“The first thing I can say about Sri Lanka is that it’s perfectly obvious we’re not going to be here long enough! I would have guessed that about sort of two or three weeks at least you need to see Sri Lanka’s wildlife. To see Sri Lanka completely you’d need two or three years I’d imagine! It’s my first visit and I’m having a terrific time, absolutely superb. What I’ve enjoyed actually is the way that the places we’ve had time to go to have been very different and they’ve sort of got, in a way, have got bigger and more difficult as we’ve gone along and that’s quite an impressive thing,” were Bill Oddie’s thoughts reflecting upon his six day Sri Lankan wildlife tour.
Bill Oddie, the UK’s most famous birder along with Liam Creedon (Travel Writer from the Press Association in the UK) on a visit hosted by the SLTPB and initiated by SLTPB’s UK PR Company Representation Plus, on a tour organized and run by Jetwing Eco Holidays recently toured Sri Lanka from the 23rd to 28th July 2010.
Their first night was spent at Villa Talangama, a boutique hotel in the outskirts of Colombo, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. The property overlooks the Talangama Wetlands, where up to seventy different species of birds as well as the critically endangered Western-race of the endemic Purple-faced Leaf Monkey. Ganganath Weerasinghe, Paramie Perera and Riaz Cader from the Operations team at Jetwing Eco Holidays joined Bill and Liam along with Sam Caseer, their naturalist guide for the duration of the tour for a morning birding session at Talangama Wetlands on Saturday the 24th July and had some good sightings of the water birds and a troop of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys. “It’s the sort of thing in Britain we would call an urban nature reserve because there’s still lots of traffic, lots of houses, then suddenly there’s this lovely little marsh and a lovely little hotel. That was an absolute wonderful shock. We arrived in the dark, and suddenly the gates opened and the fountains were playing…and lovely big rooms and four poster beds and all this sort of thing. It was delightful. And even better, in the morning we opened the doors and the birds arrived literally on your doorstep. Lots of different herons, different waterbirds and it’s a lovely way to start, it’s not too intimidating”, said a highly impressed Bill Oddie on his overnight stay at Talangama.
From Talangama, Bill and Liam traveled to Uda Walawe, initially stopping by at the Elephant Transit Home to visit a captive herd of young elephants which are currently being trained for rehabilitation back in to the wild. Bill’s thoughts on visiting the Uda Walawe Elephant Transit Home were “I suppose it’s one of those situations where if you’re a heavy naturalist you’re not supposed to enjoy this but it’s actually irresistible, because bang on time in the afternoon – I think it was 3 o’clock – they come one by one, two by two, three by three, out of the forest, and all line up, knowing that they’re going to be fed and the little ones are fed from a bottle and there was quite a big crowd actually – I’d say there was a bigger crowd than in the average English county cricket match!! And frankly it was a lot more entertaining too! A really lovely, delightful little interlude that was”. Following a brief visit to the Elephant Transit Home, was an afternoon game drive into the nearby Uda Walawe National Park. Uda Walawe National Park is the best place in the world for sighting Asian Elephant in the wild, where elephant sightings can virtually – Bill saw at least twenty elephants during their Saturday afternoon game drive.
After finishing up their Uda Walawe ‘Elephant Safari’, Bill was driven down that evening to the Elephant Reach Hotel in Yala for two nights. From elephants, they set their sights on the island’s top cat – the Leopard. Research at Block I of the Yala National Park revealed that it has the highest density of leopards in the world, where an area of just forty square kilometers is home to over forty of the big cats. A lack of other large carnivores such as lions or tigers, a high prey base of Spotted Deer, Asiatic Buffalo, Wild Pig and Sambar, decades of protection means that the leopards are thriving here and are active during the day. The leopards, adults and cubs alike have also in the recent years become habituated to the presence of safari vehicles, often providing some exciting and memorable sightings to visitors, proving that the usually elusive leopard can be tracked down with ease at Yala in Sri Lanka unlike in most other parts of the world. Apart from the Leopard, Yala’s other two draw cards are the Sloth Bear and Asian Elephant, both of which are seen regularly. The dry zone scrub jungles of Yala with its numerous lakes and waterholes also keeps the birders interested with over three hundred species of birds being recorded here. Its potential for birding and viewing big game makes the Yala National Park one of the finest in Asia. Bill did three game drives at Yala, had a brief but memorable sighting of a leopard, obtained good sightings of elephants including two large tuskers, and among the other animals spotted deer, wild pig, mugger crocodile, grey langur and at least fifty different bird species.
Leaving behind the dry zone scrub jungles in the South, Bill traveled to the Sinharaja rainforest in central Sri Lanka to get his first taste of endemic birding in Sri Lanka. Accommodation for the two nights were at Martins Simple Lodge in Sinharaja, the best accommodation option for birders as it is located in the heart of the Sinharaja Rainforest (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Birding at Martins can can begin from your doorstep – the magnificently coloured and usually elusive Blue Magpie, one of the favourites among all birders is one of the regulars to Martins and can be seen around the dining area on most mornings around dawn. The owner, Martin and his family who run the lodge are extremely friendly, helpful and cook up some mouthwatering Sri Lankan curries.
On the 27th morning, Ganganath, Riaz and Julia Porter, from the UK who is currently doing a summer internship at Jetwing Eco Holidays joined Bill Oddie for one last birding session in the Sinharaja Rainforest. Sinharaja is a favourite haunt among the endemic birders as most of Sri Lanka’s thirty three endemics are sighted here. The best way to track down the endemics is to walk through the rainforest trails and stumble in to a ‘Bird Wave’ which is accurately described by Bill as being “this moment when you can be in a jungle and this is true for rainforests anywhere. You can be standing there and there’s nothing, you listen, nothing, walk, nothing and then suddenly one noise, two noises, three noises, and you’ve got a flock coming through and then you’ve got to be quick.”. The Sinharaja Bird Wave, the longest studied and largest mixed species feeding flock in the world, which averages forty one individual birds and can contain up to twenty endemic species and thirty five species overall. The rainforests are also home to smaller mammals such as toque macaques, purple-faced leaf monkey and giant squirrel to name a few as well as a variety of butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, spiders, amphibians and reptiles.
Bill had managed to witness a couple of ‘Sinharaja Bird Waves’ during his rainforest treks and among the endemics managed to get good views of “Ceylon Wood Pigeon, Ceylon Green Pigeon, Ceylon Hanging Parrot, Layards Parakeet, Red-faced Malkoha Crimson-backed Flameback, Black-crested Bulbul, Ceylon Crested Drongo, Ashy-headed Laughing Thrush and Orange-billed Babbler and the recently discovered Serendib Scops Owl, while the calls of the Chestnut-backed Owlet were also heard.
Bill Oddie departed back to the UK on the 28th July, and on his five night / six day tour covered a number of sites with varying habitat from the wetlands in Talangama to the grasslands of Uda Walawe to the scrub jungle habitat of Yala and finally the rainforests of Sinharaja, obtained sightings of around 130 different species of birds including 18 of the 33 endemics and had good sightings of the big game species such as Asian Elephant, Leopard and Mugger Crocodile, proving that a very diverse range of habitats and animals can be seen in Sri Lanka even during such a short time span, making it among one of the world’s top destinations for wildlife based tourism.