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THE SPLENDOURS OF SERENDIB (Sri Lanka: july/august 2009) (1 Viewer)

Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Apologies in advance for the length of this first section but hopefully the information contained will be of some use.


PART 1: Organizing the itinerary, how many endemics and what’s the point of Martin’s place?

Over the last few years I’ve tried to organise summer holidays which have offered interesting activities, different cultural experiences and good wildlife viewing opportunities for the family whilst at the same time giving the prospect of some good birding for me. We have been to various places in Europe, as well as to the Americas, the Caribbean and to Africa but had never been to anywhere in Asia. We decided it was time we headed east and in the autumn of 2008 my wife & I looked at a number of possible options (including Malaysia, Thailand & Malaysian Borneo) before settling on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka seemed to offer a little bit of everything and in late 2008 the longstanding civil war had almost fizzled out (or so we thought!). However we had barely bought our flight tickets and paid the deposit on our accommodation/ground travel when the troubles between the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan military degenerated into outright war. The fighting intensified and the Sri Lankan military quickly gained the upper hand bringing hostilities to an abrupt end in May 2009 leaving reports filtering through of large numbers of civilian deaths and considerable deprivation. This left us with the double dilemma of: was it safe to travel to Sri Lanka with our kids? And was it ethical to visit the country at all given the recent events? We obtained advice from The British High Commission in Sri Lanka & from our ground agent who both confirmed that it was safe to travel to Sri Lanka whilst information began to come through about Tamil civilians being liberated by the Sri Lankan army who had been used by the LTTE as a human shield and of increased efforts taken by the Sri Lankan military to restore local infrastructure and provide aid to the civilian population. We therefore decided to go and as a result had a truly fantastic and enjoyable time.

We flew with Emirates from Glasgow via Dubai to Colombo. The tickets were bought on the internet from Holiday Genie (which saved us a total of £600 on the same tickets bought directly from Emirates) -the only downside was that we couldn’t use online check-in -which proved no great disadvantage. The Emirates economy seats had plenty of room, their electronic entertainment system was second to none, the food was of a good standard, the drinks plentiful & the staff very obliging & helpful. As we were flying with Emirates throughout there was no luggage hassle on switching flights at Dubai. All Emirates flights are through terminal 3 at Dubai which is a very straightforward terminal to negotiate. Even at midnight there were plenty of shops & restaurants open (take some US dollars –which are universally accepted) whilst the facilities were plentiful and well-serviced. We were met at Colombo airport by our guide, we changed currency quickly & painlessly in the airport arrivals hall and then transferred to our mini-bus without hassle.

Initially we had no real idea about a suitable itinerary for Sri Lanka. My daughter wanted to see wild elephants (including youngsters) & ride on the back of an elephant. My son wanted to see elephants, try his hand at macro-photography of bugs & butterflies and eat as many curries as possible! My wife wanted to check out some of the historic ruins and experience the varied landscapes of the country including undertaking some scenic walks. I wanted to see as many endemic birds as possible and hopefully even photograph a few, whilst all of us agreed that we would love to see a wild leopard if possible. After some initial online research we organised our itinerary, accommodation and all ground arrangements through Jetwing Eco Holidays ( www.jetwingeco.com/ ) who were simply superb. A very rough holiday plan was emailed through to the Jetwing Eco office and various modified options and suggestions were promptly returned. The staff at Jetwing –particularly Ajanthan and Paramie were brilliant & very patient. They very tactfully dealt with my stupid requests and patiently handled my repeated changes to the itinerary offering pragmatic solutions to any apparent problems. Eventually we settled on an itinerary which included six different bases covering the cultural triangle in the north, two separate hill country sites, Yala National Park and the Sinharaja rain forest whilst our last day was a chillout on the beach at Negombo (near the airport). This itinerary proved the best for us as a family though serious birders would perhaps reduce time at Yala & Negombo in favour of including a couple of days at Kithulgala to maximise on the chances of seeing some of the more difficult endemics.

As well as organising our itinerary and booking all accommodation (half-board), Jetwing supplied us with a spacious air-conditioned mini-bus, a dedicated driver (driving in Sri Lanka is not for the faint-hearted –don’t be tempted to drive yourself!) and a naturalist-guide. Having scoured the trip reports in advance I noted that Jetwing employ a number of very competent naturalist guides but the names Wicky & Hetti were repeatedly singled out for praise. We were very fortunate to have the services of Mr C. Wickramasekara –known to his friends, colleagues & clients as “Wicky”. We also briefly met “Hetti” on our travels, who clearly is also a very personable and knowledgeable guide.
Wicky was quite simply a fantastic guide. He has a great deal of knowledge covering birds, butterflies, bugs, mammals and other wildlife. He has an uncanny ability to predict what is about to unfold so that we were always in the right place at the right time (and secretly asking ourselves how does he do that?). He has excellent knowledge of Sri Lankan cultural sites, has great people skills and endless patience. His civility and pleasant interaction with local people greatly impressed me –on the few occasions when we came upon people in genuine hardship Wicky was always the first to open his wallet and offer help. Another impressive trait is his genuine belief that the welfare of the birds is paramount. Utilising his considerable fieldcraft we again and again managed to see target birds without hounding them or trashing their habitat. He seldom used tape-luring (and never within the National Parks) and when he did the use was limited and tailored to the response of the bird. He also advised that he was not prepared to tape-lure Sri Lanka Spurfowl as they were actively breeding (july-september) and susceptible to disturbance at this time –whilst this effectively meant that we had no chance of seeing this bird I was pleased to see where his priorities lie!! In short Wicky is a great guy with endless patience, a great sense of humour, considerable skills and an extremely pleasant personality –I have no hesitation in stating that his contribution turned what would have been a good holiday into a superb one!!!

