A trip with Andrew & Isabel Senior – My wife Isabel, and myself, decided in May 2000 to arrange a tour of Sri Lanka.
We’ve some experience of bird tours elsewhere, and were attracted to Sri Lanka for a number of reasons. Not least among these, was the list of Sri Lankan endemic birds.
Initial enquiries revealed a wide range of available tours, at a wide range of prices. Trip reports from birders who had made the trip previously suggested a few companies who offer to organise tours, and after exploring some of these, we eventually made our booking with: A. Baur & Co.(Travel) Ltd 5, Upper Chatham Street, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka.
Dealing with Baurs proved a painless experience. The company is very experienced in bird watching tours, and offer a number of alternatives packages. We chose a 21 day itinerary, giving us the opportunity to relax between visiting the main birding sites. This itinerary takes the visitor from airport back to airport, with Baurs making all of the necessary hotel bookings, as well as providing a personal vehicle and guide/driver for the duration of the tour. Also included were all fees to the sites visited, hire of four wheel drive vehicles where appropriate, and even lunches!
Baurs also offer a tour which provides a vehicle along with guide/driver, but leaves you free to dictate your own pace, with the guide negotiating hotels on a day by day basis. This is probably the best option for those birders with limited time, and who wish to build a list quickly.
All the arrangements were made by E-mail. Baurs required no deposit, the whole arrangement being based on mutual trust.
Flights from Manchester to Colombo were expensive, but after some searching we eventually booked through: Trailfinders, 58, Deansgate, Manchester M3 2FF 0161 839 6969 Our route was to be Ringway to Amsterdam with KLM, and then a Martinair flight to Colombo. Total cost per head was US$1490 for the tour, plus £350 for the flight. We took US$ travellers cheques, and had no trouble changing these in hotels. Because of the tour we had selected, our expenses were limited to evening drinks, and tipping.
John Harrison’s A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (OUP) was our only reference for birding, and this proved perfectly adequate. It is both comprehensive and easy to use. We also had a 1:500000 road map (Berndtson & Berndtson) to help orientate ourselves.
Day by Day
25 January We arrived at Manchester in plenty of time, checked in our luggage, and went for breakfast. With only 20 minutes to go before our flight was due to leave, and with no announcement of a boarding gate, we began to smell a rat. We eventually learned that our flight was postponed, because high winds in Amsterdam had reduced Schipol to one runway, and that ‘everything is delayed’. The delay lasted two hours, and we arrived in Amsterdam to find that ‘everything’ didn’t include our connection, which had already left. After a bit of re-routing, we were able to get a fax off to Baurs, explaining that we would be late. We arrived in Colombo at about 10:00 via KLM to Bahrain, and then Air Lanka.
Unfortunately, our luggage didn’t arrive with us. We had had the foresight to take bins, scope and field guide as hand luggage, but that was about it. No tripod, no clothes other than what we were wearing to keep out the cold of Manchester, and, stupidly, no malaria tablets. Air Lanka gave us 9000 rupees to buy toiletries, and assured us that the luggage would arrive on the next flight, tomorrow morning.
Baurs have an airport rep. known as Sam. Sam had received our fax, and waited at the airport until we arrived. He suggested that we should leave all the arrangements to him. We could commence our tour immediately, and Baurs would take it upon themselves to chase up the baggage, clear it through customs, and deliver it to us wherever we were on the tour. This meant that we had to hand over to Sam our passports, our tickets and our luggage keys, and also sign some blank sheets of A4 upon which he would later type out his authorisation to collect the luggage on our behalf. This was all a bit disconcerting – 28hrs without sleep, and with what seemed to be all of our plans collapsing around us – I’m now being asked to hand over my passport and ticket home to a complete stranger! The alternative of course was to stay that day in Colombo, and collect our luggage personally tomorrow. We decided to take Sam’s advice, so first cashing some travellers cheques before handing over the passports, we set off from Katunayake with our diver/guide, Sunil Alwis.
We were both pretty tired from the flight, and the drive to Anuradhapura was the longest single drive of the trip – we both slept for part of the drive. Our route took us north to Puttalam, and then north-east to Anuradhapura on route 12. This drive was our introduction to birds that would soon become familiar – kingfishers, bee-eaters and Indian rollers on the roadside wires, jacanas, egrets and herons on any wet land, and red-vented bulbul and magpie robins everywhere. We arrived at our hotel in the afternoon, and after freshening up, drove out of Anuradhapura towards Mihintale in order to view some large roadside tanks (Tanks are large reservoirs, often quite ancient, constructed as part of irrigation systems). Here we saw our first storks (Painted and Openbill), Indian and pygmy cormorants, and also our first peafowl. Brahminy kites were common. We saw several large flocks of Rose-coloured Starlings coming into roost
26 January After a good night’s sleep, we felt much more refreshed, but were a little late in meeting Sunil after breakfast. As we left reception, Sunil was anxiously pacing around the hotel forecourt, waiting to show us the first of Sri Lanka’s endemic species – Grey Hornbill, feeding in the hotel garden. It was a promising start! We drove back to the tanks that we had viewed yesterday.
The area was awash with birds. Cormorants, egrets, herons and storks were the most noticeable species, but the tanks were fringed with trees and bushes, and searching these provided our second endemic of the day -Yellow-fronted Barbet. There were also Minivets, Ioras and Black-hooded Orioles, and a brief foray into the scrub saw us flush a Rain Quail. Our main target in this area though was Blue-faced Malkhoa. We had a brief glimpse of one bird in the scrub area, but were unable to find it again once it moved. Sunil though, was absolutely determined to get us good views of this stunning bird. We left the road that divides the two tanks, and drove off onto a minor road. Almost immediately, Sunil spotted two birds moving through the trees on the side of the track, so we pulled up and waited. Within a couple of minutes, two Blue-faced Malkohas crossed the road in front of us, and showed beautifully. They were joined later by a third bird, and were almost too close to focus bins on.
Continuing along the minor road, we came to a dirt track, which followed the bank of the tank we had been watching earlier, but on the opposite side. Whilst there were plenty of birds to watch, new species were becoming less frequent. Isabel wanted to visit the Buddhist temple that seemed to be the destination of the track. We made our way up to the temple, and it was here that we met Rathanawansa.
Rathanawansa is the priest at the temple, and he made us very welcome. After showing us the site, he invited us into his home for tea. In spite of the language difficulties, we were able to explain why we were in the area, and, although not a birder himself, Rathanawansa was interested, and offered to help.
Some bird guides seem not to welcome advice from others, particularly non-birders. This was definitely not the case with Sunil, who was soon deep in conversation with Rathanawansa. It was arranged that we would return in the evening, and that Rathanawansa would take us to an area where he regularly saw Nightjars.
