Trip report: Sri Lanka (Jan-Feb 2015) by Tropical Birding

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

This tour was a custom tour, set up for six like-minded birders from the States, who were keen on tracking down all of the endemic species on this wonderful island. In many other places, where there are also plentiful endemics to be found, it is tough to track down many of them. However, in Sri Lanka, a trip of this length stands a great chance of seeing each and every one, especially with the help of our skilled local guide, Chaminda. Both Chaminda and Sam were bang up to date with the latest stakeouts for many of these, having done the exact same circuit immediately before this tour. This meant that we could sometimes go straight to where we had found them recently, and mop them up, (this worked well with birds like Chestnut-backed Owlet, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, White-faced Starling, and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) Scaly Thrush). However, nature always comes with an element of the unpredictable, which makes finding birds both exciting and frustrating all at the same time! Thus, on this tour the regular roost spot for Serendib Scops-Owl at Kitulgala was vacant for 2 of our days there (although, to much relief all round was occupied again on our final morning on site), sending us into an initial panic about this must see, recently described, endemic species; AND rain also dogged our time at Sinharaja, where, on the tour immediately before, barely a drop was felt. This made the birding there much more challenging than the previous tour, with extra time required inside the main park to pick up all of the endemic targets (but Ashy-headed Laughingthrush giving us a major scare, before Chaminda finally found a group of them near the very end of our stay), and also meant that we had a fair amount of extra leeches to deal with while doing so too! But, in the end, we left with the full set of target endemics, all the same. By the tour end we had managed to find all of the 32 endemic species currently recognized under the Clements/Cornell taxonomy, and plenty more Sri Lankan endemic subspecies besides, which the group were keen to see, as a safeguard, should they become full species in their own right, in time. At the end of it all, we recorded 258 species of birds, and 21 mammal species too, along with plentiful butterflies, and the odd frog too, proving, once again, what an extraordinarily good destination Sri Lanka is, not only for the endemic-chasing birder, but also for those with an all round interest in wider natural history. Some of the non-avian highlights included a long time spent with a Leopard in Yala, which must rank as the most reliable site for this cat in the World (where else can you virtually guarantee a sighting during just a single day there?), Purple-faced Leaf-Monkeys, and the strange Rhino-horn Lizard in the hill country.

Among the top birds seen on the tour were the very tame Sri Lanka Blue Magpies in Sinharaja, the infamous Serendib Scops-Owl in Kitulgala, a remarkable encounter with a covey of the oft-difficult Sri Lanka Spurfowl at Sinharaja, several bright Indian Pittas during the tour, for which this must be the ultimate for the species; an excellent adult male Pied Thrush in the well-manicured surrounds of Victoria Park, a smashing showing from a pair of dapper White-naped Woodpeckers tank-side at Tissa, an excellent, puffed-up, and angry looking Jungle Owlet in the same area too, two sightings of the strange Sri Lanka Frogmouth, with both showings coming of a pair during daylight and a very close singleton at night. Among the other birding highlights were a low fly by from a Legge’s Hawk-Eagle, a classy showing from the tricky Sri Lanka Whistling-Thrush, a surprise sighting of a vagrant Eye-browed Thrush with the regular wintering Pied Thrushes in Nuwara Eliya, two beautiful male Kashmir Flycatchers wintering close to the equally attractive Pied Thrushes in Victoria Park. At the end of it all, we needed to whittle of our 258 species to just five for the top birds of the trip list. This proved hard, so hard in fact that we had to settle for SIX instead!

1 Serendib Scops-Owl
2 Sri Lanka Spurfowl
3 White-naped Woodpecker
4= Jungle Owlet
4= Chestnut-backed Owlet
4= Sri Lanka Blue Magpie

Sam started guiding this tour only this year, and the destination has quickly been slotted into his favorite places to guide in the world; the combination of fantastic local food, interesting accommodations, excellent birding, which usually yields most of the main target species, and a rich culture dating back thousands of years, makes Sri Lanka a genuine top end birding destination for both the experienced birder, and those who may be looking for their first foray into Asia. Sri Lanka feels like it has it all, and offers something to every type of birder.

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