Trip Report: Sri Lanka, July 23 - August 8, 1997

Rohan van Twest, Guelph, Ontario, Canada;

Such a Long Journey

I have wanted to visit to Sri Lanka for some time to reacquaint myself with the birds of my youth and to introduce them to my children. But the sociopolitical turbulence and periodic violence that plagues the county was a deterrent. It is often difficult to gauge the level of bodily risk from the tidbits of filtered information that reaches Canada. However, after much deliberation we decided go on a family vacation in July-August. This is not an ideal time for birding in Sri Lanka, as the southwest monsoon usually brings heavy rains and there are no passerine winter visitors to augment the resident bird species. Certainly the northeast monsoon period would have been preferable, but due to school and work commitments there was no flexibility on the timing.

Getting to Sri Lanka from Toronto was not as simple as I had envisioned as a number of airlines (KLM and BA) had discontinued their service to Colombo. We had to fly with Singapore Airlines via San Francisco-Seoul-Singapore to reach Colombo! This was a painfully long journey. After two days rest in Colombo, to overcome the effects of jet lag and fatigue, we were ready to begin our tour of birding. My original plan was to spend most of our time in key areas of the wet zone in pursuit of the 26 endemic species; however, the heavy rains had flooded or washed out many of the roads leading to the prime birding sites. Therefore we had to alter our birding itinerary to include more sites from the dry zone than intended. As a result we missed out on recording half the endemic species, which was a major disappointment. Nevertheless, the trip as a whole was very rewarding and productive.

Peace of Mind

Staying healthy on tour is essential. This is of course more easily said than done with children. We had boosters and vaccinations against Polio, Tetanus, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, but no effective vaccine was available for Cholera. Therefore, care must be taken to consume only potable water and well-cooked meals. Mefloquine was also used as an anti-malaria prophylactic with no apparent side effects. This was fortuitous as the children were not adept at sleeping under netting, and their exposed skin was covered in bites. Mosquitoes were abundant in the southwestern region of the country. Although leeches are not known to transmit diseases, they can be an annoyance. The wet trails at Kitulgala, Bodhinagala and Sinharaja were teeming with hungry terrestrial leeches. Spraying Deet (20%) on our shoes and socks was totally ineffective at repelling them. They had no problem penetrating between the weaving of the socks and attaching to the skin or making their way to other regions of the body. We took to using soap to coat our shoes and socks, which proved to be the most effective means of repelling leeches, while fine table salt for dislodging attached leeches worked wonderfully.

Head to Pillow

A wide range of accommodations is available near the coast, archaeological sites, and national wildlife parks, though not necessarily near good birding sites. Sinharaja is a case-in-point as we spent 3 hours on the road to get there from our base in Kalutara. In hindsight, we should have used Ratnapura as a base, but this is rather academic as the gravel road from Veddagala to Kudawa was too rough to drive on, and a 3 km uphill hike was needed to actually reach the Sinharaja Park boundary! We found the Habarana Village/Lodge an ideal base for dry zone birding, and the hotel grounds yielded 76 species. Minneriya-Giritale Sanctuary, Polonnaruwa Samudara (Tank), Sigiriya Sanctuary, Dambula rock caves, and even Wasgamuwa Park are all within easy reach by car.

On the Go

Contrary to popular belief it is not expensive to rent a self-drive vehicle in Sri Lanka. But are you crazy enough to want to drive there! With no previous driving experience in Asia, I found the narrow, congested roads and maniacal traffic a nightmare. This was specially so in the capital of Colombo. Outside of Colombo, I was able be get around (slowly) with little difficulty. Not everyone seems to share my anxiety, as our children found this all highly exciting and entertaining. Rental arrangements were made with Walkers Tour Ltd. (Fax: 447087) for a Toyota Corolla at $30 US./day with unlimited mileage. Gasoline (petrol) at $1 US./L is readily available, but road maps were difficult to find. Some of the hotel bookstores had good maps, though rather expensive. Avoid night travel, but if you do venture, be on the alert for security checkpoints that seem to pop up from nowhere! In addition to the car a Jeep was essential at Minneriya-Giritale Sanctuary and Uda Walawe National Park. There was no problem hiring a jeep for both destinations.

