Serendib Scops Owl – the ‘must get’ endemic in Sri Lanka – seen on our last afternoon

With news of the discovery of a Serendib Scops Owl in the middle of the afternoon on the last full day of our trip, everyone was pumped to see it. This was the last of the 34 Sri Lanka endemic species for us to see but it’s an incredibly rare owl  – there are thought to be less than three hundred breeding pairs – having only been discovered in 2001 and confirmed as a new species in 2004. They live on frogs and their call imitates their prey species – making recognising it by call rather difficult! Guides spend the night in the forest listening for it. They then have to locate the roosting site before dawn. Hopefully the bird stays put and allow visitors – closely supervised of course – to see it. We arrived back at the hotel, quickly donned our leach-protective clothing and jumped in the jeeps. Another bare-knuckle ride up rough tracks and we were deposited by a hillside path. The track took us through a tea-pickers property and finished on a steep hillside. One after another we climbed the last few feet to view the roosting owl deep in the shade of an over-hanging palm. Everyone eventually getting good views and some acceptable record shots. Well done Phil & Carolyn for making it! What an amazing end to an amazing day and an amazing trip. Thanks to our fellow travellers for being such good company, a big thank you to Dhammi our outstanding, knowledgeable and helpful guide, to Ornithvacations for making all the arrangements and lastly to Andy Howes for his amazing tour organisation. A wonderful experience! See you all in Madagascar next year!

Our other night bird of Sinharaja – Sri Lanka Frogmouth

Sinharaja forest reserve

Perhaps the most striking of all the endemics – Sri Lanka Blue Jay

We’ve spent the past couple of days at Sinharaja, staying at the excellent Birds Paradise Hotel. Sinharaja is a world heritage forest reserve and home to most of Sri Lanka’s endemic species – a fitting end to the trip and a great chance to hunt down those endemics which had evaded us during the earlier part of the trip. After an excellent first day, when we added six more endemics to the trip list including: Red-faced Malkoha, Sri Lanka Drongo, White-faced Starling – only found in this one location, Sri Lanka Hill Myna, Legge’s Flowerpecker and Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, we concluded the day with just three of the 34 endemics still to see. A tall order but doable on our final full day of birding. I’ve mentioned early starts before on this trip but our second day in Sinharaja began with a particularly early one, at 4.30 am with a strong cup of coffee and, armed with a packed breakfast, we climbed aboard our safari jeeps to drive us deep into hill country. Long before it got light we were having our pack-up on the lawn of a remote cottage, situated on the edge of the forest. We were there for one reason and one reason alone – to see the Sri Lanka Spurfowl another rare and difficult to find endemic. We had early success with another target, the Green-billed Coucal, but we suffered a severe set-back with the Spurfowl. After and hour of nothing, Dammi our guide heard the bird calling. Another hour and it was glimpsed in the dense dark undergrowth below our vantage point, but no-one really got on it. Minutes later a eagle came crashing through the canopy, probably in pursuit of Junglefowl chicks, and scattered everything. It was another hour before we got our first reasonable views and even then the bird took some finding in the shade. We arrived back at the hotel for lunch with just one omission from our list of endemic – the recently discovered Serendib Scops Owl. The afternoon had been ear-marked for travel to a property, twenty minutes up the road, which had a reliable internet connection for those who needed to complete their online Passenger Locator Forms. Whilst we were busy doing that Dammi got a phone call – the one we’d all been waiting for – the Serendib had been located at a roost site and we had less than three hours of daylight left in which to see it. How did we do – read my next blog!

Another not-so-boring pigeon – this is Emerald Dove
Ashy-headed Laughingtrush – another shade-loving species
Sri Lanka Drongo – endemic
Endemic and restricted to Sinharaja – White-faced Starling – record shot
Our reward after three hours patient waiting, Sri- Lanka Spurfowl, another endemic – record shot

