Sri Lanka Trip Report: 1-15 March 2002

By Joseph Thompson, MD

Sri Lanka has been a well-recognized birdwatcherís paradise for many years, as evidenced by the many quality trip reports that are available. In my report, I would like to emphasize the advantages of including Bibile, a site not included on larger tours, and relate the extremely high quality of the local Sri Lankan guides whose services are available.

Sri Lanka is an extremely beautiful country whose people are among the friendliest in the world. Travel in the birding areas, which are in the south and central portions of the country, is quite safe and is exceptionally hassle-free. Standards of cleanliness are much higher than in neighboring India, and the country in general seems significantly more prosperous than India as well. Although travel is slow, travel distances are relatively short, and the countryside is quite scenic, with rice paddies, tea plantations, and numerous Buddhist and Hindu temples. Since Uditha, my guide, was able to show me all of the target birds so quickly, I had 2 days at the end of the tour to enjoy the temples of Kandy and Dambulla as well as the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa.

Birding Guides: Two of Sri Lankaís birding guides, Deepal Warakagoda and Upali Ekanayake, have long been recognized as being extremely talented and experienced guides with pleasant personalities, and they are frequently utilized and booked by the major bird-watching tour operators each year. I am pleased to say that Baurs Tourism, the agency that books tours for Deepal and Upali, also has a couple of other talented guides that are readily available: Uditha (Udi) Hettige and Lester Perera. Udi was my guide for this trip, and I could not have asked for a more talented and pleasant guide. He had extensive field experience in all of the areas we visited, included the infrequently visited Bibile area, and his ability to spot and identify birds was exceptional. He has an extremely good ear, is pleasant company, and has good recordings for all of the target endemic species. Udi was able to show me ALL of the target endemic species and ALL target endemic subspecies so rapidly that we were able to spend time finding Ďbonusí birds at Bibile that can only be found with difficulty, if at all, in Southern India. I have birded most of Asia previously, and was truly impressed by his talent and efficiency---I would recommend him without hesitation as a guide for future individual or group tours.

Logistics: The major tour companies utilize the services of Baurs Tourism, aka A. Baur & Co. Travel; website: www.baurs.com; email: tourism@baurs.com. The logistics for birding trips is handled by Mr. Perry Viswalingam, who did an excellent job with planning and kept close phone contact with my guide throughout the trip to be certain that all was going well. I was again very impressed, and wish that birding logistics were handled this competently in all the countries that we birders visit!

Lodging is mostly quite comfortable, and even in little-visited Bibile, the guesthouse had private showers, flush toilets, electric fans, and great food! At Sinharaja, a major birding site, it is a significant advantage to be in a small group. Martinís guest house there is immediately adjacent to the rain forest, but large groups must make a bone-jarring 2 hour trip in the morning and again in the afternoon as they commute in from Ratnapura. Since costs are so reasonable in Sri Lanka, I would recommend traveling in a group of 2 to at most 4---itís much easier to see the shyer endemics when there are only 1 or 2 of you!

Length of Trip/When to go: The birding season runs roughly late Oct. to early April, and 12 days allowed me to see all target birds and do a little sightseeing as well, but only because I had such an efficient guide in Uditha!

Cost: A private 12 day trip, all-inclusive except for drinks, was $2400.

Getting there: Europeans and some Americans arrive from the west on Air Lanka, Emirates, etc. From California, it was very easy for me to connect from the EAST, utilizing Cathay Pacific, with a non-stop to Hong Kong, and then a direct flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka, on a flight which makes a single stop in Bangkok. Since Cathay is a partner with American Airlines, itís a great way to utilize Aadvantage Frequent Flyer Miles!

Significant birds by site: E=Endemic

3 March: Bodhingala: Green-billed Coucal (E)---excellent views of 2 birds displaying mating behavior; Chestnut-backed Owlet (E)---scope views of a bird that Udi found; Ceylon Hanging-Parrot (E); Malabar Trogon; Black-backed (Dwarf) Kingfisher; Ceylon Gray Hornbill (E); Crimson-fronted Barbet (E subspecies----split by some); Yellow-fronted Barbet (E); Indian Pitta (found at most sites we visited in Sri Lanka); Yellow-browed Bulbul; White-throated Flowerpecker (E); Purple-rumped Sunbird (common at many sites)

4 March: Kitulgala Rain Forest: Ceylon Spurfowl (E)---excellent views of a male that Udi called across a ravine, with extended views as it crossed the ravine and came to within 4 meters of us!; Laynardís Parakeet (E)---seen at several sites; Ceylon Frogmouth (E); Spot-winged Thrush (E); Ceylon Myna (E); Southern Hill Myna; Dark-fronted Babbler; Orange-billed Babbler (E); Forest Wagtail.

