Trip report: Sri Lanka (January 2015) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam WoodsThis was a custom tour, using our regular set departure tour itinerary.

In many ways Sri Lanka covers it all; for the serious birder, even those with experience from elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent, it offers up a healthy batch of at least 32 endemic bird species (this list continues to grow, though, so could increase further yet); for those without any previous experience of the subcontinent it offers these but, being an island of limited diversity, not the overwhelming numbers of birds, which can be intimidating for the first timer; and for those with a natural history slant that extends beyond the avian, there is plentiful other wildlife besides, to keep all happy, such as endemic monkeys, strange reptiles only found on this teardrop-shaped island, and a bounty of butterflies, which feature day-in, day-out. It should also be made clear that while it appears like a chunk of India which has dropped of the main subcontinent, to frame it, as merely an extension of India, would be a grave injustice, as Sri Lanka feels, looks, and even tastes very different. There are some cultural quirks that make India itself, sometimes challenging to visit for the westerner. However, Sri Lanka seems to have dropped these, leading many to comment that it is like India, minus the hassle. In some ways that’s fair, but, again, Sri Lanka remains very much its own, and not just a fragment of “Greater India”. This custom tour was set up with “covering it all” in mind; some of the group were new to not only the Indian subcontinent, but the wider continent of Asia as a whole, and therefore requested something of a gentle introduction to the region’s birds, without being swamped, and daunted by visiting another country with dizzy species numbers involved. While all the group would have classified themselves as birders or birdwatchers, many of them held a scope somewhat wider, sharing an interest in all things wild, whether it be brilliantly colored butterflies, or oddly formed lizards, and so we tried to cover as many aspects of natural history, while not compromising the goal of some; to see every endemic bird. This was pulled off tidily, thanks in no small part to the assistance of our excellent local guide, Chaminda, whose intimate, and proud, knowledge of Sinhalese culture, history, and all aspects of his island’s natural history and tasty, spicy cuisine, made him both good company, and an excellent guide for this varied group. All 32 of the endemic bird species currently recognized in Sri Lanka (more are being added steadily in recent years as taxonomy catches up with bird evolution), were seen by the whole group, along with more than 20 species of mammal, including the endemic Purple-faced Langur, and the must-see Leopard; and plenty of extraordinarily colorful butterflies peppered our days, as well as a sprinkling of strange reptiles, including the odd Rhino-horn Lizard and red-headed Green Forest Lizard. Thus, the generalist natural historians, and the seasoned birders, looking for all the key species were both satiated. Amazingly, too, we were not interrupted by rain whatsoever, bar mere minutes one night while searching for owls, which was remarkably lucky, and not typical, for when visiting the Wet Zone, even in this dry season, rain is to be expected. This perhaps helped in that finding the endemics became rather straightforward with only a few of them giving us initial headaches, before, eventually, satisfying us all.

Sri Lanka is an island, whose recent history has been wrecked by war, which has now, thankfully been put well into the rear view mirror. War divided the island, leaving the north largely unreachable for the foreigner, and so bird tours have historically, like this one, focused in the southern half of the island. This did not deter from getting all the key species though, and also did not mean that the varied topography and geography of the country cannot be sampled; we visited the potentially wet rainforests of Makandawa (Kitulgala) and Sinharaja in the Wet Zone of the Sri Lanka’s southwest, but also drove deep into the parched Dry Zone, while birding the coasts and parks of southeast Sri Lanka, which led to our varied bird list which topped 247 bird species (a good total for this country). Among the favorites, decided over a jovial discussion on the tour’s last night, when in Sri Lanka’s cultural heartland of Kandy, were: Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Indian Peafowl (displaying), Cotton Pygmy-Goose, Legge’s Hawk-Eagle, Indian Pitta, Plum-headed Parakeet, Sri Blue Magpie, Malabar Trogon, Stork-billed Kingfisher, White-naped Woodpecker, Coppersmith Barbet, Orange Minivet, White-rumped Shama, Kashmir Flycatcher, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Pied Thrush, Daurian Starling (a shock vagrant seen on the trip), and Sri Lanka Scimitar-Babbler. However, none of these made the top five birds of the trip, which were:

1 Serendib Scops-Owl Kitulgala
2 Sri Lanka Frogmouth Sinharaja
3 Sri Lanka Junglefowl Kitulgala & Sinharaja
4 Pheasant-tailed Jacana Tissa
4 Red-faced Malkoha Sinharaja

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