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Sri Lanka November 2023 (1 Viewer)


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A trip report from our recent trip to Sri Lanka. A longish read and I hope it is useful

Trip Report Sri Lanka November 2023
Participants:- Simon Bradfield, Simon Hitchen, Dave Rose, guided by Thilina Karunanayaka

The logistics/tripadvisor bits -you can skip this if you just want to read about the birds.
This was effectively a 9 night/10 day trip although the first day was taken up with flying (leaving UK c 1pm arriving 9am the next day in Sri Lanka) as was the last day (leaving Sri Lanka c10am arriving UK 6pm) with 8 full days of birding.

Although direct flights are available it was much cheaper to fly via a connection in Dubai. 2 of us flew from Gatwick and 1 from Manchester to meet in Dubai and then go on together to Colombo. We flew with Emirates. I would not recommend them. Both flights out of the UK were delayed and the Gatwick flight was so late we came within a whisker of missing the onward flight, having to sprint through the dreadful Dubai airport which seems to lack signage.

Worse was to come on the way back. Although the Gatwick flight was ok the Dubai to Manchester flight had a 12 hour delay! On board service and quality was poor too, compared to other airlines I’ve flown with recently.

Accommodation in Sri Lanka
We stayed in 5 different locations

Kitulgala Rest House, Kitulgala. A charming characterful property. Very comfortable rooms and the best choice of food. Good birding in the grounds and great views of the river.

Ivy Bungalow, Nuwara Eliya. Much more modern property, again very comfortable. Nowhere to walk in the grounds but balconies over looked small paddies and arable gardens which had some birds.

Hibiscus Garden Hotel, Tissamaharama. Super hotel, fantastic birding in gardens, great rooms in separate buildings (like an African safari lodge). The pool looked good too. It’s right on the edge of Bundala national park and close to Yala national park. This would be ideal for the birder on holiday with their family.

Rock View Motel, Sinharaja. Most basic of the 5 but still comfortable. Spectacular views over the valley and had an Oriental Magpie Robin roosting in its dining room each night.

Euro Star Hotel, Colombo. Airport hotel with large comfortable rooms and bonus roosting Indian Scops-Owls in the car park.

In all hotels the staff were really friendly and we felt very much at home. All had free WiFi although in most it was limited to reception area and not available in rooms. I’d happily stay in any of them again.

Itinerary and Guiding
We booked with Walk With Jith www.walkwithjith.com direct in Sri Lanka. Communications with Jith were great. He was very responsive to emails and very accommodating with tweaks we wanted to make to the itinerary. The Itinerary focussed on trying to see all 34 endemics of Sri Lanka with some additional time at Bundala for wetland species.

Our guide on the ground was Thilina Karunanayaka. Thili is a superb guide, he really knows the birds and knows how to find them and works hard to make sure you get to see them. He has plenty of local contacts for up to date information. He is also great company. We thoroughly recommend Jith and Thilina to anyone visiting Sri Lanka.
Day 1 Saturday 18-11-23

We arrived broadly on time despite the best efforts of Emirates and having negotiated immigration and currency exchange (Sri Lankan bank notes each feature an endemic bird - nice) we were met by Jith and Thilina. After a brief run through of the itinerary we headed out into the heat and our first birds which were inevitably House Crow and Common Myna around the airport.

Shortly after leaving the city we made an unscheduled stop when Thili spotted a Crested Serpent-Eagle sat on a pole. The surrounding paddies held many Eastern Cattle Egrets and a few Great Egrets and Indian Pond Herons. Indian Swiftlets fed overhead and a White-throated Kingfisher hunted from the wires. A few Black-headed Ibis and an Asian Openbill fed in the paddyfields on the opposite side of the road. A roadside garden held a Greater Coucal. A nice introduction to some of the commoner species we would encounter. After a quick breakfast of corn-on-the-cob from a roadside stall we headed on.

Our next roadside stop was shortly after the town of Karawanella. This was specifically for the endemic Crimson-fronted Barbet after Thili had heard one singing. The Barbet was distant but nevertheless gave decent views. Our first endemic and my first lifer of the trip. This turned out to be a good tick as we only saw it once more in the entire trip. Here we saw our first Toque Macaques, the most commonly encountered of Sri Lanka’s three monkeys.

Arriving at the charming Kitulgala rest house, we enjoyed a good buffet lunch before birding in the front garden. This added the next two endemics, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon and Layard’s Parakeet. Both of these were regularly seen in suitable habitat. Alexandrine Parakeet was a lifer here too. An impressive parakeet, rather like a Ring-necked Parakeet on steroids. We also saw our first Thick-billed Crows, Red-vented Bulbuls and Yellow-billed Babblers of the trip. The latter two in particular were numerous throughout. Black-hooded Oriole, another bird we regularly encountered was also first seen here, as were Asian Palm Swifts.

We headed out a short distance to the area round Kitulgala Camp. It was now raining heavily. One large tree held a pair of bedraggled endemic Sri Lanka Hanging Parrots, a Square-tailed Bulbul and a flock of 8 Sri Lanka Green Pigeons. The rain turned from heavy to torrential and we took cover at the campground headquarters to enjoy some tea and wait for it to past. Whilst waiting we had somewhat poor views of the endemic Spot-winged Thrush in the gloom. By five o’clock the rain showed no sign of abating so we headed back, seeing our sixth and final endemic of the day, a somewhat scruffy juvenile Sri Lanka Junglefowl as it went to roost.