Props & Crutches

Birding Itinerary

DayDateLocation/site description
123/07 A.M.: Highway (A8) from Panadura to Ingiriya -rural area with paddy fields and estates. The heavy rain had flooded the paddy fields creating excellent habitat for many waterbirds.
224/07 A.M.: Ratmalana (RA) -suburb of Colombo and Bellanwila-Attidiya (BA)- low land marsh near Colombo.
325/07 A.M.: Ratmalana; P.M.: Habarana Village (HV), dry zone, with treed grounds and tank (reservoir).
426/07 A.M.: Habarana Village and Sigiriya (SG) -- archaeological site, dry zone scrub jungle, monolith, tank.
527/07 A.M.: Habarana Village and Polonnaruwa Samudara (PS) -- large tank.
P.M.: Minneriya-Giritale Sanctuary (MG) -- dry zone scrub jungle, grassy fields, tank, waterholes.
628/07 A.M.: Habarana Village
P.M.: Kitulgala (KI).
729/07 A.M.: Kitulgala -- wet zone secondary rainforest, plantations, gardens and river.
831/07 P.M.: Sinharaja (SI) - wet zone secondary and primary rainforest. 3h drive from Colombo gave us only 3 hours of birding in this key area for endemic species.
902/08 A.M. and P.M.: Uda Walawe National Park (UW) -- dry zone scrub jungle, river, open areas, waterholes.
Chandrika Tank (CT).
1003/08 A.M.: Hambantota Salt Pans (HA), Bundala Salt Pans (BS), Bundala Lewaya (BL)
1104/08 A.M.: Tangamalai Sanctuary (TS) -- montane forest and tea estates.
1205/08 A.M: Tangamalai Sanctuary
P.M.: Hakgala Botanical Gardens (HB) and Nuwara Eliya (NE)
1306/08 A.M. and P.M.: Nuwara Eliya, Nanu Oya (NO): fragmented montane forests and tea estates.
1407/08 A.M.: Kitulgala
1508/08 A.M.: Bodhinagala (BO) -- wet zone secondary rainforest, coconut and rubber estates, paddy fields and river.

Site Abbreviations

Sri Lanka Bird Trip List (July 23 to August 8, 1997)

