BIRD WATCHING IN SRI LANKA

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). Bird Watching in Sri Lanka. Travel Sri Lanka. April 2004.

In February 2004, I joined a group of British Birdwatchers for dinner in Negombo. They had just completed a two week birdwatching tour led by Amila Salgado and had seen a total of 271 species, including 26 species of endemic birds. A tally of such a large number of birds in just 15 days drives home the point how good Sri Lanka is for birdwatchers. The Britons were in no doubt that Sri Lanka is one of the finest destinations in the world for birdwatching.

In Sri Lanka we are fortunate that we still have a good network of parks and reserves, which host a wide diversity of bird life. But birdwatching in Sri Lanka does not have to be confined to the parks and reserves. One of my favourite sites is Talangama Lake, a few kilometers on the suburbs of Colombo. In this wetland I have seen over a hundred species of birds. Talangama and Bellanwila Attidiya, another wetland in Colombo, is a magnet for visiting birders who go in search of sought after species such as the Black Bittern and Yellow Bittern. Other cities in Sri Lanka are equally blessed with opportunities for birdwatching. From Galle, the rainforests of Kottawa Arboretum and Hiyare Biodiversity Park is only half an hour away. Kanneliya, one of the largest remaining tracts of lowland rainforest is an hour and a half away. Kandy has the Udawattakale Reserve in the heart of the town. In the ancient cities, the archaeological sites are good for bird life as much as they are good for culture.

Serious birdwatchers would like to visit biodiversity rich rainforests such as Sinharaja. Despite this being the jewel in the bio-diversity crown, there is conspicuous lack of facilities for visitors. The volunteer guides make up for this with their enthusiasm and knowledge. The best way to see some of the endemic birds is to not watch, but listen. Rainforests are well known for a biological phenomenon known as mixed species feeding flocks. A number of different species work together benefiting from security and feeding opportunities created by working together. The first clue to a feeding flock is often the garrulous chattering of the endemic Orange-billed Babbler. At times, the far carrying, belling call of a Crested Drongo, may also betray the presence of a feeding flock. The Crested Drongo plays the role of the security guard and will fearlessly chase away large raptors such as Honey-buzzards and Serpent Eagles.

A feeding flock can contain a bewildering number of species. Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes scouring the floor, Dark-fronted Babblers in the shrubs, Malabar Trogons with the males sporting a scarlet breast and Yellow-fronted Barbets and Layard’s Parakeets in the canopy. Listening carefully may also alert you to the presence of another rare endemic, the Green-billed Coucal. Discrete in behaviour, its deep whoop whoop call is the best clue to finding one. Red-faced Malkohas, another endemic is largely silent. If you observe carefully, you may just pick one out as it flies from one tree to another, in the mid-canopy. Having a ‘target species’ helps the serious birdwatcher to get the birds they are after.

Some of Sri Lanka’s endemic birds are confined to the highlands. The Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush or Arrenga is one good example. The best chance of seeing one is in Horton Plains. But be prepared to be there early, before daybreak, as the bird is crepuscular in habit. Other birds such as the endemic Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon are largely montane, but periodically descend to the lowlands in search of fruiting trees. Other endemics such as the Sri Lanka White-eye, Yellow-fronted Bulbul and Dull-blue Flycatchers are largely montane, but occasionally occur lower down. Some of these montane endemics visit gardens in homes and hotels in the highland town of Nuwara Eliya. There can’t be very many places in the world where a town can boast of endemic birds in its city park.

One of the joys of birdwatching is that one is continually learning. Every day brings something new. It is not essential, but it helps to have a pair of binoculars. A decent pair will cost around Rs 5,000 at least. A field guide and a notebook and pen will help you to develop your knowledge and enthusiasm.

The writer is the CEO of a wildlife & luxury travel company who has written and photographed several publications on wildlife. With weekly appearances in the media, he is one of the most visible wildlife & tourism personalities. To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.

SRI LANKA: BIRDING FACTS AT A GLANCE

ENDEMICS 23 or 27 species depending on the author, at the time of going to press. Taxonomic revisions in 2004 may see the number of endemic species increasing by at least another 10. The country is an Endemic Bird Area (EBA) and generally enjoys high endemism in its fauna and flora. 437 species have been recorded.

BIRDS TO LOOK OUT FOR Some local races are candidates for splitting from the mainland forms. These include Black-rumped Flameback, Greater Flameback, Red-rumped Swallow, Scaly Thrush, Blackbird, Ashy Prinia , Jungle Prinia, Indian Scimitar Babbler, Tawny-bellied Babbler, Dark-fronted Babbler, Yellow-billed Babbler and Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (Crested Drongo).

WHEN TO GO For serious, visiting birders in pursuit of the endemics, November to April (best in February) is the driest in the southwest where the rainforests are situated. This period has the added bonus of migrants. However for general purpose birdwatching, especially for a family holidays with elephants, leopards and other mammals thrown in, the country is a year round destination. Parks and reserves can be visited which are not in the path of the prevailing monsoon.

TOP SITES Sinharaja in the lowlands and Horton Plains National Park in the mountains are not to be missed for bagging the endemics. Yala is essential for Leopards and Elephants and for shorebirds in nearby sites (Bundala, Palatupana etc).

BOOKS The top choice for birders is A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka by John Harrison and illustrated by Tim Worfolk. Less serious birdwatchers could opt for the inexpensive A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka, by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Deepal Warakagoda and TSU de Zylva published by New Holland. It has photographs of 252 species, depicting the birds which are most likely to be seen. A Checklist of the Birds of Sri Lanka published by the Sri Lanka Natural History Society is the most up to date, with tick boxes and status information.

WEB RESEARCH Past copies of the monthly Sri Lanka Wildlife News and a host of information on books, sites, trip reports etc are on www.jetwingeco.com

TOUR OPERATORS Jetwing Eco Holidays, 36/26 Navam Mawatha, Colombo 2. eco@jetwing.lk, www.jetwingeco.com