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Independent Sri Lanka: 15th December 2018 - 5th January 2019

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Old Monday 7th January 2019, 13:12   #1
dwatsonbirder
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Independent Sri Lanka: 15th December 2018 - 5th January 2019

It's not a proper winter for my partner and I unless we escape the festive season for the tropics...

Overview

Sri Lanka was to be our first time in the Indian subcontinent, and as such offered a good opportunity to encounter some new species as well some species more familiar from further east in Asia. Sri Lanka is a small country but has a high diversity of birds, with over 400 species recorded a 32 endemic species present. Our itinerary was planned to both maximise time in the different habitats (dry lowlands, mid-elevation, highland, wet lowland) and allow a week of much needed R&R along the southern coast of the country at the end. As a result this report will be geared more towards the first 15 days of our trip.

Route

Wilpatu NP, Kandy (Botanical gardens and Udawattekele Sanctuary) Ella, Nuwara Eliya (Victoria Park and Racecourse), Ella, Haputale, Sinharaja NP, Udawalawe NP, Dickwella, Unawatuna, Mirissa, Hikkaduwa and Negombo.

Principal targets

Unlike many of the other trips where all the endemics were targeted, I focused primarily on seeing 3 migrant/wintering species and one endemic; Indian pitta, Pied thrush, Kashmir flycatcher and Spot winged thrush. Although we planned to spend 2 nights in Sinharaja, I didn’t specifically target Serendib Scops owl as I thought it would be unattainable without a specialist guide - it would appear that the species is more achievable nowadays than it has been in the past. The trip was also organised to maximise our mammal targets namely Leopard, Sloth bear, Indian elephant and Blue whale. Unfortunately we only managed to see half of these species.

Logistics and other general information

Getting around in Sri Lanka is generally cheap and very easy. We predominantly used tuk tuk’s, buses and trains, though a few areas were accessed via private taxi to maximise time. As an indication of cost, a tuk tuk costs approximately 100rps per kilometer for a shorter journey, but we undertook a few journeys of between 30 - 50km paying between 2000 - 2500 for these journeys. Trains are a good way to get around in the central areas, with 3rd class fares from 40rps, to first class air con reserved seating for 1500rps. Buses are very cheap and convenient, and if looking to undertake the same trip on a stricter budget, I would strongly advise as the main form of transportation. We took 4 private taxis (Airport to Wilpatu NP, Haputale to Sinharaja, Sinharaja to Udawalawe NP and Hikkaduwa to Airport) which cost between 8500 - 12,000rps. I would recommend the use of taxi to get in and out from Sinharaja (difficult and long winded via public transport) but also to book in advance (we used pickme.lk) as we paid 9000rps to get to Sinharaja but 12,000rps to get out and cover a shorter distance.
Most National Parks can only be accessed via authorised vehicles, but these can generally be organised via your accommodation. As a rough indication, a typical cost for 2 people taking a jeep for a full day with entry fees was approximately 12,000rps. I only used a guide in Sinharaja (where it is mandatory) but much of the rest of the country can be birded easily using data from ebird and other trip reports. I would strongly recommend Wasante in Sinharaja as his knowledge of calls and location gen for some difficult species was spot-on (he did not have a contact number so best to ask at the HQ).
We used Saudia for both flights, but I am afraid I can’t endorse them… more on that later.
Field guides used were the Helm “Birds of the Indian Subcontinent” and the recently published photoguide by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne.
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Old Tuesday 8th January 2019, 00:54   #2
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Sri Lanka’s a great place - Really interested to hear how you get on
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Old Tuesday 8th January 2019, 02:56   #3
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Yep, this is going to be an interesting read. Looking forward to more
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Old Tuesday 8th January 2019, 08:35   #4
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Cheers both, I hope it doesn't disappoint. It was a fantastic trip and really quite easy to do independently - I had some reservations given that most go either as part of an organised tour or alternatively hire a driver to get around - based on my experience I'd say that neither are essential. As previously stated I didn't specifically target the endemics, but if you were a bit more dedicated I'm sure you could manage all of them with an adjusted itinerary - I managed 21 out of 34 (didn't count Scaly thrush or Red faced malkoha both of which I heard and had flight views of but not really seen well enough).

Arrival and Wilpatu

After a long flight on a very crowded plane via Jeddah, we finally arrived in Sri Lanka on the morning of 15th December. The same could not be said for my luggage unfortunately, which had set about its own independent travels to the Maldives. Despite containing my tripod, boots, all my clothes (including raincoat and leech socks) and even my notebook and Helm fieldguide, I was in a good mood as we began our travels north towards our first destination. With some luck, I’d see my belongings again… albeit on the penultimate day of our trip!

