Sunday 16th January
Sri Lankan Airlines may not have the most comfortable seats in the skies but they do serve the best chicken and cashew nut curry east of Melton Road, Leicester! Stepping off the Airbus at Colombo Airport, after a ten-hour direct flight, Martin Kennewell, Graham Finch and I are greeted by a sumptuous waft of warm tropical air. Outside passport control it is a representative of Baurs who greets us, in an efficient and punctual manner that is to typify the service of Sri Lanka’s premier birding ground agents.
It is 04.00 by the time we are introduced to Sunil Alwis, our driver and guide for the next ten days, and load a pile of bags and tripods into the very comfortable air-conditioned minibus. We head east and soon leave the suburbs of Colombo to wind our way along bumpy roads that lead up and into the hills. Eyes are heavy by now and heads nodding, but an Indian Porcupine crossing the road causes a brief burst of excitement in the bouncing headlights.
By the time we reach Kitulgala the first light of the day is illuminating the mist-shrouded, forested hillsides that rise above the road. Sisira’s River Lodge is in a wonderful setting above the Kelani River, with its rustic structures nestling amongst mature trees. Seconds after vacating the minibus our first endemic bird is located, in the form of Ceylon Grey Hornbill. A small flock of these noisy birds is feeding in a fruiting tree in the hotel garden, but we have little time to savour them before Sunil calls us in excited tones. He has located a pair of Green-billed Coucals right above our chalet! This rare and skulking endemic has been noted as one of our toughest target birds; this must be a good omen for the forthcoming trip.
A group of charismatic Yellow-billed Babblers, the first of many, move in a chattering wave through the shrubs and a handsome male Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher hunts from a low perch. Another common endemic, Yellow-fronted Barbet, joins the Ceylon Grey Hornbills to feed on the large green figs and a Brown-breasted Flycatcher competes with its blue cousin for the garden’s choicest insects.
After the final flurry of a smart sulphury Yellow-browed Bulbul, and the distinctive endemic humii race of Black Bulbul, we eventually have a chance to unload our bags and break for a coffee; we’re already warming to Sri Lankan birding!
A five-minute drive from Sisira’s River Lodge delivers us to the main track leading to the Kelani Forest. The Kelani River, nearly one hundred metres wide at this point, is negotiated by means of a rather precarious suspended footbridge. Decking is made from the slippery steel of flattened oil drums and the steel hawsers that act as handrails are sticky with dirt and grime. As we cross Sunil points out the spot, just upstream, where ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ was filmed!
On the far side of the bridge the winding dirt trail takes us through a tremendously tranquil setting of smallholdings, subsistence crops and patches of lush green forest. The birdlife is abundant and varied. Purple-rumped Sunbird, Black-fronted Babbler and the endemic Layard’s Parakeet are rapidly notched up. The attractive bright orange bellies of the endemic hyperythra race of Red-rumped Swallow are obvious as they swoop over the tall palms.
Our first Indian Pitta, with emerald-green back, sandy breast, blue rump, red undertail and humbug-striped head, is an explosion of colour that is greeted with a flurry of expletives. A pair of Ceylon Hanging-Parrots perform treetop acrobatics and a group of endemic Orange-billed Babblers chatter their way through the nearby bushes.
Sunil’s sharp ear catches a distant call and we scurry up the hillside in search of its source. After a little coaxing from the tape-recorder a magnificent Chestnut-backed Owlet alights in a close tree. This fierce-looking endemic owl displays a dapper combination of warm brown upperparts and a grey-toned, heavily barred head and chest; it’s a little stunner. Other ‘race ticks’ include the fork-tailed lophorhinus form of Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo, the very smart red-backed psarodes form of Black-rumped Flameback and the grey-headed lucionensis form of Brown Shrike. We also acquaint ourselves with the ubiquitous sight of the endearing little Indian Palm Squirrel.
The sandy-brown pathway snakes between small pastel-painted concrete bungalows, all with immaculate paintwork and neatly swept yards. A friendly greeting is uttered by every villager whose path we cross, many of whom are laden down with bulging bags of produce. The area of settlements eventually gives way to rather dry primary forest, broken by an occasional small rice paddy nestling in a valley bottom. All around steep hills rise above us and into the clear blue sky, their flanks cloaked in unbroken forest; it’s an incredibly peaceful setting where life seems to pass by at a sedate and very relaxed pace.
Birding is inevitably quieter in the forest, with activity also dampened by the rapidly increasing heat of the day. Two pairs of striking Malabar Trogons are found here, the males displaying vivid pinky-red breasts, contrasting black heads and intricately barred wing coverts. After an endemic Spot-winged Thrush shows off his striped face and heavily dotted underparts we decide to call it quits and trudge our sweaty way back to the Kelani River and a cold one at the roadside stall.
Back at Sisira’s River Lodge our short siesta turns into a lengthy jetlag-induced sleep and we see little of the afternoon other than a brief walk around the hotel gardens. As the sun goes down Sunil shepherds us to a damp gully right next to our chalet where the sharp-eyed hotel chef soon manages to pick out a roosting Ceylon Frogmouth! The incredible bird is happy to sit on a bare branch in full spot lit view, just five metres from our flashing cameras. Its reddish upperparts identify it as a female and we sit and savour its long whiskers, neat white spotting to wing coverts and narrow white bar wrapping around its nape.
More than happy with our first day in the field we sit down to a spread of vegetable curries fit for a maharaja, the perfect end to a fantastic opening account.
Monday 17th January
This morning’s arrival at the Kelani Forest corresponds with the departure for school of a host of local children. As we cross the slippery suspension bridge and make our way amongst the tidy bungalows we are met by a stream of smiling faces and cheerful greetings from young schoolchildren immaculately clad in pristine white shirts or dresses and matching school ties.
We make the most of the cool of the early morning to track down the source of the various birdcalls that Sunil ably picks out. A Spot-winged Thrush sings right above our heads and a pair of endemic Brown-capped Babblers works their way through the leaf litter and root tangles. Today’s Indian Pitta appears below a chicken shed where it stands for an age right beside a discarded T.V. set, surely one of the enduring images of the trip!
