We had stressed to our driver and spotter that it was the birds we were interested in and not the Elephants. As it turned out they both did us proud as they spotted several new birds for us. New birds here included Rufous Bush Lark, Booted Eagle, Black-headed Munia, Orange-headed Thrush, Pallid Harrier and Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark. Lunch back at the Centuria Hotel, we then left for a quick stop at the coast and my first view of the Indian Ocean. Kalametiya was very eerie in the aftermath of Boxing days Tsunami. There was lots of debris and bits of personal clothing everywhere. The town of Hambantota which we passed through on our way to Tissamaharama, was completely devastated by the Tsunami. The side of the road nearest the sea was like a scene from a war documentary. Refugee camps along the main road and even a large boat stranded and smashed well inland.
Day8 Left the hotel this morning at 6.30 after a very fitful nights sleep. We travelled the 30 minutes to the Yala National Park. Here we boarded our Land Rover for another Safari this time into Leopard Country. No Leopards but Elephant, Water Buffalo, Wild Boar, Mongoose, Jackal, Samba and Chital were all seen. Birding highlight was the magnificent Blue-faced Malkoha. We also ran into Barred Buttonquail, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Brahminy Starling and Common Woodshrike. Back to the hotel for lunch and a shower before hot footing it to various Tanks in and around Tissa. At the 1st we were lucky enough to tick off White-naped Woodpecker at its nest hole. Both male and female observed. Other Tissa tank highlights: Purple Swamphen, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Greenish Warbler, Richards Pipit, Ruddy Crake, Moorhen, Jungle Prinia and Coppersmith Barbet. We got back to the hotel happy but exhausted at 7.30. We showered and changed and were ready for dinner at 8.15. Total number of birds recorded to date two hundred and two.
Day9 Woken up at 5.45 for a 6 oclock get away to visit Tissa tanks for possible bitterns. No bitterns but we did add five new birds to our trip list: Zitting Cisticola, Pallass Grasshopper Warbler, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Little Grebe and Tawny-bellied Babbler. Back to hotel at 8.30 for a breakfast. Coffee toast, scrambled egg and fruit.
We went to the bank at ten to change some money. A relatively painless transaction. Later we visited a small plantation where the highlight was a Black-headed Cuckooshrike and we heard a White-rumped Shama. Off for a Land Rover Safari into Bundala National Park. The birding here was terrific we had a great afternoons Safari. The Land Rover had an open top so we could stand up and view all around. Highlights: Pied Cuckoo, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Collared Scops-Owl, Saunders, Little, Gull-billed, Caspian, Lesser and Greater Crested Terns, Lesser and Greater Sand Plover, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Pale Martin, Yellow Bittern, and later Indian Nightjar.
Day10 1st of February 2005 my 55th birthday
I started the day at 6.00 by opening my birthday cards and the presents that I had carried with me from home. Both the presents were greeted with howls of approval from me and Richard. (Welsh Cakes and Jelly Beans) just what the doctor ordered. Set off at seven for a site we visited yesterday to try and lure the White-rumped Shama out into the open. At the site a bird immediately responded to the taped song but refused to come into view. At the second spot further up the track we hit gold and the White-rumped Shama stayed in open view long enough for us all to have great views. We returned for breakfast where we had pancakes with Golden Syrup and pudding rice. Back out for a morning stroll around the various tanks. Only new birds were Oriental Skylark, Streaked Weaver and Baya Weavers at the nest. After lunch we visited the area outside Yala National Park. It was great wader watching only new birds though were Spotted Redshank and Northern Pintail. Later we tried we tried for Jerdons Nightjar and had one fly around our heads. At dinner they presented me with a birthday cake complete with candle. A great day all round.
Day11 A lie in this morning up at 6.30 breakfast at 7 and left the hotel by 7.30 for the long trip to Nuwara Eliya. En route we visited the Surrey Tea Plantation. The Brown Wood Owl was seen quite quickly and was followed by a surprise Pied Thrush. On the path through the garden we also added Kashmir Flycatcher and Forest Wagtail. So four new birds in half an hour. On the road between the Surrey and our overnight stop (Rock Hotel) we noted: Mountain Hawk Eagle, Black Eagle, Dull Blue Flycatcher, Yellow-eared Bulbul and Pied Bushchat. During lunch at the Rock Hotel we added Shaheen (Falco peregrinus peregrinator). Victoria Park was excellent we found Kashmir Flycatcher, Indian Pitta, Pied Thrush, Sri Lanka White-eye, Forest Wagtail and last but not least Great Tit. We left the park at 17.30 and visited a Whistling Thrush site. We started the tape at about 18.15 and had had no response at all up to 19.00 when we decided to call it a day. We did have the cancellation of great views of a Sri Lanka Bush Warbler.
Day12 Up at 4am yes thats right 4am. We left the hotel at 4.30 for the drive to Horton Plains. Arrived just after 5.30 and had a quick nap in the bus, (by the famous Leopard sign), until 6am. At approx 6.10 Dhammitra started the tape. It was still relatively dark but the first bird to respond was a Sri Lanka Blackbird closely followed by the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. In the space of 30 minutes we also had Sri Lanka White-eye, Sri Lanka Woodpigeon, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Scimitar-billed Babbler, Yellow-eyed Babbler, Dull-blue Flycatcher, Kashmir Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Large-billed Leaf Warbler and Dark-fronted Babbler. A truly amazing start to the day. Further along the road we had Paddyfield Pipit, Hill Swallow, Pied Bushchat, Common Buzzard and Black Eagle. Arrived back at the hotel very tired but elated. All the endemics have now been recorded. After lunch at the hotel we had a walk around Gallway Forest we drove around Gregory Lake and then went into Victoria Park. No new birds this afternoon but after such a special morning nothing to be too disappointed about. Dinner at 8pm went to bed very happy indeed.
Day13 An early morning visit to Victoria Park trying for the Slaty-legged Crake which had been seen recently there. No joy probably a result of all the cleaning up the park had experienced during the last week in preparation for the start of the new season. We did see another superb Pied Thrush and Forest Wagtail. At 9.30 sharp we said our goodbyes to our genial hosts and set off on the 69KM four hour trip to Kandy. We arrived at the Hotel Suisse smack on 13.30. We had finished lunch by 14.00 and at 14.30 it was off out forest birding in the leech infested hills around Kandy. We missed one of our target birds the Dwarf Kingfisher but at 17.00 sharp we had super views of Hill Myna. Happy we returned to the hotel for a rest/shower before our dinner. We had pre dinner drinks in the room with Dhammitra and Sarath.
Day14 We left the Hotel Suisse at 6.45 for a trip to Uda Walakele Forest. it was a last chance search for Dwarf Kingfisher. No luck with the Dwarf although we did see both Common and only our second Stork-billed Kingfisher of the trip. The forest was alive with calling Hill Mynas. We spent the rest of the morning shopping in Kandy. It was mayhem but Dhammitra our guide ushered us around the city with practised ease. We arrived back at the Hotel at 13.00 after a short trip in a Tuk Tuk past the Temple of the Tooth. We left the Hotel at 14.30 heading for our last hotel at Colombo airport where we had dinner with Dhammitra and Sarath. We showered and changed ready for the long flight home. At the airport we also said our goodbyes to both Sarath our driver and Dhammitra our guide.
Day15 We arrived back at Heathrow.
My apologies to those expecting counts of birds. Counting numbers of birds has never been one of my priorities. Relative abundance/scarcity/distribution etc. is more than adequately covered in the field guide.