Duration: 12 days
Group Size: 4 – 8
Date Start: November 02, 2018
Date End: November 13, 2018
Tour Start: Katunayake
Tour End: Katunayake
We usually find all Sri Lankan endemics on this tour. Sri Lanka is a picturesque island situated at the southern tip of India and home to 33 currently recognized endemic species. Sri Lanka is a continental island and had been connected to India for much of its geological past through episodes of lower sea level.
Despite these land-bridge connections, faunal exchange between the rainforests found in Southern India and Sri Lanka has been minimal. This lack of exchange of species is probably due to the inability of rainforest organisms to disperse though the interceding areas of dry lowlands. These dry lowlands are still dry today and receive only one major rainy season, whereas Sri Lanka’s ‘wet zone’ experiences two annual monsoons. This long insularity of Sri Lankan biota in a moist tropical environment has led to the emergence of a bewildering variety of endemic biodiversity. This is why southwestern Sri Lanka and the Western Ghats of southern India are jointly regarded as one of the globe’s 34 biodiversity hotspots. Furthermore, Sri Lanka is the westernmost representative of Indo-Malayan flora, and its abundant birdlife also shows many such affinities.
Our tour also offers plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities and is therefore also suitable for those with broader interests. The main focus, however, is on Sri Lanka’s abundant avifauna, including its 33 endemics. We aim to see 215-235 species of birds during this tour. We usually find all 33 Sri Lankan endemics, and so much more!
The itinerary covers a variety of habitat types, including lowland, monsoon forests and cloudforests, grasslands, coastal mudflats, imposing riverine woodland, and forest. We do a fair bit of walking on our tour, particularly in the earlier stages, as we search for endemics and mixed-species flocks in different forest types. Our walks are gentle and slow-paced to enable us to spot and enjoy the birds.
As far as possible we use accommodation at or very close to the key birding sites to maximize quality birding time. Our tour accommodation includes guest houses, game lodges, and star-class hotels.
Itinerary (12 days, 11 nights)
Day 1. Arrive in Sri Lanka and transfer to Kitulgala for two nights
After your arrival in Sri Lanka, at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake, we will soon set off on a three-hour journey to reach our first birding base, the lush lowlands of Kitulgala.
The drive to Kitulgala will present a wonderful kaleidoscope of rural Sri Lanka with its verdant home gardens packed with jackfruit trees, coconut palms, and fishtail palms, scarecrows erected in paddy fields, houses newly built to ward off “evil eyes” of jealous onlookers, Buddhist temples with their egret-white stupas, small-scale vendors selling their king coconuts, ubiquitous tuk-tuks, billboards of national cricketers endorsing Coke, and aggressive ‘private busses’ blaring their obligatory Sinhala pop.
Roadside birding in Sri Lanka is refreshingly good. Blue-tailed Bee-eater, White-throated Kingfisher, White-bellied Drongo, Indian Roller, Sri Lanka Swallow, Scaly-breasted Munia, Brown Shrike, Indian Jungle Crow, Yellow-billed Babbler, Oriental Magpie Robin, and Ashy Woodswallow are often seen perched on wires. Though we will no doubt see them again and again, these wayside temptations will be hard to resist for some. The odd Crested Serpent Eagle and Changeable Hawk-Eagle, sentinels on posts, will almost certainly bring our vehicle to a halt. The more common waterbirds such as Red-wattled Lapwing, Indian Pond Heron, Eastern Cattle Egret, Intermediate Egret, Black-winged Stilt, and Asian Openbill will certainly not be ignored either.
With all these leg-stretching stops it will be close to midday by the time we reach our overnight accommodation, nestled in a well-wooded garden and overlooking the Kelani River, the setting for the renowned 50’s Hollywood blockbuster, “The Bridge of the River Kwai”.
After enjoying our first of many rice and curry lunches, we will commence our quest for the island’s endemics in the well-wooded garden of our lodge. The resonant call of Yellow-fronted Barbet is likely to demand our attention first – a common element in the soundscape of the wet Sri Lankan hinterland. The gregarious Orange-billed Babbler with its constant chattering will be easier to locate. A gem of a bird, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot – with its specific name beryllinus named after beryl, a semi-precious stone found in Sri Lank – may require scope views to properly take in its scarlet forehead and rump patch against a greener body.
Our night bird tally is likely to get ticking with the adorable Chestnut-backed Owlet at a stakeout.
