We went for three weeks in January 2011. The first week unfortunately coincided with a bout of La Nina weather that had been afflicting much of the western Pacific with heavy rains and floods, especially in Queensland, the Philippines and parts of southern China. The persistent low pressure over the Bay of Bengal ensured a period of unseasonal heavy rain in Sri Lanka that gave us cloudy conditions generally and then heavy rain when we were in the centre of the island at high altitude. Our first few days were the ‘cultural’ part of the trip with visits to Sigiriya, Kandy and Polunnaruwa, although Wicky, our driver/guide, did not neglect any wildlife opportunities that befell us. Although I was warned about the climbs involved up the steps and slopes at Sigiriya and Dambulla, my dodgy knees did find it awkward, especially on the descents. It is the uneven heights of the risers to the steps that are the problem, not the length of the climb. Thankfully Wicky was usually able to find some wildlife that we could study at length while we were ‘recuperating’ from the last effort. In both cases the climb was well worth the effort. What the climb at Sigiriya must be like on a sunny day however is something I would not like to contemplate! Wicky, being a practicing Buddhist, like many of his countrymen, was able to guide us through the etiquette required on our part when entering temples and shrines, and explain to us the fascinating history of Sri Lanka.
Kandy was interesting. The weird bridal photographic business in the Botanic Gardens, with the brides amongst the orchids, was very strange with the photos taken after the honeymoon ! The colourful brides were only upstaged by the Indian Pita at 03 metres in the middle of the gardens.
After Kandy and the temples, it was then on and uphill to Nuwara Eliya before going even further uphill to Horton Plains. The tea plantations, including the mandatory visit to a tea factory, which was unexpectedly interesting, bizarrely coat the mountainous landscape in a strangely textured green cloak, interrupted by waterfalls and deep valleys. By this time the rain had arrived in earnest, and while we scored with the engorged waterfalls and romantically misty views, one of the main objectives of the trip, the wildlife, was for most purposed invisible.
The planned visit to Horton Plains that afternoon was abandoned in favour of the Botanic Gardens, at a lower elevation, below the cloud base. Dropping altitude worked a treat, and despite occasional drizzle the Gardens yielded views of the cracking Kashmir and Dusky Blue Flycatchers as well as the splendid Forest Wagtail. En route back to the hotel, the local park in Nuwara Eliya produced very elusive Pied Thrushes at their evening roost.
The next day, the rain was, if anything, worse! We did attempt the early visit to Horton Plains, up a very ropey road for Sri Lanka seeing the Whistling Thrush and the Bush Warbler. However by the time we arrived at the Visitor Centre, the rain was horizontal and the views were restricted to less than 100m (when it wasn’t just 10m). To cap things, there had been a power cut at the visitor centre. We cut our losses and returned to the hotel early. While I might have a moan about missing the two montane endemics, the TV news showed that the rain back in Kandy had produced landslides that had killed people. So I really had nothing to complain about.
We then moved on downhill, along roads where mini-landslides were commonplace, towards Kithulgala. Somewhere along the way, on our 5th day, we reached the 100th bird species for the trip. Opting for the hotel by the waterfall up in the rubber plantation, which offered a peaceful setting, despite the best birding localities being a bit further away in the valley. While the rain had stopped, the overcast sky seemed to bely the tropical setting. The lowland forest birding was good, the Chestnut-backed Owlet being the top bird, along with a Yellow-fronted Barbet digging deep into a Jackfruit, in full view of the riverside café.
The next move was to Ude Walewe. The afternoon ‘safari-type’ excursion was terrific. The bird life in the shallows alongside the main road at the edge of the dam would have been great to spend time on, but the roadworks meant the traffic, frustratingly, had to move on. The 200-odd Asian Elephants, along with Water Buffalo, Fruit Bats, and Ruddy Mongoose while excellent, were however upstaged by the mammal of the trip, a Jungle Cat. Without another vehicle in sight we watched this stilt-legged tabby for about 20 minutes as it strolled along tall grass (hence the need for long legs). The colours, especially the cinnamon of the rear of the ears, and the intricate tabby-like patterns of the body were gorgeous. Add the various perched and very photogenic eagles, loads of Painted Stork, our first Malabar Pied Hornbill plus a first look at open-country small larks, warbler and pipits, made for a memorable day.
