SRI LANKA A BIRDING JEWEL IN ASIA

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Sri Lanka A Birding Jewel in Asia. March-April 2006. Birding. Volume 30 No 02. American Birding Association, Colorado, USA. ISSN 0161-1836. Pages 46-53.
Birder and Wildlife Photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lays bare a birding jewel in Asia

Sri Lanka is an island which defies convention. According to classic island bio-geographic theory, small islands don’t have large mammals. Hmmm….. well, unfortunately for theory, Sri Lanka is an exception as the largest terrestrial mammal in Asia, the Asian Elephant is found on the island. What is more, beyond doubt, Sri Lanka is the best place in Asia see the Asian Elephant. Visit Uda Walawe National Park, to the south of the central mountain massif, and you are guaranteed to see elephants. During September and October ‘The Gathering’, an annual concentration of elephants takes place on the receding shores of the Minneriya Lake in Minneriya National Park. Small family groups of elephants, arrive from scrub jungles tens of kilometers apart and coalesce into small herds which in turn congregate into larger herds of fifty to a hundred elephants. I have parked my vehicle on the grassy plains and counted over three hundred elephants on the plains. ‘The Gathering’ is surely one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet.
Then there is the Big Spotted One. The leopard is elusive all over the world and almost impossible to see in most of Asia. In Sri Lanka, the leopard is the Top Cat and reigns supreme. Un-challenged by Lion or Tiger, it can be seen at times having a siesta on the road under the shade of a tree. Recent research suggests that Yala may have one of the highest densities of Leopards in the world. For wildlife enthusiasts, seeing Leopard is one of the highlights of a visit to the island.
What about birds? After all this is the main focus of interest to a reader of this magazine. Here, the theorists have got it right. Islands are marvelous vestibules for evolutionary dynamics to work, resulting in speciation. The island has thirty three endemic species of birds. After a lapse of over a century since the Ceylon Whistling Thrush was described, a new species of Owl, the Serendib Scops Owl was discovered in 2001. This raises the exciting possibility that other nocturnal species may be discovered. Could it be another owl, nightjar or rail exists, or even a strange nocturnal bird which fills the niche occupied by Treecreepers (found with a cosmopolitan range, but absent from Sri Lanka). Who knows, there is scope to imagine all sorts of wonderful possibilities which may have been brought about by the forces of island speciation.
The true number of endemics may be far higher. Sri Lanka has many endemic sub- species. On my visits to mainland India I have been struck by the differences in vocalizations as well as morphological differences. It is possible that further taxonomic revisions may see the list of endemics growing further.
Sri Lanka is a relatively small island of 66,000 square kilometers, off the southern tip of India, lying just north of the equator. It is one of the most bio-diverse islands in the world, having the highest species endemicity per 1,000 square kilometers, for some key faunal groups such as reptiles, birds and amphibians. Indeed, it may turn out to have the highest number of species of amphibians in the world, following a remarkable discovery of a radiation of Rhacophorus Tree frog species. The answer to this high endemicity lies in the topography and climate. The island is fringed by low lying beaches with a central mountainous core, summited by Mount Perdro (2,524m). Two monsoons, the North-east (October to January) and the South-west (May to August) create a wet zone in the south west of the island. This wet zone has been geologically isolated from mainland India for long enough to have evolved its own fauna and flora. In contrast, the dry lowlands, share much of its fauna and flora with mainland India, as waves of colonizers arrived, when land bridges were established during rises and falls in sea levels.
The topography in combination with two monsoons blowing diagonally across the island also create distinct climatic zones. In the space of a few hours one can cross from the arid zone to the dry zone and through an intermediate zone to the wet zone and finally ascend to the wet highlands. Climatic zones one would expect to encounter in a continent are shrunk into the confines of an island.
For birders this creates a marvelous bounty of species, connected by a good infrastructure of roads, accommodation with a population where English is widely spoken and understood. Around twenty percent of the island’s area is within designated national parks and reserves. At the top of the list for visiting birders is the lowland rainforest of Sinharaja. As many as thirty of the endemic species have been recorded here although a few such as the Yellow-eared Bulbul are confined to the higher elevations on its eastern borders.