The first species noted as we left the airport were typical of our previous travels in Asia; Eastern Cattle egret, House crow, Common Myna, Oriental Magpie-robin and Red vented bulbul. As we continued on our journey (making occasional stops to buy underpants, shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops and deodorant!) we passed through a mixture of rice paddies, grassland and lakes, where Spot billed pelican, Black headed ibis, Indian pond heron, various egrets, Asian openbill, White breasted waterhen, munias, Whiskered terns and Black winged stilts were all noted. Roadside wires held Indian Rollers, Blue tailed and Little Green bee-eaters, White breasted kingfishers, Brown shrikes and the occasional Shikra.

We arrived at Wilpatu in the late afternoon, and after checking into our room and freshening up, I was able to sneak out for a look around the vicinity before dinner. Immediately around our accommodation were some good birds, with Grey bellied cuckoo, White bellied drongo, Ceylon paradise flycatcher, White browed fantail, Indian Black robin, white rumped sharma and Loten’s sunbird all noted, along with several Blyth’s reed and Green warblers. Brown headed and Coppersmith barbets called from some nearby trees, which also held Malabar Pied hornbill and Indian peacock.

I was beginning to lag a bit when the owner turned up on his motorbike, and upon seeing the bins around my neck insisted that I hop on the back and he’d take me for a quick look at a few tanks and paddyfields - it would’ve been rude to refuse… we headed to a tank about 3km from the homestay and the lily covered lake was alive with birds; Grey headed swamphen, Little grebe, Pheasant tailed jacana, Whiskered terns, and Black winged stilts were all in or around the fringes, whilst the skies were filled with Little green and Blue tailed bee-eaters as well as good numbers of swallows. We continued to a massive area of paddies where there were large numbers of egrets and herons (including the first Purple herons of the trip) whilst the fringes contained Paddyfield pipits, Yellow wagtails, Wood sandpipers and more Black winged stilts. Again large numbers of swallows hawked overhead, and I noted my first Ceylon swallows here too - smart birds. It must have been clear that I was beginning to feel the effects of 24hrs without sleep as we headed back for dinner - via a quick stop for 7 roosting Malabar Pied hornbill.
Once we had eaten and organised for a full day safari into Wilpatu NP we headed for an early nights sleep, but not before one final bird of the day - a Jerdon’s nightjar calling from a tree behind our room.

The next morning we awoke feeling rested - unfortunately we hadn’t adjusted and it was 04:45am and nowhere near light. I decided to head out for a walk around 5:30am and activity began to increase by 6am. The Jerdon’s nightjar was still calling, but the first diurnal calls were from Asian koel, Indian Black robin and Tawny bellied and Yellow billed babblers. As the light increased more and more species began to join in the chorus and before long I’d recorded over 40 species.

After a quick cup of tea it was time to head into the National Park for a day safari. Wilpatu is not part of the regular tourist trail as it is quite far north from the usual circuit, but it is well worth making the effort. We encountered a total of 12 other vehicles during the day, by comparison we heard that there had already been in excess of 200 vehicles entering Yala by 7am! The wildlife is also really impressive, with a very good chance to encounter Leopard, Sloth bear, Indian elephant, several species of deer and a large number of birds. On entering the park we stopped to observe Sambal and Chital deer, whilst the first of many Celyon junglefowl were noted. A lake just inside the entrance provided excellent views of Painted stork and Grey headed fish eagle as well as a brief but rather noisy Stork billed kingfisher.

We spent much of the day travelling between open areas, dense woodland and riparian habitats. We spent a while watching a bathing bull Indian elephant in one of the many tanks, and along the fringes was a great selection of waders; Pacific golden, Kentish and Lesser sand plovers, Common, Wood, Curlew and Marsh sandpipers, Pintail snipe, Black winged stilt, Greenshank, Red wattled lapwings and even Black tailed godwits. There were other birds too, with good numbers of Yellow wagtails as well as Paddyfield and a single Richard’s pipit. Another tank held Lesser pied kingfisher, Lesser whistling duck and perhaps best of all Lesser Adjutant.

The main reason for our visit to Wilpatu is the high density of Asian leopard (between 50 - 70 individuals in the safari area alone), and the reserve is arguably the best place to see this species in the wild. It certainly didn’t disappoint for us. Our driver heard the alarm calls of some Sambar in the distance and shortly afterwards we were driving at breakneck speed through the forest towards the commotion. As we arrived we located a female Leopard stretched out close to the shoreline, we slowed down to get a better view, then in an instance we were speeding up - we were just about to ask why we’d driven past the female when our jeep pulled alongside a male sat sheltering under the shade of a large tree not more than 5m away - fantastic. We spent a good three quarters of an hour enjoying excellent views of both, with our driver explaining that this was a mating pair and that it was likely they would be in close proximity for the next couple of weeks.
Although we had seen a good variety of birds during the day, there was no doubt that the views of Leopard had been the highlight - it was a major target for us both, and only my second big cat.
By this time it was beginning to darken and we made our way out of the park, I was reviewing my images from the day when we suddenly braked and the driver shouted to look. Unfortunately I didn’t know which way and as a resultant missed an Indian pitta which was hopping along the verge before hopping into the undergrowth - bugger.
We did hear a couple of birds calling by the time we arrived back at the accommodation, but they were not responsive to either my imitations or a bit of playback which made for a slightly frustrating end to an otherwise fantastic first day.