On other day, another hotel and another National Park. This time however we were steadily moving south-east towards the drier part of Sri Lanka, and behold, the sun appeared. This was the weather we expected, full sun, warm and great light for photography. Just being able to sunbathe at the pool during our off-duty periods was a luxury, never mind what it did for the colours of what we were watching. Bundula, a huge area of tidal pools and salt pans, juxtaposed familiar birds, mostly waders, alongside less familiar backgrounds of Muggers and exotic cuckoos. Waders were plentiful with interesting stuff amongst the shrubby margins, It certainly brought up the top day list score of the trip,103 species without really trying. Great Thick-knee was the weirdest looking thing, up there with Shoebill, Roadrunner and Hoatzin, in terms of birds that may have evolved on alien planets!
Moving on, en route to Yala, we did another cultural visit. This time Wicky broke away from the schedule and rather than visit the standard tourist-visited temple near Tissa, he took us to Kataragama where at the Buddist-Hindu complex of temples we must have been the only Europeans. He took us through much of the procedure that any pilgrim might take on a visit there, by the simple expediency of doing it himself, with us as observers. This was much more interesting that visiting shrines along with loads of other tourists, such as at the Buddha’s tooth temple in Kandy or the other shrines at Dambula. This was what we liked about Wicky’s approach. He literally practiced his religion to demonstrate to us the intricacies of Buddhist or Hindu worship. While we did not enter the holy-of–holies, we did get to see some fascinating rituals, as well as the feeding of the pack of Langurs, Macaques, Land Monitors and all the other wildlife that form part of the rituals.
After that it was off to Yala for four nights. So what can we say about a place that loads of folk have visited and commented upon.
The Leopard frenzy really got my goat. OK we have seen Leopards in Africa, so they were never going to be the be-all and end-all of the trip. As it was we saw two animals and got great views and passable images of both. It was just the attitude of the local guides, where, in their eye, tips were clearly associated with getting your animals (and, to tell the truth, probably also in the eyes of most the road b e f o r e stalking off through the Other than that, and the roads that had suffered from flooding and new potholing with the recent rains, it was terrific. The accommodation in the Park was surprisingly good, as was the food, and the area around the hotel was also great for just strolling around, watching and photographing the wildlife, without the intercession of a mad driver. While the Leopards were good, I did ike the Golden Jackals, the tiny Buttonquails, and the graceful Pheasant-tailed Jacana. Surprisingly we did not add many ‘new’ species for the trip but we revelled in the sunshine. After that it was back west to Sinharaja (our route was comprised by hotel availability – hence the criss-crossing). We were well aware of the shortcomings of Martin’s Lodge and were prepared for what we encountered. It was only two nights after all, but well advised just to avoid grinding up and down that wretched road twice a day. Reading Bill Oddie’s account of his stay during October, in the February edition of BBC Wildlife captured the essence of Martin’s Lodge perfectly! of their customers). It seemed to colour all of the safari trips. I eventually had to ask them to slow down and indeed just sit for an hour beside one the tanks and watch to see what appeared. This allowed you to see what was happening and drink in the atmosphere. Things would materialise out of the undergrowth that may have remained hidden with just a 5-minute stop. Inevitably a phone would go off and we would go off again to join a Leopard scrum, and a scrum it was with vehicles jostling for position.
Other than that, and the roads that had suffered from flooding and new potholing with the recent rains, it was terrific. The accommodation in the Park was surprisingly good, as was the food, and the area around the hotel was also great for just strolling around, watching and photographing the wildlife, without the intercession of a mad driver. While the Leopards were good, I did like the Golden Jackals, the tiny Buttonquails, and the graceful Pheasant-tailed Jacana. Surprisingly we did not add many ‘new’ species for the trip but we revelled in the sunshine. After that it was back west to Sinharaja (our route was comprised by hotel availability – hence the criss-crossing). We were well aware of the shortcomings of Martin’s Lodge and were prepared for what we encountered. It was only two nights after all, but well advised just to avoid grinding up and down that wretched road twice a day. Reading Bill Oddie’s account of his stay during July-August 2010, in the January 2011 edition of BBC Wildlife captured the essence of Martin’s Lodge perfectly!
