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

Jon Turner

Well-known member
Great stuff! Love the images. We had a wild elephant walk right past our landrover close enough to touch! Oh and it is indeed Mongooses!

Jon
 

Robert L Jarvis

Robert L Jarvis
Great report Steve. My wife and I were there a couple of years ago. At Sinharaja we stayed in the village at the Blue Magpie Hotel (I think) which actually also provided great birding around there. Surprised also that you did not mention having to take a forest guide with you when going into the reserve.

By the way the "expert" on finding the birds was a chap called Thandula who live next door to the Blue Magpie. Did you come across him?

In Yala our "jeep" got stuck in a river so we had an hour or so birding on foot in their!

By the way Steve how much did Jetwings charge you?
 
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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Thanks guys!!

There are still two more instalments -covering the Hill Country & the area around Sigiriya; I need to get the images for these sorted first.

Ads,
Your're right about the first leopard image; its left eye was watering & the cornea appeared opaque. We had 3 separate leopard sightings -all males. Initially we thought there was only one animal involved but clearly there were at least two as the other sightings involved a male(s) with healthy-looking eyes.

Rob,
If you haven't been Sri Lanka is well worth a visit -especially during our northern winter when a few sites in the uplands hold some wee gems such as Pied Thrush, Kashmiri Flycatcher, Indian Blue Robin & Indian Pitta. And of course the endemics are a real draw to any serious birder.

Jon,
We had a number of close experiences with elephants including a rather unpleasant encounter at Sigiriya. August is towards the end of the Dry Zone dry season with this year being particularly hard. We went to the base of Sigiriya Rock one night after dark in the hope of getting good views of the resident Fish Owls who hunt over the moat around the Lion Rock. Driving up a track we were suddenly confronted by a bull elephant who continued to advance -needless to say we made a hasty retreat. Apparently a local villager had been killed nearby as a result of a similar encounter a few weeks before!

Robert,
You are of course correct a local guide is still obligatory at Sinharaja & at almost all of the other National Parks (but not on Horton Plains). I think I mentioned this above. Most of the time the local guides contributed very little as our Jetwings guide, Wicky was superb. Though one of the Sinharaja guides did found our Frogmouths for us.

Addition:
I'm at work at present. I'll check the cost tonight -it wasn't cheap but did include all accommodation on a half-board basis, vehicle+driver+guides+ all jeep rental/National Park fees and all entry fees to monuments/archaeological sites. Our only additional costs were lunches & drinks.
 
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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Great report Steve. My wife and I were there a couple of years ago. At Sinharaja we stayed in the village at the Blue Magpie Hotel (I think) which actually also provided great birding around there. Surprised also that you did not mention having to take a forest guide with you when going into the reserve.

By the way the "expert" on finding the birds was a chap called Thandula who live next door to the Blue Magpie. Did you come across him?

In Yala our "jeep" got stuck in a river so we had an hour or so birding on foot in their!

By the way Steve how much did Jetwings charge you?

Robert we paid Jetwings $7600 US (4x$1900) which covered all costs except lunches, items of a personal nature, drinks and UK-Sri Lanka flights.
I think this was excellent value especially as all accommodation (except Martin's Place) was of a high standard.


The first image below is of a lucky pig!
At first glance it shows a rather crap image of a wild pig but look carefully above & to the left of the pig, it is not alone!
The second image is what alerted us -these monkeys have superb vision, whilst even with good bins we struggled to see what was going on!
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
PART 4: Taking the high road.