We returned to the hotel, and birded around the lake and hotel grounds until setting off back to the tanks. Driving directly to the temple (encountering Besra and a huge water monitor on the way), we picked up Rathanawansa and let him direct us into an area of cultivated land where he had previously seen owls roosting. We had no luck with owls I’m afraid, but did see a huge variety of birds including a group of four of the local endemic race of Red-rumped Swallow sitting on wires, and our first Paradise Flycatcher – a male of the local race. Tailorbirds, Flowerpeckers, Barbets and Prinias showed, as well as a displaying Peacock. As dusk grew near, we boarded the van, and drove back to the tank.
Rathanawansa directed us to an area, where we parked up to wait for dark. As we got out of the vehicle, two Brown Fish-owls flew across in front of the van and we watched these fly along the tank edge and out of sight. A low concrete wall edged the track, and we mounted this wall in order to get a wider view of the area. After only a minute or two, Sunil heard Indian Nightjar call, and suddenly they were all around us, and even perched on the wall as we approached. We were absolutely elated.
As we sat on the wall considering our good fortune, another monk arrived, a friend of Rathanawansa. He had bought with him a sponge cake, which he presented to Isabel! Rathanawansa was insistent that Isabel accept the cake, but finally settled on allowing her to share the cake between us all. As we sliced the cake, Rathanawansa’s apprentice, a monk of about nine years of age, appeared out of the darkness with a flask of tea. The night assumed an unreal quality from that point. Here we were, sitting under a beautifully clear starlit sky, eating cake and drinking tea with Buddhist monks, and with Indian Nightjars all around us.
At the end of the picnic, we drove Rathanawansa and the young lad back to the temple. We could barely make progress for the nightjars sitting on the track! We got out of the van and walked – the nightjars allowed us to get within a couple of paces, and then would lift off and re-settle a few yards away. It was a magical night. Eventually we left Rathanawansa, and returned to the hotel. The night remains one of our favourite memories of Sri Lanka. I understand that Sunil may use this temple as a ‘hotel’ on future ‘open’ tours, although custom forbids that women should stay overnight. The only black spot on the day was the news that our luggage hadn’t made it to Sri Lanka – it would be here tomorrow.
27 January We left Anuradhapura for the drive to Sigiriya. Sri Lanka’s infrastructure is being neglected due to the expense of the war in the north, and this is plainly obvious from the roads. Even major roads are in a state of disrepair, heavily potholed in places, and unfit for high speed. Add to this the Sri Lanans’ easy going nature – life seems to proceed at a steady pace, with little evidence of rushing – and the penchant of the local dogs (and there are thousands of dogs), for laying on the tarmac, and you’re left with a realisation that you will go nowhere quickly. Indeed, Sunil only broke through the thirty miles an hour barrier on a couple of occasions during the whole trip.
We stopped often at likely looking places, and added our first eagles of the trip – White-bellied Sea-eagle and Crested Serpent-eagle during one such stop. There were further good views of Grey Hornbill, as well as a large variety of herons, egrets and waders in the paddy fields and tanks.
It was late morning when we arrived at Sigiriya. Once we had left the main road, we had a fairly long drive through scrub land which gradually thickened into jungle. Again, a number of short stops were taken in order to look at birds, including a fantastic White-rumped Sharma performing like a star. One saddening aspect of this drive was to see captured porcupines, leashed outside of homes, in an obvious effort to tempt tourists in stopping for photographs. There was plenty of ‘wild’ wildlife however, most noticeably the pink-faced Toque, and grey-faced Langur monkeys. We also saw a couple of mongooses and many small Palm squirrels; perhaps more excitingly, certainly for us, our first sight of wild elephant dung!
Sigiriya is famous for it’s rock fortress, and a small village here is the location of a few hotels. The approach road to the village crosses a huge embankment built to contain another tank We stopped here to scan the lake, and found our first Grey-rumped Treeswift perched in a tree overhanging the tank. This isn’t an endemic or even a particularly difficult bird to find, but, for me anyway, it was the best bird so far – an absolute stunner, sitting quietly but with is crest fully erect, just as Harrison had promised! We watched it for a while, but it was settled, and didn’t take flight.
We stayed at the Sigiriya Hotel, which was pleasant, arriving in time for lunch. Once seated in the dining room, a roofed area, with open walls, the full magnificence of the ‘rock’ could be seen. It’s difficult to describe this feature – just a huge single boulder seemingly dropped in the middle of the jungle, with a fifteen hundred years old fortress built on its summit. We walked out with Sunil during the afternoon, and saw Pied Cuckoo, Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike, more sunbirds, pigeons, parakeets (rose-ringed) and barbets, as well as another Blue-faced Malkhoa. We also found Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, and Booted Warbler in the hotel gardens.
In the evening we drove off to a Fish-owl stakeout near more tanks. We did see Fish-owl, but again, only brief flight views. Black-crowned Night-heron, White-browed Fantail and Stork-billed Kingfisher combined to make this a pleasant evening, but the real star of the evening was a beautiful white male Paradise Flycatcher, looking almost unearthly as it drifted through the dusk with its tail streaming behind it.
Disappointingly, our luggage was still off on travels of its own. The people at Baurs had established that it was now in Delhi, and were doing their utmost to convince someone to send it on. Given the dreadful earthquake in India at this time, I doubt if our luggage had a high priority in Delhi. The hotel offered a laundry service, but not overnight, so we washed what we could get away without wearing to dinner, and had a couple of beers.
28 January An early start today, in order to have a good look around the paths and tracks in the local area. We were still unable to dress properly, and this perhaps effected Sunil’s plans for the day. Nevertheless, we set off in good spirits. First bird of the day was an Indian Pitta, our first Pitta of any description. A magnificent bird, skulking in the cover of bushes initially, but showed in its full splendour after a short wait, and we had barely left the hotel grounds! The early morning is reckoned to be the most productive birding period for this site, and so it proved, We soon clocked up a pair of Brown-capped Woodpeckers, a very close view of Plaintive Cuckoo, more Paradise Flycatchers, and our first Jungle Fowl, though Isabel missed this. Endemic species included Grey Hornbill again and Brown-capped Babbler, another skulker.
We continued searching the darker areas of undergrowth for Orange-headed Thrush, but we had no joy with this. Our route took us on one track that showed recent signs of elephant – damaged trees as well as fresh dung and even footprints. Sunil assured us that wild elephants were known to be in the area, but the only one we saw was a domesticated beast. We returned to the hotel via the tank, under the massif of the rock fortress, and found our first crocodile of the trip basking on an exposed rock in the tank. Very thrilling of course, but I’m cursed (or blessed, depending on circumstances!) with a vivid imagination! There was nothing solid between us and it, and where was its mates?
