Serendib Scops Owl is one of the most sought-after birds on the Sri Lanka tour. Photo: Uditha Hettige
Early travellers romantically named Sri Lanka ‘the teardrop of India’. Just 270 miles long and 140 miles wide, this small island does indeed look like a tear which has fallen from the face of the sub-continent to become petrified in the Indian Ocean. Having, in reality, risen from the sea millions of years ago and since been subjected to much geological upheaval, Sri Lanka has developed into a magical land of mountains, gently undulating hills, open plains, and lush valleys. Running through these are countless rivers dotted with beautiful waterfalls, many hidden beneath a dense cloak of rainforest.
For the birdwatcher, islands have the added attraction of endemic species that have evolved through centuries of isolation. With upwards of 33 unique birds, Sri Lanka is no exception and we’ll endeavour to encounter them all during our visit. A large number of northern migrants winter on the island, joining many other resident species which are difficult or impossible to see on our usual birdwatching circuits of India. Add to this a rich cultural history and the world-famous hospitality of the Sri Lankan people and you have the recipe for a perfect birdwatching holiday, and we have been enjoying our visits there since our first in 1994.
The forests of Sri Lanka are home to one very special bird, a new species of scops owl discovered in 2001 by our leader Deepal. Sunbird was the first tour group to see this bird, now named Serendib Scops Owl, and we have seen it every year since, a record we hope to maintain.
Day 1: The tour begins with an overnight flight from London to Colombo, the island’s capital.
Day 2: We arrive in the afternoon and transfer to an airport hotel. The calls of the ubiquitous Asian Koel are sure to draw us into the grounds where we’ll encounter our first Sri Lankan birds. Night at Colombo.
Day 3: After breakfast we’ll drive to our hotel at Sigiriya. Perhaps the most striking sight on Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is a 600-foot high, wide pinnacle of rock rising out of the jungle. One of seven World Heritage Sites on Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is famous for the ancient fortress that sits on its summit, and especially for the ancient rock paintings or frescoes that adorn the walls. After checking in to our hotel, we’ll have time to explore the surrounding forest for our first birds, which could include Ceylon Grey Hornbill, a selection of woodpeckers including the striking crimson form of Black-rumped Flameback, and White-naped Woodpecker. Night at Sigiriya.
Day 4: Around the base of the imposing rock are an extensive series of ancient ruins, most of which have been swallowed by the encroaching jungle. It is this jungle that will provide many more birds for us today as we wander the extensive network of tracks and roadways in search of Oriental, Forest Eagle and Brown Fish Owls, Jerdon’s Nightjar, Blue-faced Malkoha, Drongo and Banded Bay Cuckoos, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Indian Pitta, Ceylon Woodshrike, Large and Black-headed Cuckooshrikes, Blue-winged Leafbird, Orange-headed Thrush, White-rumped Shama, Indian Black and Indian Blue Robins, Jungle, Ashy and Grey-breasted Prinia, Green and Large-billed Leaf Warblers and Brown-capped Babbler. For those that wish, there will also be the chance to climb the long staircase to the top of Sigiriya rock to admire the paintings and the carved fortress. Night in Sigiriya.
Day 5: Leaving Sigiriya, we travel to Kandy, home of traditional Sri Lankan culture and famous for the temple that houses a sacred tooth rescued from the Buddha’s funeral pyre in 543 BC, which we’ll make time to visit as soon as we arrive in the town. For birds we need venture no further than the secluded grounds of our accommodation. Our base here is an utterly delightful small hotel on the outskirts of the town with grounds that are visited by a range of species, and we’ll spend the afternoon in this peaceful setting enjoying the birdlife. Night in Kandy.
Days 6-7: Today we continue our drive into the highlands and the town of Nuwara Eliya in the heart of Sri Lanka’s hill country and tea-growing region. Here we’ll pause on our way up to sample some of the tea for which the island is so famous. Over the next few days we’ll visit many sites to look for Kashmir and Dull Blue Flycatchers. Among the formal shrubbery of Victoria Park we should see Indian Pitta and Pied Thrush, while on the Horton Plains we’ll search for Jerdon’s Baza, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Ceylon Scimitar-babbler, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler and Sri Lanka White-eye, among others. However the real prize of our visit to this region will be the Arrenga or Ceylon Whistling-thrush, one of the rarest and most magical birds on the island. Nights in Nuwara Eliya.