The well-wooded home-garden-type birding, combining several “patches”, will add a mouth-watering array of birds to our tally in the form of newly raised endemic Sri Lanka Swallow (perched views on wires), Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Square-tailed Bulbul, White-browed Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Orange-billed Babbler, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Black-rumped Flameback, Black-headed Cuckooshrike, Sri Lanka Hill Myna, Common Iora, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Orange Minivet, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher, and perhaps Layard’s Parakeet, named after E. L. Layard, a 19th century British civil servant, who added an astonishing 136 species to Sri Lanka’s avian inventory.
Scanning a particular tree, you may also get first glimpses of Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, which was formerly known as Pompadour Green Pigeon. At around 4.00 p.m. we will switch our focus to concentrate on this scarce Sri Lankan endemic, which, if bagged today, will ease off a lot of tension! This may require some discipline, but with patience it should cooperate.
With all these we should easily have a tally of 50 or so birds for today, which will include a few goodies for sure.
Overnight: Sisira’s River Lounge, Kitulgala https://sisirariverlounge.com/
Day 2. Full day birding in Kitulgala for lowland endemics and specialties
Tea/coffee will be delivered to the rooms at 5:30 a.m. The Spot-winged Thrush may greet the new day with its rhythmic dawn chorus. And it may perhaps come hopping to find an easy meal at first light. The “pretty-dear” call, likely to be heard in the undergrowth, may betray a flock of Brown-capped Babbler, moving low. The Himalayan delight, Indian Pitta, might also be not too far, if you scan well.
With more light of the day, the dawn chorus may peak with additional tunes of Green Warbler, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, and the above-mentioned thrush, with harsher greetings of Chestnut-backed Owlet.
Our morning’s birding will add a huge boost to our tally with the likes of Sri Lanka Drongo, Lesser Yellownape, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Black-naped Monarch, Black-capped Bulbul, Oriental White-eye, and Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill.
The star bird of the day, however, perhaps is likely to be the diminutive Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher. Hopefully it may stay long enough to give us scope views to show its brilliant purple-shot orange and black plumage and vermilion beak and feet.
At 7.30 a.m. we will break for breakfast. Thereafter, we will drive a short distance to cross the Kelani River, in a hand-paddled “dug-out canoe” fitted with an outrigger, to reach the Kitulgala rain forest in search of rarer gems.
Foremost among these is the Serendib Scops Owl, discovered in 2001, and with an estimated population of only 200 – 250 birds in the wild. We will look for it at a day-roost. The ultra-secretive Sri Lanka Spurfowl may require patience, as it is highly wary of bipeds. Crimson-backed Flameback is also in this forest, and you may want to try for that too, as it can sometimes prove to be a pain!
During the return journey we will pause at a patch to look for a roosting pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouth, which is a South India and Sri Lanka endemic.
We will return to a slightly late lunch.
In the late afternoon session, we will explore several patches in search of so-far missing specials.
Overnight: Sisira’s River Lounge, Kitulgala
Day 3. Drive to the endemic hotspot Sinharaja Rainforest for two nights
After some early morning birding and breakfast we will drive to the amazing Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which represents the largest expanse of lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka and the premier site for endemics. Under the euphemistic jargon “selective logging” this forest was subjected to clear-felling in what was the first mechanized logging project in Sri Lanka from 1972 to 1977, which was carried out by a Canadian logging company.
The research following the halting of logging operations, due to public outrage, led to the recognition of its amazing wealth of biodiversity, and in 1988 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The former logging tracks now provide the main access to the forest’s interior for visitors.
A highlight of birding in Sinharaja is seeing mixed-species bird flocks, which is a strategy adopted by birds in the tropics to maximize feeding efficiency and to reduce the risk of predation. Studied since 1981, Sinharaja’s are the world’s longest-studied bird flocks in the world. So far, 59 species have been found in Sinharaja’s bird flocks. Interestingly, five species of mammals too have been found to associate with birds, which includes several squirrel species. The average number of birds of a flock is 42, with Orange-billed Babbler boosting this tally with 16 individuals. Found in 92% and 89% of flocks, respectively, Orange-billed Babbler and Sri Lanka Drongo are jointly regarded as the “nuclear-species” of the flock.
A good flock adds life to the forest, which, under normal circumstances, is relatively silent and uneventful. It can suddenly provide a mouth-watering array of sought-after specials within the span of a few minute – a pleasantly overwhelming experience for birders.
