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

Up with the lark

Our target bird – Sri Lanka Whistling-thrush, female – seen on the Horton Plains shortly after day-break

Actually it was well before the lark – 4.15 am to be precise. And the reason for this outrageously early start was the necessity to be on the Horton Plains before it got light, if we were to stand a chance of seeing the last of our ‘must get’ thrush species. As soon as the reserve opened at six we made our way to the viewing deck, to be greeted almost immediately by the tell-tale shrill squeaky call of the male. As dawn broke Jane spotted our ‘target’ fly to the bushes above the lake – a Sri Lanka Whistling-thrush. It fed quietly along the edge whilst it’s mate flew under the decking to perch temporarily behind us. The pressure off, we then spent the next four hours walking the roads in the park, adding another five endemics, plus an impressive supporting cast.

Second endemic of the day – Sri Lanka Woodpigeon
Next to fall was the colourful Yellow-eared Bulbul
Swiftly followed by Sri Lanka White-eye
and Dusky Blue Flycatcher
The last and trickiest of today’s half dozen endemics – Sri Lanka Warbler
Prize for the best ‘supporting cast’ species on the Horton Plains – the utterly delectable Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
The group – wondering if we’d ever catch up with Sri Lanka Warbler – the last of this mornings endemics to fall

Two hours up Schitt’s Creek

One of the stand-out birds this afternoon – Kashmir Flycatcher, male. A scarce migrant

After a three hour transfer from Kitulgala to Nuwara-eliya – capital of the central hill country, at an altitude of over 6,000 feet – and longest lunch-break ever we did manage two hours this afternoon in the birding hotspot of Victoria Park – a typical town park creating in the colonial style with a creek running through it. I say creek but it was more like a giant waste disposal unit. However, as we all know birds aren’t usually put off by their surroundings, and so it proved today. In the space about 100m of ‘water-front’ we had some exceptional birding. We added about a dozen new species to the overall trip list, including a couple of endemics: Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush and Sri Lanka Scimitar-babbler, several scarce migrants and at least one other hard-to-get thrush. A really great session and prelude to a 4.30 am start tomorrow for our trip to the Horton Plains National Park.

Record shot of Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush – a scarce and endangered endemic
Another flycatcher – this is a scarce resident – Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher
Another tricky thrush species – this is Pied Ground-thrush
Our first waders of the trip – Common and Green Sandpiper. The latter being rare in land
Finally a record shot of another ‘forest floor’ species – Forest Wagtail

Little and Large

First the ‘little’ – Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher – at just 13cm from bill to tail

We’ve spent the day birding no more than a couple of miles from the hotel – mostly along the river, adjacent tea plantations and surrounding hill country. Our journey involved an interesting raft-crossing and an even more interesting return across a pedestrian suspension bridge. Several more endemics have been added to the list bringing my personal total to 16. Two raptors were additions to the trip list – both scarce eagles: Black and Rufous-bellied. But it was the evening session which proved to be the highlight with two endemics falling in quick succession: Chestnut-backed Owlet (IUCH Red List – Vulnerable) and Spot-winged Ground-thrush, with the ‘bonus bird’, Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher. The tea and cake on the deck of a near-by bird lodge was the perfect end to an excellent day.

Now the ‘large’ – Stork-billed Kingfisher – 3 times the size at 38cm (photo courtesy of Jane)
Record shot of the Chestnut-backed Owlet – glimpsed through a tunnel of leaves
And I thought that the Orange-headed was a skulker – this Spot-winged Ground-thrush gave us the run-around in deep cover
That raft crossing

A couple of ‘fillers’ from recent days.

White-bellied Drongo
Green Garden Lizard
Yellow-fronted Barbet – another endemic

Transition day

Today was a transition day, from Sigiriya to Kitulgala, where we are staying in the Heritage Kitulgala Rest House – made famous as the centre of operations for filming ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’. With nearly six hours spent travelling there was only a couple of hours at the end of the day to go birding – but boy what a couple of hours that proved to be! Most of the good stuff was seen from the car park, including the two endemic parrot species, a couple of new bulbuls and a general assortment of other interesting stuff. Wifi here is a little limited so that might impact on the number of photos.. let’s give a go.

Best of our early morning birding session – Grey-breasted Prinia
Best bird on route – Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Emerald-collared Parakeet – an endemic. Seen here with the larger Alexandrine Parakeet
The slightly obtusely named Yellow-browed Bulbul – why not ‘yellow-breasted’?
Brown-breasted Flycatcher – identified retrospectively from photographs

The early birder catches… the target species

Orange-headed Thrush – one of this mornings target species. Record shot taken in near darkness

An early start this morning meant we were in position for our two target birds before sunrise. Given that we were also birding in dense cover, it was very difficult to differentiate the birds from any number of bird-shaped objects! Occasionally they moved – which made things a little easier. Fortunately it wasn’t long before there was enough light to just make out the colours. Pretty soon the whole group had Indian Pita and Orange-headed Thrush ‘under our belts’. The rest of the morning was spent wandering around the slopes of the ancient rock fortress which dominates the landscape and history of this place. Several more endemics were added to the list, including: Crimson-backed Flameback, Brown-capped Babbler and Black-capped Bulbul – confusing isn’t it!

Crimson-backed Flameback with diagnostic pale bill – an endemic
Brown-headed Barbet – common and noisy, but still difficult to see well
Not unlike our own – Indian Cuckoo
White-rumped Sharma – took some finding
Green Warbler – had a touch of home about it
Another of our early morning targets, taken in the half-light – Brown-capped Babbler, another endemic

Our afternoon session begins shortly with another go for night birds later.