My name is Peter Smith and I live with my family live near Leicester in the UK. For some time my wife, Cheryl, and I had wanted to visit Sri Lanka. The big question was how to go about such a trip. I am a birder and have a love of all wildlife. Whilst Cheryl also likes wildlife, she is definitely not a birder. How could we find a trip that would suit us both? We visited the Jetwing stand at the British Birdwatching Fair last year (2010). Riaz Cader introduced us to the concept of the ‘Big Five Tour’. This tour promised to keep us both happy. I would see the birds and we would both see the country and a good selection of other wildlife. The ‘Big Five’ are Sloth Bear, Leopard, Elephant, Blue and Sperm Whales. Our daughter, Heather, decided at the last minute to come with us, as she is very keen on whales. I had threatened to phone her from the boat and tell her that I was looking at a Blue Whale. That did the trick, and so after some e-mail communication with Riaz, the trip was booked.
It was with much anticipation that we went through immigration and out into the airport concourse to meet our guide for the next 14 days. Hetti along with our driver – Indunil, were waiting to take us to our hotel in Negombo for the night. This gave us the chance to catch up on some much needed sleep after our flights. Arrangements were made to meet Hetti and Indunil the next morning to begin our tour of Sri Lanka.
After a couple of hours sleep I went for a walk in the grounds of the hotel to see my first Sri Lankan birds (Yellow-billed Babbler; Long-billed Sunbird; White-breasted Waterhen) and a grey mongoose. Much to my annoyance, Cheryl and Heather later saw a Rat Snake, but I didn’t.
Our first full day saw us drive North from Negombo to the Palm Garden Village hotel near Anuradhapura. Although we had to get to our destination by lunchtime, we still managed to see Indian Pond Heron; Open-billed Stork; Indian Roller; Brahminy Kite; Crested Serpent Eagle and Fruit Bats (Flying Foxes) amongst others, on the way.
Arriving at lunchtime gave us time to go on our first game drive into the Wilpattu National Park. At 425 square miles this is Sri Lanka’s largest National Park. The park is made up of quite dense woodland punctuated by large ‘tanks’ (man made lakes). Game drives are by open jeep and a driver and tracker are supplied. Highlights of this drive included a Sloth Bear, Spotted Deer; Star Tortoise; Jackals; Orange-breasted Pigeon; Little Green Bee Eater; Malabar Hornbills; Rufous Bush Lark.
Day 3 saw us spend the whole day in Wilpattu Park. We set off early with a picnic breakfast from the hotel and a really good lunch supplied by the park. The day gave us Giant Squirrel; Crocodile; Toque Macaque; Land Monitors; Emerald Dove; Spotted Dove; Jungle Fowl; Displaying Peacock; Greater Coucal; Lesser Sand Plover (Mongolian Plover); White-tailed Sharma; Stork-billed Kingfisher; Brown-capped Babbler; Sri Lankan Woodshrike; Sri Lankan Small Barbet; Purple Sunbird; Sri Lankan Green Pigeon; Palm Swift and Asian Paradise Flycatcher (both Sri Lankan red and Indian white forms).
The next day after breakfast we travelled south through Colombo to Beruwala. We would have liked sometime just to explore the hotel grounds, but we knew we had to get going to get to our next destination. As it was, I saw a White-naped Woodpecker whilst walking from our bungalow to reception.
The traffic in Colombo is, in my experience, unbelievable. It is very, very heavy. I have no doubt that I would be involved in an accident within minutes of getting in a driving seat! However, we had every confidence in Indunil as he dealt with the drive quite magnificently. Cars, lorries, three wheelers and busses come at you from all angles, but everyone is aware of all the other vehicles and the traffic keeps moving. Not once were we stuck in a traffic jam.
We arrived safely at the Eden Resort and Spa, Beruwala. Here, Cheryl and Heather were to spend 3 nights generally relaxing, whilst after spending just 1 night, I was off with Hetti and Indunil to the Sinharaja Rainforest to spend 2 nights at Martin’s Simple Lodge.
