John Diley's Trip Report 2

Trip Report Title: 
SRI LANKA - 13th March to 30th March 2015
Tour Strat: 
Thursday, March 12, 2015
Tour End: 
Monday, March 30, 2015

Trip Report Year:

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John and Anne Diley with Nandana

Click here to original report in PDF format.

ITINERARY

March 12         Manchester Airport to Colombo

March 13         Arrive in Colombo via Dubai, on to first night in Sigiriya

March 14         Lion Rock in morning, second night in Sigiriya

March 15         Sigiriya to Kandy, Udawattakele, first night in Kandy

March 16         Kandy Botanical Gardens, second night in Kandy

March 17         Kandy to first night in Kithulgala

March 18         Second night in Kithulgala

March 19         Kithulgala to Nuwara Eliya, Victoria Park, first night in Nuwara Eliya

March 20         Horton Plains, Victoria Park, second night in Nuwara Eliya

March 21         Victoria Park, Nuwara Eliya to first night at Tissamaharama

March 22         Bundala half day safari, second night at Tissamaharama

March 23         Yala all day safari, third night at Tissamaharama

March 24         Tissamaharama to Uda Walawe, half day safari, night at Uda Walawe

March 25         Uda Walawe to Sinharaja, half day in resrerve, first night at Sinharaja

March 26         Sinharaja, half day in reserve, second night at Sinharaja

March 27         Sinharaja to one night in Weligama

March 28         Weligama, whale watch from Mirissa, on to first night at Ranweli

March 29         Ranweli for second night

March 30         Ranweli to Colombo Airport then to Manchester via Dubai

 

In March/April 2013 on the glowing recommendation of the “Fat Birder” web site and birders we met in Trinidad, my wife Anne and I had a holiday on the island of Sri Lanka.  A country of spectacular varied scenery, tropical rain forests, idyllic beaches of silver sand, numerous World Heritage sites, impressive historical remains, rare wildlife and friendly people who inspite of the abject poverty in which they live always appear to be smiling.  We enjoyed the holiday so much we hoped one day to return.  As a birder of more than fifty years, naturally it was the birds that attracted me, thirty-three species generally regarded as endemic to the island (a thirty-fourth pending).  Keeping Anne happy, unlike me not a birder, was a concern but in the event it proved to be no problem.  In the two and a half weeks we spent on the island I managed to see 216 birds 150 of which were “Lifers” including 28½ of the endemics (the half I will explain later).  With 4½ endemics still to see there was unfinished business.

So this year we decided to return.  In 2013 we went with one of the smaller local companies “Walk with Jith” under the umbrella eco organisation of “Responsible Travel”.  For us this friendly company was excellent, everything well organised to our own personalised itinerary, the holiday enjoyed without a hitch and so naturally we had no hesitation in going with them again this year.  In preparation for the holiday I looked up the latest trip reports on Jith`s web site and it became clear that the guide for us was Nandana Hewagamage seemingly with the “knack” for tracking down the endemics and we were pleased that our request for him was granted.  In the weeks leading up to the holiday I went through my “Helm Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka” and drew up a “wish list” comprising the 74 birds which I had not managed to see on the previous holiday, highlighting the priorities and this was emailed to Jith to pass on to Nandana.  A realistic target I felt would be around 25 to 30 from this list.

DAY 1 (13th March)

On the morning we were due to set off for Manchester Airport for our flight I sensed something was wrong when Anne got up around 6-0am and went into her office.  Anne does all the organising on our holidays, booking the flights and everything, usually impeccably but this time there appeared to be a problem.  Somehow we had managed to “lose” a day.  The overnight flight straddling two days and the time difference had somehow been overlooked (five hour time difference between the UK and Dubai, our first flight and one hour between Dubai and Colombo, our second flight).  She managed to contact Jith in the nick of time as he was actually on his way to Colombo Airport to meet us whilst we were still at home in bed!  We were not due to arrive there until this time the next day.  There was no panic and as it turned out sufficient slack in the itinerary to cope with this minor glitch.  Instead of spending the first night at the Tamarind Hotel close to Colombo as planned we would drive on immediately to the Sigiriya Village Hotel which should have been our second night`s stop.  In effect as regards the holiday we would lose a few hours at Sigiriya.  A shame, but not the end of the world.  The first leg of our flight (incidentally on Friday 13th ), leaving Manchester around 9-0pm was on one of the new Airbus A380 planes, double-decked carrying over 500 passengers and apart from being too big with an inordinately long time to board, disembark and serve meals, went without a hitch.  A slight delay overall left us with minimal time at Dubai to race from one end of the airport to the other to catch our connecting flight which we made with precious little time to spare.  Again this flight went without a hitch and we finally arrived very tired in Colombo around 2-50pm, a total travel time (including 1¼ hours in Dubai) of over 12 hours.  We cleared customs, retrieved our bags and relieved were met by Jith and our guide for the next sixteen days, Nandana.  The drive from the airport to our (revised first) night`s stop at Sigirya (our furthest place north) was long and tortuous in darkness, through roadworks and hold ups with four lanes of traffic on a two lane road turned to a pot-holed dirt track, the vehicles – lorries, cars, motor cycles, scooters, buses and tuk-tuks jockeying for position, trying desperately to find a way through.  Now very tired and hungry we finally arrived at our hotel around 9-0pm where after checking in we were able to get a decent meal.  After asking specifically for a room close to the one we were in last time we were given one some considerable distance away but we were too tired to argue and in the event it was absolutely fine.  And so to bed after an incredibly long and exhausting day.

DAY 2 (14th March)

Anne will insist on checking the weather forecasts in the week before our holidays and true to form once again she was concerned that the weather predicted was for rain in the early part of the holiday particularly this first day when the plan was to climb up to the top of Lion Rock.  However at first light the sun was shining and the heat building up.  What was to become the routine of this holiday for me at least, was to be up very early and then out for a pre-breakfast walk with Nandana returning around

8-30am.  A pair of Alexandrine Parakeets showed well in the top of a tall tree beside the pool infront of the hotel reception as I waited for Nandana.  Nandana arrived and almost immediately after passing through the hotel security barrier and onto the unmettled access road he found me my first lifer of the holiday and one of the endemics to boot. 

Brown-capped Babbler

Not one but two Brown-capped Babblers responded to his recorded call giving excellent ultra close views at the roadside low down in the bushes.  Surprisingly bigger than expected, stocky rusty brown below, darker grey/brown above with a robust dark bill and dark eye set in a featureless face and dark brown cap.  Pick of the other birds noted on this first walk in the hotel grounds and around the nearby tank (reservoir) – Crested Serpent Eagle, Emerald Dove, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Alexandrine Parakeet, Crested Treeswift, Crimson-fronted Barbet, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Indian Pitta, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike, Common Iora, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Jerdon`s Leafbird, White-browed Bulbul, White-browed Fantail, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, White-rumped Shama, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Tickell`s Blue Flycatcher and Oriental White-eye.

 

Sykes`s Warbler

A rather nondescript pale brown and white warbler in full view in the middle of a tall tree close to the tank might well have been a Sykes`s Warblera regular winter migrant to the island though rather difficult to differentiate from the more common and very similar Blyth`s Reed Warbler, regarded as the usual confusion species in Sri Lanka.  It was quite small, slim and pale, sandy grey/brown above, off white below with a fairly well defined short pale supercillium in a rather featureless face and it had a longish bill.  The bird`s stance was noticably horizontal. The supercillium of a Blyth`s Reed that shares a similar winter habitat is less prominent in the field continuing no further back than the eye.  Not enough was seen of the tail to see if it was rounded (as Blyth`s Reed) or square ended with some white to the outer feathers (as in Sykes`s).  Maybe it was instinct but the immediate thought was of a Sykes`s Warbler though I must admit to being totally unfamiliar with this species.  What I remember with certainty is that I did not think it to be a member of the Acrocephalus group of warblers such as Blyth`s Reed Warbler, unlike the number of times I was in due course to see that species when there was absolutely no doubt as to which family it belonged. 

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Bright Green Warbler (a bright individual)

Breakfast which as on the last holiday at this really nice hotel was first class with a huge buffet style spread including porridge was sufficient really to last us until the evening meal.  Now very hot and sunny as we waited outside reception for Nandana I had my second lifer of the holiday, a Green Warbler (or Bright Green Warbler) though this bird was anything but bright being rather subdued presumably in worn plumage.  Nandana suggested we drive to the foot of Lion Rock and walk from there.  Remembering that we saw some really good birds last holiday en-route when we walked the whole way from the hotel I vetoed this and this time we did the same.  It was the right decision as it turned out as along the access road just outside the 9th century citadel boundary stone wall, Nandana found lifer number three for me in a superb Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher.  It proved to be an unusually fine sighting of this little gem in full view in the shade of a bush just above ground level, posing for several minutes.  Nandana, frustrated had forgotton his camera and was desperate to get some photos of a bird more usually seen in fast darting flight or briefly perched part hidden.  After a while it disappeared into cover.  Nandana and I waited for the bird to reappear whilst Anne volunteered to go back via tuk-tuk to fetch his camera from his car at the hotel but to Nandana`s disappointment the bird failed to reappear. 

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Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher

The long hard climb, sometimes vertical 900 feet up to the top of this spectacular rock was exhausting in the now almost unbearably humid heat.  There were frequent stops to regain our breath when halfway up I was questioning our judgement – would we actually make it to the top?  I suppose it`s my age but it surely was much harder on the muscles this time than it was on the last holiday.  At the top as we passed the few Toque Macaques waiting for handouts there was no regret and it was certainly well worth the effort.  Unlike last time there was no endless procession of migrating Albatross butterflies, perhaps the most memorable recollection of that climb but there was a rare record for Sri Lanka in a male Blue Rock Thrush which gave excellent close views amongst the Royal Palace ruins before inexplicably disappearing right infront of us presumably into a fissure in the wall.  Curiously its identity to me was at the time less certain than it was to Nandana being somewhat out of context, a bird I have seen many times in southern France usually high at the top of an ancient chateau viewed from below.  Nandana`s photos however left no doubt as to its identity.  On the way down we heard the call of a Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker which disappointingly failed to show itself.  By the time we had completed our descent and returned to the hotel amongst other birds we had added to the holiday list Lesser Flameback (soon probably to be elevated to endemic status), Sri Lanka Swallow and Black-headed Munia.

We spent the afternoon around our bungalow and strolling in the wonderful hotel grounds, our cluster of bungalows set around an attractive pool with its Common Kingfisher, Water Monitor and Terrapins. There was a comotion not far from our bungalow, a woman hysterically remonstrating with one of the gardeners that there was a snake near her bungalow.  Where? he asked her.  “I`m not going back!”, she exclaimed.  As the gardener headed towards her bungalow a young Australian couple asked if they could come along and I followed too.  On the edge of the central pool was a plain brown snake more than likely a Common Rat Snake doing a passable impression of a cobra with its neck and head raised.  The gardener kicked out towards it and it slithered off slowly into the water and away.  As arranged I met Nandana at 5-0pm, leaving Anne happy to do her thing.  He told me that ten minutes earlier he had found an Orange-headed Thrush at the roadside under the bushes just beyond the hotel security barrier.  By the time we got there the bird had gone presumably disturbed by the traffic and people passing close by.  We searched for some time up and down the road side without success and then Nandana went off into the scrub to the rear of the bushes.  After a few minutes he returned and beckoned me to follow back into the scrub at times almost on my knees beating my way through the thorny thicket.  Then right infront of me was the bird, a superb male, bright orange to its head and underparts, soft blue above with a prominent short, broad white wing bar. Lifer number four viewed at ultra close range.

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Orange-headed Thrush

On then in the car to the area immediately to the west of the tank watching amongst others Crested Treeswifts, Crimson-fronted Barbet, Lesser Flameback, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike, Jerdon`s Leafbird, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Loten`s Sunbird.  By 6-0pm as Nandana picked out far in the distance the unmistakable four note call of a Large Cuckooshrike (potentially another lifer) the weather changed, threatening dark clouds and thunder approaching from the east followed by light rain.  Birding more than likely over for the day we returned to the hotel.  By the time I reached our bungalow it was throwing it down and the light had all but gone. 

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Large Cuckooshrike (female)

As I stood outside for a while under the roof overhang, the rain still falling heavily, I heard once again the unmistakable call of a Large Cuckooshrike in the distance which repeated, appeared to get closer until I saw what was presumably the bird close by perched at mid level on a horizontal branch of a large tree.  I noted the black mask though it appeared to extend over the throat and the white “fluffy” undertail. We went across for dinner, the rain still falling and enjoyed another substantial buffet meal.  The day ended with the usual early night after too much to eat.  Not a bad start to the holiday with 5 lifers first day.

DAY 3 (15th March)

There may have been just a little doubt as regards the cuckooshrike seen the previous day (black throat?) but there was absolutely none with the first bird of the day found by Nandana on this pre-breakfast walk.  This was definitely a Large Cuckooshrike, two in fact, a pair prening at the top of a tree alongside the hotel access road opposite the tank.  Last night`s rain had cleared and it promised to be a beautiful hot and sunny day as we made for the open area of land between the road at the west end of the tank and the access road leading to Lion Rock.  It was open rough grass with scattered trees and bushes opposite the ancient moat of the Royal citadel on the edge of mature woodland and what turned out to be a good area for birds.  First a sub-adult Changeable Hawk Eagle perched and calling in a tree beside its nest then Nandana heard the call of a Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and picked out a pair of these tiny pied birds at the top of another tree. 

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Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker

Another lifer, first of the day.  A Green Warbler, this time a bright individual was seen in the distance, bright green above, yellow below with yellow supercillium and wing bar.  Amongst the other notable birds seen on this very enjoyable walk were Woolly-necked Stork, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Crimson-fronted Barbet, Lesser Flameback, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Brown Shrike, Jerdon`s Leafbird, White-browed Fantail, Asian Paradise Flycatcher (both colour phases), Tickell`s Blue Flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher and White-rumped Munia.  The most memorable sight was of a male Small Minivet, a Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike and a Rose-ringed Parakeet all together in the top of a tall bare tree, the intense sunlight highlighting the vivid colours.  Around 10-0am after another big breakfast (including porridge), now extremely hot and sunny we left Sigiriya somewhat reluctantly after a very enjoyable stay and set off for our next overnight stop at Kandy.

