This tour to Sri Lanka was affected by unseasonal rains and weather which is more closely associated with the monsoon season. Despite this handicap we managed to see 215 species including the majority of the islands thirty-three endemic birds. Sinharaja was again the major birding point with exceptional views of Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, Spot-winged Thrush and a roosting female Sri Lanka Frogmouth. In the southern coastal area a wide range of wintering herons, spoonbills, waders and terns on the various saltpans and tanks. A highlight for many was a pair of roosting Indian Scops Owls at Embilipitiya. Our trip to Horton Plains was badly affected by mist and rain although close views of the scarce Sri Lanka Bush Warbler were obtained. Finally in the dry zone it did manage to stay dry for one day. A different set of birds here made a fitting finale to this most enjoyable trip.
November 26th/27th: Doha, Colombo, Ranwila.
Weather: Overcast with rain showers 25 C
We met up at Heathrow and checked in with Qatar Airways to Doha and down to Colombo the capital of Sri Lanka. Both legs of the flight went well as we arrived in a rather damp and overcast airport. From the plane House Crow, Great and Little Egrets were noted by the runway. After passing through immigration and passport control we were met by Yatta my guide for the next two weeks. Soon we were in the thick of Colombo’s manic road systems as we headed north to Ranweli an eco-lodge situated next to the sea. A few birds were seen including White-breasted Waterhens, Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Rose-ringed Parakeet and Purple-rumped Sunbirds. Along the coast a few Crested Terns were by the fishing boats and a Whimbrel flew by. After lunch a boat trip was arranged to explore the varied habitats near the resort. We started by turning towards the sea with Pied and White-throated Kingfishers showing well plus brief views of a female Asian Paradise Flycatcher in a mangrove tree. Other species along the river included Little and Indian Cormorants, Indian Pond Heron, Striated Heron, Common Redshank and Common Sandpiper. Returned to Ranweli and explored an area of the gardens where Purple-rumped and Long-billed Sunbirds were noted with Common Tailorbird and hunting Asian Palm Swifts. Before crossing the river a male Asian Koel showed before disappearing into a bush.
November 28th: Ranwila, Kitulgala.
Weather: Sunny in the morning, heavy rain from early afternoon 30 C.
We left Ranweli to start the journey inland to the village of Kitulgala. Beyond the suburbs of Colombo the countryside gives way to areas of rice fields and isolated patches of forest. The first stop produced typical birds of the paddy fields notably Little and Intermediate Egrets, Indian Pond Heron, Purple Heron, Asian Openbill, White-throated Kingfisher and Little Cormorant. A stop along the road in a village added Black-hooded Oriole, Large-billed Crow, Yellow-billed Babbler, and an adult Shikra perched in a palm tree. Overhead we observed Asian Palm and House Swifts. The road to Kitulgala is windy and slow so it is easy to stop if anything is seen from the bus. A small village enabled us to study a pair of Sri Lanka Swallows collecting mud for nest building. Also in the same village a White-browed Fantail perched on the horns of a cow to catch insects. Before reaching Kitulgala a Crested Serpent Eagle was noted circling high over the numerous rubber plantations. On reaching Kitulgala we explored a quite area of the gardens observing Oriental Magpie Robins with young, Purple-rumped and Purple Sunbirds and several fly-by Sri Lanka Hanging Parrots. In the gardens of a local house the rubbish area attracted several new birds; Yellow-browed and Black Bulbuls, Blue-winged Leafbird, Emerald and Spotted Doves. Lunch at 1300 hours, and after a rapid worsening of the weather due to heavy rains more reminiscent of the monsoon season. This delayed and disrupted our planned birding for the afternoon. I decided to walk to Kitulgala village and explore one of the minor roads for birds. The rain made birding difficult but despite this handicap we located Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Orange-billed Babbler and Long-billed Sunbirds among the commoner species. Eventually we had to give into the elements and make an early return to base for the night.
November 29th: Kitulgala, Ratnapurna.
Weather: Sunny with late afternoon showers 28 C.
