Maggie Sheriff, USA


Maggie Sheriff, USA

Sri Lanka trip report, part I –
by Maggie Sheriffs from USA who travelled with Jetwing Eco Holidays

Thanks to Noah for hosting this post, the first of a few on the trip my husband Tom and I took to Sri Lanka from August 24-September 7, 2014. I’m a fairly new birder who has never taken a Serious Birding Trip before, and Tom might not call himself a hardcore birder, but he’s a biologist and a keen naturalist.


Tamil Lacewing, Kithulgala
Why choose Sri Lanka? Well, we wanted to go somewhere tropical–the more different the fauna from ours, the better. Since the civil war ended, infrastructure and tourism development have been booming, new roads and airports have made travel easier, and it’s very safe. Another amazing accomplishment is that the country has nearly eradicated malaria and general travelers needn’t worry about any tropical diseases. So, the country is changing fast, and not all the changes will be positive for the environment or the tourist experience. Now’s the time to go! We booked our tour (just us and Chandragupta “Wicky”Wickramasekara, our outstanding naturalist guide and driver) through Jetwing Eco Holidays and had a great experience that was a good value. I’ll put recommendations on making the most of your trip in the final post. Unless otherwise specified, photos were taken by Tom Turner with his ten-year old Canon point-and-shoot. Wow! All birds were lifers for both of us, unless tagged with an asterisk. We were there in summer and got roughly 160 species total, 150 of which were new to us, and ticked 32 of Sri Lanka’s 33 endemics. In winter you’d easily get another 60-70 species, plus spectacular congregations of birds in the wetlands, mostly famously at Bundala National Park.
August 24, 2014
Talangama Wetlands
Wicky met us at the Colombo airport around 10:00 AM. Our flight from Abu Dhabi had been diverted to Mumbai to get a sick passenger medical attention ASAP, which delayed our arrival for about four hours. We were exhausted after 30 hours of travel, as was Wicky after a late drop-off the night before and four-hour wait at the airport. Common Mynasand Spotted Doves greeted us at the airport.
Pheasant-tailed Jacana
Wicky drove us to Villa Talangama–what a spectacular start to our trip! I want this post to be about the sights, not the hotels, but a combination of the birdy setting and outstanding accommodations really combined to make it an exceptional place. The hotel is located right on the wetlands, which even in summer are full of spectacular (at least to western eyes) resident waders, water monitors, and more. The area is a mix of weekend getaway homes, small hotels, and tiny farms. Tom got his much-desiredPheasant-tailed Jacana, and I got my much-desired Oriental Darter, which was as weird and beautiful as I had hoped! Tom was at least as excited to find a colony ofWeaver Ants working on a nest–one adult uses its jaws to clamp together two leaf edges while another uses a LARVA as a glue gun!!!
Weaver Ants at work
The hotel…aaahhhhh…it’s really a gorgeous house, just 3 rooms that fit up to 5 tourists, but they only book for one party at a time, and one must book through Jetwing. Downstairs is open to the yard, which includes a lovely pool and has plenty of trees for colorful Purple-Rumped and Long-billed Sunbird, Black-hooded Oriole, andOriental White-eye, plus my only Asian Koel of the trip and old-world warbler called the Common Tailorbird, which turned out to be one of our favorite common birds. As its name suggests, it actually threads plant fiber or spider silk through the edges of a large leaf in order to sew its nest! In addition to the beautiful grounds and setting, the service and food were great. When we arrived, they had kindly held breakfast for us. While we checked in, Cason (the waiter/concierge/butler) served us glasses of fresh juice, which turns out to be customary. Breakfast began with a fresh buffalo curd (yogurt) served with Kitthul “honey,” the sap of a fishtail palm.
Curd and treacle!
Oh. My. God. Amazing. They buy the milk the night before from a local farmer. The water buffalo are all free-range and enjoy a life of grazing under King Coconut trees and along rice paddies and lounging in the wetlands. The ultra-fresh milk is scalded and then fermented overnight in individual shallow, terra cotta pots. There was strong tea, good coffee, more watermelon juice, and of course a pitcher of King Coconut juice, 300x more delicious than the best coconut water you’d get in the states. Then fruit, then eggs and toast! Fresh lotus flowers tastefully arranged on the table (new ones for dinner and the next day’s breakfast, obvs). We freshened up in our BALLER outdoor bathroom and set up the scope for balcony birding and went for a walk around the neighborhood. Common wetland birds here and elsewhere on our trip included Purple Heron, Little Egret, Cattle Egret, Indian Pond Heron, Black-headed Ibis, White-breasted Waterhen, Red-wattled Lapwing,  and White-throated Kingfisher. We saw Yellow Bittern but dipped on black. Though they aren’t rare, this was the only spot in our itinerary where we saw Common Moorhen, Purple Swamphen, Lesser Whistling-Duck and Little Grebe. Among the houses and empty lots we added Rose-ringed Parakeet,  Greater Coucal,  Large-billed CrowBrown-headed Barbet, Black-rumped Flameback (red-backed subspecies), Red-vented Bulbul, White-rumped Munia, Scaly-breasted Munia*, and White-bellied Drongo to our list. We also had multiple water and land monitorsPalm SquirrelsPurple-faced Langurs (endemic), Common Green Forest Lizards (Calotes calotes), and an unidentified water snake. At our request, Daya (the cook) prepared Sri Lankan food for dinner and the next breakfast: dinner was pumpkin soup, rice and curry (the canonical 3 veggies, dal, fish, rice, pappadam, and coconut sambol), and cooked bananas+ice cream. Brekkie was more curd and treacle, plus hoppers (three kinds!), and of course tons of fruit. The Yellow-billed Babblers, White-browed Bulbuls, Oriental Magpie Robin,and langurs kept us entertained on the patio–the babblers resemble California Towhees in size and demeanor but seem smarter and less panicky. We left happy, rested, and stoked for the rest of the trip!