We were soon distracted by a raptor calling from a nearby tree, and followed Sunil to find a juvenile eagle calling from a bare branch. I find raptor identification especially difficult, and I was unable to make a sure identification. Some moments later however all became clear when two adult Changeable Hawk-eagles responded to the call. Sunil later identified the nest.
Lunch time, and early afternoon, are generally quiet for birds, and our routine was to take it easy for a few hours before venturing out again during the evening. I wasn’t particularly weary, and decided to take a walk out on my own. It was very hot, but cooler along the jungle tracks. After a couple of hours of peering into dark cover, I came to the main road to the village, and decided to walk the road back, mainly to admire the excellent views of the fortress. I was still casually glancing into cover and a brief movement attracted my attention. Squatting by the side of the road, I waited, and an Indian Pitta hopped into view. As I bought up my bins, there was further movement, and a Brown-capped Babbler joined the Pitta. I know this sounds unlikely, but as I scanned from Pitta to Babbler, another bird revealed itself, tossing aside the leaf litter as it hunted for food – an adult male Orange-headed Thrush! I actually had all three birds in the same field of view of the bins on a number of occasions. This was the only view I had of Orange-headed Thrush throughout the trip, and although we searched at a number of other sites, neither Isabel nor Sunil saw one at all. We all three returned to the same site later, but though the Pitta and Babbler both showed, we couldn’t find the thrush.
The evening walk bought us a good variety of birds, including three species of Barbet, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Greater Flameback and Blue-winged Leafbird. Late evening news – our luggage was still in Delhi, in spite of the assurances which Air Lanka had given Baurs. By now, Sunil was offering us clothes from his own wardrobe, and it was looking as if I’d have to bite the bullet and buy a razor!
29 January The rock fortress at Sigiriya is a well known site for a local race of Peregrine known as Shaheen. I thought I’d seen a pair of these birds while out on my own yesterday, but though the flight profile looked right, they were distant, and I wasn’t totally convinced. So, when Isabel suggested that we take a day off from birding, and attempt the tourist route up to the fortress, I was easily convinced.
Consequently, we set off early, in order to make the climb before the full heat of the day. Sunil found us a guide, but refused to climb the rock himself, claiming vertigo and an aversion to heights. The rock is surrounded by a number of moats and walls, which enclose the ‘winter palace’ – a series of gardens, pools and terraces – and we walked through these before commencing the climb.
Climbing the rock isn’t too strenuous; the whole route is a series of stairs cut into the rock, with a couple of stretches of cast iron walkways, installed by the British in the 1930s, linking across areas where the stone stairs run out. A steady climb brings you to the ‘Lion Gate’, imposing remains of what must have been a fantastic structure, which represents the half way point. We stopped to rest here. Sunil had impressed upon our guide the need to see Shaheen, and the lad really did try. We saw the holes in the rock where the birds roost, complete with the tell tale white markings, but of the birds, no sign! I spent some time going through the flocks of hirundines and swifts which continually hunt around the rock, and was able to pick out Indian Swiftlet and Little Swift, but I saw no raptors at all. Having come so far, we decided to push on to the summit, and have a look at the summer palace.
It was certainly worth the effort. Fabulous views in all directions and a male Blue Rock-thrush performing at the very top. I spent some time in silent admiration for a king who used to live alone up here for six months of the year, with only five hundred concubines for company!
Archaeologically, the site is fantastic. It’s claimed to be another ‘eighth wonder of the world’, but this one really does live up to the title; thoroughly recommended to anyone with even only a passing interest. Sunil’s warnings of vertigo however, should be taken seriously – my vivid imagination again I suppose, but those walkways are seventy years old!
We went shopping in the afternoon, though there is limited opportunity in Sigiriya. We were desperate for a change of clothes, and I was told that remaining unshaven any longer was not an option. We managed to sufficient gear to get by for the next day or so, but still no malaria tablets. Thankfully, this time of year sees the mosquitoes at their quietest. Back at the hotel, an eight foot rat snake was our first serpent of the trip, lazily working it’s way across the hotel car park, after a shower of rain.
Later that afternoon, Sunil offered the chance to drive to Ritigala Natural Reserve. This was a site with which Sunil was unfamiliar, but he’d heard that Spurfowl was a possibility here. Spurfowl seems to be one of the most difficult of the endemics to see, so I was happy to give it a shot. Birdwise however, it proved disappointing.
Certainly the site looked promising, but the weather was against us, with overcast skies and steady drizzle. Sunil found a local guide who took us to the Spurfowl site, but we had no luck. This site also offers some archaeological interest – un-restored ancient ruins of a huge temple complex, including a hospital, complete with stone beds, medicine preparation equipment and toilets!
We decided to delay our departure in the morning, in order to have a last look for Shaheen. Arrived back at the hotel to find… .no luggage.
30 January Awoke this morning to find the rock enveloped in low cloud, and another slight drizzle setting in. Nevertheless, after breakfast, Sunil drove us on a complete circuit of the rock, and we struck lucky near the main entrance to the winter palace area. A single raptor came fairly low across the road in front of the van, though by the time I’d got out, the bird was moving quickly away from us. It looked good to me, though my views weren’t ideal. Sunil assured us that it was Shaheen, but… Anyway, it’s my list, and it’s on!
Leaving Sigiriya, we set off for our next destination, Kandy. Our route took us through the spice growing areas along route 9. We stopped at one of these spice gardens, where we were suckered into buying a series of cure-alls, but a pretty thorough massage, and excellent views of Southern Hill Myna made up for it.
t was an eventful trip. We drove through a small town, which was clearing up after what must have been an horrendous flash flood from the night before. The river level had dropped by the time we arrived, but homes and shops were a foot deep in silt and mud (and probably worse), and the riverbanks were strewn with personal possessions. It’s a little uncomfortable being a tourist in such a situation.
The volume of traffic increased dramatically as we approached Kandy, and I was relieved that it was Sunil who was driving, and not me. After a three week tour, I still don’t understand all of the driving conventions of Sri Lanka, especially the use of indicators! We made it the hotel unscathed, although we did see one pedestrian, an old man, felled by a truck. People were rushing to help.
The Queen’s Hotel in Kandy is a beautiful hotel, if a little pretentious. As we pulled up at the hotel entrance, a uniformed doorman rushed to open the van doors for us, and asked for our luggage. I explained that our luggage was in the back of the van, and he insisted in taking it in for us. It was wonderful to see this guy escorting us through the marbled halls to the reception desk, carrying two Morrison’s plastic carrier bags, which I’d found in my hand luggage, and into which we’d packed the clothes we had bought! He didn’t bat an eyelid.