As we drove through Dambulla the giant golden statue of Buddha came into view and Anne asked Nandana if we could stop briefly to take a photo.  I quickly jumped out of the car, crossed the busy road and took a couple of photos then returned to the other side of the road to wait for Nandana who unable to park where I had left the car had driven on before doubling back to pick me up.  The car approached and stopped beside me.  I opened the door to get in noticing the puzzled look on the driver`s face and the two asian passengers in the back!  On realising my mistake I quickly shut the passenger door with a muttered apology and the car sped off with its shocked occupants who must have thought they were being car-jacked.  Of course Nandana and Anne thought it was very funny when they stopped for me straight after, as did the two policemen who had watched the whole episode from the roadside.  In my defence it was a white car and to me identical to Nandana`s.  Soon after Nandana made a minor detour pulling off the main road up a dirt track at a known Brown Fish Owl roost site but there was no sign of the bird, just a passing dark male Oriental Honey Buzzard.  We arrived after an otherwise uneventful journey at Kandy around

1-30pm.  The big modern “Thilanka Hotel” was on a hillside above the lake with a fine view from the balcony of the town and lake below and the hills in the far distance.  Our balcony was directly beside a heavily wooded hillside, looking promising for birds.  As we ate a few biscuits and drank our coffee another dark male Oriental Honey Buzzard  flew low directly over the balcony. 

As arranged we met Nandana in reception at 3-0pm to drive up the short distance to Udawattakele “Forbidden” Royal Forest Reserve where we donned our leech socks for the first time this holiday.  Set around an attractive pool this is a relatively small reserve with pleasant easy walks winding through the heavily wooded hillside and needless to say a great place for birds.  It was however punishing on the neck muscles, looking high into the tree canopy hoping to catch a glimpse of the shy and retiring Black-naped Monarch.  Suffering now from a bad case of “birder`s neck” there was unfortunately no sign of this illusive bird high on my “most wanted” list, just the common Tickell`s Blue Flycatcher.

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Black-naped Monarch

We made our way along the trail where we had views of Emerald Dove, Alexandrine Parakeet, Layard`s Parakeet, Greater Flameback (3+), Large-billed Leaf Warbler and Lesser Hill Myna.  There was a brief view of a Barking Deer on the hillside down below us and then we had an ultra close view again of two Brown-capped Babblers at the base of the steep hillside at the edge of the track.  Nandana recognised the call of a Black-naped Monarch and we finally had a far from satisfactory distant view of one high in the tree canopy, lifer number 7.  As we walked on Nandana drew my attention to the distant call of a Brown-wood Owl from the trees high up the hillside above us but there was no chance of us seeing the bird from where we were.  It was now close to 6-0pm as we arrived back at the pool, a regular reliable roost site for the Brown Fish Owl.  As the light was fading towards dusk and spots of light rain were beginning to fall we waited amongst the mosquitos in the hope of catching a glimpse of the owl flying in.  It must have slipped in out of sight as eventually around 6-45pm we heard the bird calling from a treetop but in the darkness with Nandana shining his powerful torch beam into the canopy, we were unable to see the bird.  And with that we made our return to the hotel for another decent meal before retiring for the usual early night.  Lifers this day 2, total to date 7.

DAY 4 (16th March)

Up as usual today at first light though there was to be no pre-breakfast walk with Nandana, just a relaxing hour or so on the balcony waiting to see what would turn up. It promised to be once again a very hot and sunny day as the sun rose.  First bird of the day was a raptor soaring far over the distant hill tops, a bird I tentatively identified as probably an Oriental Honey Buzzard.  Not long after, I spotted a “white blob” perched horizontally on an isolated fir tree by the wireless mast close to where the raptor was seen, interesting enough for me to set up my scope.  Almost immediately it took flight pursued by 6 Layard`s Parakeets, approaching our hotel where it flew directly over the balcony.  It was a superb adult White-bellied Sea Eagle which proceeded to circle overhead for a minute or so.  The sparsely folliated tree opposite the balcony proved quite productive with Brown-headed Barbets, Lesser Hill Mynas, Pale-billed Flowerpeckers, Loten`s Sunbird, Cinereous Tit and a pair of Crimson-fronted Barbets carrying nesting material.  The hotel had a warning not to leave any item on the balcony and to keep the sliding doors closed at all times as each morning in particular, troops of Toque Macaques move in from the forest to raid the hotel bedrooms. None to trouble us today however .

After another substantial buffet style breakfast I left Anne at the table whilst I went back to the hotel room to fetch my camera to take a couple of photos of the view from the terrace.  As I entered our room I sensed that something was not right.  Where had my camera, binoculars and our cases gone?  Had the macaques somehow got into the room?  What was that red case doing over there and those other cases?  Then it dawned on me that this was not our room!  I was actually on the floor below in room 707 instead of room 807!  The worrying thing was that our room key opened the door of this other room.  Not only the monkeys then to worry about stealing our things!  The morning was spent at Peradeniya Botanical Gardens just a short distance from Kandy, described as the finest gardens in Sri Lanka with its stately Royal Palm Avenue leading down to the Great Circle.  A lake with small islets of plants is in the shape of the island of Sri Lanka, built to scale.  There are formal areas and more wild areas with a huge colony of Fruit Bats hanging from the canopy, fanning themselves in the intense heat.  One took flight and did a brief circuit above the trees.  Most memorable to me the procession of elegant women each with an umbrella to shade them from the sun, like a snake winding its way across the manicured lawn in the distance capturing the essence of the Indian sub-continent, echoes of the colonial past.  These gardens proved to be a truly enjoyable and relaxing experience and undoubtedly one of the highlights of this highlight full holiday.  And of course there were birds too.  Orange Minivets, a pair, brightly coloured gems in the dazzling sunlight and a single Large-billed Leaf Warbler showing well on a tree branch.

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Common Hawk Cuckoo

Nandana true to form picked up the call of a Common Hawk Cuckoo which came to us responding when he played its recorded call.  We had an excellent close view of this bird, lifer number 8 for the holiday.  Other birds seen in the gardens included Asian Koel, Alexandrine Parakeets, Brahminy Kite, Tickell`s Blue Flycatcher and Oriental White-eye. 

On our return from the gardens Nandana dropped us off beside the lake in Kandy and we gave him the afternoon off.  From here we had a very pleasant walk on our own around the edge of the lake and the perimeter of the Temple of the Tooth then into the edge of the city where we bought a pizza for our lunch which we ate whilst sitting down by the edge of the water just watching the world go by.  It was wonderfully hot and sunny.  The remainder of the afternoon we spent relaxing on our hotel balcony until 5-30pm when Nandana and I went for an evening walk up the narrow climbing road past the hotel we stayed at last holiday and beyond where the troop of macaques were returning after a day spent creating havoc around the hotels below.  It was just possible that we might see the Brown Fish Owl flying up the valley to its night time roost but again we were unsuccessful.  I did however manage my first if distant view of perched Layard`s Parakeets.  A flock of five Alexandrine Parakeets flew noisily overhead and we managed to see a number of Yellow-fronted Barbets at least three Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrikes, Lesser Hill Mynas and two Oriental White-eyes.  Then as dusk fell it was back to the hotel for another good dinner after a very enjoyable day with just one new lifer to add to the growing list, total to date 8.

DAY 5 (17th March)

At first light as usual I was up and out onto the balcony before we went down for breakfast watching Layard`s Parakeets and a juvenile Shikra in flight, Brown-headed Barbets, Pale-billed Flowerpeckers and Lesser Hill Mynas in the tree infront of our balcony along once again with the pair of Crimson-fronted Barbets. I mentioned earlier the warning displayed in our room as regards the macaques.  Sure enough, like a scene from the film King Kong in the half light, I was soon aware of rustling noises the branches and folliage of the trees on the steep heavily wooded hillside immediately to the right, moving and being shaken violently.  Shadowy silhouettes could be seen swinging from branch to branch as the macaques moved in.  Then running along the balcony balustrade and shimmying acrobatically up the rainwater pipes to the balconies above, monkeys infront of me, monkeys behind me.  I could hear tin cans being thrown around down below in the gardens.  So close they came to me as they landed on our balcony, too close infact, that I came inside and closed the door.  One was on the chair with its face pressed against the glass looking in.  I remembered dropping a tooth pick on the balcony which was picked up by one enterprising individual who, when he realised he couldn`t eat it actually started to use it to pick his teeth before discarding it when he`d done!  How clever is that?

One place we did not visit on the previous holiday to Sri Lanka was Kithulgala, famous as the place where much of the film “Bridge on the River Kwai” was shot in 1957.  It is also more or less on a par with the rain forest at Sinharaja for seeing many of the endemic birds of the island, in particular some of the more tricky ones such as Green-billed Coucal and Serendib Scops Owl, two birds at the top of my “most wanted” list.  So after another good buffet breakfast at around 9-0am this very hot and sunny day we left our hotel in Kandy and headed west for Kithulgala.  The drive through spectacular upland scenery produced a number of raptors – Oriental Honey Buzzard perched in a roadside tree, likewise a Crested Serpent Eagle and a Black Eagle soaring.  The first Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters of this holiday were noted on overhead wires and a female Orange Minivet was glimpsed in flight. 

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Legge`s Hawk-eagle

As we neared our destination passing through a small village a raptor was seen landing in a tree just off the road, big plain peachy buff below including the feathered thighs and viewed from the rear showing in flight a pronounced bulge to the secondaries and well spread fingers.  Almost immediately as we left the village two birds were soaring together which we stopped to view, identified by Nandana as juvenile Legge`s Hawk-Eagles as was I believe, the bird landing in the tree.  This was lifer number 9 and a promising start to the day.  Soon after, around 11-30am we arrived at our hotel the “Kithulgala Rest House” where it was now incredibly hot and humid.  Though perhaps in need of a lick of paint it promised to be another good hotel in the most fantastic setting, above and overlooking the wide river “Kelani Ganga” and the rain forest and mountains beyond.  Nandana settled down to watch the Cricket World Cup on the TV, Sri Lanka playing New Zealand, England long since eliminated. The view from the dining room with the large windows fully opened was spectacular.  It was easy to imagine why they chose this area to shoot the film.  The bedrooms were on two levels built into the slope of the hillside the lower ones with the best views of the river but on the minus side no air conditioning which in the intense humid heat must have been near unbearable.  Over them was a deep grassed terrace overlooked by our room fortunately with air conditioning, set further back from the river.

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Crested Goshawk

As we settled into our room, Anne unpacking, I strolled out onto the terrace to take in the wonderful scene when almost immediately I caught sight of a large accipiter perched low down in a row of small trees just behind the flat roofed toilet block.  Clearly larger than a Shikra or a Besra with long tail it was a Crested Goshawk, a scarce bird usually seen in flight over the rain forest canopy but also in Sri Lanka in gardens.  Its underparts were a curious mix of rufous streaks to the upper breast changing to rufous barring to the lower breast, belly and feathered thighs.  After a couple of minutes it was harried into flight, low and away.  Lifer number 10 for the holiday.  After a snack of biscuits and a coffee to tide us over we strolled out of the hotel grounds and along the main road into the village, crossing the river, past the colourful shops and shanties as far as the Bhuddist Stupa and back before heading off this time with Nandana around 3-0pm for a taste of the jungle.  Passing through a scattered collection of simple houses, shacks really, set within the forest occupied as usual by Nandana`s friends to view birds within their gardens.  On through an eco lodge little better it seemed than the infamous Martin`s Lodge at Sinharaja where we stayed on the previous holiday and down to the river, ever mindful of the possible presence of the dreaded leeches.  As Nandana went off to search out a bird, in a garden area in a forest clearing I noticed what appeared at first sight to be a dove, quite slim and medium sized, more than likely I thought,a Spotted Dove perched on top of a spindly bare tree stump.  I was looking directly into the light, unable to make out the plumage, the bird with its longish square ended tail depressed and its long pointed wings held drooping down below.  The posture of the bird perched at an acute angle, the wing tips ended close to the tip of the tail. Only when it adopted a hunch-backed pose did the penny drop and I realised that it was actually a cuckoo, now showing its small thin hook tipped bill.  Almost immediately it flew off. 

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Indian Cuckoo

I can`t be certain but Nandana`s opinion on my description, was that it was more than likely an Indian Cuckoo which would be lifer number 11.  Anne remained in Nandana`s car whilst we went along a narrow stony track to a house occupied by another of his friends and on through their garden to an area apparently good for Green-billed Coucal  where we stood for some time opposite a tree holding one of the birds old nests.  As we stood quietly, again constantly checking my legs for leeches we were unlucky with no sign of the coucal nor of Chestnut-backed Owlet at this usually reliable site for this endemic.  We heard Sri Lanka Junglefowl and had a good if distant view of a Lesser Yellownape, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot and then a Golden-fronted Leafbird at the top of a tall palm tree.  As dusk approached black clouds were in the distance and we just made it back to the car by the time the heavens opened and with that we headed back to the hotel. Other notable birds seen on this very enjoyable walk included Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Orange Minivet, Black (Square-tailed) Bulbul, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Orange-billed Babbler (7+ of this endemic). We were back around 6-0pm, the rain having stopped ending the day with a decent buffet dinner accompanied by the sound of the rushing water of the river below followed by the usual early night.  Lifers this day 3, total to date 11.

DAY 6 (18th March)

As usual I was up at first light leaving Anne in bed on what promised to be another hot and beautiful day and out with Nandana for a pre-breakfast walk at 6-0am.  We returned to the area we tried the previous evening for the coucal and owlet though this time standing and watching on the roadside, looking across the valley towards the tall palms and the distant hills beyond.  Within a few minutes as the sun was just appearing a huge brown bird landed towards the top of a tall palm and proceeded to eat a large fish in its talons.  It was a superb Brown Fish Owl, lifer number 12 and what a way to start the day, virtually the first bird seen!  An impressive if typically untidy looking bird with long droopy ear tufts it remained perched for several minutes giving unbeatable views before flying off and out of sight behind the tall trees.

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Brown Fish Owl

Green-billed Coucal was then the target and it took Nandana quite some time and patient searching to eventually find not one but two birds, for ever on the move in the dense folliage offering tantalising fragmentary glimpses before the whole bird was finally seen in particular the diagnostic pale green bill.  A little smaller and darker overall than the common Southern Coucal.  A brilliant start to the day, the second lifer before breakfast and the second of the 4½ endemics needed to complete the set ticked off, the Fish Owl being an absolute bonus and for me totally unexpected away from its roost. 