5 March: Sinharaja Rain Forest: Ceylon Wood Pigeon (E, easier to see at Horton Plain); Red-faced Malkoha (E)---4 individuals seen well; Ceylon Magpie (E); Scaly Thrush; White-faced Starling (E)---in mixed upper canopy to mid-story mixed flocks, as well as one at a nest hole feeding young; Black-crested Bulbul---this form, a probable split, is called Black-capped Yellow Bulbul here; Ashy-headed Laughingthrush (E)---mid to understory in mixed flocks; Brown-capped Babbler (E); Indian Scimitar-Babbler; Yellow-eyed Babbler; Black-throated Munia (E subspecies, and another probable split----Udi was very keen on finding this bird, and we saw about 20 in a field of mature rice); Pale-billed Flowerpecker.

6 March: Udawalawe National Park: Lots of Asian Elephants! (viewed from the back of an open jeep); Pallid Harrier; Ceylon Junglefowl (E); Barred Buttonquail; Sirkeer Malkoha---one; Blue-faced Malkoha; Malabar Pied Hornbill; Brown-capped Woodpecker; Orange-headed (Ground) Thrush; Tawny-bellied Babbler; Rufous-Winged Bushlark; White-throated Munia; Blythís Pipit; Oriental Pipit; Richardís Pipit; Thick-billed Flowerpecker.

6 March (PM): Tissa area: Lots of waterbirds. Spot-billed Pelican; Black Bittern; Cinnamon Bittern; Collared Pratincole; Pied Cuckoo; Brown Fish-Owl; Indian Nightjar; White-naped Woodpecker (lives in coconut plantations)---Udi knew exactly where they would be!; Black-capped Kingfisher; Black-headed Munia; Streaked Weaver (in reeds); Long-billed Sunbird.

7 March: Yala National Park: Lots of wildlife, viewed from the back of an open jeep. Blue-breasted Quail; Pintail Snipe; lots of waterbirds including Caspian Plover; Orange-breasted Pigeon; Jerdonís Nightjar; Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike (also in Bibile); Blue-winged Leafbird; Bay-backed Shrike---this is a bird that is so rare in Sri Lanka that itís only the second record for the country. Udi discovered this individual several years ago, and it has repeatedly wintered at the same site now; White-browed Bulbul; Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark.

8 March: Bundala National Park: Birding from an open jeep; lots of waterbirds. Red-necked Phalarope; Great Thick-knee; Eurasian Thick-knee; Small Pratincole; Yellow-crowned Woodpecker---one.

9-10 March: Bibile area: excellent forest with lots of birds; Udi knew this habitat and these sites extremely well. This is the area where several birds are found that otherwise are only found in Southern India. Bonelliís Eagle; Rufous-bellied Eagle; Painted Francolin---including excellent views of a male walking back and forth across the top of a large boulder, calling in the early am---this bird is apparently much more dependable in Sri Lanka than in India; Jungle Bush-Quail---distinctive facial pattern; Yellow-crowned Woodpecker---one; Streak-throated Woodpecker---1 female, a local specialty; Gray Nightjar; Jungle Owlet; Large Cuckoo-shrike; Booted Warbler (ssp. caligata).

11 March (pm): Victoria Park, Nuwara Eliya (2000 meters): Pied Thrush; Kashmir Flycatcher; Indian Blue Robin; Ceylon White-Eye (E).

12 March (early am): Horton Plains (2300---bring a warm jacket for this one!): Common Hawk-Cuckoo; Ceylon Whistling-Thrush (E)---our views of 2 birds were shortened significantly by the presence of a large ill-behaved German birdwatching group; Eurasian Blackbird; Dull-blue Flycatcher (E); Hill Swallow; Yellow-eared Bulbul (E); Ceylon Bush-Warber (E)---videotaped!

13 March: Sigiriya, in the ĎCultural Triangleí, close to the Dambulla Rock Temple and the Polonnaruwa Ruins; Peregrine Falcon---Shaheen form; Indian Scops-Owl; Brown Fish-Owl.

14 March: Sightseeing.

The only birds that I could have even wished for are not endemics: Slaty-legged Crake and Rosy Starling. 2001 was an irruptive year for Rosy Starling in Sri Lanka, but 2002 apparently wasnít!

In summary, an excellent tour in a beautiful, friendly country, operated by a sound, dependable ground agent, with an excellent guide and driver. Anyone wishing further information about this birding trip, or about a contrastingly negative experience that I and a couple of friends had with a major Thai birdwatching company, please feel free to contact me at the following email address:

joseph.c.thompson@kp.org

Joseph Thompson, MD

Los Angeles, California