After settling in, Sunil took us to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya – only a short drive from the hotel. The gardens were obviously a popular place for the local folk, and the birding was a little slow to start with.
The most obvious feature of the gardens was a huge colony of Flying Foxes, which started to stir as evening approached. These were both much larger and much noisier than I had anticipated. I missed a fly-past of the endemic Hanging-parrot, but as we tried to re-locate these, we found a magnificent Alexandrine Parakeet sat on a bare tree stump. Again, surprisingly large, heavy billed and long-tailed. We watched this until our attention was drawn towards a Black Eagle soaring high over the park
We continued around the park, and found a small group of Parakeets in a palm tree, feeding on fruits. Sunil thought these were Layard’s, but I couldn’t be sure. Our views were brief and obstructed as the birds fed, and we could find no convincing feature for either Layard’s or Rose-ringed. Bill colour was a non-descript grey, and the collars were ill-defined. Even the head colour was confusing, neither the bright green of Rose-ringed, of which we’d seen plenty, but neither the blue/grey I’d expected of Layard’s. I guess we were looking at either juvenile or moulting birds – all pretty unsatisfactory. We decided to move on, but had barely gone ten paces when Sunil set up the scope and stood back in satisfaction. ‘Look’, he said. Sure enough, an unmistakable Layard’s, just over the boundary fence. We saw several more after this of course, the first is always the hardest. I also caught up with Hanging-parrot, and, towards the end of our walk, Forest Wagtail and a pair of Scarlet Minivets.
We returned to the hotel very satisfied, but the day was to get much, much better. We washed some of our gear, and went down for a beer and then dinner. We were just about to have coffee, when a lad from the reception desk came to tell us we had a visitor! Intrigued, I went through, to be confronted by Sam and two bags! Baurs had achieved the impossible, and had managed to get our luggage out of India. As soon as it landed, they despatched Sam, and a driver to bring it directly to us. We really hadn’t expected to see it again, and were already mentally preparing lists for the insurance claim!
I must stress again, that Baurs responsibility here was nil. The flight arrangements weren’t part of the package, and as far as I was concerned, Baurs had no responsibility at all until they met us at Colombo. They simply assumed the task of re-uniting us with our baggage as a part of their service to a customer, and I record here my appreciation for the efforts of the Baur team, and in particular of Perry Viswaligham. Thank you all!
31 January This was a relatively quiet day. An early morning trip to Udawatte Kele Sanctuary produced another brief glimpse of Brown Fish-owl, and a variety of flycatchers including Paradise, Asian Brown and Tickell’s Blue. Also plenty of Forest Wagtails and Black Bulbuls, and a party of five Brown-capped Babblers foraging through the weeds at the side of a track.
We visited the Temple of the Tooth, which is situated across the road from the Queens hotel. The lake adjacent to the temple held the usual cormorants, pelicans, egrets and herons, but perhaps the most memorable thing about the area around the hotel was the number of Jungle Crows roosting in the trees around the lake, and the noise they make. We had superb views of Brown Wood-owl today, at a site known to Sunil!
01 February We left Kandy for our next destination -Nuwara Eliya. During the week before we left Britain, we had watched a documentary film featuring the elephant orphanage at Pinawele. Although not on out itinerary, we persuaded Sunil to drive via Pinawele so that we could have a look. We did the whole tourist bit – saw the baby elephants being fed, wandered around the sanctuary, and watched, while drinking coffee on a restaurant terrace, as the herd was taken down to the river to bathe. It really is worth a visit if you’re that close. There was a good selection of birds around the sanctuary, especially Rollers and Bee-eaters.
Leaving Pinawele, we drove up to Nuwara Eliya. As our altitude increased, we found an enormous difference in temperature; Kandy had been oppressively hot, but we were now finding a distinct chill in the air. We drove through mile after mile of tea plantations – huge areas of mono-culture which weren’t particularly good for birding, but were nonetheless fascinating to us, who’d never seen tea on this scale before. It seems that the estate workers each have a plot of land which they work for extra income, and one of the most striking aspects of the drive was the number of roadside stalls offering fresh vegetables. The vegetables seemed to be top quality, though we didn’t buy anything. It was a new dimension though; we were expecting to see exotic fruits and so on, but not leeks and beetroots!
We eventually arrived, according to a welcome sign erected across the road, at ‘The Salubrious Climes of Nuwera Eliya’! It really is a beautiful town, looking like a well-maintained park as we drove in. We were booked into The Rock Hotel, a small family run hotel on a hillside overlooking the town and its lake. We were prepared for the cold, with jumpers and fleeces with us, but not for the rain. As we settled into our room, the weather became more showery, not a good omen for our afternoon trip to the Victoria Gardens, but the rain had eased before we set off.
The Victoria Gardens don’t cover a large area, indeed compared to the Botanical Gardens at Kandy, the park was quite small, It’s also situated in the centre of town and seems to be a popular spot. We’d read good reports of birding in this park, but our initial impression wasn’t optimistic. However, as we set off with Sunil, and soon saw our first new endemic – a small party of Yellow-eared Bulbuls. We soon added Ceylon White-eye and the local race of Great Tit. Our main target was Indian Blue Robin, and as we walked out of cover into a lawned area with trees, I caught a glimpse of a bird flitting up into a tree. I shouted that I had found our Robin, but then lost it completely. As Sunil came across to us, I found the bird again – not a Robin at all, but a Kashmir Flycatcher, adult male. Obvious with hindsight I suppose. All Sri Lankan thrushes are skulking creatures, not given to perching in trees out of cover, but the colours looked right at first sight. This was the only sighting we had of this species – a real stunner.
At a quarter to five, no sooner and no later, we had an appointment with a clump of bamboo tucked away in the corner of the park beside a small stream. The weather had turned again, and it was now raining fairly steadily, so we were happy to squat amongst the bamboo and wait. In spite of the claims of the roadsign earlier, we had discovered a distinctly un-salubrious part of Nuwera Eliya. The area was muddy, heavily littered, and uncomfortable – for us. The Ruddy-breasted Crake which walked through, seemed quite happy, and so did the Blue Robin which hopped across to see what we were up to! As well as these two delightful birds, we had poor views of a couple of Pied Thrushes sitting deeper in the bush. We waited for better views, but the birds had more patience in the rain than we did, so we beat a retreat, and bought a couple of waterproof jackets in preparation for tomorrow’s trip to Horton Plains.