On the morning of the 1st of August we left the comfortable Hibiscus Hotel for the last time heading north to the hill country and our next destination –Nuwara Eliya. We passed by countless fields, small cultivations and paddies where the usual suspects were seen. After a couple of hours the road began to climb and the roadside vegetation became greener bordering on the lush. Our first stop, for a scenic waterfall, gave a new bird for the trip in the form of Indian Swiftlet but otherwise roadside birds were scarce. By late lunchtime we drove up and into the valley holding the hill town of Nuwara Eliya. Just before entering this valley from the south there is a sharp bend marked by a fruit-vendor’s stall –this inauspicious site is now the best place to stand a chance of seeing the rare and very shy endemic Sri Lankan Whistling Thrush. By late lunchtime we had arrived at our hotel where we were to spend the next two nights –the St Andrews Hotel, an old colonial mansion full of charm & character. At over 6,000 feet up this old hotel is the ideal base from which to explore the hill country. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay here –the food was excellent, the staff most pleasant and attentive whilst there were a number of wee surprises such as the billiards room (complete with attendant who gave my kids snooker lessons –they had a great laugh) and the well-received hot water bottles placed in the beds at night.
After settling in we took a walk around the grounds of the hotel. Like most Jetwing properties there were wildlife-dedicated areas in the gardens including a dragonfly pond. Unfortunately the garden yielded no new birds for us though it does sometimes harbour two of the six highland endemics (Sri Lanka White-eye & Yellow-eared Bulbul; the other highland endemics being Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, Sri Lanka Bush-warbler, Ceylon Wood Pigeon, Dull-blue Flycatcher). Earlier we had agreed to meet Wicky at 4:30 pm –apparently we were on a quest to see the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush (Arrenga).
The Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush is an endangered highly range-restricted endemic of the Sri Lankan hill country which favours very specific habitat –ravines with streams in wooded hill country above 3,500 feet. It is both shy & crepuscular with the best chance of seeing it being at first light or at dusk.
We drove for 20 minutes back through Nuwara Eliya heading south past a large lake which held some Little Grebe and a few Little Cormorants but not a lot else. We also drove past Victoria Park –a municipal park typical of those seen in the UK containing tended herbaceous borders and children’s roundabouts/swings. However, Victoria Park is, in season, also a fantastic birding venue. During our northern winter it contains a few speciality birds which are easily seen here including Indian Pitta, Indian Blue Robin, Pied Thrush and Kashmiri Flycatcher –this last bird in particular is one that you would risk life and limb to see on its breeding ground yet it is apparently easy in this park with the only risk being a pram up the heel! Victoria Park can also be a good site for the shy & elusive Ceylon Wood Pigeon but as we had seen this bird (poorly) in Sinharaja and as none of the good winter birds are present in early August we drove on. Leaving the Nuwara Eliya valley through a narrow pass we pulled-up at the fruit-vendor’s stall situated just before the first sharp bend on the southbound road. Wicky led us down a steep and slippery bank behind the stall where we crossed over a stream. Ten metres on we were standing above a small waterfall shaded by overhanging trees/shrubs. This unlikely place is now the best stakeout for Sri Lankan Whistling Thrush. Those who have birded the island previously may remember the Arrenga pool at Horton Plains as being the top site for this bird, and so it was but unfortunately the Horton Plains National Park entry gate has been extended back well beyond the Arrenga pool and as entry to this park is between 06:00 -18:00 it is not possible to drive down to the Arrenga pool to be there for first light. Without being able to get to the Arrenga pool before 06:15 am sightings are now difficult, infrequent and unreliable here.
So we were in place above the waterfall by 17:20, we waited ...........and waited. The first bird to appear was a cracking wee Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, a stunning but hyperactive wee bird which in the very poor light levels wouldn’t sit still long enough for an un-blurred image. Next to appear was the endemic Dull-blue Flycatcher which, despite its name is in fact a bonny wee bird and in the dim light shines a metallic dark blue. By 17:45 the kids & Marian were getting bored. I was a bit hacked-off myself as I discovered my flash-unit was malfunctioning –it had repeatedly been knocked off the off-camera tripod mount whilst we were birding in Sinharaja and though apparently intact the hot-shoe connection wasn’t working properly so that sometimes the unit didn’t flash at all whilst on other occasions it would allow TTL flash but not ETTL (and would not permit autofocus-assist). By 17:50 the light had faded markedly, we could barely make out detail at the bottom of the waterfall and the family wanted to go! Then Wicky whispered “look there!” On the opposite side of the stream just below us and in half-reasonable light appeared a male Whistling Thrush. Unfortunately he only remained for a few seconds before flying down to the base of the waterfall. In good light these birds are a dark blue but in deep shade they appear black. Our bird spent 3-4 minutes bathing at the foot of the waterfall –the views through the bins were reasonable though he kept on popping in and out of view! By 18:05 the show was over –I only had two dark-blob images not worthy of keeping but at least we had seen the bird! I arranged with Wicky to return the following evening though the kids and Marian decided to sit that one out!

