Trip Report: Sri Lanka, December 2-17, 2000

Clive Harris, New Delhi, India;

I recently spent just over 2 weeks in Sri Lanka. Most of this was work-related, running a conference at the Kandalama Hotel (near Dambulla) which is an excellent birding location (it was someone else's choice of venue!). I also managed a weekend away to go to the highlands and make a half day visit to Sinharaja Forest Reserve.

Endemics highlights: Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, Green-billed Coucal.

Other birding highlights: (listed mainly for the quality of the views) Brown Fish-Owl, Pied Thrush, Kashmir Flycatcher, Indian Blue Robin, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Brown-breasted Flycatcher.

The tank and surrounding jungle at Kandalama are excellent birding areas. You can see quite a few species on a short half hour pre-breakfast walk. Sri Lanka Junglefowl are the most obvious endemics, with several males seen well in forest clearings. I also picked up the only two Brown-capped Babblers of the trip on a jungle walk at Kandalama, which are heard often enough but are real skulkers. Grey-headed Fish and White-bellied Sea-eagles were both present at the tank. Indian Pitta seem to be common and I had good views of two along the access road, as well as seeing several more fly across the road.

I spent a day and a half in the Nuwara Elliya and Horton Plains areas. Birding here was a bit hampered by heavy fog and rain. The first morning was fine, however, and an early start in Victoria Gardens produced excellent views of male Pied Thrush and Kashmir Flycatcher. The highlight here was a male Indian Blue Robin which perched at close focus range and repeatedly sang, belying his supposedly shy nature.

Hakgala Gardens themselves were quiet but the river turned out to be productive. There were a couple of mixed feeding flocks which included Sri Lanka White-eyes, Large-billed and Green (more common than former species) Warblers, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrikes and Great Tits. Hearing a call similar to other whistling thrushes I scrambled down a short path to the rivers edge where I could get a view up and down stream of c 20 metres. I was distracted by a feeding flock but then looked across the bank and saw a male Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush on the water's edge under overhanging vegetation. He moved up the bank, some fog rolled in, and when it cleared he was gone. I waited but he didn't reappear, and when I left I discovered I had a good sized leach on my neck which I had to wait to burn off until I got back to the car. The area was a little up the road from km 83, where the river is only about 10 feet below the level of the road.

The last birding of the day was in a wooded area half way up the road to the Tea Factory Hotel. I picked up a pair of Dull Blue Flycatchers here, as well as a pair of Nilgiri Blackbirds eating fruit in a tree (they looked different to the European version, and were much more shy, but the quiet "chuck-chuck" call sounded familiar). Yellow-eared Bulbuls and Sri Lanka White-eyes were very common in this area. At around 3:30 PM a very dense fog rolled in, and birding was finished for the day.

Horton Plains, the next morning, was blanketed in fog and when it finally lifted, after a brief period of sun, it began to rain heavily. I didn't see a lot here as a result, although I did hear a Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon.

The final substantial birding was at Sinharaja. I stayed at the Rantnaloka Tour Inn. I set off about 4:40 AM and reached the ticket office at the entrance at about 6:50 AM. They were a little slow in opening the ticket office which turned out to be a real bonus. I started to look for birds around the back of the buildings. First up were Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill and Yellow-fronted Barbet.

I then noticed a movement in a clump of bamboo round a tree that was overhanging the river. Getting my binoculars on this, I could see it was a coucal. It turned its head and showed a beautiful pale green bill, seemingly a little more slender and with more curvature than that of its common relative. Finding a Green-billed Coucal this way may either have been an outrageous piece of good fortune or the result of checking suitable habitat early in the day. Although I got some good views of the bird it managed to disappear without me being sure that it had flown off from the bamboo patch. In the end I was not sure whether it was one or two birds since it seemed to appear in different parts of the bamboo thicket without any obvious movement.

If birders want to find Green-billed Coucal at Sinharaja, they may want to check out the bamboo stands near the river at the ticket office, or a quarter of a mile into the park itself, before heading off into the park itself. This particular spot can be found by going all the way past the main ticket office/bunkhouse to the toilet block, and then turning left and heading to the trees overhanging the river (yet another good bird found in close proximity to a toilet). The area also has a path into the jungle, and moments after finding the Coucal a Spot-winged Thrush appeared and put on a good show.