All of our hotel accommodation was of an excellent standard except at Sinharaja. Whilst the south-western wet zone of Sri Lanka still holds some large tracts of forest most of this is degraded or secondary growth forest. The largest area of pristine primary rain forest in Sri Lanka is at Sinharaja which is a must-visit site. Unfortunately access to the rain forest reserve is along a rough-hewn track which can only be negotiated slowly by a high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle. From the nearest good quality hotel it can take almost 2 hours to get to the entrance gate of the Sinharaja Rain Forest reserve and so the only viable option is to stay at Martin’s Simple lodge (only a five minute walk from the reserve entrance) which as the name suggests is somewhat basic. Martin’s place comprises of basic rooms containing simple beds with a mosquito net and an adjoining bathroom containing a simple shower (there is hot water from mid-morning, once the solar panels have warmed up) and fully-functional flush toilets. The bed-linen & the rooms are clean with surprisingly few insects (courtesy of the House Geckoes) and there is power for most of the day (there are of course no ceiling fans or air-con but whilst humid we didn’t find it overly hot). Meals are served in a small basic open-sided restaurant area which commands fantastic views down the valley over the adjacent rain forest. Breakfast invariably consists of bread (from the previous day –a toaster would make all the difference Martin!), margarine, jams and fried eggs. Lunch and evening meals are much more substantial and tasty affairs with an array of vegetable curries, string hoppers (noodles), coconut samba & poppadoms. I mention all this as staying at Martin’s place is almost compulsory for serious rain forest birding -but it does help to know what to expect in advance. Martin’s lodge is simple accommodation which doesn’t claim to be anything else -but it is clean, the food is very acceptable and nobody in our party moaned about staying there. The point is that Martin’s Place really is a necessity if you want to explore Sinharaja and though very much like a youth hostel it should be your first priority when booking accommodation for a Sri Lankan trip!

Jetwing Eco publish a number of very useful booklets & ID guides. On first entering our mini-bus we were given two packs containing various goodies including Butterfly & Dragonfly ID posters a “Mammals of Sri Lanka” photo ID guide and a “Birds of Sri Lanka Pictorial Guide & Checklist” –all of which were of considerable use.


SRI LANKAN ENDEMICS
Whilst Sri Lanka holds good numbers of easy-to-see waterbirds & raptors amongst others it is the endemic birds which prove the greatest attraction to visiting birders and clearly Sri Lanka is in avian biodiversity hot spot –but just how many Sri Lankan endemics are there? Some authorities recognise 24 species, some 26 & others 33. The 24 for which there seems little dispute are:
Sri Lanka Junglefowl
Sri Lanka Spurfowl
Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon
Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot
Layard’s Parakeet
Red-faced Malkoha
Green-billed Coucal
Serendib Scops Owl
Chestnut-backed Owlet
Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill
Yellow-fronted Barbet
Yellow-eared Bulbul
Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush
Spot-winged Thrush
Brown-capped Babbler
Orange-billed Babbler
Ashy-headed Laughingthrush
Sri Lanka Bush Warbler
Dull blue Flycatcher
White-throated Flowerpecker
Sri Lanka White-eye
Sri Lanka Magpie
Sri Lanka Myna
White-faced Starling
-these are the endemics listed in BF’s Opus. Following the publication of “Ripley’s Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent” published by Rasmussen and Anderton (2005) a further 9 endemic species were proposed. Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush (Collar, 2004) is apparently quite distinct from the mainland Zoothera dauma and is receiving increased support for specific status. The Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler (Collar, 2005) is also now being increasingly treated as separate from Indian Scimitar Babbler. The other “debated” endemics are Sri Lanka Green Pigeon (=Pompadour Green Pigeon), Ceylon Small Barbet (=Crimson-fronted Barbet), Crimson-backed Flameback (=Greater Flameback), Sri Lanka Woodshrike (=Common Woodshrike), Sri Lanka Swallow (=Red-rumped Swallow), Black-headed Yellow Bulbul (=Black-crested Bulbul) and Sri Lanka Crested Drongo (=Greater racket-tailed Drongo). Whilst I’m not sure of the validity of these proposed splits it clearly made good sense to try and see as many of them as possible. Certainly the Crested Drongos we saw at Sinharaja were clearly very different in appearance and behaviour from the Greater racket-tailed Drongos we saw in Minnereya National Park whilst the Sri Lankan Black-headed Yellow Bulbuls also appeared very different from the images I have seen of the typical black-crested birds found in other parts of southern Asia.
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Clearly endemics are the main draw for birding Sri Lanka but an assortment of other good birds are also readily seen there:-
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Good birds and impressive scenics are everywhere:
 

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Jon Turner

Well-known member
Mmmmmm, looking forward to this!

Agree it's a great venue, had a fortnight there 10 years ago, not really birding, it was our silver wedding treat! But I did see a few birds too!