The feeding flocks of Sri Lanka are a subject of one of the longest running ornithological studies in the world. They are also the highlight of a birding visit. Different species work collectively like a giant vacuum cleaner, devouring prey in its path. The best clue to a feeding flock’s presence are the auditory clues from the endemic Ceylon Rufous Babbler. They keep up a constant medley of squeaks and chatters. The Ceylon Crested Drongo, another endemic, plays the role of sentinel and steward. It utters a flock gathering call to summon the flock and also keeps up a series of musical belling notes which carry afar. Amidst the noise, the endemic Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes which scour the dark forest floor, may be easily overlooked. So too can the discrete Malabar Trogon. The male is gorgeous with his red breast, but can merge invisibly in the mid storey where the occasional flush of rainforest leaves can take similar bright colours. Furtive, silent and enigmatic, with staring eyes against a red face, is the Red-faced Malkoha. It keeps to the mid and upper canopy and is silent except for a few guttural croaks and the whirring of its labored flight.
Having a good guide or companion will help you to maximise the species list, during a feeding flock encounter. It is all to easy to be distracted by the more visible and vocal species and to miss out on a few gems. Green-billed Coucal is another species which together with the Red-faced Malkoha, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush and White-faced Starling are confined to just a small handful of lowland rainforests. A loud whoop whoop might betray the presence of a pair of coucals. Sharp notes may also betray the presence of White-faced Starlings following the flock in the canopy with endemic Yellow-fronted Barbets and endemic Layard’s Parakeets. The latter two are highly vocal and may steal the attention.
Feeding flock studies have shown some interesting results. Most feeding flocks have a flock of Dark-fronted Babblers of Black-naped Monarchs in it. Research shows that these two species hold territories and different territory holders join the feeding flocks as the feeding flock sweeps across different territories. On-going research with bird banding may also confirm whether each flock has a core of distinct individuals, a hunch based on my observations. I have also often found nucleus species such as the Crested Drongo and Ceylon Rufous Babbler have regular ‘resting areas’ where they quietly sit out the hot afternoons. Again, research may confirm this hypothesis.
Sinharaja is also the best place to see the Scaly Thrush. At certain times of the year, the endemic Spot-winged Thrush can be easy, almost too easy according to one birder who traveled with one of my guides. The gorgeous Blue Magpie may also oblige with good viewings, surely a top contender in the endemic glamour stakes.
A good birding itinerary will also take in Kithulgala or Kelani Valley Reserve. This reserve is extremely important as it is contiguous with the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary which makes these the only remaining attitudinally graded rainforests in the country. Kithulgala also holds the key lowland endemics such as the Red-faced Malkoha and Green-billed Coucal. Surprisingly, the small forest reserve surrounding the forest hermitage of Bodhinagala also holds the Green-billed Coucal. Bodhinagala also offers a chance to see the endemic Sri Lanka Spurfowl. It is widespread in the wet zone, even found in small forest patches. But it is the bogey bird for many a visiting birder.
Horton Plains National Park in the cool highlands, is another essential stop. The target species here is the Ceylon Whistling Thrush, which is best seen at dawn or evening. Very reticent by nature, it has a tendency to frustrate birders by not showing itself at times. Bafflingly, at times it may hop around the grassy edges of Arrenga Pool, in full view. The best clue is a squeaky, shrill note or double note, reminiscent of a creaking gate.
The Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon is an endemic which undertakes local, altitudinal migrations in search of fruiting trees. At most times of the year, Horton Plains is bound to have a few of them. Some of the montane endemics are easy to get. The Yellow-eared Bulbul and Ceylon White-eye are noisy and common. The Dusky-blue Flycatcher in contrast is quiet. Stay besides Arrenga pool and before long you will catch sight of one sallying after insects. Victoria Park is a small park in the heart of the busy highland town of Nuwara Eliya. It has achieved a reputation with birders as the prime site for seeing key Himalayan species which migrate to Sri Lanka. Indeed, Victoria park may be the best place in the world to see the Pied Thrush, Kashmir Flycatcher and Indian Blue Robin.
As more and more people take up birdwatching in Sri Lanka we are having a better idea of the distribution of species. Montane endemics such as the Yellow-eared Bulbul and Dull-blue Flycatcher are now found to be locally present at some low elevation sites.
At Hunas Falls Hotel at 1,110m meters, the Dull-blue Flycatcher can be seen around the lake. A jeep ride up the tea estate roads brings one to sub-montane forest where Yellow-eared Bulbul and Ceylon White-eye can be seen. A thirty minute, downhill car ride from the same hotel can take you on a sharp altitudinal drop to forest patches, which are more characteristic of a lowland forest. These forests are also good for owling. On my visits to Hunas Falls Hotel, I always visit local sites for some owling in search of Brown Fish Owl, Indian Scops Owl and the endemic Chestnut-backed Owlet. I have never returned empty handed, at times seeing all three species in one session.