Purple-faced Langurs chilling on the roof
From the freeway out of Colombo on August 25, we saw Spot-billed Pelican, Brahminy Kite, Grey Heron, Intermediate Egret, Pied Kingfisher, and House Crow. All but the Pied Kingfisher proved quite common throughout the trip. As we approached Sinharaja through the wet lowlands, we stopped to pick up Oriental Honey-buzzardAsian Palm SwiftSri Lanka Swallow (endemic), and Little Swift.
August 25-26, 2014
Sinharaja National Park
Sinharaja (“Lion King” in the Sinhala language) is the premier birding location in Sri Lanka, the country’s largest tract of undisturbed rainforest and home to 21 of the island’s 33 endemic bird species.
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch by Mike Prince,
We stayed at Martin’s Simple Lodge. Not fancy, but it’s right in the jungle and mosquito-free, and Martin’s wife cooks some of the best curries we ate in the entire fortnight! As soon as we arrived on the porch, we were greeted by a colorful mixed flock includingYellow-rumped Sunbirds, Flame Minivets, Common Iora, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Pale-billed Flowerpecker, and White-throated Flowerpecker (endemic). The nuthatch is a Sitta, just like North America’s, but it’s indigo blue with a bright red bill! We were also introduced to the endemic Yellow-fronted Barbet, which went on to win the prestigious Wrentit Award for Outstanding Achievement inOmniprescent, Monotonous Calling. Congratulations!
A park guide is required. Ours was a local named Ranji. He was an amazing spotter of birds, reptiles, and insects, and knew a lot of local ethno-botany. On our first afternoon walk, he took us to a Sri Lanka Frogmouth day roost, where a pair napped placidly less than 2 meters from our faces!
Sri Lanka Frogmouth pair (grey male, ruddy female)
In addition to the diversity of endemics, mixed flocks called Sinharaja Bird Waves are a huge attraction to birders. We encountered one the morning of the 26th, a riot of color that included Red-faced Malkoha (endemic), Malabar Trogon (both male and female), Common Iora, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Flame Minivet, Lesser Yellownape (woodpecker), Crested Drongo, and White-faced Starling (endemic). Shortly after, Ranji beckoned us down a smaller footpath. We waited a few minutes and then spotted our first Sri Lanka Blue Magpie. Then another, then another, until we were surrounded by a family group of 8 of these endemic beauties!
Sri Lanka Blue Magpie preening
Sri Lanka Blue Magpie: Maggie’s most-desired endemic!
Not only are they spectacularly colored, they are as bold and curious as any corvid I’ve ever met and came right up to look at us. We soaked it in for about 20 minutes, then a group of about 50 fifth-graders came quietly down the trail. We were so happy that *they* got to see these birds up close and that they seemed so excited and appreciative!
Ranji and Wicky birded in flip-flops, but we bought the recommended leech socks ($2.50/pair) and were grateful, as we picked off a number of leeches and one still managed to bite Tom behind the belt buckle. The bites are small, but they bleed forever! So many other wonderful birds . . . Tom arrived primed to see the endemic Sri Lanka Junglefowl, sister species to the Red Junglefowl from which chickens were domesticated. The males were stunning–in the dappled jungle light their combs glow like flames, and the variety of feather shapes, colors, and patters are mesmerizing.
We slayed 18 of the park’s 21 endemics! The Sri Lanka Spurfowl was only heard, but get a load of this song! Our big dip was the Serendib Scops Owl. We encountered one birder who had been working for two days and nights to find it and learned later in the trip (from one of Wicky’s colleagues) that he finally did after another day or two in the park. Alas, we had reservations in the arid zone and had to move on. In my next post, I’ll cover our days in Udu Walawe and Yala National Parks. Spoiler alert: LEOPARDS!
Other new trip birds from Sinharaja National Park and environsCrested Serpent Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, White-bellied Fish Eagle, Emerald Dove, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot (endemic), Layard’s Parakeet (endemic), Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (endemic), Crimson-backed Woodpecker (endemic), Grey-rumped Treeswift, Brown-backed Needletail, Indian Swiftlet, Jerdon’s Leafbird, Black-headed Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Spot-winged Thrush (endemic), Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush (endemic), Sri Lanka Scimitar-babbler (endemic), Dark-fronted Babbler, Orange-billed Babbler (endemic), Ashy-headed Laughingthrush (endemic), Sri Lanka Crested Drongo (endemic), Sri Lanka Myna (endemic)
Other new wildlife
Keelback Snake (Boulenger’s?), Kangaroo Lizards, Green Vine snake, Giant Squirrel, Layard’s Squirrel, Brown Mongoose, giant tree snails, insane flashwing damselflies, and gorgeous tiger beetles
Can you spot the lizard?