The following morning we left the hotel very early at about 04:30 for our all- day trip to Horton Plains NP. We arrived at the closed park gates at 05:50 having driven initially through darkness and then through a cold damp pre-dawn misty half-light. As it was too early to enter the park Wicky suggested we go in search of Sri Lanka Bush-warbler, everyone else felt too cold and remained in the vehicle. The mist and chill was just like being back in Scotland!!! Within minutes Wicky had heard, then located a Sri Lankan Bush-warbler which, true to form skulked and crept through the vegetation barely giving a decent view. Eventually I did get some decent views of the bird but getting an image was a different matter. The very low light levels and the bird’s active nature meant I had no option but to try using my malfunctioning flash –the flash-gun worked briefly allowing me to get one half-decent image before the pin connections again failed! There were few other birds around apart from the local variant of Great Tit which was a disappointing grey in plumage (our own garden Great Tits are, for once, much more colourful –though it’s possible that this Grey Great Tit might prove to be a different species!). I also got unexpected and close views of a shaggy rather long-haired Mongoose –not sure who was the more surprised! I snapped off a quick image but the poor light levels (even at ISO 3200) gave a rather blurred picture. I’m not sure what species of Mongoose this is so feel free to make suggestions.
For those seeking the Bush-warbler try to get to the park gates for about 05:45. Walk up to the gate –a track on the right leads to a toilet block (with “interesting” toilets -open at the back, which look out over adjacent low-lying forest); the path to the left leads across a wooden walkway passing by some information boards and a small office before turning at a right angle to end adjacent to a pond bordered by scrub & marshy ground –it was here that the Bush-warbler was found.
A Park-guard arrived just after 06:00 and we entered the park driving down to the attractive-looking Arrenga pool (where we heard little and saw less!). We then drove on through mist-covered open moorland which looked more like a scene from the western Highlands of Scotland than the views expected on a tropical island –the sight of a couple of shaggy Sambar deer stags completed the illusion! We drove on to the visitors centre car park where we ate our packed breakfast before heading off on the planned activity of the day –a hike to World’s End and Baker’s Falls. This hike is about 12km round trip with a bit of a climb on the return leg from Baker’s Falls. I took my bins, the 40D (Canon SLR) and a couple of smaller lenses but left all the heavy gear in the vehicle with Wicky and the driver –they were both really feeling the cold and besides it was about time we went out on our own!
We headed off across a mist-shrouded plain which held few birds apart from Paddyfield Pipits (they could have been Meadow Pipits on a Scottish moor) and some attractive stonechat-like Pied Bushchats. Eventually the path entered an elfin forest of low gnarled trees dripping with moisture and festooned with old man’s beard mosses. This is part of a relict high-altitude cloud forest which contains a range of endemic plants and animals including Sri Lanka Bush-warbler and Whistling Thrush (which here are very difficult to see well). As luck would have it a small mixed flock of birds crossed the path in front of us making a bit of a racket as they went. The flock included Dull-blue Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, a gorgeous wee Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Yellow-eared Bulbuls, Sri Lankan White-eyes and a Lesser Yellownape (a woodpecker sp.). Sadly I was unable to linger as we still had quite a bit of ground to cover.
The trail continued through stunted cloud forest with few more bird sightings other than glimpses of a stunning Crimson Flameback which flew from a dead tree peppered with holes. Eventually we arrived at Little World’s end and then a further 5-600 metres on World’s End itself. World’s End is an escarpment marking the edge of the highest peneplain on Sri Lanka; it drops by almost a kilometre creating a spectacular viewpoint which often is shrouded in mist but when we arrived the mist had briefly cleared (it later returned with heavy rain) revealing a stunning vista. I could have happily sat there all day scanning for raptors (there were none during the 20 minutes we spent there but apparently Black Eagle & Mountain Hawk Eagles can be seen in the wooded valley below) but we were unsure as to how much ground we still needed to cover so we headed on. The path to Baker’s falls passed through further stunted forest before eventually reaching the waterfall itself. This forest held roving bands of Yellow-eared Bulbuls, Sri Lankan White-Eyes, Scarlet Minivets and flycatchers with the first two species completing our highland endemics list (seen & photographed). Our return journey to the car park was an uphill slog punctuated by cold and heavy rain showers with no new birds seen. We returned to Nuwara Eliya in heavy rain stopping for a group of Bear Monkeys (the fantastic-looking highland race of Purple-faced Leaf Monkey) and a perched “raptor” which proved on closer inspection to be an immature Common Hawk Cuckoo!

At 16:45 I left with Wicky for the Whistling Thrush site. We settled in but the bird made us wait for 45 minutes before it appeared –this first showing being brief with rather poor views. However ten minutes later it returned but by this time the light was very poor. I had hoped to get some decent images but I was totally unable to manually focus due to the poor light. My flash unit was once again playing-up and would not autofocus-assist which was a real sickener as the bird was at times out in the open. Wicky had a green laser pointer with which he tried to highlight the bird’s tail but unfortunately the bird would not tolerate this (-does anyone have suggestions as to how to focus on such a target in the dark?). Surprisingly as the light levels fell to almost complete darkness the Whistling Thrush came out onto the path in front of us tolerating a very close approach –but unfortunately despite this I still didn’t get any decent images!


The following morning after breakfast we departed Nuwara Eliya stopping en-route at the Hakgala Botanical Gardens. The gardens here (small entry-fee) comprise of a botanical collection of flowering plants, shrubs and trees from other cool tropical & mild temperate parts of the world. At the top end of the gardens the ornamental trees give way to a native forest preserve which is strictly no access; however this area is clearly very bird-rich and often the feeding flocks move in to the native trees within the gardens. Wicky and I checked this area out and were rewarded with a mixed feeding flock containing numerous wee beauties such as Sri Lankan White-Eye, Grey-headed & Dull-blue Flycatchers, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike and two stunning wee Velvet-fronted Nuthatches (which seemed to have ridiculously large feet). Sri Lankan Wood Pigeon can also often be seen here whilst during the Northern Winter Pied Thrush, Indian Pitta and Kashmir Flycatcher are present.