02 February We were up early for the trip to Horton Plains, very early. It’s a fairly good drive, and you need to be at Arrenga Pond before first light in order have any chance of finding Whistling Thrush. Sunil had no tape of this species, and the birds are apparently responsive to tapes. Up to this point, we had only used a tape-lure on one occasion, for our first Pitta at Sigiriya. In the event, the lack of a tape didn’t matter. As we spread ourselves along the road, Sunil picked up the bird on call, and we got one brief view, and then a slightly longer view, and the blue wing patches as the bird flew. That was it. A nice tick, but it would have been nice to watch it for longer. As dawn broke, Sunil pointed out first one, and then two more, Ceylon Woodpigeons – another endemic.
Horton Plains was a different landscape to any we’d seen so far – long areas of rolling grassland, interspersed with small copses. As we drove further into the plains a couple of Sambhur walked out of the mist and across the road in front of us, quite unconcerned. The weather stayed overcast, with some rain, and pretty chilly. We saw a lot of raptors, but I was only able to identify Crested Honey-buzzard with any certainty. There was plenty of other interest – Pied Stonechat, Zitting Cisticola, more Woodpigeons, and, this time with a tape, Ceylon Bush-warbler, our third endemic of the day. Before we left the plains, we’d also seen our first, and only, Dull-blue Flycatcher, and a pair of Indian Scimitar-babblers.
Driving back from the plains, we had excellent views of a juvenile Mountain Hawk-eagle, feeding on the ground, and many sightings of the local Blackbird race – a very greyish looking race compared with ours. Finally, as we crossed a railway line, at a station, which Sunil told us was the highest in Sri Lanka, we stopped at a small village where Sunil had previously seen breeding Hill Swallow. After searching around the buildings we eventually found a nest under construction, and a pair of Hill Swallows waiting for us to clear off so they could get on with it.
Birding around the hotel during the afternoon, I found Bythe’s Reed-warbler, Grey Wagtail and a flock of fifteen or so Nutmeg Mannikins. We returned to Victoria Gardens in the late afternoon, and had even better views of the Crake and the Blue Robin, but no luck with Pied Thrush.
It maybe worth mentioning a couple of Sunil’s strengths as a guide at this point. Firstly, he never gives up. As long and as often as you’re prepared to try, Sunil will keep going. Secondly, Sunil isn’t arrogant. He doesn’t believe he knows it all, and is always willing to seek out and listen to local knowledge. Indeed, he sometimes seems to have a network of informers who can update his knowledge as soon as he arrives on site. This was no exception. A word with the park-keeper led to the development of a new plan – an early morning visit rather than an evening one, and a different clump of bushes.
03 February First thing this morning, a return to Victoria Gardens, and spectacular views of a male and a female Pied Thrush, firstly working along the muddy bank of a stream, and then moving up through the bushes on the far bank. A walk around the park produced our only Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, more White-eyes, Great Tits, Yellow-eared Bulbul, and so on, but no Monarch Flycatcher, which was the only dip so far.
This was soon repaired with a trip to Hakgalla Botanical gardens, where Monarch was our first bird. It was here that we first made the distinction between Brown and Philippine Shrike, seeing both and being able to compare these. Sunil also thought he may have got a glimpse of Whistling Thrush, but after a search, we couldn’t find the bird again.
We visited the Labookellie tea estate and factory during the afternoon, and saw Ceylon White-eyes at a nest in the car park, and Hill Swallows nesting under the eaves of the tea factory.
04 February The drive from Nuwera Eliya to Tissamaharama was the second longest drive of the trip, but passed quickly thanks partly to the stunning scenery as we left the highlands, and partly to the birding en-route. The weather improved as we left the highlands, becoming sunny and very warm, and we were looking forward to some more good birding at Tissa. We breakfasted at a roadside stall (our second breakfast of the day), enjoyed the warmth and anticipation, and admired a very beautiful landscape.
We saw a few soaring raptors, and stopped once for good views of Crested Serpent-eagle, but perhaps our luckiest find was just as we arrived in the low country. As we drove through a small village, Isabel noticed a raptor perched in clear view on a bare tree amongst some cultivated fields. Sunil and I both missed it, but after finding a place to turn, we went back for another look. The bird was still there, and I was able to get a good scope view. It took a while to work it out, but we finally identified it as Jerdon’s Baza, definitely not on my expected list. The barring wasn’t as well defined as my field guide suggested, but the crest and tail pattern were right.
We took route 5 to Tissa, but at some point south of Kuda Oya Camp, we left the main road for a series of minor roads, which eventually bought us to Tissa. Sunil explained that this was his ‘private birding road’, and we had a marvellous couple of hours along here. Pied and Lesser Cuckoo were two early ticks, and then a gorgeous male Pallid Harrier, casually quartering an area of scrub between the road and another huge tank. We also saw our first Greater Thick-knees here, two birds sitting in the shade of bushes, and a nesting colony of Baya Weavers. With a back up cast of Bee-eaters, Munias, Bulbuls and Sunbirds, as well as the usual Herons and Egrets and occasional Storks, the time seemed to fly by. As we drove along beside the irrigation ditches near to Tissa, we found our first Black Bittern of the trip, fishing in mid-stream, and completely out of cover.
Our hotel in Tissamaharama was the Priyankara, a modern, comfortable place. Once again, we settled in during the heat of the early afternoon, but later, Sunil and I went out birding again, while Isabel stayed at the hotel. Some wet paddy fields turned up waders such as Greenshank, Redshank, Wood and Common Sandpipers, and Pacific Golden Plover, but Sunil’s real intention was to find us good views of Fish-owl. We’d had brief views of these at Anuradhapura, at Sigiriya and at Kandy, but still hadn’t been able to study them.
Arriving at yet another tank, we parked up and walked around the embankment. The tank had very little open water, being overgrown with water lilies and supporting large numbers of Pheasant-tailed Jacanas and White-breasted Waterhen. The thin fringes of reeds alongside the road held both Black and Yellow Bitterns, and we saw both, mainly Black. Whiskered Terns were everywhere. Sunil’s local network of informants seemed to have worked again, and we walked directly to a tree standing in the water of the tank, in which a Brown Fish-owl, the female I’m told, was sitting on her nest. The male was soon found, roosting nearby. We had wonderful views of both of these birds, though by the time I’d finished there was a fairly long queue of local folk wanting to have a look. This isn’t unusual in Sri Lanka; often when standing back from a scope, there’ll be a group of people hanging around, hoping to be invited to have a look for themselves. This is always good natured and friendly, and never a hassle.