Back at the Rest House the first White-bellied Drongo of the trip, doing its best to catch flies in the rain was the final bird of the day. We hoped for better weather for the next day.


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Day 2 Sunday 19-11-23

Sometime during the night the rain stopped and after a very comfortable sleep we were up early and back to the Camp to make up for lost time. The early start meant it was initially quiet and gloomy in the poor light. It was difficult to see much detail on our first new endemic of the day, a group of Orange-billed Babblers. Three pigeons were added to the trip list as the light began to improve, Spotted Dove, Green Imperial Pigeon and Asian Emerald Dove. The former two species were common despite us missing them on day 1. The Asian Emerald Dove, a lifer for me, was only seen once again on the trip.

Next up were two new Babblers. The Dark-fronted Babbler, an attractive but very active bird and a very confiding endemic Brown-capped Babbler, which gave prolonged views as it belted out its song. Whilst watching the Babblers we saw our first Indian Palm Squirrels, a species we were going to see a lot of as the week progressed. Our next new bird was a Brown-breasted Flycatcher, feeding from overhead wires and surrounding trees. This dapper little Flycatcher was encountered most days.

Then after much searching and listening, Thili picked up our main target bird - a Chestnut-backed Owlet. This characterful little endemic owl was going to be hard to get away from Kitulgala so it was an important bird to see in our quest for “the 34”. Although high in a tree we enjoyed good views of this diurnal owl. It has a slightly comical look due to its big round eyes surrounded by concentric rings of barred feathers, which make it look simultaneously surprised and annoyed.

With the owlet in the bag we headed back to the garden where we had sheltered from the rain the previous day. A Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher was a colourful addition to our list but was shortly overshadowed by a stunning Indian Pitta. This bird is a winter visitor to Sri Lanka and easier to see here than when breeding.

The Spot-winged Thrush we saw yesterday put in another appearance. Showing much better than previously, at one time coming so close that my camera couldn’t focus on it. I was not expecting this elegant species to be so confiding.

Two more of this species and another Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher were found along a little stream that ran beside the garden but it was when we followed the stream down to where it met the river that we found a real prize. A stunning, if badly named, Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher was hunting in the creek, its colours jewel like in the low light of the jungle. Its completely incorrect name comes from the split of Oriental Dwarf-Kingfisher into several species. This was one of the best birds of the trip.

Heading back to the van Thili picked up a most unexpected bird - a Banded Bay Cuckoo in a tree. This tree turned out to hold a feeding flock of many species and we soon saw our first Orange Minivets, a Green Warbler, a Common Iora, an endemic Yellow-fronted Barbet and had our first decent views of Pale-billed Flowerpecker and Purple-rumped Sunbird, two of the commonest birds we encountered in Sri Lanka.

Pleased with a good morning’s birding we headed back to the rest house for breakfast. As we got out the van we spotted two raptors soaring in the rapidly warming air, a pair of Crested Honey-buzzards. These were then joined by a larger bird, a juvenile Rufous-bellied Eagle and then an even bigger one - a Black Eagle. Three raptor lifers in ten minutes a great end to our first proper birding session.

With rain forecast in the afternoon and mindful of the previous day’s washout Thilina suggested we head straight out after breakfast despite it being a hot and potentially quiet time. (I always think flexing the programme in response to the weather is a sign of a good guide). Whilst waiting to get on the van we spotted a male Asian Koel in the Rest House garden as well as another Green Warbler and the ubiquitous trio of Common Myna, Yellow-billed Babbler and Red-vented Bulbul.

Thilina took us to the bridge over the river. A bridge I was familiar with from my honeymoon when Kitulgala had been a quick lunch stop on the way to the coast. Back then I had thought the area looked birdy and now I knew my thoughts had been right. Crossing the bridge we started birding on the South side of the river.

Our first target was another endemic and along with the Owlet was a bird Thilina was keen to see as it could be difficult elsewhere. The Green-billed Coucal is endangered by habitat loss and despite it’s size is difficult to see as it skulks in dense undergrowth. We were lucky however in coming across a pair that showed well despite the heat of the day. This was a big win in our quest for the 34, getting the 2 Kitulgala specialities.

We started a circular walk on the hillside above the river, stopping to enjoy a confiding White-throated Kingfisher at close quarters. In the skies a couple of Crested Serpent-Eagles soared and a mighty Black Eagle drifted past.

In a garden we saw our first woodpecker of the trip a Red-backed Flameback. Another endemic and a bird with a confusing array of names (Black-rumped Flameback/Lesser Flameback/Lesser Goldenback to name a few). The name struck me as strange as Flameback would indicate a red back anyway calling it a Red-backed Flameback is a bit like Mr and Mrs Roberts calling their son Bob……Anyway this was the most frequently encountered of Sri Lanka’s woodpeckers and another endemic towards the 34. The same garden also held another new tick in White-rumped Munia.

We next found a raptor in a tree right by the path - a Crested Honey-buzzard. We had great views of the perched bird. I’d love to see a European Honey-buzzard like this rather than flying a mile away! We descended towards the river, seeing our first Yellow-browed Bulbuls, a brief Yellow-fronted Barbet and a flyover white morph Indian Paradise Flycatcher which we were unable to relocate. A Black-headed Cuckooshrike fed actively in the trees and a Lesser Yellownape, a most attractive woodpecker also gave brief views.