After a couple of hours of enjoyable birding (the kids were kept amused by some weird bugs, various butterflies, a couple of strange-looking lizards and a troup of very approachable Toque Macaques) we headed off towards the old colonial capital -Kandy. Whilst no new birds were seen in transit we did see large numbers of fruit bats roosting in the trees around the large tank in Kandy. After lunch in Kandy we drove on towards our next venue -the Hunas Falls Hotel. This hotel is situated in a wooded valley about 70 minutes drive from Kandy along a small and rather poor road. The hotel itself is a fairly new building situated in the grounds of an old plantation on a wooded hillside commanding spectacular views. The well-manicured gardens are surrounded by high quality secondary forest with some old-growth forest remnants. There is an adjacent lake with an out-flowing stream and waterfall, whilst the hotel itself is a comfortable base which radiates a number of attractive trails. On arrival we quickly disposed of our luggage then took a walk around the hotel grounds. Birds seen included the usual garden species such as Purple and Purple-rumped Sunbirds, Pale-billed Flowerpecker with overflying Hill Swallows and the highly coloured Sri Lankan subspecies of Red-rumped Swallow (now considered by some to be a separate endemic species –Sri Lankan Swallow). The small lake held resident Eurasian & White-throated Kingfishers, Little Cormorant and a resident pair of Brahminy Kite (apparently it also held a resident pair of Brown Fish Owls though they hadn’t been seen for some months before our arrival).

The following morning we took a post-breakfast walk down the access road (about 2-3km) passing secondary forest, scrub and cultivations which included derelict “spice gardens” containing Nutmeg & Cinnamon as well as coffee and tea plants. Birds seen included Shikra, Yellow-fronted Barbet (an endemic), Crimson-fronted Barbet (the Sri Lankan race of which is quite distinct and has been proposed as a separate endemic species: Ceylon Small Barbet) and some stunning Southern Hill Mynas. Sri Lankan Hanging Parrots were also common around the hotel gardens mainly above the car park area but the White-Eyes seen all proved to be Oriental rather than the larger (& duller!) Sri Lankan White-Eye.
After an excellent lunch (the food was universally good here) I spent some time birding from our balcony which offered spectacular views down the valley. A distant broad-winged raptor which kept dipping down into the canopy remained unidentified (I tried to turn it into a Mountain Hawk Eagle but the views were insufficient to allow accurate ID!) whilst a sub-adult Black Eagle gave better views.

At 15:30 I had arranged to meet Wicky, the plan being to check out a patch of high quality forest about 45 minutes drive down the valley, whilst Marian & the kids elected to stay at the hotel (the tennis-court & swimming pool beckoned!). Our destination was a sub-montane patch of forest called Puhu Aramba. On arrival we parked up at the top of a track, the driver walked down with us to acquaint himself with this rough track & its hairpin bends as the plan was for him to then drive the vehicle down the track & back up again (in the dark). Our main target species here was Chestnut-backed Owlet which I had managed to miss by 5 minutes whilst at Sinharaja. After walking for about 15 minutes down the track Wicky decided that we had arrived in a likely area and then proceeded to play a short burst of a Chestnut-backed Owlet call on his mp3. I must admit to being sceptical as he only played the call for about 10 seconds. He explained that his intention was simply to encourage one of the local owlets to call but not to irritate or excite the bird. This strategy clearly worked as a distant owlet call could be heard in the forest above us. We headed back up the track & then entered a small patch of (leech-ridden) forest from where the bird could be clearly heard. Wicky quickly found the bird but it took me an eternity to get onto it due to the thick cover & poor light levels. After getting some decent views I moved position & levelled my tripod to get some images –unfortunately at this point a Giant Squirrel decided to teach the owlet a lesson and moved it on. The bird flew down through the forest below us so we re-traced our steps and scuttled back down the track but as we got closer the owlet stopped calling. After about 10 minutes the bird started to call again but had clearly doubled-back up the track above us again. Wicky headed off back up the trail whilst I struggled along behind with my camera gear/tripod slung over my shoulder. As I caught up with Wicky I thought we would have little chance of locating the bird as the light levels had dropped markedly with dusk approaching but, as luck would have it Wicky spotted the bird in the sub-canopy of a large tree adjacent to the track. I was able then to adjust position (rack up the ISO setting ‘cos the flash had died) and get a number of shots of this cracking wee endemic owlet (in between picking off leeches!!!). As dusk settled I returned to the vehicle a happy man, despite my reduced circulating volume!


