[ A Birding and Wildlife Trip Report: Sri Lanka]
This trip report covers a tour taken by the Sidwell family in August 2007. Our interests are very broad, from Ancient Cities and temples to Elephants, Leopards, birds and butterflies. Jetwing Eco Holidays, through the help of Ajanthan quickly provided a detailed itinerary that met our needs. Wicky, our guide was a great guy to spend a holiday with. He was a careful driver, had a great sense of humour, was an excellent birder, and had a good knowledge of the majority of butterflies we encountered. We would highly recommend the used of Jetwing Eco for anyone planning a natural history trip to Sri Lanka.
Having taken several family holidays to various destinations in North America and Southern Africa, we decided to look for somewhere different for 2007. As a family, we have a broad range of interests, and Sri Lanka seemed to cater for them all. We all enjoy a broad cross section of wildlife. I’m primarily a birder, Phil is particular interested in butterflies and other insects, whilst Debbie loves Elephants. Sri Lanka also has a number of historical sites, ancient cities and temples, another interest of Debbie’s. So Sri Lanka it was then.
As Phil is 15, we needed to travel during the summer school holidays. Not the cheapest time to travel. Being based in the north of England, we wanted to fly from Manchester. We decided to fly with Qatar mainly due to the fact that they offered the lowest cost option (£620 each). These proved to be an excellent choice, a top quality airline. Other options included Emirates, via Dubai and Etihad via Abu Dhabi. Be careful if you take flights using Emirates as some of these return via the Maldives and can be time consuming. The only direct flights to Colombo were with Sri Lankan Airways from Heathrow.
Because we had taken a beach holiday to Sri Lanka back in 1990, we already knew that driving ourselves would be difficult. Sri Lankan roads are not for the faint hearted. We decided therefore, to look for an agent that could arrange the full trip, including transport and a guide. We sent exploratory emails to several companies, one of which was to Jetwing Eco. It became clear from the very first discussions that Jetwing Eco had a very good understanding of our requirements. We dealt with Ajanthan Shantiranam who was excellent. Ajanthan was always very prompt in replying to our questions, and following the exchange of a few emails very quickly put together an ideal itinerary.
Jetwing’s arrangements included a car, driver/guide, accommodation, dinner and breakfast throughout, jeep hire in the national parks, and entrance fees. The only costs remaining were for lunches (about £10 per day for the three of us), drinks and gratuities. The whole trip, airport to airport cost £850 each.
Saturday 4th August – in flight
We caught our flight to Doha without any issues. Qatar use modern aircraft with state of the art entertainment systems, so the 7-hour flight soon passed. The transfer at Doha airport was straightforward. We had 4 hours to wait before our flight to Colombo. Doha airport is currently being expanded. Existing facilities are a bit limited, but included a small shopping area and an adequate cafeteria. Our flight to Colombo departed about 30 minutes late.
Sunday 5th August
The 5-hour flight soon passed and we arrived at Colombo at 8.30am. After collecting our bags, we exchange our cash at one of the banks. The banks were found before entering the arrivals hall, which we thought was ideal as the area was nice and quiet.
On entering the arrivals hall, a representative of Jetwing Eco was waiting. We were soon in a minivan and on our way to our first destination Villa Talangama.
The one-hour transfer to Talangama seemed like an adventure in itself. The roads are very busy, and no one seems to follow the rules, if there are any! Bus drivers seemed to be in a hurry to meet schedules, aiming to get to their destinations at any cost. Tuc-tucs and motorcycles zigzagged in and out of traffic, whilst you also had to keep a look out for animals on the road, such at domesticated Water Buffalo and dogs. We never really got used to the roads throughout the trip.
Villa Talangama is situated in a quiet suburb to the east of Colombo, and is situated on the edge of wetland, part of Talangama Tank. This proved to be an ideal place to recover form the long journey. Ajanthan was waiting for us when we arrived which was a nice touch, and indicative of the personal attention Jetwing Eco provided during the trip.
After a short snooze and light lunch, we were greeted by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, the CEO of Jetwing Eco. Over tea, we discussed our plans and interests, and Gehan kindly provided several identification booklets and posters, which he has produced. These proved invaluable, particularly those on butterflies and dragonflies, as the country still lacks comprehensive field guides on these subjects.
We were then introduced to Wicky, who was to be our guide for the trip. Wicky is a great guy. He proved to be reliable, efficient and never late. He is an excellent birder, very sharp and seemed to know every call heard. He had a good working knowledge of butterflies and dragonflies, but freely admitted that he was still learning. What we liked was when we found an insect we couldn’t identify, he didn’t try to pretend he knew what it was, and we worked together to try to sort it out. Wicky has a great sense of humour and we regarded him as a good friend by the end of the trip.