Sinharaja Rainforest is a World Heritage Site and is famous for lowland endemics and mixed species bird flocks. The lodge, although described as ‘Simple’ is very clean and comfortable. The food is cooked by Martin’s family and is very good and tasty. A permit is required to enter the protected part of the forest and a tracker must accompany you. Walking is fairly easy going along paths. Birds seen on the first walk in the forest included White-bellied Drongo; Legge’s (White-throated) Flowerpecker; Sri Lankan Woodpigeon; Black-rumped Flameback Woodpecker; Brown Shrike; Asian Paradise Flycatcher ((Indian – white form); Crested Drongo; Ashy-headed Laughing Thrush; Malabar Trogon; Lesser-yellownape Woodpecker; a pair of Frogmouth and White-faced Starling. The frogmouths had Hetti and I behaving like children in a sweet shop. We could not get enough photos as the birds just sat on a branch close to the path. They opened their eyes every now and then, but they just sat and posed for us. It is certainly a moment that I’ll never forget.
That night was quite simply magical. We sat under cover having dinner with the other guests at the lodge and listening to the sounds of the forest. Once dark, we could watch Horseshoe Bats flying around us taking moths attracted by the lights. A water-powered turbine supplies electricity for the lodge. We were advised that the best chance of seeing Blue Magpie was to be up before dawn and sit quietly. The magpies should arrive at first light to feed on moths that were still on the walls. So, at about 5.30am we were up and waiting. Sure enough 02 Magpies came and fed just as we had been told. The birds came very close to us as they fed.
Walks in the forest that day increased the list for the trip with Besra; Laird’s Parakeet; Flame Minivet; Green-billed Coucal; Red-faced Malkhoa; Yellow-browed Bulbul; Spot-winged Thrush; Scimitar Babbler and Bronze-backed Tree Snake. There was also a close encounter with the Blue Magpies again. The trackers went off into the forest looking for the newly identified Serendib Scops Owl. Unfortunately after a long search they were unable to find one. That evening we went for a short stroll around the lodge in what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to find some owls or lorises. However, 02 species of fire fly glowing all around us in the dark was quite something to see. After a good dinner we were treated to a close look at a Sambar that had come to feed on our leftovers. Rest assured that the only reason for there being any leftovers was that there was too much for us to eat in one go. The good food, a well-earned beer and good company ensured that the second night was as good as the first.
After breakfast we returned to Beruwala to pick up the girls and head off to the Yala Village Hotel near Yala on the south east coast.
This hotel is in a beautiful setting. We stayed in a chalet amongst the trees and wildlife. There were Water Buffalo and Wild Pigs wandering around the gardens. We had been told that it was possible to see the occasional Elephant, but apparently it had been 2 months since one was seen within the hotel grounds.
We were here to go on 05 game drives over the next 03 days into the Ruhunu (Yala) National Park. The pattern was an early start each day taking a picnic breakfast from the hotel with a lunch brake at the hottest part of the day, and then out again in the afternoons.
The first drive in the park gave us our first Leopard. This was a big male sheltering from the sun on top of a rocky hill. Luckily I had taken my birding scope with me as the leopard was some way off. This gave us some good views of the animal. We also saw our first Elephants but alas no Tusker. Birds included: Great Thick-knees; Painted Stork; Lesser Whistling Duck; Pintail Snipe; Chestnut-headed Bee Eater; Spot-billed Pelican; Lesser Sand Plover; Black-headed Ibis; White-winged Tern; Orange-breasted Pigeons; Little Cormorant; Crested Serpent Eagle; Common Myna.
The next four game drives gave us good views of leopard (we saw 4 in total), one of which was just across a 50m stretch of water. We also had very close encounters with elephants including a Mother and young baby and later a male in musth. Early on one morning drive we came across a group of crocodiles just starting to feed on a spotted deer. Opinion was that this was the result of a very recent leopard kill and the crocodiles were able to take advantage by scaring off the cat. We also had what must have been a close encounter with a leopard as there were very clear tracks of a female with 2 small cubs that were superimposed on fresh tyre tracks of another jeep. Unfortunately, despite searching, these animals remained hidden from view. We did see a Tusker (Elephant) at close range walking along a road accompanied by a number of other jeeps. Other birds seen on these drives included: White-browed Fantail; Indian Darter; Grey Plover; Gull-billed Tern; Kentish Plover; Brahminy Starling; Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker; Barred Button Quail; Jungle Prinia; Sri Lankan Swallow; Changeable Hawk Eagle (Crested Hawk Eagle); Paddyfield Pipit; Pied Kingfisher; Black-headed Oriole; Black-necked Stork; Brown Fish Owl; Pied Cuckoo; Shikra.