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Green-billed Coucal

Nandana in his search for a photographable view of the coucal went into a field of tall grass emerging with a tennis ball which he put into his pocket to hand to the young son of the family whose garden we had been in earlier, a simple gift gratefully received and a very considerate gesture I thought, on the part of our guide.  Lesser Yellownape, Asian Paradise Flycatcher (rufous phase), Black (Square-tailed) Bulbul, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Emerald Dove, Openbill Stork, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Alexandrine Parakeet, Green Imperial Pigeon and White-rumped Munia were all seen before we returned to the hotel for breakfast at 8-0am.

For me breakfast was idyllic, in the dining room seated at the open window the spectacular view set out before us, the river below glistening in the dazzling sunlight.  For once unfortunately I did not have my binoculars with me as a large raptor flew low over the far side of the river, pursued by small birds before landing in a tree.  I was pretty certain it was another juvenile Legge`s Hawk-Eagle again plain peachy buff below with two tone upperwings mid brown and darker brown to the flight feathers.  What was unmistakably a Crested Serpent Eagle landed in another tree close by soon after as we ate our buffet breakfast whilst a constant stream of parakeets were flying from their overnight roosts.  Anne was as usual perfectly happy to remain at the hotel doing her thing as Nandana and I set off on a walk from 9-30am in the rain forest reserve over the far side of the river.  The guide books show a hollowed out log boat in which the passengers precariously stand as the only way to cross the river, Anne`s reaction not surprisingly being “no way”!  That was clearly in the past as today it is a modern if quite crude twin hulled fibreglass raft with handrails sculled across by the ferryman.  From the reserve entrance the narrow rocky track through the forest rises quite steeply, winding past scattered shacks built between the trees, an exhausting climb in the by now intensely humid heat.  Nandana drew my attention to printed posters pasted to trees on the route, death notices announcing to all the death of the person in the photograph with his name and dates of birth and death.  Further along the track we passed under an archway made of white silk attached to the adjacent trees with writing apparently informing all that this person had died, his home being within the area defined by this temporary arch.  These would remain in place until after the funeral.  We came across these Bhuddist death notices a number of times throughout the holiday.

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Serendib Scops Owl

Someway along the track Nandana suggested I sit down on a large raised timber platform up some steps and wait whilst he went on ahead on what I presumed was “a mission” the aim of which as usual he was not saying.  I was quite relieved to rest a while in the unrelenting heat and humidity.  It was a quite beautiful and intensely peaceful place to relax whilst a small flock of Blue-tailed Bee-eaters hawked over the distant tree tops with the odd Indian Swiftlet.  I counted what must have been at least six beautiful Orange Minivets, both males and females in the canopy of a tall tree.  After maybe twenty minutes or so Nandana returned.  “What is the bird you most want to see?” he asked.  Thinking for a moment, I answered Serendib Scops Owl.  After frowning (Nandana does like his little games), he beckoned me to follow him and off we trecked into the tangled bushes, ever wary as usual of the leeches, through thorny thickets, over boggy ground beside a stream, at times almost on hands and knees, after several minutes, arriving at a spot where he pointed low down about seven or eight feet infront of us.  As usual it took me some time to focus on the tiny tawny buff owl sitting quietly in the fork of a bush between leaves the exact same colour and size of the bird so well camouflaged it was almost impossible to make out.  How on earth he found the bird then to leave it, returning the considerable distance with me to find it once more I find quite amazing.  But there it was the main prize, lifer number 14, the third of the 4½ target endemics and I suppose the best of them all.  In my effort to gain a better view encouraged by Nandana I stumbled planting my leg firmly into the water.  The owl under the belt we headed deeper into the jungle, Nandana suggesting a Sri Lanka Bay Owl was not out of the question but we were out of luck, just glimpsing two Malabar Trogans landing in a tree.  And with that it was back the long treck to the ferry and across the river to the hotel where this day we had a buffet lunch in the hotel dining room.  On my return to our room a rather fat obviously well fed leech dropped out of my clothes onto the ground outside having feasted under my shirt around my waist.  Presumably I picked it up when I stumbled into the water at the Scops Owl roost site. The time between lunch and the customary evening walk was spent relaxing, enjoying the sunshine in the grounds of the hotel.  The locals were having fun in and around the river and a group of youths were playing the bongos and singing by the ferry.  Talking to them, high fives and hand shakes all round I was invited to sing an English song which of course I politely declined.  As for the birds this afternoon there were small noisy groups of Black Bulbuls in the trees, Alexandrine Parakeets in flight, Brahminy Kite and Shikra and a soaring White-bellied Sea Eagle over the river and a female Loten`s Sunbird put on a show at close range prening in the small tree directly infront of our room.

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Banded Bay Cuckoo

Anne joined us this evening on a walk crossing the river via the wobbly rope and planked rickety bridge towards the reserve.  The first bird seen was another lifer, Banded Bay Cuckoo on a horizontal branch of a small tree in the near distance with its whitish head and underparts finely barred all over on closer inspection.  Into the garden of another of Nandana`s lady friends where we waited and watched intently for some time hearing but unfortunately failing to see a Slaty-legged Crake in the dense damp undergrowth.  A couple of Emerald Doves and a single Black-capped Bulbul were seen and a small typically hyper active flock of Dark-fronted Babblers showed well at close range at ground level beside the track.  We were back at the hotel as dusk fell at around 6-30pm finishing the day with another decent buffet dinner and another early night.  Four new lifers this day, 15 in total to date and just 1½ of the outstanding endemics still to see.

DAY 7 (19th March)

Today we were to leave Kithulgala for Nuwara Eliya but there was still time for a  pre-breakfast walk from 6-0am to 7-30am.  I think it was a matter of pride for Nandana who was determined to find for me a Chestnut-backed Owlet.  I was not over bothered, much as I would like to see one, having had a good view of one at Sinharaja on the last holiday.  We heard one alright on a number of occasions responding to Nandana`s recorded call but it was usually some distance away and refused to show itself.  We did see some decent birds though including Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Indian Pitta, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Black Bulbul.  I had a close up view of two Sri Lanka Swallows perched on overhead wires, a bird I had only previously seen in flight.  Outside the hotel room on our return in the small tree directly infront, a Sri Lanka Green Pigeon was flying to and from the tree bringing nesting material and a Lesser Flameback was in another tree close by.  After a decent breakfast, gloriously hot and sunny, a cloudless blue sky as usual, we left for Nuwara Eliya around 9-30am.  It was another scenically spectacular drive up into the refreshingly cooler highlands swopping the almost unbearably hot and humid rain forests for endless tea plantations laid out in formal rows up the steep terraced out hillsides, the Tamil women busily plucking the tips of the plants all strictly to the exact same level.  We stopped briefly to take a photo of the impressive Devon Falls in the distance, the Toque Macaques on the safety barrier at the lay-by waiting for hand outs.  On the edge of Nuwara Eliya we pulled into a roadside restaurant by the side of the big lake and had a very welcome lunch of beef burger and chips as a female Pied Bushchat landed to perch on a fence post and an adult White-bellied Sea Eagle soared low overhead.  We finally arrived at the Grand Hotel at  2-0pm where it was refreshingly cool in the sun under clear blue skies in comparison to the over powering heat of Kithulgala.  Nuwara Eliya is a very attractive place, a remnant of the British colonial days the hotel in a mock Tudor half-timbered style set alongside the lush greens of the golf course, directly overlooked from our bedroom window.  There had been a refurb since our last stay in 2013, the spacious rooms with their high ceilings recently decorated.  After settling in we took a stroll around the gardens with their lush green lawns, flower beds, central pool and fountain and bizarre topiary, the box trees clipped into the shape of dinosaurs.  An Indian Pitta, usually a shy winter visitor skulking in the shadows, unbelievably was in the open hopping about in the flower beds and on the lawn approachable down to six feet or less, totally un-phased by our presence.

A highlight of a stay at Nuwara Eliya is always a visit to the wonderful Victoria Park just a short walk from the hotel and this we did, Anne and I led by Nandana at

3-40pm.  Highlights in the park were Yellow-eared Bulbul, Blyth`s Reed Warbler (3), Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler (2), Sri Lanka White-eye (2), Forest Wagtail and best of all first a part view of a male (after much patient waiting) and then a full view on the edge of a stream of a female Pied Thrush, one of the park`s specialities, wintering from its home in the foothills of the Himalayas.  In truth it was not the best time to visit the park being very busy with parties of school children and even something of a concert in the centre with amplified announcements and music.  An attempt to tease out a calling Slaty-legged Crake in the garden of a premises belonging to another of Nandana`s friends just opposite the park proved unsuccessful again.  Anne returned to the hotel and Nandana and I drove up to a site above and behind the lake, an area of pine woods.  Nandana hoped that we might see a Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush here at one of the reliable sites.  We waited patiently and watched until darkness fell but all we had was a response eventually from the bird to Nandana`s recorded call, curiously high up above us seemingly deep within the pine forest in the last of the light.  We did see however a Large-billed Leaf Warbler and a new lifer for me, Black-throated Munia, a pair infact at close range in the fading light, flying into and out of their nest behind the bark of a tall roadside pine tree.  We returned to the hotel at 6-0pm for, as expected a really good buffet dinner.  Just one new lifer this day, total to date 16.

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Black-throated Munia

DAY 8 (20th March)

With 1½ endemics still to be seen the target now was the Whistling Thrush.  The previous evening came close with a bird being heard.  On the last holiday four unsuccessful attempts were made though none of them at the most reliable site,  Horton Plains Reserve.  This is perhaps the most illusive of Sri Lanka`s endemics, an ultra shy and retiring bird that traditionally shows for just a few minutes at first light and a few minutes at dusk after which it melts away into cover.  It can occasionally be seen during the day but such sightings are rather rare.  There was therefore no alternative but to be up this morning at the ridiculously early time of 4-15am to be out with a packed breakfast at 4-45am to be there hopefully just as the first light of the day is breaking.  I assured Anne that she would be able to get some sleep on the journey and whilst Nandana and I are searching for the bird.  We drove in total darkness under a crystal clear star filled sky then a stunning sunrise on this day when there was to be a full eclipse of the sun viewed from the Orkneys.  It took us just an hour to reach the entrance to the reserve in the first shafts of daylight where first to arrive we waited patiently for it to open at 6-0am.  Not far into the reserve is the traditional thrush site where we slowly walked along over a hundred yards or so stopping at likely clumps of bushes, small clearings listening for the bird`s quiet whistled calls.  By now other birders had joined us including Charlie and Joy, a couple of GP`s from Ripon on a tour with Nandana`s colleague Senerath from Walk with Jith.  No Whistling Thrush but one small clearing at the roadside was alive with birds – Yellow-eared Bulbul, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler (5 or 6), Dark-fronted Babbler, Dull Blue Flycatcher (3 or 4), Sri Lanka White-eye, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch (2 or 3), Cinereous Tit (3 or 4) and best of all Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher (2 or 3), a new lifer. 

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Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher

We stopped at a very attractive small pool at the roadside and waited patiently now in full daylight, the heat building up and the sun shining brightly.  Were we too late, had we missed our opportunity today?  We had been joined as we entered the reserve by Nandana`s friend, a really nice chap we were to discover during the course of the day, a former policeman who had taken the day off from his job as a security officer at a bank in Colombo.  He was a keen photographer anxious to take some good shots of the birds in the reserve.  Standing next to me he noticed some movement low down in the dense shade of a bush at the water`s edge and said he thought he had a Blackbird when out popped our quarry, a superb male Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush

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Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush

Not the dull rather dowdy black bird depicted in the field guides but glossy Royal blue to the body caught in the sunlight and jet black to the head and upper breast.  There it stood under the bush at the edge of the water posing in the sunlight for several minutes and then as a bonus it was suddenly joined by its mate who posed likewise alongside him.  She was rather dull brown but with a blue flash to the shoulder.  The patient waiting had paid off and we moved on contented, Nandana and his friend with some great photos.  Around this pool while we waited there were plenty of birds – Green Warbler, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Cinereous Tit, Dull Blue Flycatcher, Sri Lanka White-eye and a Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon gave a rare close view flying low in the open directly infront of us.

Our main quarry safely “under the belt” we drove on to an attractive heath like area where we stopped to eat our packed breakfasts sufficient to share with Nandana and his friend, on top of the world with a spectacular scene set out infront of us under a cloudless blue sky towards the distant mountains, a herd of big Samba Deer in the near distance.  We could easily have been at home in Derbyshire, complete with flowering gorse bushes apart from the fact that this was over 7,000 feet up.  This is the life, I remember thinking as I stood to survey the scene.

Last time we visited the reserve we decided against our guide Upali`s advice, to do the whole walk to Worlds End and back, an experience I would not have missed but the entire return journey was undertaken in torrential rain which we did not wish to repeat this time.  So we set out in the dazzling sunshine and more comfortable temperate heat of the uplands along the edge of the cloud forest in this World Heritage Site on the shorter route to Little Worlds End and back.  It was undoubtedly for me one of the holiday`s highlights, a fairly gentle treck on which we saw Black-throated Munias (2 or 3 individuals and a small flock in flight), Pied Bushchat, Sri Lanka White-eye, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Paddyfield Pipit, Hill Swallow, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Dull Blue Flycatcher.  Two or three Black Eagles and a couple of Brahminy Kites were added to the list.  We also had excellent views of a troop of Bear Monkeys, a race of the endemic Purple-faced Leaf Monkey with their white backs and the local race of the Palm Squirrel known as the Dusky Squirrel, another endemic mammal.  We had Black-naped Hare, Ruddy Mongoose and Black-lipped Lizard which posed for photos.  There were by now many people walking the route, parties of school children and a dozen or so orange clad Bhuddist monks, a splash of vivid colour amongst the greens and brown of the vegetation.  As we neared the end of our treck a White-shouldered Kite hovered low overhead before alighting in the top of a bare tree.  Our last port of call before leaving the reserve was the toilets, not for the obvious reason but for a perfect view from there via the window over the urinals of an Indian Blackbird, a reliable site for this bird.  Once considered no more than a sub-species of the European Blackbird now elevated to full species status, quite different from ours to my eye, smaller with bright orange bill, legs and orbital ring and overall dark matt blue in the strong sunlight, very distinctive.  Finally as we left I had a close view of a male Sri Lanka Junglefowl beside Nandana`s parked car.  A perfect morning.