The next day we were to leave for Kandy, but I managed a few hours exploring the roads and fields around our homestay. Many of the same species were again noted, but with a few pleasant additions in the form of Orange minivet, Black headed cuckooshrike, Orange breasted Green pigeon, Green Imperial pigeon and a good mammal too - Sri Lankan Giant squirrel. The farmland held both White rumped and Scaly breasted munias, whilst overhead a pair of Black winged kite were beginning to catch an early thermal. A large raptor in a distant tree proved to be an immature Oriental Honey buzzard, but there was again an element of frustration as I accidentally flushed a small quail type bird - it flew up and almost immediately straight into dense grass before I could get anything on it. On that note, it was time to head back to collect our things and begin our journey south (and upwards) to Kandy where we would be based for the next 2 nights.
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Old Tuesday 8th January 2019, 11:12   #5
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What start getting Leopard on the first day!

Wilpatu sounds like a good alternative to Yala, which really is a bit crazy with some many cars in so small a space.

That huge list of birds is a great reminder about how birder-friendly Sri Lanka is! Any chance of some pix?


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Mike
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Old Tuesday 8th January 2019, 15:11   #6
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Photos

Here are a few images from Wilpatu NP. Small minivet, Ceylon junglefowl, Lesser adjutant, Little green bee-eater and perhaps the worlds most obliging Crested serpent eagle. There are a few additional pictures on my twitter (@axbridge_birder) but they may act as spoilers for the report!
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Old Tuesday 8th January 2019, 15:23   #7
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I foolishly forget to give the mammals in Wilpatu a bit more coverage. In addition to the 2 Leopard and Indian elephant, we also saw the following; Palm squirrel, Sri Lankan Giant squirrel, Chital, Sambal and Muntjac, Wild boar, Toque Macaque, Grey langur, Indian (Black naped) hare, Indian grey mongoose and Golden jackal. When you consider that this is Asia and not Africa, that's a pretty respectable list, especially given that we spent 90% of the day driving around in a noisy 4x4!
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Old Tuesday 8th January 2019, 15:43   #8
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Kandy

After an enjoyable introduction to the country, we had planned on the next leg of the trip covering some of the areas in the interior of the country, most of which are in mid - high elevations and as a result would offer a different suite of species. We had opted to spend two nights in Kandy to take in the sights of the city (N.B. as a general tourist we would advise that 1 day is sufficient as there isn’t that much to see, and the city itself is rather dirty and a bit of a tourist trap) and allow for a bit of exploration of the general area. We stayed at The Shrine Inn Guesthouse which is close not only to the city but also to Udawattekele Sanctuary, with rooms looking directly onto some good quality forest.

Our first afternoon was spent wandering around the city, with the most notable sightings being Jungle crow, Spot-billed pelican, Night heron and Indian flying foxes, and whilst walking back to the accommodation I picked out the first Yellow fronted barbet of the trip. I decided to go for a brief wander up to Udawattekele in the afternoon, and was rewarded with a few interesting species; Brown headed barbet, Jerdon’s leafbird, Brown breasted flycatcher, Alexandrine parakeet were all good to see, whilst higher up the path I located a few Black throated munia feeding in a grassy area, as well as Yellow browed bulbul which responded well to some pishing.
From our balcony with a good view into the forest I was able to add a few more species with minimum effort, with Lesser hill myna, Black capped bulbul, Bar winged flycatcher shrike and Ceylon Red backed woodpecker all noted during the remainder of the day.

The next morning we made plans to head to the botanical gardens for an early morning walk, before heading into the city for some shopping and lunch. The botanical gardens are well cared for, but much like other recreational areas there can be a surprising diversity of species contained within these areas. The morning started well with White browed bulbul, Purple rumped sunbird, White rumped sharma and Black hooded oriole, but the stars of the show were some very obliging Layard’s parakeets which were collecting nesting material near to the bamboo garden. Also rather showy were both Brown and Brown breasted flycatchers, with the latter perching lower down than the former, it was intuitive to observe both at close range. A little later and we came across a mixed flock of species with Common tailorbird and Common Iora, Cinereous tit, Ceylon small barbet and both Small and Orange minivets. Within the group I noted the only Greenish warbler of the trip, with the more numerous Green warbler also present for direct comparison - though the different calls made the job a lot simpler!
In more open areas we noted a few Brown shrike and White bellied drongos. By half 10 it was starting to get hot, and we slowly made our way back, via a huge colony of Indian flying foxes, and in the same area we caught a glimpse of a rather large Rat snake disappearing under some paving. The botanical gardens are well worth a visit should you find yourself in Kandy, and there are undoubtedly some good birds to be seen there.
After another stint in the city we headed back to the room for a rest before dinner, and I spent the remainder of the afternoon scoping the forest edge opposite. This proved to be a very enjoyable few hours as a large bird wave moved through; First to the party were Red vented, White browed and Black capped bulbuls, soon joined by Jerdon’s leafbirds and Black hooded orioles. There were quite a few smaller passerines joining the group now, with Common iora, Green warbler, Bar winged flycatcher shrike, Orange minivet and Pale billed flowerpeckers all dropping in. The bird of the afternoon was one I’d missed on previous visits to Asia, and although not uncommon it was no less of a pleasure to see; Velvet fronted nuthatch.