Jon
 

forthbirder

Well-known member
Hi Stevie. I'm off to Sri Lanka in late november, flying Emirates from Glasgow via Dubai. Glad to hear you rate their service. I will be visiting Kithulugala, Kandy, a site in the Knuckles range near Kandy, Sigiriya, and a site in Puttalam district with trips to Willapattu and Anawilduwana, so I am full of anticipation to see if you had good birding at any of these places. Looking forward to the report. Cheers, Mark
 

Steve G

RAINBIRDER
PART2: Scotland to Sinharaja (24th-28th July)

We left Glasgow at 14:15 on the 24th and arrived at Colombo (via a 2 hour transit in Dubai) around 09:30 local time on the 25th (Colombo is about 7 hours ahead of British Summer Time). Money was quickly changed and we were on our way in no time. Driving in Sri Lanka appears to be a complete nightmare with little regard for driving laws or fellow road-users (the saving grace is that few of the roads can be driven at speed). Our driver was clearly very skilled & capable so we quickly learned not to look ahead & instead focused upon the countryside we were driving by. Colombo sits within the “wet zone” of Sri Lanka and so all looked lush & green. On a map it would appear that Sinharaja could only be a few hours drive from the airport but in fact a very circuitous road and the general driving conditions in the country meant that it took us nearly 6 hours (including stops for lunch/birds) before we arrived at the village below Martin’s Place –it then took another slow drive by landrover to get up to the lodge and so the light was rapidly fading by the time we arrived.
We had already seen a good range of birds in transit including House & Jungle Crows, Cattle Egrets, Open-bill Storks (lots), Black-necked Ibis, Indian Pond Heron, Little Egret, Great Egret, Painted Stork, Black-shouldered Kite, Spotted Dove, Asian Palm Swift, White-throated Kingfisher (lots), Black-backed Robin, Pale Prinia and White-bellied Drongo. Two birding stops are particularly worthy of mention. The first was to view Ashy Woodswallows (my camera gear was packed away & the birds had moved on by the time I got things unpacked –I never did get another chance at these birds). The second stop (not far from Sinharaja) was planned by Wicky –for a roosting Spot-bellied Eagle Owl (Bubo nipalensis). These huge owls are scarce & difficult to find so this bird was very welcome. Unfortunately I made a total screw-up of the images as earlier we had asked the driver to turn the air-con up to maximum and predictably as soon as I took the “chilled” camera/long lens out of the vehicle into the hot humid wet zone air it became covered (inside & out) with condensation. An hour or two at ambient temperature is usually sufficient to shift this “fogged glass” but unfortunately we couldn’t spare the time as we needed to be on the track to Martin’s place before dark.


So began our three night stay at Martin’s Place. I suppose at this stage I should make mention of the leeches; Sinharaja is the leech capital of the world! Leeches don’t spread disease (sometimes bites can become secondarily infected) and neither do the bites hurt as these wee beasties kindly “inject” a small amount of “anaesthetic” along with an anticoagulant. However the wounds though small can be difficult to stop bleeding and so it’s better to avoid the wee terrors if possible. We bought leech socks over the net from Endemic Guides ( www.endemicguides.com/Leech/Leech.htm ) and very effective they were too –especially if some DEET is then applied.

On our first morning at Sinharaja we were up at dawn (0600) to witness a fine mist hanging over the rainforest. The view from the dining area was spectacular and as the light levels improved a wide range of birds became evident. My first endemic was a confiding female White-throated Flowerpecker which came in close unlike the gaudy male. Speedy fly-by Sri Lanka Hanging Parrots zipped past but refused to come in close though Layard’s Parakeets were more obliging. Other birds seen from the dining area included Purple-rumped Sunbirds, Ceylon Green (Pompadour) and Imperial Green Pigeons, Red-vented Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul and Sri Lanka Junglefowl. A walk up to the information centre and around its grounds lasted almost till lunchtime and yielded a number of good birds including Black-headed Yellow Bulbul, Ceylon Grey Hornbill, Ceylon Crested Drongo, Yellow-fronted Barbets, stunning Flame Minivets (both males & females), Common Tailorbird, Pale-billed Flowerpecker, Dark-fronted Babbler and Golden-fronted Leafbird. Wicky then located a party of Sri Lanka Mynas before we stumbled upon a small group of White-faced Starlings –I was particularly pleased to see these birds at this early stage as they can be one of the more difficult endemics to locate. So by lunchtime on our first day we had seen 11 of the 33 endemics/proposed endemics.

After a tasty lunch of string hoppers, coconut sambal & three different vegetable curries we made our way along the access track to the entrance of the Sinharaja Man & Biosphere Rain Forest Reserve. Marian & the kids were kitted-up with their leech socks whilst I decided to go without as we had seen no real evidence of leeches up to that point. At the reserve entrance we picked up our obligatory local tracker/guide who actually proved to be a skilled birder. We essentially walked along an access track for about 3km arriving at a field centre/weather station well within the forest before returning along the same route. The primary lowland rain forest at Sinharaja is a treasure trove of biodiversity containing a large number of endemic plants –including a great many endemic trees (mainly Dipterocarps). The walk was, from beginning to end full of encounters with numerous beautiful & delicate Dragonflies & Damselflies, numerous weird & colourful bugs and hundreds of gaudy Butterflies including such beauties as Blue Mormon, Tree Nymph and the Common Birdwing. We also saw a number of small reptiles including Kangaroo lizards, Vine Snake and False Water Cobra. Mammals were less evident though we did obtain views of Giant Squirrel and two endemic primates –the Toque Macaque and the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey (Southern Race).