At 0600 hours we met up outside the main reception area in order to cross the river and visit the extensive rain forest system of Kitulgala. Before setting off a flowering tree in the grounds attracted a multitude of birds including high numbers of Sri Lanka Hanging Parrots. New species included a pair of Lesser Yellownapes and Green Imperial Pigeons. We then walked down to the river to catch the canoe crossing to the opposite bank. By the lamp Dark-fronted Babblers and Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers. Once on the other side we walked slowly through the first village recording Sri Lanka Grey Hornbills, Sri Lanka Junglefowl and a calling Green-billed Coucal. On entering the forest trails birding became very quiet until we reached an area of open paddy fields. A large bare tree attracted the uncommon Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and Hill Myna. Other species present included Black-naped Monarch, Common Iora and the endemic Black-crested Bulbul. Returned to base for lunch and then onto Ratnapura a town noted for its gemstones. Typical birds of the rice paddies along the way. Near Ratnapura heavy showers started to fall so we headed towards our hotel situated outside the town. Checked in and then walked around the extensive gardens. Lots of the commoner species present plus new trip birds in White-browed Bulbul and Crimson-backed Woodpeckers feeding and calling from a dead pine tree.
November 30th: Ratnapura, Sinharaja.
Weather: Sunny with late afternoon showers 28 C.
An early start was essential today as we travelled to Sinharaja Forest Reserve the largest remaining tract of rain forest left in Sri Lanka. Before arriving at Sinharaja we were fortunate to locate two endemic Sri Lanka Myna’s perched in the top of a palm tree. On arrival at the reserve we walked up the gently sloping hill and onto the main track. In the first sector of forest we recorded Black-crested Bulbuls, Pale-billed Flowerpeckers and a pair of Scarlet Minivets perched high in a dead tree. In trees with cover we could hear the constant calls of wintering Greenish and Large-billed Leaf Warblers. On the path we encountered the first of Sri Lanka Junglefowl and in adjacent thick forest calling Sri Lanka Spurfowl. Feeding flocks were thin on the ground with the first containing Sri Lanka Scimitar Babblers, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Malabar Trogon, Orange-billed Babbler and Black-naped Monarchs. Overhead brief views of a White-faced Starling and feeding groups of Indian Swiftlets. We walked as far as the research station where another feeding flock contained Lesser Yellownape and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch. Retraced our path with a diversion for a roosting Sri Lanka Frogmouth which duly obliged as it sat in the open and allowed a close approach. The weather and lack of feeding flocks made birding tough today. Lunch taken at Martins Bungalow followed by another walk through the forest. It started slowly with a calling Chestnut-backed Owlet and brief views of a Besra and Layard’s Parakeet. Towards the end of the afternoon our luck changed as a party of Sri Lanka Magpies allowed a close approach. A sudden down pour meant a break under the cover of a tin shack. This proved to be beneficial as on the return walk we encountered Spot-winged and the extremely rare Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush plus two parties of Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes and two Red-faced Malkohas. Returned to Ratnapura a happy and tired group after a great day in Sinharaja.
December 1st: Ratnapura, Embilipitiya, Uda Walawe.
Weather: Overcast with sunny spells followed by heavy rain 25 C
Today we left the wet zone of Sri Lanka behind and travelled south into the dry zone and the regional town of Embilipitiya. En route we stopped at a few places along the road recording Indian Black Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle and a single Crested Treeswift. The extensive areas of rice paddies and fields held the usual birds typical to this habitat. Checked in at the Centauria Tourist Inn at Embilipitiya overlooking a large tank. Around the water edge various egrets and herons, Common Sandpiper and Red-wattled Lapwings. The open waters of the tank attracted Spot-billed Pelicans and hundreds of wintering Whiskered Terns. On the far shore a cormorant colony comprising of Great and Indian Cormorants and a few Asian Openbills. An exploration of the hotel grounds produced little of interest until one of the staff pointed out a pair of Indian Scops Owls sitting quietly on a branch near the staff quarters. Lunch taken followed by a visit to Uda Walawe a large reserve of lakes, grassland and old trees. On arrival we boarded a jeep for a safari through the park. Bird life here is varied and interesting with the first track attracting Common Peafowl, Indian Robin, Jerdon’s Bushlark, Indian Robin and Ashy Prinia. Short, cropped grassy areas had Richard’s and Paddyfield Pipits whilst the taller grasses had the attractive Black-headed Munia. In the older trees damaged by Asian Elephants we located Indian Roller, Malabar Pied Hornbill and Black-shouldered Kite. The weather was starting to build as we entered an area dominated by bushes and low scrub. Green Bee-eater, Eurasian Hoopoe, Orange-breasted Pigeon and Plaintive Cuckoo were seen. The weather finally broke with steady and then heavy rainfall forcing a retreat back to the park entrance. In the end we decided to return to base with little prospect of the weather improving.