Our final morning in Kandy was to be fairly relaxed before we caught the train for our next destination of Nuwara Eliya. My partner had sensibly opted additional sleep, whilst I was already ascending into Udawattekele Sanctuary by 6am. The morning was enjoyable enough, with most of the species noted the previous day present, in addition to Ceylon junglefowl which called noisily from some dense thickets. I spent much of the morning looking into the densely shaded areas for thrushes or other goodies, but I was not to be rewarded. Close to the junction of “Lovers walk” and “Lady Horton’s drive” I heard what sounded good for Indian blue robin, but despite my efforts of waiting and using playback, I couldn’t coax whatever it was out from some dense riparian scrub. I wasn’t to leave empty handed however, as I did pull two rather smart birds out in the shape of a pair of Crimson backed flameback and a few singing Tickell’s blue flycatchers which performed extremely well and made for excellent photographic opportunities. Soon enough it was time to head back and get ready to leave for our next destination. Anticipation was very high as I had insisted on spending at least 24hrs in Nuwara Eliya (much to my partners dismay) as there was the potential for 3 of 4 of my target birds at this location. Would the famous Victoria Park deliver?
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Old Tuesday 8th January 2019, 19:43   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dwatsonbirder View Post
Here are a few images from Wilpatu NP. Small minivet, Ceylon junglefowl, Lesser adjutant, Little green bee-eater and perhaps the worlds most obliging Crested serpent eagle. There are a few additional pictures on my twitter (@axbridge_birder) but they may act as spoilers for the report!
Welcome back Dan, I have been looking forward to reading this.

I am very much enjoying your report so far and I recognise that Crested Serpent- Eagle

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Old Tuesday 8th January 2019, 21:52   #10
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Great Leopard photos. Keep it coming!
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Old Wednesday 9th January 2019, 10:43   #11
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Kandy images

Thanks for the kind comments.

Here are a few images from Kandy (I'm still going through these so there may be other better images at some point) with Layard's parakeet, Lesser Hill myna, Tickell's blue flycatcher, Brown breasted flycatcher and White bellied drongo.
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Old Wednesday 9th January 2019, 10:55   #12
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Nuwara Eliya

Despite only allowing one evening in the town, this was arguably the most anticipated 24hrs of the trip. After getting the train from Kandy and then a 20 minute tuk tuk ride to town, I was unable to contain myself any longer - I asked the driver to drop me at Victoria Park en-route and asked Kathi if she would mind sorting out the accommodation. Any accumulated brownie points were truly spent at this moment, but the urge to get into the park to connect with 2 of my 4 main targets was too much!

I paid the entrance fee and walked through the pristinely manicured and attractive park towards my destination - the rather grim Nanu Oya that runs along the parks western boundary. There were a few birds flicking around in the trees over the stream as I approached, and a quick check revealed both Brown breasted and Asian Brown flycatchers.
I was a bit uncertain on where the best spots were, so I started by the famous “toilet block” and headed north along the stream. After about 2 minutes I came across a smaller tributary and a fallen log surrounded by thick scrub, where something caught my eye. I crouched down and waited, and after a few seconds a pristine adult male Pied thrush hopped out from the undergrowth and began digging for invertebrates - I swore strongly under my breath. As I watched this individual I noticed more movement until 5 others eventually came out to feed. I crouched watching the birds completely enthralled for several minutes until cramp set in and I had to move. This spooked a few of the birds which flew into cover and I thought I heard a collective sigh from somewhere - odd. I stood up to move to change position and turned to face a group of roughly 12 other birders. I had a quick chat with them and apparently they were also unsure of the favoured area so had opted to follow me! We waited in the same spot and after a few minutes were once again treated to excellent views of Pied thrush.

I left the group to their vigil and continued along the stream. A little further along I noticed another subtle movement from the riverside vegetation and was treated to my first ever Forest wagtail - what a bird! I spent a good 15 minutes watching as a pair walked silently along the shore picking off insects. One of the birds flew up onto an overhanging branch, and as I adjusted the focus of my bins, I noticed there was another bird sitting motionless next to it - a cracking male Kashmir flycatcher! Within an hour of arriving in the park I’d bagged three fantastic birds, and enjoyed great views of each of them. I noticed Kathi wandering towards me, and she informed me that there was another birder staying at our hotel who was targeting the same species, and had said there was a good chance I’d find them.