Back to the hotel for a relaxing early afternoon spent in the hotel gardens before at Anne`s request a trip the short distance into the town of Nuwara Eliya to see the shops heaving with life, selling spices, brightly coloured saris and all sorts of exotic things.  As we headed for the shops in the car I sensed a mood in Nandana as one seasoned “twitcher” does in another.  Nandana`s mind was distracted and it was clearly a bird!  Ever the professional he was doing his job but it was clear to me there was a bird about that he wanted to see.  It was apparently an Eyebrowed Thrush, a rather rare visitor to Sri Lanka and a mega as indeed it is back home in the UK.  Nandana`s friend who had accompanied us around Horton Plains had found it in Victoria Park passing the info on to him by phone.  Obviously as another lifer for me, I wanted to see it too so once we had returned from the shops he and I headed off to the park, Anne happy to return to the hotel.  It took several minutes of anxious waiting amongst a small group of birders who had now gathered before the bird finally showed itself offering part views, glimpsed half hidden in the tree canopy. 

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Eyebrowed Thrush

A female or first winter bird colours much more subdued than a male, grey brown above with ill defined pale wing bar, peachy buff wash to flanks shading to white belly and undertail and grading to greyish to the upper breast then white throat.  A very prominent long white supercillium gives the bird its name bordered by a black eye stripe, black sub-moustachial stripe, yellowish/flesh coloured legs, dark bill with orange to lower mandible.  A bird often compared to a pale Redwing for its pronounced facial markings, orange flanks and similar size and shape.  As well as this bird we also had Pied thrush (2 males, 1 female) this time giving superb views and two juvenile Indian Silverbills were in the flower beds feeding. After a very satisfying session it was back to the hotel for another substantial buffet dinner and the usual early night.  Three new lifers this day, total to date 19.

DAY 9 (21st March)

I hadn`t arranged to meet Nandana this morning for one of our pre-beakfast walks as we were due to move on today to our next stop.  Nevertheless I couldn`t miss the opportunity to see what was in the wonderful Victoria Park so I decided to get up as usual at first light and to walk the perimeter of the park outside the boundary fence.  Peering through the wire I managed a view of an Indian Pitta when who should I meet halfway round but first Nandana followed by his friend who was on his belly shuffling out from under the wire fence.  They had just been watching the Eyebrowed Thrush from within the park and had come out for a better view which we all now had at that instant and a really good view it was, fully in the open on a branch mid level in a tall tree.  A perfect start to the day!  After a good beakfast it was on to our next stop on the south coast at Tissamaharama, leaving at 9-15am.  As usual on this holiday it promised to be another very hot sunny day.  Not long after we started our journey Nandana turned off the main road a short distance along an attractive narrow side road  in woodland turning into a rather plush looking hotel at a place called Surrey Plantation, a venue for wedding receptions where he was greeted by his friend the owner and a couple of the staff.  Leaving Anne in the car off we went along a narrow stoney track weaving our way through the dense thorny vegetation, rising steeply up the hill side then down into a hollow to a small clearing in the woodland.  On the way we passed a tiny cup nest before seeing the owner a Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher perched close by.  We saw and heard Sri Lanka Junglefowl and had a decent close if partial view (minus head obscured by a branch) of a Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon before arriving at a spot where Nandana pointed into the near distance to a roosting Brown Wood Owl, lifer number 20, perched low in a tree. 

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Brown Wood Owl

I had a near perfect view of this very impressive bird with its distinctive orange facial discs though I had to virtually kneel down amongst the thorny vegetation to view it.  Back on the road the journey again was through some spectacular scenery passing impressive waterfalls around the popular tourist town of Ella before descending to the comparatively dull and monotonous flat plain of the south with its endless paddy fields.  Birds seen en-route before we arrived at our destination at around 3-0pm where it was very hot and sunny, included – Oriental Honey Buzzard (2 together in flight) and Chestnut-headed Bee-eater(2).

The Hibiscus Hotel at Tissamaharama we loved last time we stayed there, chalet style rooms clustered around the central swimming pool, the dining room in the main building above the reception with lovely views all round.  Outside the room like last time was a small umberella shaped tree in which were tiny Pale-billed Flowerpeckers comically holding in their little bills fruit as big as their head.  Always in the tree was at least one Green Imperial Pigeon usually several.  Peafowl could be heard calling in the distance and in the trees and overhead the common birds seen included – Rose-ringed Parakeets, Asian Koel, Thick-billed Flowerpeckers, Indian Pond Heron (around the pool), Red-wattled Lapwing, White-breasted Kingfisher, Common Tailorbird and of course the ubiquitous Red-vented Bulbul.  After settling in Nandana and I around 4-30pm drove the short distance to the wonderful Debarawewa Tank where we saw amongst the usual common birds – Painted Stork, Spot-billed Pelican (1), Grey-headed Fish Eagle (juvenile), Watercock (juvenile), Alexandrine Parakeet, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Lesser Flameback.  We moved on along the track to the garden which I visited the previous holiday with our guide Upali failing to see then the speciality White-naped Woodpecker, this being the most reliable site for this rather rare bird.  The owner was keen to show Nandana the signs he had recently had printed declaring “Welcome to Bird Paradise” with a picture of a Lesser Flameback, a bird we immediately saw.  Again after much patient waiting and scanning, Nandana playing its recorded call, no luck, once again drawing a blank.  At this we turned our attention to the tall palm trees in the open area the opposite side of the track, an area worryingly being cleared for crop planting.  But we were lucky as there perched high up in a tree was a roosting Jungle Owlet giving excellent views via Nandana`s scope. 

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Jungle Owlet

Another lifer, number 21 and the second of the day.  Every day of this holiday thus far I had managed to see at least one new lifer.  Now at sunset, the light fading, the huge Fruit Bats beginning to leave their roost, we returned to the hotel for dinner where the food had improved a little from the last time.  Last visit I had heard the calls of an Indian Nightjar from outside our chalet but not this evening as we turned in for our customary early night.

DAY 10 (22nd March)

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Yellow-crowned Woodpecker

Realising it was Sunday today, I thought being the week-end, it would be very busy at Yala and suggested to Nandana that it might be worth considering switching our two safaris, Bundala today and Yala tomorrow.  No problem, so it was up at 5-0am for an early start and off with a packed breakfast in our safari jeep to the wonderful Ramsar wetland site of Bundala.  Again it promised to be a very hot and sunny day.  En-route we passed an Indian Roller perched on a fence post at the roadside. The last time we visited Bundala on the previous holiday we spent little time in the extremely attractive marshy area between the turn off from the main road and the reserve entrance.  This time was different lingering here for some time seeing far more birds.  One of the first birds to be seen was a new lifer, a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker spotted in the distance in flight by Nandana, a very brief and unsatisfactory view.  A small flock of feeding Glossy Ibis was a new bird for my Sri Lanka list.  Both Yellow Bittern and Black Bittern (in flight) were seen here and then at least two juvenile Watercocks.

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Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark

A dove caused some brief excitement but it was no more than a particularly well marked Spotted Dove. Moving slowly through the reserve lifers seemed to be coming quite thick and fast, first the diminutive Ashy-headed Sparrow Lark, a large flock feeding unobtrusively on the sandy ground, very easily overlooked, the male grey with white cheeks, long black eyestripe, black throat, neck stripe, breast and belly, the female in contrast nondescript plain brown.

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 Marshall`s Iora

Next Jacobin Cuckoo first one in low flight landing in a tree showing its short crest, then a second bird in flight.  We stopped to view an adult Changeable Hawk-Eagle perched close to the side of the track in a small tree when Nandana spotted two male Marshall`s Ioras which proceeded to mob the raptor. 

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Jacobin Cuckoo

Other good birds included – Eurasian Spoonbill, White-bellied Sea Eagle (adult), Grey-headed Fish Eagle (juvenile in flight), Eurasian Thick-knee (a rare bird in Sri Lanka, larger and plainer on the wing than Indian Thick-knee), Great Thick-knee (a large flock in flight), Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Pacific Golden Plover, Mongolian Plover, Marsh Sandpiper, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Crested Treeswift (male and female perched), Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Lesser Flameback, Brown Shrike, Common Iora, Paddyfield Pipit, Jerdon`s Bushlark, Oriental Skylark, Indian Reed Warbler (a potential split from Clamorous Reed Warbler), Tawny-bellied Babbler.  A male Peafowl was displaying with its long tail fully fanned. There were Estuarine (Salt Water) Crocodiles in the marsh one really big brute and a Golden Jackal strolled across the track behind our jeep.  A Pin-tailed Snipe showed well at the same place in a boggy area, as the one we saw on the previous holiday.  I had a really close view of an adult Kentish Plover of the nominate race Alexandrinus but there were also birds of the local Seebohm race for comparison.

We moved on slowly to the wonderful salt pans alive with hundreds of waders, mainly Little Stints, Redshank, Curlew Sandpipers (in juvenile plumage), large numbers of Pacific Golden Plover and Mongolian Plover with a few Grey Plover, Wood Sandpipers, Turnstones, Black-tailed Godwits, Common and Green Sandpipers and single Curlew, Marsh Sandpiper and best of the waders a Red-necked Phalarope.  It was a good place to stop for breakfast during which undoubtedly the best bird of the day was spotted in the distance towards the sea and sand dunes.  It was a superb huge black and white Black-necked Stork, walking sedately picking for food in the shallows, a rare visitor to Sri Lanka and a magnificent bird with its huge black bill and incredibly long bright pink/red legs.  Needless to say another lifer and high on my most wanted list.  All at once there were 100 or more Spot-billed Pelicans flying in together with cormorants dropping to the water in a tight mass to engage in a feeding frenzy presumable over a large shoal of fish. 

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Black-necked Stork

On the raised shingle strips separating the expansive salt pans and in flight there were flocks of terns, Caspian Tern (15+), Whiskered Tern, White-winged Black Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Swift Tern and Little Tern whilst just one single gull was noted – an immature Brown-headed Gull in flight.  I do some daft things at times and this holiday was no exception.  I had left the jeep with Anne, Nandana and our driver eating their lunch and walked a hundred yards or so along the raised banking to view a flock of terns, mainly Little Terns to see if there were any Saunders`s Terns amongst them.  I watched two promising candidates for some time via my binoculars, convinced that the white patch to the forehead was smaller, squarer (with rounded corners), crucially lacking the short white supercillium extension giving the patch of the almost identical Little Terns its more triangular shape.  Were the legs darker, dirtier coloured, less bright orange?   I think so but I could not be sure.  On the ground it was not possible to see if they had a grey or white rump nor if they had the broader black leading edge to the primaries.  For some unknown reason I did not take the minimal effort required to walk back the 100 yards or so to the jeep to get my scope nor to fetch Nandana for a second opinion to clear up any doubt for a bird high on my wanted list even though I actually considered the option.  How stupid is that!  I later discovered not surprisingly that they do indeed breed here at Bundala.

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Saunders`s Tern

After our breakfast we headed slowly back towards the reserve entrance stopping abruptly when Nandana spotted another new lifer for me, a Lesser Adjutant which was feeding in the long marsh grass very close at the side of the track.  An ugly big bird with a head like a balding angry old man but a rare breeding bird in Sri Lanka giving an unbeatable prolonged view. 

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Lesser Adjutant

It had been a superb morning and undoubtedly one of the highlights of this highlight full holiday.  Could it possibly get any better?  The afternoon was spent relaxing around the swimming pool and for me a stroll around the hotel grounds seeing what turned up.  I was attracted by the unmistakable call of an Asian Koel in the far corner of the gardens beyond the pond beside which I was standing when I heard an almighty splash directly behind me.  I could see nothing as there was no area of open water the whole pond being covered in floating water hyacinth.  What could it have been?  It was certainly big whatever it was.  Walking back to our chalet I ruled out everything except for the ridiculous possibility of a crocodile!  When I came out of our chalet a short while later the old gardener came up to me with a grin on his face and gesticulating making signs with his hands like open jaws?  He beckoned me to follow him and stopping well short of the pond with a wide grin he simply said crocodile!

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Streaked Weaver

I thought no more of it as I went out for an evening walk with Nandana at 4-30pm, back to Debarawewa Tank but first a stop en-route where Nadana found me a colony of Streaked Weavers nesting in the distant reed bed.  This was another bird on my wanted list to rectify a very doubtful “stringy” view on the last holiday.  It was the most beautiful late afternoon/early evening as ever hot and sunny and we soon had a Yellow Bittern followed by a Black Bittern in flight, one or two Spot-billed Pelicans, Watercock (this time my first adult male), Crested Treeswift, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, White-browed Fantail, Tawny-bellied Babbler (2).

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Cinnamon Bittern

A long patient surveillance of the beds of water hyacinth on the tank and the extensive reed beds eventually produced my next lifer Cinnamon Bittern.  I spotted a bird flying low into the reed bed in the distance, unmistakable completely uniform cinnamon/rusty brown above, unlike any other bird.  Soon after Nandana spotted another, or more likely the same bird that had emerged from cover in the same reed bed and it gave excellent views via his scope.  The most obvious feature unbelievably not mentioned nor shown on any illustrations in the field guides is the whitish belly bisected by a long dark brown stripe starting at the base of the bill continuing to the undertail.  At this time a tiny puppy decided to follow us wherever we went as Nandana stopped to talk to two young lads about 12 years old on bikes clutching their bird field guide.  Nandana expressed his concern to me that there were only 25 registered birding guides on the island with no new young guides coming through for the next generation.  It was encouraging however to meet these two young

enterprising, keen birders who were riding along and pointing out the birds identifying them to the tourists whilst making a little money for themselves.

Once again we attempted to see the White-naped Woodpecker in the garden of “Birding Paradise”  in the last of the fading light and once again we were unsuccessful.  On our return to the hotel Anne showed me the picture she had taken of the “beast from the black lagoon”.  The huge male Mugger Crocodile in excess of 2 metres, pointed out to her by the gardener.  By all accounts he (the croc not the gardener) has been living in the pond since being a small juvenile and is now with a smaller female!  The hotel management think it quite humerous and it seems they haven`t lost a customer ………yet!   Dinner was this time a set meal and as we took our seats at the table our waitress pointed to a bright green Praying Mantis no bigger than an inch an a half  long that had landed on our table number plate, an insect I had always wanted to see but had not managed previously.  The end of a memorable day the best of the holiday for lifers with 8, a total of 29 to date.

DAY 11 (23rd March)

Up especially early this morning for the full day Yala safari, off with our packed breakfast and lunch in our jeep at 5-30am.  Today the big mammals would be the highlight, the birds taking a back seat.  It`s likely I thought, that this might be the first blank day of this holiday as regards new lifers.  Leaving in the darkness under a clear star filled sky we arrived at the reserve entrance just after first light seeing the first herds of Water Buffalo and Wild Pigs almost immediately.  A curious sighting was of a small ball shaped object, a “blob” immediately above the top of the grass in an open area which I remember being maroon in colour with a distinct long white stripe with black stripe above.  With hindsight I know I should have banged on the glass to get the driver to stop, alerting Nandana in doing so for his opinion.  It was because we were at the time off on the trail of a Leopard  which I was reluctant to interupt and with hindsight a big mistake, unfortunately the moment had passed.  Were it an inanimate object I have absolutely no idea what it could have been.  Animate, I can think of only one thing, the head of a bird, a Greater Painted Snipe and more specifically a female whose head is these very specific colours.  A potential lifer! 