Reaching the top of a small escarpment, the friendliness of the local people reaches a new level when a smiling girl brings chairs out of her house so that three unfit Englishmen can sit and recover from the exertions of their climb on her veranda! A group of Indian Swiftlets spiral overhead and a pair of extremely smart Indian Scimitar Babblers of the endemic rufous-flanked melanurus race gather nesting material close to the house.
With a tight schedule to maintain we return to the hotel before mid-day to pack our bags and consume another superb array of vegetable curries. By 13.00 we are on our way, with the patchy forest and subsistence crops soon giving way, with altitude, to rounded hills wrapped in bright-green tea bushes for as far as the eye can see. The emerald blocks follow the steep contours and are dotted with regular eucalyptus trees that provide shade for Sri Lanka’s largest export crop. Large roadside signs pronounce the owners of each plantation, which bear deep-rooted colonial names such as ‘St Claire’, ‘Devon’, ‘Palmerstone’ and ‘Edinburgh’.
Birds are sparse amidst the monoculture but we manage to pluck out a roadside Long-billed Sunbird to enlighten the journey; not that it is at all tedious with such spectacular scenery to savour. It takes exactly two hours to drive to Nuwara Eliya, the highest town in Sri Lanka. The conurbation sprawls across a wide valley and lies in the shadow of a series of high, forested hills, the tallest of which is Pidurutalagala at 2555 m. Numerous large hotels dot the landscape of this hill resort town and we are rather surprised to see a large horse racing track as one of the central features.
Our accommodation, the Hotel Yesney, is decidedly mediocre but we won’t be within its confines for very long and after rucksack dropping we head straight for Victoriya Park. These municipal ornamental gardens have to be the most famous birding site in Sri Lanka, being the unlikely wintering ground for a series of spectacular northern species.
A 25 Rupee entrance fee lets us through the ornate wrought iron gates and onto the pathways which link large expanses of neatly manicured lawns, flowerbeds and shrubberies. Reaching the prime birding site, an area of dense vegetation at the upstream limits of a terribly polluted river that flows through the park, we are distraught to find a large tour group have beaten us to the spot! Eventually the twenty British sixty some-things amble off and we position ourselves next to the dense tangle of twigs that line the bank of the filthy watercourse.
Black Rats hop through the undergrowth amongst piles of streamside rubbish, but the squalid setting does not deter the mouth-watering birds. A dark shape deep in the tangle materialises into an awesome male Pied Thrush, arguable the most attractive Zoothera in the world. Jet-black upperparts are neatly spotted white on covert tips and rump, while clean white underparts are neatly scaled black. Just behind a bright yellow bill runs a bold white supercillium; what a creature!
Kashmir Flycatcher, with a tiny breeding range in the disputed northeast province and equally restricted wintering grounds in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka, is another prime target. We find a dull female and a first-winter male with slight orangey flush to his breast but are disappointed not to connect with an adult male bird. Also in the branches overhanging the smelly water is an Indian Robin, but she too is a rather drab female of the species. Fortunately an Indian Pitta bounds past us, just a few metres away, to add a little gaudiness to the occasion.
Exploring further afield we notch up another two high-altitude endemics in the form of Ceylon White-Eye and Yellow-eared Bulbul, which completes our shopping list at this rather bizarre birding site. A dark grey, stripy-backed Layard’s Squirrel is the last species to enter the notebook before we depart for Sunil’s Scaly Thrush site, in the fading light and gathering mist.
Despite valiant efforts the thrush fails to materialise, but we are amply rewarded by a pair of Ceylon Bush-Warblers that oblige in a manner totally alien to this normally ultra-skulking genus. In response to pishes and squeaks, and without even recourse to a tape recording, the pair of birds move through bare branches at head height, almost within touching distance!
Back at the Hotel Yesney the celebratory beer flows but the vegetable curry is decidedly disappointing, being incredibly bland and spice-less; they must think our delicate palates can’t cope with a good helping of chilli!
Tuesday 18th January
By 05.00 we are bumping our way, in the pre-dawn blackness, down another winding road in the direction of Horton Plains National Park. It takes us almost an hour to reach the legendary “Have you seen the Leopard yet?” sign, where we park at the roadside and wait for the first signs of daylight to illuminate the forest.
Leaving the minibus we are joined by another couple of English birders, who are travelling with the fiercely rival ‘Jetwings’ tour company; fortunately Sunil seems to have negotiated a temporary armistice for the morning. We position ourselves at the end of the Arrenga Pool, where the gathering light is starting to penetrate the misty cloud that hangs over the forested hills. It becomes apparent that we are in a landscape of low trees, whose gnarled boughs are hung heavy in moss and epiphytes typical of a cloud forest environment. Roadside tree ferns grow to a spectacular size.
A thin, high whistle soon betrays the presence of our number-one target bird at this site and fifteen minutes of frantic searching ensues before a male Ceylon Whistling-Thrush briefly reveals himself on a bough beside the pool. It’s 06.45 and scarcely light but we are highly relieved that we have caught up with this endangered endemic at our first attempt.
Next we take a wander back along the road, notching up Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Dull-blue Flycatcher and a number of fly-over Ceylon Wood-Pigeons in the process. Ceylon White-Eyes and Yellow-eared Bulbuls are amongst the commonest birds at this altitude and we also find our first group of Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys, one of the island’s two endemic primates. At this altitude the race concerned is a more hairy creature, colloquially known as ‘Bear Monkey’.
Heavy rain prompts the first Sri Lankan unveiling of umbrellas and sets us in the direction of the minibus. By the time we reach the Arrenga Pool a brief window of bright weather has swept in and it is at this opportune moment that our friend the Ceylon Whistling-Thrush decides to perform his party piece, hopping through bare branches just metres away and in wonderful light that shows off his blazing royal-blue plumage to its full and dazzling effect. It’s now 08.50 and well beyond the normal thrushing-hour.
Another heavy shower sets in and we consume our pack-up in the minibus, with the welcome interruption of a fly-over pair of Ceylon Blue Magpies. Though identified beyond doubt we eagerly await much better looks at this incredible bird.
Heading out of the Park we pass through a considerable expanse of low, wet forest with occasional grassy areas. Apparently Horton Plains was cleared of forest in colonial times to permit deer hunting and though tree cover has returned the area has maintained its now-inappropriate name. Below the limits of the forest are tea plantations and as we descend further we find ourselves in a spectacularly scenic setting of terraced fields that step up the steep valley sides.