Whilst there was plenty of bug & beastie activity the birding was a lot harder. As is typical for rain forest birding there were plenty of bird calls & rustling foliage but getting half-decent views of birds proved difficult. Sinharaja is however famed for its mixed species feeding flocks which have been extensively studied for over 25 years. Research has revealed that these flocks comprise of an average 41 individual birds with the average number of species being 12. Flocks of up to 20 species are known and 51 different species have been linked to this flocking behaviour. It was fairly late in the afternoon before we hit such a bird wave (it actually hit us) and though I struggled to keep up with the action Wicky informed me that by Sinharaja standards our bird wave was poor. Birds seen included Orange-billed Babbler (a nuclear flocking species), Ashy-headed Laughingthrush and Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, providing another three for the endemic/proposed endemic list. Other birds seen included Ceylon Crested Drongos (the other main nuclear flocking species), Malabar Trogon and Black-naped Monarch whilst Wicky also heard a calling Lesser Yellowape (Woodpecker) but we were unable to get clear views. As the activities of this flock fizzled out a small group of Sri Lanka Magpies (another endemic) put on a show giving cracking close-up views albeit in quite deep shade. As the light was starting to fade it was time to retrace our steps. At this point Wicky & our tracker began to talk rapidly in Singhalese then Wicky explained that they had both heard a Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon calling –this is usually a highland species but some do come down to the lowlands to feed on fruiting trees. Eventually one of the birds was found but it was in deep shade & gave only very poor views. An endemic Spot-winged Thrush was found feeding on the path ahead of us, normally a shy bird it even allowed a few photographs but by this time light levels were very low. We made our way back to the entrance of the reserve then slowly walked back to Martin’s Place. On arriving back at Martin’s I discovered that somewhere along the line I had picked up a couple of leeches, one of which had fed very well indeed. I struggled to stop the bleeding from these leech bites and though the bites weren’t sore the continuing bleeding was a real nuisance. The point of leech socks is that they deny leeches access to the feet & legs forcing the leeches upward where there is a good chance they will be seen by your “leech buddy” and flicked off before they can latch on! Needless to say, I was wearing leech socks the following morning!

After a Martin’s special mixed curry spectacular we take an evening walk in the hope of locating some night birds & possibly even an endemic Red Loris. We walked down to towards the reserve then followed the track leading down to the village. Apart from a calling Frogmouth (which failed to show) and a large ugly-looking glow-worm this walk was unproductive. I had hoped for a calling Serendib Scops Owl or a Red Loris but the onset of rain forced us back to our rooms where I discovered that I had picked up another leech –Marian & the kids were less than impressed!!

The following morning we headed back into the forest. Initially we met with the usual suspects however about 500 metres into the reserve a Coucal was heard –but this call was subtly different from Greater Coucal and belonged to the rare endemic Green-billed Coucal. The bird was clearly very close but actually seeing it was a very different matter. These birds skulk in dense undergrowth hopping and walking but rarely flying. A Swiss birder and his “tracker-guide” joined the quest –the tracker proving to be an excellent mimic of the coucal call. With this secret weapon and thirty minutes of careful stalking we ultimately managed very passable views of the bird but getting images proved impossible! Shortly after our coucal success some rather half-hearted Sri Lanka Spurfowl calls were heard but unfortunately the birds could not be located and this was a close as we ever got to this very difficult endemic. There were of course the usual bugs & butterflies as well as the ubiquitous but skulking Orange-billed Babblers (bizarrely I never managed to get a decent image of these birds as by the time I realised I had no images no further photo-opportunities arose!). The racket made by the babblers drew in the one bird I really wanted to see on this trip –a cracking Red-faced Malkoha. Unfortunately the bird remained well up in the canopy and though it hung around for about 10 minutes it never fully revealed itself. By this time it was late morning and we returned to Martin’s place for a light lunch –I think I had the curry! Whilst all of us required some de-leeching no one actually suffered a bite.

In the afternoon the kids decided they would stay at Martin’s foregoing the afternoon walk –no doubt influenced by the darkening skies & ominous rainclouds. Marian, Wicky and I set off and at the entrance to the reserve we bumped into the Swiss birder who advised us of a Chestnut-backed Owlet that was posing nicely by the track about 300 metres into the reserve. This was one of the few endemics that we still had to see so we made our way along the just as the heavens opened up. Unfortunately the owlet didn’t hang around and despite extensive searching could not be found! We moved on through the rain eventually reaching a small pool with a resident snake and a shoal of small fish (some sort of small colourful cyprinind), this was close to the area where we had seen the Malkohas during our morning visit. A brief search of the trees revealed a pair of these impressive birds (the female has a white iris, the male’s iris is dark) which gave much better & closer views than our morning bird. We started to drift back towards the reserve gate when we came upon a stunning Crimson Flameback –what a woodpecker. Unfortunately after brief but excellent views the bird moved into denser cover and I only managed a couple of crappy record shots. As if to tease us a Chestnut-backed Owlet called from an inaccessible patch of forest beyond a clearing on the other side of a stream but no views were forthcoming. However about 100metres further on Wicky heard a soft call that held his interest. Initially I could hear nothing but then a low-pitched repeated somewhat outlandish call became apparent, Wicky whispered “Sri Lankan Frogmouth”. Our accompanying tracker then became quite animated wading into a dense copse of small tree ferns and dwarf bamboo. After a few minutes we were invited in to inspect a superb pair of these wee crackers. The light under the ferns was too poor for normal photography but I was reluctant to use flash as the massive eyes of the birds looked so delicate. I decided to tie a handkerchief around the flash unit whilst the tracker passed the weak beam of a small wind-up torch over the birds –this action constricted the birds’ pupils and the weakened diffused light from the flash caused no upset to the birds. After some great views we left this odd couple exactly as we had found them –definitely one of the top five birds of the trip! By now the light was fading rapidly when we noted some fluttering on the track ahead of us. Bizarrely two Sri Lankan Scaly Thrushes were squabbling on the track –like two fighting cocks. This was a superb find as this species is one of the most difficult to see endemics being crepuscular and intensely shy. Unfortunately I had put my flash unit into my backpack after the Frogmouth encounter (I had twice previously knocked the flash off the camera as a result of low branches which then caused some damage to one of the hotshot connection pins creating an intermittent fault ) and as a result missed what would have been a cracking capture!! Finally as we were approaching the reserve gate Wicky drew my attention to a distant drawn out whistling call –an Oriental Bay Owl. This very rarely seen almost mythical species can occasionally show well at Sinharaja and apparently earlier this year a roosting bird was found that showed well to a number of visiting birders over an extended period.