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Greater Painted Snipe?

All at once we were examining fresh pug marks in the sand on the road, of a Leopard and as we drove on slowly we could hear the alarm calls of Samba in the distance warning others of a Leopard`s presence.  On we went our driver using his wealth of experience following its supposed track, again hearing more alarm calls to confirm we were on its tail.  Then all of a sudden the shock of seeing the animal standing still on the road in the distance looking directly at us and what a huge possitively ugly brute it was, the epitome of a man eater if there was one in the park with a huge square head.  Sri Lanka`s Leopards are reputed to be the largest Leopards in the world unlike in Africa or India being the top predator with no competition.  It seems we were all frozen in the moment failing to get a photo before it turned and sauntered off into the bush and away.  I say no one managed a shot but on studying my photos later I found one I had actually taken at the time and zooming in you can actually see the long tail and a bit of the animals rear just before it disappeared.  Better than nothing I suppose.  And it was just 7-0am.  Now all of a sudden we were hurtling along at speed holding onto the rails for dear life, on the trail this time of a Sloth Bear that had been reported some distance ahead.  We were in a convoy of jeeps now all racing and jockeying for position.  By the time we eventually arrived at the spot where it had been seen, needless to say the animal had disappeared.

We stopped for breakfast at an idyllic spot, in the shade of a tree beside a large pool on the edge of the dense woodland with Marsh Terns hawking over the water and the odd Painted Stork, Openbill Stork and Indian Pond Heron around the waters edge.  Moving on in the more open areas we started to come across Asian Elephants, individuals and small herds, one with at least four small juveniles probably just a few weeks old.  They were bathing with the adult females then feeding right beside our jeep in the thick thorny scrub before moving off slowly along the road ahead of us.  For the first time we heard the elephants deep resonant bellowing directly beside our jeep.  We stopped for some time at the edge of an open plain with a large shallow pool where Water Buffalo were wallowing in the mud close to our jeep and a big female elephant after bathing came over to within six feet of us, just a little too close for comfort perhaps.  It sauntered off  then charged scattering the buffaloes. On the ground were Red-wattled Lapwings, Yellow-wattled Lapwings, Mongolian Plovers, Kentish Plovers, Pacific Golden Plovers, Paddyfield Pipits, Ashy-crowned Sparrow Larks, Jerdon`s Bushlarks.  Golden Jackal and a Grey Mongoose crossed the track behind us and there were herds of Wild Pigs, Spotted Deer and the odd Samba.

We stopped for lunch at the coast immediately behind the beach around mid day when it was now very hot under a clear blue sky.  It seems there were far fewer Toque Macaques and Hanaman Grey Langurs in evidence on this safari than the previous visit.  In the afternoon more Elephants giving wonderful close views before late on we were off once again on a high speed chase with all the other jeeps.  Clearly another Leopard had been seen and when we finally arrived at the spot there was the usual unseemly jostle for the best viewing position, one vehicle at least stuck in the mud.  The Leopard had apparently been resting for some time in the open but by the time we got there it had gone out of sight into a bush.  Eventually Anne and I had the briefest of views as it emerged, leaping over a branch then hurrying across a narrow gap in the grass and into more bushes and away out of sight.  As we drove on we had our one and only Malabar Pied Hornbill of this holiday.  There were two huge Mugger Crocodiles in the shade of a tree in the top of which an adult Grey-headed Fish Eagle was perched.  The crocs were on the edge of the road with their mouths wide open trying to cool down in the heat.  We were in the right place at the right time

to get a close view of another Lesser Adjutant following on from the one we saw the previous day, this one in low flight close to the jeep before dropping down into cover.

After a very long and quite tiring day we headed out of the reserve towards dusk but not before we had a tremendous close view of a big male elephant not far from the entrance posing for photographs showing off his very long and impressive tusks.  Just 10% of male Asian Elephants on the island are “tuskers” so we considered ourselves extremely lucky to see this one and what tusks!  Some of the other more notable birds seen this day included – Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Spot-billed Pelican, White-bellied Sea Eagle (3 adults), Crested Serpent Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Indian Thick-knee, Great Thick-knee, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Blue-faced Malkoha, Crested Treeswift, Indian Roller, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Hoopoe (2), Sri Lanka Woodshrike (3+), Small Minivet, Brown Shrike, Marshall`s Iora (female and 2 males), Eastern Red-rumped Swallow (juvenile appearing to have a white rump in the dazzling sunlight), Oriental Skylark, Jungle Prinia, White-browed Fantail (3+), Baya Weaver (5+ in nesting colony).  Just as I thought this was indeed

going to be the first blank day as regards lifers our driver pulled over just outside the reserve entrance as the sun was going down and Nandana and I walked over to an open heath like area with scattered bushes and by playing the recorded call, successfully enticed into flight at least three Indian Nightjars, one of which flew very low right past me, lifer number 30 and the end of a great safari.  Two ambitions achieved – to see a “tusker” and to hear an elephant bellow as well as seeing two Leopards of course.

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Indian Nightjar

DAY 12 (24th March)

We were to leave Tissamaharama today but there was still time for a last pre-breakfast walk from 6-0am.  Again we went of Dabarawewa Tank which produced a Yellow Bittern, Spot-billed Pelican, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Lesser Flameback, Small Minivet, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Jerdon`s Leafbird (2). At last Nandana spotted an Ashy Prinia, a male, perched in the top of a bush at the roadside.  This was on my wanted list, a quite common bird in all habitats that somehow I had failed to connect with.  On the previous holiday I had a “was it/wasn`t it?” record of a bird at over 6,000 feet altitude on the way to Horton Plains.  If not this species it would have been a Grey-breasted Prinia but I think it likely it was the former.  Anyway, no doubt about this one. 

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Ashy Prinia

Yet another attempt was made searching the tall coconut palms in the usual garden (“Birder`s Paradise”) for the illusive White-naped Woodpecker but once again with no luck.  We tried searching more tall palms in a wider area, the birds almost exclusive habitat, again without seeing one.  Nandana told me there are probably just three birds, two adults and a juvenile, the problem being that they are repeatedly predated by the Rose-ringed Parakeets which steal their nesting holes.  Finally admitting defeat he said that this was the first trip on which he had not seen the bird!  No comfort to me.  We returned to the hotel around 8-30am where before breakfast I strolled over to the pond at the back of our chalet to find our friend the huge “Mugger” sunning himself under the tree with his enormous mouth wide open showing his razor sharp teeth.  After taking a couple of photos from a safe distance we went to breakfast.

We left Tissa` at 10-30am and headed to our next stop at Uda Walawe, the famous elephant reserve where we arrived at the “Grand Uda Walawe Safari Resort Hotel” around 1-0pm where as was the norm on this holiday, it was very hot and sunny.  En-route we had seen two Indian Rollers on roadside fence posts.  The hotel was big and modern and rather plush and our room was very smart with high ceiling, balcony and fully equiped en-suite bathroom.  After settling in we went down for a very enjoyable lunch, steak sandwich with chips and all the trimmings, watching the Cricket World Cup semi final, hosts New Zealand against South Africa.

At 2-30pm we left for our third jeep safari in three days.  Before leaving we briefly checked out the trees in the corner of the car park near by as a rare Bay-backed Shrike had been seen there a couple of days earlier but no sign now.  I must admit that Anne and I found this safari a bit of a disappointment after the previous days` safari at Yala, seeing fewer elephants considering that there are supposed to be 600 in this reserve.  There were a few Water Buffalo, some wallowing in a muddy pool right beside the road, a few Spotted Deer and a single Ruddy Mongoose.  It was now unbearably hot and humid, very tiring as we drove round the reserve where some good birds were seen, to lift the spirit.  The pick of these were – Barred Buttonquail (about 10, scuttling about very close at the roadside), Woolly-necked Stork (three in flight together), Black-shouldered Kite (3), Changeable Hawk-Eagle (adult in tree), Blue-faced Malkoha, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, Crested Treeswift, Indian Roller (3 or 4), Brown Shrike (3+), Paddyfield Pipit, Jerdon`s Bushlark (very many), Oriental Skylark.  As is usually the way, having struggled to see a bird, after finally seeing one, others follow without any effort.  This was true for Ashy Prinia four more males seen well at close range after the first this morning.  Best of all though was a new lifer that took some tracking down to get anything like a reasonable view –  Plum-headed Parakeet.  Late afternoon when I was getting really tired in the heat we began to see parakeets flying to and from the tall half dead trees.  Most were clearly Rose-ringed Parakeets but Nandana spotted a couple of their less common cousins, of which I managed a less than satisfactory flight view.  There were one or two more likely contenders landing in trees in the distance their plumage very difficult to make out against the dazzlingly bright early evening light.  Eventually I had a reasonable view of a pair perched together in a tree top, the male with his distinctive plum red coloured head, the female with grey head.  A slim parakeet with a long very thin stilletoe of a tail.  We got into discussion with the reserve guide who had joined us who reckoned he had seen a Whinchat in the reserve, what would be a first for Sri Lanka.  He was quizzing me as to what they look like and what is their habitat.  The safari ended on something of a sour note as in error Anne being rather tired handed him a 50 rupee note as a tip instead of 500 rupees, which without any explanation he handed back and left the jeep.  We gave Nandana 1,000 rupees to give this guide with an explanation next time he sees him that made us feel just a little better.

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Plum-headed Parakeet

Outside the reserve as the sun was going down we stopped beside the road in a heath like area, the water in the far distance with a single Elephant close by and grazing Water Buffalo.  Nandana and I crossed the busy road where by playing the recorded call like last night he enticed Indian Nightjars to take flight from the sandy ground, six of them this time flying around and past us in all directions, now giving better more convincing.  Disappointingly no response again however to the recorded call of Jerdon`s Nightjar.  Back to the hotel at 6-0pm for a decent buffet dinner.  One more Lifer today bringing the running total to 31.

DAY 13 (25th March)

We left Uda Walawe around 8-30am for our next stop at Sinharaja in the upland rain forest.  Again it looked like being a very hot and sunny day as we set off on another journey through at times quite spectacular mountain scenery.  A number of raptors were seen including a female Oriental Honey Buzzard (typical female plumage) perched in a tree then in flight, two Crested Serpent Eagles and one unidentified medium sized raptor with sharp corners to its quite long tail, gliding over the ridge top on flat wings.  A Tawny-bellied Babbler was glimpsed in flight at the roadside, a flock of six White-rumped Munias were together in a tree and 5 or 6 Brown Shrikes were seen en-route.  We arrived at the “Rock View Hotel” at 11-20am.  Last holiday when visiting Sinharaja we stayed for two nights at “Martin`s Lodge” the accommodation as basic as can be imagined, leaving uttering the words “never again!”  Its advantage is its location a relatively short walk from the reserve entrance.  However we did not wish to sleep with cockroaches again so this time we went for a little more comfort and the Rock View did not disappoint.  The location a fair drive from the reserve did not prove to be a problem.  In contrast to the plush hotel the previous night, it was more basic but comfortable enough with a balcony overlooking the most spectacular view across the cultivated valley to the wooded mountains beyond.  And as I was soon to discover excellent for birds.  A couple of hours relaxing on the balcony in the sun produced a pair of soaring Oriental Honey Buzzards, Crimson-fronted Barbet (pair), Crested Serpent Eagle (soaring below), Black-capped Bulbul (2), Mountain Hawk Eagle, Orange Minivet (male). 

Leaving Anne to relax in the afternoon around the hotel Nandana and I drove off to the Sinharaja Rain Forest Reserve, another of Sri Lanka`s World Heritage sites.  An Oriental Honey Buzzard  flew overhead as we pulled out of the car park.  It was here in this reserve I was hoping to see the last ( “half”) of  the 4½ endemics on my “most wanted” list.  This was the Red-faced Malkoha a big shy cuckoo that lives high in the tree canopy.  I include it as a “half” as I believe I saw one on the previous visit here on the last holiday.  I saw the bird high in the canopy from below, part concealed in the dense folliage.  My guide Upali however did not see the bird, leaving me in some doubt suggesting it was more likely a Sri Lanka Blue Magpie whose call he heard from the area in which I was looking.  Totally different birds though similar size, both with long graduated tail white to the underside.  “My” bird I recall had two black bars across an otherwise all white bird which I could see from the tip of tail to the throat totally consistant with the Malkoha.  The one problem was the two black bars?  Were they to the vent and throat (as in the Malkoha) or across the tail?  The magpie has black chevrons to the edge of the tail (2 or 3) which I supposed I could have mistaken in my mind for black bars, otherwise of course the magpie is mid blue to the underbody as opposed to white.  How could I possibly have mistaken this feature?  The face of “my” bird was largely obscurred by folliage but I believe I glimpsed the large red eye patch.  I was 99% certain that it was the malkoha but that 1% of doubt needed resolving. 

Having donned our leech socks we were joined by a young guide of the Reserve who as a condition of the park has to accompany any visitor or party of visitors.  The long treck through the rain forest was quite exhausting in the intense heat and incredibly high humidity but as always, hugely exhilerating.  Sri Lanka Junglefowl could be heard and occasionally glimpsed in the undergrowth as we made our way slowly along the stony track rising quite steeply in places.  Not far from the entrance a Sri Lanka Frogmouth (grey male) sat on its ridiculously small cup nest on a quite low branch in a tree close to the track.  Birds seen as we progressed along the track included Layard`s Parakeets, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (female), Sri Lanka Blue Magpie (3 or 4), Greater Flameback, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Dark-fronted Babbler, Legge`s Flowerpecker.  We had a number of encounters with reptiles – Green Garden Lizard (male), Kangaroo Lizard (endemic), Green Pit Viper and the rare and endemic tiny Sri Lanka Horned Lizard.  We had good views of noisy Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys, 6 or 7 leaping , some running on all fours across the track.  We had a perfect view through Nandana`s scope of a Spot-winged Thrush (endemic) before spending some considerable time after hearing the quiet calls, trying to locate another rare and extremely shy Sri Lanka endemic the Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush.  First our guide in his sandalled feet with no thought for the leeches scrambled down the steep heavily vegetated bank at the side of the track, then Nandana likewise before he finally found the bird skulking typically in the leaf litter on the forest floor.  We had quite a good view of the bird in the circumstances.  We heard the thin calls of Black-naped Monarchs but were unable to see them high in the canopy.  Then a view in the trees to the left of the track of another rare and shy endemic bird – a Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, this individual showing its head with two tone pale bill, parts of its body obscurred by branches and folliage. 