Whilst this latter batch of species proved hard to photograph not so our next new bird. Several Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, were very co-operative as were a group of White-rumped Munias on a wire. Having negotiated the infamous bridge we headed back to the Rest House for an excellent buffet lunch.

Lunch was punctuated by another new endemic, two Sri Lanka Swallows over the river. We also saw Greater Coucal and Alexandrine Parakeets on an island in the river. At the front of the property we found a feeding station which was attracting the usual suspects of Yellow-billed Babblers and Red-vented Bulbuls however of most interest was a White-browed Fantail which was actively feeding as the rain started to fall. The falling rain, as feared, soon became a torrential downfall. The result was a total curtailment of birding activities as our chances of seeing anything were next to nil. We spent a relaxing afternoon in the hotel being serenaded by Sri Lanka’s answer to Simon and Garfunkel whose repertoire seemed to consist of Take Me Home, Country Roads and not a lot else.


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Day 3 Monday 20-11-23

An early start saw us taking the van high into the hills overlooking Kitulgala to look for Starlings and Mynas. The day started with a Stork-billed Kingfisher on wires over the river which was unfortunately flushed by the ferryman and a small group of Orange-billed Babblers at the Rest House feeding station. It was good to get a better look at this species than the somewhat silhouetted view we had yesterday. After a short dive into the hills we came across a distant Eagle perched in a tree. It was either a Legge’s or a Crested Hawk-Eagle. Unfortunately it had its back to us and was too far to identify with certainty.

Another distant bird was a Blue-tailed Bee-eater a bird which we were to have much closer encounters with as the trip progressed, it was overall the commonest Bee-eater. Overhead a flock of Indian Swiftlets fed. Eventually we parked up and took a walk to see what we could find. Initially we just found more of the birds we had seen before, Purple-rumped Sunbirds, Pale-billed Flowerpeckers, Common Mynas etc. but we soon found another new endemic, the Black-capped Bulbul, which with its black hood and red eye reminded me a little of Sardinian Warbler, although it was bright yellow underneath and much less skulky.

Next up was one of the Hill Mynas we had been hoping for. The Southern Hill Myna was not the endemic but still a lifer. A small group fed in a tree, giving reasonable views. A couple of munias flew through and landed in some long grass and we were delighted to see they were Black-throated Munia. Although not endemic this is not an easy bird in Sri Lanka so it was great to get these on our list. A pair of Brown-breasted Flycatchers also provided some entertainment.

I then spotted a Shrike but was thrown by the pale head. This was a Brown Shrike but of the Philippine race (luconiensis). It looked quite different from my only other sighting of this species (at Warham Greens, Norfolk back in 2020). More Sri Lanka Hanging Parrots were seen, but as yesterday were still distant. Non-avian life was represented by a Green Forest Lizard (looking anything but green with its bright red head). We ended our morning session with a trip tick of Common Kingfisher on the stream as we came down from the hills.

After a final breakfast at the Rest House, which was punctuated by the sighting of 4 Indian Peafowl (all Peahens) in the garden we set off for Nuwara Eliya. The area around Nuwara Eliya held six endemics which we would not see later in the trip so the next 36 hours were going to be vital if we were to see all 34 endemics. With the weather at Nuwara not looking any better than Kitulgalla there was a real concern that time would be against us in seeing the six, especially as 3 of them could be tricky to find or were skulkers.

We had several stops along the long winding and very scenic road from Kitulgalla to Nuwara Eliya. A Changeable (aka Crested) Hawk-Eagle in a tree close to Hatton, the Devon and St Clair’s Waterfalls and a colony of Indian Flying Foxes all broke up the long journey to Nuwara. Just as we arrived at the Ivy Bungalow, our home for the next two nights the skies opened and the usual afternoon downpour began.

The balcony of the bungalow overlooked some vegetable gardens and paddyfields. These gave us 4 new trip ticks, Paddyfield Pipit, Oriental Magpie Robin (which I was surprised not to have seen earlier), Indian Robin, and House Sparrow as well as another Brown Shrike and several Large-billed Crows.

After an excellent curry lunch we headed to the birding hotspot of Victoria Park. The rain had abated a little by now but not stopped. A Little Cormorant was fishing in the Lotus Pond and Indian Pond Herons stalked the lawns. More familiar birds were the Grey Wagtail in the stream and the Ring-necked Parakeets making their usual racket as they flew over. Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher was my first lifer of this part of the trip but the real Flycatcher prize took a bit more finding,

Kashmir Flycatcher breeds in a small range in Kashmir, a region known for its political troubles and winters in isolated pockets in Southern India and, in particular, the highlands of Sri Lanka. From a visiting birders point of view this makes it a good “world tick” as much as the endemics. Victoria Park is one of the best places to see them. After a bit of tracking and waiting Thilina found a stunning adult male. We were very pleased to see this one, especially in its “best” plumage

We searched without joy for Pied Thrush, only adding White-breasted Waterhen before we left the park to head for piece of forest on the outskirts of town. This was an area where locals came to fly tip their rubbish (surprising given how clean and tidy the rest of Sri Lanka was) and birds were attracted to it to look for food. Our key target here was the endemic Whistling-Thrush, one of the hardest of all endemics to see.