Unfortunately we had failed to find Serendib Scops Owl during our time in the forest so after our evening meal (I think it was a curry) Wicky and I went out armed with torches and an mp3 player. We walked down the track from Martin’s towards the village playing a brief snatch of the Scops Owl call every 200-300 metres. After about a kilometre we got a half-hearted response at which point Wicky suggested that we return to the lodge. I was confused by this and asked him why we couldn’t persevere a little longer at this spot as the bird had responded. He advised that the bird was feeding so was better left undisturbed and that besides it would respond rather poorly to a tape at this time in the evening. He clearly had a cunning plan based on his previous experience of this scarce wee owl. Now that we had found the territory of this individual it was his proposal that we return at about 04:45 am as these birds respond best to a tape in the hour before they return to roost following a successful night foraging. It seems that at this time they can become quite bold coming down low onto perches by the track side. I therefore arranged to meet Wicky at 04:00 so that we could be in place by 04:30. Unfortunately when we met outside my room at 04:00 there was a heavy thunderstorm with frequent fearsome lightning flashes and clearly it was folly to attempt to find the owl in these conditions!!! Obviously I have no way of knowing whether we would have been successful but apparently this approach has generally always worked for Wicky yielding relaxed views of these rare wee owls without stressing them.


In no time at all our stay at Martin’s Place was over. I had seen some great birds including 21 of the 33 endemics (or proposed endemics), hearing an additional two and getting images of the majority. Personally I would have been happy to spend more time at Martin’s Place but the rest of my family felt that three nights was about the limit of their endurance! The next morning after some dawn birding (no new species seen) and a late-ish breakfast we headed off down to the village in heavy rain –the only other birds of note seen on our descent were two rather bedraggled Changeable Hawk Eagles, one an adult and the other a very pale juvenile.
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
More images from around Martin's Place:
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Some of Sinharaja's crepy-crawlies:
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
More Sinharaja rain forest images:
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Some of the larger creatures:
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Sinharaja birds:
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
and a few more birds:
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
The bug/butterfly/beastie images were taken by my kids: Ian & Alice (Canon 40D + Sigma 150mm Macro) whilst most of the scenics were taken by Marian (my wife) using a compact Panasonic Lumix Z5.
 

Mick Sway

Well-known member
Sri Lanka

Brilliant report and stunning images.
though we've talked about it, I'm not sure that we are brave enough.
Great stuff
Mick
B :)
 

Steve G

RAINBIRDER
PART 3: Yala,Yala,Yala and the Spotted One! (28TH July-31st July)

