Tony Crocker's Trip Report

Trip Report Title: 
Trip report – Sri Lanka, 2-12 March 2016, Tony Crocker
Tour Strat: 
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Tour End: 
Friday, March 11, 2016

Trip Report Year:

Tony Crocker with Upali during the trip in Sri Lanka
Tony Crocker with Upali during the trip in Sri Lanka

Itinerary –

2/3 – arrive Colombo

3/3 – Colombo - Kitulgala

4/3 - Kitulgala

5/3 – Kitulgala – Nuwara Eliya

6/3 – Nuwara Eliya (Horton Plains NP)

7/3 – Nuwara Eliya - Tissamaharama

8/3 – Tissa (Yala NP)

9/3 – Tissa - Sinharaja

10/3 - Sinharaja

11/3 - Sinharaja

12/3 – Sinharaja - Colombo

This trip was tacked to the end of an extended period of working in the Indian Ocean. I searched the net in order to locate operators based in part on those I had seen on previous short visits to Sri Lanka. I wanted to go in-country, as Sri Lanka is extremely good value but offshore operators tend to mark up outrageously. In the end, for several reasons, I chose Walk With Jith (walkwithjith.com).

I wanted a short trip, as I had been away from home for 3 months. I therefore stuck to southern Sri Lanka. Jith responded quickly to my initial and subsequent enquiries, came up with an extremely well-priced package for car, driver-birding guide, accommodation, breakfasts, dinners and some lunches, and entrance fees. I was left paying for a night in Colombo on arrival, some lunches, drinks (except water) and tips – which came to not a lot. All arrangements were exactly as planned except for their order in some cases.

Accommodation was modest but very comfortable – Airport City Hub Hotel (Colombo), Rest House (Kitulgala), Gregory’s Bungalow (Nuwara Eliya), Hibiscus Garden Hotel (Tissa), Rock View Motel (Sinharaja). All had great staff, good to excellent meals (rice and curry – brilliant, lots of little dishes with the rice) and were nicely located. The only below-par element was the quality of the room at the Rest House – it was old and tired but did the job.

My departure point was Chennai, and I flew (1 hour 15 mins) on SriLankan Airlines before overnighting in Colombo.  Next morning I was met by Jith (which was a nice touch) dead on time and introduced to my driver Upali.

We drove about three hours to Kitulgala, stopping en route for commoner Sri Lankan open country birds. After lunch and a break for the heat of the day we crossed the river with the local ferryman and birded the forest on the far side. Black Bulbuls and Brown-breasted Flycatchers were very much in evidence, along with a nice female Malabar Trogon and a Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, among other birds.

Next morning we birded around the Rest House and adjacent properties, finding lots of very active Sri Lanka Grey Hornbills, several singing Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers and, buzzing about, Layard’s Parakeets, though not with tickable views. We then drove to Nuwara Eliya, climbing through nice scenery and lots of tea plantations.

After another rest, we headed to a quiet country lane not far from town, and a most unprepossessing site, as it was the local rubbish dump and smelled awful! However it turned out to be flycatcher city – Brown-breasted, Tickell’s Blue, Dull Blue, Grey-headed Canary and a single Kashmir, all showing incredibly well – as well as producing the first Sri Lanka White-eyes and Yellow-eared Bulbuls.

Next morning was the first of a series of very early starts, in order to beat the rush (in theory) at the entrance gate to Horton Plains NP, which can be time-consuming, and to be on site for sunrise. We staked out a place a few kms into the park, and picked up a Sri Lanka Whistling-thrush (after dipping on it the the previous day, despite trying very hard – it was a fairly uninspiring female bird). We also had good views of some of the previous day’s birds, several SL Bush-warblers and, at another site, Greater Flameback and a SL Scimitar-babbler (and giant squirrels). A highlight was a leopard which ran past the parked car while we (about 8 of us) stood on the road about 50 metres away. No one seemed that bothered. Hill Swallows were about on the descent.

After a lunchtime break, we headed for the famed Victoria Gardens in central Nuwara Eliya. As it was Sunday it was heaving with people, but despite that, one of the several birding groups there eventually picked up a pair of Pied Thrushes, showing well high in a tree next to the open sewer that is the little stream on the park boundary. Forest Wagtails were very evident, and we found a very confiding Indian Pitta near the park entrance.

Next morning the plan was to visit another garden, mostly for wood pigeons, but they opened later than we expected, so we carried on the Surrey Estate. This is a small private sanctuary but turned up the specialty – Brown Wood Owl – very quickly, along with the first Yellow-fronted Barbets and more flycatchers.