After a bit of waiting during which time we had only seen Brown-breasted Flycatcher, a thrush emerged from the gloom to set our pulses racing. It was however an Indian Blackbird, a bird which looked more different from our familiar Eurasian Blackbird than the field guide made out, featuring a deeper orange bill, an orange eye ring with a teardrop shape and a glossier look. Also similar to a European bird was a Cinereous Tit. This species had been split from Great Tit since I last visited Sri Lanka and looks like a monochrome version of the European species.Our next new bird was a leggy Indian Blue Robin. It was a brown female rather than the colourful male and we never got to see a male - karma for the Kashmir Flycatcher I suppose!

We switched to a lower road in search of the endemic Thrushes and Woodpigeons but light was fading fast. Simon and Thilina had brief views of a male Pied Thrush. I got on to it just as it flew and felt I couldn’t really tick it on the view I had, Whilst we waited for it to return (it didn’t) we saw our first of the 6 highland endemics, a Sri Lanka Bush Warbler. Whilst this individual sat nice and still in a relatively open position, the gloom of the evening meant that photographing it was not possible. It was a similar story with our last bird of the day and another endemic, the Yellow-eared Bulbul which showed briefly as we made our way back to the van, They were brief views and I hoped for better tomorrow.


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Day 4 Tuesday 21-11-2023

We were up at 4.30am with a packed breakfast to head for Horton Plains National Park. Today looked critical - we still had 4 highland endemics to find, 2 of which were difficult and we really wanted to see if we could get better views of the Warbler and Bulbul which we had seen late yesterday. With heavy rain forecast for the afternoon it was going to be a challenge.

After trying unsuccessfully for the Whistling-Thrush and Woodpigeon at a couple of places we parked the van by a small pond with some flowering trees and enjoyed a mixed feeding flock. This consisted mostly of Sri Lanka White-eyes which fed at point blank range, Green and Large-billed Leaf Warblers, Pale-billed Flowerpeckers, and Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher. A Dull-blue Flycatcher became the next endemic to be ticked off and a pair of Yellow-eared Bulbuls gave better views than the previous evening but were hard to get a good photograph as they were so active. A flyover Besra was a lifer for all. Dusky Squirrel was a new mammal for the trip here.

As we worked the road towards the gate from the pond Thilina picked up a calling Sri Lanka Whistling-Thrush. We waited patiently as the calls got closer and a male bird emerged, sat out on a branch in the open for a split second before zooming across the road into deep cover. No photograph but a great tick. The next endemic was not a bird but the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey. This large monkey made quite a noise as it crashed through the trees before we watched it sit and eat.

One target left to go. We had heard Sri Lanka Woodpigeons a couple of times but hadn’t been able to see them. Eventually one flew across the road and following it we could see 3-4 birds quietly feeding in the dense trees.

Another Sri Lanka Whistling-Thrush was calling and after a false alarm caused by a Dark-fronted Babbler, Thilina suggested that it was coming nearer. As we waited hoping for a better sight, a car pulled up right in front of blocking our view of the bush and a man leaned out and asked if we had “seen any leopards?”. We quickly waved him on his way with come choice words for him once he was out of earshot. Thankfully it wasn’t game over. The Thrush continued to call and eventually a female into view in an open spot and gave prolonged views. She even showed her distinctive blue scapular patch before flying across the road,

The fun wasn’t over yet though, as shortly after the male came out into the same bush. Although it didn’t stay as long as the female we had jawdropping views and got fantastic pictures of this hardest of Sri Lankan endemics.

We headed back to the van and our packed breakfast. There a Sri Lanka Bush Warbler was heard and showed briefly for some very poor record shots, which at least kept the trip record of 100% of the endemics we had seen being photographed. It was a very cheerful breakfast. We had seen and photographed all six of the highland endemics. This meant that our quest to see all 34 was still on. It still looked challenging but the chance was there.

After breakfast we had a change of habitat as we left the forested area to go up to the plain itself in search of open country species. This did not disappoint. Pied Bushchat was easily seen, a female giving particularly good views. Zitting Cisticolas displayed over the long grass and Hill Swallows fed overhead whilst Paddyfield Pipits took care of the ground patrol. A pair of Red-wattled Lapwings fed in a small creek and we saw some stately Sambar Deer, not too unlike our own Red Deer. Our final bird in the National Park was a small flock of very smart Tricoloured Munias.

Thilina wanted to have a go for another very shy endemic the Sri Lanka Thrush at a nearby site he knew. The chances were only 50/50 but if we could find this bird it would be one less needed at Sinharaja and give us more time to focus on the other endemics. By now the afternoon clouds had gathered and rain was looking likely. Thilina again picked up the Thrush on call and after a couple of glimpses in which the well camouflaged bird was hard to get on to it, it sat briefly on a falling tree before disappearing into the forest as the heaven’s opened. A fabulous bird to have got under our belt. Whilst looking for the Thrush we also encountered 2 Rhinoceros Lizards.

The rain was hammering down now but as we entered the small settlement of Ohiya a Crimson-backed Flameback was heard. We pulled over and took a walk down the railway tracks (don’t try this at home, Network Rail don’t like it) and despite the downpour we soon had a pair feeding in the dead trees. This impressive ‘pecker was like a huge ivory-billed version of the Red-backed Flameback. Another endemic down we took shelter in a local shop/cafe and enjoyed pancakes and rotis for lunch.