December 2nd: Embilipitiya, Kelametiya, Hambantota.
Weather: Sunny in the morning and late afternoon rains 28 C.
Heavy overnight rains had abated as we left Embilipitya for the coastal town of Hambantota. The road south passes large areas of paddy fields and lily-covered tanks. Our first stop produced hundreds of egrets and herons and in riverside vegetation singing Plain Prinias. During November the rice paddies are ploughed and prepared for the next crop which results in an explosion of waders including Black-winged Stilt, Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Pintail and Common Snipe and overhead White-winged and Whiskered Terns. At the next tank several Purple Swamphens were noted plus Pacific Golden Plovers, Lesser Sandplover, Common Redshank and Darter. On reaching the main coast road we turned west to the reserve of Kelametiya with a habitat of grassland, mangroves and seasonal pools. Kelametiya is always a productive spot and today proved to be no exception. On arrival a pair of Eurasian Thick-knees by the mangrove edge. We then embarked on a walk across the grasslands which were quite wet from recent heavy rains. This was particularly good for views of Red-wattled and Yellow-wattled Lapwings, Greater and Lesser Sandplovers, Ruddy Turnstone, Yellow Wagtail, Richard’s, Paddyfield and a single Blyth’s Pipit. Further up the track an area of mangroves attracted Great Thick-knee, Whimbrel and a single Ashy Wood-swallow. By 1100 hours the weather was getting rather hot so we went east to our base at Hambantota base for the next three nights. At 1500 hours we retraced our steps back towards Kelametiya stopping at tanks along the way. The first tank added Little Grebe, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Common Moorhen and Eurasian Spoonbill. We turned down a road leading towards the sea and adjacent to a huge area being prepared for rice production. Black-tailed Godwits were here in their thousands with lesser numbers of Marsh Sandpipers. The rain started to fall again as we went back to Hambantota let us hope for a let up in the unseasonal weather patterns.
December 3rd: Hambantota, Bundala.
Weather: Cloudy with occasional showers 29 C
An early start today to get into Bundala National Park at first light. Heavy rains had flooded large areas of land adjacent to the park and some areas within the park itself. The first pools had our first Painted Storks of the tour plus the usual herons and egrets and Eurasian Spoonbills. Arrived at Bundala where I was surprised to see several new viewing platforms and an information centre. From the viewing area hundreds of Whiskered and White-winged Terns, a single Little Tern, Black-crowned Night Heron and a Grey-headed Fish Eagle sitting in a dead tree. We boarded a rather old and tired jeep for our exploration of the park along sandy roads which were rutted and flooded in parts. The first section of road and pools added a wintering Temminck’s Stint and Greater Sandplover. The main interest however was the extensive salt works and pans adjoining the sea. Waders were in abundance and included Little Stint, Marsh, Curlew and Common Sandpipers, Grey, Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Lesser Sandplover, Pacific Golden Plover and best of all several Small Pratincoles. The open waters of the pans attracted Red-necked Phalaropes and Pied Kingfishers. Old bunds were used as roosting sites by numerous terns of which Great Crested and Caspian were numerous with smaller numbers of Little and Common Terns and a solitary Black-headed Gull. Grassy areas on the track had Richard’s and Oriental Pipits and Oriental Skylarks. On the return to the park entrance we went on a different route passing reed-beds and woodland. The latter was good for Blue-tailed, Green and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Yellow-crowned Woodpeckers, Plaintive Cuckoo, Crested Treeswift and Ashy Wood-swallow. In the reeds we located Common Kingfisher, Yellow Bitterns, Purple Swamphen and Clamorous Reed Warbler. Another area of grassland attracted a Eurasian Curlew. Near the entrance we had brief views of Blue-faced Malkoha and Black Drongo the latter being a scarce bird in southern Sri Lanka. Back to base and out again at 1430 hours to explore other areas around Hambantota. A thorough exploration of flooded fields and tanks produced similar birds with high numbers of Whiskered and White-winged Terns. The road to Tissa was closed due to flooding so we visited another area of lily ponds. A short walk adjacent to the ponds allowed us to study Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Purple Swamphen, Yellow and Black Bitterns and Purple Herons at close range. A sub-adult White-bellied Fish Eagle flew overhead and out of view. Returned to Hambantota for our second night.
