A Wildlife and Birding Tour in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami, 5th- 26th February 2005

Published by Mike Hillman (martin AT surfbirds.com)

Participants: Mike Hillman


With Eco Holidays (Jetwing) we had been planning our trip to Sri Lanka since early last year and it all came to fruition when we touched down at Colombo Airport on 5th February. We were greeted by our Naturalist Guide, Uditha Hettige, and our driver, Kallan, both of whom would be with us throughout our three week stay.

Chandrika Maelge, of Jetwing Eco Holidays (www.jetwingeco.com) had produced a detailed itinerary for us, which included several of the National Parks, all the major habitat zones and important cultural sites.

Our first stopover was at the Villa Talangama situated on the banks of the Talangama Tank. On our exit from the bus we were greeted by the heady sights and smells of lush vegetation on the lake and the 30 degree heat. Here we had our first sightings of various species of water birds including, amongst others, Black & Yellow Bitterns, Open-billed Storks, various Egrets and the Purple Heron

Sinharaja Rain Forest and Martins Simple Lodge was our next destination for two nights. En-route we stopped at the Bodhinagala Forest Reserve where Uditha tried for the Endemic Chestnut-backed Owlet, this bird proved to be one of the only two endemics that we did not see, despite many tries at various other locations. We did however see the Brown Hawk Owl and the endemic Brown-capped Babbler. There is a Buddhist monastery within the reserve and here we saw the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher and also visited a small cave inhabited by Horseshoe Bats.

Upon arrival at Sinharaja we were transported by jeep to Martins Lodge which is situated just outside the boundary of the controlled area of the Reserve. The setting is idyllic with the dining area overlooking the forest.

We took several walks into the Reserve during our two days and saw many birds, including the endemics; Red-faced Malkoha, Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl, SL Spurfowl, Layards Parakeet, SL Hanging Parrot, Spot-winged Thrush, Ashy Headed Laughing Thrush, Legge's Flowerpecker, Yellow Fronted Barbet, White Faced Starling, SL Blue Magpie, SL Grey Hornbill, Black Capped Bulbul, and the Orange Billed Babbler. There were others but too many to detail. During the daytime walks we also saw the Purple Faced Leaf Monkey and several Green Lizards.

Our night walks, in absolute darkness, were enhanced by the dancing Fire Flies and a magnificent night sky. The surround sounds of the Frogs and Cicadas were deafening, but the highlight, besides a Barking Deer, was the endemic Sri Lanka Frogmouth which Uditha managed to call to a tree just above our heads.

En-route to our next destination, Embilipitiya, we stopped near Suriyakanda to observe and photograph a Fruit Bat roost (Common Flying Fox), there were hundreds of bats hanging from branches, flying around the tree tops, and calling loudly; a very impressive sight. Our objectives whilst staying in Embilipitiya for the next two nights were to visit the Uda Walawe National Park and the bat caves at Wawulpane.

The bat caves were spectacular, the main cave, with the river flowing into it, is at the bottom of a steep sided rock-faced gorge. We watched in wonder as literally millions of bats emerged and flew past us. The spectacle started at 6.30pm and was still in full flow when we reluctantly had to leave at 8.30pm. Two species were identified as Horseshoe and Fruit Bats but there were others. John suspects he has recorded the sounds of six species on his bat detection equipment and hopes to be able to identify more.

We did morning and afternoon jeep safari's in Uda Walawe and again saw many birds, including the Blue-faced Malkoha. However, from Uditha's perspective the undoubted highlight for him was the first time sighting for him of a Black-headed Bunting posing on the track alongside a Red -headed Bunting. This speciality was quickly relayed by phone to Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne who arrived shortly afterwards to photograph the bird.

The elephants though, provided us with further thrills, with a small herd during the morning getting rather excited with ear flapping and trumpeting. This was in itself an exciting experience but this was to be bettered in the afternoon when a particularly angry bull elephant decided to charge our jeep head on. How the driver and the Park guide/tracker maintained their cool we shall never know, but the elephant stopped dead, inches from the front of our jeep.