With the rain abating we headed back towards Nuwara Eliya. A comfort break at Kappatiyapola resulted in some impromptu birding when first a Kashmir Flycatcher was found, followed by Dull-blue Flycatcher, Green Warbler, Orange Minivet, two White-browed Bulbuls, a Lesser Yellownape and best of all yet another endemic, the smart Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler.

With some time left in the day we headed back to Victoria Park for another stab at Pied Thrush. It was now raining heavily. The Little Cormorant had moved from the pond and was sitting in a nearby tree. A Common Sandpiper patrolled the waters edge. A probable Pied Thrush female was seen but again not well enough for me to tick in the appalling conditions. With the heavy rain our other Victoria Park targets of Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and Forest Wagtail also went unseen and we decided to quit. A fantastic day of birding with all 6 Highland endemics seen well and a further 3 endemics added to our list. With 11 endemics left to see I began to think that seeing all 34 may not be out of the question.


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Day 5 Wednesday 22-11-23

Torrential rain overnight made for an interesting journey from Nuwara Eliya with landslides partially blocking the road in several places. Still, we got to our first destination Surrey Bird Sanctuary without problem and the birding began in the car park.

Oriental White-eyes were feeding in the trees, along with Brown-headed Barbet and Yellow-fronted Barbets. A Purple Sunbird flew over and 2 Sri Lanka Woodpigeons were feeding on the ground. Best of all though was another new endemic, the Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill. One of the easier endemics it was surprising it had taken us until day 5 to see one. A male gave great views as it fed in a tree. 10 to go….. A superb white-morph Asian Paradise Flycatcher and another Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler were also seen.

Descending some lethally slippery steps and cautiously making our way along a tricky jungle path we went in search of Surrey’s star species - Brown Wood Owl. This we found with a bit of help from a group of Yellow-billed Babblers that objected to the Owl’s presence. This Owl is a quite large Strix and has lovely orange feathering around its eyes.

We checked a stream for Pied Thrush but to no avail, although we did a skulky Forest Wagtail, which was another lifer. It seems odd that there should be a skulky wagtail. I demand a locustella warbler that struts around supermarket car parks in return.

With our mission accomplished we continued our journey. We made a quick stop when Thilina spotted a small Barbet in a dead tree near Ella. A Coppersmith Barbet, which was soon joined by another, than another until there were six sat in the same tree. Another lifer and this completed the Sri Lankan barbets for us. We also made a brief stop at the town of Ella to see the beautiful waterfall, although the town itself seemed full of trust funded Western backpackers.

Lunch was at a lovely family run restaurant called Delish in Wellawaya. Amusingly the owner took a picture of us and used in a Facebook advert, describing us as “discerning travellers”…makes a change from “grizzly birders”…

As we entered the dry zone of Sri Lanka the habitat changed. Ironically, although we were in the dry zone we saw a lot more water, flooded paddyfields and tanks were everywhere and we soon added Little Egret and Asian Woolly-necked Stork to the list

Our next stop was Debarawewa, where Thilina had arrange to meet with two local guides to show us some roosting owls. Our first target Jungle Owlet was a little uncooperative, unfortunately flushing almost immediately. Thankfully it was refound, and after a scramble under a barbed wire fence we had decent views.

Our second owl was a much more relaxed affair. We just walked into a garden, looked up into a palm tree and enjoyed the sight of two Indian Scops-Owls, a recent split from Collared Scops-Owl. The third owl was the trickiest. The high rain fall had swollen the river making it difficult to get where we needed to be to see our final target, Brown Fish Owl. All we got to see was the back end of the bird as it flew off down river. This was a bird which deserved to be seen better and Thilina made plans with his contacts to try again for it tomorrow morning.

We headed for our the Hibiscus Garden Hotel to rendezvous with our jeep to take us into Bundala National Park. En-route we had a quick stop to photograph a Spot-billed Pelican on Tissamaharama Tank. Great Cormorant was a somewhat less exciting trip tick here.

We picked up our jeep for our trip into Bundala at the hotel and headed for the National Park, via another quick stop at a more marshy area of Tissa tank. This produced a Cotton Pygmy-Goose in the lotus and a further 2 on a tree as well as Great Egret and our first Purple Heron and Grey Heron of the trip.

At Bundala the birding began on the approach road with 2 Indian Thick-knees, a fairly recent split from Eurasian Stone-curlew. A marshy area held Grey-headed Swamphen as well as the ubiquitous Eastern Cattle Egrets. An elegant Ashy Prinia sat up nicely on a bush allowing good views. Overhead wires ere adorned by several Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, c100 Barn Swallows and 2 Sand Martins.

In the marsh Black-headed Ibis and Asian Openbill fed and a Watercock flew in and gave brief views before disappearing into the thick vegetation. Further on down the track we came across a roosting Black-crowned Night-Heron and a small party of Pheasant-tailed Jacanas. Our first Brahminy Kite drifted over. This was a species I remember seeing many of in 2000 but we only saw 2 on this trip.

