“‘Udi chivvied us along – we weren’t running but it felt like it. We’d all had long flights and were tired, it was hot and sticky, but we didn’t care. At the end of the trail Udi had found us a daytime roosting Serendib Scops Owl and we were all eager to see it before nightfall. Deepal Warakagoda was due to lead this year’s tour and, understandably takes great delight in showing visiting birders ‘his own’ – Deepal’s Scops Owl as it has affectionately become known. However Deepal had been badly injured in a car accident just a few weeks before the tour started and was unable to lead the trip. Chin, Deepal’s colleague and replacement throughout the tour, was fabulous as was Udi who joined us around Kitulgala and Sinharaja.
This was our first full day in Sri Lanka – the tour had already started well with a smooth and uneventful drive from Colombo out to Kithulgala. We hadn’t been there long, and had barely crossed the river (more of an achievement than it sounds here), when the first Sri Lankan specialities began to emerge, first the Sri Lanka Hanging-parrot, then Ceylon Green Pigeon and shortly afterwards our first Chestnut-backed Owlet. We’d see the latter again the following day, but most of us then paid more heed to the Indian Pitta it was sharing a tree with!
The undoubted highlight of our first day in Sri Lanka, however, was the daytime roosting Serendib Scops Owl. We all had superb views of this remarkably confiding individual, and we all wondered how on earth Udi had spotted it. Not to be out-done a Sri Lanka Frogmouth put in an acceptable performance on the way back to the hotel. We’d had a great start to what was soon to prove to be a spectacularly memorable tour.
Green-billed Coucal can be notoriously difficult to see at Kithulgala, so difficult that we occasionally have to try another site a couple of hours drive away. Not this year however. Elusive for the first day and a half, it finally came right out and fine ‘scope views ensued. In the same garden complex we also managed to find the diminutive Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher – a veritable jewel in a forest that held so many avian gems. A couple of Spot-winged Thrushes serenaded a few of us (we’d all catch up with this at Sinharaja) and we all managed to get views of the country’s most elusive endemic – the shy and retiring Sri Lanka Spurfowl with a lucky few having a truly stupendous encounter. And then of course there were the Junglefowl, remarkably confiding and stunningly attractive. Not content with all of these several of us even managed to connect with a pair of Red-faced Malkohas on our last morning. Kithulgala had been a huge success.
Ratnapura and the very comfortable Ratnaloka Tour Inn was our next port of call and a Jerdon’s Nightjar, our first quality bird here, momentarily perched close by, only to be flushed by an unfortunately timed passing vehicle. We left early the following morning heading for the mighty forests at Sinharaja where many of the Island’s remaining wet zone endemics awaited. We’d no sooner clambered out of the jeeps than we were off after a small party of Ceylon Blue Magpies, then White-faced Starlings, Layard’s Parakeets and Sri Lanka Mynas. It was frantic but the encounters were fun and often prolonged. The guides found us another Red-faced Malkoha, but it was rather recalcitrant. The same cannot be said for the Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes which were simply stunning. Further into the park we checked a few sites for the recently split Ceylon Scaly Thrush. Drawing a blank at the first two, we came up trumps at the third – the birds took a while to perform but the wait was worth it. Sinharaja forest had lived up to its reputation and had delivered quality birds in abundance (and a good many with relative ease!).
All of us enjoyed the following day, which was more leisurely. A pair of Barred Button-quail put on an amazing performance in the tea estate besides our hotel while an Indian Scops Owl, only slightly further from our rooms, provided some evening entertainment. We moved to Embilipitiya the following morning to a hotel where we saw Spot-billed Pelicans and Yellow-wattled Lapwings from the grounds and, for a ‘lucky’ participant Malabar Pied Hornbills from the bedroom! We had our first jeep drive that afternoon, an excursion that took us around the sprawling Uda Walawe National Park. The elephants obliged and other goodies at here included a ringtail Pallid Harrier, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, a typically elusive Sirkeer Malkoha, umpteen Jerdon’s Bushlarks and huge numbers of Black-headed Munias.
Our luck continued the following day: Yellow Bittern, a Watercock and two fine Blue-faced Malkohas were among the highlights of our picnic breakfast while another late morning roadside stop produced many shorebirds (including our first Great Thick-knees) and a few terns on a couple of bird-thronged roadside pools on route to Tissa. Our jeep safari in Yala National Park that afternoon gave us excellent looks at Black-necked Stork, our first Ceylon Woodshrikes and only Brahminy Starlings of he tour and the day was rounded off with a cryptic Indian Nightjar roosting in the desert.
Our third and final jeep drive took us around Bundala National Park the following morning. Attractions here included good numbers of terns (both Lesser and Greater Crested were particularly well represented) and waders that included three Red-necked Phalaropes and a number of Small Pratincoles. Chin took us to Tissa tank in the afternoon in our quest to see Streaked Weaver. This we rapidly did, also adding Baya Weaver, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and a family party (or was it a crèche) of Ruddy-breasted Crakes to our already burgeoning trip list. We’d spent longer here than intended were concerned that the White-naped Woodpeckers our guide was planning to show us would already be roosting. He did not have to worry – the timing was perfect and a pair of these impressive birds performed beautifully.
The following morning we headed up to Nuwara Eliya. It was a relief to climb out of the steamy plains, and although the hill station wasn’t hot it rained hard in the early afternoon. However the downpour paused sufficiently long enough for us to head into Victoria Park in the town centre where we found both Slaty-legged Crake and Pied Thrush. The threatened cold temperatures up on the Horton Plains early the following morning never materialised but the area’s ornithological specialities certainly did. Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush is normally one of the more elusive of the Island’s 35 endemics – but not this year. Usually vanishing moments after sunrise this year’s bird stuck around, on and off, for well over an hour and even brought his lady along to see us. Other goodies up on the Plains included an elusive Kashmir Flycatcher, the unfortunately named Dull Blue Flycatcher, a couple of Indian Blue Robins, Yellow-eared Bulbul, at least three Sri Lanka Bush Warblers, some unusually cooperative Ceylon Scimitar Babblers and the endemic subspecies of Indian Blackbird. Our fine morning didn’t end there as Chin next took us to a site where we quickly found both Hill Swallow and Black-throated Munia. A welcome lunch break ensued and then we were back into the birding with Kashmir Flycatchers coming thick and fast along with, on our second visit to Victoria Park, a whole fleet of Pied Thrushes.
With all 35 of Sri Lanka’s endemics firmly all seen well, the focus for the remainder of the tour shifted to more of a cultural emphasis. We left Nuwara Eliya and headed down to Kandy, the island’s third capital. In the evening we visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, one of the most revered Buddhist relicts anywhere in the world. Arguably the day’s main event however was a wedding reception right in our hotel. A wedding reception where the bride’s proud mother invited us all to meet her daughter and the groom, and to witness some of the entertainment! The following day saw us making several more cultural stops, first at a batik workshop and then a spice garden. Lunch was taken in the shadow of the impressive Sigiriya rock fortress, and under the watchful eye of some local monkeys. And then on to Polonnaruwa, the Island’s second capital, where a Brown Fish Owl in the hotel gardens came incredibly close. We were guided around the ancient city ruins the following day, seeing a fine selection of the sprawling site’s more memorable buildings and statues. And then it was time to head back to Colombo, the final night’s dinner, the airport and home.” Paul Holt.