Hetti made sure that our driver headed off away from other jeeps whenever he could. If we had one criticism about Yala, it was the number of jeeps that turned up the moment anyone saw a leopard or elephant. There was one occasion when so many jeeps turned up (to see a leopard) that once we had had a few minutes there, we could not get away. Again, the Tusker that we saw was followed along a road by a procession of jeeps and then more came from the opposite direction. We understand that the park drivers and trackers are trying to make sure that their clients get good views of the wildlife, but it may be that a voluntary code of some sort is needed to ensure that both the animals and the tourists have a good experience.
On the afternoon of our third day at Yala it was time to leave and take to the road for Unawatuna. The object of the next 3 days was to go out to sea to try and see Blue and Sperm Whales. Shortly after setting out, Heather wished me happy birthday and, whilst not a secret, word was out. Unbeknown to me, Hetti then spoke to Riaz, with the result that the bedroom at our hotel was decorated and a birthday cake arrived at the room. Riaz gave me a call to wish me happy birthday. We met up with Hetti and Indunil to have a drink and, of course, eat the cake. Everyone, including the hotel staff were really good to me – thank you for a birthday that I shall never forget.
Anyway, we were up early again the next morning to go to Mirissa to take to the seas. That first morning we saw 25 Sperm Whales! This, we had been told, was the hard whale to see, and here we were, not knowing in which direction to look as the whales were all around. Later a Blue Whale was seen by a few, including Heather, but this was a little way off.
Day 02 of whale watching gave us 100 Spinner Dolphins that decided to come and play with the boat. These are very quick and graceful animals, and were such good fun. A little later we all had good views of 02 Blue Whales. There was also a close Green Turtle and a Flying Fish.
Could day 03 (1st April – Aprils Fools Day) be as good, if not better than the previous two? The answer was YES. After about 2 hours with little to see other than a couple of flying fish, out of nowhere arrived about 100 Spinner Dolphins again. This time they played and gambolled around the boat for about 30 minutes – fantastic. Then, almost straight away, not 01, but 06 Blue Whales appeared. One of these was close enough so that we could see a Remora attached to it’s fluke. We could see quite a lot of the body of this whale under the surface, as it seemed almost white. We then headed off to try and find a Sperm Whale as there were other people on the boat who had yet to see them. Success was achieved again as this time we saw at least 20 of them. Two of these whales came and swam in parallel with our boat for about 10 – 15 minutes, giving us unprecedented views. On the way back to harbour, Hetti and Heather decided to try and trick us by shouting out “Humpback Whale”. Of course someone had to fall for it – me! This trip was a fantastic way to finish off our tour of Sri Lanka.
It is definitely worth saying that the guys at Mirissa Water Sports are doing a great job. They are keen to show people the whales and dolphins in the right way. They do not chase the animals, but rather take the approach that you can see and enjoy the spectacle without causing any disturbance or unwarranted intrusion.
All that was left was to return to our hotel, get a shower and then make the drive to Colombo for our last night before catching our flight home. All that is apart from Heather had asked if she could find somewhere to buy a Sri Lankan cricket shirt (Sri Lanka had played and beaten England in the World Cup that week). This was not so simple as it sounds. We had to contend with the traffic in Colombo again. Hetti though was undaunted, and with his help, Heather bought her shirt.
The next morning, we had a group photo and Hetti and Indunil took us to the airport and we said our goodbyes. Heather wore her new shirt that attracted attention from all sorts of people from airport security staff to the airline staff.
This tour was everything that we had wanted. I had seen some fantastic birds; I’ll always remember the pair of frogmouth that gave Hetti and I so much enjoyment. We all had fabulous views of the other wildlife; the whales especially were just out of this World. We all saw ‘The Big Five’. Our impressions of Sri Lankan people are that they are very friendly, very helpful and all want to talk to you – especially about cricket (well, they had just beaten us). Would we go back? We would love to. There is so much more to see.
Cheryl, Heather and I would like to say a big thank you to Riaz and all at Jetwing Eco Holidays for making the arrangements for our holiday. We must say a special thanks to Hetti and Indunil for their help, knowledge, sense of humour, friendship and for being excellent company and we hope to see you again.