All at once the unmistakable sign of one of the reserves famous feeding flocks, highlight of any visit, as calls could be heard of many birds building up to a crescendo as the birds approached through the trees.  Unfortunately this time we were at the tail end, the birds passing us in the near distance, within the flock – Sri Lanka Crested Drongo (2 or 3), Yellow-browed Bulbul,  Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Dark-fronted Babbler, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush (2+), Sri Lanka Hill Myna (2 or 3).  No Malkoha unfortunately.  A little later however we were incredibly lucky to come across a second feeding flock which unfortunately passed by us a little further away including – Sri Lanka Crested Drongo (3 together), Orange-billed Babbler (3 or 4), Sri Lanka Hill Myna (2 or 3).  The recorded call of Red-faced Malkoha played by Nandana finally paid off enticing one away from the flock towards us and after several frustrating minutes of glimpses of the bird high in the canopy I finally had a full view of this very impressive bird, calling in reponse and then a second bird in the canopy to the left of the track.  At last, an uncontroversial view, no doubt whatsoever and the last (number 33) endemic safely under the belt!

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Red-faced Malkoha

We walked on as far as the Research Station where as always there were good close views of Sri Lanka Junglefowl and Sri Lanka Blue Magpies (4) where they come down out of the trees hoping to be fed, a habit they have acquired over time  becoming quite tame used to the staff throwing them tit bits on their lunch break.  And with that it was back the long hot treck to the reserve entrance this time fortunately mostly down hill and then back to the hotel arriving now in darkness at

7-15pm after a thoroughly exhilerating and hugely enjoyable afternoon.  Over dinner we compared sightings with Charlie and Joy, the couple from Ripon who you will recall, we met last at the Whistling Thrush site at Horton Plains, led on their tour by Nandana`s colleague Senerath.  They had come to the Rock View Hotel straight from Tissa` arriving the previous day.  It was now beginning to get a little competitive!  I suppose you could say this was the first blank day as regards lifers though of course the Red-faced Malkoha could be regarded as one or at least a confirmation (half a lifer).

DAY 14 (26th March)

This morning was to be a second visit for Nandana and I to the reserve, up early and out with a packed breakfast by 6-0am.  Again Anne was perfectly happy to stay around the hotel doing what she enjoys, in this case on the balcony enjoying the view in the sun whilst making her jewelry.  A big Horseshoe Bat was flying around the two storey dining room, in and out of the open vents as I waited for Nandana, so close I felt I had to duck as I came down the staircase.  Nandana who regularly kept up to date with the news of any new rarity sighted on the island, told me of a report of a Baillon`s Crake close to where we were and on the way to the reserve we stopped off at his friend`s garden where the bird had supposedly been seen.  I was somewhat sceptical as regards a Baillon`s Crake (very rare in Sri Lanka) turning up in dense vegetation on a heavily wooded hillside, a couple of thousand feet up in the tropical rain forest, well away from any water in south-east Asia!  Even more so when he showed me the photo on his I-phone.  A Baillon`s Crake it most definitely was not!  According to the illustration in my Helm Field Guide more than likely it was a Slaty-breasted Rail.  Academic though as the bird was not there.

Nandana parked the car down by the bridge over the river, the place I remember from the last holiday, where a road leads up to the Blue Magpie Lodge.  The sun was now just appearing over the trees.  This time no leech socks.  From here we crossed the bridge and began walking the steep track up the hillside in the direction of Martins Lodge, it seemed for ever before we got there.  But it was the most beautiful morning, at this time relatively cool and comfortable, the sun now fully up.  As for the birds we were beginning to see some really good ones as we headed towards Martins – Layard`s Parakeets (in two`s and three`s and small flocks in flight), Emerald Dove (in flight), Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Green Imperial Pigeon, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot (one seen well prening in a tree), Plum-headed Parakeet (a pair in a treetop, quite close, the male feeding the female), Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker (one in a treetop), Black-capped Bulbul (3 or 4), Black Bulbul (many).  We stopped on a bend

on the climb at a small open area edged with bushes and the odd small tree with superb views towards the distant wooded mountains.  An idyllic spot now in the burning sunlight, quiet and peaceful, just the songs of birds.  Nandana played a call on his I-phone and after a few moments out of the bushes emerged first a male followed by a female Sri Lanka Spurfowl, one of the shyest and hardest to see island endemics.  At best usually no more than a completely unsatisfactory fleeting glimpse of a bird deep in cover (as on the last holiday) now though not one but a pair in full view in the open, noisily responding to Nandana`s lure, as if quite annoyed at being disturbed.  Off they scuttled, the attractive male covered in large white spots with bright red legs, the female more subdued rufous brown and black, down the steep heavily vegetated bank and away.  It was high fives, Nandana managing to run off some rare shots of this extremely illusive bird.  As we walked on climbing the steep rocky track it was now getting unbearably hot and humid (close to 100% I would estimate), absolutely unbearable infact as we stopped fully in the open with absolutely no cover, to watch with Nandana running off some photos, two endemic and again usually illusive White-faced Starlings quite close in a small tree at the edge of the track.  Relief as we moved on still climbing but now under the cover of the tall pines.  Nandana pointed out in an eroded vertical sand bank at the edge of the track, a number of now abandoned nest holes of the tiny Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, the diameter of the holes in my estimation no bigger than the entrance hole in a Great Tit nest box back home.  At last we reached Martin`s Lodge where I gratefully took advantage of a sit down and rest under cover in the open sided dining room extended to near twice the size it was on our last visit.  Here I ate my packed breakfast and needing a toilet I was handed the key of a vacant room, the very one Anne and I had last time.  Oh, the memories, the nightmare came flooding back, nothing had changed, even to the toilet with its broken flush handle!  Breakfast eaten it was back to the steeply climbing track through the forest eventually arriving at the reserve entrance some time between 8-30 and 9-0am when we were joined by yesterday`s guide.  The heat and humidity were even worse than yesterday making the long hard treck up the steep incline along the track as far once again as the Research Station even more strenuous necessitating frequent stops in which to take a breather.  Along the way highlights included – Sri Lanka Frogmouth (same male on nest), GreaterFlameback (up to five sightings mainly in flight), Orange Minivet, Black-capped Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Sri Lanka Hill Myna, Spot-winged Thrush (glimpsed), Brown-breasted Flycatcher.  The best was a lovely male Black-naped Monarch this one seen well quite close with its unexpectedly long tail.  An Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher was heard but not seen, down far below presumably in flight over the stream.  As well as the birds there was a very impressive Hump-nosed Lizard and a small thin snake, Bronze-backed Tree Snake and a miriad of big and colourful butterflies – Sri Lanka Birdwing, Red Helen, Blue Mormon, Bluebottle, King Crow, Great Eggfly, Sri Lanka Cerulean Blue, Sri Lanka Tree Nymph and a rare Five-barred Swordtail.  A huge female Giant Wood Spider the size of my hand was at the edge of the track in the middle of her web and on her back running all over her body was the male, bright orange the size less than that of my little finger nail, then in contrast a Giant Millipede over 4 inches in length. 

Once again we were in luck being in the right place at the right time to see at least the tail end of another feeding flock.  You know it is the tail end when you spot a Lesser Yellownape a species that always brings up the rear, on this occasion there were two together.  The flock was made up mainly of the endemic Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, the dominant bird with maybe up to 10 individuals feeding typically at ground level.  There were three Sri Lanka Crested Drongo`s, Black Bulbuls, Yellow-browed Bulbul, several endemic Orange-billed Babblers, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Sri Lanka Hill Myna, Tickell`s Blue Flycatcher, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike. Then as fast as they appeared, along with all the bird calls, they melted away and all again was silent.  We arrived at the Research Station where I took a very welcome rest, sitting out of the sun in the shade in a big open sided shed.  A number of Sri Lanka Blue Magpies four or five, soon appeared approaching from the woods, coming quite close, one entering the shed and perching in the rafters above my head.  Nandana called to me and I ran out to see what he had, too late unfortunately just as two Brown-backed Needletails disappeared in the distance over the tree tops.  This ultra fast rocket of a bird was high on my wanted list and I was so disappointed to miss the bird.  I  decided to change my position sitting outside now on the step of the office concentrating on the area of open sky between the tree tops infront, hoping that the two birds might re-appear.  Nandana called me over again having found a male Malabar Trogan perched typically on a bare horizontal branch high in a tall tree, giving an excellent view.  Agonising over the missed Needletails, Nandana suggested I concentrate on the area of open sky behind me where he had often seen them particularly now he explained as that patch of sky was clouding over.  They like these conditions he said and within a couple of minutes incredibly, three of the birds flew fast across the cloud, big dark swifts with quite broad swept back wings and a bullet shaped body. 

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Brown-backed Needletail

Moments later they were followed by four more.  Once again Nandana had come up with the goods and I had bagged lifer number 32.  The return treck was so uncomfortable, the humidity now unbearable my sodden clothes sticking to me every step I took and it was a long, long walk back to the car and we finally got back to the hotel soaking with sweat and exhausted but content around 2-30pm.  The afternoon was spent relaxing on the balcony enjoying the spectacular view and at one point watching from the window whilst I was having a shower a pair of juvenile Black Eagles soaring quite close over the valley.  A first for my “shower list”!  A large flock of Little Swifts were seen hawking at unusually close range and as a Crested Serpent Eagle soared directly below us I settled down hoping to enjoy more passing raptors.  A steady stream of herons, egrets and cormorants were now flying up the valley to their night time roosts.  At that point the sky darkened and by 4-30pm there was a brief if very heavy downpour with thunderclaps and lightening, the end of the day`s birding.  Again over dinner I compared sightings with Charlie and Joy who had returned to the hotel some time before me.  I was ahead by ten birds or so but they had had a couple, such as Drongo Cuckoo and Jerdon`s Nightjar that I had missed.  But they had not seen Indian Nightjar so you win some, you lose some.  We had a good time over dinner, having a laugh and swopping tales.  Like us this was their last night at the Rock View, they would be leaving early in the morning to catch their flight home, we were to head to the south coast and Weligama for the next leg of this incredible holiday.  Nandana was amazed at how quickly and easily Anne and I seemed to hit it off with our two new GP friends who were admitedly the kind of people who are so easy to talk to, not being worried about what was said, that might cause offence.  I put that down to the common language of birds.

DAY 15 ( 27th March)

First light and I was up to take advantage of a last hour or so on the balcony to see what good birds turn up on what again promised to be a very hot and sunny day.  And it didn`t disappoint.  As the sun rose herons, egrets and cormorants were steadily

flying in small flocks below me down the valley from their overnight roost, amongst them two Woolly-necked Storks giving me an unusual view from above.  A male Sri Lanka Junglefowl was moving through the stunted vegetation in the garden below followed by his mate.  The small tree at the far end of the balconies was proving a magnet for birds holding a Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, White-bellied Drongo, Oriental Magpie Robin, Black-hooded Oriole, a prening Purple-rumped Sunbird and at one point a whole family of Orange-billed Babblers, unusually out of their usual rain forest habitat.  In a distant tree I could make out a Golden-fronted Leafbird, the sun catching its golden yellow forehead.  In flight four more Hanging Parrots together and small flocks of parakeets mostly Layards but also a few Plum-headed with their very long stilletoe thin tails.  One or two White-eyes flew past, more than likely the endemic species.  Just before I had arranged to meet Nandana I heard a call, repeated two or three times from the edge of the dense low vegetation to the left, which I thought might be that of a female Junglefowl.  When I went down and met Nandana he took me around the back of the hotel through the stores and into the garden by the kitchen where he was hoping to entice out a Slaty-legged Crake.  Unfortunately once again with this skulking species we neither heard nor saw the bird.  This was the area where I had heard the unknown call just before and I felt sure it was the crake.  Nandana drew my attention to the call of a Drongo Cuckoo unfortunately in the far distance across the valley.  After a simple but enjoyable breakfast it was time once again to move on to our next overnight stop on the Indian Ocean coast at Weligama.  The main problem of a holiday such as this, one night here, two nights there was the incesant packing and un-packing for Anne requiring an awful lot of very careful planning, what to pack where.

We left the hotel at 9-30am, the weather again hot and sunny and almost at once we had a great view of a Legge`s Hawk-Eagle in flight at close range, Nandana noting the plain white belly.  On the journey other birds of note included Crested Serpent Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Brown Shrike, White-browed Bulbul, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, White-rumped Munia. For the first time on the holiday we were driving at speed along the new motorway, monotonous with few birds and sights to be seen.  Nandana had the radio on playing his favourite music.  It was quite nice to hear the English DJ playing music from the seventies and eighties, some familiar others less so.  By special request Nandana took a detour some distance to show us the old Dutch town of Galle, another World Heritage Site, driving us round the old streets within the old town walls, around the fort and the lighthouse and fine old colonial buildings.  Unfortunately at this time the sky turned black and the heavens opened so we were unable to park and take a walk.  We drove past the cricket ground famous as a test match venue, open to the streets on most sides with just a wire fence, all rebuilt since it was destroyed in the tsunami ten years ago.  It was an enjoyable hour in a town we would want to spend more time in should we return for another holiday in the future.  As we left and headed back towards our destination the sky cleared and the sun came out once again.  As we drove along the coastal strip towards Weligama we passed the famous stilt fishermen who survive now purely as a tourist attraction.  Now we were aware for the first time of many western faces in the resorts we passed through.  Tall coconut palms at intervals lined the roadside and beyond long beaches of silver sand and azure blue sea now in the bright sunshine under a clear blue sky.  We finally arrived at our overnight hotel Fisherman`s Bay around 2-0pm.  Through the steel security gates to a big modern quite plush hotel recently fully refurbished it was extremely quiet, we being the only guests as we were to find out later.  Another very smart big comfortable room with a lovely view from our balcony to the sea and the colourful fishing boats at anchor.  A female Loten`s Sunbird  was hovering, feeding in the tree directly infront of our balcony.