As it turned out the birder was Oscar Campbell and his wife Gilly - well known for his work in the UAE. I took Oscar to where the thrushes had been performing though to no avail - it appeared they had departed for their roost. By some measure of compensation we went to look for the male Kashmir flycatcher which showed extremely well. Our meeting was fortuitous as I’d found a kindred keen birder, and Kathi had found someone who was an experienced “birding widow”. With the light fading we made plans for a dawn raid on the Park, and enjoyed a very unique dinner together, at the restaurant equivalent of Fawlty Towers, with various dahls, curries, breads and teas being shuffled around between various diners.

Early the next morning we found ourselves in the park just after 6am. The previous evening Oscar had heard at least 3 Indian pitta calling at dusk, and I was optimistic that we would connect with another one of my targets. We headed towards the toilet block, and decided to walk south along the stream. After just a few minutes I spotted a shape hopping along the path some 20m away. I dialled the focus on my bins and although difficult to see the colouration, recognised the unique long legged and somewhat dumpy shape of an Indian pitta! We managed to creep up on the bird and even got some photographs, though I struggled with my bridge camera. We spent a good 10-15 minutes watching this stunning creature in the half light, both agreeing that it was particularly confiding for a pitta. An early morning walker passed by and with that the pitta bounded into the undergrowth.
What a start to the morning, as I had now seen 3 out of my 4 target birds, I wondered if it could get much better… we turned north back along the stream where we had good views of Brown breasted, Brown and Grey headed canary flycatchers, and I had a brief view of a 1w Kashmir which called but remained elusive. Also un-obliging was a small crake spp we saw briefly in the stream, but couldn’t be pinned down.

We headed for the area where the Pied thrushes had been feeding the previous afternoon as Oscar hadn’t yet connected, and I was more than keen for seconds! It was rather quiet for a while, but eventually we had brief views of a female which flew away along the stream. We decided to follow the watercourse to an area where the Forest wagtails were the previous day which proved to be an excellent move. Hiding under a low bush, we were treated to no less than 4 male and probably 2 female Pied thrushes which were feeding and drinking in this quiet corner, obtaining fantastic views down to 3m. It was a real privilege to watch these exquisite birds behaving naturally at such close range, and was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip.

After we had spent some time enjoying the thrushes, we decided to walk back south along the stream, and Oscar offered to show me the wetland area on the nearby racecourse. We enjoyed further views of at least one adult Kashmir flycatcher near to the miniature railway, even being treated to some calling and subsong as the bird perched just a few meters away. A brief distraction came in the form of a Sri Lanka Scimitar-Babbler which moved around in the canopy above us. Continuing south to where we had seen the pitta earlier in the morning, Oscar picked up the call of a Forest wagtail, and we enjoyed fantastic views of a bird perched low in a pine tree, providing great photo opportunities for Oscar.

We crossed over into the racecourse and headed for the wetland area on the eastern side of the racecourse. There were good numbers of Paddyfield pipits in the open areas, and in some of the damper patches we flushed several Pintail snipe. The first Zitting cisticola of the trip were noted here, along with many Scaly breasted munia and Blyth’s reed warblers. I flushed an interesting looking passerine, with a dark tail and contrasting buff rump, but unfortunately it dived into a particularly wet clump of grass and I wasn’t able to relocate it. There were quite a few egrets and herons around, and whilst trying to follow up on the mystery passerine Oscar called and I got onto a Yellow bittern that was flying between reedbeds.
We headed out across the marsh along the obvious ridge, which allows good views into the pools either side. We enjoyed good views of Pintail snipe on the deck, as well as distant views of the Yellow bittern. As we neared a stand of reeds, Oscar keenly picked out a small passerine walking along the base of the stems gleaning insects - I had my suspicions as the the earlier mystery passerine, and seeing this bird validated these - I was watching my first Pallas’s Grasshopper warbler! The bird moved around and although somewhat distant we were able to pick out key features such as the pale supercilium contrasting with dark crown, as well as the contrast between the tail and the rump when it flicked up the reeds.

It had been a fantastic morning and the area had exceeded my expectations, if you are in Sri Lanka over the winter I’d recommend a few days in the area exploring different areas as there is a lot of potential. The only slight regret I had was that I didn’t really spend much time looking for Yellow eared bulbul or Dusky blue flycatcher, both of which I missed. As a slight aside Oscar and Gilly stayed another day, and the next morning located a male Indian blue robin in the park - what a grip! After returning for a slightly later than anticipated breakfast, it was time to say our goodbyes and continue southwards to our next destination of Ella. It had be a whirlwind 24hrs in Nuwara Eliya, but certainly up there with the best morning’s birding I’ve had.
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Old Wednesday 9th January 2019, 12:29   #13
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You've just described the morning I hoped for in Newara Eliya! I missed the Pied Thrushes and am totally gripped. I did see the bulbul and the flycatcher, but I'd swap two for one in an instant for the views you described!

My great pleasure here was the Bear Monkeys, which we saw first in the Botanic Gardens in a deep fog, and then again much better on the road to Horton Plains, where I saw the above mentioned bulbul and flycatcher.