I headed into the park with a tracker named Gurpal who did seem to know his bird calls and had exceptional eyesight. We spent about six hours along the trails. In the end he seemed rather disappointed and commented that the birds were staying hidden in the jungle, but I had a great time. We came across 3 feeding flocks, the first of which had a couple of close-up Sri Lanka Blue Magpies mixed in. The last feeding flock had Ashy-headed Laughing-thrush, which were surprisingly similar (apart from the head) to Orange-billed Babbler, and gave prolonged close-focus views of Large-billed Leaf Warbler and Brown-breasted Flycatcher. I missed only one endemic I really wanted to see, which was the malkoha, but almost walking into a Brown Fish-owl, nonchalantly preening itself in the open, made up for this. It was genuinely a privilege to have birded at Sinharaja, and I hope to be able to return there to spend longer.

The following weekend I made a trip to Minneriya National Park with my family, mainly to see the elephants. It's a good birding location as well, although seeing birds from the jeeps is not easy, and had the only Indian Peacocks of the trip. The highlights were the large elephant herds - we ended up seeing over 100 of them.

In total I saw 156 species, of which 30 were new birds. Of the endemics, I saw 16 and heard another 2 species.

Species List

Species Scientific Name Notes
Spot-billed PelicanPelecanus philippensisCommon at Kandalama Tank
Little CormorantPhalacrocorax nigerCommon
Indian CormorantPhalacrocorax fuscicollis Common
Great CormorantPhalacrocorax carboSeveral pairs nesting at Kandalama Tank
Oriental DarterAnhinga melanogasterKandalama
Little EgretEgretta garzettaKandalama
Grey HeronArdea cinereaCommon at Kandalama
Purple HeronArdea purpureaUncommon at Kandalama
Intermediate EgretMesophoyx intermediaSeen once only at Kandalama
Great EgretArdea albaKandalama
Cattle EgretBubuculus ibisCommon
Indian Pond HeronArdeola grayiiCommon, obviously
Black BitternIxobrychus flavicollisFlushed one near edge of Kandalama Tank
Painted StorkMycteria leucocephalaSmall flocks over Kandalama tank
Asian OpenbillAnastomus oscitansSmall groups seen Kandalama
Woolly-necked StorkCiconia episcopusTwo at Kandalama
Black-headed IbisThreskiornis melanocephalusFlocks seen in flight over Kandalama Tank
Black-shouldered KiteElanus caeruleusSingle bird seen at Nuwara Elliya
Brahminy KiteHaliastur indicusCommon near water
White-bellied Sea EagleHaliaeetus leucogasterSeen several times at Kandalama
Grey-headed Fish EagleIcthyophaga ichthyaetusAdult seen very well (scope views) at Kandalama, also nest seen at back of hotel
Montagu's/Pallid HarrierCircus pygarus/macrourusJuvenile bird not seen well, Minneriya
Crested Serpent EagleSpilornis cheelaVictoria Gardens (close-up) and Sinharaja
ShikraAccipiter badiusKandalama - seen once
Black EagleIctinateus malayensisSingle birds seen distantly at Hortan Plains and Sinharaja
Rufous-bellied Hawk EagleHieraaetus kieneriiSingle bird soaring midday over Research Station, Sinharaja
Changeable Hawk EagleSpizaetus cirrhatusQuite common at Kandalama
PeregrineFalco peregrinusOne bird overhead at Sigiriya rock (Shahin Falcon)
Common KestrelFalco tinnunculusSingle bird at Minneriya
Sri Lanka JunglefowlGallus lafayetiiMany seen Kandalama, one at Sinharaja
Indian PeafowlPavo cristatus3-4 males at Minneriya
Barred ButtonquailTurnix suscitatorFour seen at Kandalama
White-breasted WaterhenAmaurornis phoenicurusCommon
Black-winged StiltHimantopus himantopusOnly two seen, Minneriya tank
Red-wattled LapwingVanellus indicusCommon
Common SandpiperTringa hypoleucosCommon
Common GreenshankTringa nebulariaOne bird flushed from stream Horton Plains
Marsh SandpiperTringa stagnatilisSingle birds at Kandalama
Common TernSterna hirundoSmall groups offshore from Negombo
Gull-billed TernGelochelidon niloticaTwo birds over Kandalama tank
Common TernSterna hirundoOffshore at Browns Beach hotel
Whiskered TernChlidonias hybridusCommon inland
Rock DoveColumba liviaNear habitation
Spotted DoveStreptopelia chinensisCommon in Kandalama, also most everywhere else
Emerald DoveChalcophaps indicaSingle bird in gardens of Kandalama Hotel