During the afternoon, we took a short walk around Talangama Tank. The walk gave us the opportunity to get to know some of the more common species. Birds were typical of a Sri Lankan wetland, with a mixture of heron species, Openbill Storks, and Black Headed Ibis. Highlights included Pheasant Tailed Jacana, Ceylon Swallow and Ashy Wood Swallow. Butterflies were everywhere, the most common being Grey and Peacock Pansies, White Forewings, Smallest Swift and Three Spot Grass Yellows. The highlights included our first Tailed Jay and Glassy Tiger. In all 16 species of butterfly were seen on the walk. Six species of Odanata were seen including Variable Glider, Pied Parasol, Pink and Green Skimmers, whilst our first reptiles were Common Garden Lizard and a large Water Monitor. Mammals were represented by the ubiquitous Palm Squirrel.
On the evening, following a delicious meal, we chilled out on the veranda, overlooking the wetland. As it got dark a large number of Bat species emerged from a roost in the roof of the villa, and Fireflies were everywhere. The perfect end to our first day.
Monday 6th August
Pinawella Elephant Orphanage, Dambulla Temples and Teak Forest Lodge
After a superb breakfast, we were met by Wicky and headed off to our first stop Pinawella Elephant Orphanage, seeing our first Flying Fox of the trip on the way. We found the orphanage has become very commercialised since our first visit in 1990. Highlights here included our first Blue Mormon, Blue Admiral and Chocolate Soldier, but a medium sized orange butterfly seen in the car park remained unidentified, despite much head scratching. Fortunately I managed to photograph it, and subsequently identified it as a female Black Prince, a very scarce species. We also saw our first Toque Macaques here, a common endemic.
Next stop were the cave temples at Dambulla. The temples themselves were very interesting, but as always I had one eye on the wildlife. Toque Macaques were very common here. They seem to be a feature of all the popular tourist areas. Avian highlights included Pompadour Green Pigeon and Crested Treeswift amongst the more common Little Swifts . New butterflies included Plain and Blue Tigers, whilst Common Skink was added to the reptile list.
Finally, in the late afternoon, we arrived at Teak Forest Lodge where we were to stay for the next two nights. This is a small rustic eco-lodge, comprising three wooden cabins and a dining area, set in a Teak woodland on the shores of a small wetland. Facilities are basic, but clean and comfortable. The room itself gave us a “close to nature” experience. There was a small Termite colony in one of the walls which we could hear when we first entered the room but they didn’t bother us once they settled down. On the first night we also had a bat flying around inside the room. Presumable it had roosted in the roof. We had obviously disturbed it and it didn’t seem to be able to find it’s way out. We eventually managed to usher it out through the door. Local villagers are invited to come in and prepare their own local dishes. As a consequence, the food was very Sri Lankan, but was probably about the best of the trip. Jamal, the host was a very friendly character, and he made our stay here very enjoyable.
Tuesday 7th August
Polonaruwa, and Mineriya National Park
At dawn the next morning I took a pre-breakfast walk around the grounds of the lodge and adjacent wetland area. A pair of Pale Billed Flowerpeckers appeared to have a nest near the cabin. The wetland contained the expected herons, cormorants and Jacana as well as several Paddyfield Pipits. A pair of Small Minivets and male Common Iora added colour, along with Little Green Bee-eater and Alexandrine Parakeets. A pair of White Rumped Shama showed well just behind the cabin. Small numbers of butterflies enjoyed the early morning sun, notably the trips first Common Crows and Plain Tigers together with single Common Tiger and Common Rose. Two Grey Mongoose added to the mammal list.
Following a traditional breakfast that included Fish Curry, we headed to Polonaruwa, one of the countries ancient capitals. On the way we found two Woolly Necked Stork on the shores of one of the large tanks (a tank is an ancient man made reservoir).
It was very hot at Polonaruwa, and as it is a very open site there wasn’t much shade. We found the city itself very interesting, but the mechandise sellers were a bit of a pain. Most wouldn’t take no for an answer, and as there weren’t many tourists about they didn’t have too many targets. One of the sellers was so persistant that we were on first name terms by the time we departed. He had been trying to sell me a small granite Budda, and had reduced his asking price to less than a quarter of his original offer, but I still didn’t buy. Funnily enough, we bought an almost identical Budda from a gift shop in Negombo on the last day for more than twice his final offer. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt somewhere in there!
Because of the heat, wildlife sightings were limited. The Sea of Pakkram, the large tank on whose shores the city lies, were full of the usual herons and cormorants. The sight of over 300 Openbill Storks circling above the tank was impressive, as was our first White Bellied Eagle. A pair of Stork Billed Kingfisher chased each other across one of the ancient bathing pools, but continued without stopping. Small numbers of Toque Macaque were around, but the troops of Grey Langurs featured on a well known wildlife programme about the city were nowhere to be seen. Two Ruddy Mongoose added to the mammal list and a large whitish looking butterfly that eventually settled after a chase was identified as a Lime Butterfly, the only one seen on the trip. At the north end of the site is a small roofed Temple. Wicky had a word with the attendant at the door and he turned on the lighting inside. A pair of Barn Owls roost here and they were easily located, together with a large roost of probable Horseshoe Bat sp.