We left Sinharaja in heavy rain, spiralling around on a long tortuous route that took us west, north, east then south such that we were then only a short distance as the Crow flies from our start at Martin’s Place. However we were now in the rain shadow of the hills that circle Sinharaja and were clearly in the dry zone as birds and vegetation had changed drastically. House & Jungle Crows were a common feature as were Spotted Doves, Plain Prinia, Brahminy Kite, etc, etc. Though we were making our way to the Hibiscus Hotel at Tissamaharama (Tissa) for a 4 night stay (Tissa is the gateway to the Yala National Parks complex) we had also arranged an afternoon game drive at Uduwalawe National Park en-route. Uduwalawe, though in the dry zone, is greener and subtly different from Yala N.P. and is said to be the most reliable place in the world for sightings of wild Asian Elephant. We arrived at the access road to Uduwalawe at about 1pm –still too early & too hot to begin our game drive so we had a very pleasant buffet lunch at a nearby restaurant where the local foods on offer proved to be excellent.
For our afternoon game drive we needed to hire a local jeep & driver (Wicky had already arranged this), then we presented our paperwork at the park office where we were allocated the obligatory guide. I asked Wicky if he could mention to the driver & guide that I was interested in seeing birds as well as mammals –but it seems that he already had this covered. Our jeep had a canvas top which was rolled back allowing complete freedom of view all around –in fact it was quite an invigorating experience standing up with the wind in our hair (ok, the wind on my scalp!) as we sped along looking for birds & beasts. Our first birds were Oriental Skylarks, Rufous-winged Larks and Paddyfield Pipit whilst we also repeatedly caught glimpses of Blue-faced Malkoha as we sped by scrub woodland (–but I never did manage a decent view!). In no time at all we hit our first family group of elephants which crossed the trail in front of us –truly impressive! Following this we came to a sudden halt when Wicky tapped heavily on the jeep’s side bar with a stone (a system he had developed with the jeep driver). He announced “There’s a Crested Hawk Eagle on the ground in front of us”. Apparently everyone could see it but me. My wife thought the bird very impressive –I should take a picture! Fair enough but where the hell was it? Apparently it was in front of “that tree” –but which tree, we were in the middle of a bloody forest! I was looking too far ahead and the Eagle was clearly fed up waiting as it took off from immediately in front of our vehicle –I had been scanning the ground too far ahead and totally failed to see it right in front of us and so missed a spectacular photo-opportunity!
Moving on we arrived at a large shallow waterhole at the same time as an extended group of elephants. We spent almost an hour here watching the antics of various elephants from tiny youngsters barely a few weeks old to large single bulls who came & went alone. This waterhole was also a magnet for birds –both thirsty land-birds and various waterbirds. A procession of birds came and went including Spotted Doves, Green Imperial Pigeons, Sri Lankan Green (Pompadour) Pigeons, Orange-breasted Green Pigeons, Sri Lankan Junglefowl, Peafowl (my first wild Peacocks), Rose-ringed Parakeets, Red-vented Bulbuls, White-browed Bulbuls, White-bellied Drongos and Common Myna. Assorted waterbirds were also present including Common & White-throated Kingfishers as well as a stonking great Stork-billed Kingfisher, Red-wattled Lapwings, Little Egrets, Great White Egrets, Cattle Egrets, Indian Pond Herons, Grey Herons, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbills, Painted Storks, White-necked Storks and a fantastic-looking Lesser Adjutant Stork (OK, I lied it wasn’t fantastic-looking, it was really ugly!). By the edge of this waterhole was a superb Grey-headed Fish Eagle (another bird on my want list) whilst nearby we found a hunting Black-shouldered Kite. Time was marching on as we came across Spotted Deer, Water Buffalo, Wild Boar, Hanuman Langur and Toque Macaques as well as Indian Mugger Crocodiles and various lizards. We also saw two separate groups of Malabar Pied Hornbills –large and impressive birds with equally large casques and loud whooshing wings. Finally, as we headed back to the park entrance we were teased by repeated glimpses of Barred Buttonquails before an emergency stop allowed a few hasty images to be taken.
Two hours later we were settling into our comfortable air-conditioned accommodation at the Hibiscus Hotel near Tissa. This small, comfortable hotel comprised of a main building with a ground floor reception area, staff rooms and kitchen whilst the first floor was an open-sided large airy restaurant and bar area with views over the gardens, swimming pool (very clean & well-tended) and adjacent paddyfields. The accommodation is in small well-appointed bungalows throughout the gardens of the property. A large natural pool in the gardens held numerous dragonflies, attracted a pair of White-throated Kingfishers and, on one morning, had attracted a large 2.5metre long Rat-snake. Over our 4 night stay the gardens attracted many birds including Red-wattled Lapwing, Brown-headed & Coppersmith Barbets, Asian Koel, (Southern) Greater Coucal, White-breasted Waterhen, Pale-billed Flowerpeckers, Purple-rumped Sunbirds, Spotted Doves, Green Imperial and Orange-breasted Green Pigeons, Black-rumped Flamebacks, numerous Rose-ringed Parakeets, Asian Palm Swifts, Jerdon’s Leafbird, White-browed & Yellow-browed Bulbuls and Yellow-billed Babblers as well as the expected Oriental Magpie Robins & Black-backed Robins. At night the expected Jerdon’s Nightjars in fact proved to be Indian Nightjars but the calling Collared Scops Owl refused to show!