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Old Wednesday 9th January 2019, 13:46   #14
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Pied thrush

The Pied thrushes were really special, and for them to be so obliging was an absolute privilege. The birds showed much better than my photos portray.

Lovely image of the Langur Mike, had good views of them in Sinharaja and on the way to Haputale. Sadly didn't have time for Horton.
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Old Wednesday 9th January 2019, 13:58   #15
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Photos from Nuwara Eliya

A few more images; Kashmir flycatcher, Pallas's Grasshopper warbler, Indian pitta and Forest wagtail
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Old Thursday 10th January 2019, 15:43   #16
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Ella

The next stage of our trip saw us based in Ella for 3 nights, with plans to visit Little Adam’s peak, Nine Arches bridge, Ella rock and to generally enjoy a bit of exploration. The town itself I found to be a bit ugly and rather westernised, with a “fish and chips” shop as well as a few bars adding to a slightly tacky tourist town feeling.
We were staying about 2km out of town on the Waterfall road, and as such had spectacular views of both Kital falls and Ella rock well away from the hustle and bustle.
The area itself wasn’t exactly a hotspot for birding, though I did encounter some decent birds in the general area. A walk up Little Adam’s peak brought views of both Oriental Honey buzzard and the only Black eagle of the trip, whilst from the summit I had good views of Hill and Ceylon swallows, Little swift and Crested treeswift. The tracks through the tea plantations held the usual range of species, with Yellow fronted barbet offering excellent views.
Our accomodation looked straight into a small patch of woodland, and there was a surprising diversity of species present; Tickell’s Blue and Grey headed Canary flycatchers, Lesser Hill myna, Oriental white-eye, White browed fantail, Brown headed barbet, Red backed woodpecker, Common Iora, Ceylon Hanging parrot and Green warbler all showing well, whilst a couple of new birds in the form of a smart Lesser yellownape and a calling Indian Scops owl were welcome additions to my growing list.
Waterfall road continued through an area of mixed farmland a woodland, and here also were some good birds to be found; Philippine shrike, Plum headed parakeet, Black hooded oriole, Yellow eyed and Brown capped babblers, Cinereous tit and much better views of a pair of Velvet fronted nuthatch.

Should you find yourself in Ella, the most “birdy” area I found was along the railway tracks between the main station and Kital Ella station (with the obvious proviso that you are aware of the regular trains!) where it was fairly easy to connect with a mixed feeding flock at more or less any time of the day. In addition to the aforementioned species, we also had good views of Jerdon’s leafbird, Bar winged flycatcher-shrike, Small minivet, Emerald dove, Ceylon swallow and Chestnut headed bee-eater, along with walk away views of Indian Brown mongoose.

We enjoyed various walks around the area and did some more “normal tourist” things such as cooking classes, taking various photos from vertigo inducing precipices and enjoying a few drinks in the evening, but after the welcome break for the last 3 evenings, we were ready to move on again. With Christmas in Sinharaja looming, we had decided our last stop in the mountains would be the sleepy (and more authentic) town of Haputale.

Haputale

We only spent one evening in Haputale, and in the afternoon after arriving we headed for a wander around the local market to buy some spices. I opted for a slower walk back to the accomodation than Kathi, which was rewarded with views of an adult Shaheen falcon cruising the cliffs to the south of the town. There were a number of typical species around our accommodation, but I didn’t really make too much of an effort to explore. The next morning we had organised for an early morning trip to Lipton’s seat in order to take in the view before leaving for Sinharaja. This was a beautiful drive through tea plantations, rewarded with spectacular views south towards Udawalawe NP. We arrived back at out accommodation a little before 8am, and something made me want to walk along the lane near our hotel. Once again there were all the usual suspects, until a brown and white bird flew out from some riverside bushes and perched up in a tree - a female Pied thrush! This was pretty incredible, but made all the more extraordinary when I located an adult male in the same general area. The approximate location was at 645'55.3"N 8057'05.8"E for any birders who may be in the area and which to follow up.
Soon enough we were again packing our belongings together, and leaving for the world famous Sinharaja Rainforest. This was perhaps even more anticipated than our time in Nuwara Eliya, but with rain becoming more persistent and heavy as we approached our base at Kudawa I was becoming anxious at whether I’d see anything at all...
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Old Thursday 10th January 2019, 16:50   #17
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After a long flight on a very crowded plane via Jeddah, we finally arrived in Sri Lanka on the morning of 15th December. The same could not be said for my luggage unfortunately, which had set about its own independent travels to the Maldives. Despite containing my tripod, boots, all my clothes (including raincoat and leech socks) and even my notebook and Helm fieldguide, I was in a good mood as we began our travels north towards our first destination. With some luck, Id see my belongings again albeit on the penultimate day of our trip!
Been there....

Hints and tips - and I know you're not a new birder - but if you and the OH have two suitcases, then cross-pack: and even if you do that, a pair of pants, a shirt and some socks in the hand luggage relieves a lot of issues.