Day 8: Leaving the cool hill county, we head south into the dry lowlands. We’ll reach our hotel in time for lunch and spend the afternoon visiting the Udawalawe National Park. Established to protect the forest catchment of a large reservoir, this park is home to good numbers of waterbirds and mammals. We’ll switch to open-topped jeeps and drive around the park searching for the distinctive Sri Lankan forms of Crested Hawk-eagle and Barred Buttonquail, as well as for Lesser Adjutant, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Plum-headed Parakeet, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Sirkeer Malkoha, Jungle Prinia, Forest Wagtail and Blyth’s Pipit. We can also expect close encounters with some of the many wild Indian Elephants that inhabit the park. Night at Udawalawa.
Day 9: Before breakfast we’ll visit a birding site looking for Coppersmith Barbet, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Jerdon’s Leafebird, Small Minivet, Ashy-crowned Sparrowlark, Oriental Skylark, and Yellow Wagtails. We’ll then travel east to the village of Tissa, famous for its large tank (or lake) and ancient domed dagoba (Buddhist shrine). On the way we’ll stop at a reservoir to look for a variety of waterbirds including Black and Yellow Bitterns.
This evening we’ll visit Yala National Park where we’ll encounter drier forest and open grasslands. These habitats are still very rich in birds and we’ll look for Lesser Adjutant, Asian Openbill, Spot-billed Pelican, Great Thick-knee and Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark among others. Yala is also home to many mammals including Indian Elephant, Leopard, Sloth Bear, Wild Boar, Tufted Grey Langur, Sambar and Spotted Deer. We’ll also venture out at dusk to search for Jerdon’s Nightjar and also the commoner Indian Nightjar. Deepal has recently discovered a few populations of breeding Marshall’s Ioras in Udawalawa and Tissa areas. This colourful bird was previously thought to be restricted to the Indian mainland and was discovered only recently in Sri Lanka. We have a good chance of seeing this latest addition to the Sri Lanka avifauna on our tour in these areas. Night at Tissa.
Day 10: This morning we visit Bundla National Park, an extensive area of marsh and coastal lagoons to look for Black and Yellow Bitterns, Watercock, Ruddy-breasted Crake, a variety of waders including Pacific Golden Plover and Pintail Snipe in the adjoining saltpans, and hordes of stunning Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. In the evening we’ll explore the ancient reservoirs (tanks) in the Tissa area to see more waterbirds especially looking for Watercock and any species of bittern missed during our previous birding sessions. Night at Tissa.
Day 11: This morning we’ll drive to our comfortable hotel in Weddagala close to Sinharaja rainforest. After lunch at the hotel we’ll explore the hotel grounds where we expect to find some of the island’s endemics such as Ceylon Hanging Parrot, Layard’s Parakeet and Yellow-fronted Barbet, along with Black-headed Cuckooshrike, Orange Minivet, Small Minivet, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike and many other interesting birds of the area. Night at Weddagala.
Days 12-13: These two days are set aside for exploring Sinharaja’s rain forest in the heart of the wet zone. The park’s extensive bird list includes most of the country’s endemics and we have a good chance of seeing the majority of them, although some are easier to find than others. The ground-dwelling Sri Lanka Spurfowl requires stealth and sharp eyes, whereas roving flocks of Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes and Orange-billed Babblers are much more obliging. Ceylon Hill-mynas call loudly and clearly from exposed positions while Ceylon Hanging-parrots shriek past.
The exquisite Ceylon Blue Magpie is a real gem and, with luck, several will be seen here. We’ll also be keeping a sharp eye open for Red-faced Malkoha cavorting around the tangled vines and creepers. Another rare and shy inhabitant of the forest here is the Green-billed Coucal and we’ll listen carefully for the distinctive call that will betray the presence of this remarkable bird. White-faced Starling may appear high up in the trees and multicoloured butterflies, the size of saucers, float in and out of the warm humid forest which at times echoes to the excited calls of mixed-species bird flocks. Sinharaja will undoubtedly be a rewarding experience and possibly the highlight of the tour. Nights at Weddagala.
Days 14-15: Today we leave for our next birding destination, Kitulgala, on the banks of the River Kelani. Famous as the location for the filming of Bridge on the River Kwai, our hotel is located right on the river bank and we should arrive in time for some birdwatching in the grounds. The next day we’ll cross the river to spend time in the lush rainforest. Here we’ll search for the endemic Chestnut-backed Owlet as well as any other endemics and rainforest species we may have missed at Sinharaja. Night in Kitulgala.
Day 16: After another birding session in the morning at Kitulgala we travel back to Colombo where, depending on flight times, there might be time in the afternoon to visit a forest site to look for Brown Wood Owl. Night in Colombo.
Day 17: We’ll transfer to the airport for the flight home to London, arriving there later the same day.
Updated: 18 December 2017