The next morning we had a late rise (07:30) and a rather sumptuous breakfast before heading off to Tissa tank for a stroll and some birding. Initially the kids were a bit rebellious as Alice uttered “No, not birdwatching again!” but when we arrived at the edge of the tank there were clearly a lot of things to see including weird bugs, dragonflies, massive fruit-bats and Toque Macaques. Birds were plentiful with an assortment of waterbirds being seen including Little and Indian Cormorants, Oriental Darters White-breasted Waterhens, Purple Swamphen, Pheasant-tailed Jacana (still in breeding plumage), Lesser Whistling Ducks, Grey and Purple Herons, Indian Pond Herons, Little, Intermediate & Great White Egrets. Further out were a few Spot-billed Pelicans (a globally scarce species which is common in Sri Lanka), Painted Storks and many Asian Openbill Storks. The track along the south edge of the tank was shaded by a number of mature trees and contained an assortment of good birds including Brown-headed & Coppersmith Barbets, Black-rumped Flamebacks, Common Iora, Jerdon’s Leafbird, Black-headed Oriole, Small Minivets and Black-headed Cuckooshrike. We also got good views of Ceylon (Common) Woodshrike which is another proposed endemic and a small colony of Baya Weavers. By midday it was extremely hot and apart from some raptors on the wing (Brahminy Kite, Grey-headed Fish Eagle & White-bellied Fish Eagle) the birding was drying up. It was time to head off back to base via a detour to a modest house situated in a large garden where under the eaves of an out-house was a roosting Collared Scops Owl –a stunning wee bird. We then returned to the hotel for lunch & a cool dip in the pool before our first scheduled game drive in Yala later in the afternoon.
The drive to Yala took about 45 minutes & by the time we had climbed into our jeep and picked up our obligatory guide it was 4pm. Whilst Yala holds some good birds there is really nothing that can’t be seen elsewhere (apart from Black-necked Storks which are now almost extinct in Sri Lanka –there may only be 2-3 pairs; a bird that we didn’t see). In Yala the name of the game is spot the Leopard. Unlike in Africa seeing a leopard in the wild in Asia is exceedingly difficult with Yala undoubtedly being the best place. Yala probably holds the highest density of Leopards in the world and, as there are no Lions or Tigers in Sri Lanka the spotted one is indeed top cat. This doesn’t mean that leopards are guaranteed however and despite searching various likely waterholes, the vicinity of Leopard rock and other favoured haunts we drew a blank! On our travels we saw the usual waterbirds, lots of Peafowl, numerous Crested Treeswifts, Sirkeer Malkoha, Hoopoe, countless Little Green Bea-eaters, Elephants, Water Buffalo, Spotted Deer, Wild Boar, Side-striped & Ruddy Mongoose (Mongeese?) and elegant Hanuman Langurs. We were also very fortunate to come across a thirsty Sloth Bear in beautiful evening light. Our driver, under Wicky’s guidance placed the vehicle in just the right spot to make the most of the situation. All too soon it was time to return to our hotel with the drive home in the dark yielding a few Jerdon’s Nightjars but no owls.