Close to the village of Pattipola, Sunil has a stakeout for Kashmir Flycatcher and within minutes of vacating the minibus we are watching the first of two stunning males. With flame-red throat and breast, neatly bordered black on either side, this wonderful little flycatcher is certainly a contender for ‘bird of the trip’. Ceylon Wood-Pigeons perch up to reveal their maroon bellies and chessboard napes, while a fine Greater Flameback of the stunning maroon-backed endemic stricklandi race pounds a nearby tree. The same valley also supports a number of Eurasian Blackbirds of the highly distinctive kinnisii race, which are an attractive dark slate-grey with bight orange bare parts. What it doesn’t support, however, are any Black-throated Munias and this isn’t any old munia, it’s the soon-to-be-split kelaarti race that is often referred to as Ceylon Hill Munia.
Pattipola Railway Station is a fine monument to colonial architecture in its own right, but it is also the only regular site in Sri Lanka for Hill Swallow, and a pair of them swoops past within seconds of our arrival. But still no swooping munias.
After an injection of some fine fried lentil cakes we spend the next few hours in search of the elusive Black-throated Munia, a soon-to-be endemic species that is tricky to see elsewhere in the country. The antics of the locals trying to extract a lorry from axle-deep mud are entertaining, an endemic Toque Macaque is nice to see, but all are no substitute for our target species and we leave the uplands munia-less.
Our descent takes us back to tropical warmth and leafy cultivated lowlands, with regular colourful market towns. A minor detour brings us to the Surrey Tea Plantation, close to Welimada, another stakeout site that Sunil has tucked up his sleeve. As we skirt a small plot of woodland Sunil explains that the target bird could not be found on his last visit so we don’t raise our hopes too high, and after nearly an hour of scrambling through the undergrowth the situation is looking rather dire. It is just at this point that Sunil shouts to us from deep in the scrub and we weave our way to his vantage point. Just fifteen metres away is the imposing form of a Brown Wood Owl, recently disturbed from its roosting site. It is a magnificent bird, finely barred on its underparts, with a contrasting warm brown facial disc and we are greatly indebted to Sunil for his persistence in the search.
With the owl safely in the bag Sunil adopts his Ayrton Senna mode and we make swift progress away from the uplands and into the flat lowland plains, where a green sea of rice paddies stretch into the distance, punctuated by an occasional grove of coconut palms. It is still daylight when we reach the regional capital of Tissaharama, usually abbreviated to ‘Tissa’, where a visit to the ATM tops up our empty wallets.
Sunil has recommended that we stay at the Vikum Lodge, where we receive a particularly warm welcome to the well-appointed establishment located amidst some fine garden habitat. The hotel is good, but the food is out-of-this-world! Our array of curried dishes of brinjul, squash, win beans, potato and dahl are the finest that we consume in all Sri Lanka, served by the delightful and ever-smiling Rashnica. A bowl of buffalo curd and syrup provides the perfect conclusion to the perfect meal and another all-round outstanding day.
Wednesday 19th January
Today’s early start sees us up on the entrance road to Yala National Park well before first light. The sky is full of stars when we first vacate the minibus and all is quiet, but as a glow on the eastern horizon hints at the approach of daylight the nightjars begin to call. The accelerating ‘chick’ of Indian Nightjar emanates from a number of sources close by on the dry grassy plain. A little searching with powerful spotlights picks out some eye-shine and a stealthy approach soon has us within two metres of the cryptically plumaged source of the calls.
Another kilometre down the road and we are amongst tall scrubland, the preferred habitat of Jerdon’s Nightjar. Two calling birds can be heard as soon as we exit the minibus, but they seem disinterested in tape playback and the daylight is rapidly reaching a level where nightbirds will settle down to roost. At the last moment two birds appear to swoop above our heads in an aerial duel, displaying the extensive white tail corners diagnostic of this species.
As we progress further a fantastic orange sunrise illuminates the huge sky to the east, over an expanse of dry grassland and sparse scrub. Stopping at a small flash beside the road we watch Spot-billed Pelican and Painted Stork feed, silhouetted against the mirror-like fiery-orange surface of the pool.
With our first targets secured we proceed to the Park HQ, where we need to pay our admission fees and transfer to a battered open-backed Landrover. An official park guide is obliged to join us for the trip; despite being enthusiastic his guiding credentials turn out to be totally worthless!
Our relocation to a totally different dry-zone lowland habitat produce an abrupt change of birds from those encountered in the hills. Common Woodshrike, White-browed Bulbul and Black Drongo are all new to the trip. Colourful Hoopoes, Orange-breasted Green Pigeons and Little Green Bee-Eaters prove ubiquitous. A network of straight red-brown dirt roads cuts through the dense scrub, leafed in a fresh green shroud following the recent rains.
Occasional shallow lagoons create breaks in the thick vegetation, where areas of short grassland and muddy margins attract a selection of wading birds. Here Pacific Golden Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Pintail Snipe and both Red and Yellow Wattled Lapwings abound. Mammals are well represented in the form of Wild Pig, Grey Langur, Indian Grey Mongoose, numerous Chital and the occasional Sambar. As we avidly film everything which comes within range one could be excused for thinking that the location was the African savannah, rather than the Teardrop of India.
Yellow-eyed Babbler, Brahminy Myna, Pied Cuckoo and Yellow-crowned Woodpecker are all trip-ticks, while the impressive Black-headed Cuckoo-Shrike and recently split Jerdon’s Bushlark have never been seen anywhere before. Moving on through the park we regularly pass through low-lying areas where the devastation caused by the tsunami of 26th December 2004 is all-too-obvious. Here large swathes of both scrubland and large trees have been uprooted by the force of the terrible tidal wave that was responsible for so much destruction, death and misery in so many Asian nations. Roughly a one kilometre wide strip of land on the coastal margin has been affected, throughout the reserve. On the coastline itself the incredible force of the water can be seen to its full, where just the foundations and a few twisted concrete pillars remain in the spot once occupied by a bungalow. Building debris, personal belongings and shattered fragments of boats are tangled amongst the brushwood in testament to the destruction caused elsewhere on the coastline.