Enjoying the account very much (Sri Lanka is on my "to do" list). The photos are gripping!

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Old Thursday 10th January 2019, 17:00   #18
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Photos from Ella

Cheers John, we did start doing that on our first few longer trips, but we became complacent as up until this trip we'd not had any luggage issues. Won't be making that error again! I also rather stupidly didn't realise how important the barcoded luggage tags are, as when it went missing it took about 3hrs of bureaucracy to file the correct paperwork - admittedly my bad! BTW, if you (or anybody else) wants any specific gen, please just drop me a PM and I'll help if I can.

Here are a few more shots, this time all taken from our guesthouse in Ella. Apologies if some aren't that clear as I'm not much of a photographer. The next instalment for Sinharaja may take some time to write up...
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Old Friday 11th January 2019, 00:08   #19
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MORE Pied Thrushes! Outrageous!
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Old Friday 11th January 2019, 07:31   #20
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We do the cross packing and emergency supplies in hand luggage as a matter of routine. There are two classes of regular traveller. Those who have lost their luggage and those who are going to.
We had an amazing holiday in Sri Lanka and got most of the endemics but too early for most of the Thrushes and Pitta. Might have to go again!
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Old Friday 11th January 2019, 10:25   #21
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Philippine Shrike? AKA Long-tailed? Mildly confused on that and also slightly outraged at the Pied Thrush!!
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Old Friday 11th January 2019, 10:40   #22
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Looks like a nasty break there - not you hopefully McM?

I believe I saw a couple of individuals relating to lucionensis with the extensive grey crown and heavy flank barring as well as the nominate cristatus, though I could easily have mistaken a 1cy nominate which I believe also show paler crowns? I've seen quite a few Brown shrike before, but have to admit I didn't really pay that much attention to them...

Suspected the multiple Pied thrush may cause a stir, Sri Lanka definitely the place to see them!
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Old Saturday 12th January 2019, 07:45   #23
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Looks like a nasty break there - not you hopefully McM?
Afraid so and only 150m from home so no tales of daring-do in pursuit of rares to blame it on!

Mending now and impatient for further grippage :)
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Old Saturday 12th January 2019, 19:22   #24
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Ouch, I wish you a speedy recovery!

Sinharaja

We arrived mid afternoon at our base for the next 3 days, the Blue magpie hotel in Kudawa. I’d organised for us to stay here as my first choice (Martin’s Place) was shot down with a comment to the effect of “never in a million years” - I’m sure it’s not that bad really. As the rain let up a little later in the afternoon, we decided to walk up to the park entrance to get to grips with entry, but not before I missed the eponymous Blue magpie within the hotel grounds - sadly I didn’t connect with this species and is yet another species my non-birding partner can laud over me! The walk up to the entrance was pretty productive, and despite the rain there were plenty of birds about, including some endemics; Black (Square tailed) bulbul, Ceylon hanging parrot, Ceylon hill myna all logged in addition to other goodies such as Brown throated needletail, Crested treeswift, Crimson backed flameback. On arrival (this info may be useful for independent travellers) it transpired that a guide is mandatory for park entry, and the cost including a guide was 1500SLR each (about 7) - an incredibly low price for such a fantastic place. I organised to meet an as-of-yet unspecified guide at the HQ at 5:45 the next day, and returned to the hotel. A brief walk along one of the lanes before dinner proved rather unproductive save for a large Monitor lizard and my first (of far too many) interactions with the local leech population. On this point I would note that despite having birded overseas a fair amount, I have yet to find a location to rival Sinharaja for leeches - leech socks are an absolute must, as I spent the next 48hrs as a local invertebrate blood-bank.