Little Grebe                  Tachybaptus ruficollis        HV-raft of 65
Spot-billed Pelican           Pelecanus philippensis        common on large tanks (20) MG 
Little Cormorant              Phalacrocorax niger           common
Indian Cormorant              P. fuscicollis                common, (50+) PS
Great Cormorant               P. carbo                      (3) HV, (50+) PS, (3) CW
Oriental Darter               Anhinga melanogaster          (6) HV, (1) UW, (1) BS
Little Egret                  Egretta garzetta              very common in dry zone tanks, paddyfields
Grey Heron                    Ardea cinerea                 single at A8, HV, PS, MG, UW
Purple Heron                  Ardea purpurea                (12) A8, common in dry zone tanks, paddy fields
Great Egret                   Ardea alba                    (5) A8, single, common dry zone (20+) PS 
Intermediate Egret            Mesophoyx intermedia          (20+) A8, common  
Cattle Egret                  Bubulcus ibis                 very common, widely distributed
Indian Pond Heron             Ardeola grayii                very common in paddy fields
Black-crowned Night-Heron     Nycticorax nycticorax         (1) RA, (6) HV
Painted Stork                 Mycteria leucocephala         (3) BA, (200+) MG, UW 
Asian Openbill                Anastomus oscitans            (3) A8, (100+) MG, UW
Woolly-necked Stork           Ciconia episcopus             (40) MG, (2) HV, (3) UW
Glossy Ibis                   Plegadis falcinellus          (1) HV -rare visitor
Black-headed Ibis             Threskiornis melanocephalus   common in dry zone, (100+) MG
Eurasian Spoonbill            Platalea leucorodia           (70) MG, UW, HS
Greater Flamingo              Phoenicopterus ruber          (150+) HS
Lesser Whistling Duck         Dendrocygna bicolor           (4) A8, BA, HV, MG
Cotton Pygmy -Goose           Nettapus coromandelianus      (15) HV, (3) MG
Garganey                      Anas querquedula              (1) MG -summer loiterer or early winter visitor?
Black-winged Kite             Elanus caeruleus              (2) MG, (4) UW, (1) TS 
Brahminy Kite                 Haliastur indus               (1) common at tanks, rivers
White-bellied Fish-Eagle      Haliaeetus leucogaster        (2) HV, (4) MG, (6) PS, (2) UW
*Grey-headed Fish-Eagle       Ichthyophaga ichtyaetus       (2) HV, (4) UW
*Crested Serpent-Eagle        Spilornis cheela              (1) MG, (2) UW
Shikra                        Accipiter badius              single at BA, HV, MG, UW
Besra                         A. virgatus                   (1) HV
*Changeable Hawk-Eagle        Spizaetus cirrhatus           (1) HV, (2) SG, (10) UW
Mountain Hawk-Eagle           S. nipalensis                 (1) SG, (2) NO
Shaheen Falcon (Peregrine)    Falco peregrinus              (2) SG
Indian Peafowl                Pavo cristatus                (20) MG,  (100) UW 
White-breasted Crake          Amaurornis phoenicurus        very common in weedy ponds, drains, tanks 
Purple Swamphen               Porphyrio porphyrio           common in weedy tanks - (10) BA
Pheasant-tailed Jacana        Hydrophasianus chirurgus      common in weedy tanks, ponds - (25) HV 
*Little Ringed Plover         Charadrius dubius             (2) nest PS,  (total 10) MG, flock (10+) HS - winter visitors ?
*Kentish Plover               C. alexandrinus               (total 20+) MG, small flock at HS
Lesser Sand Plover            C. mongolus                   (2) HS
Greater Sand Plover           C. leschenaultii              (12) HS
Yellow-wattled Lapwing        V. malabaricus                (2) UW
*Red-winged Lapwing           Vanellus indicus              common, widely distributed
Black-tailed Godwit           Limosa limosa                 (flock 85+) BL
Bar-tailed Godwit             L. lapponica                  (1) BL - rare winter visitor
Common Redshank               Tringa totanus                (flock 50+) HS
Marsh Sandpiper               T. stagnatilis                (3) MG, (6) BS
Common Greenshank             T. nebularia                  (1) BS
Wood Sandpiper                T. glareola                   (6) MG, (6) UW, (5) HS
Common Sandpiper              Actitis hypoleucos            (1) PS, (1) UW, (2) HS
Little Stint                  Calidris minuta               (flock 25+) HS
Curlew Sandpiper              C. ferruginea                 (flock 20+) HS
Great Painted-Snipe           Rostratula benghalensis       (1) RA, (1) MG
*Black-winged Stilt           Himantopus himantopus         (10) UW, small flocks HS, BS, BL