Deeper into the park we find two pairs of striking Malabar Pied Hornbills and more Indian Peafowl. It is interesting to note that the males of the latter species all seem to be attired in their magnificent breeding regalia and are keen to fan their tails in display at every opportunity.
We make a stop at a bluff overlooking a huge and well-vegetated manmade tank, carpeted with pink water lilies and dotted with the skeletons of sun-bleached trees. Waterbirds are on show in force, with numerous breeding plumaged Pheasant-tailed Jacanas and Purple Swamphens trotting through the greenery and a Grey-headed Fish Eagle surveying the scene below from a high perch. Towards the rear of the tank are large colonies of Spot-billed Pelicans and Painted Storks, and both species regularly perform spectacular fly-pasts. The whole scene has a dramatic backdrop of high, dark-stained orange sandstone monoliths, the largest of which is ‘Elephant Rock’; it really is an awe-inspiring sight.
Following a tip-off from another tour guide we head to a different section of the Park where we are treated to point-blank views of a group of Asian Elephants, browsing at the roadside. The three adult females shield a young calf as they dextrously pluck greenery from the thorny braches with a combination of trunk and curled lip. From this proximity we note what hairy beasts they actually are, the youngster in particular, with a crown bristling with lengthy dark-brown stubble. Elephant trunk manipulation is truly a sight to behold and we soak up the incredible show that includes ear scratching and wiping a sleepy eye. Reluctantly we leave the group and head back to the main Park gate, just beyond which we enjoy our second Asian Elephant encounter, this time with a rather amorous ‘five legged’ male!
Transferring back to our minibus we expect a swift return to the Vikum Lodge, but Sunil has another one of his surprises in store. Stopping beside a small freshwater pool adjacent to one of the many wader-strewn tidal lagoons, we are treated to ringside views of a colony of Streaked Weavers constructing their elaborate nests in the reedmace. In the surrounding scrubland and cultivation we notch up a pair of the wintering grey-bellied passerinus race of Plaintive Cuckoo and a splendid Sirkeer Malkoha with black facemask and cherry-red bill.
The environs of the crystal-clear pool are alive with frogs, dragonflies and all manner of other aquatic life. A huge red-winged water scorpion is seen to emerge from the water and take to the air, only to be immediately consumed by the resident Blue-tailed Bee-Eater!
The sun is now blisteringly hot and we feel another curry coming on, so order our chauffeur to return us to the Vikum Lodge. The spicy yellow-lentil dahl and coconut rotis are predictably superb, and we muse as to whether the lovely Rashnica would like to come home with us.
The post-siesta evening session takes us to the lily-covered margins of the nearby Tissa Tank. Again the waterbird spectacle is incredible, with Stork-billed Kingfisher, Clamorous Reed Warbler and Yellow Bittern being new to the list. A palm grove adjoining the tank is a Brown Fish Owl roosting site and the landowner willingly hunts down the bird in its favoured spot above the outside toilet, from where the enormous owl stares down on us in fierce defiance. While we watch, a local lad recites the sad tale of how he has lost his fishing livelihood to the tsunami and we do what we can by donating a pile of spare clothes to the grateful young man.
A little further down the track Sunil has another scarce and sought-after species pinned down, with the palm-trunk nest hole of a White-naped Woodpecker, again an endemic race of the form tantus. The red-capped head of the male bird is immediately seen protruding from the hole in the narrow trunk, but we have to wait some time before the female returns to display her beautiful form. Long elegant bill, golden wings and a large white triangle on a black back make this one of the most attractive woodpeckers around.
Even at this late hour Sunil manages to conjure up one more trick, with a detour to some nearby grassland. Indian Nightjars are calling, but we have a different target this evening. After making some enquiries our guide finds a local farmer who has found a quail nest on his land earlier in the day. We race off to the spot but a startled Indian Flying Fox is our only reward. Returning to the original site we are rather bemused to see Sunil wandering through the dry grass with a spotlight and even more disbelieving when he beckons us over. We should not doubt our leader however, as he has dazzled a male Barred Buttonquail and we are able to savour rare close looks at this finely patterned beauty. Yet again it’s an endemic race, of the form leggii.
Lion Beer, incomparable vegetable curry and exquisite buffalo curd end the day. What could be better?
Thursday 20th January
Another luxury of the Vikum Lodge is that excellent birding is to be had right on the doorstep. Scrubby woodland and mature gardens surround the hotel and an hour’s searching produces Indian Pitta and the hoped-for Blue-faced Malkoha, a dry zone specialist whose range covers just Sri Lanka and the southern Subcontinent. The pair of malkohas moves slowly through the low trees, subtle blue-grey plumaged with contrasting pale green bill and beautiful Wedgwood-blue orbital ring.
A celebratory breakfast of coconut rotis with bananas and syrup is eagerly consumed before we bid a fond farewell to Rashnica and Anora, the proprietors of the fine establishment. First stop is an Indian Flying Fox roost on the edge of Tissa, where disturbance has spooked the resting bats and hundreds of their enormous forms call raucously and swoop menacingly around the tall tree; it really is quite a spectacle.
We make rapid progress over flat lowlands supporting rice paddies plus banana and coconut groves. Small bustling settlements are negotiated, where the road is lined with thriving bicycle repair shops, bakers purveying all manner of enticing confectionary and greengrocers hung with bananas of a dozen different hues and sizes. At the small village of Bandagiriya, Sunil leads the way into the garden of a well-kept bungalow for yet another of his little surprises. Sunil’s sociable character certainly pays dividends at such time; he seems to have friends everywhere with ‘special’ birds in their gardens!
From a cavity in a small tree, right next to the house, gaze the feline forms of two beautiful Collared Scops-Owls. It is interesting to note that one bird appears to be a grey morph while the other has a more rufous cast, yet our field guide makes no reference to such variation.
When the huge earthquake and resultant tsunami caused widespread devastation and terrible loss of life to coastal areas over much of south Asia, on 26th December 2004, we immediately gave our plans to visit Sri Lanka careful review. Baurs were quick to advise us that travel was safe and we decided that it would be beneficial to the local economy and ultimately the indigenous population if we continued with our plans; this certainly proved to be the case and many hotel proprietors requested that we spread this same message upon our return to the UK.