Having seen the owls, Sunil then led me to a nearby coconut grove where White-naped Woodpeckers were known to have bred. The grove was simply a series of tower blocks for Rose-ringed parakeets, with almost every trunk containing a series of holes, each with it’s resident Parakeet. A woodpecker did fly past, but I missed initially. As we wandered through the grove searching, Sunil re-located the bird. In a tree containing at least four nesting holes, three were occupied by Parakeets, and one by the White-naped Woodpecker.
We watched this bird for perhaps 30 – 40 minutes, and during all that time the woodpecker was under continual assault by the parakeets. Landing on the trunk, normally below the woodpecker hole, one or two parakeets would cautiously approach the hole. The woodpecker, a male, would allow them to approach only so far before pushing its head out of the hole. This was normally enough to drive off the parakeets, though they were soon back. Those parakeets which didn’t take flight at the first show were attacked, but only when they got sufficiently close for the attack to be made without the woodpecker having to leave the hole completely. Eventually, the male was relieved at the hole by the female flying in. She took over the defence role while the male flew off. We left the site with the battle still raging. It was difficult to see any other result than the eventual expulsion of the woodpeckers.
05 February A full day’s safari into Yala National Park. A couple of points here. Firstly, Baurs vehicles can’t be driven in the National Parks – you have to transfer to a four-wheel drive vehicle. These seem to be operated by individuals, not by the Park authorities, so a bit of negotiation may be required. On our inclusive tour, this wasn’t a concern. Sunil made the arrangements, and we had the same vehicle and driver for this, and the next two days. Obviously, things work better if there is a rapport between your guide and the driver, and this was certainly the case with us. Secondly, in order to enter the Park, you’re obliged to take a ‘tracker’ in with you. The hire of a tracker was also part of our inclusive tour, but trackers do seem to vary in their knowledge of birds. The guy we took with us wasn’t a lot of help.
When we finally set off into the Park, soon after dawn, Isabel and I were accompanied by Sunil, the driver, and a tracker! The Park has strict rules governing where you can drive – only on established tracks; and where you can dismount from the vehicle – hardly anywhere! Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the safari was that, in Yala, the truck must be covered. Our Landrover therefore, had to have it’s soft top on, although the sides were rolled up. Our views were pretty restricted and after a few hours of bouncing around, you really do feel the need for a stretch.
Nevertheless, Yala was unmissable, and we had a great time. We were lucky enough to see a single Black-necked Stork, a bird that is apparently becoming very scarce in Sri Lanka. Pied Hornbills were stunning, and we saw several. Other highlights were Plaintive Cuckoo, Eurasian Spoonbill, Grey-headed Fish-eagle, White-bellied Sea-eagle, Junglefowl and Peafowl everywhere, and my only Indian Courser.. The Grey-headed Fish-eagles gave great views, perched out on the bare branches of flooded trees. We also built up an impressive list of mammals, by the far the most exciting being a single adult bull elephant feeding about fifty yards back from the track. This was only the second time that Sunil had seen a wild tusker, There were plenty of wild boar, spotted deer, sambur and a couple of species of monkey, as well as crocodiles, monitor lizards, and turtles. We also saw civet cat, mongoose and hares.
During our stop for lunch, a picnic on the beach, we watched dolphins playing fairly close inshore. There were also very distant birds, possibly petrels of some kind, but too far off for me to make any identification possible.
06 February Another early morning start, in order to arrive at Bundala Bird Sanctuary before dawn, and transfer into the jeep again. This time the roof was off, and this made the whole experience so much better. Also, Sunil knew a tracker here who did know his stuff. We greeted dawn parked axle deep at the edge of a large pond, and surrounded by birdsong. Five Black-crowned Night-herons were roosting nearby, great squadrons of Flamingos flying across, and a constant movement of flocks of Garganey, fifty birds strong. Marsh Sandpipers, Greenshanks and Plovers were feeding behind us, Jacanas, Waterhen, Kingfishers and Stilts on the main pond, and birds in every bush. A Marsh Harrier and then a Shikra flew over, and it was difficult to know where to look first.
Bundala covers a large area, and includes a length of coastline. It was here that we tried for Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark, but with no joy. This bird eluded us throughout the trip. We did however find more Thick-knees, both Greater and Stone Curlews, and a large variety of waders and terns. Other highlights were further sightings of Blue-faced Malkhoa, and our first sighting of Sirkeer Malkhoa. Surprisingly, this one was tail-less!
The drive back to the hotel was hot, and we were fading fast. We made a couple of stops and found Pintail Snipe amongst others, but decided to take it easy during the heat of the afternoon. We did return later in the afternoon, to the tank area which Sunil and I visited on the 04th. Isabel was able to catch up on the Brown Fish-owl, still on the nest, and amazingly, the White-naped Woodpecker, where we watched the female still defending her nest hole against continual incursions by the parakeets!
In the evening we drove off to an area close to Ruhuna Wildlife Sanctuary. There was a military post near the Park entrance, and we chatted with the sentries for a while. One lad insisted on showing us his bullet wounds received in a fire fight in the north. Though not well reported here, I’m left with the impression from this conversation and others, that very few people have been left unaffected by this campaign, and it is obviously a serious drain on the country’s resources. Having said that, I should emphasise that we never once felt threatened or at risk. The fighting is contained in the north, and apart from the risk of bomb attacks, a risk we all share nowadays, southern Sri Lanka seems a safe tourist destination.
As dusk fell, out came the cassette player, and within a couple of minutes, we’d seen Jerdon’s Nightjar. Also feeding in the dusk were a number of Grey-rumped Tree-swifts, as utterly beautiful in flight as they are perched. Returning to the hotel, we saw both Indian and Jerdon’s Nightjars on the track, mostly Indian, but even so, not in the numbers we had seen near Anuradhapura.
07 February We left Tissa in the morning to drive to Embilipitiya, and the magnificent Hotel Centuria, a wonderful place where our ground floor room included a balcony built over the lake. This was to be our base for our visit to Uda Welawe National Park.
We drove back to the park after lunch, and again transferred to the jeep. Although not disappointing for birds, because of the time of day, we didn’t see anything like the numbers of birds that we’d seen on the previous safaris. We saw Blue-faced and Sirkeer Malkhoas, Rain Quail, and large flocks of both Nutmeg and Black-headed Munias. We dipped however, on lesser Adjutant. They had been seen during the morning, but had left before we appeared.
The main attraction at Uda Welawe though, was wild elephant, and it didn’t disappoint in this. During the afternoon we saw approximately thirty, mostly in twos, threes or fours, but with a few single animals as well. One memorable single was a young bull that wasn’t at all pleased when our Landrover came across him feeding near the lagoon where we were looking for adjutant. His trumpeting, and general demeanour, was threatening. Apart from the noise, and the pawing of the ground, the way in which it was hauling great tussocks of grass from the ground, and hurling them over it’s shoulders, certainly intimidated Isabel and I. An open topped Landrover didn’t seem a lot of protection, especially when it began to chase us. Sunil and the tracker weren’t so easily taken in. As soon as the elephant began to run, they stopped the truck. This caused the elephant to stop. After a couple of repeats of this, it became clear that although it wanted to chase us, the elephant had no plans to catch us! It was just a game of bluff, and honour was served when we left.