We then drove the very scenic route to Tissamaharama. The hotel has an excellent garden and nearby ricefields, and that filled in the hot part of the day. SL Lesser Flamebacks and Malabar Pied Hornbills were great, along with astonishing numbers of Green Imperial-pigeons and Pale-billed Flowerpeckers.

Late afternoon we headed to a site at Tissa Tanks – tanks are large man-made reservoirs. In the north of the country they can be over a thousand years old. Nowadays they are an important part of Sri Lankan agriculture and significant bird habitats. There were lots of herons etc, a nice collection of waders, some good passerines (Streaked Weavers nest building). The highlight was a fleeting Yellow Bittern and a cracking fly-by of a Black Bittern. We stayed here until sundown in preference to going for White-naped Woodpecker in order to try for Watercock – we may have seen one briefly.

Next morning was a very early start by safari vehicle to Yala NP. I’d been here once before but this was a full-day assault, and probably my most exciting day of the trip. We avoided the crowds of elephant- and leopard-seekers, who disappeared around lunchtime and reappeared late afternoon. The birds just kept on coming – Yellow-crowned Woodpecker as it was getting light, Blue-faced Malkoha soon after, perched Crested Tree-swift…. A Brown Fish-owl spent the day conspicuously by the main entrance road and two separate pairs of stunning Brahminy Starlings were a highlight. There is a lot of fairly dry woodland reminiscent of much of Africa, plus lots of water in ponds and tanks.

An absolute target bird for me, wader nut that I am, was Small Pratincole. Bundala NP is the place to go for it, apparently, but we stopped at the end of the day at a small and unlikely coastal lagoon close to the entrance gate. Here there was a nice collection of waders and terns, when Upali spotted a single pratincole. It leapt up briefly, showing its wings and tail before hunkering down in a small hollow in the dried mud. An exquisite little thing, and a first for Upali in the park.

Once we had left, we stopped at some salt pans and another coastal lagoon to scan for more pratincoles. Our driver for the day went off to pee, and ‘flushed’ a pair of Indian Nightjars, which gave brief but good views in flight when we relocated them.

Next day was a leisurely start for Sinharaja. In the afternoon we birded the area known as Sinharaja village, outside the park proper. It turned up my first cracking view of Layard’s Parakeets, followed immediately by an equally cracking view of Plum-headed, the only ones of the trip. The area also produced my only Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike, a few Dark-fronted Babblers, first Legge’s Flowerpeckers and the only SL Green Pigeon, plus the first of many Orange-billed Babblers.

The following morning was another early start, to the reserve entrance to pick up the required local ranger, and a long and rather exhausting day walking forest trails. Rainforest birding is not my favourite, as it is hot and humid and the birds hard to come by. We found two small and rather species-poor feeding flocks, which provided for a rush of activity (and Red-faced Malkohas, the only White-faced Starling, and Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes). The first of quite a few Spot-winged Thrushes were seen while trying very hard for SL Thrush. A pair of SL Frogmouths were amazing – located by our ranger, they closely resemble bits of tangled dead leaves, as opposed to Tawny Frogmouth and others which look like dead wood. SL Blue Magpies were at a research station and ridiculously tame, as they are fed, which is a shame, but they were not seen elsewhere.

Next morning was another very early start, and a transfer into an old jeep for a rough drive to another part of the park and a SL Spurfowl site. There was a group of 12 UK birders there, at a house in the forest. The household waste water and waste food area next to the house attracts various birds each morning. The spurfowl are notoriously shy, but after an hour or so a pair put in an appearance, as they do daily, and showed incredibly well for just a couple of minutes. The male is quite the most magnificent spurfowl I have seen.

Then we got a call that the ranger of the day had found a Serendib Scops-owl. We hightailed it up a steep slope and crashed through vegetation to the site. They were incredibly hard to make out, but there was a pair of them, and it was well worth a sweat-soaked shirt and the leech bite I sustained getting up there and back (leeches are far less common in my experience than in, say, Vietnam or Borneo). We also had great views of SL Mynas, among other things.

That afternoon and the following morning we targeted without success the SL Wood Pigeon, before driving to Colombo airport (a Black Eagle en route), from where I was very well looked after by SriLankan Airlines en route to Tokyo.

Dips? – SL Wood Pigeon, despite lots of trying, and also the SL Thrush (and Crimson-fronted Barbet – heard but not seen, but I have seen one before, near Kandy). Otherwise it was a clean sweep of the endemics, and masses of terrific birds besides. All of Walk With Jith’s arrangements were spot-on, at a great price. Upali knew his birds and where to find them, even though he is a man of few words (in English!). Sri Lanka as a birding destination? – absolutely top drawer.