The star of this coterie of flock-associated specials is the enigmatic Red-faced Malkoha – a canopy dwelling endemic, found typically at heights of 25-35 meters, with a remarkable ability to melt away into the dense thickets. White-faced Starling too keeps to the canopy. Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, in comparison, is found in bottom levels of the flock, often scratching the forest floor for insect prey. Malabar Trogon hawks insects in the sub-canopy and remains largely silent. The “steering wheel” of the flock, Orange-billed Babbler, which leads the flocks, occurs from the understory to the canopy and is closely watched by the sentinel of the flock, Sri Lanka Drongo – which benefits from the “prey-beating effect” of the gregarious species such as babblers and laughingthrushes as they forage. This drongo is capable of mimicking most members of the flock – a skill it uses to good effect to call in the birds to form flocks. And in real alarm situations, such as when there is a ground predator, it mixes its own alarm calls with mimicked versions of the ground-predator-specific alarm calls of flock associates such as Orange-billed Babbler and Ashy-headed Laughingthrush – as if it wants to warn them of the impending danger in their own language.
We will have first class access to experience such live actions as they unfold. While playing the “numbers game” of adding species after species to lifeless life lists, we will also try to get insights into the real dynamics and ecology of the flocks.
Overnight: Overnight: Rock View Motel, Sinharaja https://www.rockviewmotel.com/
Day 4. Full day birding in Sinharaja for lowland endemics and mixed species flocks
After an early-sit-down breakfast we will reach the ticket office of Sinharaja and commence our foray into this endemic hotspot, looking for our targets.
One of them is the montane endemic Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, which descends to Sinharaja in search of season fruits. With the right technique, more bonus birds will come our way in the form of Hill Munia, Indian Blue Robin, Slaty-legged Crake, and Indian Cuckoo. Finding an Asian Paradise Flycatcher, sporting its white ribbon-like tail streamers that are nearly a foot in length, may be a possibility if we encounter a good flock, as this migrant obtains “regular membership” (defined as found in 25% or more of flocks), during its stay. Chestnut-winged Crested Cuckoo, another migrant that joins flocks, may, however, present a tougher challenge, as it isn’t as regular.
We will also try for forest raptors like Besra and Crested Goshawk, which lurk behind flocks to catch birds. As it approaches midday, we may perhaps hear the blood-curdling screams of grizzled giant squirrels, which would betray the presence of more formidable forest raptors, such as Legge’s Hawk-Eagle and Black Eagle, soaring high above the canopy.
In addition to the above we will try to obtain improved views of the endemics already seen and try to again and again experience the magic of mixed-species bird flocks.
Overnight: Overnight: Rock View Motel, Sinharaja
Day 5. Drive to Udawalawe National Park for dry zone specialties
In the morning we explore several patches in the periphery of the reserve until 10:30 a.m. before driving to the dry lowlands of Udawalawe National Park, where a totally different avifauna awaits us.
En route, we will pause at a wayside restaurant for a sit-down lunch. After checking in at the accommodation and a 30-minute rest, we will explore a few “patches” at Udawalawe in search of dry zone birds ahead of tomorrow’s safari visit to the park.
The birds on offer here include Sri Lanka Woodshrike, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Green Bee-eater, Blue-faced Malkoha, Coppersmith Barbet, Yellow-eyed Babbler, Grey-breasted Prinia, Plain Prinia, Ashy Prinia, Jungle Prinia, Rosy Starling, Jacobin Cuckoo, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, Jerdon’s Bush Lark, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Indian Pitta, White-browed Fantail, Little Swift, Brahminy Starling, Paddyfield Pipit, Blyth’s Pipit, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Spot-billed Pelican, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Painted Stork, Woolly-necked Stork, Indian Peafowl, Indian Robin, Black-winged Kite, and Indian Stone-curlew. Migrant forms of Red-rumped Swallow (with paler red belly and rump), Western Yellow Wagtail, White Wagtail, and Citrine Wagtail may show up too.
At dusk falls we will look for Indian Nightjar and Jerdon’s Nightjar.
The day’s tally will be nearly 100 birds, if you work hard.
Overnight: Safari Village Hotel, Udawalawe https://www.safarivillagehotels.com/udawalawa.html
Day 6. Safari to Udawalawe National Park, transfer to Tissamaharama
We’ll have a sit-down breakfast at 5:30 a.m. in the hotel’s restaurant. At 6.00 a.m. we will board a safari jeep and visit Udawalawe National Park.
This dry zone park is comprised of an interesting tapestry of habitats: grasslands interspersed with shrubs and taller trees – some with dead tops, gallery forests, presenting little islands of forest harboring a different mix of birds from their surroundings, smaller waterholes owned by buffalos, monsoon forests, restricted to sections of the reserve, and vast freshwater bodies, to name just a few.
Consequently, today’s birding will see a steep rise in our bird tally with the likes of such dry zone specials as Malabar Pied Hornbill, Sirkeer Malkoha, Indian Silverbill, Barred Buttonquail, Lesser Adjutant, and if lucky Brown Fish Owl.