Other than our experience in Yala, our travels have, to date, seen no visible indicators of the human suffering to which this region has been exposed. All this changes as we approach the town of Hambantota on the southern coast, which straddles our route to Sinharaja. First signs of the terrible damage wrought on the area are the smashed and twisted shells of buses and lorries that have been salvaged from the aftermath of the disaster and transported to roadside repair shops some distance from the coast.
Nearing Hambantota we note how the incredible force of the incoming seawater has cut huge gullies, up to ten metres deep and twice as wide, through the extensive vegetated dunes that protect the saltpans to the landward side of the town. Large pumps are now draining the pans, which are littered with debris brought by the tidal wave.
The central section of the town, built in a natural valley between the saltpans and the sea, has been reduced to little more than piles of red brick rubble; it is truly horrifying to see the full effect of the monumentally destructive waves, from which escape would clearly have been impossible. Sunil tells us that when the water receded, besides the battered shells of cars, buses and boats, six hundred bodies were recovered from the saltpans.
All is silent in the minibus as we bear witness to the deeply disturbing scenes, the scale of which are more akin to a war zone than a natural disaster. The twisted carcass of a half-demolished house occasionally stands proud of the rubble. Most trees seem to have remained intact and these are eerily adorned by clothes and other debris, which gives the surreal effect of Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind. This debris has been washed high into crowns, way above our heads, demonstrating the depth of the water on that terrible morning.
Tented camps have been constructed, where homeless survivors congregate, each with a tiny pile of belongings salvaged from the devastated scene. Masked workers spray disinfectant to prevent the spread of disease and a television film crew pans across the scene of destruction on a biblical scale, to the accompaniment of the pounding rotor blades of relief helicopters which skim above the palms; it is certainly a scene which we will never forget.
In spite of these visions of incomprehensible suffering, we witness scenes that demonstrate the resilience of these incredible people and a will to push life back into some semblance of normality. A small fish stall has been erected amongst the rubble and is surrounded by a small group of eager customers, while out in the bay a huddle of bobbing fishing boats that clearly escaped the waves are moored. Moving just a few hundred metres to the west, and into a section of the town constructed on a low headland that escaped the terrible flooding, it is difficult to locate any evidence of the disaster; shops are all trading as normal and a busy market is thronged with people.
Having seen the scale of this disaster at first hand our hearts go out to this wonderful race of people, who have been dealt such a cruel blow, and we can only hope that the necessary aid continues to arrive speedily to ease the suffering of so many shattered lives.
Seeing birds really seems inconsequential after such an experience, and things have certainly been put into perspective a little by the time we disembark at the next site, the Kalametia Bird Sanctuary. We have pulled in this reserve in vain hope of Caspian Plover, which inevitably fails to materialise, though a fine array of other species feed on the short turf of the grassy coastal plain.
Greater Sandplover and Pacific Golden Plovers predominate, but they are interspersed with such interesting additions as Great Thick-Knee and a small flock of Oriental Pratincoles. We obtain some fine close-up views of Ashy-crowned Finchlark and Oriental Skylark plus the only Yellow Wagtails of the trip. Interestingly the Yellow Wagtails are identified as being of the races thumbergi and simillima. Using the latest Clements taxonomy these now become two separate species, Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava thumbergi and Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis simillima.
Final trip tick at this very enjoyable site is a small group of Rose-coloured Starlings, whose number includes some fine pink-and-black males. When the minibus gets bogged to its axles in the wet sandy ground we only narrowly avoid the very embarrassing situation of needing to be towed out; our escape is thanks to the speedy intervention of a local lad who has clearly seen such foolishness before and is expert on tourist-extraction!
After another protracted bout on the winding roads we take a short break at a roadside Indian Flying Fox colony, this time so close that every detail of these fascinating creatures can be studied. It’s enthralling to observe how toiletry arrangements are made by swapping branch-holds to grip with the ‘hands’ instead of ‘feet’ and so avoid making a mess on ones own fir. The size of the erection of a male fruit bat is also a stunning revelation!
Climbing into the hills as we near Sinharaja we return to the tea zone, though it is interesting to note that the plantations are managed on a subsistence basis rather than the huge commercial outfits encountered further north. In an infinitely more environmentally sensitive manner small scale tea plantations are interspersed with other crops and blocks of native forest. Open-backed lorries tour the smallholdings to collect two or three loosely woven hessian bags, bulging with green tea leaves, from each farmer.
Now that we are back in the range of our biggest omission so far, the obsession with Black-throated Munia recommences and we begin to check every small paddy field for these scarce waxbills, amongst flocks of their more numerous cousins. These stops produce Ruddy Mongoose, Plum-headed Parakeet and Southern Hill Myna but still no bloody munia!
Nearing the destination we glimpse a unique ‘Sri Lanka comedy moment’ involving one of the ubiquitous motor rickshaws that serve every centre of population. The battered vehicle has faulty windscreen wipers and it’s now pouring with rain. An occupant of the rickshaw leans precariously out of the cab and begins to manually operate the wiper blades. This action unbalances the three-wheeled machine, which crashes off the road and into a ditch; absolutely priceless and amazingly all escape unscathed!
It is 18.00 when we take the final junction and traverse the incredibly muddy road that leads to the Blue Magpie Hotel. One should not be put off by the access arrangements, however, as the hotel is newly refurbished and proves to be an outstanding establishment in all respects. With clean rooms, good showers and an open dining area affording views across the surrounding forested hillsides it is the perfect location from which to explore this fantastic area.
We have just emptied the minibus when a flock of birds in the paddy field right below the restaurant catch our eye. They are munias and just a cursory check through the group reveals that at least half of their number have scaly bellies, fawn neck-patches and black throats. We‘ve found our Black-throated Munia and they are right outside the hotel! We are clearly on a roll as next to appear are a pair of Crimson-fronted Barbets, another proposed endemic and again our only sighting of the whole trip.
With our luck running so well there is clearly only one thing to do. We ask Sunil if we can go and look for Serendib Scops-Owl. Sunil has a particularly endearing feature when asked a tricky question, which has entertained us since the start of our travels; he rotates his head in a figure-of-eight, half-yes and half-no gesticulation, without committing himself to a verbal ruling either way! We know that the drive to the recently discovered site is a hard two-hour slog on some terrible roads, but Sunil sees our determined expressions and concedes to our wishes. This bird is our number-one target of the entire trip and we really have to maximise our chances.