Species list (* = endemic)

* Sri Lanka Spurfowl - Sinharaja

* Sri Lanka Junglefowl – seen many days

Indian Peafowl – seen most days

Lesser Whistling-duck – Tissa Tanks, Yala

Cotton Pygmy-goose – Tissa Tanks

Painted Stork - Yala

Asian Openbill – seen most days

Woolly-necked Stork – Colombo-Kitulgali, Yala

Black-necked Stork - Yala

Lesser Adjutant - Yala

Black-headed Ibis – seen most days in open country

Eurasian Spoonbill - Yala

Yellow Bittern – Tissa Tanks

Black Bittern – Tissa Tanks

Striated Heron - Yala

Indian Pond-heron - seen most days

Grey Heron – seen most days

Purple Heron - Yala

Cattle Egret – seen daily

Great Egret – open country

Intermediate Egret – open country

Little Egret – Yala, Tissa Tanks

Spot-billed Pelican – Yala, including a colony

Little Cormorant – seen most days

Indian Cormorant – seen most days

Great Cormorant – 1 at Tissa Tanks

Oriental Darter – Yala, Tissa

Brahminy Kite – seen most days at low altitude

White-bellied Sea-eagle – nesting pair at Yala

Shikra – several days

Oriental Honey-buzzard – several days

Crested Serpent Eagle – several days

Black Eagle – roadside Sinharaja-Colombo

Changeable Hawk-eagle – Yala and elsewhere

White-breasted Waterhen – most days at low altitude

Purple Swamphen – Yala, Tissa

Common Moorhen – Yala, Tissa

Pheasant-tailed Jacana – Yala, Tissa

Indian Thick-knee - Yala

Great Thick-knee - Yala

Black-winged Stilt – Yala, open country

Yellow-wattled Lapwing - Yala

Red-wattled Lapwing – most days in open country

Pacific Golden Plover - Yala

Little Ringed Plover – Yala, Tissa

Kentish Plover – Yala, Tissa

Lesser Sand Plover - Yala

Pintail Snipe - Yala

Black-tailed Godwit - Yala

Common Redshank – Yala, Tissa

Marsh Sandpiper – Yala, Tissa

Common Greenshank – Yala, Tissa

Wood Sandpiper - Tissa

Common Sandpiper – Yala, Tissa

Little Stint – Yala, Tissa

Curlew Sandpiper – near Yala

Broad-billed Sandpiper – 1 at Yala

Small Pratincole – 1 at Yala

Gull-billed Tern – Yala, Tissa

Caspian Tern – 1 at Yala

Lesser Crested Tern – Yala beachfront

Greater Crested Tern – Yala beachfront

Little Tern - Yala

Whiskered Tern – Yala, Tissa

White-winged Tern - Yala

Feral Pigeon/Rock Dove – seen every day

Western Spotted Dove – seen every day

Emerald Dove – seen most days in forest

Orange-breasted Green Pigeon – Kitulgali, Yala, Sinharaja

* Sri Lanka Green Pigeon – 1 at Sinharaja

Green Imperial-pigeon – seen most days

* Sri Lanka Hanging-parrot – seen most days

Rose-ringed Parakeet – seen most days

Plum-headed Parakeet - 4 at Sinharaja

* Layard’s Parakeet – seen in forest areas

Jacobin Cuckoo – 1 at Yala

Grey-bellied Cuckoo – 2 at Yala

Asian Koel – seen/heard most days

Blue-faced Malkoha – several at Yala

* Red-faced Malkoha – several at Sinharaja in feeding flocks

Greater Coucal – seen/heard in forest

* Green-billed Coucal – 2 at Sinharaja

Sri Lanka Frogmouth – a pair at Sinharaja

Indian Nightjar – a pair near Yala

* Serendib Scops-owl – a pair at Sinharaja

* Chestnut-backed Owlet – 1 at Kitulgali, 1 at Sinharaja

Brown Fish-owl – 1 at Yala

Brown Wood-owl – 1 at Surrey Estate

Indian Swiftlet – seen most days

Asian Palm-swift – seen most days

House Swift – seen several days

Crested Treeswift – open country, Yala, Sinharaja

Indian Roller – open country

Green Bee-eater – open country

Blue-tailed Bee-eater – open country

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater – open country

Stork-billed Kingfisher – Yala, Tissa

White-throated Kingfisher – seen most days

Common Kingfisher – seen several times

Pied Kingfisher – Yala, Tissa

Malabar Trogon – 1 at Kitulgali, 1 at Sinharaja

Common Hoopoe – 1 in open country

Brown-headed Barbet – seen most days

* Yellow-fronted Barbet - Sinharaja