After lunch in Habarana, we transferred to a Jeep and entered Mineriya National Park. During July and August, this national park is famous for it’s gathering of Asian Elephants. Up to 300 Elephants are found here during this time, attracted by the lush grasslands surrounding the tank which grow as the water recedes during the dry season. This encourages the Elephants to come out of the surrounding scrub jungle into the open where they can be seen readily. Around 80 elephants, including one large male tusker were present during this particular afternoon. We had incredible views of Elephants of all sizes, some of which approached our jeep to a very close range. Other mammals seen included a large herd of Water Buffalo, two Barking Deer (Muntjac), a Grey Mongoose, six Grey Langur, a troop of Toque Macaque and several Palm Squirrel.
400 Painted Stork waded around the edge of the lake, where a small group of waders included 30 Mongolian Plover and a single Marsh Sandpiper. Raptors included our first Grey Headed Eagle, 10 White Bellied Eagle, a Shikra and good numbers of Brahminy Kite. A Grey Rumped Treeswift mixed with Asian Palm Swifts, Little Swifts and Sri Lanka Swallows overhead. Other species of note included a Blue Faced Malkoha, several singing Oriental Skylark, a Zitting Cisticola and a White Browed Fantail. On the way back to Teak Forest, after dark, a Jerdons Nightjar was found perched on roadside wires.
Wednesday 8th August
Sigiriya to Hunas Falls
A pre-breakfast walk with Wicky added several new birds to the trip list. The highlight was undoubtedly the female White Naped Woodpecker seen in scrub opposite the entrance to the lodge. Other new birds included Crested Serpent Eagle, Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrike, Black Hooded Cuckoo Shrike, Black Capped Bulbul and Grey Breasted Prinia. Butterflies were well represented with four new species seen, African Babel Blue, Grass Jewel, Crimson Rose and Common Jezebel. A large Star Tortoise near the lodge was the only one seen on the trip.
After another excellent breakfast, we headed to Sigiriya, an ancient fortress built on the top of a huge rock, with a large area of formal gardens at it’s base. Sigiriya is best visited on the mornings if you intend to climb to it’s summit, before the heat of the day sets in. On this particular day, it was very windy, so temperatures weren’t too much of a problem. You need a head for heights though, as some sections are quite exposed.
Wildlife viewing in the remains of the gardens and surrounding dry zone forest can be very productive. A Shaheen, the local dark race of Peregrine Falcon, was seen perched high on its nesting ledge. In the surrounding woodland, we also added Common Wood Shrike, Coppersmith and Crimson Fronted Barbet, and Oriental White-eye. Two Land Monitors added to the reptile list, whilst butterflies included Crimson Rose and Lesser Albatross. A large all black butterfly seen near the summit may have been a Black Rajah, it looked the right shape, but it was not seen well enough to be certain. This was a good area for primates with Toque Macaque and Grey Langur present. Our first Purple Faced Leaf Monkey, a single, was of the western race. This was the only one of this race seen on the trip. Another mammal tick was in the shape of four Giant Squirrels seen near the car park. Some of these were being fed by the locals. Eco terrorism as Wicky described it.
It was then time to head south towards Kandy and the hills. A brief lunch stop at Matale produced our first Hill Mynas and Golden Fronted Leafbird, before we continued up through the Tea Plantations to Hunas Falls.
We were to spend the next two nights at the Hunas Falls Hotel. This is a very comfortable hotel in what has to be one of the most spectacular locations in the country. The hotel is set in gardens by a lake at the head of a valley, between the upper and lower Hunas Waterfalls. Each room has a fantastic view down the valley to the hills beyond.
We spent the remaining daylight walking around the gardens. Hill Swallows were easily seen around the hotel. The area below the vegetable garden seemed to be the best area with several new bird species seen in quick succession including Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Layards Parakeet, Yellow Fronted Barbet, Square Tailed Black Bulbul, Jerdon’s Leafbird ands Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher.
The lights of the balcony around the dining room provided entertainment after dark by attracting a good number of moths. Several bat sp. gave excellent views as they swooped up to the lights and around the balcony. Very few moths seemed to escape their accuracy. Asian House Geckos and a single Kandian Gecko were found on the walls of the hotel and bar area.
Thursday 9th August
Most of the day was spent around the Hunas Falls Hotel. The gardener in the adjacent Spice Gardens opposite the hotel entrance showed us a nest containing two young. We didn’t have to wait long before the adult birds returned. They were White Browed Fantails. The only new bird species for the trip seen in this area was an Indian Scimitar-Babbler and several fly by Green Imperial Pigeons. A Kandian Day Gecko was found on the road near the Spice Gardens, adding to the reptile list.
This area, the area around the lake and the adjacent forest proved very productive for dragonflies and butterflies. Dragonfly species identifies included Indigo Dropwing, Blue Percher, Shining Gossamerwing, Common Bluetail and Frasers Shadowdamsel. Butterflies here included Bluebottle, 3 Spot Grass Yellows, Lemon Emigrant, Plum Judy, Gladeye Bushbrown, Water Snowflat and Great Orangetip, bringing the trip butterfly list to 44 species. Be aware that following a sharp shower of rain during the afternoon, the forest tracks were full of Ground Leeches. We did not have our Leech socks with us as this was not an area where we had expected them to be a problem.