Our next stop was Hambantota, in the south of the Island, ostensibly as it was near to Rekawa where we hoped to be able to witness the Green Turtles egg-laying on the beach. However, it was here that the Tsunami had hit particularly hard and we were taken to witness the total devastation. We shall never forget the plight of the people, nor shall we forget the resilience they were showing in trying to resume their shattered lives.

We arrived at the Old Turtle Conservation Project hut on the beach at Rekawa at 10.00pm. We passed a while star gazing and saw Jupiter showing four moons. With the aid of the local guides from the TCP a Green Turtle was sighted at midnight about half a mile up the beach. The turtle had made several attempts to dig a suitable hole but eventually decided to try elsewhere and heaved its way back to the sea. We felt privileged to have photographed and witnessed such an event.

Yala was our next stopover for three nights but we stopped off en-route at Bundala National Park, a fascinating wetland home for 150 species of resident birds and winter migrants. We took a jeep safari into the park and were rewarded with many bird sightings and some good photographic opportunities again.

After a lunch break in Tissamaharama we stopped at various wetland sites on our way to Yala. The region comprised of magnificent expanses of Lotus and Lily covered Tanks, each with a tantalising selection of water birds. The Pheasant-tailed Jacanas looked particularly resplendent in their full plumage. We had good views of a Stork-billed Kingfisher and a nesting White-naped Woodpecker.

A group of young boys came rushing up to us with a young Scops Owl they had found; - it was entangled in nylon fishing line and looked as though it would not survive. We cut away the line and much to our amazement the bird fluttered into a nearby bush. We were then taken by the boys to see a Brown Fish Owl one of them had rescued years earlier and had nurtured ever since. We were all encouraged by this experience and were totally impressed by the politeness and responsible attitudes of the children.

It was dark when we arrived at Yala Village, completely exhausted. Saturday morning we were up early for the first of our jeep safari's into Yala National Park. During both morning and evening drives, besides many birds, we saw Elephants, Spotted and Sambar Deer, Wild Boar, Ruddy and Brown Mongoose, Jackals, Mugger Crocodiles, and lots of Water Buffalo wallowing in the many pools and mud-holes.

When returning to the hotel from our morning safari Uditha took us to the site of the Yala Safari Lodge, which had been destroyed by the Tsunami. He had been staying at the Lodge at the time and had been swept away by the tide. This was the first time he had been back and he, very courageously, described to us in graphic detail the events of that fateful morning. We were very moved by his story and we felt that he had benefited by returning to the site and being able to speak freely about his experience.

Things were very quiet at the Yala Village and the manager explained that many tourists had cancelled their reservations as a result of the Tsunami; - he expressed his thanks to us for supporting them at this time. This, sadly, was to be the case in all the hotels and tourist 'sites' that we had visited and were still scheduled to visit.

We can honestly say, that other than the inner feelings we felt for the victims and survivors of the disaster, we were not affected physically in any way. The hotels are up and running, the roads were all open and the infrastructure of the country as a whole was secure. The staff in the hotels, and for example the boys who act as guides, are all suffering hardship as a result of the tourists staying away.

We were asked to spread the message, "Please continue to come to Sri Lanka".

Our afternoon jeep safari proved to be very special; - we came across the carcass of a young Buffalo with a Wild Boar in attendance. Our guides were certain this was a Leopard kill and so we waited quietly for half an hour and eventually had terrific sightings of the Leopard just thirty metres away. We had further sightings of the same animal later in the afternoon. We did not see the Sloth Bear, but one was sighted the previous day by other guests at the hotel.

After dinner we were taken on a night trip in our own bus during which Uditha found us some ground nesting Nightjars which we were able to approach to 3m and photograph; - both the Indian and the Long-tailed. There were Elephants roaming in the bush and we could hear the farmers beating drums to drive them off their farmland. The evening ended with a good sighting of a Civet Cat.