We stopped to buy tickets at the Park entrance and it was there that Thilina first heard and then found a Sri Lanka Woodshrike. Although not the most exciting endemic and one which had only been split since I last visited in 2023, this was a very welcome tick. I had spoken to birders who had missed this species but seen the other 33 endemics. It is a dry-zone bird and as all the other endemics are wet-zone (or both) itineraries, including ours, can offer only a few opportunities to connect. Thilina had got another potential site for this species lined up but we could now skip this and spend more time in Sinharaja tomorrow. 9 endemics left, two and a half days to go…..

Into the NP proper and we were soon surveying a wetland full of birds. Waders were plentiful with good numbers of Black-winged Stilt, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Marsh Sandpiper and Little Stint. Plovers were represented by Little Ringed Plover and Kentish Plover. A small group of Eurasian Spoonbills was a trip tick and we got our first good look at Painted Storks. Amongst these birds Lesser Whistling-Ducks swam. A small flock of Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark provided passerine interest and a Pied Kingfisher, familiar from our African trips, surveyed all from a dead bush. No doubt more could have been found but mindful of time we pressed on.

Indian Peafowl were plentiful along the track and the bushes held several new ticks, a pair of gorgeous Yellow-crowned Woodpeckers, small flocks of Scaly-breasted Munias and Baya Weavers. Blue-tailed Bee-eaters were joined by Asian Green Bee-eaters feeding from conspicuous perches. A dead tree held a Paddyfield Pipit and a singing Brahminy Starling, the latter was then somewhat outnumbered by a huge (1000+) flock of Rose-coloured Starlings (although as they were in their somewhat dowdy winter plumage this wasn’t the visual treat that it sounds like). Orange-breasted Green-Pigeons were a visual treat though with their subtle pastel orange breasts. A Pied Cuckoo flew through without stopping.

We arrived at a more open lagoon which presented a raft of new birds. A single Caspian Tern flew over and several Whiskered Terns and Gull-billed Terns fed overhead. Dead trees in the lagoon were used as resting posts by both Great and Indian Cormorants and a single Oriental Darter. 3 Little Grebes were a more familiar sight but in a rather different context….we don’t usually see them alongside huge Mugger Crocodiles and Asian Elephants!

Roadside vegetation held a Pin-tailed Snipe, although very similar to Common Snipe it had (to our eyes) a slightly Woodcocky look. A Jerdon’s Bushlark showed well on a bridge and we picked out a Medium Egret (a recent split from “Intermediate Egret”) amongst many Little Egrets. A Grey-bellied Cuckoo was another addition as we started losing the light to both time and weather.Given these worsening conditions we hurried on in search of one of our key non-endemic targets - Great Thick-knee. We were pleased to find 6 on a bund before the weather closed in. High water levels meant we couldn’t get to where we had hoped to see Small Pratincole, but you can’t win them all.

The weather was closing in fast. A Striated Heron was added to the list and we encountered Water Buffalo and Elephant again as we headed for the exit. Bundala had one last bird for us, and it was a good one, a lone Lesser Adjutant roosting in a dead tree. A great way to end a spectacularly good day, with 68 species in the two hours we had spent in Bundala.

We returned and checked into the Hibiscus Garden Hotel. A very nice hotel, with lush gardens and an inviting pool although we had other priorities. Dinner was a delicious curry, accompanied rather incongruously by Christmas carols…


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Nice read so far Simon, brings back some happy memories.
Utterly gripped by Great Thick-knee, Yellow-eared bulbul, Sri Lanka Whistling thrush, Sri Lanka Scaly thrush and Indian Blue Robin - given the run of endemics you had sounds like a guide was useful!
Hope you escaped the leeches in Sinharaja...
Thanks Pete. It's a great country and the birding is excellent.

Leave answering this until the end so there are no spoilers on your endemics target but how well compared to your guided trip would a lone, independent birder be likely to do - sorry, impossible question I know ... but I thought I'd try!
Day 6 Thursday 23-11-23

We started by doing some birding in the hotel garden before breakfast. White-breasted Waterhens prowled the lawns and an Asian Koel gave better views than we had previously had of this species. We found many of the usual suspects…Red-vented Bulbul, Black-hooded Oriole and Pale-billed Flowerpecker but also some new birds. A Jerdon’s Leafbird alighted in a tall tree and was soon joined by other species in a little feeding flock containing Brown-headed Barbet,Common Iora, our only Small Minivet of the trip and the bird we had been targeting in the garden, Thick-billed Flowerpecker. A male Baya Weaver still in breeding plumage was good to see as the small flock we had encountered in Bundala the previous afternoon had been in non-breeding plumage. Collared Dove was a somewhat less exciting addition to the trip list.

Post breakfast we headed back to Debarawewa to meet up again with the Owl guides as we had unfinished business. This time, despite the high water level we were able to obtain views of the roosting Brown Fish Owl, much more satisfactory than yesterday’s flight views. The owl with it’s outsize bill looked like something that Jim Henson might have created. A good contender for bird of the day.

We began the long journey to Sinharaja but once again our journey was interrupted by some great birds. Not far out of Debarawewa, 2 majestic Malabar Pied Hornbills flew across the road. We soon located them in a fruiting tree and enjoyed great views.

