Four of us, Peter Hogg, Nick Antcliff, Barry Stidolph and myself, Ian Mills, booked flights through Wildwings with Gulf Air for £400. The key to this successful trip was hiring a vehicle and driver through Baur's. It was really cheap, a little over £200 between four of us for the fortnight.
A Baur & Co. Ltd.
P.O. Box 11
Our driver was Sunil Alwis, who is highly recommended - ask for him by name when contacting Baur's. He is an excellent driver, knows all the sites and will organise everything for you. The deal was really good value for money with slick organisation. Baur's will also sort out your jeep hire into Sinharajah with Sumeda, who is a really nice bloke - he invited us back to his house for a meal.
Other useful contacts:
Upali Ekanayake, email - email@example.com. Top Sri Lankan birder who was extremely helpful and great company. I took out a tripod for his ornithological group. Any old binos or scopes would be very gratefully received. He met us at Kitulgala and accompanied us for a couple of days.
Arrived Columbo airport at 8:35am and immediately changed some money to rupees at £1 to 109rps. Around the airport we saw lots of House Crows and Common Mynahs. Within minutes we climbed aboard our air-conditioned Toyota mini-bus and set off for Kitulgala. Sunil knew every roadside paddyfield and patch of scrub, pulling up for us to mop up Little Cormorant, Smyrna, White-breasted Waterhen, Greater Coucal, close Brown-headed Barbet, Yellow-billed Babbler, lots of Indian Pond Herons, juvenile and adult Asian Openbill, Red-wattled Lapwing, Spotted Dove plus Cattle, Intermediate and Great White Egrets with Crested Serpent Eagles, Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike, 2 Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters on wires.
At Kitulgala we checked into the Rest House, which was far and away the most expensive place we stayed but there are no local alternatives. It overlooked the river Kiluni, where the locals were bathing, drinking, singing, playing musical instruments and making one hell of a din! We met up with Upali Ekanayake. I had corresponded with him many times over the Net and I brought him a tripod from OBC. He proved to be excellent company and knew many British birders, having helped with the new field guide and led many tours. His bird finding skills and knowledge of calls gave us an excellent start as he accompanied us for the first 2 days.
Around the hotel gardens we had Jungle Crow, Brahminy Kite, Brown-headed Barbet and Loten's Sunbird. With Upali we added our first endemic, Sri Lankan Hanging Parrot - whipping about with a distinctive high pitched call. A dugout canoe with an outrigger needed two trips to take us across the river. The canoe's interior was about 6 inches wide and 18 inches deep so you had to stand one foot in front of the other and a jolt would send you overboard, probably breaking legs in the process. On the far bank we passed through small-holdings, as we chalked up Shikra, Yellow-fronted Barbet with Black and Yellow-browed Bulbuls. The forest proper started after a quarter of a mile, and there we had Ceylon Hill Mynah, Oriental Honey Buzzard and taped out Chestnut-backed Owlet. A heavy shower caught us without brolleys so we retired to a jungle hut and drank tea, watching a 7 inch scorpion crawl by. The rain eased off so we took another shot at the Sri Lankan Frogmouth. After 15-20 minutes of playback the bird began to respond and close in. Upali took my Maglite and whacked the beam straight onto the bird in total darkness, first time and not an inch out! It was a young bird with a very pale breast. After a de-leeching session (Nick had 13), we celebrated with several Lion beers.
Began our second day at Kitulgala in civilised style with tea on the terrace at dawn, watching Pompadour Green Pigeon, Black-hooded Oriole and Indian Swiftlet. Over the river a Stork-billed Kingfisher perched on a wire. Grey Hornbills, male Paradise Flycatcher and Grey Wagtail were seen. Through the 'village' a nice Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, and along the forest track 2 Indian Scimitar-babblers, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Crested Drongo, Layard's Parakeet and 2 Sri Lankan Blue Magpies. Watched the forest edge for Large-billed Leaf Warbler calling 'yes it is', Forest Wagtail, Dark-fronted Babbler, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Hill Mynah, Common Iora, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike and a Chestnut-headed Bee-eater nesting in a bank along the edge of a paddy. The hardest endemic is Sri Lankan Spurfowl, so plenty of euphoria after scoring within half a minute of playback. We quietly crouched on a bank at a possible stake-out, where a male and female came sneaking in but shot off across the forest floor as soon as they spotted us. Another group responded noisily from behind us but no sign. We heard others at Sinharajah and Bodinghala but this was to be our only sighting.