On Sunday morning we saw a Wild Boar gorging on the remains of the young Buffalo, and during the afternoon yet another Leopard was spotted by our guides, lounging, in classic Leopard style, along the branch of a large tree.

Nuwara Eliya was our next destination, staying for two nights in St Andrew's Hotel.

On the edge of Yala we stopped by the road to photograph a Changeable Hawk Eagle and found a pool with frogs and migrating butterflies taking up minerals from the mud. Uditha and John found a Horseshoe Bat in a culvert under the road.

At the small village of Welimada, after considerable effort by Uditha, we had close views of the Pied Ground Thrush. On the approaches to our hotel we stopped and photographed a small Hindu Temple, complete with Macaque Monkeys.

Up early on Tuesday for a pre-dawn start to Horton Plains; being at a higher elevation the temperature was somewhat cooler and so we dressed accordingly. It was still dark when we arrived and as dawn broke we had early sightings of the endemic Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, followed by the Sri Lanka Hill White-eye, Yellow Eared Bulbul, the SL Woodpigeon, and the Dull Blue Flycatcher - all endemics. Whilst driving through the protected area of the park we admired the fantastic scenery and had sightings of Sambar Deer and many more birds. On our return journey we made a short stop at the Pattipola Railway Station (at the highest elevation in Sri Lanka) for the endemic Black-throated Munia and also saw the Himalayan migrant Kashmir Flycatcher. Our morning concluded with a cup of local brew on a pontoon boat café afloat on the Meepiliman reservoir.

Our visit to the Hakgala Botanical Gardens during the afternoon proved to be very interesting; - besides the extensive selection of trees and ferns, we were also able to photograph and record various frog species, and the Rhinoceros Horned Lizard. The Bear Monkey's, although heard, proved to be elusive.

Shortly after leaving our hotel on Wednesday, on our way to Kithulgala for one night, we stopped for a guided tour of The Pedro Estate Tea Plantation. We travelled onwards with fantastic views of the many tea plantations and the St Clare's and Devon waterfalls. For lunch we stopped at a restaurant overlooking the Kelani River, made famous as the setting for the film "Bridge over the River Kwai".

Rafters Retreat, also on the banks of the Kelani River was an experience in itself, the rustic rooms and furnishings blended well with the surrounding forest. We made a late afternoon crossing in the dug-out canoe and walked through the Kelani Valley Forest to Parawalatanne village where we were able to meet the local people and saw another endemic, the Green Billed Coucal. More unsuccessful attempts were made to call in the Chestnut-backed Owlet, but in compensation a Horseshoe Bat fluttered past us and perched just above our heads giving us wonderful views as it scanned around for passing moths. The walk back in the dark and the return crossing in the dug-out was another experience not to be forgotten.

We left Rafters Retreat on Thursday morning heading for the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage and, despite extensive road works on the main A1, we arrived in good time to watch the elephants cavorting in the river and then parading off to their open holding area.

After lunch we saw the baby elephants being milk fed and then were able to mix with the herd and take more photographs.

In the afternoon we visited the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens on the outskirts of Kandy; the gardens were described as being second only to Kew in the UK. There were massive and impressive tropical trees from around the world and magnificent stands of giant Bamboo. We had terrific views of the last endemic Barbet on our list, - the Crimson-fronted (or Ceylon Small Barbet). In another part of the Gardens, Fruit Bats (Common Flying Fox) were roosting in vast numbers in the tall trees, filling the air with their calls and gliding effortlessly above us.

Hunas Falls Hotel was to be our home for the next three nights, - a magnificent hotel set on a mountainside with views through the valley and with its own lake setting in the grounds. The approach road to the hotel was dramatic; a 1.9 kilometre single track steep uphill climb through tea and spice plantations, and past the 175ft Hunas Falls waterfall.

We re-traced our journey on Friday morning to visit the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy where we were able to witness the ceremonial drumming before filing past and paying our respects at the Tooth shrine. We then walked through the town making the most of the shops and the many photographic opportunities around us.