December 4th: Hambantota, Yala National Park, Tissa.
Sunny in the morning followed by heavy rain showers 25 C.
Due to weather patterns we made the change to visit Yala in the morning instead of the afternoon and this proved to be the right decision as heavy rains at 1400 hours severely affected birding. We left Hambantota early in order to be at Yala for first light. At Tissa we transferred to an excellent safari jeep for a six hour excursion. On entering Yala the approach road threw up an unidentified nightjar plus the usual waders on the extensive mud flats. Our first new bird was a male Black-headed Cuckooshrike sitting in the top of a leafy tree, shortly afterwards an Ashy Drongo was seen an uncommon bird in the south of Sri Lanka. We drove slowly around the many tracks and scanned several small lagoons, scrub and mature trees for birds and mammals. We were rewarded with brief views of a Yellow-eyed Babbler and a male Barred Buttonquail walking along the road edge before disappearing into the dense cover. Other interesting birds of the morning included Blue-faced Malkoha, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Pied Cuckoo and Dark-fronted Babblers. On the return to park headquarters we had a purple patch for birds with one area holding the uncommon Sirkeer Malkoha, Brahminy Starling and European Bee-eater the latter being a rare winter visitor to the country. Back to Tissa for lunch when the heavens opened causing us to abort birding until later in the afternoon.
December 5th: Hambantota, Ella, Adisham, Surrey Estate, Nurewa Eliya.
Weather: Overcast with occasional rain showers.
We checked out of Hambantota to make the long and winding journey to Nurewa Eliya an old British hill town high in the mountains. The tanks and paddy fields held the usual species of birds. As our journey started to enter the hill country a stop overlooking some woodland produced Crested Treeswift, Little Swift and Indian Swiftlet. Another stop in an area used for growing tomatoes was particularly productive with a juvenile Changeable Hawk Eagle, Sri Lanka Small Barbet and Sri Lanka White-eye being present. An early lunch was taken at Ella before going to the old community church at Adisham which is surrounded by a patch of remnant rain forest. Birding here was slow to start with but we soon encountered a feeding flock of Dull-blue Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Great Tit, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Great Tit and Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrikes. Next on the agenda was the old Surrey Estate although not as important as it was the birds here are interesting. We watched the large trees for an hour recording Brown-headed and Yellow-fronted Barbets, Black-hooded Oriole, Lesser Yellownape, Black-rumped Flameback, Hill Myna and a brief view of a Drongo Cuckoo. At 1715 we headed towards Nurewa Eliya along what can only be described as an awful road not helped by extensive works. Checked in at the rather Victorian, St Andrews Hotel for the next two nights.
December 6th: Nurewa Eliya, Horton Plains, Victoria Park.
Weather: Overcast with mist at Horton Plains 15 C
Our last early start of the tour to Horton Plains with arrival planned for first light. The weather was awful this morning with fog and low cloud which was to dominate our visit. Near a pool we were fortunate to locate a Sri Lanka Bush Warbler a difficult bird to see at the best of times. Also present were Sri Lanka Scimitar-babblers, Sri Lanka White-eye, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Grey Wagtail and Yellow-eared Bulbul. Further up the road a field held several Eurasian Blackbirds, Pied Stonechat, Grey Tit and Zitting Cisticola. I checked out other areas with a superb Dull-blue Flycatcher and a flock of Black-headed Munias. The rain and wind worsened so we headed back down towards Nurewa Eliya. Before the village a party of Scarlet Minivets showed well in a tree. In the village we added Hill Swallow an uncommon bird of this region. Back to base and out again at 1530 to Victoria Park. Our sortie to the park was largely successful with Forest Wagtail, Indian Blue Robin, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and Brown Shrike being added to the daily list.
December 7th: Nurewa Eliya, Kandy.