The following morning I rose early for a pre-breakfast walk around the gardens and lake before our departure to our next destination. Whilst the lake itself held nothing new I came across a mixed species feeding flock in the adjacent forest which included Scarlet (Flame) Minivets, Jerdon’s Leafbirds, Oriental White-Eyes, Great Tit, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher. There was also a skulking group of Scimitar-babblers which initially refused to break cover (many authorities regard the Sri Lankan subspecies to be a separate endemic species from the Indian Scimitar-babbler) before one eventually clambered out onto a dimly-lit vine allowing a few images to be taken.

After breakfast we checked-out of the hotel with the plan being to visit the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy on our way to our next destination –Sigiriya in the “Cultural Triangle” of the north-central lowlands. The Hunas Falls hotel proved to be an excellent venue and I am sure that, given longer there, we could have seen many more good birds in the general area. As it was Hunas Falls held one final treat –which the keen-eyed Wicky picked up as we drove down the access road. A dark-plumaged Pigeon perched on the exposed branch of a large tree proved to be the rare & difficult-to-see Sri Lankan Wood Pigeon which, with some skilful repositioning of our minibus, allowed some images to be taken. Then we were off –back to Kandy and to the Temple of the Tooth.
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Some scenic images.
Horton Plains was distinctly cool, misty and rain was frequent!
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Some of the upland endemics (Sri Lankan Scimitar-babblers are also found in wet lowland forest):
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Some of the mammals of the uplands.
The Bear Monkeys (Highland subspecies of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey) were particularly impressive looking!
 

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Steve G

RAINBIRDER
.....and a few more endemics/proposed endemics (except the Southern Hill Myna):
 

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Jon Turner

Well-known member
Lovely picture you paint of this stunning island.

We had a couple of nights in Kandy - and although it wasn't on our itinerary, the Elephant Perahera was on, and we spent an amazing evening watching the elephants (some of which had walked in from all over the island) parade through Kandy. Most of the island (it seemed) were there watching this spectacle, which remains one of the most vivid memories of our trip. I recall seeing Spot-billed Pelican on the lake.

Jon
 

Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Thanks for your kind comments James.

Lovely picture you paint of this stunning island.

We had a couple of nights in Kandy - and although it wasn't on our itinerary, the Elephant Perahera was on, and we spent an amazing evening watching the elephants (some of which had walked in from all over the island) parade through Kandy. Most of the island (it seemed) were there watching this spectacle, which remains one of the most vivid memories of our trip. I recall seeing Spot-billed Pelican on the lake.

Jon

Jon, we were in Kandy on the last day of the Perahera (5th August -Full Moon) when we visited the Temple of the Tooth and got close to the big tusker who carries the tooth relict during the final procession. Though he wasn't dressed up at the time he was still a most impressive beast!

The Temple of the Tooth was also quite a sight. The President and various dignitaries were in town so security was high but there was still a carnival atmosphere. Sadly our itinerary was such that we had to leave before the processions began.

It only seems fair that this impressive beast with such large tusks should carry the Tooth of the Buddha:
 

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Jon Turner

Well-known member
Yes - an impressive beast! We went around the temple - security was paramount - it was the year after a bomb there. The police even looked inside my video camera twice! Hope the current security is a bit more relaxed?

Will you put a list of what you saw at the end of your report? I'd love to see what I missed! All my birding was minutes or odd half-hours grabbed between a lot of travelling to see the stunning sites all around the island.

Jon

Jon
 

Steve G

RAINBIRDER
.........Will you put a list of what you saw at the end of your report? I'd love to see what I missed! All my birding was minutes or odd half-hours grabbed between a lot of travelling to see the stunning sites all around the island.

Jon

Jon
No problem Jon.
It won't be a huge list given the fact that I concentrated my birding on the endemics when we weren't doing family things, and of course there were few northern migrants present in july/early august.

Cheers,
Steve
 

Birdingcraft

Well-known member
Robert we paid Jetwings $7600 US (4x$1900) which covered all costs except lunches, items of a personal nature, drinks and UK-Sri Lanka flights.
I think this was excellent value especially as all accommodation (except Martin's Place) was of a high standard.


The first image below is of a lucky pig!
At first glance it shows a rather crap image of a wild pig but look carefully above & to the left of the pig, it is not alone!
The second image is what alerted us -these monkeys have superb vision, whilst even with good bins we struggled to see what was going on!

Wow, what a fantastic image! Even in a photo, the leopard is blends in perfectly. I never would have seen the cat if you hadn't indicated where to look.
 

Robert L Jarvis

Robert L Jarvis
Great place to visit and not just for the birds. There are a any number of cheap package holidays to get there and that could be a good start and then book the tour!! When I did it with my wife a few years back, found a half price package for 14 nights at a 4* half board for £1300. The 8 day trip round the island with Guide/driver, minivan (just for 2), all accom and meals for £800 with Baurs.
 