En route to Kandy had 2 Crested Serpent Eagles and Oriental Honey Buzzard. Checked into McLeod's Inn, a very nice guest house on a hillside overlooking Kandy. Drove up hillsides through tea plantations with scattered trees, where easy birding added Crimson-fronted Barbet, first of many Indian Robins, Grey-breasted Prinia, White-browed Fantail, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Common Woodshrike, Small and Scarlet Minivets, Black-headed Bulbul, Black-rumped Flameback and our only Alexandrine Parakeets. Higher up Plum-headed Parakeets were very smart plus Yellow-eyed Babbler, Scaly-breasted Munia and Oriental White-eye. Back at the gaff on the balcony we saw the endemic Toque Monkey sitting on a house roof and a Whiskered Tern on the Lake below.
At first light, 6:30am, entered Uda Wattakelle reserve - an impressive forest with a small lake. First tick was a cracking Indian Blue Robin plus Forest Wagtails and Emerald Dove. The endemic Brown-capped Babblers were impressive quietly bobbing around in the leaf litter. By 8:20am we had completed our first circuit also seeing Common Kingfisher, Stork-billed Kingfisher with a fish, Black-naped Monarch, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Large-billed Leaf Warbler and a swimming Rat Snake. Off track into the forest past a group of Red-faced Macaques, working a good looking trail, I decided to chance it with Indian Pitta playback and one responded immediately! Kept it coming and soon spotted it perched on a curved vine 3 feet off the ground - a real stunner and one of the main target species. Decided on another circuit, and Sunil yelled from the other side of the lake that he had a Brown Fish Owl! The owl was scoped low in waterside vegetation. I wandered in off the track combing the leaf litter, and a cracking Orange-headed Ground Thrush launched up and perched in full view. Shouted of the others but it was twitching as they approached up the bank, and it flew further in. An extensive thrash round proved fruitless.
Left at midday and cleared McLeod's Inn by 12:30pm. We headed into the highlands full of anticipation for the mouth watering goodies awaiting us at Nuwara Eliya. The climate was lovely and cool as we checked into our guest house - Alpen Tour Inn. We headed for gardens around Hill Park Hotel, where a male Kashmir Flycatcher had been wintering, but there was no sign although an Oriental Hobby flew over. A few Paddyfield Pipits were on the lawns, very like Richard's but with a 'chip-chip-chip' call, bright yellow legs and mid size hind claw. Victoria Park was heaving with people as it was a national holiday but it made little difference to the birds. Within minutes a male Pied Ground Thrush flushed up from the filthy stream banks - it flew into a bush and showed well, a splash of black, white and grey plus a bright yellow bill. We crawled under some bushes to notch up more of these Himalayan thrushes and later had them flying up into tall trees going to roost, about 8 in all. Under the bushes had a female Indian Robin, 2-3 Forest Wagtails plus the distinctive Blackbird with a grey-blue cast, red bill and legs. An Indian Pitta showed amazingly well among the flower beds and was fairly tame as some old dudes from a Scottish Ornithologists Club trip were waving their arms about a few feet from the bird. We lined up a few goodies for the Jocks. Other birds picked up were a white male Paradise Flycatcher, Green Warbler, Blyth's Reed Warbler and 2 more endemics - Yellow-eared Bulbul and Sri Lankan White-eye.
Pot of tea at 5am before setting off for Horton Plains for the Sri Lankan Whistling Thrush pool. Arrived there half an hour before dawn and listened for the distinctive double whistle, 'seee seee'. Sure enough we heard the call a couple of times just before dawn and then silence. A minute or two later Sunil announced, 'too late now, we go' and it wasn't even light! This species was going to be difficult. A Blackbird caused a scare before we began working the road through scrubby highland forest.