Later in the afternoon we drove down the valley to a small remnant patch of primary forest called Puhu Aramba. This area provided more new species, with Black Naped Monarch and Dark Fronted Babbler being added. The highlight was undoubtably the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher found skulking in a ditch below the path. Unfortunately, I was so engrossed in this little beauty, it never occurred to me to take a photograph, even though it perched up perfectly for a short while and I had camera in hand! Two Dark Tipped Flashwings kept the dragonfly list ticking over.
The frustrations of forest birding came to haunt me at dusk when the main targets for this area, a pair of Brown Fish Owl and at least two Chestnut Backed Owlets, could be heard a few feet either side of the track. Both species were very close but eluded us.
Friday 10th August
Kandy, Temple of the Tooth, to Nuwara Eliya
An early morning pre-breakfast walk around the grounds at Hunas Falls produced an Otter in the lake and three Plum Headed Parakeets flew over.
After breakfast, we left Hunas Falls and headed south into Kandy. On the way into the city, Wicky took us past a large fruit bat colony, allowing close views of hundreds of Common Flying Foxes.
The morning was spent visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy. This is the most important shrine for Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Security around the temple was found to be very high since the bomb attack of 1998, but was not a problem. The temple itself is well worth a visit, being highly decorated and noisy with the constant sound of horns and drums. One of the Buddhist Monks acted as our guide for our visit and was found to be very informative, giving us an insight to the rituals and history of the site.
We continued south, climbing higher into the hills, through endless tea plantations, to our next destination, Nuwara Eliya. The old colonial town, sometimes known as “Little England” lies at over 6000ft so has a much cooler climate than the remainder of the island. It is easy to see the English influence in the town, as it still has a race course, post office and red phone box. We stayed at the St Andrews Hotel, another flashback to colonial times.
Birding around the hotel gardens wasn’t too productive during a brief search in the afternoon, but we still managed to add Yellow Eared Bulbul and Grey Headed Canary Flycatcher for the trip.
Late in the afternoon we drove for 20 minutes to the edge of town, to a roadside lay-by next to a fruit sellers shack close to Hakgala. 10 yards from the roadside in a gulley behind the shack lies a small stream with a 20 foot gap in the bank-side vegetation . This is one of the most reliable sites for Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush in the country. As dusk approached, one was heard calling from the valley below. Each evening, it moves upstream, past the point where we were waiting, to roost. After a short wait, a dark silhouette could be seen briefly in the dense vegetation by the stream. A few seconds later, a stunning male popped up onto a bare branch at head height, just 10 feet from where we were stood, paused for a few seconds, called loudly, then crossed the gap and continued upstream to its roost site. A truly magical moment.
Saturday 11th August
Horton Plains and Hakgala Botanical Gardens
We made a very early 4.45am start this morning for the one hour drive up to Horton Plains National Park, the aim being to be at the park gates at dawn. Interest was maintained on the drive up by looking for eye shine in the car headlights. Success was in the form of 7 Black Naped Hares and a Small Indian Civet. As we waited at the park gates for the office to open, 6 Indian Blackbirds, a predicted future split were seen around the buildings. This species/race is much skulkier than it’s European counterpart and they soon disappeared into the forest.
As daylight broke, low cloud came rolling in, Horton Plains is at 7000 feet. Conditions worsened rapidly during the morning, making the intended walk to the Worlds End viewpoint pointless. With visibility reduced to about 30 yards at times, seeing anything proved difficult. 11 Sambar and 2 Bear Monkeys, the highland race of Purple Faced Leaf Monkey could just be made out in the gathering gloom, and Sri Lanka White-eye, Pied Bushchat and Dull Blue Flycatcher were new bird species. As the weather continued to deteriorate, we decided to return to Nuwara Eliya for lunch.
Early afternoon, we decided to try Hakgala Botanical Gardens as these were at the lower altitude of around 5000feet. Although the weather was wet and very gloomy, at least there was no low cloud. The gardens were very busy as it was the weekend, so we headed for the quieter areas at the back. Birding was a bit slow, but we eventually found a Sri Lanka Woodpigeon, before locating a feeding flock of birds that included 30 Sri Lanka White-eye, 6 Yellow Eared Bulbul, 4 Grey Headed Canary Flycatchers and provided much better views of a Dull Blue Flycatcher.
On the way back through the gardens, we came across a group of monkeys. About 10 Bear Monkeys were seen first, followed by 12 Dusky Macaques, the highland race of Toque Macaque. These had noticeable thicker, darker fur, and if ever split from Toque Macaque, would be a very rare primate.
As we were passing the spot at the right time, we stopped briefly at the Whistling Thrush site, almost instantly hearing the male calling, and glimpsing it briefly as it headed to it’s roost, before heading back to St Andrews.
Sunday 12th August
Tissa Tank to Elephant Reach Lodge
Today, we were heading south east, to the Yala National Park area. As we dropped down out of the hills and headed into the Dry Zone lowlands the weather started to improve and the temperature rose. A Brown Mongoose ran across the road just before we reached Ella and we started to notice good numbers of roadside butterflies again, something that had been missing in the hill country, presumably due to the poor weather. Common Mime was a new species, whilst Tailed Jays, Blue Mormon, Common Sailors and Chocolate Soldiers all started to feature.