Steve G

RAINBIRDER
Eventually, the final instalment:

PART 5: Land of the Ancient Kingdoms
On the morning of 5th August we headed back to Kandy en-route to Sigiriya and the cultural triangle. Kandy was particularly busy with a heavy security presence as the Sri Lankan president and various other dignitaries were in town for the final day of the Perahera. We made our way towards The Temple of The Tooth having to negotiate two security checkpoints in the process. After checking in our shoes at a small kiosk we entered the temple complex barefoot. The Temple of The Tooth proved to be a very impressive building housing a number of spectacular artefacts, beautiful murals and sporting many intricate ornamental carvings. The centrepiece of the temple is the spectacularly ornate “room” housing The Buddha’s tooth-relict within a casket. On the final day of the Perahera the tooth casket is carried on the back of a huge tusker through the streets of Kandy in a spectacular torch-lit procession in one of the most flamboyant religious festivals in all Asia.

Heading out of Kandy we made our way north towards the dry plains around Dambulla. Our next destination was the Amaya Lake hotel which is situated in open woodland on the shore of the large Kandalama tank. This comfortable hotel comprises of a large restaurant/reception/bar complex with an adjacent large swimming pool whilst accommodation is within air-conditioned bungalows dotted throughout the wooded grounds. Amaya Lake proved to be an excellent venue with comfortable rooms, good food & excellent birding in the hotel grounds. After quickly unpacking we had lunch then took a stroll down towards the Kandalama Tank passing a small patch of open woodland which held Jerdon’s Leafbird, Loten’s Sunbird, Black-hooded Oriole, White-browed Bulbul, White-bellied Drongo and Scaly-breasted Munia. The large tank held the usual suspects with distant soaring Brahminy Kite and White-bellied Fish Eagle, various egrets and herons fishing along the shore including Little, Intermediate, Great White, Cattle, Grey, Striated and Indian Pond Heron and some offshore swimming birds which included Spot-billed Pelican, Indian Cormorant, Little Cormorant and Asian Darters. Apart from Black-winged Stilts and Red-wattled Lapwing the only waders were two Common Sandpipers but there were plenty of hirundines –mainly Sri Lankan Swallows with some Little Swifts and a few Asian Palm Swifts whilst the scrub along the shoreline held numerous Little Green Bee-eaters (it was still too early in the season for wintering Blue-tailed Bee-eaters).

At 3:30pm we left the hotel for a short drive to a nearby village for an elephant ride. This was not something that I was at all keen to do but the kids were desperate to get on the back of an elephant. Our timing was poor as almost all the local domesticated elephants were still in Kandy (for the Perahera) and so there was considerable demand for the few elephants remaining with the result that it cost us £90 for one hour’s ride on the back of Monica (named after Monica Lewinsky apparently!). It was a strange sensation as we were rocked to & fro as our elephant stepped out onto the road to compete with cars, Lorries & Tuc-tucs. The beast’s giant steps, though decidedly slow covered a considerable distance with each stride and it felt like we were on an open-topped double-decker bus. Surprisingly the birding from elephant-back was quite good with views of Blue-faced Malkoha, Indian Roller and a Black-rumped Flameback –all at eye level (unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me). We made our way to the car park area and moat at Sigiriya rock from where our “all-terrain vehicle” allowed unusual views of the rock fortress from a different perspective. We eventually re-traced our steps back to the village where some fodder had been prepared for the lovely Monica. Prior to returning to the hotel we drove back to the Sigiriya moat where we were lucky to see a small group of the Northern race of Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys though sadly the hoped for pair of Brown Fish Owls failed to materialise!

The following morning we were up early for a trip to Polonnaruwa –the medieval capital of Sri Lanka and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though primarily a cultural venue this area holds a good range of birds as well as habituated troups of Hanuman Langur & Toque Macaques. Whilst wandering around the site we had close-up views of Ceylon Grey Hornbill (endemic), Black-capped Bulbul (proposed endemic), White-browed Fantail & Dark-fronted Babbler as well as stupendous views of a very approachable Crested Serpent Eagle and the suprise find of a pair of Barn Owls roosting in an old temple.

After Polonnaruwa we made our way to Minneriya National Park via a local restaurant (which served superb and not too spicy Sri Lankan food) for our afternoon game drive. Minneriya National Park is a grassland-dry forest mosaic surrounding the large Minneriya Tank. From late July to early October the receding water levels expose fertile soils that encourage lush grassland which attracts large numbers of elephants; in fact this phenomenon, known as The Gathering comprises of the largest concentration of Asian Elephants in the world. We weren’t to be disappointed as we came across a number of elephant herds ranging from 15 individuals up to almost 60. Whilst elephants are the main reason for coming to Minneriya the birding isn’t bad either. Driving through the dry forest we saw Greater racket-tailed Drongo, Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Ceylon Junglefowl and numerous Indian Peafowl. The open grassland areas held Black-shouldered Kite, Oriental Skylark, Rufous-winged Lark, Paddyfield Pipit and Little Green Bee-eaters whilst Cattle Egrets and a few Indian Rollers worked the elephant herds. As we left Minneriya (just after 6pm) in almost complete darkness we got a brief headlights view of a Muntjac before heading off back to Amaya Lake for a meal and an early night. Before arriving at the hotel Wicky suggested a brief detour to a wooded area adjacent to a small river and some paddy fields which normally holds a pair of Brown Fish Owls. Unfortunately though a youngster could be heard calling the birds were a no-show and with rumbling stomachs the family were in rebellion!