By 7am we chalked up 3 Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, good views of Sri Lankan Bush Warbler, Dull Blue Flycatcher, Lesser Whitethroat, 2 Green Warblers (1 calling a typical Greenish disyllabic Pied Wag call, 'chi-wi' with a few sub-song notes) and taped out several Indian Scimitar Babblers. Over the open grassy plains were lots of Zitting Cisticolas and Oriental Pipits with a Black-winged Kite, 12 Pied Bushchats and Long-tailed Shrike. Parked up at entrance to national park, having seen a few Sambar. Walked a couple of miles in hot conditions, when we saw Blyth's Reed Warbler, 2 more Bush Warblers and a close Sri Lankan Wood Pigeon. In the heat of the late morning had 3 Mountain Hawk Eagles; grilled some swallows and picked out a Hill Swallow, dusky breast and flanks. Oriental Pipits were doing a switchback display over the grasslands.
Returned to gaff at 1pm for tea and through the window spotted an Ashy Prinia on wires. Revisited Hill Park Hotel, and on the golf course found the Kashmir Flycatcher - a real gem and the only one we saw. Picked out a couple of Alpine Swifts. The Hakgala botanical gardens were thronging with people, and birding looked a long shot in the heat of the afternoon but we eventually came upon a decent feeding flock with 9 species including Loten's Sunbird and Streak-throated Woodpecker.
Another crack at the Whistling Thrush, we clambered down a steep slope by the roadside into a wooded ravine, with a rocky stream, where we perched on the rocks under overhanging trees and sat it out. The sibilant double call was heard several times but not a sniff of the bird, and it couldn't be taped due to water noise. The intermittent calls continued and our pishing became more and more frantic as the light drained. At the last gasp a bird flew in at 650pm and perched directly above us.
Reached the Surrey Tea Plantation by 6:15am for a couple of hours. In this small wood and scrub area picked up 3 Yellow-naped Woodpeckers and 2 Tawny-throated Babblers. Red Junglefowl calling and sneaking through undergrowth plus Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, 2 Coppersmith Barbets, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Brown-headed Barbet and Black-naped Monarch. Also seen were White-browed Bulbuls, Giant Squirrel, a cracking male Purple Sunbird, Indian Blue Robin and our only Brown Flycatcher.
Heading south saw Mongoose, 10 Black-headed Ibis, Red-rumped Swallow - the island race with very red underparts, Little Swifts and Swiftlets, Blue-tailed Bee-eater and 2 Changeable Hawk Eagles. A Black Eagle was weaving low in and out of palms. Sunil took a route which skirted Ruhunu National Park, and we picked up 2 Malabar Pied Hornbills flying over. At various roadside stops we saw Palm Swift, Crested Treeswift, Purple Sunbird, Red-wattled Lapwing.
Around midday hit a nice little wetland, which held c10 Little Green Bee-eater, Baya and Streaked Weaver, c12 Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Oriental Darter, Yellow Wagtail, 3 Lesser Whistling Duck, 2-3 Dabchicks and Common Kingfisher. It was extremely hot as we tried to bird the roadside at the National Park in the middle of the day, but we did see Jerdon's Bushlark.
At Tissa' we strolled up a small bank and stared in amazement over a vast lily covered tank thronging with birds: at 60 metres a breeding colony of Night Herons and various Egrets with dozens of Purple Gallinules and Jacanas in view. Several adult Purple Herons moved about with a juvenile in a bare tree and patrolling Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns. A single Cotton Teal was well hidden among the lilies. Two best birds were a Black Bittern, flushed by the path and a surprisingly easy female Watercock, clambering about in a scrubby bush in the marsh and resembling a skinny, long-legged Corncrake. It eventually flew with legs dangling and dropped into the reeds. About 100 Tree Ducks were prominent with Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Black-winged Stilt, Scaly-breasted Munia and Plain Prinia. As we sheltered from a heavy rain shower, picked up a Yellow Bittern climbing around low down in reeds, it performed for 20 minutes.
