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Sri Lanka - April 2021 (1 Viewer)


Well-known member
Dear All,

Let me share a report on my birding activities during my latest vacation trip to Sri Lanka in April 2021.

While I am more of a casual birder and the trip was not a dedicated birding trip, I hope this report might still be interesting to the community (especially given the limited number of foreign trips we can take these days!).

So, Sri Lanka opened to foreign tourists sometime around New Year, and the number of new Covid cases was fairly low up until late April (unfortunately, this changed soon after we left!) – and both of these factors gave my wife and I sufficient confidence to travel there.

Foreign tourists can only arrive to the country under the so-called Safe and Secure protocol, under which you travel around the country in the so-called bio bubble. This means that you can only travel with a dedicated guide (and only within your guide’s motor vehicle), stay only at officially approved (Level 1) hotels, visit only specially designated areas and not have any contact with the local people (except for your guide and service personnel at approved places and hotels).

Sounds strict, but luckily for us such prime birding sites as Sinharaja, Yala, Uda Walawe, Wilpattu were all on the approved list at the time we went.

We got in contact with a local agency, Jetwing Eco Holidays, and they introduced us to our future guide Mr. Suchitra (Hetti). Ultimately both the Jetwing agency (Ms. Paramie Perera) and Hetti the guide left a very positive impression with us and ensured that we had a great travel and birding experience in Sri Lanka.

Given that my wife is not a birder and the fact that both of us wanted a diverse experience on this 12-day Sri Lanka trip, we limited the number of birding to one full day in Sinharaja, two days/two nights in Yala plus casual birding around the hotels we stayed at.

Despite the limited time devoted to birding, our trip exceeded my expectations – we were able to see 20 endemic bird species and all my key birding targets (with just two exceptions). We also had some great animal sightings, including the leopard and several precious endemics.

Arrival to Sri Lanka

We arrived early in the morning and were greeted by our guide Mr. Suchitra (Hetti). As per Safe and Secure protocol, he was dressed in a white protective suit, including headcover. Not a really convenient attire to wear in the tropical heat (not to say that being all white is not ideal for birding!), but those are the rules and you have to respect them.

We went straight to the Heritance Ahungalla Hotel, and I could appreciate just how much the road infrastructure in the country has changed since my last visit back in 2011. We travelled along a paved two-lane highway road and the drive was very comfortable – very different from the conditions in 2011!

Upon arriving at the Hotel we had our first local Covid test. In line with the protocols, we were not allowed to leave our room until the (negative) test results arrived the next morning.

Casual Birding at Heritance Ahungalla Hotel

Our stay at Ahungalla was more about swimming in the ocean and simply relaxing, so my birding was limited to quick walks around the hotel territory early in the morning and checking the wide sandy beach in the evening.

Hotel territory brought some nice sightings, including two endemics – Red-backed Flameback and Crimson-fronted Barbet, as well as a series of other birds, including Brown-headed Barbet and Yellow-billed Babblers (nicknamed locally The Seven Sisters). A Red-wattled Lapwing was nesting right in the middle of the tennis court! :)

I was also delighted to notice a bunch of endemic Purple-faced Langurs on the hotel territory (species classified as Endangered).

Notable birds on the beach – Greater Sand Plover and Whimbrel.

Day of Birding at Sinharaja

Two days after arrival we made our first serious birding adventure – a day-trip to Sinharaja (the prime location to spot wet-zone endemics). There were no Level 1 hotels near Sinharaja, so all we could do was arrive very early and leave late. Not an ideal arrangement under normal “pre-covid” circumstances, but luck was on our side on that day – and we were able to spot a whole series of interesting birds, including 16 endemic species.

As mandated by the rules, we were joined by a local guide named Premachanga (“Prema” for short).

We kicked off our endemic bird count with a Spot-winged Thrush, which posed very well before flying nearly straight at me, landing within 3 meters and walking away! Sri Lanka Junglefowl was next, followed by Sri Lanka Myna high up in the trees far away (but close enough to see the wattles on the back of its head for ID purposes).

As we walked about 500 meters up the trail from the main gate, we encountered our first mixed flock, which gave us Ashy-Headed Laughingthrush and Sri Lanka Drongo. We were just thinking of continuing our walk when Prema heard the sound of a Green-billed Coucal! After an anxious 5-10 minutes of scanning the forest floor this rare and endangered endemic was spotted and well photographed.

Green-billed Coucal was clearly above the (fairly low) expectations I had for that day. But, as we say here in Ukraine, your appetite grows as you are eating, so when 10 minutes later Prema recognized a faint barely noticeable sound of the Scaly Thrush, my expectations were in proper shape for the occasion :) Well, our luck was not with us for the Scaly Thrush. Even though we made four attempts with four different birds during that day, all I could see was a glimpse of a flying silhouette, so no sufficient sighting to speak of.

Our second mixed flock brought such coveted birds as Sri Lanka Blue Magpie (albeit only the back side of the bird) and, after some patient scanning of the canopy, a Red-faced Malkoha! Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler and Crimson-backed Flameback further expanded our endemic species count.

We reached the Research Station (end point before turning back), where we had our lunch and enjoyed another mixed flock. Such nice birds as Malabar Trogon, Scarlet Minivet and the uncommon endemic White-faced Starling came into view.

That was all very well, but as we all know there is one specific bird in the owl family that sits right at the very top of many birders’ most wanted lists for Sri Lanka :) So while we were resting at the Station, Prema spent about an hour scoring the surrounding area for the day roost of the Serendib Scops Owl. To our jubilation he was successful and we were able to observe two birds (likely a female and a smaller male), perched low above the ground in some extremely thick vegetation. Indeed, while the owls were less than 50 meters away from the trail, getting there tested right to the limit my and my wife’s jungle crawling abilities, almost destroyed my shoes and made sure that one particular Sinharaja leech was well fed on that day :)

With the main endemic species firmly on our list an in our camera, the way back was like a leisurely stroll. We added Orange-billed Babbler, Legge’s Flowerpecker and Layard’s parakeet to the endemic species list, as well as visited the day roost of a cute Sri Lanka Frogmouth couple (who, as I can imagine, might have a solid lifelist of their own – recording all foreign birders they have observed!).

Right before we entered our car we saw our last endemic for that day – the tiny and confiding Layard’s Palm Squirrel.

All in all that was a very productive day - and this was a big testament to Hetti and Prema’s outstanding efforts and birding excellence!

Species we wanted to see but couldn’t:

  • Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (we would still have a chance in Yala),
  • Indian Pitta (we arrived a bit late in April and many birds had already begun their migration to India - but we would still have a slight chance in Yala),
  • Chestnut-backed Owlet (Kithulgala appears to be a much better place to spot this endemic) and
  • Sri Lanka Spurfowl (well, this one is very difficult indeed and you might need more time than just one day to have a good shot at this endemic).

We returned to Ahungalla, spent several more relaxing days by the ocean and then proceeded to Yala National Park.

To be continued…


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