Our kit is loaded into the battered and sparsely upholstered jeep and we set off for the ‘new owl’, as Sunil affectionately refers to it, at 19.00. For the first hour of our journey we roughly retrace our route taken to Sinharaja, but at the small village of Athwelthota we leave the comfort of the tarmac and head steeply uphill. It is now pitch black and the road is tortuously uneven, in places leading over piles of huge boulders and jagged rock outcrops. A whole hour is spent with low ratio four-wheel-drive engaged, in bone-jarring motion, and on seats with all the comfort of ironing boards.
It is a huge relief when we reach the small dwelling that marks the end of our jeep ride. Here leech socks are hoisted high and knotted tightly before we descend into the dark, dripping forest. A narrow muddy trail leads down to a precarious log bridge and then winds its way between tall trees, where torch beams pick out a multitude of leeches progressing rapidly towards any source of body heat.
Positioning ourselves in Sunil’s favoured spot, we kill the lights and let our eyes adjust to the firefly-powered forest darkness. A nighttime visit to a tropical forest is a magical experience, as a thousand frogs, cicadas and crickets vie for position in a deafening acoustic tournament. Sadly the only player lacking is the one that we have travelled all this way to hear and for an hour Sunil’s tape recording of a repeated low disyllabic hoot goes unanswered.
When a hooted response comes, from dense cover less than fifty metres into the forest, pulses communally jump and adrenalin begins to flow. Our calling Serendib Scops-Owl is, however, decidedly uncooperative. For another hour we attempt to lure in our quarry, but our efforts are to no avail. The only answer is to crash into the soaking undergrowth in an attempt to find the calling bird. Our plan gets us to within fifteen metres of the calling bird, but it is inevitably flushed by the cacophony caused by four pairs of heavy boots and disappears, never to hoot again.
Friday 21st January
At 00.30 we decide to call off our search, but we remain optimistic as we have come close and our successes elsewhere on the island mean that we have four full days in the Sinharaja area, if necessary, to secure our remaining target species. A soft bed at 02.30 is absolute bliss!
As we always say, you can sleep when you’re at home. At 06.30 we are checking out a Ceylon Spurfowl site en route to Sinharaja Reserve. There isn’t a sniff of a spurfowl and we predict that this one is going to be tricky.
Just short of the reserve entrance a hurried evacuation of the minibus puts us amidst a large feeding flock that is predominated by Orange-billed Babblers and our first endemic Ashy-headed Laughing-Thrushes. When a Red-faced Malkoha appears much frantic direction-shouting finally gets everyone onto this fantastic looker, a large long-tailed species with bottle-green upperparts, pure white belly and a gaudy crimson face-patch. This species seems to have been elevated to endemic status, as a tiny Indian population is now presumed extinct.
We have scarcely recovered from the malkoha experience when a pair of Ceylon Blue Magpies swoops in to rival the red-faced wonder in terms of avian aesthetic appeal. Ceylon Blue Magpies are almost too colourful to be true, with bright blue body and long white-tipped tail, chocolate brown head and wings and a bright red bill and orbital ring; one cannot help but be amazed at the stunning range of endemic species with which evolution has blessed this amazing little island. There is a Magpie nest site nearby, where we watch a group of five of these dazzling birds mob a group of Toque Macaques that have invaded the family’s privacy.
The entrance fee for Sinharaja Man and Biosphere Reserve has been paid earlier at the Park HQ, close to our hotel, and we have also been allocated Somapala, or ‘Sumi’ for short, as our guide. The use of a guide is not optional and the individual guides are distributed to groups by rotation, but as luck would have it Sumi proves to be a very likeable fellow and more importantly a very sharp bird-finder. Many people have recommended Thandula as a guide but it so happens that we arrive on his wedding day. In spite of this he still manages to sneak out a note with some directions to critical species! We wish him and his new wife all the very best.
Passing through the rather out-of-place turnstile, which marks the reserve boundary, we set off along a good level track that follows the route of a wide valley through the mature forest. A recognised centre of low diversity but high endemism, Sinharaja Reserve supports 190 tree species of which seventy per cent are endemic. Before long we find an attractive male White-throated Flowerpecker, though sadly this endemic bird is clearly in great distress and calls constantly from its low perch where close approach reveals that it has a broken leg.
Just a few metres further we find another large and varied bird flock moving slowly through the understorey. In-between the assorted bulbuls, Grey-headed Laughing-Thrushes, Indian Scimitar-Babblers, Malabar Trogons and Brown-capped babblers we pick out two-or-three White-faced Starlings. Sinharaja is the only site in the world where this scarce endemic can be found and we spend some time observing the very un-starling-like feeding technique of these birds that involves purposefully creeping along low branches in search of food.
The remainder of our circuit provides a flypast of another dozen White-faced Starlings and a much healthier pair of White-throated Flowerpeckers. A cleverly concealed Green Vine Snake does his best to avoid detection, before we head back to the hotel in the heat of midday.
Our siesta is followed by a brief bout of camera-armed munia pursuit in the paddy below the restaurant but it is the Black-throated Munias, now up to twenty-five in number, that win the game of hide-and-seek. An evening return to Sinharaja Reserve, actually a World Heritage Site of some 11,187 hectare in size, sees us retrace our steps along the main trail. Highlights are another pair of gorgeous Red-faced Malkohas, Large-billed Leaf Warbler and a small flyover group of Ceylon Hill Mynas. The bulky shape of an Indian Giant Squirrel moves through the trees, causing branches to bend, as we admire the contrasting rich brown upperparts and white belly of this handsome species.
Soon the sun sinks below the horizon and a huge misty moon reveals itself high above the dark outline of the forested hills. The fireflies illuminate their light-emitting bums and frogs begin to chirp from invisible perches all around. Almost immediately two Serendib Scops Owls are calling and although one briefly approaches our position on the track it is clear that we are not going to see these individuals.