Negotiated for an open-backed Land Rover at 1800rp for a morning safari into Yala National Park. The road in produced 3 or 4 Indian Nightjars, one was taped in close, plus our first Indian Peafowl. Pools by the entrance buildings held Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Ringed Plover and Pintail Snipe, but the real stuff started to flow as we drove past some really good pools with 5 Great Thick-knees (day total of 12), Pacific Golden Plover, 2 Marsh Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, White-winged Black Terns in varying plumage states. From the jeep the birds were very approachable with prolonged views of Junglefowl, very close Little Green Bee-eaters and some nice close waders with Yellow-wattled Lapwings, Kentish Plovers, Lesser Sand Plover and Temminck's Stints. Impressive were 2 very smart Orange-breasted Green Pigeons on the ground. One small pool held Lesser Adjutant, Woolly-necked Stork and 3 Spoonbills. A trio of good ticks were an excellent close Blue-faced Malkhoa right by the jeep plus Brahminy Mynah and Ashy-crowned Finch-lark. Also seen were Pied Cuckoo, Large Woodshrike and Hoopoe. A group of 3 or 4 Knot were unexpected. A couple of Malabar Pied Hornbills flew over with another single earlier. A rich selection of water birds were on offer but despite plenty of efforts from our driver and guide we failed to locate Black-necked Stork, although we had another 2 Lesser Adjutant and 2 more Woolly-necked Storks. Raptors included 2 White-bellied Fish Eagles, a Grey-headed Fish Eagle on the nest, Brahminy Kites and a stunning pale Changeable Hawk Eagle, which crashed down into the scrub giving superb views on the ground before flying off with a large lizard.
A 10 minute stop on an idyllic beach produced another Great Thick-knee and Caspian Tern, with 100+ seen later with Brown-headed Gulls. An Indian Pitta flew across the track. On the mammal stakes we had 3 wild boars, spotted deer, grey langur, 3 crocodiles including a really big one, land monitor, water buffalo and 2 male elephants. Checked out the coconut grove for White-naped Woodpecker but only saw Black-rumped. Headed for the tank with its mass of waterbirds and had similar species to yesterday. Amazingly, while trying to scope a perched Shikra, I put the scope straight onto a Brown Fish Owl sitting in the same tree!!
After 4pm we drove back down to the Yala stretch to do a bit scrub bashing. About 3 Indian Pittas were calling, managed to tape in one. A big selection of waders were on show as we drove along the edge of the marsh with our only Little Pratincole, c35 Curlew Sandpipers, Temminck's Stints, Little Stints, Black-tailed Godwits, Pacific Goldies and 20-30 Spoonbills. A rain storm put paid to our attempts to sort out the Nightjars.
Had a good early morning session with Nightjars at Bundala, sorted out Indian and Jerdon's Nightjars with excellent views of both as they responded to their different calls, calling back and coming close to the tape. Jerdon's is much bigger with a more even keel in flight with less twisting. Added Pied Kingfisher, good views of Pied Cuckoo with nice terns: Gull-billed, White-winged Black, Whiskered and Caspian. Another few Blue-faced Malkhoas, Tawny-bellied Babbler, 3 Grey-bellied Cuckoos, 3 Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, Black-headed Munia and Plain Prinia.
Had more Pied Cuckoos and Kingfishers en route to Kalametiya, where a turf areas provided close Sandplovers, 2 Stone Curlews and other waders including Kentish. Usual roadside birds of Rollers with 1-2 Pied Kingfishers as we reached the park entrance of Uda Walawa in the heat of the day so decided against entry. At the local hotel - Walawa Safari Village Hotel, it was rather expensive at 2600rp (£12 each) for a double room with dinner and breakfast but we wisely went for it as it was the most comfortable room (good fan and no biters), and the meal was superb.
Worked the road up to the dam and towards the park entrance at Uda Walawa, where the star bird was an Oriental Hobby perched up and flying around, much chunkier and broad-winged than our Hobby, resembling a small Peregrine. Gave our list of provisions to our jeep driver, and we did a round of some fascinating shops with interesting smells! Within an hour we had a huge supply of vegetables, tins, bread, curry powder, rice, costing buttons plus a limited amount of booze, bought from a shop where alcoholics queued to have bottles filled up with the local spirit. Started haggling about the price of the jeep, and I got it down to 4500rps instead of 5000. We crammed everything and everybody into the back of the jeep and began a tortuous journey into the mountains, battling to keep the cases and boxes of provisions from tumbling back on us.
Stopped at a bridge over the stream by the village and played tape - within minutes had a brief close range flight view of Green-billed Coucal. Eventually reached Martin's place, an assortment of jungle shacks perched on the side of a forested hillside, our home for the next 4 days. Entered the trail downhill and caught the tail end of a feeding flock with Black-rumped Woodpeckers, Rufous Babblers, Crested Drongo, Lesser Yellownape and Black-hooded Oriole. On the trail our first of many Spot-winged Thrushes, feeding on the track. Accommodation was very basic, but Martin and his family were extremely friendly, his daughters cooked us a nice meal, and we tanked up on toddy and Arrak.