Next stop was on the boundary of Udawalawe National Park. Our subject this time was a nesting White-bellied Sea-Eagle. This was supplemented by a couple of Asian Elephants that had wandered to the National Park fence in the hope of blagging food from tourists,

As we neared Sinharaja the road began to climb and become more twisty and it was here we stopped for another endemic. White-faced Starling was potentially difficult so we were pleased to find one singing from some trees by the road. 8 to go.

We arrived at the Rock View Motel in time for lunch. This hotel had great views over a valley above which we soon saw soaring Crested Serpent-Eagle and Black Eagle.

After lunch we headed into Sinharaja village, there we transferred to a jeep and headed up a very rough track. We parked up at a smallholding and followed a ranger through a garden to a small group of trees. There we had to form an orderly queue as only person could view the bird at any time. The bird in question was the bird we had most wanted to see, a roosting Serendib Scops-Owl. This Owl hadn’t even been discovered when I was last in Sri Lanka in 2000. I never thought I’d see a bird discovered in my own lifetime.

Our next stop was for another roosting bird, or rather a pair of roosting birds. Despite its name Sri Lanka Frogmouth is not endemic being found in Southern India too but being a new family for two of our party this had been as big a target as any endemic. Our second Jim Henson creation of the day.

We headed back to the village encountering both Purple-faced Leaf-Monkey and Toque Macaque on the way. Some mynas flew into small tall trees and although the light was a challenge we could see enough detail to confirm that these were Sri Lanka Mynas, lacking the yellow wattle under the eye of the Southern Hill Mynas we had seen earlier.

We tried without success around the Forest Visitor centre for the endemic Magpie but only saw Yellow-browed Bulbuls and a Sri Lanka Hornbill. Heading back to Kudawa village we saw Indian Paradise Flycatcher again and Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, a bird which put me in mind of the Batises we had seen in Africa. We then waited by an unpromising looking creek with a mixture of rank vegetation and litter to try for Slaty-legged Crake. We were successful in getting brief views when a party of Orange-billed Babblers appeared causing the Crake to briefly emerge, presumably out of curiosity. We waited some time here for it to show again but it did not co-operate a second time.

Walking the road back out of the village we found an Asian Brown Flycatcher, a duller version of the Brown-breasteds that we had been seeing and then a roosting White-throated (or Legge’s) Flowerpecker. We debated whether the bird was actually alive so still was it sitting. A Crimson-fronted Barbet showed but like our bird on the first day was distant, as was our second group of Sri Lanka Mynas. Another new bird was Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, I had expected this at Victoria Park but was denied by the rain so it was good to finally connect.

We finished the day trying for the Crake at another spot but the only birds of interest there were some Sri Lanka Swallows. After dark we spent some time looking for Sri Lanka Bay Owl and Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl but without success although we did hear Bay Owl calling. Back at the Rock View some final bird related entertainment was provided by an Oriental Magpie Robin roosting in the restaurant.

We ended the day with just 5 endemics remaining to be seen and a day and a half to find them….


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Nice read so far Simon, brings back some happy memories.
Utterly gripped by Great Thick-knee, Yellow-eared bulbul, Sri Lanka Whistling thrush, Sri Lanka Scaly thrush and Indian Blue Robin - given the run of endemics you had sounds like a guide was useful!
Hope you escaped the leeches in Sinharaja...
Ah the leeches. Yes we got leeched just about everywhere. The guide provided leech socks but a leech onesie would have been more appropriate. We did find that once you got over the "yuck" factor they were harmless and at least the bites don't itch like mozzie bites do.
Day 7 Friday 24-11-23

An early start saw us drive to the SInharaja Visitor Centre to pick up a ranger and jeep head towards the National Park. Our first stop was at a blind where food was put down to attract the very shy endemic Spurfowl. It was still quite dark when we arrived and as the gloom lifted Square-tailed and Yellow-browed Bulbuls appeared to take advantage of the food. They were then joined by a glorious blue and brown Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, this proved difficult to photograph in the gloom but put on a decent show. Then the main act came on stage, a pair of Sri Lanka Spurfowl. These attractive birds quietly fed and were joined by a female Sri Lanka Junglefowl before slinking off back into the forest. We also had a new mammal here - Layard’s Squirrel.

We were now down to 3 endemics left to see, the Laughingthrush, the Drongo and the most likely to be problematic of them, the Malkoha.

We moved on to the Sinharaja Research Centre for breakfast. There we finally saw our first male Sri Lanka Junglefowl. This bird was an absolute treat. As good as any of the exotic Oriental Pheasants. Having only seen a juvenile and 2 females this felt like we were seeing the bird properly for the first time. It was a similar story with White-throated Flowerpecker with a male giving us much better views than yesterday’s roosting female.

We then entered the National Park for the first time. The tactic was going to be walk the trails to find feeding flocks and hope they would include our 3 missing endemics. The first of these was seen very soon as a flock of Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes was heard and then seen, with one particular individual who had caught a large grub for breakfast giving great views. Whilst looking at these I picked up a female Malabar Trogon sat in a tree and Thilina then found the male. Not an endemic but a much wanted tick.

Walking on in search of more birds the forest seemed ominously quiet. About 800m along the track Thilina commented that “this area is usually good” and sure enough we heard activity in the trees. Babblers were leading a feeding party through the forest. High up in the canopy above the Babblers were two Red-faced Malkohas. We had reasonable views through the leaves and managed to get a couple of record shots of this beautiful but awkward to see cuckoo.