The next morning I awoke just after 5am and made myself as leech-proof as possible, granted, not your typical start to Christmas Day. Upon arrival at the HQ I was greeted by Wasante, who would be my guide for the day. It started well with a roosting Ceylon Grey hornbill and a few Dark fronted babbler, but we drew a blank on a particular Zoothera around the HQ, so we decided to continue into the forest. It was barely light as we made our way up a slope and eventually onto the road leading up to Martin’s Place, with the first stop of the morning just of the main track by a stream where Sri Lanka Scaly thrush is often seen. We waited in the vicinity and tried a bit of playback, but drew a blank. By way of some compensation, we did have wonderful views of Large billed leaf-warbler, which I had heard but not seen up until now. We continued along the track until we reached the first checkpoint, where more Dark fronted babblers and a very obliging Ceylon junglefowl performed well. A little further along the track and a bird hopped out from the undergrowth and began feeding just a few meters away - my 4th target of the trip and a cracking Spot-winged thrush! We watched the bird tossing leaves for a good 10 minutes and I even managed a few shots in the low light. A little further along Wasante gestured towards some rustling in the undergrowth, and we heard Sri Lanka Scaly thrush. We waited in silence for a few minutes until a bird flicked left out of the bush and I caught sight of the unmistakable striped underwing of a Zoothera, unfortunately another Spot-winged thrush in this case, and even more frustrating was that whilst I watched that bird depart to the left, the Scaly thrush had hopped across from the right hand side of the bush never to reappear… A bit further along the trail we located a group staring intently into the undergrowth, but continued past them, when I asked Wasante what they’d seen and received the reply Sri Lanka frogmouth, we did a quick about-turn - this was not only a new bird, but a new genus for me.
We continued deeper into the forest, and the new birds just kept on rolling in; Green billed coucal, Malabar trogon, Rufous babblers, Legge’s flowerpecker in addition to Black capped, White browed and Yellow browed bulbuls, Brown capped and Ceylon Scimitar babblers. After a while, Wasante asked me to wait on the main trail whilst he “went to check something” - I had my suspicions but daren’t ask what he was looking for. He disappeared off into the undergrowth for a little over an hour, leaving me to watch a few birds along the main trail, with good views of Tickell’s blue and Brown breasted flycatchers, Brown headed barbet and Green imperial pigeon, as well as again assisting with the nutritional input of the local leech population… Wasante re-emerged but it was negative news, whatever it was he was looking for wasn’t present. We continued to try an area near to the research station, where our attempts to connect with Scaly thrush were again foiled; we had at least two birds responding to tape, but managed only untickable flight views as a shape flew away from us in the gloomy. Luckily all was not lost as we jammed in on a flock of confiding Ashy headed laughing-thrushes which showed very well. It was nearing mid-morning, and I had agreed to head back before lunch to spend the afternoon with Kathi (it was Christmas after all), so we slowly began to head back along various trails. Soon enough we encountered activity, with a pair of Red faced malkoha high in the canopy. The birds were calling and I could see their shapes as the moved about in the treetops, but the views were unsatisfactory and became the second species of the trip that I’d sort of seen, but wasn’t happy to count. Another wave of activity found us encountering a mixed group of Babblers, Bulbuls and more Ashy headed laughing-thrushes. As we watched, it became apparent that there were other birds here too, with Tickell’s Blue flycatcher and Large billed leaf-warbler present, but perhaps more exciting was another new endemic - a fine Ceylon Crested drongo flycatching in the mid-canopy.

It had been an excellent morning, with my final primary target in the bag, though perhaps it was somewhat frustrating to have been so close with the Scaly thrush and malkoha, but that is the nature of birding. I arranged with Wasante to cover a different area the following morning, and also half-jokingly said that if he saw the infamous Scops owl to let me know…

Upon returning to the hotel I spend much of the afternoon relaxing and enjoying some of the more common residents around the hotel. At around 2pm, a familiar figure was walking up to our balcony through the pouring rain - it was Wasante!
He told me he wanted to show me something, and I hopped onto the back of his motorbike and we sped off towards the village. A few minutes later and we had stopped by a stream where I met his family, with his youngest son proudly pointing to something on the overhanging branches - a cracking Black naped monarch sat on the nest. It was great to see this species again, but I was somewhat surprised that this was what he wanted to show me… he laughed and we climbed back onto the motorbike and continued for a few kilometres.
We came to a stop next to a very steep bamboo and pine covered slope, and began to climb. It was hard going (particularly in plimsolls with no rain coat!) and I had a pretty bad fall cutting my elbow deeply and pulling off my thumbnail in the process, and in the heavy rain the leeches were out in full force - whatever was on this slope had better be worth it! The climb was knackering and I was bleeding fairly profusely when we suddenly stopped. Wasante parted a thin curtain of bamboo and gestured at a gingery blob about 5m away. Lifting my bins, all the pain and mud instantly faded away, as the mythical shape of a male Serendib Scops owl came into focus. This was a truly fantastic bird to see, and with this being an unorganised trip, not one I had dared to imagine I would see. We spent a good 5 minutes watching the bird, with it once opening its eyes, before falling asleep again. I gestured a thumbs up with a massive smile on my face, and we began to descend down the slope.

Back at our accommodation the rain persisted, leading to a rather birdless afternoon, with Brown shrike, White breasted kingfisher, Asian paradise flycatcher and Black bulbul being the main entertainment until I picked out the first Ceylon Green pigeon of the trip. With the rain looking set in, we enjoyed a few beers and dhal curry for the remainder of the day.

Unfortunately my plans for an early morning rendezvous with Wasante were scuppered by a terrible nights sleep combined with a bad stomach, and I completely missed my 5:30am alarm. I consoled myself to a wander around the village, seeing much the same range of species as had been present throughout, with the main highlight a pair of Plum headed parakeet. Once again our time at another destination was drawing to a close, and it had been one of the highlights of the trip with a fantastic range of species, with over 50 species recording including several very special birds.
It was a shame to be leaving given that I’d missed out on a morning birding, but our next destination promised a completely different suite of species, and we were looking forward to seeing what Udawalawe had to offer.
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Old Saturday 12th January 2019, 19:34   #25
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Sinharaja photos

Some of these aren't the sharpest, but hopefully give a "feel" for the experience... Don't recommend the fall (or leeches) though...
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