Eurasian Thick-Knee           Burhinus oedicnemus           (6) MG
Great Thick-Knee              Esacus recurvirostris         (2) HS
Small Pratincole              Glareola lactea               (1) PS
Gull-billed Tern              Gelochelidon nilotica         (6) HS
Great Crested Tern            Sterna bengalensis            (12) HS
Little Tern                   S. albifrons                  (2) PS, (2) MG,  (1) HS
Bridled Tern                  S. anaethetus                 (1) HS            
Rock Pigeon                   Columba livia                 Common
*Spotted Dove                 Streptopelia chinensis        very common, widely distributed
*Emerald Dove                 Chalcophaps indica            (2) SI, (2) TS, (2) KI
*Orange-breasted Green Pigeon Treron bicincta               (12) HV
*Pompadour Green Pigeon       T. pompadora                  (2) HV
*Green Imperial Pigeon        Ducula aenea                  (2) HV, (3) Ki, (1) UW
**Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot    Loriculus beryllinus          (6) KI,  small flocks at SI, TA
Alexandrine Parakeet          Psittacula eupatria           (2) HV,  small flock  UW, (2 ) BL
Rose-ringed Parakeet          P. kramerii                   very common, widely distributed - 1000+ RA
**Layard's Parakeet           P. calthorpae                 common SI
Asian Koel                    Eudynamys scolopacea          common widely distributed
Blue-faced Malkoha            Phaenicophaeus viridirostris  (6) UW
Sirkeer Malkoha               P. leschenaultii              (1) UW
**Red-faced Malkoha           P. pyrrhocephalus             (2) SI, (3) KI
Great Coucal                  Centropus sinensis            common, partial to coconut plantations
*Brown Fish-Owl               Ketupa zeylonensis            (2) HV, (1) BO mobbed by Yellow-billed Babblers
*Indian Nightjar              Caprimulgus asiaticus         (1) and egg  MG
Indian Swiftlet               Collocalia unicolor           common widely distributed
Asian Palm-Swift              Cypsiurus balasiensis         (2) A8
*House Swift                  Apus affinis                  Common A8, HV, SG
Crested Tree Swift            Hemiprocne coronata           (3) A8, HV, UW
*Malabar Trogon               Harpactes fasciatus           (1) KI
Common Kingfisher             Alcedo atthis                 common at ponds, tanks
Stork-billed Kingfisher       Pelargopsis capensis          (1) BA, (3) HV, (1) KI
White-throated Kingfisher     Halcyon. smyrnensis           very common also seen in gardens
Pied Kingfisher               Ceryle rudis                  (1) PS, (3) BS
Green Bee-Eater               Merops orientalis             common  in dry zone
Chestnut-headed Bee-Eater     M. leschenaulti               (2) HV, (2) KI
Indian Roller                 Coracias benghalensis         (2) A8, (10) UW
Eurasian Hoopoe               Upupa epops                   (2) UW
**Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill     Ocyceros gingalensis          (4) TS, (2) KI
Malabar Pied Hornbill         Anthracoceros coronatus       (3) MG, (6) UW
*Brown-headed Barbet          Megalaima zeylanica           very common, widely distributed 
**Yellow-fronted Barbet       M. flavifrons                 common at KI, SI
Coppersmith Barbet            M. haemacephala               (2) HV, (25) UW
*Brown-capped Woodpecker      Dendrocopos nanus             (1) UW
*Lesser Yellownape            Picus chlorolophus            (2) SI, (1) KI
Streak-throated Woodpecker    P. xanthopygaeus              (1) TS
*Black-rumped Flameback       Dinopium benghalense          common
*Great Flameback              Chrysocolaptes lucidus        (1) BL
Rufous-winged Bush-Lark       Mirafra assamica              common in open grassy fields - MG, UW 
Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark     Eremopterix grisea            (2) BS
Oriental Skylark              Alauda gulgula                common in fields
Hill Swallow                  Hirundo dumicola              (3) HB, (2) NE
*Red-rumped Swallow           Hirundo daurica               (5) A8, (2) HV, (2) UW
*Black-hooded Oriole          Oriolus xanthornus            common in dry zone
White-bellied Drongo          Dicrurus caerulescens         very common, widely distributed
Great Racket-tailed Drongo    D. paradiseus                 (12) KI, (5) SI, BO
*Ashy Woodswallow-Shrike      Artamus fuscus                (25) A8
*Common Mynah                 Acridotheres tristis          very common, widely distributed