Orange-breasted Green PigeonTreron bicnitaTwo birds on edge of forest at Minneriya
Pompadour Green PigeonTreron pompadoraSmall groups seen Kandalama
Green Imperial PigeonDucula aeneaOne bird seen well perched in open at Sinharaja
Sri Lanka Wood PigeonColumba torringtoniiHeard twice - Tea Factory woods and Horton Plains - but never seen
Sri Lanka Hanging ParrotLoriculus beryllinusCommon at Sinharaja, including one good view (next to Green Imperial Pigeon!)
Alexandrine ParakeetPsittacula eupatriaSeveral flocks seen Kandalama
Rose-ringed ParakeetPsittacula krameriiKandalama
Layard's ParakeetPsittacula calthropaeOne bird seen poorly in flight at Sinharaja
Pied CuckooClamator jacobinusSeen on two occasions at Kandalama
Indian CuckooCuculus micropterusSingle in bird wave at Sinharaja
Asian KoelEudynamys scolopaceaHeard at Browns Beach hotel
Blue-faced MalkohaPhaenicophaeus viridirostrisSeen twice at Kandalama
Greater CoucalCentropus sinensisCommon
Green-billed CoucalCentropus chlororhynchusOne, possibly two birds early in morning in bamboo next to river at the back of Sinharaja ticket office/bunkhouse
Brown Fish-owlKetupa zeylonensisExcellent close views of preening bird in Sinharaja (2 km past Research Station)
Chestnut-backed OwletGlaucidium castanonotumHeard once at Sinharaja
Indian SwiftletCollocalia unicolorOnce at Kandalama, more common at higher elevations
Brown-backed NeedletailHirundapus giganteusUp to 6 at one time at Sinharaja
Asian Palm SwiftCypsiurus balasiensisSmall numbers Kandalama and on way up to Nuwara Elliya
House SwiftApus affinisCommon swift at lower elevations
Alpine SwiftTachymarptis melbaFlock of c.6-7 over Sigiriyarock
Crested TreeswiftHemiprocne coronataSeen twice near Sinharaja
Malabar TrogonHarpactes fasciatusOne bird Sinharaja
Common KingfisherAlcedo atthisCommon at Kandalama
White-throated KingfisherHalcyon smyrnensisCommon
Indian RollerCoracias benghalensisSeveral on wires, but not very common
Green Bee-eaterMerops orientalisCommon
Blue-tailed Bee-eaterMerops philippinusSeen Kandalama, Horton Plains, Sinharaja
Brown-headed BarbetMegalaima zeylanicaCommon
Yellow-fronted BarbetMegalaima flavifronsSeen well only at Sinharaja and lunch stop between N.E. and Ratnapura
Coppersmith BarbetMegalaima haemacephalaSeen twice Kandalama
Sri Lanka Grey HornbillOcyceros gingalensisSmall numbers at Sinharaja
Lesser YellownapePicus chlorophusOne bird in first wave at Sinharaja
Rufous WoodpeckerCeleus brachyurusPair seen twice Kandalama but never very well
Black-rumped FlamebackDinopium benghalenseKandalama and Horton Plains
Indian PittaPitta brachyuraTwo birds seen well in grounds of Kandalama
Jerdon's BushlarkMirafra affinisCommon open areas at Kandalama
Barn SwallowHirundo rusticaCommon
Hill SwallowHirundo dumicolaSeen twice Horton Plains
Red-rumped SwallowHirundo dauricaCommon (hyperythra) at Kandalama
Brown ShrikeLanius cristatusBoth nominate and lucionensis seen (latter Kandalama and highlands)
Black-hooded OrioleOriolus xanthornusCommon Kandalama
Greater Racquet-tailed DrongoDicrurus paradiseusTwo birds in wave at Sinharaja (lophorinus)
White-belllied DrongoDicrurus caerulescensCommon everywhere
Ashy WoodswallowArtamus fuscusSingle bird high on power lines at Kandalama
Common MynahAcridotheres tristusCommon
Southern Hill MynahGracula indicaLunch stop between N.E. and Ratnapura
Sri Lanka Blue MagpieUrocissa ornataOne bird seen well in first wave at Sinharaja, two others seen not so well
House CrowCorvus splendensMuch darker than race in N India
Large-billed CrowCorvus macrorhynchosCommon rural areas
Large Cuckoo-shrikeCoracina maceiTwice seen Kandalama
Black-headed Cuckoo-shrikeCoracina melanopteraHeard in forest at Kandalama
Common WoodshrikeTephrodornis pondicerianusSeen twice Kandalama
Small MinivetPericrocotus cinnamomeusCommon Kandalama
Scarlet MinivetPericrocotus flammeusCommon Sinharaja
Bar-winged Flycatcher ShrikeHemipus picatusSeen in mixed flocks at Hakgala
Common IoraAegithina tiphiaVery common Kandalama
Blue-winged LeafbirdChloropsis cochinchinensisSeen twice Kandalama
Black BulbulHypsipetes leucocephalusSinharaja