Spot-billed Pelican; Little Cormorant; Indian Cormorant; Oriental Darter; Purple Heron; Grey Heron; Great Egret; Little Egret; Cattle Egret; Indian Pond Heron; Black-crowned Night Heron; Painted Stork; Asian Openbill; Woolly-necked Stork; Black-necked Stork; Black-headed Ibis; Eurasian Spoonbill; Little Grebe; Lesser Whistling Duck; Brahminy Kite; Besra; Shrika; Crested Serpent Eagle; Changeable Hawk Eagle; White-bellied Fish Eagle; Common Kestrel; Barred Button Quail; Sri Lankan Junglefowl (e); Indian Peafowl; White-breasted Waterhen; Purple Swamphen; Pheasant-tailed Jacana; Black-winged Stilt; Great Thick-knee; Yellow-wattled Lapwing; Red-wattled Lapwing; Pacific Golden Plover; Grey Plover; Little Ringed Plover; Kentish Plover; Mongolian Plover (Lesser Sand Plover); Bar-tailed Godwit; Common Redshank; Marsh Sandpiper; Common Sandpiper; Ruddy Turnstone; Pintail Snipe; Little Stint; Gull-billed Tern; Bridled Tern; Whiskered Tern; White-winged Tern; Little Tern; Sri Lanka Woodpigeon (e); Spotted Dove; Emerald Dove; Orange-breasted Green Pigeon; Sri Lanka Green Pigeon (e); Green Imperial Pigeon; Alexandrine Parakeet; Rose-ringed Parakeet; Layard’s Parakeet (e); Red-faced Malkhoa (e); Asian Koel; Green-billed Coucal (e); Greater Coucal; Pied Cuckoo; Sri Lanka Frogmouth; Indian Nightjar; Brown Fish Owl; Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (e); Malabar Pied Hornbill; House Crow; Large-billed Crow; Malabar Trogon; Stork-billed Kingfisher; White-throated Kingfisher; Common Kingfisher; Pied Kingfisher; Little Green Bee-eater; Chestnut-headed Kingfisher; Blue-tailed Bee-eater; Indian Roller; Eurasian Hoopoe; Sri Lanka Small Barbet; Brown-headed Barbet; Yellow-fronted Barbet (e); Brown-capped Woodpecker; Yellow-crowned Woodpecker; Lesser Yellownape; Black-rumped Flameback; White-naped Woodpecker; Jerdon’s Bushlark (Rufous-winged Bushlark); Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark; Grey Wagtail; Richard’s Pipit; Paddyfield Pipit; Grey-rumped Tree Swift; Asian Palm Swift; Little Swift; Barn Swallow; Sri Lanka Swallow (e); Sri Lanka Woodshrike (e); Small Minivet; Flame Minivet; Black-headed Cuckoo Shrike; Brown Shrike; Ashy Woodswallow; Red-vented Bulbul; White-browed Bulbul; Yellow-browed Bulbul; Black Bulbul; Common Iora; Black-headed Oriole; White-rumped Shama; Oriental Magpie Robin; Spot-winged Thrush (e); Brown-capped Babbler (e); Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler (e); Dark-fronted Babbler; Orange-billed Babbler (e); Yellow-billed Babbler; Ashy-headed Laughingthrush (e); Zitting Cisticola; Plain Prinia; Ashy Prinia; Jungle Prinia; Common Tailorbird; Asian Paradise Flycatcher; White-browed Fantail; Brown-breasted Flycatcher; White-throated Flowerpecker (e); Purple-rumped Sunbird; Long-billed Sunbird; Purple Sunbird; Scaly-breasted Munia; House Sparrow; Sri Lanka Crested Drongo (e); White-bellied Drongo; Sri Lanka Blue Magpie (e); Brahminy Starling; White-faced Starling (e); Common Myna.Total 143. (e) – Endemic
Land Mammals seen:
Asian Elephant; Leopard; Water Buffalo; Common Flying Fox; Horseshoe Bat; Toque Macaque; Purple-faced Leak Monkey; Grey Langur; Black-backed Jackal; Sloth Bear; Ruddy Mongoose; Grey Mongoose; Wild Pig; Spotted Deer; Sambar; Barking Deer (Muntjac); Giant Squirrel; Palm Squirrel; Black-naped Hare.
Blue Whale; Sperm Whale; Spinner Dolphin
Reptiles and Amphibians Seen:
Crocodile; Water Monitor; Land Monitor; Kangaroo Lizard; Green Garden Lizard; Rat Snake; Bronze-backed Tree Snake; Star Tortoise; Green Turtle
Chocolate Soldier; Common Tiger; Three Spot Grass Yellow; Crimson Rose; Common Jezebel; Peacock Pansy; Blue Glassy Tiger; Blue Mormon; White Four-ring; Common Sailor; White Orange Tip; Glassy Tiger; Common Cerulean; Common Pierrot; Lesser Albatross
Flying Fish; Scorpion; Millipede; Fresh Water Crab
(The lists are from my records made during the trip. Any omissions or mistakes are mine)