The dry lowlands have their share of interesting birds such as the Yellow-wattled Lapwing, the Indian Thick-knee and Eurasian Thick-knee. A flock of Malabar Pied Hornbills is always a memorable sight. A good day’s birding at Yala can yield over a hundred species, during the northern winter, with many migrant species adding to the tally. Indian Pittas are abundant in some years. The roads outside the park are also good for birders with Indian and Jerdon’s Nightjars. One early morning, I counted seven Indian Nightjars on the road.
Six kilometers from the Yala National Park is the Palatupana Lewaya (Salt Pan). Surely one of the best places in the world to see shorebirds. Northern migrants throng the edges of the salt pans. Hundreds, at times thousands of waders are present. Frame filling views of Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints, Redshanks, Greenshanks, Pacific Golden Plover, Gray Plover, Ruff …..and the list goes on. Flocks of Little Terns should be examined carefully for a Saunders’s Tern. White-winged Terns, Gull-billed Terns, Common Terns and Caspian Terns mingle and rest on sand banks. About half an hour’s drive, is Bundala National Park. It has Elephants and Jackals, but the key attraction are the thousands of shore birds. Red-necked Phalaropes and Avocets are scarce migrants regularly reported from here.
Even business travelers to the capital Colombo will find it easy to find time for a spot of birding between meetings. The Talangama Wetland, about thirty minutes drive from Colombo has recorded over a hundred species of birds. It also has the critically endangered Western Purple-faced Monkey. Fishing Cats, Common Palm Civets, Ring-tailed Civets, Brown Mongoose, Porcupines and Black-naped Hares emerge at night. Most birders will fit in a session here on arrival or at departure.
A two week birding itinerary can yield a trip list of around 235 species and almost all of the endemics. For birders in search of the endemics, the best time to visit is between November to April where the rich rainforests of the south west are at their driest. For a general birdwatcher who is not hell bent on bagging the endemics, Sri Lanka is a year round destination. An itinerary can be structured to avoid where the current monsoon is blowing. For wildlife photographers in search of leopard, even the rainy months in Yala, can be rewarding.
Sri Lanka has been described as a birding jewel in Asia. Not without good reason.
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Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (gehan@jetwing.lk, www.jetwingeco.com) through his writing, photography and television appearances has emerged as a Sri Lankan wildlife celebrity. His books include A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. E-mail him to subscribe for a bi-monthly e-newsletter.
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FACT BOX
SRI LANKA: BIRDING FACTS AT A GLANCE
ENDEMICS 33 species of endemic birds. The country is an Endemic Bird Area (EBA) and generally enjoys high endemism in its fauna and flora. 443 species have been recorded.
BIRDS TO LOOK OUT FOR Some local races are candidates for splitting from the mainland forms. These include Blackbird, Ashy Prinia , Jungle Prinia, Tawny-bellied Babbler, Dark-fronted Babbler and Yellow-billed Babbler.
WHEN TO GO For serious birders in pursuit of the endemics, November to April 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 holiday 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).
LOGISTICS A comprehensive network of roads, reserves and small size make it accessible. A well planned and timed one week trip could yield most of the endemics. A lack of accommodation at certain key sites make it advantageous to be on a guided tour or to have a rented vehicle.
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 T.S.U. 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 has tick boxes and status information.
ENTRY FORMALITIES US and Canadian nationals and most European nationals will be issued with a tourist visa on arrival.
IMMUNISATIONS If you are coming from an infected area, vaccinations for Yellow Fever and Cholera are required. Cholera vaccinations are not advised if you are pregnant.
FLIGHTS From the USA, flight connections are either though the Pacific (e.g. Singapore, Bangkok, Taipei, Narita (Tokyo) or through the Atlantic (London, Frankfurt, Zurich etc). Connections through London are very good with Sri Lankan Airlines offering nine direct flights a week. Other European carriers include Czech Airlines. Connections via the Middle East (Dubai, Bahrain, Doha, Abu Dhabi etc.) are available through Qatar Airlines, Etihad, Kuwait Airways and Emirates. From South-east Asia connections are possible with Cathay Pacific, Malaysian Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Thai International.
WEB RESEARCH Past Copies of the bi-monthly Sri Lanka Wildlife News and a host of information on books, sites, trip reports etc are on www.jetwingeco.com