Black-capped BulbulPycnonotus melanicterusSeen at Kandalama (two birds), Sinharaja (one) and lunch stop (one)
Yellow-browed BulbulIole indicaCommon at Sinharaja
Red-vented BulbulPycnonotus caferCommon apart from deep forest; at higher elevations less common than next species
Yellow-eared BulbulPycnonotus pencillatusTwo at Hakgala then very common scrub and woods at Tea Factory
White-browed BulbulPycnonotus luteolusCommon Kandalama - as much so as Red-vented
Brown-capped BabblerPellorneum fuscocapillumTwo birds seen well in forest at Kandalama
Indian Scimitar BabblerPomatorhinus horsfieldiiHorton Plains and Sinharaja
Tawny-bellied BabblerDumetia hyperythra2-3 birds seen on 3 occasions at Kandalama
Dark-fronted BabblerRhopocichla atricepsCommon Kandalama, Sinharaja, also encountered in woods at Horton Plains
Orange-billed BabblerTurdoides rufescensSeen in two mixed flocks at Sinharaja
Yellow-billed BabblerTudoides affinisCommon apart from Sinharaja and high elevations
Ashy-headed LaughingthrushGarrulax cinereifronsc5-6 in wave at Sinharaja
Asian Brown FlycatcherMuscicapa dauricaOne bird in mixed flock at Kandalama
Brown-breasted FlycatcherMuscicapa muttuiTwo birds seen exceptionally well on separate occasions at Sinharaja
Kashmir FlycatcherFicedula subrubaMales seen 3 times at Victoria Gardens giving excellent views
Dull Blue FlycatcherEumyias sordidaPair seen in Tea Factory woods
Grey-headed Canary FlycatcherCuliciapa ceylonensisCommon at higher elevations
White-browed FantailRhipidura aureolaKandalama and near Ratnaloka Tour Inn
Asian Paradise FlycatcherTerpsiphone paradisiCommon ? white-phase males seen Kandalama forest and Sinharaja
Black-naped MonarchHypothymis azuraeSeen twice at Sinharaja
Zitting CisticolaCisticola juncidisCommon at Horton Plains open grassland, also Minneriya NP
Ashy PriniaPrinia socialisOnce at Kandalama, two on way up to Nuwara Elliya
Plain PriniaPrinia inornataCommon lower elevations
Jungle PriniaPrinia sylvaticaOne in scrub in Kandalama
Common TailorbirdOrthotomus sutoriusCommon most open areas
Green WarblerPhylloscopus trochiloides (nitidus)Common, less so than next species in Sinharaja only
Large-billed Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus magnirostrisPresent Kandalama and highlands but commonest Sinharaja - one bird seen extremely well in open
Blue Rock ThrushMonticola solitarius1w male at base of Sigiriya
Pied ThrushZoothera wardiiMale Victoria Gardens perched in open for 30 secs
Spot-winged ThrushZoothera spilopteraSeen twice (one on path near Coucal spot), heard twice at Sinharaja
"Nilgiri" BlackbirdTurdus merula (simmilis)Pair in Tea Factory woods (dark grey, orange/red bill and legs and paler undertail coverts)
Sri Lanka Whistling ThrushMyophonus blighiMale seen for c 5 secs under overhanging vegetation next to Hakgala river
Oriental Magpie RobinCopsychus saularisCommon lower elevations
White-rumped ShamaCopsychus malabaricus Male and female seen Kandalama
Indian Blue RobinLuscinia brunneaMales twice Victoria Gardens - one male perched out in open and sang
Indian RobinSaxicoloides fulicataCommon Kandalama (much deeper blue than N Indian race, also no brown on it)
Pied BushchatSaxicola caprataCommon tea plantations and Horton Plains
Great TitParus majorCommon in highlands
Velvet-fronted NuthatchSitta frontalisOnce in Tea Factory woods
Grey WagtailMotacilla cinereaCommon in highlands
Forest WagtailMotacilla indicusOne bird on path at Sinharaja
Paddyfield PipitAnthus rufulusCommon open areas, high and low
Legge's FlowerpeckerDicaeum vincensCommon in Sinharaja
Pale-billed FlowerpeckerDicaeum erythrorhynchosCommon flowerpecker most areas, also seen Sinharaja
Purple-rumped SunbirdNectarinia zeylonicaCommon
Purple SunbirdNectarinia asiaticaUncommon, seen only Kandalama
Loten's SunbirdNectarinia loteniaUncommon, seen only Kandalama
Sri Lanka White-eyeZosterops ceylonensisCommon in highlands
Oriental White-eyeZosterops palpebrosusUncommon at lower elevations
House SparrowPasser domesticusCommon near habitation
White-rumped MuniaLonchura striataSeen twice at Kandalama
Scaly-breasted MuniaLonchura punctulataSeen Kandalama and Tea Factory area

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; January 16, 2001