After dinner John and I went on a nocturnal frog watch with Uditha around the lake and the golf course in the grounds of the hotel. Uditha was able to identify the frogs by their calls and even caught some for us to photograph.

The Knuckles Wilderness was our destination for Saturday, an area of outstanding beauty with breathtaking views of the mountain scenery. Uditha explained that the mountain peaks mimicked the shape of the knuckles on our hands, - hence the name.

Kallan drove our bus through the overhanging trees and along tracks which appeared to be narrower than the bus. Throughout our trip so far we had observed myriads of White Migrant Butterflies flying through on their migration route to Adams Peak; - however the numbers at Knuckles surpassed what we had seen so far. We again saw many birds and two other Lizards, the Green Lizard (Calotes leolepis), and a very strange looking Leaf Nosed Lizard, - both of which we were able to photograph.

We stopped for lunch at a small roadside café sampling the local cooking and a cup of tea before continuing in the bus on a spectacular circular scenic route. We arrived back in Kandy in time to visit the Kandyan Arts Association Hall for an hour long performance of Kandyan dancing and drumming.

The next morning, Sunday, we left our hotel at Hunas Falls, stopping at the local shop to buy some tea and spices before continuing our journey to the Dambulla Cave Temple. In the searing heat we made our way up the long incline to the Caves; the effort proved to be very worthwhile, we were amazed when we saw the incredible Buddha sculptures, and in particular the 14m reclining Buddha in the first cave, carved out of the solid rock face.

Before our afternoon visit to the Rock Fortress at Sigiriya we checked into the Culture Club, set alongside the Kandalama Lake at Dambulla, for our two night stay. We arrived at Sigiriya late in the day when it was hoped that the temperature might have dropped a few degrees, thus allowing an easier climb to the top of the Rock. We were met at the entrance by one of the local "boys" acting as guides; he proved to be very knowledgeable and enhanced our enjoyment of the visit. We all saw, and photographed the famous frescoes at the half way point, but only John and I made the very worthwhile climb to the top.

To emphasise the effect of the Tsunami on the tourist trade, - here we were in the centre of the country, miles away from the affected areas, and there were no other tourists. Our guide explained that there would normally be up to 120 "boys" working as guides, - often making three tours each day. Now there were only a few boys working and we were only the third group for our guide since the Tsunami.

Again, the plea was for the tourists to return.

On Monday, on our way to Polonnaruwa, we made an un-scheduled detour to Habarana for an elephant ride at the Green Island Elephant Safari. Our elephant, named Kandulla, was incredibly passive and very intelligent, taking instructions from the Mahout walking alongside. At one time, wading through the lake, Kandulla delicately plucked lotus flowers with its trunk. These were presented as garlands by the Mahout to Jane & Jenny.

After this very enjoyable experience we moved on to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Polonnaruwa, - the medieval capital of Sri Lanka. We first visited the museum and then toured and photographed the impressive ruins and the world famous rock-cut Buddha statues. Here we had our first and only rain of the trip, but not sufficient to cause us to use our umbrellas. It continued to drizzle during our journey back to the Culture Club.

Before dinner we left in our bus for a short journey via the mud road to locate the Oriental Scops Owl; during the journey we came across a Star Tortoise crossing the road. This was duly photographed and placed safely in the verge. Uditha, with his magic touch, soon produced stunning views of the Owl and so we made our way back for dinner. The return journey was delayed by the bus becoming buried to its axles in mud, but with the help of a couple of local lads we managed to extricate ourselves. Further along the road Uditha found an injured venomous Hump Nosed Viper, after photographs it was moved by Uditha to the verge.

Before breakfast on Tuesday, Jenny and I wandered down to the lake where we saw the White-winged Black Tern. Our next destination was Anuradhapura, our journey took us through huge expanses of lotus covered tanks and we made various photo stops, - at one time, whilst supping the juice from coconuts, we were able to photograph, and speak to, two ladies up to their necks in the water picking the lotus flowers.