With its vast expanse of openness, the park also harbors a rich diversity of raptors, such as Crested Hawk-Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Western Osprey – a local rarity, Pallid Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier – another rarity, Booted Eagle, Shaheen– the resident race of Peregrine Falcon, Common Kestrel, Crested Honey Buzzard, and Shikra.
In addition to excellent birds, a visit to Udawalawe would also present a good opportunity to observe Asian elephant, which are found in good numbers in the park.
After returning to the hotel for a shower and lunch we will penetrate deeper into the dry zone and reach Tissamaharama (a.k.a. Tissa), which lies superimposed on the ancient provincial capital of ‘Magama’ with its stupa, inscriptions, and ancient man-made ‘tanks’ (reservoirs) dating back to the 3rd century BC. Some of these lily-and-reed-covered tanks, evidence of a once-thriving hydraulic civilization, are excellent for birding.
We will make at least three main stops (the first two brief and the last extended) along the way for wetland-associated birds, including Yellow Bittern, Black Bittern, Watercock, Great Stone-curlew, Little Stint, Kentish Plover, dark morph Little Egret, Black-headed Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Little Cormorant, Indian Cormorant, Oriental Darter, Spot-billed Pelican, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, “Western” Black-tailed Godwit, and Clamorous Reed Warbler.
Overnight: Hibiscus Garden Hotel, Tissamaharama, https://www.hibiscus-garden.com/hotel?lang=en
Day 7. Bundala National Park for shorebirds and Yala National Park for leopard
After an early cuppa we will collect packed breakfasts and visit Bundala National Park, which is the first Ramsar site declared in Sri Lanka and is a premier hotspot for water birds including waders. The park is comprised of large extents of dry zone scrub jungles, freshwater bodies, brackish water bodies, lagoons, and plain old mud flats. This visit should boost our tally with a great many shorebirds and more dry zone specials. Thereafter, we will retreat to the air-conditioned comforts of our nature resort for a midday break and to chill by the pool.
After recharging our batteries we will explore the wilderness expanse of Yala National Park. Yala is comprised of a bewildering array of habitats, including monsoon forests, scrub jungle, mud flats, lagoons, riverine forests, reed-and-lily-covered inland freshwater bodies, open grassy plains, and rocky outcrops. Consequently, these rich ecosystems harbor a varied diversity of wildlife, which makes Yala the premier national park in Sri Lanka for birds and other wildlife. Yala Block 1, 141 km² in size, has close to 40 individual leopards identified by their unique facial spot patterns and other characteristics, which makes this area a premier leopard hotspot with probably the highest density of leopards anywhere in the world.
Birding will, of course, not be forgotten. We will look for Western Reef Heron, Red-necked Phalarope, Small Pratincole, Striated Heron, Garganey, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Caspian Tern, White-winged Tern, Whiskered Tern, Common Tern, Greater Crested Tern, Lesser Crested Tern, Little Tern, Indian Cormorant, Brown-headed Gull, Greater Flamingo, Great Stone-curlew, Indian Stone-curlew, Eurasian Curlew, Marsh Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Lesser Sand Plover, Greater Sand Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Black-necked Stork, Eurasian Hoopoe, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Brown Fish Owl, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, and Ashy Drongo.
Overnight: Hibiscus Garden Hotel, Tissamaharama
Day 8. Birding Yala National Park and Tissamaharama
In the morning we will collect packed breakfasts and visit Yala National Park yet again for leopards and so far missing dry zone specials.
In the afternoon we will explore the Tissamaharama and Deberawewa Tanks, which are fantastic wetland sites teeming with waterbirds and other delights. We will look for Watercock, Black Bittern, Yellow Bittern, Slaty-breasted Rail, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Eurasian Coot (a local rarity!), Purple Swamphen, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Streaked Weaver, Baya Weaver, Tricolored Munia, Great Cormorant, Jerdon’s Leafbird, Eurasian Spoonbill, White-naped Woodpecker, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Indian Stone-curlew, and Brown Fish Owl.
Overnight: Hibiscus Garden Hotel, Tissamaharama
Day 9. Drive to the cooler hills for montane endemics, birding on the way
After breakfast we will say goodbye to the friendly staff at our hotel and drive up to the cooler hills of Nuwara Eliya, where several montane endemics await us. En route we will make several strategic stops to bag a number of high-value targets. First, it will be a patch holding many specialties, including Jungle Owlet, Large Cuckooshrike, Orange-headed Thrush, and White-naped Woodpecker! In January 2012 Sri Lanka’s second Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was found at this site. We should spend 1.5 hours here, as it will be very productive with at least two new birds to the trip list.