Somewhat surprisingly though the flock did not contain any Drongos. If we’d been asked at the beginning of this trip which endemic would be the last to be seen I’m sure that Sri Lanka Drongo would not have been in contention.

It wasn’t long though before we heard another flock and this time among them, sat quietly in the tree was a Sri Lanka Drongo complete with John Travolta-esque quiff, with a full day to spare we had seen all 34 endemics. I knew of people who had been for two weeks and missed at least one. It says a lot about the skills of our guide Thili that we completed them in 6 days. Furthermore we had managed to photograph all 34 (even if the Warbler and Swallow in particular were record shots). A great result.

With the pressure off we enjoyed the rest of our walk in the forest, seeing our second Large-billed Leaf-Warbler, a very active Black-naped Monarch, a few curious Kangaroo Lizards and beautiful Sri Lanka Woodnymph butterflies.

We headed for Martin’s Lodge for lunch. At the feeders we had great views of Square-tailed and Yellow-browed Bulbuls, Yellow-fronted Barbet and both Sri Lanka Hornbill and Sri Lanka Blue Magpies paid a brief visit.

We then headed back to the Forest Visitor Centre to try and get better photographs of the Magpie. This did not transpire but we did find an Indian Pitta there and along the access road we came across 2 juvenile male Malabar Trogons. With the rain now coming down hard again we headed back to the Rock View stopping en route to admire a perched Changeable Hawk-Eagle and some Sri Lanka Swallows sat on wires allowing much better photographs than the rubbish in-flight ones we had.

As we sat down to dinner Thilina informed us his contacts were out looking for the Owls we had missed last night and indeed he soon received a call informing him that the Eagle-Owl was calling. We decided we should look for it after dinner. Less than 5 minutes later another call - the Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl was apparently sitting in a roadside tree just a few minutes drive away. There was only one thing to do which was to go immediately, much to the bemusement of the hotel staff who had just delivered our beer and starters.

A short and fast drive later we were admiring this absolute chonk of an Owl with it’s amazing near horizontal ear tufts. A huge bonus and a great end to a very successful day. We were back before our starters got warm and the thoughtful staff had even covered our beers.


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Leave answering this until the end so there are no spoilers on your endemics target but how well compared to your guided trip would a lone, independent birder be likely to do - sorry, impossible question I know ... but I thought I'd try!
It's definitely possible Pete, I recall that Steve Keen managed not long after we visited. I missed a few, though only had a guide for a few hours in Sinharaja.
Day 8 Saturday 25-11-23

At the start of the trip we had expected today to be a desperate race against the clock for our remaining endemics. Instead we had a somewhat relaxing day ahead. We started back at the Visitor Centre again. This time Sri Lanka Blue Magpie showed incredibly well allowing for some great photos.

With that particular mission accomplished we returned to the hotel. Thilina suggested that we did some birding in the grounds and from the balcony whilst he searched for a roosting Bay Owl. We agreed and spent a couple of hours drinking tea and birding from the balcony. White-browed Bulbuls on the hotel feeder gave us our best views of this species. Sri Lanka Hanging Parrots and Little Swifts were seen, as was a probable Plum-headed Parakeet in flight. Raptors included Black Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle and a Legge’s Hawk-Eagle confirmed by Thilina from Simon’s photographs. Thilina however returned without finding the Bay Owl.

Following lunch we vacated our rooms and headed out of Sinharaja towards Colombo where we had a hotel booked near the airport for our early morning flight. We had been going about half an hour when Thili pulled over to take a call on his mobile. The call became quite animated…something was afoot. The call was news that a Sri Lanka Bay Owl had been found roosting back at Sinharaja…did we want to go all the way back and see it? Of course we did.

We u-turned and headed back as quickly as possible, this was a race against the possibility of the owl moving but also the worsening weather as the usual afternoon rain clouds had amassed. Dodging Tuk-tuks and brightly coloured buses as if in a live action game of Mario Kart we headed back as fast as possible. As we pulled up to be met by the ranger who had found the owl, the first spots of rain were falling. A scramble up a fairly steep bank got us to a place we could look through the trees and there it was - Sri Lanka Bay Owl, despite its name not an endemic but a very difficult species to see anywhere. The 8th owl species of the trip and a fittingly epic way to finish.

We resumed our journey towards Colombo but the birding wasn’t quite over yet. A brief stop at Kalawana got us our final new bird of the trip an Ashy Woodswallow perched on some very high wires.

We stopped for an excellent biryani at the Sasha Food Court, where there was a singer who spontaneously launched into a rendition of Take Me Home, Country Roads. It seemed there was no escaping John Denver cover versions in this country….

We stayed our last night at the comfortable Euro Star hotel near the airport. The following morning Thilina met us in reception to take us to the airport for our early flight to Dubai and then on to London and Manchester. He had one last surprise up his sleeve. He led us to the back of the airport and there roosting in a palm tree were a pair of Indian Scops-Owls. In Sri Lanka the birding never stops….

Overall we saw 187 species of birds, 95 of which were lifers for me. A very successful trip.


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Leave answering this until the end so there are no spoilers on your endemics target but how well compared to your guided trip would a lone, independent birder be likely to do - sorry, impossible question I know ... but I thought I'd try!
It is possible but would be a lot harder. Our guide had lots of good local contacts which helped with things like owls and the more skulky species

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