Anuradhapura Ancient Capital was a truly impressive place; we were given a detailed guided tour by Uditha who ensured that we saw all of the most important features, including the Sacred Bo tree, - the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world, and the Jetavana Stupa, which at its original height of 400 ft was the third highest monument in the world after the pyramids at Gizeh. We would offer a precautionary note to would-be visitors to wear socks, - the heat from the sand and stone floors when walking barefoot in the sacred sites, is unbearable, - the temperature at ground level was 45 C!

We checked in at the Palm Garden Village Hotel in time for our first swim of the trip, - very welcome after the extreme heat of the day.

Up at 0415am on Wednesday for a full day jeep safari into the Wilpattu National Park. The Park had only re-opened about two years previously, following the war, and we had been advised that much of the wildlife, particularly mammals, had been poached and so the remaining numbers were limited. We did however see our first Barking Deer in daylight and several Spotted and Sambar.

The Park is vast, with many fantastic lagoons abundant with birds, including the relatively rare Lesser Adjutant Stork. There were however, two highlights, one being the highest concentration of the migrating butterflies we had ever seen, and the other being a very close view of another Leopard, literally about 5 metres from our jeep. It was lying in dense shrub, an incredible achievement by our park guide/tracker in spotting it. As a final triumph, towards the end of our safari, another Leopard was spotted on the track about 200 metres ahead of us, - thus bringing our total Leopard count for the trip to four. Dusty and exhausted we made our way back to our hotel for dinner.

On Thursday morning we set off for our final two nights at the Blue Oceanic Hotel in Negombo, however, en-route we diverted off the main A3 at Palavi and turned north for about 35 km travelling the length of the Chilaw Sand Spit, past the Puttalam Lagoon, to Kalpitiya where we had a very good hotel lunch. After lunch we did some bird watching from the shore, though unfortunately we had arrived at high tide and there were few birds. We did however enjoy an entirely different habitat on our drive through, with fishermen's houses all clad in woven palm leaves, extensive palm groves and some traditional fishing boats which were reminiscent of the Kontiki style papyrus boats.

We eventually arrived late evening at our hotel in Negombo.

Friday, being our last full day, brought another bonus for four of us, - after breakfast we took a ride out to sea on one of the large outrigger sailing canoes, which we all found to be very exhilarating. We went shopping in Negombo during the afternoon and then at dinner in the evening we were very pleasantly surprised when Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Chandrika Maelge, Ayanthi Samarajewa and Aruni Hewage from Eco Holidays arrived to join us for dinner.

Saturday morning saw us up and packed ready to depart for the airport, - we completed our check lists with Uditha, and he filled in the last remaining "dots" on the map for us. It was then that Uditha disclosed yet another of his many talents, for he presented each couple with a pen and ink drawing, both of which he had drawn himself the previous evening, - there was a Frogmouth for Jenny & me and a bat for John and Jane. Each had been drawn from memory and is incredibly accurate. We shall all treasure these as permanent mementos of our trip to Sri Lanka.

In conclusion, we all thoroughly enjoyed our experiences, thanks initially to Chandrika (www.jetwingeco.com) for arranging the itinerary, and for her understanding when we kept on changing our minds, then to Kallan our driver, who despite his own personal suffering during the tsunami, was totally implacable, always joining in, and willing and able to take his bus anywhere Uditha asked!

Last, but not least, our thanks to Uditha Hettige (eco@jetwing.lk), - his knowledge of all things natural and his ability to find the impossible is outstanding (he has now extended his knowledge to include bats as well!). Besides his natural history skills, he is well versed on all aspects of the cultural sites we visited, and even gave us a personal guided tour at the Tea Plantation. We cannot thank him enough for making our trip so memorable.

On a final note we found that the people of Sri Lanka were all very friendly and welcoming, - the children are so polite and look great in their clean white school uniforms and, above all, everyone appeared to be genuinely pleased that we came to visit them.

However, the overriding request from the people in all the areas we visited is that we should encourage and try to persuade the tourists to return to Sri Lanka. We all endorse this.

For a wonderful experience with something new every day,

Visit Sri Lanka!