Birds seen included a Tickells Blue Flycatcher seen during a short break, along with Black Headed Cuckoo Shrike, Crested Tree Swifts and Plain Prinias. A Land Monitor and Common Skink kept the reptile interest going.
We took a late lunch in Tissamasharama (Tissa), the usual high quality curry and rice. We ate in the outdoor section of the restaurant surrounded by well manicured gardens. The trips first Black Crowned Night Heron flew over, whilst a nearby tree held a pair of Asian Koel and four Green Imperial Pigeons. Two small darters were identified as Asian Groundlings and a new species of odonata, Sombre Skimmer was also found. Several butterflies moved amongst the flowers. These were mostly Lemon Emigrants and Common Sailors, but also included Common Rose and the only Tawny Rajah of the trip. The Tawny Rajah was seen to fly across a lawn and land under a bush. Realising this was something different Phil & I raced across to try to see it perched. We had to lie flat on our stomachs on the lawn and could just make it out under the bush using our binoculars. As we stood up we realised that everyone in the packed restaurant was looking at us, trying to work out what we were doing. Still, another butterfly tick was in the bag so we didn’t care!
We spent the afternoon and evening at Tissa Tank, a large man made reservoir dating from ancient times. This was an excellent area for birding, with all the expected wetland birds such as Egrets, Herons, Openbills, Purple Gallinules and White Breasted Waterhens etc present in good numbers. Avian highlight was undoubtably the White Naped Woodpecker, seen briefly away from it’s usual stake out as well as a Coppersmith Barbet. Hundreds of Ring Necked Parakeets were seen, all heading in the same direction to what must be a massive and very noisy evening roost. A very large Mugger Crocodile lurked in the shade under a tree.
Good numbers of butterflies were seen in this area, the highlight being our first Common Palmflies. These caused initial confusion, as we had not seen any upper-wing illustrations or photographs of this species, which is a Common Tiger mimic. They actually looked like something in between Common and Plain Tiger in flight, but always landed with their wings closed, showing a completely different and distinctive underwing pattern. Other species present in numbers included Blue and Blue Glassy Tigers, Plain Tigers, Indian Crow, Common Mormon and Common Rose.
One of the most noticeable features of this area was the huge numbers of dragonflies present. Swarms (the only way to describe them) of Variable Flutterers were present. Other very common species included Asian Groundling, Oriental Scarlet, Blue Percher and Sri Lanka Cruiser. Several small damselflies were finally identified as Yellow Damselfly, a new species. It needed the presence of a male to finally sort them out. Another new species, Spinetufted Skimmer, was present in small numbers. Most spectacular looking was a large black and yellow striped dragonfly with a triangular tip to the tail, eventually identified as the ridiculously named Rapacious Flangetail.
As the light faded, we headed to Elephant Reach Lodge, a relatively new “safari” lodge situated not too far from the entrance to Yala National Park. We had been told that a large male Leopard had been feasting on a Spotted Deer kill over the past few days and had been showing well, so we retired for the night hoping that he would still be present the next morning.
Monday 13th August
Yala National Park
An early start saw us driving to the entrance gate at Yala National Park in total darkness. Once more we peered into the car headlight beams looking for eye shine. This time we scored with another Black Naped Hare, our first Indian Nightjars and several Yellow Wattled Plovers that had been stood in the road.
We arrived at the park gate, but it soon became apparent that our Jeep and tracker were missing. Wicky soon established that they had gone to the lodge to collect us and quickly arranged a replacement vehicle and tracker as he said he couldn’t wait for them. He wanted to be on our way into the park as soon as it opened. The replacement Jeep arrived in minutes and we were soon heading into the park through semi-open dry scrub. The dust here was incredible. I would strongly advise anyone going into this park to make sure the cover their optical equipment as must as possible, as the dust gets everywhere.
We passed an area where there was a large number of dead bushes all laid on one side and was told that is was Tsunami damage. Wicky later told us how he had been on the beach in Yala with a client seconds before the Tsunami had hit. He had looked back from the Jeep as they were leaving and saw the wave coming, only just managing to escape. They left over 50 people on the beach that morning, including a group of Japanese tourists and many friends. No-one who was on the beach survived.
Animals and birds were soon being seen in quick succession. Indian Peafowl were everywhere. Small groups of Spotted Deer were perhaps the most common mammal, together with good numbers of Water Buffalo and Wild Boar. Two Grey Langur put in an appearance together with a large Bull Elephant next to the road. This elephant was so close I took full frame photographs of it using my 18-55mm lens zoomed out! We also had close if brief views of a Golden Jackal, which proved to be the only one seen on the trip.
Wicky, however was keen to press on, as he was hoping the male Leopard was still about. Sure enough, we turned a corner to meet a group of about 10 Jeeps all edging back and forward on a narrow track. The Leopard was still there! We eventually manoeuvred into position and had excellent views of this fine male, one of only three breeding males in the park.