Taking the short-cut route out of the reserve and back down the steep hillside, we have not walked far when another Serendib Scops Owl begins to utter its low hoot close to the trail. Again we pit our wits and recording-aided stealth against the tiny and ultra-elusive bird and again he fails to budge. As the bird cannot be enticed from his hideout of dense forested cover we again resort to crashing through the undergrowth in an attempt to spotlight him. And again he moves, and again we try and eventually he gets bored of the game and vacates the area. We have now had six hours in the field actively pursuing Serendib Scops Owl; it is getting personal!
After a sweaty walk back to the Blue Magpie, a cold beer is extremely welcome. With the generator off, the open restaurant is an incredible setting to soak up the chorus of frogs, while tracing the black outline of the jagged hills against a velvet-blue star-filled sky. Sri Lanka really is a magical place.
Saturday 22nd January
A conversation the previous afternoon has let slip that Sumi has a Slaty-legged Crake visiting his garden! Naturally we are in position at first light but are rather disillusioned when we see that the actual location is a dripping pipe with a half-metre wide puddle below, set in masses of dense vegetation. I am actually mid-way through a statement of “There’s no-chance of seeing a crake here”, when out pops a Slaty-legged Crake! We are flabbergasted as we watch the crake trot through the undergrowth, displaying boldly barred flanks and a rich rufous head and breast. Our fantastic start to the day is toasted with a cup of hot sweet tea, courtesy of Sumi’s wife.
Next stop is another Ceylon Spurfowl site not far from the house, which is located on the hillside above the Park HQ. After moving into position in an area of open woodland, a short taped blast of the chuckling call of a Ceylon Spurfowl instantly brings the forest to life. Two or three duetting pairs call excitedly on either side of us, and at one point it seems that we are about to be mobbed by the birds! They are clearly extremely close and the vegetation is not at all dense, yet infuriatingly we still cannot locate the source of all the noise. A pair of birds is eventually glimpsed as they dash through the trees but we are left bewildered by the elusiveness of the endemic gamebird.
The remainder of the morning consists of a fairly relaxed walk back through the forest and down the hillside. A few old favourites such as Indian Scimitar-babbler, Scarlet Minivet, Ceylon Grey Hornbill, White-throated Flowerpecker and Spot-winged Thrush brighten our travels and we conclude with elevenses at a tiny shop close to the Park HQ. The timber hut is stocked with all manner of obscure tins and bottles that appear to have been on the shelves for years. The very friendly proprietor dusts down three bottles of something resembling dandelion and burdock and offers us a roll of beetle nut leaves with lime paste. We decline the narcotic but accept some very tasty bead rolls with a baked-in filling of spicy onion and brinjul.
After some birding and siesta-ing at the Blue Magpie we psyche ourselves up for another ride to the ‘new owl’ site visited two evenings before. In the daylight the journey is far less tedious and we have time to stop for a cold one at Athwelthota, where a Green Garden Lizard shows off his iridescent lime greens and bright blues from a roadside rock.
Our early evening ascent of the bumpy track reveals that its route climbs steeply between small tea plantations, banana and rubber plots and past a series of smallholdings from which friendly faces wave and greetings are shouted. When we park at the allotted spot, beside the uppermost house, a group of excited children spill through the door to meet the strange visitors to their forest. After we distribute the now-customary pens, balloons and lollipops a pretty young girl performs a traditional country dance and song to express her gratitude; all very humbling when one witnesses the poverty in which these incredibly open and friendly people survive.
We set off for the forest with two bare-footed lads from the house accompanying us, who thoughtfully construct an improvised timber handrail above the narrow log bridge perilously negotiated on our last visit. The interior of the forest is dripping wet and incredibly humid. Lenses of mist hang between the tall trees and a dull green light penetrates to ground level where it glistens off the wet-surfaced leaves. The choral nightshift of frogs is yet to clock-on but the constant plopping of water and ‘chonking’ of treetop barbets provides an equally atmospheric afternoon soundscape.
The liquorice-stick forms of leeches stand erect at regular intervals on the leaf-littered floor, swaying as they strain to sense a minute change in temperature then inching rapidly to seize an unsuspecting foot; leech socks are tightened to a point where there is a serious danger of stemming ones circulation!
Eventually the sun disappears and is replaced by a near-full moon that dives in-and-out of the low mist and cloud. It is 20.30 before we hear the now familiar hoot of a Serendib Scops-Owl, but this individual is clearly disinterested in Sunil’s tape and actually distances itself from the source of the playback. A different strategy is employed and we introduce it to the recording made on the previous evening. The response is phenomenally more successful and within a few minutes the owl is calling from less than ten metres away and our hearts are pumping wildly.
When we think we have narrowed the bird’s location down to within a few metres the powerful spotlight is employed to reveal a dense mass of foliage and no bird. The owl moves but is so attracted to the recording that he continues to call. The process is repeated, again we think we have the correct portion of the tree and again we just see a beam-full of leaves. After the fourth attempt we are starting to get very concerned.
It is incredibly difficult to judge the bird’s location due to the ventriloquial effects of its voice. At the fifth attempt we are scanning the treetops by spotlight when Sunil whispers, “There it is!” The owl is not in the treetops at all but perches at eye-level on a thin bough and in full view. It’s just eight metres away!
This is absolutely incredible; after nine hours of searching we are watching the mythical Serendib Scops-Owl! The tiny orange bird is not at all flustered by the sudden illumination and sticks with his chosen perch, occasionally rotating his head to survey the scene. Head and upperparts are a dark rufous-red, while the breast is a delicate shade of peach with sparse but clear-cut black flecking. Above a small bill, partially hidden by facial whiskers, is a pair of fierce-looking orange eyes. This truly is one of those moments of foreign birding that will remain in the minds eye forever.
For a full five minutes the bird is photographed and filmed, before it finally drops off its perch and into the night. Hugs, expletives and handshakes are exchanged all round. Even the local lads are carried along by the euphoria, Sumi has a tick and Sunil admits he has only seen Serendib Scops-Owl once before!
In 1995 Sri Lankan bird guide Deepal Warakagoda first heard and recorded an unfamiliar owl-like call. It took from then until January 2001 for him to secure a brief view of a small, rufous, earless owl and in November 2002 a type specimen was taken. It seems incredible that an entirely new species could have escaped detection in such a well-studied country for so many years. Since its description to science very few people have been privileged to catch up with this orange spectre of the Sri Lankan jungle and we know that we are immensely lucky to have been afforded such a reward for our efforts.