Thereafter we will continue climbing and pause at the Ella Resthouse, which faces the spectacular Ella gap, for lunch.
Continuing our search for our high-value targets, we will drive to a privately-owned, well-wooded birding patch holding a few surprises. Situated in the eastern, drier hills of the central mountain massif, birding at Welimada presents a mixture of lowland wet zone, highland wet zone, and lowland dry zone avian elements. One of our prime targets here is the mountain endemic, Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, which can at times prove tough further up. Up to three Brown Wood Owls have been sighted here at a daytime roost. These large owls are extremely wary of humans; firewood-collecting women who encroach make them shift their roost regularly. A special woodpecker is also recorded here in the form of Streak-throated Woodpecker, which is a specialty of the Uva Avifaunal Zone and a restricted-range species in Sri Lanka. We could also see a few montane specials such as Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher as well as the highly sought-after Pied Thrush, which should cooperate better the following morning, however.
We will then continue our ascent to reach the cooler interiors of Nuwara Eliya (1,890m), the famous hill station of Sri Lanka, named by some “Little England”, as it still bears evidence of its colonial past with its English-style holiday homes, a racecourse, vegetable gardens, shooting ranges, an urban park, a few pubs, flower gardens, and a fine 18-hole golf course.
As we ascend, vast stretches of tea gardens dominate the landscape, a cash crop introduced by the British, which is currently the country’s third-highest revenue earner. A serious drop in temperature (around 10 -15 degrees Centigrade) at Nuwara Eliya will necessitate sweaters, although some of you may welcome this change, coming from the warmer lowlands. We will reach a patch close to our accommodation in time to anticipate the arrival of the ultra-secretive montane endemic, Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, which is one of two endangered endemics.
Finally, we will reach our cozy highland lodge, where we will stay for two nights. A proper western meal to go with the colonial charm of Nuwara Eliya will end a great day’s work.
Overnight: Pello Lake Resort, Nuwara Eliya https://www.pellolakeresortnuwaraeliya.com/
Day 10. Nuwara Eliya, looking for montane endemics and other specials
After a sit-down breakfast at 5:30 a.m., we will drive a short distance to a nearby patch of forest to look for high-value montane targets: Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Dull-blue Flycatcher, Sri Lanka White-eye, and Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon.
Mixed-species bird flocks are to be found in this forest, comprised of both white-eye species, Orange Minivet, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, and Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike.
After an optional rest stop at Nuwara Eliya we will explore Victoria Park in the afternoon. Established in 1897 to commemorate the 60th coronation jubilee of Queen Victoria, this urban park is the prime location for Western Himalayan migrants, including Kashmir Flycatcher and Pied Thrush, which winter almost exclusively in Sri Lanka. Indian Pitta, Indian Blue Robin, Forest Wagtail, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Indian Blackbird, and Sykes’s Warbler are some of the other good birds to be found in this park.
In the late afternoon we will visit a few more patches, depending on what is missing.
Overnight: Pello Lake Resort, Nuwara Eliya
Day 11. Drive to Kandy, in the afternoon local birding
In the morning we will be birding for any missing montane specials before driving down to Kandy (477m), the last Sinhalese kingdom in Sri Lanka, which was ceded to the British in 1815. En route we will pause at a tea factory to see the newly-split Hill Swallow, which nests inside the factory. After a cuppa we will reach our accommodation, which is a hotel situated close to birding sites and the sacred city of Kandy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the late afternoon we will explore the Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens close to Kandy to bag any missing targets. This magnificent garden covers an area of 147 acres and is an absolute botanical paradise. We will also look for several special birds here, namely Crimson-fronted Barbetand Common Hawk-Cuckoo.
A noisy colony of giant fruit bats will be hard to ignore, and we could see them in their thousands in several large trees next to the near river, with constant fights over landing rights.
Overnight: Emerald Hill Hotel, Kandy https://emeraldhill.lk/
Day 12. Transfer to Katunayake, departure
After birding around the hotel and breakfast, and some time for some tourist stuff in Kandy (with optional visits to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) you will be dropped off at the airport in Katunayake, where it all began.
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors.
Just wanted to tell you what a fantastic time I had on my custom Sri Lanka birding tour. Everything went flawlessly thanks to Andy’s preparation, and his knowledge and passion for the birds was infectious and made it great fun. Our local guide, Lester, was as passionate, and was expert in locating the birds and sharing his knowledge of the country. The food and lodging were great, and we became good friends as well as birding buddies, and I would recommend Sri Lanka as a, safe, friendly place to bird. Andy’s trip report is on the website. Birding Ecotours ran a wonderful tour, and I will use their services again for our next trip.
Bill Fiero — New York, USA