After settling in we took a stroll along the front and into the town.  A long but enjoyable walk inspite of being accompanied most of the way by a man on a moped who wanted to know all about us, as usual with a brother who owns a shop on the next street di-dah, di-dah.  Eventually as we turned into a busy street we managed to shake him off.  On the beach in the shade of a tree were two cows resting and just offshore was a small island, Taprobane Island  on which is an exclusive villa built in the 1930`s where amongst other “celebs” Kylie Minogue apparently stayed to recuperate after her cancer operation some time ago (over $2,000 per night).   

As I watched a pair of adult White-bellied Sea Eagles low overhead, I noticed the now dark sky threatening a storm, the wind building up.  On we went into the town hoping to find a place to shelter when the inevitable rain arrived.  It was good walking around the busy streets with their colourful shops selling all kinds of exotic things against a background of calls to prayer and atmospheric Asian music belted out.  We went to a confectionary shop and bought some very nice pastries for the cost of next to nothing which we ate for our lunch as we walked.  As the rain now threatened we hired a tuk-tuk and returned to the hotel just as it began to pour down.  Perfect timing.  The sky was black, the rain pouring down, there was thunder and lightening in the distance and feeling tired I had a bit of a nap mid afternoon.  When I awoke it must have been around 4-30pm and I went out onto the balcony.  The light was not too good but the rain had stopped.  Down below I could see a flurry of activity, literally hundreds of terns swirling round in flight before landing in masses on the decks and rigging of the fishing boats.  Every boat it seems was being covered from bow to stern with birds presumably settling down to roost for the night.  They all appeared to be marsh terns, Whiskered and White-winged Black.  At least one I could see was a juvenile White-winged Tern with its diagnostic dark “saddle”.  Another bird however instantly stood out from the rest in flight, dark blackish overall.  Black Tern I thought, instantly dismissing it as it was clearly nothing like one but that was what immediately came into my mind.  After a few moments in flight it landed right at the front end of a mast boom on one of the boats.  Further along the boom a couple of feet at most away, stood a white tern that I took to be a Whiskered or White-winged Tern.  The “black” tern was clearly bigger than its neighbour, I estimated at around 1½ times the size at most.  It was medium sized I would say and quite slender, slight in build with a small round head on a thinnish neck.  The bill was long and slender with maybe a slight down-curve.  Its legs were extremely short, at times the bird appearing to have no legs at all.  The rear end of the bird was not excessively attenuated, its tail I suppose relatively short, the wing tips ending around the same point as the tip of the tail.  Overall the bird appeared very dark even black though the poor light may have made it appear “blacker” than it actually was.  However even in the dim light I could see that the forehead from base of bill over the nape to at least the rear of the eye, was gleaming white with a very sharp contrast against the otherwise dark head.  It appeared to shade towards the rear of the crown gradually into the dark rear nape. It was clear to me that this was unmistakably a Noddy and a very interesting bird, no matter which of the three similar species, a very rare vagrant to Sri Lanka.  By now I had moved to my scope where it was still too distant to see all the features in the rapidly fading early evening light.  I was anxious not to lose the bird knowing with my luck if I changed position for a closer view it would disappear.  Anne was reluctant to go and find Nandana for a second opinion.  I had to try to get closer rushing down to the lower terrace trying to find a way of getting out onto the beach but the gates were locked.  There was no time to “mess around”.  Back I went to the balcony, the bird still settled thankfully on the boom but the light was now far too dim to get anything like a reasonable record photo or film on Anne`s video cam.  By now the light had all but gone and my best bet was to be up at first light next morning to see if  the bird was still there.  Needless to say it was not amongst all the marsh terns I saw leaving the boat in the first of the light.  So the question is, which of the three possible species of Noddy was it?

The one most frequently recorded is the Brown Noddy.  I have seen many of these at close and distant range on the Dry Totuga Islands off the Florida Keys and again nesting on Little Tobago Island in the Caribbean.  It is quite a large bird bigger than a Sooty Tern with a long quite thick slightly down-curved bill.  Very attenuated at the rear end with a long tail and long wing extension.  It has a relatively large head with angled forehead on quite a thick neck.  Overall it is dark brown with a silver/grey forehead whitest at the base of the bill, strongly contrasting against the dark blackish lores.  On first sight were it a Brown Noddy would I have thought “Black Tern” as it flew amongst the small marsh terns?  With a long tail were it a Brown Noddy would I more likely have thought Sooty Tern, a much bigger bird (twice as big) as the marsh terns?  What of the alternatives?  Lesser Noddy is a rarer vagrant to the island, much smaller and slighter of build, less attenuated at the rear than a Brown Noddy.  But studying photos on the inter net it seems to have a ridiculously long, thin and dead straight black bill, pale lores, a generally greyish head and less distinct and contrasting white shading to silver/grey forecrown.  Quite a different “jizz” in my opinion. 

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Black Noddy

This would leave the similar Black Noddy the third of the rare vagrants to Sri Lanka.  To me this species matches my bird in every respect.  A web site suggests that this species is under-recorded in Sri Lanka and during a detailed study through the month of April on whale watches from Mirissa Noddy`s were recorded on four days all of them the Black Noddy which were associating with large numbers of Bridled Terns.  In due course we would encounter a good number of Bridled Terns on our up coming whale watch.  The nearest breeding colony of the Black Noddy is in the Phillipines to the north of Australia and north-east of Sri Lanka.  The weather front that brought today`s storm I believe came from that direction.  The Brown Noddy is generally distributed world wide and the Lesser Noddy breeds in the Maldives to the south of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean.  When I told Nandana later of my sighting he said that his photographer friend had reported a Brown Noddy recently in this area, probably the same individual but I am quite clear in my mind that my bird was not that species.  Might he have been mistaken?  Anyway, as far as I am concerned this was a lifer for me, number 33 for the holiday.

As I mentioned earlier, we discovered that we were the only guests at this time in this big hotel and it was quite bizarre and somewhat un-nerving sitting eating our really good four course dinner surrounded by the staff – the hotel manager, the chef, the waiter and the wine waiter asking us how we were enjoying the meal.  The owner of the hotel we were to discover, was a relative of Nandana on his wife`s side of the family and a very nice chap too.  We had a lovely starter, followed by some delicious soup then the main course two kinds of fish including King Fish, also cuttlefish, crab and prawns with chips and salad etc. followed by a really nice dessert.  With just us in the hotel though it did bring to mind the film “The Awakening” with Jack Nicholson running amok in the night with an axe!  Inspite of this we had a good nights sleep. Needless to say the service and attention from the staff could not be faulted.

DAY 16 (28th March)

Today was to be the much anticipated whale watch.  We went out on a whale watch from Mirissa on the last holiday which proved to be an exillerating and immensely enjoyable experience when we had views of a Blue Whale which our boat tracked for the best part of an hour.  It was a very early start leaving the hotel with a packed breakfast soon after 5-0am driving the short distance to Mirissa where we checked in at one of the more responsible tour operators, Mirissa Sports with whom we went the last time.  Their organisation cannot be faulted, even providing the sea sick pills for those who wanted one and a packed breakfast.  Everything on the boat was catered for and they had numerous look-outs to spot the whales quickly conveying the information to the passengers.  The cost was 50$ per person around £70 in total for the two of us and worth every penny.  Nandana happily had decided to join us on the trip.  The conditions were fantastic this day as we left the harbour at 6-45am, near perfect, bright sunshine, a clear blue cloudless sky, crystal clear light and the sea almost like the proverbial duck pond.  The omens were good, two days previously there had been four Blue Whales seen and yesterday five.  There were a lot of people on board but the boat was by no means crowded.  More than a dozen boats of all sizes could be seen heading out towards the busy shipping lane of the Indian Ocean, to the deep water where the whales are seen.  Sri lanka is now acknowledged as the best, most reliable place in the world to see the Blue Whale, the biggest animal that has ever lived.  They migrate annually off the island and some think that a number spend all year in these waters.  It was not long, maybe within the first twenty minutes that the first whale was sighted, not a Blue Whale unsurprisingly but a less common Bryde`s Whale around two thirds the size and a whale found usually in coastal waters closer in to land.  Other than this over the first hour or so as we headed south there was little, just the odd tern more than likely Lesser-crested Tern and one or two flying fish and then sadly the corpse of a dead turtle floating on the surface

Choosing the best place to sit is the key.  Last time I was up on the top deck on the padded mats but I felt I missed out a little later in the trip when the dolphins were bow riding so this time I was right at the bow for the most part and at this quiet period just enjoying the sun and water motion as we headed ever closer to the huge ships on the horizon.  Then all of a sudden the excitement on the boat was palpable rippling through all the passengers as we were into the Blue Whales. The whoops and cheers went up.  First the blows supposedly 20 to 30 feet high, then the arch of a back, then down.  After a few minutes another blow, another arch of the back, a sight of the tiny dorsal fin and after a number of these the anticipation, waiting for the tail flukes to rise clear of the water to the accompaniment of loud cheers, then down for the animal to dive deep into the depths and disappear.  This went on for around an hour as our boat followed using the wealth of the crew`s experience to anticipate exactly where the whale would surface next.  As a whale would surface the boats would race towards it, circling round jockeying for the closest view, too close the boats of some of the less responsible operators.  Over the next hour or so we saw an estimated six to eight Blue Whales in all including a mother and calf side by side that came under our boat at one time, seen by some at ultra close range.  The spectacular tail fluking was experienced by animals at least ten times I would estimate, for me the ultimate experience.  Taking photos in the excitement, the movement of the boat up and down in the water was near impossible.  It was a case of point and shoot, seeing the results later, in my case a load of rubbish but it didn`t matter.  And then as quickly as we were into them we had left the whales behind and now we were in the middle of what seemed a boiling cauldron of activity, in the middle of a school of perhaps 300 Spinner Dolphins, quite small animals but so energetic, leaping high completely out of the water and spinning like an ice skater, showing off, trying to out-do the spins of the others.  Many were bow riding where they could be viewed clearly enjoying themselves below the water.  It was so exhilerating.  A Hawksbill Turtle was seen at relatively close range on the surface with its neck stretched upwards out of the water.  As usually happens the seabirds are seen at the same time and in my case I am torn between enjoying the dolphins and scanning the birds.  It is usually the large flocks of seabirds milling over a shoal of fish that attract the dolphins.  The movement of the boat up and down makes it very difficult to identify the birds with certainty but there were certainly a few Swift Terns and a large number of dark terns, some all dark presumed to be juvenile Sooty Terns. A number of Bridled Terns that came quite close enough to the boat to be possitively identified were noted on the way back also a number of  flying fish

We spoke to a couple who were members of a Whale and Dolphin Conversation organisation, spending some time up the west coast at Kalpitiya where they said that the local tuna fishermen lay nets and drop in sticks of dynamite to kill the dolphins and turtles and God knows what else that they accuse of taking “their” fish.  Anne told them about our son David`s filming and involvement in sea life conservation suggesting he may be able to help.  Unfortunately the Government in Sri Lanka are unlikely to be co-operative.  What a wonderful experience the trip had been as we returned around 11-30am to the harbour and a refreshing King Coconut on what was apparently the best day of the whole season for Blue Whale sightings.

At 1-30pm we left the hotel at Weligama for our last stop, at the Ranweli Holiday Village, Wayikkal on the west coast bordering the Arabian Sea where we had such an enjoyable stay last time.  After a long hard drive in the heat of the day we arrived tired at around 5-30pm.  We boarded the raft ferry and were skulled across to the far side of the lagoon and on to the hotel reception.  Anne was far from happy as was I when instead of the room we booked many months ago, we were stuck at the opposite end of the village in the furthest north-west corner out of the sun with the view over the sea hidden behind a line bushes.  It was “one of our best rooms” so the receptionist assured us.  Oh yes?  The truth is we had to make do with the only available room, take it or leave it.  Soon after we settled in, the heavens opened and the torrential downpour even entered the bathroom which amazingly had an open mesh panel in the ceiling!  Then to cap it all off went the electricity leaving us in total darkness, the sound of thunder and torrential rain all around!  Far from an ideal start.  The room had just one sun lounger with a wonky wheel if that is, we could position it in a location out of the shade.  Clearly out in this furthest corner it was where the sun loungers were removed to replace the wonky ones from elsewhere.  Infact, where the wonky sun loungers go to die!  Eventually after a couple of reminders the wonky one was removed and two sound ones were brought to our patio the next morning.  The man had clearly taken them from next door (which I would have done had he not) and I overheard the person in that room remonstrating with him later that now he had no sun loungers. What a sad end to an otherwise perfect holiday.  Anne would go to see the manager before we left the next day to give him a piece of her mind particularly when we walked past the room we should have had, the next morning finding it apparently empty! 

We had a decent buffet dinner at night after I had met Nandana in the car park across the lagoon where shining his powerful torch up into the canopy of a large tree he highlighted the bird that I could hear calling, a Brown Hawk Owl showing beautifully in the beam, one of the simplest to find of the 34 lifers to date.  The trouble with the sun loungers etc. now didn`t seem quite so bad, at least to me.

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Brown Hawk Owl

DAY 17 (29th March)

This was the last day of this wonderful holiday, the day of the cricket World Cup final, dual hosts Australia against New Zealand. For the record an easy win for Australia. One of the highlights of the last holiday was a pre-breakfast boat trip along the lagoons here at Ranweli and so this year we were repeating it.  So it was up very early again and onto the boat with Nandana at 6-0am.  The sun was coming up and it promised to be another very hot and sunny day as we set off with our boatman/guide.  In the event, this was to be perhaps the hotest day of the whole holiday. One of the first birds to be seen was a Grey-breasted Prinia, completing the prinia “set” so to speak.  The pick of the other birds we encountered on this at least for the first part, very relaxing and enjoyable trip included – Yellow Bittern, Black Bittern (in flight), Striated Heron (many), Shikra (adult in a tree), Sri Lanka Green Pigeon (flock of 10 in flight), Asian Koel (as usual here many), Stork-billed Kingfisher (2), Loten`s Sunbird (male).  About half way round, the motor on our boat suddenly packed in and we were left drifting in the centre of the channel.  Our boatman had to skull us into the bank under the shade of a tree where he repeatedly attempted to re-start the motor but without success.  Eventually after perhaps half an hour in the now burning hot sun, after a telephone call for help a boat arrived to tow us back passing other boats whose passengers found it quite amusing particularly when I shouted across to them “send help!”  Fortunately the hotel was still serving breakfast where I sensed a bit of a kefuffle with two people remonstrating with a waiter as it looked like we were at their favourite table by the window.