Went up into forest along main track and had Emerald Dove on path, Blue Magpie, quite a few Junglefowl - quite tame here and a Sri Lankan Wood Pigeon, which we saw daily in the same place over the next few days. Our first Malabar Trogan and Red-faced Malkhoa were smart, also 2 Ceylon Hill Mynahs, Dark-fronted Babbler, Asian Paradise and Dull-blue Flycatchers. Close views of 3 or 4 cracking Blue Magpies by the clearing at the research station with 4 species of Flycatcher: Brown-breasted, Tickell's Blue, Asian Paradise and Dull-blue. The rain which started at midday didn't ease until 3:20pm. Picked up at least 4 Spot-winged Thrushes on the track and a few parties of Rufous Babblers. Various birds came into the Chestnut-backed Owlet tape - an Indian Cuckoo was unexpected.
In a gully on the right half way to station heard Green-billed Coucal and taped it out for brief views, managed to get bill. Also a couple of Spot-winged Thrushes, Brown Shrike and Ashy-headed Laughing-thrush. At the station Ceylon Hill Mynah and encountered a flock of 10-12 species with good views of White-headed Starling, Red-billed Malkhoa, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and 2 Malabar Trogans. Entered the loop trail, and immediately a thrush popped up at the side of the track and perched - Scaly Thrush, soon to be split. It zapped around for a few minutes calling 'tup, tup.' Staked out the paddyfield by the entrance hut at 2:30pm for the last remaining endemic - the Hill Munia, and after an hour or so a pair flew in.
Wandered back up main track and hit a big flock at the Research centre with c5 Red-faced Malkhoas, several White-headed Starlings, lots of Babblers and Laughing-thrushes, Blue-naped Monarch and 3 Malabar Trogans. Another creep through the exciting loop trail and tracked down another calling Scaly Thrush - 'tsup tsup.' It was grubbing around on the deck with one eye fixed on me - moving slowly and very sneaky. Inevitable Spot-winged Thrush feeding on track on return to Martin's, where we had the same meal of rice, green beans, carrot and tomato, curried bananas - a right concoction, but fortunately our beer order had arrived courtesy of the jeep driver. It was election night, so all the locals headed in for an all night telly session - we were apparently in the safest place as elections are violent affairs.
Overnight a Ruddy Mongoose was trapped by the research staff. Good views of a Chestnut-backed Owlet picked out by the park guide. A good bird flock up by the research station with 1-2 Red-faced Malkhoas, Malabar Trogan, White-headed Starling plus the usual stuff. Climbed up to the information centre and checked out the exhibits and in the heat had good views of 2 Black Eagles followed yet again by an afternoon of steady rain. From the balcony we had Black Bulbul, male Paradise Flycatcher, White-eye, Legge's Flowerpecker and Jungle Crow.
Finished with a flourish with another Scaly Thrush and left the impressive Sinhararjah and headed north to Bodinghala. Reached Ingiriya Citizen's Rest by 4:55pm, and the stakeout tree had 2 roosting Collared Scops Owls at close range.
At Bodinghala, we taped out a Frogmouth. It was a long way off but responded immediately to the tape coming straight in. We restrained ourselves with the torches as it shot back and forth over our heads in the darkness. Eventually I crouched right down and pinpointed it very low down perched in foliage within 10 feet for a cracking view. 2 lots of Spurfowl were calling but didn't respond to tape although the mossies did. Overlooked a small pool where a Black-backed Kingfisher was proving very difficult, shooting backwards and forwards above us through the canopy, signalling its presence with a loud metallic 'zing'. Good views of a close perched Oriental Honey Buzzard, and had Brown-capped Babbler plus a few Grey Hornbills near the stone steps.
Left after 7am with the usual water birds en route and reached the Bellanwila-Attidiya Sanctuary at Columbo, but roads were flooded so we waded thigh deep for nice views of Black Bittern, c4 Purple Herons, Zitting Cisticola, Plain Prinia and Brahminy Kites. On a nearby beach we picked up Lesser Crested Terns, and by the hotel a Cinnamon Bittern in flight took the trip list to 223.
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