Frank G. Witebsky
Attempting to capture the excitement, the beauty, indeed the sublimity of our Sri Lanka experience in a few words is a daunting challenge. Yes, we saw all the currently-recognized endemic species and nearly all the endemic subspecies. And many were seen repetitively and extremely well. Great, of course – but there was far more to the tour than mere numbers can convey. Birding began in the attractive garden of our hotel near the airport, providing an introduction to some of the more common species. By early afternoon we were on our way to Kitulgala. By the time we got to bed, we had seen at least eight of Sri Lanka’s endemic birds, including several Layard’s Parakeets and a quite cooperative Green-billed Coucal. The next day we were in the Kitulgala Forest, where we had sublime views of a pair of Crimson-backed Woodpeckers – for me one of the highlights of the trip (and of my life!). (For another equally magnificent woodpecker, the White-naped – another trip and life highlight – we had to wait until somewhat later.) In this Forest, Deepal managed to locate a Serendib Scops Owl, a lovely and distinctive bird that we could all observe for as long as we wished – and in broad daylight! Spotting that bird seemed a nearly miraculous feat; I’m sure I could have stood within five feet of the bird for hours and never have found it myself. Among other wonders of the day were prolonged studies of a Chestnut-backed Owlet, and the first of several Spot-winged Thrushes, certainly one of the most appealing members of its large family. The next several days were spent in the Ratnapoura area, birding on the hotel grounds and in the Sinharaja Forest. One evening we had an incredible encounter with a pair of Sri Lanka Spurfowl walking on the road in front of our vehicle (yes, everyone saw them), and numerous encounters with glowing male (and intricately-patterned but hardly-glowing female) Sri Lanka Junglefowl. Should I say anything about the tiny Sri Lanka Frogmouth other than that it was sitting on its nest low over the road, entrancing in the morning light, I might not be believed. And as for Sri Lanka Magpies – on first getting a really good look at one of these large, brilliant beasts, incredibly patterned in blue, brown, red, and white, it’s hard to believe one is seeing a real bird, and not having a hallucination induced by inadvertent consumption of some psychedelic agent. Here also we had fine views of several (yes, several) Ceylon Scaly Thrushes. And of course there were also bulbuls and babblers – one of my special favorites being the Ceylon Scimitar Babbler. I might note that I’ve been fortunate enough to see quite a few trogons – but the Malabar Trogon is one of the loveliest I’ve ever encountered. Next it was on to Embilipitiya, where there were of course more wonderful birds, as well as numerous mammals, including many great (big) elephants. Then we headed for Tissa, where for me the major highlight was the one White-naped Woodpecker (a male) that we saw on the tour. A close second here were several nearby Small Pratincoles. At the park in Nuwara Eliya, despite the rain, there were two more gorgeous highlights, the abominably-named Dull Blue Flycatcher (“Glowing Blue Flycatcher” would be more accurate), and the quintessentially exquisite Kashmir Flycatcher. Let me also note that, while the beauty of Yellow-eared Bulbuls is quite obvious, fully appreciating the subtle tones of a Sri Lanka Bush Warbler requires a really good view – which we certainly had. Also in the Horton Plains, by the side of the road, in the open, during the morning, at eye level – a prolonged, unforgettable view of a male of the shy and usually crepuscular Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. The last bird I’ll mention is the Indian Pitta; if you haven’s seen it, you need to, and if you already have, I could hardly believe that you wouldn’t want to see it again.
Of course, there was lots more. There were fascinating tours of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, and of the vast, ancient ruins at Polonnaruwa; it would be unforgiveable not to allow for time at these sites. And quite likely you’ve little or no idea of all that’s involved in the manufacture of tea – but you can learn in Sri Lanka. Probably you already know this, but the whole country is beautiful. Our accommodations were all fine, and there was more than enough good food to satisfy any palette. (Concentrating on food, though, could be something of a problem – as when a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher was flitting about just outside the dining room.) Finally, the guides. They are what in my opinion make or break any tour. Deepal Warakagoda, our main guide, was unqualifiedly superb; in addition to his expertise regarding every feather and chirp of Sri Lanka birds, he is also a font of knowledge on the culture of the country. His assistant, Tharanga Herath, was a delightful and eagle-eyed wonder as well, in addition to being a superb artist. Uditha Hettige was also one of our guides for part of the tour – and not only also an astoundingly good leader as well, but in addition a gifted photographer and artist. Possibly you suspect I have exaggerated a bit here and there. I’d suggest you put me to the test, and – if you possibly can – Go! See for yourself!