Elated, and with the pressure off we stopped for breakfast near one of the wetland areas in the park. Whilst enjoying our packed breakfast, we spent time scanning this area seeing good numbers of Mugger Crocodiles and large numbers of the usual, wetland birds, including 60 Painted Stork, 20 Openbills, 10 Indian Pond Herons and 20 Black Crowned Night Heron. Highlights here were 4 Lesser Adjutant , and stunning views of a Grey Headed Eagle.
We spent the remainder of a very enjoyable morning checking seemingly every small track, quickly notching up an impressive list of birds, including Blue Faced and Sirkeer Malkoha and Baya Weaver. Good numbers of butterflies were also seen, but it wasn’t so easy to get a good look at these as we couldn’t get out of the Jeep. Common Gull, a new species for us was probably the most common butterfly, followed by Common Jezebel. Several large Land Monitors were also seen.
As we checked out one small water hole, Wicky spotted a young female Leopard stood on top of the bank at the back of the pool. Suddenly and without warning, the Leopard exploded into the air, just failing to grab one of a group of Peafowl that had been drinking at the bottom of the bank. It was incredible how much spring this cat achieved from a standing jump. She turned, and walked back up the bank. Pausing, she looked straight at us, almost with a look of disgust at her failure then headed into the scrub. We quickly turned in the jeep and headed to a track, which she crossed just ahead of the us. We managed to track her through the scrub for the next 15 minutes before finally losing sight of her seconds before meeting up with another jeep. Although we had fully enjoyed the big male earlier in the morning, there was no substitute for finding and watching your “own” Leopard!
As the temperature increased, it was soon time to head back to the lodge, for a cool down and some lunch. It’s probably not worth remaining in the park during the heat of the day, especially in the dry season, as activity levels soon dropped off as the temperature rises.
After lunch, and a cold beer to wash away the dust, we had a walk around the lodge gardens. Not much stirred in the heat of the day, but a singing Jerdon’s Leafbird showed well in a tree directly over our room. A few butterflies were still active, including Common Jezebel, Common and Plain Tigers. Two Common Rose were found perched in the shade, but I had broken one of my “golden rules”, never leave your camera in the room!
At about 2.30pm, we met Wicky, and again headed back to Yala NP. Things were generally much quieter during the afternoon, but as the sun dropped in the sky and temperatures started to cool it did liven up. On the experience of this particular day, morning drives are generally much better.
Avian highlights of the afternoon drive included 4 Barred Buttonquail, 2 Great Thicknee and 2Yellow Eyed Babblers. Our first Plain Orange Tip butterflies of the trip were also seen well. A similar mix of mammals to the morning drive were noted, but included a group of 10 Asian Elephant and a single Ruddy Mongoose. The first highlight of this drive was an obscured Mongoose, which I first thought was another Ruddy until it ran across the track behind the moving Jeep to reveal neck markings. It was a Striped Necked Mongoose. I fired off a single frame, obtaining a poor, out of focus record shot.
The undoubted highlight was finding another Leopard, this time an adult female, as we checked out a small side track that led to a waterhole. After a short pause, she decided it was safe and walked down to the waters edge and took a long drink. We watched her alone for a full 15 minutes, without the distraction of other noisy tourists, before she eventually crossed a track in front of us and disappeared into the scrub.
As dusk approached we headed for the park exit, all vehicles have to be out by 6.30pm. The drive back to lodge included a couple of diversions onto quiet side roads where we found 6 Indian and a single Jerdon’s Nightjar.
Back at the lodge, a “few” beers were needed to wash away the dust, to end a fantastic day
Tuesday 14th August
Udawalawe National Park
Before breakfast, Wicky took us to a small Buddhist temple situated on a rocky outcrop on the nearby coast at Kirinda. This was a beautiful place, but village had been devastated by the Tsunami. Most of the village however, including housing, a school and shops had been rebuilt. It was good to see that the disaster relief funding was finding its way to where it was needed, and was being put to good use.
Whilst walking around the grounds of the temple, several small butterflies were seen and eventually identified as Small Salmon Arab’s, another new species for the trip.
Following breakfast back at the lodge, we headed along the south coast, through Tissamaharama, and towards Habarana. Here we called at a small residence, to check a known roost of Collared Scops Owls, but we were out of luck.
From Habarana, we headed inland to the next place we were staying, the Centuria Inn, at Embilipitiya. After checking in, we worked the gardens which seemed good for butterflies. 10 species were noted in a short time including Bluebottle, Crimson Rose, Lesser Grass Jewel and Plains Cupid. We struggled to identify two species. The first, a small Hairstreak type with four long tails and an intricate hind under-wing was eventually identified as a Monkeypuzzle. The second species still remains uncertain. Its size, shape and underwing pattern recalled Common Palmfly, but the underwing was much darker. Instead of being a Plain Tiger mimic, these butterflies had a very dark, almost black upperwing, with a rufous/red band across the hindwing. They may have been a different colour phase of Common Palmfly, or perhaps they were Ceylon Palmfly. We know Ceylon Palmfly exist, but have been unable to locate photographs or illustrations, so we don’t know what they look like!