The following morning we were up at 04:30 for a 05:15 departure to ensure that we were in our jeep with obligatory guide for first access to Yala N.P. at 06:00. This was to be our first of two full days spent in Yala. Initially we drove around all the same leopard haunts as the preceding evening but unfortunately no cats! We contented ourselves by taking snapshots of elephant, wild pigs and buffalo at a selection of waterholes. I managed to get some images of a skulking Sirkeer Malkoha whilst we also got good views (but poor images) of White-rumped Shama. Other new birds included White-browed Fantail and the Sri Lankan race of Paradise Flycatcher as well as a new endemic –the Brown-capped Babbler.
By about 09:30 sightings had dried up so on Wicky’s suggestion we drove to a place called Butava Tank (phonetic spelling) where we ate our packed breakfast (provided by the hotel). This location proved to be a fantastic place for birds and wildlife. From our vehicle we watched successive processions of elephants, wild pigs, spotted deer and buffalo come down to the water’s edge. There were numerous waterbirds including a number of Lesser Adjutant Storks and a sizeable flock of Spot-billed Pelicans as well as supporting cast whilst the backdrop to this scene included the bizarre looking Elephant Rock. This site is quite simply a superb location and if you ever find yourself in Yala you should ensure you visit this place. We moved on but already the heat was becoming unbearable and new sightings were drying up. We headed to a wooded area adjacent to a river (I believe the river was called Kumbukkan oya) where other vehicles had gathered for a picnic lunch (supplied by the Hibiscus Hotel). This site is apparently an area where it is safe to leave the vehicles and wander around. I liked the idea of doing some birding on foot but unfortunately it was now blistering hot and nothing was moving apart from a few Common Kingfishers on the river. I wandered off along the riverbank (upstream) hoping to catch sight of something interesting but though the trees looked promising there was little to see. By this point I could no longer see the vehicles and was contemplating turning back when I caught sight of some movement out of the corner of my eye; I turned expecting to see a deer or wild pig when out stepped a man in camouflage clothing sporting a bandana and carrying a sub-machine gun. He was quickly followed by a second man in similar attire. I nearly wet myself! These guys were surely not regular soldiers –I was convinced that I was looking at LTTE terrorists. I decided that running was futile so I walked towards them when suddenly a third man appeared. This third individual was clearly dressed in an army uniform. He smiled at me and introduced himself as a Lieutenant of the Sri Lankan army. He looked at my bins & camera and asked what I was doing there. Satisfying himself that I was just a stupid tourist he exchanged niceties and re-directed me back to our vehicle advising that he was part of a group who were currently sweeping through Yala East on the other side of the river to ensure that the area stayed clear of LTTE combatants. I returned to the vehicle for a change of underpants and a lie-down!!!
As the afternoon temperature fell we were back on the road seeking leopard. Again we visited the usual haunts and again we saw nothing of the elusive beast. However whilst parked by a small waterhole Wicky heard the alarm calls of Spotted Deer behind. Following a brief discussion with our park guide & jeep driver we were back on the move though this time our driver seemed to be a man on a mission. We drove back towards an adjacent larger waterhole & the jeep was positioned to give a commanding view. We sat quietly in anticipation as alarm calls rang out nearby. The air was electric and it seemed that we were on the verge of a sighting when a group of wild pigs moved out of the forest down to the water’s edge. I saw the frustration on Wicky’s face and asked what the problem was. He advised that with a group of wild pigs at the waterhole the leopard was unlikely to appear. It would not be long till dusk and clearly we had to choose between staying put or driving on to other likely locations (a strategy that had failed so far), we elected to stay. The pigs seemed to toy with us; they drank, they wallowed and they bickered amongst themselves before moving on. Another jeep pulled up and the occupants asked if we had seen anything, on hearing that we hadn’t they moved on. Suddenly it was quiet, too quiet! Once again anticipation filled the air and I had a real feeling that something was going to happen when there was a sudden movement over at the far side of the waterhole. In the dimming light we strained to see what was moving when yet another wild pig appeared only to be followed by three more! Clearly we were wasting our time. We all sat back down in preparation for moving off when I felt Wicky’s hand on my arm –he whispered “leopard”! I could see nothing but the pigs who were now moving off to the left; then I saw him, a shadowy presence which slowly broke cover as he walked sedately towards the waterhole stopping briefly to scent-mark a fallen log. I hoped he would come closer, down to the water’s edge where the light was better but a commotion to the right heralded the arrival of yet another group of wild pigs and he was gone –melting back into the forest in barely a breath. Our first wild leopard –hardly stunning views yet strangely appropriate; a first view shouldn’t come easy and this strained view in the half-dark really made us feel that we had indeed seen a wild leopard. It was by now rapidly getting dark so we headed off back to the park entrance passing our only Sambar Deer of the trip so far (apparently in Yala they prefer the thickets just inland of the coastal sand dunes). The drive back to the hotel was uneventful.
Once again we had another full day safari in Yala and once again we were at the park entrance before 06:00. For the first few hours we drove around the waterholes looking for leopard and once again we drew a blank. We again had breakfast at Butava Tank and again the view out over the wetland was superb with many animals coming & going. Wicky explained that the water-level of this tank was as low as he had ever seen it and that the preceding day was as hot as any he could remember in Yala. In late July this is the very end of the dry season when Yala is at its driest and most parched –it must be quite a sight when fully greened up! After breakfast we drove off along the edge of the tank passing a tree with a perched Grey-headed Fish Eagle. This bird did its best to ignore us so Wicky instructed the driver to inch closer. This bird allowed us to get so close that I could barely focus on it – I took a number of headshots before we reversed back and left the bird in peace. I have never before been so close to a wild Eagle, a truly fantastic experience! We drove around seeing more of the usual suspects before returning to Butava Tank for an early lunch. Again there was a lot of activity around the tank the usual waterbirds in evidence including at least five Lesser Adjutant Storks. A wader near the water’s edge caught my eye, it was a Great Thick-knee, an absolutely cracking bird; unfortunately it was too far away for anything other than a record shot but a welcome bird for the triplist nonetheless. Before leaving the tank we got very distant views of three Golden Jackals on the far side. Somewhat closer was a dead Water Buffalo in the water which was being torn apart by a small group of Muggers –one or two of which could be seen spinning to tear off chunks of flesh.
We then moved on back to the waterhole where we had seen our leopard the previous day. An assortment of interesting birds were seen here including Openbill & Painted Storks, Black-headed Ibis, single Common & Green Sandpipers, Brahminy Kite and White-bellied Fish Eagle. A within-range Great Thick-knee also held my attention though it kept disappearing into potholes around the water’s edge as I tried to get some images. Initially the usual mammals came & went but then a pair of Golden Jackals came in very close for a drink totally ignoring our vehicle. Wicky seemed interested in the antics of a Hanuman Langur which had climbed up onto a bare branch at the top of a tall tree. It seemed agitated, I suggested to Wicky that the Jackals were the cause of its distress however he wasn’t convinced and was scanning a raised area of scrub and small trees to our right. I followed his gaze only to see a couple of wild pigs rooting about. A sharp intake of breath from Wicky followed by a grin indicated he had seen something of interest. In a small tree immediately behind the pigs was a male leopard resting up in the shade – he was initially difficult to locate and clearly the nearby pigs were unaware of his presence though he could be seen watching them. We sat for an hour waiting for him to move when eventually he stretched, jumped down and was gone. Was he heading off for a drink or was he planning to catch some late afternoon sun? We tried the adjacent waterhole as alarm calls could be heard coming from that general direction. Despite a respectable wait he didn’t appear so we moved back towards the site of our initial sighting when we passed a vehicle coming in the opposite direction –the driver of this vehicle advised our driver that they had been watching a leopard lying up on Leopard Rock for the last 15 minutes. We lurched forward, our driver flooring the accelerator as we headed at breakneck speed for Leopard Rock. When we got to the rock there were already a couple of other vehicles parked up. Our driver expertly positioned us for some stunning views of a large male Leopard sunning himself on the Leopard Rock. Unfortunately the harsh overhead sun was not ideal for photography and though it was beginning to descend it was clear that the sun was going to sweep behind the Leopard rather than bathing it in good light. We sat for some time watching this beautiful cat as it sprawled first one way then the other across the rock. By this time a number of vehicles had gathered creating a small traffic-jam! Eventually the Leopard stood up, stretched and then padded off down the “blind-side” of the rock. We all felt that we could not better this view and as we had seen all of our targets we decided to head back to the hotel for a cool dip in the pool adding a couple of Gull-billed Terns to our triplist en route. The next morning after a not-too-early breakfast we were due to head off into the highlands of Sri Lanka for the next stage of our holiday.


The images below are from Udawalawe NP.
Tissa & Yala images to follow.
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Images from Tissa:
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Images from Yala:
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Some of the mammals of Yala:
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
and some more Yala birds:
 

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birdboybowley

Well-known member.....apparently so ;)
Supporter
England
Wow - stunning pics Steve, absolutely excellent. Love the stretching leo....still never caught up with one. Has the first one got a gammy eye or is that a photographic illusion?
 

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