Weather: Cloudy with heavy afternoon rain 20 C
We started the day by revisiting Victoria Park. The gates open at 7am but the gateman let us in a few minutes earlier. A thorough search of the park produced the same birds as yesterday afternoon with nothing new to record. Back to St Andrews for breakfast and then down to Kandy passing large tracts of land given over to tea production. Our first stop was at Glenloch tea factory where the resident Hill Swallows showed well for us on the tin walls of the factory. As we approached Kandy the weather started to worsen again. A fruiting tree was located by Yatta which produced a male Golden-fronted Leafbird, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrots, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Purple-rumped Sunbirds and the commoner species. As the weather was poor a stop at the gemstone merchants was made to purchase various items of jewellery. Checked in at the hotel and took lunch before going to Kandy Botanical Gardens. On arrival the weather was even worse with vertical rain so we visited the plant and orchid houses. After this I decided to walk slowly around the extensive grounds of the park. Birding was slow but we did record Alexandrine and Rose-ringed Parakeets, Asian Paradise Flycatchers, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Oriental Magpie Robins, bulbuls and mynas before turning off onto a little used path. This proved to be a good move as a wintering Asian Brown Flycatcher was catching insects under the shelter of a large tree. The best however was to come as an exceptionally large tree attracted Scarlet and Small Minivets, Black-hooded Oriole, Asian Drongo Cuckoo, Sri Lanka Small Barbet and Asian Koel. As we returned to base the water levels of the river had visibly risen let’s hope we have a break with the weather tomorrow.
December 8th: Kandy, Habarana, Sigiriya.
Weather: Cloudy with occasional sunny spells and showers 25 C.
Today with left the second city of Sri Lanka, Kandy and travelled north to the town of Habarana. A few stops were made on the way for birds including a large lily-covered tank. The tank held high numbers of Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Purple Herons and Purple Swamphens. Further along the road we stopped in an area of old trees surrounded by marshes and pools. A female Large Cuckooshrike was noted feeding on an insect. Also in the area were a Pied Cuckoo and Malabar Pied Hornbills. Habarana was reached and we decided to visit the grounds and lakes of a large hotel complex. This proved to be a shrewd move as the nature trail had our first Indian Pittas, Grey-breasted Prinia, Dark-fronted Babbler and a male Common Iora. We checked in at a new hotel just up the road for the last two nights of our tour. I arranged to go out at 1500 hours towards the rock of Sigiriya a well-known local landmark. The back road towards Sigiriya is always a good bet for birds and on this occasion Thick-billed Flowerpecker and a pair of Woolly-necked Storks were worth mentioning. Near a village several Coppersmith Barbets were giving their distinctive calls. The area around the rock was visited with several flocks of Little Swifts feeding above our heads. On the return journey a Brown Fish Owl was found by Nick sitting quietly on the base of a pylon. .
December 9th: Sigiriya, Kaudulla.
Weather: Sunny spells 27 C
For the first time on the tour we had settled weather. Outside on the tank the usual species were present along with high numbers of Brahminy Kites. After breakfast we headed back to Sigiriya via the back road. The first stop was a tank near the junction where we recorded several species including Intermediate Egret, Jerdon’s Bushlark and an immature Changeable Hawk Eagle. On the back road an immature White-bellied Sea Eagle flew overhead and an Emerald Dove flew in front of us before diving into cover. I decided to walk an area around The Moat with the best area being a stream with open areas. Above us a wintering pale phase Booted Eagle was of note. In the clearing a family of Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers, Black-naped Monarch, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo and brief views of a White-rumped Shama. It was starting to get hot as we circled Sigiriya Rock by road before heading back to base for an early lunch. In the afternoon the back road to Kaudulla was taken which runs adjacent to a stream with overhanging branches and trees. The commoner birds of the dry zone were present plus a party of Tawny-bellied Babblers drinking from a pool. A male Golden-fronted Leafbird was also noted feeding in a leafy tree. Kaudulla proved to be an excellent wetland reserve with hundreds of Painted Storks feeding on the recently flooded grass plains. Also present from further north were Eurasian Spoonbills, Wood Sandpipers and Common Kingfishers. A bonus was an Oriental Honey-buzzard flying overhead before promptly disappearing into the forest. The drier parts of Kaudulla held Yellow Wagtail, Paddyfield Pipit and Zitting Cisticola. The rains arrived again which prompted us to return to base a tired and happy group.
December 10th: Habarana, Colombo, Doha, London.
An early departure was essential from Habarana as the flight with Qatar Airways departs at 0920. Arrived in time at the airport despite the most awful road to Colombo which had been washed out in places by recent rains. The flight back to London went smoothly where the tour concluded.
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