After a very enjoyable buffet breakfast (at the best table in the dining room) we spent the rest of this, at times unbearably hot morning relaxing on the sun loungers, Anne immediately outside our room, me having dragged the sun lounger through the hedge to get an uninterupted view of the sea where I could watch the passing terns and gulls. As I manoevered my sun longer past the next bungalow I sensed our neighbours were still not happy.  Dominant were the Whiskered Terns and White-winged Black Terns with lesser numbers of Gull-billed Terns, Lesser-crested Terns and a few Swift Terns. There were a number of Brown-headed Gulls in flight a few hundred yards out over this period, very distinctive on the wing.  On the ground apart from their larger size they appear almost identical to our Black-headed Gull.  In flight however they have quite broad wings, particularly on the hand, more rounded to the tip which gives them a more “floppy”, slower and ponderous wing action.  By mid day the heat was unbearable as we strolled along the beach.  In the late afternoon we were summoned by Nandana to meet him by the bar where we had quite an amusing time as he repeatedly attempted to get an acceptable group photo of the three of us, not satisfied time and again with how he appeared.  Maybe his chest was not exposed sufficiently to show off his gold Hornbill medallion.  The last birds recorded was a flypast as the sun went down of three Whimbrel calling, a new bird to add to this holiday list.  Before dinner Jith came along with Nandana to see us for reassurance that everything had been ok, insisting once again that we make the effort this August to go down to Rutland Water to meet him at the Bird Fair.  Dinner over, bags packed, sadly it was nearing the end of this thoroughly enjoyable holiday with highlight after unforgettable highlight not to mention the birds, whales and leopards.

DAY 18 (30th March)

No problems driving to the airport at Columbo where we arrived in good time, nor on the flight to Dubai and the connecting flight from there to Manchester, touch down more or less on time around 7-30pm where we arrived in the cold, dark and torrential rain.  What a contrast!  After a minor breakdown in communication leading to an inordinately long and uncomfortable wait for the taxi we finally arrived at my sister Sandra`s around 9-0pm to pick up our car and drive home arriving totally exhausted around midnight.  How I drove from Manchester to York feeling so tired heaven only knows.  A nice touch was receiving a phone call the next day from our wonderful, friendly and fun guide Nandana checking to see that we had made it home safely.  It`s little personal touches like this that set them apart from the bigger companies and another reason why we would not hesitate to go with “Walk with Jith” again.

If I would have changed one thing on the holiday on reflection it would have been to omit the stop at Uda Walawe especially with missing the first day due to the minor cock-up.  Maybe an extra night at Weligama as the last holiday or more likely an extra night at Ranweli.

SUMMARY OF THE BIRDS SEEN

The total number of species encountered was 240 including 3 that were heard but not seen.  The total number of “lifers” seen was 34 (including Streaked Weaver which I am now convinced I did not see in 2013).  However it would be 37 if I was to include the maybe dubious sightings – Sykes`s Warbler, Saunders`s Tern and Greater Painted Snipe.  Red-faced Malkoha I am convinced I saw in 2013 and is consequently a confirmation as is Ashy Prinia.  All of the 33 endemics (one more pending) were seen except Chestnut-backed Owlet which was heard but not seen.  Best birds – Eyebrowed Thrush, Black Noddy, Serendib Scops Owl, Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, Black-necked Stork

LIST OF SPECIES SEEN

BIRDS (“lifers” highlighted in bold, “E” for endemics, in italics heard only)

1)         Barred Buttonquail

2)         Sri Lanka Spurfowl (E)

3)         Sri Lanka Junglefowl (E)

4)         Indian Peafowl

5)         Lesser Whistling Duck

6)         Painted Stork

7)         Asian Openbill Stork

8)         Woolly-necked Stork

9)         Black-necked Stork

10)       Lesser Adjutant

11)       Black-headed Ibis

12)       Glossy Ibis

13)       Eurasian Spoonbill

14)       Yellow Bittern

15)       Black Bittern

16)       Cinnamon Bittern

17)       Black-crowned Night Heron

18)       Striated Heron

19)       Indian Pond Heron

20)       Grey Heron

21)       Purple Heron

22)       Eastern Cattle Egret

23)       Great White Egret

24)       Intermediate Egret

25)       Little Egret

26)       Spot-billed Pelican

27)       Little Cormorant

28)       Indian Cormorant

29)       Indian Darter

30)       Little Grebe

31)       Black-shouldered Kite

32)       Brahminy Kite

33)       White-bellied Sea Eagle

34)       Grey-headed Fish Eagle

35)       Crested Serpent Eagle

36)       Black Eagle

37)       Changeable Hawk-Eagle

38)       Legge`s Hawk-Eagle

39)       Oriental Honey Buzzard

40)       Crested Goshawk

41)       Shikra

42)       Slaty-legged Crake     

43)       White-breasted Waterhen

44)       Watercock

45)       Common Moorhen

46)       Pheasant-tailed Jacana

47)       Stone Curlew (Eurasian Thick-knee)

48)       Indian Thick-knee

49)       Great Thick-knee

50)       Black-winged Stilt

51)       Yellow-wattled Lapwing

52)       Red-wattled Lapwing

53)       Pacific Golden Plover

54)       Grey Plover

55)       Kentish Plover

56)       Mongolian Plover (Lesser Sandplover)

57)       Greater Sandplover

58)       Pin-tailed Snipe

59)       Greater Painted Snipe ?

60)       Black-tailed Godwit

61)       Whimbrel

62)       Eurasian Curlew

63)       Redshank

64)       Marsh Sandpiper

65)       Greenshank

66)       Green Sandpiper

67)       Wood Sandpiper

68)       Common Sandpiper

69)       Turnstone

70)       Sanderling

71)       Little Stint

72)       Curlew Sandpiper

73)       Red-necked Phalarope

74)       Brown-headed Gull

75)       Gull-billed Tern

76)       Caspian Tern

77)       Lesser-crested Tern

78)       Swift Tern (Greater Crested Tern)

79)       Common Tern

80)       Little Tern

81)       Saunders`s Tern ?

82)       Whiskered Tern

83)       White-winged Black Tern

84)       Bridled Tern

85)       Sooty Tern

86)       Black Noddy

87)       Rock Dove

88)       Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon (E)

89)       Collared Dove

90)       Spotted Dove

91)       Emerald Dove

92)       Orange-breasted Green Pigeon

93)       Sri Lanka Green Pigeon (Pompadour Pigeon) (E)

94)       Green Imperial Pigeon

95)       Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot (E)

96)       Alexandrine Parakeet

97)       Rose-ringed Parakeet

98)       Plum-headed Parakeet

99)       Layard`s Parakeet (E)

100)     Jacobin Cuckoo

101)     Common Hawk Cuckoo

102)     Indian Cuckoo

103)     Banded Bay Cuckoo

104)     Grey-bellied Cuckoo

105)     Drongo Cuckoo

106)     Asian Koel

107)     Blue-faced Malkoha

108)     Red-faced Malkoha (E)

109)     Southern Coucal

110)     Green-billed Coucal (E)

111)     Sri Lanka Frogmouth

112)     Indian Nightjar

113)     Serendib Scops Owl (E)

114)     Jungle Owlet

115)     Chestnut-backed Owlet (E)

116)     Brown Fish Owl

117)     Brown Wood Owl

118)     Brown Hawk Owl

119)     Indian Swiftlet

120)     Asian Palm Swift

121)     Little Swift

122)     Brown-backed Needletail

123)     Crested Treeswift

124)     Indian Roller

125)     Little Green Bee-eater

126)     Blue-tailed Bee-eater

127)     Chestnut-headed Bee-eater

128)     Stork-billed Kingfisher

129)     White-throated Kingfisher

130)     Common Kingfisher

131)     Lesser Pied Kingfisher

132)     Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher

133)     Malabar Trogon

134)     Hoopoe

135)     Brown-headed Barbet

136)     Yellow-fronted Barbet (E)

137)     Crimson-fronted Barbet (E)

138)     Coppersmith Barbet

139)     Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (E)

140)     Malabar Pied Hornbill

141)     Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker

142)     Yellow-crowned Woodpecker

143)     Lesser Yellownape

144)     Lesser Flameback (E?)

145)     Greater Flameback (E)

146)     Indian Pitta

147)     Sri Lanka Woodshrike (E)

148)     Large Cuckooshrike

149)     Black-headed Cuckooshrike

150)     Small Minivet

151)     Orange Minivet (Scarlet Minivet)

152)     Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike

153)     Brown Shrike

154)     Common Iora

155)     Marshall`s Iora

156)     Jerdon`s Leafbird

157)     Golden-fronted Leafbird

158)     Black-hooded Oriole

159)     Sri Lanka Blue Magpie (E)

160)     House Crow

161)     Jungle Crow

162)     Barn Swallow

163)     Hill Swallow

164)     Eastern Red-rumped Swallow?

165)     Sri Lanka Swallow (E)

166)     White-bellied Drongo

167)     Sri Lanka Crested Drongo (E)

168)     Forest Wagtail

169)     Yellow Wagtail

170)     Grey Wagtail

171)     Paddyfield Pipit

172)     Jerdon`s Bushlark

173)     Oriental Skylark

174)     Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark

175)     Black-capped Bulbul (E)

176)     Red-vented Bulbul

177)     Yellow-eared Bulbul (E)

178)     White-browed Bulbul

179)     Yellow-browed Bulbul

180)     Black (Square-tailed) Bulbul

181)     Grey-breasted Prinia

182)     Jungle Prinia

183)     Plain Prinia

184)     Ashy Prinia

185)     Common Tailorbird

186)     Zitting Cisticola

187)     Sri Lanka Bush Warbler (E)

188)     Indian Reed Warbler (Clamorous Reed Warbler)

189)     Blyth`s Reed Warbler

190)     Sykes`s Warbler?

191)     Green Warbler (Bright Green Warbler)

192)     Large-billed Leaf Warbler

193)     White-browed Fantail

194)     Black-naped Monarch

195)     Asian Paradise Fylcatcher

196)     Brown-capped Babbler (E)

197)     Sri Lanka Scimitar-babbler (E)

198)     Dark-fronted Babbler

199)     Tawny-bellied Babbler

200)     Orange-billed Babbler (E)

201)     Yellow-billed Babbler

202)     Ashy-headed Laughingthrush (E)

203)     Sri Lanka Hill Myna (E)

204)     Lesser Hill Myna

205)     Common Myna

206)     White-faced Starling (E)

207)     Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush (E)

208)     Pied Thrush

209)     Orange-headed Thrush

210)     Eyebrowed Thrush

211)     Spot-winged Thrush (E)

212)     Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush (E)

213)     Indian Blackbird

214)     Blue Rock Thrush

215)     Oriental Magpie Robin

216)     White-rumped Shama

217)     Indian Robin

218)     Pied Bushchat

219)     Asian Brown Flycatcher

220)     Brown-breasted Flycatcher

221)     Dull Blue Flycatcher (E)

222)     Tickell`s Blue Flycatcher

223)     Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher

224)     Thick-billed Flowerpecker

225)     Pale-billed Flowerpecker

226)     Legge`s Flowerpecker (E)

227)     Purple-rumped Sunbird

228)     Purple Sunbird

229)     Loten`s Sunbird

230)     Oriental White-eye

231)     Sri Lanka White-eye (E)

232)     Velvet-fronted Nuthatch

233)     Cinereous Tit

234)     Streaked Weaver

235)     Baya Weaver

236)     House Sparrow

237)     Indian Silverbill

238)     White-rumped Munia

239)     Scaly-breasted Munia

240)     Black-headed Munia (Tri-coloured Munia)

241)     Black-throated Munia

 

MAMMALS

1)         Leopard

2)         Asian Elephant

3)         Water Buffalo

4)         Hanuman Grey Langar

5)         Toque Macaque

6)         Purple-faced Leaf Monkey (Bear Monkey)

7)         Samba Deer

8)         Spotted Deer

9)         Barking Deer

10)       Golden Jackal

11)       Grey Mongoose

12)       Brown Mongoose

13)       Ruddy Mongoose

14)       Giant Squirrel

15)       Palm Squirrel

16)       Dusky Squirrel

17)       Black-naped Hare

18)       Fruit Bat

19)       Horseshoe Bat (sp)

20)       Blue Whale (6 to 8)

21)       Bryde`s Whale

22)       Spinner Dolphin

23)       Hawksbill Turtle

24)       Hard-shelled Terrapin

25)       Star Tortoise

 

REPTILES

1)         Mugger Crocodile

2)         Estuarine Crocodile (Saltwater Crocodile)

3)         Water Monitor

4)         Land Monitor

5)         Common Rat Snake

6)         Water Snake (sp)

7)         Green Pit Viper

8)         Bronze-backed Tree Snake

9)         Agama Lizard (sp)

10)       Green Garden Lizard

11)       Hump-nosed Lizard

12)       Black-lipped Lizard

13)       Kangaroo Lizard

14)       Sri Lanka Horned Lizard

15)       Skink (sp)

16)       Gheko (sp)

17)       Common Hourglass Frog

 

FISH

1)         Flying Fish (sp)

 

INSECTS (etc.)

1)         Giant Wood Spider

2)         Praying Mantis (sp)

3)         Giant Millipede

 

BUTTERFLIES

1)         Sri Lanka Birdwing

2)         Crimson Rose

3)         Red Helen

4)         Common Mormon

5)         Blue Mormon

6)         Common Mime

7)         Bluebottle

8)         Five-barred Swordtail

9)         Jezebel

10)       Sri Lanka Tree Nymph

11)       Plain Tiger

12)       Common Indian Crow

13)       King Crow

14)       Indian Red admiral

15)       Common Sailor

16)       Lemon Pansy

17)       Sri Lanka Cerulean

18)       Common Grass

19)       Dark Blue Tiger

20)       Grey Pansy

21)       Chocolate Soldier

22)       Great Eggfly

 

BIRDS SEEN ON 2013 HOLIDAY BUT NOT IN 2015

1)         Cotton Pygmy Goose

2)         Garganey

3)         Red-footed Booby

4)         Peregrine Falcon (Shaheen)

5)         Besra

6)         Himalayan Buzzard

7)         Small Pratincole

8)         Black-headed Gull

9)         Sooty Tern

10)       Pomarine Skua

11)       Black Drongo

12)       Sirkeer Malkoha

13)       Collared Scops Owl

14)       Chestnut-backed Owlet

15)       Ashy Woodswallow

16)       Yellow-eyed Babbler

17)       Kashmir Flycatcher

Author/s of the report: 
John Diley
Group size: 
2
Members of the group (clients): 
John Diley
Anne Diley
Tour Guide: 
Nandana