The next morning (7th August) we had an early breakfast before heading off to Sigiriya Rock Fortress to climb the Lion Rock before it got too hot. Sigiriya rock dominates the surrounding countryside and was visible from the grounds of our hotel some miles away. Even though we arrived early there were still considerable numbers of people present with tours groups, vendors and locals hoping to make money from the more gullible tourists. Wicky bought our tickets and we joined the throng climbing the steep staircase & ladder-steps up to the first “attraction” –a series of paintings & frescos on the rock-face featuring an assortment of beautiful women (strangely all were bare-chested!). Following this there was a further steep climb to the foot of the Lion’s paws before we made the final stage of our ascent up a dizzying series of stairs and across a rock-face with foot-holes carved out of the rock. We were warned by the some of the attending locals that this last section was fraught with personal dangers –specifically we were told of the killer hornets who only the preceding week had killed some Chinese tourists on the ascent. Apparently the only way to escape the risk of hornets flying into your every exposed orifice is to employ the services of one of these intrepid local guides who can protect against the risk of certain death (Wicky later ascertained that recently a couple of Chinese nationals had been stung while ascending the rock and that one required hospital treatment, though no-one died)!
Eventually this gasping wheezing fat-man, drenched in sweat, took the last few chest-crushing steps to the top of the rock -what a view awaited me! From the top extensive views of the surrounding countryside reveal cultivations surrounding a number of large man-made lakes (tanks) which have long ago been taken over by nature. The result is now a beautiful productive mosaic of forest, grassland, rice paddies, marsh & open water –all brimming with birdlife! The top of Sigiriya Rock itself was once a fortified viewing platform being part of a grand structure created for the pleasure and greater glory of King Kassapa 1 (AD 477 – 495), the patricidal King. Even a die-hard birder couldn’t fail to be moved by this impressive place and besides, the climb should give good eye level views of Little Swift and the fantastic-looking Shaheen –the local race of Peregrine (a small dark race with rufous –yes rufous underparts!). Our descent in the gathering late-morning heat was a head-spinning vertiginous affair which ended with some good-natured but tenacious stalking from local wood-carvers/vendors. We headed back to our hotel for lunch and a rest before our afternoon game drive at Minneriya NP.
Our final game drive through Minneriya National Park once again yielded large numbers of elephants with the usual supporting cast. Many of the family groups of elephants had young calves and two groups had females which had attracted the attention of a couple of large amorous males –one of these was a tusker who had lost his left tusk whilst the other was a huge and impressive tuskless male. The tuskless male was clearly courting favour with a receptive female and the animals then went on to mate. Whilst it is very unusual to observe mating in Asian Elephants this amorous couple proceeded to give a floor-show which drew in a large number of appreciative tourist-filled jeeps. My 12 year-old daughter, ever the sharp one, quipped “good grief it’s got two trunks” –our park guide and jeep driver were incapacitated with laughter taking 15 minutes to regain their composure! We moved on driving from one elephant group to another until eventually we reached elephant-saturation point. Wicky suggested that we move off to the shore of a small tank which proved inspirational as a fine selection of wetland birds were subsequently seen including Woolly-necked, Open-billed, Painted and Lesser Adjutant Storks, various egrets/herons, Black-necked Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbills, Spot-billed Pelicans, Grey-headed and White-bellied Fish Eagles (including a juvenile White-bellied which caught a large fish in front of us) and an assortment of waders. Clearly there had been a recent influx of northern waders as we saw Greenshank, Wood & Green Sandpipers, Ruff, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Kentish, Little Ringed and Lesser Sand Plovers. Our return drive to the park gates at dusk took us past a straggling scattered group of no less than 22 Lesser Adjutant Storks –a good number for this scarce & declining species!

As we had still not seen Brown Fish Owl Wicky decided to take us back to the moat at the base of the Sigiriya Rock complex. Driving around the rectangular moat we came across a Brown Fish Owl on the grass by the water’s edge –views in the mini-bus headlights were good but brief so we drove on turning up a small sidetrack. A loud exclamation by our driver indicated that something was sorely amiss and on looking ahead I could see a massive bull elephant advancing on our vehicle –we shot backwards at speed heading back to the relative safety of the main car park! Apparently a few weeks previously a lone bull had crushed a local villager when it came upon him in the dark. Though these elephants are tolerant of vehicles in the National Parks they are much more apprehensive and less tolerant outside of the protected zones –particularly at night when vehicles can be charged by bad-tempered bull elephants! Following this incident I was outvoted, the majority decision was to return to the hotel -I never did get a picture of Brown Fish Owl!