Wallet – lost and found

Marshall’s Iora – our target bird at Udawalawe

Our final safari of the trip was to Udawalawe National Park – apparently one of the best locations to see Elephant in Sri Lanka. We were up well before dawn to pick up the jeeps and get to the main gate for opening time. As we’d already seen Elephant well at a previous location we concentrated on birding. Our main target was the range-restricted endemic Marshall’s Iora, which we saw within the first hour and then on a couple more occasions as we toured the park. The supporting cast included: Yellow-eyed Babbler, Philippine Shrike, Jacobin Cuckoo, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker and Indian Roller. We arrived back at the park entrance, transferred from our jeeps to the bus and drove ten minutes to a local restaurant for lunch. I’d just sat down when, for no reason, I checked my back pocket – no wallet! Simultaneously our guide was receiving a call from our previous hotel. They’d had a message from the post office in the village where we were having lunch, saying that my wallet had been found in the park. They knew to contact the hotel because I’d kept the bar bill receipt in my wallet. We drove straight to the post office to reclaim my wallet – all my bank cards were safe and my driving licence too but all our cash, in four currencies, was missing! Admission to the parks is strictly controlled, with details of each driver recorded. There is only one place you are permitted to get out of the vehicles – presumably the place I’d ‘dropped it.’ Handing the wallet into the post office, rather than taking it to the police, was done anonymously. I’m guessing that the ‘finder’ consider the cash a fare return for leaving my bank cards intact. True, I was very grateful to not have to go through the worry and hassle of cancelling cards but I was disappointed that someone thought they could help themselves to £200. Oh well, that’s travel for you – it broadens the mind but, occasionally, diminishes your faith a little in other people.

Internet issues are affecting normal service – please do not readjust your set!

Rosy Starling – reminds me of home!
We had a selection of waders on the safari – including this obliging Wood Sandpiper
Jacobin Cuckoo was a trip tick
Seen just as we were leaving the park – Indian Roller

Blue Whale revisited

The tail of a Blue Whale – the largest mammal (marine) in the world – just before a deep-dive

When we first went to Chile, in 2006 I think it was, one of the highlights was watching Blue Whale breaching off the coast of Chiloe island. Seeing a mammal the size of a London Bus coming out of the water and slapping back into the sea with a huge splash certainly left an impression. We’ve seen plenty of whales since, including getting up close and personal with Southern Right Whales in Argentina and, closer to home, seeing a pod of 25 Long-finned Pilot Whale off of Cley in November 2014. But today was another chance to catch up with ‘the big guy’ – growing up to almost 30m in length and weighing nearly 200 tonnes. Another early start from our hotel in Mirissa, followed by a short walk to the harbour, check-in, life-belts fastened and we were off. We didn’t know it at the time but no Blue Whale had been seen along this stretch of Sri Lanka coast in the past four days. We headed off into the ocean for around an hour before the call finally came through there’d been a sighting. Back we raced to finally connect just before the creature took a deep dive. Apparently we had to wait nine minutes before we got another chance – the average dive-time of a Blue Whale. Sure enough ten minutes later it reappeared miles from our last sighting. Another chase and more views. This went on for another hour before it was time to head back to the port. A tiring but exhilarating morning.

Now a selection of shots showing the visible bits – including the first, a record shot of the blow:

The tail signifying another deep dive (photo by Jane) and the end of our re-encounter with Blue Whale

Local birding around Centauria Lake

An addition to the trip list – Indian Stone-curlew

Having overcome the slight difficulties with the internet these past few days I thought I’d try and get ahead of the game by posting today’s blog early. After the whale watch and lunch we drove a couple of hours to the nicely appointed Centauria Lake hotel. The afternoon birding session was an informal / unguided affair when we followed our nose out of the hotel grounds and down to the edge of the lake. On a bit of ‘waste ground’, forming a small outflow, we had some tremendous birding. I was drawn to explore the area by the presence of a couple of waders – turned out to be Lesser Sand-plover. Then I flushed a couple of Indian Stone-curlew – we eventually saw about a dozen – which was a trip tick. The longer we stayed looking the more we found. Here are a few photos of some of the stuff we saw.

Lesser Sand-plover – the bird that first drew my attention to the rough ground below the lake. Just fabulous
Indian Robin – not at all rare, but nice all the same
The area seemed to be a pre-roost for Western Yellow Wagtail. we estimate that there may have been several hundred
Another relatively common species – Yellow- wattled Lapwing
One left over from this morning – in the centre of the roosting birds, with red legs – a White-winged Tern

Drive down to the coast

A photo of the devastating tsunami which struck the south and west coast of Sri Lanka in 2004 (internet)

We left our base at Tissamaharama this morning to drive to Mirissa on the coast, calling in at the stunning wetland of Kalametiya – devastated in the tsunami of 2004, when 30,000 people lost their lives. After lunch we had a gentle stroll along a nearby canal, in the process of which adding to our day list which finished at 90+. Not sure how this WiFi will hold out so I’ll stick to a few photos to reflect the days activities.