Coppersmith Barbet – 1 at Sinharaja

* Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill - Kitulgali

Malabar Pied Hornbill - Yala

Yellow-crowned Woodpecker – 1 at Yala

Lesser Yellownape – several with feeding flocks, Sinharaja

* Lesser Sri Lanka Flameback – Yala, Sinharaja

* Crimson-backed Goldenback – Horton Plains, Sinharaja

Indian Pitta – Nuwara Eliya

Sri Lanka Woodshrike - Yala

* Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike – 1 at Sinharaja

Small Minivet – a pair at Yala

Scarlet Minivet – Kitulgali, Sinharaja

Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike - Yala

Brown Shrike – open country

Common Iora – wooded country

Jerdon’s Leafbird – 1 at Yala

Golden-fronted Leafbird – 1 at Sinharaja

Black-hooded Oriole – wooded country

* Sri Lanka Blue Magpie - Sinharaja

House Crow – seen most days

Jungle Crow – seen most days

Barn Swallow – seen most days

Hill Swallow – higher country near Horton Plains

Red-rumped Swallow (SL Race) – seen many days

Ashy Woodswallow – 1 in open country

White-bellied Drongo – seen most day in forest

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (SL race) - Sinharaja

Forest Wagtail – Nuwara Eliya

Yellow Wagtail – Nuwara Eliya, Horton Plains

Grey Wagtail – Yala, Sinharaja

Paddyfield Pipit – open country

Jerdon’s Bushlark - Yala

Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark – 2 at Yala

Black-capped Bulbul – Kitulgali, Sinharaja

Red-vented Bulbul – seen daily

* Yellow-eared Bulbul – Horton Plains, Sinharaja

White-browed Bulbul - Yala

Yellow-browed Bulbul – Horton Plains, Yala, Sinharaja

Black Bulbul – Kitulgali, Sinharaja

Ashy Prinia – Nuwara Eliya

Plain Prinia - Yala

Common Tailorbird – seen most days in forest and woodland

* Sri Lanka Bush-warbler – Horton Plains

Greenish Warbler – Nuwara Eliya, Sinharaja

White-browed Fantail - Yala

Black-naped Monarch - Sinharaja

Asian Paradise-flycatcher – Yala, Sinharaja

* Brown-capped Babbler - Sinharaja

* Sri Lanka Scimitar-babbler – Nuwara Eliya, Horton Plains, Sinharaja

Dark-fronted Babbler - Sinharaja

Yellow-eyed Babbler – Yala

* Orange-billed Babbler - Sinharaja

Yellow-billed Babbler – woodland and forest

* Ashy-headed Laughingthrush - Sinharaja

* Sri Lanka Hill Myna - Sinharaja

Common Hill Myna – open country, Sinharaja

Common Myna – seen daily

* White-faced Starling – 1 at Sinharaja

Brahminy Starling – 2 pairs at Yala

* Sri Lanka Whistling-thrush – 1 at Horton Plains

Pied Thrush – a pair at Nuwara Eliya

* Spot-winged Thrush - Sinharaja

Indian Blackbird – 1 at Nuwara Eliya

Oriental Magpie-robin – seen daily

Indian Robin - Yala

Pied Bushchat – Nuwara Eliya

Brown-breasted Flycatcher – most days in forest

Kashmir Flycatcher – Nuwara Eliya

* Dull-blue Flycatcher – most days in forest

Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher – Kitulgali, Sinharaja

Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher – Kitulgali, Sinharaja

* Legge’s Flowerpecker - Sinharaja

Pale-billed Flowerpecker – seen many days in woodland

Purple-rumped Sunbird – seen most days a low altitude

Purple Sunbird – seen several days in forest

Loten’s Sunbird - Kitulgali

Oriental White-eye – Kitulgali, Nuwara Eliya, Sinharaja

* Sri Lanka White-eye – Nuwara Eliya, Horton Plains, Sinharaja

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch – 1 at Kitulgali, 1 at Sinharaja

Great Tit – seen most days in forest/woodland

Streaked Weaver – Tissa, Yala

House Sparrow – seen daily

Indian Silverbill – 2 at Yala

White-rumped Munia – open country

Scaly-breasted Munia – open country

Black-headed Munia – open country

Tour Categories:

Author/s of the report: 
Tony Crocker
Group size: 
1
Members of the group (clients): 
Tony Crocker
Tour Guide: 
Upali