The following morning was our last day in Sri Lanka. I rose early to bird the hotel grounds –seeing good numbers of Brown-headed & Coppersmith Barbets, Ceylon Grey Hornbill and Blue-faced Malkoha amongst the more common stuff. Black-hooded Orioles were particularly in evidence as were Jerdon’s Leafbirds and Common Ioras however a superb male White-rumped Shama who sat patiently whilst I changed camera flashcards then flew off before I managed to take a half-decent image. On returning to my chalet I was astounded to see a stunning full-tailed male Paradise Flycatcher working its way along the adjacent chalets where it was removing insects from the spider’s webs surrounding the porch-lights. It then proceeded to perch up right in front of me in perfect light on the branch of a small tree –truly a gift from the gods!

We packed up and left Amaya Lake with the plan being to visit the Dambulla caves/temple complex. Unfortunately my daughter Alice became acutely unwell –this manifesting as a marked malaise and vomiting. Initially we feared food-poisoning and cancelled the Dambulla trip in favour of driving slowly to our last destination –a beach hotel at Negombo which was well-placed for our midnight flight from the nearby airport. By the time we arrived at Negombo Alice was feeling much better and I suspect she had simply been suffering from a touch of heat-stroke from the preceding day! Unfortunately our beach venue added no new birds (I had hoped for Greater/Lesser Crested Terns amongst others) and whilst the resort complex was pleasant I missed the opportunity to add to the trip list. By midnight we were aboard our homebound flight stopping at Mahe on the Maldives before catching our flight back to Glasgow via Dubai. Our Sri Lanka holiday was over! Whilst not yielding a massive trip list it did exceed all expectations in terms of quality bird & mammal-viewing especially given that this was first and foremost a family holiday!



Serendipity is the accidental discovery of something valuable, delightful or interesting when you are not looking for it. The term was first coined by an English writer called Horace Walpole who credited it to a fairytale he had read called The Three Princes of Serendib. This tale recounts the adventures of three Persian princes who sail off to the “land of silk” -the island of Serendib (the modern day Sri Lanka) and along the way the princes make all types of wondrous and delightful finds, discovering things about the island they did not expect.
Such is the nature of Sri Lanka, it is a compact island of amazing variety and great beauty. There are tracts of rainforest holding bird species found nowhere else in the world; there are large areas of dry forest/grassland mosaic holding wild Asian Elephants, Water Buffalo, Spotted & Sambar Deer, Wild Boar, Sloth Bears and the most easily seen Leopards in all of Asia; there are extensive wetlands full of various waterbirds; there are upland areas with spectacular scenery (and more endemic birds) that would not be out of place on a Scottish Shortbread tin; and there are extensive archaeological sites (which are coincidentally full of wildlife) recalling a series of great Buddhist Civilisations which performed amazing building, engineering & irrigation feats at a time when we in Western Europe were entering the Dark Age!
Sri Lanka is an enchanting and beautiful destination which has a lot to offer serious birders, casual birders and Bird Photographers alike. It is a world biodiversity hotspot with almost as many endemic bird species as Borneo (an island ten times larger), has an excellent infrastructure and the people are most hospitable. Sri Lanka is as easy to get to as Goa, has some spectacular species not found in Goa and also offers great mammal viewing possibilities. Recently the waters off the east coast of Sri Lanka have been found to be one of the best places in the world for cetacean watching –particularly Blue Whales, whilst the south coast beaches support good numbers of breeding turtles of five species (Green, Leatherback, Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Olive Ridley).
Sri Lankans themselves are now discovering and embracing their natural heritage in increasing numbers whilst the Sri Lankan authorities have discovered the importance of eco-tourism which, as well as raising much-needed foreign revenue is also encouraging expanding conservation work. The tsunami that hit Sri Lanka and the long-festering civil war have set things back but now that the fighting has ended new parts of Sri Lanka are opening up to tourism and Sri Lanka needs tourists now more than ever! There has never been a better time to visit this beautiful island which has so much to offer to those with an interest in Natural History or indeed Human History.
If you are tempted to visit Sri Lanka then seek the services of Jetwing Eco. When planning a wildlife viewing/birding trip good local knowledge is paramount and none know the natural splendours of Sri Lanka better! Jetwing Eco will put together a package for you based on your wishes/needs and will also supply you with a most expert & personable guide. Check their website on: http://www.jetwingeco.com/
Sri Lanka really is a must-visit destination .......come on you owe it to yourself! ;) ;) ;)
 

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