Asian Green Bee-eater – seen at Kalametiya
Indian Cormorant – look at the amazing feather detail!
A more familiar species to viewers at home – Common Kingfisher. One of four species seen this afternoon
Black-hooded Oriole at the nest

Yala et al

Ruddy Mongoose – one of a number of animals in Yala National Park

I’m struggling to keep up with the blog – too much birding and intermittent internet being the cause. Anyway, yesterday we had another early morning start  – up at 4.00 am to be on the bus by 4.45. All in an attempt to beat the crowds at the opening of the gates to Yala National Park. We spent the first hour on the jeeps trying to find Leopard – which we failed to do. After that we could settle down and concentrate on finding a few birds – which we did. It was a rather frustrating process, mind you, because most of the interesting stuff was seen in small open clearings in the bush, and by the time the jeep at the front had had their fill and taken photos, those behind in jeeps 2 and 3 struggled to find the target. It did work in reverse a few times though, with the last jeep sometimes seeing stuff after the others had departed – Striated Heron being a case in point. When we got back from the safari for lunch we and our optics had been powder-coated in fine red dust. It took a shower and a deep clean of the optics to get rid of it. In the afternoon, after a bit of a siesta, we headed off again in pursuit of another particular target – White-naped Woodpecker. We’d been a couple of times to look for this particular bird, in trees by a nearby artificial lake, but to no avail. It looked like the evening would end up the same way as before until our guide came hurrying down the track towards us. The bird had been spotted in trees back the way we’d come and was being ‘minded’ by none other than the ‘owl boys’! I broke into a gallop and arrived at the spot breathless but able to enjoy a brief moment with the bird before it quickly flew off. Good but short views – no photo as my shutter failed to release -grhh. Unfortunately I was the only one of the group to see it.

Now that’s what I call a Starling – this is Brahminy
Close encounter with a Crested Hawk-eagle
Orange-breasted Green Pigeon
Last seen in Goa – the distinctive Ashy-crowned Lark Sparrow
Malabar Pied Hornbill
The local crocodile species – Mugger – lays in wait to mug you

Bundala National Park

Bundala National Park – an important sanctuary for the threatened Indian Elephant

Bundala is an internationally important wintering ground for waterbirds and a sanctuary for Indian Elephant. Another early start was needed to ensure we were at the gates to the park when they opened and had plenty of time to walk & bird the approach track. The birding in the first couple of hours after dawn was fantastic and the jeep safari didn’t disappoint. We had a whole host of interesting waterbirds, including three species of Bittern and a dozen wader species. The Golden Jackal was a bonus. I’ll let a few photos tell the story.

Marsh Sandpiper – one of a dozen new waders
We saw three bittern species in the first hour – this one is Yellow Bittern. Black and Cinnamon were the others.
Painted Stork
Caspian Tern takes the plunge
Great Thick-knee taking shade
And to finish – that Golden Jackal

A trio of owls

First species to fall was Indian Scops Owl

We’d just climbed down from the bus and begun viewing the lake at the start of our afternoon birding session when a couple of lads drove up on a motorbike and started talking in animated terms to our guide. Oo-er this doesn’t look good. As it happens, rather than being a problem, they were in fact the local owl boys’! We jumped back in the bus and they proceeded to guide us to three different roosting owl species!

Next was the lovely Jungle Owlet
The final owl of the trilogy was Brown Fish Owl – which we’d seen before, but only briefly

Thanks to the ‘Owl Boys’ for an entertaining afternoon!

Rinse and repeat

Male Pied Thrush – what a ripper

Forgetting my binoculars wasn’t a good start to the early morning birding session – a return visit to Victoria Park to look for thrushes, in particular male Pied Thrush. Brief views of our target in the half-light was sufficient to encourage me to stay whilst the rest of the group went off looking for something better. Eventually the bird appeared along ‘Schitt’s Creek’, affording reasonable record shots. Shortly after our guide came running up ‘Slaty-legged Crake…’! I didn’t wait for direction, just ran off in the general direction. Fortunately I located the group, who were watching the bird, a hundred metres or so up the path. We returned to the original spot for more views of the Pied Thrush and a second appearance from the Scaly Thrush. Job done. After breakfast we drove to our Oak Ray hotel base for three nights, in the wetland resort of Tissamaharama, for waterbirds and a ‘three owl’ experience – the subject of a separate blog.

More views of the Scaly Thrush
Record shot of our ‘bonus bird’ – resident but scarce Slaty-legged Crake