It was typical lowland rainforest birding however. Lots of time with no or just a few glimpses of birds followed by a frenzy of spotting and identification when a flock passed through. Thankfully the paths are not long and our trips out into the forest yielded all of the expected species.
The Sri Lanka BlueMagpie: I guess takes the honours, simply because of their tameness. Getting toapproach wild Sri Lanka Junglefowl was also great. The most difficult bird was undoubtedly the Scaly Thrush. I think this bird was sent back from the Terminator 2 future, such was its ability to match its background. My fleeting impressions of this massive skulker ranged variously between black, brown, grey and even purple, but the overwhelming impression was ‘Paisley-pattern’ (if that is a colour).
The next 5 days was our chill-out period on the trip – our holiday from travelling and switching hotels every day or other day. While not a recognised ‘tour’ that Jetwings Eco-Travels did, they were happy to set up our choice of hotel and book the main activity that we wanted. So we went to Weligama Bay Resort, just west of Dondra Head.
We were incredibly lucky to get a hotel upgrade, indeed we jumped three grades and got the Royal Suite. What a contrast with Martin’s. Indeed you could have fitted the entire room and bathroom that we had at Martin’s into the bathroom of the Weligama Bay Resort. What a contrast. There was a similar divergence in the food. Perfect!
Of course we were also there to see Blue Whales, and so we did. We had two trips (c.7-12am) and managed 2 Blue Whales on one and one on the other (the next day folk in the hotel reported seeing 20!). There was a slight echo of the Yala Leopard frenzy here, as once they were on to a whale, they stuck with it. Personally I would have preferred to move on and find something new. So we never did get out far enough to get Sperm Whale.
Even here you could add bird species as tern feeding flocks were common. But the skippers were focused on whales and approaching a flock was incidental to approaching a whale.Nevertheless I managed a Long-tailed Skua (apparently not on the Sri Lanka list), Sooty and Bridled Terns and one of the Noddies amongst the mostly Common Tern parties. Mating Hawksbill Turtle were also pretty good as were the hundreds of Spotted and Common Dolpohin. The odd-looking Whalesuckers were also of interest although at the time no-one could tell me what they were – indeed it was mainly from the photos that we found they were related to Remoras..
So we chilled out. I even did some surfing (of a sort) in the excellent waves. We said goodbye to Wicky at this point, to allow him time-off between tours to see his family! He was a great guide. Humorous, incredibly up on his culture and history of Sri Lanka, he had ace hearing and was able to focus our attention on the right sounds. His knowledge of butterflies, odonata and herps was also evident , a good all-rounder. The ‘Dilshan’ of the birding tour guides, to borrow an allusion to the upcoming Cricket World Cup in March 2011.
We were collected three days later and transferred to Colombo where we stayed at the Villa Talangama for a night. This allowed some time to bird in the afternoon and the following day, as well as some shopping in the city in between when it was too hot to watch wildlife. A nice place to stay and great hosts. The lake and paddies on your doorstep were a great way to pass the last period of the trip, sharpening the ID skills for Sri Lankan wildlife that you had learned during you trip. It would equally be a great introduction to the local wildlife. Highlights were were the herons, the trees next door providing a big roost of several hundred birds. The Yellow and Black Bittern were especially welcome additons.
So all in all a great trip and a welcome break from the miserably cold weather at home. In the end I managed 216 species, of which 110 were lifers, even managing one on the last day, Ashy Woodswallow. We also got 25
The whole trip was planned well by Jetwing and the hotels were of a good-excellent standard. Everything went like clockwork. This is the first time we have booked a guide/driver and we couldn’t have asked for a better one than him. He made the trip for us and it gave us a more relaxing experience. I would not have wanted to drive myself! We felt very safe amongst what we might regard as busy roads with lots of hazards, especially the manic government-run bus drivers!. We were taken to nice restaurants for lunch which we would never have found and he was also able to advise us on etiquette and tips which was invaluable. We would be more than happy to recommend Jetwing Eco-Tours. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country to visit.