We headed for Udawalawe National Park, famous for its Asian Elephants. This area was extremely dry at this time of the year, and unfortunately most of the mammals had headed deeper into the forests to the north, out of range for a short afternoon game drive. 10 Asian Elephants were easily seen, before we had even entered the park, but the only other mammals seen were 6 Spotted Deer, a few Grey Langur and a single Ruddy Mongoose. A small number of butterflies were seen including Blue Mormon, Crimson Rose and Common Jezebel.
One small wetland area hosted over 100 Spot Billed Pelicans, 50 Painted and 3 Openbill Stork, as well as the usual wetland species. We managed to get far enough to the north to get into the edge of the forest which was quite birdy. Here we had 10 Pompadour and 5 Orange Breasted Green Pigeons and large numbers of Parakeets, including over 100 Alexandrine and a single Plum Headed. 5 Blue Headed and a single Sirkeer Malkoha were also seen in this area. Raptors were represented by a single Crested Serpant Eagle and three Black Winged Kites. Finally, a pair of huge Malabar Pied Hornbill were found.
I’m sure that Udawalawe is an excellent National Park, and perhaps a morning visit would have been more productive, but I would think twice about visiting this park during the dry season. I’m sure there are more productive places to visit at this time of the year.
Wednesday 15th August
To Sinharaja Rain Forest
Before leaving the Udawalawe area, we called in at the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home. This establishment seems to differ from Pinawella Elephant Orphanage by focussing more on efforts to rehabilitate the animals back into the wild, and is far less geared up to tourism. In fact tourists were kept at a distance from the animals to minimise human contact.
A few butterflies were noted in the shaded areas around the transit home, including Indian Crow, Plain Tigers, Common Jezebel, Common Rose and Common Tiger.
After a brief (but expensive!) visit to a Jewellers in Ratnapura we arrived in the early afternoon at the Sinharaja Reserve office. Whilst the paperwork was sorted out, we checked out the forest edges by the track. It was immediately clear that this was going to be an excellent couple of days.
Within 100 yards of the office we had a new bird, Yellow Browed Bulbul. Butterflies were everywhere and in a short time new butterflies seen included Chestnut Streaked Sailor, Ceylon Rose, Commander, Blue Oakleaf, Clipper, the delicate Tree Nymph and the massive Ceylon Birdwing. Other insects of interest included one inch long Wood Cutter Ants, massive Giant Wood Spiders and Stick Insect sp.
After a very bumpy ride up to Martins Place in the Jeep, we had time for a short walk, adding Asian Pintail to the dragonfly list and Kangaroo Lizard to the reptile list. Other interesting sightings included several Sri Lanka Rock Frogs and a Giant Land Snail. Highlight however, was our first roaming mixed bird flock as they work through the dense foliage. At first you hear distant calls, then suddenly you seem to be surrounded by birds. Quickly you work through them as Wicky reels off a list off species he is hearing or seeing. Eventually you manage to get clear views of most of the birds that Wicky has called. Sri Lanka Myna,, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Orange Billed Babbler and Ashy Headed Laughing Thrush were all new species amongst this first flock.
As dusk approached, we headed back to Martins Place, a very basic lodge, but what a fantastic setting. It’s definitely worth a couple of nights in slightly less than comfortable accommodation, to be able to sit in the dining area, enjoying a slightly warm Coke (no beer, no fridge) checking out the huge moths and other bizarre insects attracted to the lights, watching the bats hunting in the lights, watching the fireflies glowing in the darkness, and listening to the sounds of the rainforest. A truly magical place.
Thursday 16th August
Sinharaja Rain Forest
We awoke early to the sound of the male Purple Faced Leaf Monkeys calling loudly across the valley. Martin produced tea as soon as we appeared, and this was soon followed by eggs, toast and fruit.
With binoculars to hand and a superb view across the valley from the dining area, we soon added White Throated Flowerpecker to the list, together with brief views of Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill and better views of Sri Lanka Myna. Once we had the gear together we headed into the forest, along the old foresters trail.
We hadn’t gone far before we were watching a pair of Junglefowl on the track together with much closer views of a Blue Oakleaf feeding on some rotting fruit. Our first feeding flock of birds was located 150 yards from the lodge. Again, things became a little frantic for a while. Several Sri Lanka Blue Magpie showed well if briefly, as well as our first Malabar Trogon. Other birds included Lesser Yellownape Woodpecker , Orange Billed Babbler, Crested Drongo, and Black Capped Bulbuls.
This pattern would continue throughout the day. A period of relative quiet would be interrupted by the distant calls of birds, gradually building to a frantic period with birds all around, before gradually the quiet would return.
During the day, these feeding flocks produced 5 Red Faced Malkoha, a Green Billed Coucal,, 5 Malabar Trogon, a Lesser Yellownape Woodpecker, 4 Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrikes, 6 Scarlet Minivets, numerous Black Capped, Yellow Browed and Black Bulbul, 2 Spot Winged Thrush, 4 Dark Fronted and 12 Orange Billed Babblers, 12 Ashy Headed Laughing Thrush, a Black Naped Monarch, 12 Sri Lanka Crested Drongo and 16 Sri Lanka Blue Magpies amongst other birds.