08 February We left the Centuria after breakfast for the drive to Sinharaja, and our introduction to Martin’s Place. We had read trip reports that mentioned Martin’s Place, but the real thing was nothing like we’d imagined.
The Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve is large area of jungle covered mountain, and although some of the tracks we walked offered fairly level ground, the lasting impression is one of a very hilly landscape. The road to the reserve stops at Sinharaja village, and it is here that the Park H.Q. is situated, and from here that you are assigned a tracker. The entrance to the area of the reserve we were interested in, is four or five kilometers from the village, up a dirt track, and I do mean up! At the far end of this track is the entrance to the reserve, and built on the side of a hill, Martin’s Place.
It is possible to stay in hotels at Ratnapura, but for early morning birding, this would be an unacceptably long drive. Martin’s Place is far and away the most convenient base for birding in Sinharaja. Martin is a retired reserve warden, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the reserve and its wildlife. He lives in a small house with a wonderful view across a valley to the forest beyond. The house has a large, roofed balcony built on pillars from the hillside below. This isn’t a hotel in any sense of the word that I understand. Martin has built two blocks of accommodation. One block consists of three double rooms, side by side, and the second block holds a series of bunks. The blocks are of concrete block construction, with no pretence at luxury – indeed, no pretence at comfort! The walls don’t reach the roof, the doors still have the markings of the original packing cases from which they were built, and the windows are just holes in the wall with ill-fitting plank shutters.
Our room was furnished with two beds, both with mosquito nets, and three plank shelves. A toilet/shower was attached, but the whole unit was only the size of a cupboard, and you had to remove the toilet roll before showering! The sheets come pre-stained as part of the service! We could clearly hear everything that happened in the other rooms. No hot water of course, but Martin did have a generator, which he ran from 19:00 till 22:00 each night. This provided power for Martin’s TV and enough to drive a couple of light bulbs.
Martin doesn’t sell food, but part of his service is that he’ll cook your food for you, so you need to arrive with sufficient food, tea, coffee, sugar, for your stay, as well as toilet roll, candles, and anything else you may need. Beer is a good idea. Watch where you store this lot though – we had rats in the room during the night on at least two of the three nights we stayed here. They didn’t damage much though, just a hole in Isabel’s luggage where she’d left a packet of peanuts, a chewed pair of shoes, and, for some reason, my walking socks!
My intention here isn’t to put anybody off Martin’s Place. On the contrary, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything: but don’t be under any illusions. On the plus side is the whole ambience of the place – very relaxed, and it’s ideal situation. Martin is a friendly guy, easy to speak to, and full of local knowledge. He’s got a habit of chewing nuts, and his reddened lips and teeth can be a bit of a shock at the first meeting.
Our tracker for next three days was Thandula Jayasathna, who was known to Sunil as an excellent bird guide. He proved to be exceptional, and under his guidance we had a terrific three days.
Our first walk into the forest saw us encounter one of Sinharaja’s famous ‘mixed flocks’. The first sign of this was a small party of Orange-billed Babblers, but these were quickly followed by White-faced Starling, Red-faced Malkoha, Velevet-fronted Nuthatch, Barbets, Woodpeckers, including Lesser Yellownape, Malabar Trogon and Bulbuls. We were seeing endemics faster than we could record them, but Thandular had barely started! By the time we finished that evening we had seen eleven endemics during the day, including Ceylon Magpie, Ceylon Myna and Ceylon Frogmouth! As well as all this we’d also had fantastic views of Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, and Indian Cuckoo.
The frogmouth required a night walk into the forest, and the bird was attracted in with a tape. We had excellent views of a male (according to the book, but see later). On the walk back, by torchlight, we came across a small snake on the track, which Sunil told us was dangerous, and to keep well back. I’ve no idea what it was, but as it slithered into the undergrowth at the side of the track, Thandulla pinched it’s tail and held it there as he showed us the white spots along it’s head. We felt we ought to look, but were happier when it went off. Later, a huge scorpion walked with us for a while – must have been six or seven inches at least, but not dangerous, only painful, according to the guides!
Earlier in the afternoon we had spoken to a gent taking photographs, and his wife, as we passed them on the track. We met this couple back at Martin’s Place after our walk, and we ate together discussing the day. The gent was Dr. T. D. da Zilva (he declined to give me his full name, saying that I’d only end up with a broken tongue if I tried to pronounce it!) He was spending the weekend photographing birds in preparation for his next volume of Sri Lankan birds. He was interested to hear of our sighting of Frogmouth, and went on to say that, in his opinion, the grey male / brown female is perhaps a bit simplistic, and not backed by any real evidence. He believes that this species maybe dimorphic, and that his own attempts to gather photographic evidence at Frogmouth nests haven’t yet resolved the question.
We had talked until almost ‘lights out’, so we had a mad rush to get into bed before the generator went off. I didn’t quite make it, and finished up undressing by candle light. As I crawled under the mosquito net, I picked up the torch to ensure that this was properly settled. It was at this point that I noticed a steady stream of blood oozing from my ankle. Next morning, the good doctor confirmed that the three wounds on my ankle were from leeches – I hadn’t felt a thing, and thought I’d been adequately covered, but apparently the little buggers will work their way between layers of clothing – be warned!
09 February An early morning start to look for one of the more difficult endemics – Green-billed Coucal. Reports we had read suggested that this, and Spurfowl, were anything but certain. However, Thandula and Sunil seemed confident, and we set off back into the forest with our fingers crossed. It wasn’t long before Thandula heard the call, and once again, the tape was used to attract the birds. The response wasn’t long in coming, and Thandula announced that two birds were in the forest, directly in front of us. These proved amazingly difficult to see however. We could hear the birds calling, and even hear them as they moved through the undergrowth, but at very best we could only catch the briefest of glimpses. This went on for about ten minutes, as we moved up and down the track, trying to find a view through the bushes. We saw enough to be sure they were Coucals, but got nowhere near a green bill. Eventually however, the birds both broke cover together and flew across the track at a height of about eight feet. Small Coucals, but still no view of the green bills. The birds quietened down after this, and we thought we’d lost them. However as we spread out on the path, Sunil found one, and I the other, perched in separate trees, but both scopeable. With the scope set up, we all got excellent views of both birds, Green-bills and all. We eventually left, with one of the birds still sitting in view.