**Sri Lanka Mynah             Gracula ptilogenys            (1) KI
Hill Mynah                    G. religiosa                  (2) SI
House Crow                    Corvus splendens              abundant, widely distributed
Jungle Crow                   C. macrorhynchos              common in rural areas
*Large Cuckoo-shrike          Coracina macei                (2) HV
*Common Wood-Shrike           Tephrodornis pondicerianus    (4) HV, (1) UW,  (1) BS
Small Minivet                 Pericrocotus cinnamomeus      (2) HV, (2) KI, (2) UW
Scarlet Minivet               P. flammeus                   (1) KI, (1) TS
*Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike Hemipus picatus               (1) TS,  (1) BO
Common Iora                   Aegithina tiphia              (2) HV, (6) MG
Blue-winged Leafbird          Chloropsis cochinchinensis    (1) KI, (1) BO 
Golden-fronted Leafbird       C. aurifrons                  (1) MG
**Black-crested Bulbul        Pycnonotus melanicterus       (1) SI
*Red-vented Bulbul            P. cafer                      very common, widely distributed
** Yellow-eared Bulbul        P. penicillatus               common in montane -TS, HB, NE
*White-browed Bulbul          P. luteolus                   common dry zone - HV, GM, SI
*Yellow-browed Bulbul         Iole indica                   (2) KI, (10) SI
*Black Bulbul                 Hypsipetes leucocephalus      common at KI, SI
**Brown-capped Babbler        Pellorneum fuscocapillum      (1) KI
*Indian Scimitar Babbler      Pomatorhinus horsfieldii      (3) KI, (10) SI, (5) TS
*Tawny-bellied Babbler        Dumetia hyperythra            (1) TS
*Dark-fronted Babbler         Rhopocichla atriceps          (2) MG, (6) TS, (2) KI
*Yellow-eyed Babbler          Chrysomma sinense             (1) UW
**Orange-billed Babbler       Turdoides rufescens           (20+) KI, (5) SI
*Yellow-billed Babbler        T. affinis                    very common, widely distributed
**Dull Blue Flycatcher        Eumyias sordida               (2) SI, (3) HB, (5) TS
Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher Culicicapa ceylonensis        (2) TS, several HB
*White-browed Fantail         Rhipidura aureola             (1) MG, (1) UW, (1) TS
*Black-naped Monarch          Hypothymis azurea             (2) KI
*Asian Paradise Flycatcher    Terpsiphone paradisi          (6) HV, (4) UW all Red phase (Ceylon)
*Zitting Cisticola            Cisticola juncidis            (1) UW
*Grey-breasted Prinia         Prinia hodgsonii              (2) MG, several in the tall grass at UW
*Jungle Prinia                Prinia sylvatica              (1) MG, (1) UW
*Ashy Prinia                  Prinia socialis               (1) HV, several at UW
*Plain Prinia                 Prinia inornata               (3) BA, (2) RA, UW
*Clamorous Reed-Warbler       Acrocephalus stentoreus       (1) BA
*Common Tailorbird            Orthotomus sutorius           very common, widely distributed
**Spot-winged Thrush          Zoothera spiloptera           (2) TS - singing their heads off in plain view!
Oriental Magpie-Robin         Copsychus saularis            common, widely distributed
*White-rumped Shama           Copsychus malabaricus         (1) UW, (1) TS
*Indian Robin                 Saxicoloides fulicata         (5) HV,  MG, UW
*Pied Bush Chat               Saxicola caprata              (2) NE
*Great Tit                    Parus major                   (1) KI, (2) NE
Velvet-fronted Blue Nuthatch  Sitta frontalis               (1) KI, (1) UW, (2) TS
Richard's Pipit               Anthus richardi               (1) SG
Paddy-field Pipit             Anthus rufulus                common at MG, UW
*Thick-billed Flowerpecker    Dicaeum agile                 (1) HV
**Legge's Flowerpecker        D. vincens                    common at KI, SI,  (2) BO
*Pale-billed Flowerpecker     D. erythrorhynchos            Common, widely distributed
*Purple-rumped Sunbird        Nectarinia zeylonica          common dry zone - (20) HV
*Purple Sunbird               N. asiatica                   very common 
*Loten's Sunbird              N. lotenia                    common
**Hill White-eye              Zosterops ceylonensis         common in montane - TS, HB, NE
Oriental White-eye            Z. palpebrosa                 (2) HV, (5) UW
House Sparrow                 Passer domesticus             Common
White-rumped Munia            Lonchura striata              small flock HV
Scaly-breasted Munia          L. punctulata                 Common

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; April 30, 1998