We float back to the minibus on an ornithological high and share our celebrations with the family we met earlier in the evening. The return journey lacks any pain as we are still floating above our seats!
Sunday 23rd January
Whatever happens today will be an anticlimax.
First stop is a return to yesterday morning’s Ceylon Spurfowl site, where we are greeted by at least fourteen Ceylon Hill Mynas that seem to be emerging from a nearby roost. They perch on surrounding treetops to display their odd flowing yellow nape wattles to good effect. We hear another couple of Spurfowls calling but this time get nowhere near the source; it looks like we are going to have to make do with yesterday’s glimpses.
Again we take a steady walk downhill, soaking up the fine scenery under a cloudless blue sky. Highlights of the descent include our only full-tailed male Asian Paradise Flycatcher of the race ceylonensis, often referred to as ‘Ceylon Paradise Flycatcher’. A troop of Purple-faced Monkeys move noisily through the treetops and nearby a Chestnut-backed Owlet flies in to display his finery from an eye-level perch. ‘Bird-of-the-morning’ is the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher which refuses to move from its low branch behind the Park HQ, from where it takes pride in dazzling us with a combination of purple-blue glossed wings and a lilac-blushed bright orange head and rump; simply stunning.
Some time is spent around the Blue Magpie Hotel post-siesta time, reacquainting ourselves with Black-throated Munia and a pair of White-throated Flowerpeckers. A torrential downpour cools the air for our afternoon’s birding and at 15.00 we set off on foot for Siharaja Reserve, as two other birding couples have now arrived at the hotel and jeeps prove to be in short supply. Never mind, we’re fit now and the walk will do us good!
First birds we see after passing through the turnstile are a group of three Ceylon Blue Magpies and soon after a wintering Chestnut-winged Cuckoo swoops into view. We have one target this afternoon, however, and it’s the only outstanding endemic race, to be predicted as a future split, with which we have yet to connect.
For nearly an hour we squelch amongst the liana-draped muddy understorey in the section of wet forest behind the Research Station. A thin, high ‘tsee’ and a glimpse of movement in the dismal light betray the presence of a Scaly Thrush, but getting a decent view is another matter. For another thirty minutes we kneel amongst the leeches until, for no apparent reason, a pair of the large thrushes dart across the river and fly between our group literally knocking Sunil to the ground as they pass! Thankfully one of the Scaly Thrushes perches up in full view and we note how this distinctive imbricata race is much darker and heavier-billed than its migratory congeners.
The forest holds one last surprise for us and we end the day watching a male Indian Blue Robin hop about the damp floor, showing a pristine combination of blue back, orange belly and bold white supercillium.
With the final piece of the Sri Lankan jigsaw now in place, the long walk back to the Blue Magpie is a joy. It is also a luxury not to have to set off owling with the fall of darkness and instead sit back and sip some of our specially requisitioned Lion Beer before a final table full of the finest Sri Lankan cuisine.
Monday 24th January
With no outstanding omissions on our Sinharaja list we decide to set off north after our scrambled eggs on toast. Two Belgian birders join us at the breakfast table and inform us that they heard no less than six Serendib Scops-Owls at the Athwelthota site the previous evening. None of the birds showed themselves but the Belgians seem happy with their ‘tick what you hear’ policy; each to their own!
As we eat the red sky turns to blue over the surrounding dark hills and the climbing sun drives the hanging mist from the paddies below. The Blue Magpie staff are thanked warmly for their superb hospitality and we hit the road for Bodhingala. Spot-bellied Eagle Owl has recently been recorded in the forest surrounding this religious site, some two hours drive from Sinharaja, but on arrival we realise that it’s a long shot and make do with the only Small Minivets and Brown-capped Woodpecker of the trip.
The final leg of our journey takes us through Colombo, the island’s capital city, which is surprisingly quiet due to the monthly ‘full moon public holiday’. Passing some impressive colonial architecture in the pleasant leafy town centre we stop at a well-stocked gift shop to appease those left at home.
Our bags are deposited at the rather grotty Siri Serena Hotel close to the airport where we agree the fee, partially based on kilometres clocked-up, with Baur’s agent; a tour with this company really does present superb value for money.
Our last few hours of Sri Lankan daylight are spent at the fishing village of Negumbo, in the hope of adding a few seabirds to our list. Arriving at what appears to be a focal point for local sightseers, we make our way across the beach amidst the most surreal setting of the trip. The golden sands are dotted with literally thousands of House Crows, presumably attracted by the fish offal that is a by-product of the fishing activity. They squawk and squabble in large groups in what is nothing short of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’! Accompanying the crows is a motley assortment of dishevelled feral dogs and wandering cattle, just to complete the bizarre outlook. At the waters edge we scan through the Common and Crested Terns and note an occasional passing Brown-headed Gull, whilst the lapping waves sooth our ears and the stench of rotting fish burns our nostrils!
As the sun dips towards the Indian Ocean it turns the sky through shades of pink and orange behind the dark billowing clouds, a backdrop to the red tiled roof and whitewashed walls of a catholic church that nestles amongst the tall palms. And so the sun sets on our tour of one of the most pleasurable destinations on the planet.
The Sri Lankans must rate as one of the kindest, most peaceful and welcoming races in the world. They inhabit a beautiful, diverse and yet logistically compact country and have created some of the finest food to ever tempt the palate. As a birding trip, the last nine days have been phenomenally successful. We have not seen an immense number of species but what we have seen are amongst some of Asia’s most attractive and range-restricted species. We are deeply indebted to Sunil Alwis, as his skill and patience has played an overwhelming part in the success of the trip.
The events of 26th December 2004 have left a deep and bitter scar on this undeserving and unsuspecting nation but it is apparent that these incredibly resilient people are already striving to pull themselves free of the crisis. As visiting tourists and birders the least we can do, in their time of greatest need, is continue to travel to this unique part of the world and thereby continue to inject much needed capital into the ravaged economy. What is certain is that Sri Lanka will recover and continue to be one of the most pleasurable birding destinations on the planet.