Continuing along the track, we saw many of the birds we had seen yesterday. Another lovely view of the huge Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, White-faced Starlings building a nest in a tree cavity (it was this nest site that had bought Dr. da Zilva to Sinharaja), Spot-winged Thrush on the track, a couple of Ceylon Mynas perched on tree tops and Gold-fronted Leafbird. We then a mad couple of minutes as another mixed flock appeared, again preceded by a group of Orange-billed Babblers. The flock included Red-faced Malkhoa again, as well as White-bellied Drongos, and Dark-fronted Babbler. We also saw a small party of White-throated (Legge’s) Flowerpeckers. Later, a more distant flock contained Malabar Trogon and Indian Scimitar-babbler.
We spent some time looking for Scaly Thrush, but were unlucky. We did see a group of five Ashy-headed Laughing-thrush however, and a couple of Ceylon Magpies near the research station.
We returned to Martin’s Place for lunch, planning to have a lazy afternoon and go out again later. I wandered off after lunch, to have a look around, and almost missed Chestnut-backed Owlet. However, our tracker managed to track me down, and we legged it back to Martin’s Place to find the bird still there, and showing well. A Black Eagle drifted low across Martin’s Place as we sat and admired the view.
Late afternoon we left again to try a couple of sites for Scaly Thrush. Once again, these birds prefer deep cover, and after settling down in a clearing amongst damp undergrowth, we were rewarded with an Indian Blue-robin, which came in to bathe. This raised our hopes for a moment, but however often we looked at it, it remained a robin.
Beyond the research station, after crossing a small bridge, is another damp patch through which it’s possible to walk. Thandula led us into here, and once again we settled down to wait. We apparently played the tape, but the call must be out of my restricted hearing range. The thrush heard it though, and was soon sitting in the bushes above us. The light was poor, but we were so close that there was no mistaking Scaly Thrush. After working our way back to the track, Thandula asked if I’d seen them both!!
This had been a fantastic day, with Thandula knocking off the target species one after another. The ‘big one’ however was still to come. We’d had Spurfowl call bought to our attention on a number of occasions, and one of the guests at Martin’s Place, a French lad named Marc and a non-birder, had seen one walk across the track in front of him. All the trip reports suggested Spurfowl was extremely difficult. We had met a group of birders at the Queens Hotel in Kandy, who were broadly following our route in the reverse direction. They had seen all of the endemics except Spurfowl! Thandula thought we stood a good chance however, especially if we got up early, and walked the four kilometres down the dirt track to the village, and met him at dawn. No problem!
10 February The walk down to Sinharaja village was wonderful. It was easy walking, (downhill all the way), a very pleasant temperature in the early morning, and absolutely beautiful views across the ranges of hills in front of us, with mist patches in the valleys lending an eerie quality to it all. The forest was waking up, with all the strange sounds that that entails, and, perhaps best of all, the anticipation of Spurfowl in the flesh! Thandula was there to meet us as arranged, and led us through the village and into the forest beyond. Before we left the road, we encountered a Slaty-legged Crake coming the other way before it saw us and scuttled off into the undergrowth.
We followed Thandula along a fairly good track until he called a halt, and suggested we stand off the track, in a little cover, but without being hidden. Once in position, Thandula checked that we both had a good view, and told us to watch a particular bend a little further up the track. Out came the cassette, and the call was met with an immediate response from directly opposite. We peered into the jungle, but could see nothing – just the odd shadow which suggested movement. The noise of the birds rose, then fell, then rose again, then fell again, and with it, our hopes of seeing Spurfowl. I ran the full gamut of emotions during the next twenty minutes; from a conviction that the birds would appear at any moment, to utter despair when the sounds seemed to be moving away. I glanced at our guides – they seemed to be taking the whole experience stoically, but then, they’d both seen Spurfowl before. As we stood quietly in the cover, a small group of girls walked up the track, laughing and chattering, and my heart sank. I looked at Isabel, and we both knew it was all over.
I was cursing myself for not insisting that we’d tried earlier – this was our last day, and there was little chance of repeating the attempt tomorrow. Even Marc, the non-birder, had seen one;
but we had dipped. I was still peering into the jungle, desperately trying to turn a shadow into a bird, when Thandula caught my arm. I turned to see him pointing to the bend in the track he had marked for us earlier. There was definite movement in the undergrowth on the far side of the track, and my heart rose again. Suddenly, bursting from cover, a female Spurfowl fluttered out of the forest, landed in the middle of the track, shook out her ruffled feathers, and then very deliberately walked across the track and into the forest. She was followed by a second female, and then a male, in all its glory. We didn’t get long, perhaps less than ten seconds altogether, but superb views. We were ecstatic.
We returned to the village, and had a bit of breakfast, planning the rest of the day. We decided to have a look around the village in the hope of picking up the last of the endemics – Black-throated Munia. Thandula had seen these locally. After a delightful stroll around the paddy fields and paddocks around the village, we’d drawn a blank, and the realisation that we had a long, almost vertical walk back to Martin’s Place, in the full heat of the day determined us to start back. However, Thandula suggested a detour to a site where he knew Black-throated Munias were nesting. We went for it, and Thandula bought us into a small, cultivated valley, and to a lone tree near the track. We waited, and eventually we saw the Munias commuting to the tree. Unfortunately, these were Scaly-breasted, not Black-throated.
It’s worth remembering that English isn’t the native language of the guides, though they speak English very well. Remember also, that even in English, many species are known by a variety of names, and that in the case of Black-throated Munia, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on its status as a distinct species anyway. It’s hardly surprising then, that sometimes communication with the guides falters. We didn’t blame Thandula for the mistake at all, indeed, after the Spurfowl, he could do no wrong for us. Thandula though, felt that he’d let us down. We returned to Martin’s Place after a long, hot climb, and collapsed, tired but happy. After lunch, Thandula offered a walk out to another site where he knew of Munias. We set off over a ridge, and came to small, cultivated area just outside of the reserve. Here there was a rice paddy, not yet harvested. A little searching soon revealed a small flock of Munias. This wasn’t hopeful, since Harrison suggests that this species isn’t gregarious. Nevertheless, once we’d got the scope set up, it was clear that there were at least some Black-throated here. There was a lot of traffic, with birds continually flitting from the rice stems to a roost in bushes out of view, so I didn’t get good views of all the birds. All that I could see however, were Black-throated. An excellent day.
If you ever go to Sinharaja, and are looking for a tracker, I thoroughly recommend Thandula. Apart from his obvious expertise and knowledge of the birdlife in the reserve, he’s also simply a nice guy.
See Part two…