Other birds seen during the day, not associating with these feeding flocks included 2 White Faced Starling near the lodge and a Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon. Raptors included Crested Goshawk, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Crested Serpant Eagle and Mountain Hawk Eagle.
The quieter periods however, were never boring. There was always so much to see. The forest was full of butterflies, and I mean full! 27 species were recorded during the day, 10 of which were new. Highlights included a Ceylon Forester, quite a rarity, Red Spotted Duke, Baron, Great Crow, and Red Helen. New blues included Common Hedge Blue, Dark Ceylon 6 Line Blue, Metallic Cerulean and Angled Pierot. Tree Nymphs were very common along with Commanders, Chestnut Streaked Sailors, Plum Judy, Tailed Jays, Blue Admirals, Bluebottles, Ceylon Birdwings, Ceylon Rose, Indian Crows, Blue Mormons. The list seemed endless.
Dragonflies were also well represented. Dark Forest Wraith, Marsh Skimmer, Luzon Skimmer and Bi-coloured Damselfly were all new.
Mammals included 5 Purple Leaf Monkeys, with Dusky and Giant Grizzled Squirrels as a supporting cast. Kangaroo Lizards were common. Their presence was often revealed when you got too close as they would run away on their long back legs with a comical upright stance. Two snakes were seen. A beautiful, pencil thin Green Vine Snake and a Sri Lanka Keelbacked Water Snake which was found in a small track side pond.
After dark, we wandered a short distance from the lodge to listen to the forest sounds. 3 different Serendib Scops Owls could be heard calling across the valley, as well as a Chestnut Backed Owlet and 2 Sri Lanka Frogmouths. None were seen, and the use of tapes is rightly banned at Sinharaja. If you want to see the Scops Owl, this is usually best achieved at Kithulgala.
Friday 17th August
Sinharaja Rain Forest to Negombo
Another early alarm clock. This time a Spot Winged Thrush was singing outside the room window. I pulled on some clothes and wandered outside, eventually getting crippling views down to 6 feet. I must have been half asleep though, because the camera was still in the room (duh!).
Again, Martin produced tea and breakfast as soon as we appeared. At this point the heavens opened for a short while, reminding us that this was indeed a rain forest. Soon after, the jeep arrived to take our gear back down the track to the village. After loading the jeep, we walked down the track, with the jeep following at a distance, in case the rain returned.
The walk down was largely uneventful. Near to the lodge, we had better views of 2 White Faced Starling. We also came across a feeding bird flock about half way down which included Blue Magpies, Crested Drongos, Malabar Trogon, Ashy Headed Laughing Thrushes and Orange Billed Babblers.
A small unidentified frog species was photographed. Amongst the many common butterflies, we saw two new species, Common Banded Demon and Common Evening Brown.
We were more than a little sad to be leaving Sinharaja. This had been our first experience of a tropical rain forest and it had more than exceeded our expectations. We also knew that we were now heading back to Negombo on the coast for our final night before flying home.
Once in the car, we continued downhill towards Ratnapura. In the next village down, we noticed something large flutter at the side of the road. Wicky stopped quickly and we soon found a huge Atlas Moth with a wingspan of around 8” on a lamppost. A little further on, we saw a Green Lizard on roadside wires, and a large Common Rat Snake crossed the road in front of the car.
The remainder of the journey to the coast was largely uneventful, and by late afternoon we had checked in to our beach hotel on the coast.
Saturday 18th August
We spent the time available on our last day wandering through the shops opposite the hotel, buying souveniers and presents. Birds in the area comprised mainly Common Mynas, House and Large Billed Crows. Palm Squirrels were very common in the hotel gardens. We did see a single Common Rose butterfly, and managed one last tick, a Tiny Grass Jewel, a species that made our Small Blue Butterfly in the UK look huge.
Wicky arrived on time as always to take us back to the airport and we were soon on our way back to the UK, tired but able to look back on what was a fantastic holiday.
Sri Lanka is a great place to take a wildlife holiday. We didn’t travel at the most productive time of the year for birds, the best time to maximise the number of species is when the winter migrants are on the island. At this time of the year, with out & out birding, it is possible to see around 240 to 250 species, including all 33 (34?) endemics.
We saw 189 bird species including 29 of the endemics seen with a further two heard only. Bearing in mind this was not an out & out birding trip I was very pleased with this haul. In addition was saw 71 species of butterfly, 23 species of dragonfly, 14 species of reptile and 22 mammals.
With hindsight, would we stick to the same itinerary? Only one or two changes. Firstly, after being collected from the airport we would head straight to Kithulgala for the first couple of nights. We would then more or less stick to the itinerary that we followed. An extra day in Yala would be great if possible. Finally, instead of the last night in Negombo, we would spent it at Villa Talangama.
Would we recommend Jetwing Eco Holidays? Definitely.