Sri Lanka: Ceylon Sojourn

Sri Lanka presents those who have never visited the culturally rich Indian subcontinent with a wonderful introduction to the region, while also offering “Indiaphiles” a host of new southern specialties and 32 endemic species. With the fluid state of taxonomy too, this list is sure to be elevated further, with many other local races also being seen on this tour that may gain endemic species status in the future. We’ll visit a range of parks and reserves, from wet lowland tropical forests in the Wet Zone, to the grasslands, scrub and stunted woodland of the the game parks in the Dry Zone, to highland cloudforests that will bring with it the real promise of almost all, if not all, of the possible Sri Lanka endemics, including the recently discovered Serendib Scops-Owl. All of our recent tours have managed to find all of the endemic birds.

However, to think of Sri Lanka as a mere collection of endemic birds, found nowhere else, would be an injustice; it is much  more than that. It is a great destination for the all round naturalist, with a list of more than 20 mammal species regularly recorded on this tour (usually including Leopard and Asian Elephant), as well as a profusion of colorful butterflies, and a discrete set of reptiles unique to the island. On top of all of this is a vibrant, and unique, Buddhist culture, dating back thousands of years, which has led to the birds and other wildlife being both abundant and approachable; and making for a fascinating tour from a cultural perspective. For those who have a particular interest in this, while we will experience some of this firsthand on the tour; we also highly recommend adding on a few extra days in Kandy, the cultural heartland of Sri Lanka. (Tropical Birding can arrange this for you, if desired). Sri Lanka is also an excellent tour for the “foodie”, with the cuisine often also providing a major tour highlight for many too. While this is a well-established, and popular, birding destination among British and European birders in particular, it remains relatively little known, and less visited by those from North America; a mystery, seeing as a series of great parks, and  excellent facilities and lodging for almost all of the tour, make this both very comfortable, and accessible to all.

Sri Lanka Frogmouth; more traditionally, they are seen during the daytime!
Sri Lanka Frogmouth; more traditionally, they are seen during the daytime! (Sam Woods)

Day 1: Arrival in Colombo; to Kitulgala
After arriving in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, we’ll make a short trip to some local marshes near the airport where in addition to many common Sri Lankan birds there is a chance to see Black and Yellow Bitterns. After a couple of hours on site, we’ll leave for Kitulgala in Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone, a drive of two and a half hours. We’ll spend the next three nights at Kitulgala.

PLEASE NOTE: As most international flights arrive in the middle of the night, and the tour starts early in the morning of this day; some people prefer to arrive a day early and spend the night in Colombo, in order to recover from their flight. If you would like a night in Colombo before the start of the tour, please let us know and we will be happy to help arrange this, although please be aware this will be at extra cost, as this has not been included in the tour fee.

After a break and some lunch, we will begin our birding exploration of the area, with a visit to some of the plantation covered hills close to our hotel, which provide easy birding, and offer some of the easier endemics like Yellow-fronted and Crimson-fronted Barbets, Sri Lanka Hanging-Parrot, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, and Layard’s Parakeet. This is also a good raptor viewing area, with Black Eagle, Oriental Honey-Buzzard, and Rufous-bellied Eagle all occurring at the site.

Sri Lanka Gray Hornbill, an endemic found in the Wet Zone
Sri Lanka Gray Hornbill, an endemic found in the Wet Zone (Sam Woods)

Days 2 – 3: Kitulgala
Famous as the place where the 1957 Alec Guiness movie “Bridge On the River Kwai” was filmed, it is also rightly famed amongst Asian birders as a rich hunting ground for many “Ceylon” (the old British colonial name for Sri Lanka) endemics. Kitulgala actually comprises a mosaic of habitats, with endemic birds and other wildlife found in each; around the village gardens and lightly wooded areas provide rich hunting grounds for birds like Indian Pitta, Long-billed (Loten’s) Sunbird, and Golden-fronted Leafbird, and a slew of endemics like Sri Lanka Junglefowl (the national bird of Sri Lanka), Sri Lanka Gray Hornbill, the elusive Green-billed Coucal (in areas of Dwarf Bamboo), Chestnut-backed Owlet, Spot-winged Thrush, Black-capped Bulbul, White-throated (Legge’s) Flowerpecker, and Brown-capped and Orange-billed (Ceylon Rufous) Babblers. These areas may also yield Sri Lanka’s national mammal, the massive Grizzled Giant Squirrel.

Sri Lanka's extravagant national bird, the Sri Lanka Junglefowl
Sri Lanka's extravagant national bird, the Sri Lanka Junglefowl (Sam Woods)

On the other side of the Kelani River lies the dense rainforest of Makandawa, where the interior forest birds can be found. While this is more challenging than the others areas in Kitulgala, some of the avian rewards are huge; this area offers up our first chances at Malabar Trogon, Sri Lanka Spurfowl, and the recently-described Serendib Scops-Owl, which can often be seen roosting during the daytime in this reserve. With two full days in this area, we will see firsthand that Kitulgala is both very birdy, and very beautiful.

The endemic Serendib Scops-Owl was only described in 2004
The endemic Serendib Scops-Owl was only described in 2004 (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Kitulgala to Sinharaja 
After some final birding around Kitulgala, chasing whatever we still need; we shall head to Sinharaja, one of the most famous bird parks in all of Sri Lanka, which holds magnificent areas of pristine tall virgin forest, mixed with gardens and rich, old secondary forest. We should arrive in plenty of time to search the gardens and wooded hills close to the lodge in the afternoon, for Plum-headed Parakeets, Black-hooded Cuckooshrike, and further, good chances at endemic species like Crimson-fronted (Ceylon Small) Barbet and Sri Lanka Hanging-Parrot. There may also be time to check local sites for the elusive Slaty-legged Crake or Sri Lanka Spurfowl too, depending on our arrival time. Three nights will be spent in a simple, but excellent, birder’s lodge (“Blue Magpie Lodge”), just outside the reserve, which offers some of the best, most authentic, and traditional Sri Lankan food of the tour.

Sometimes this shy species emerges into the open (Sri Lanka Spurfowl)
Sometimes this shy species emerges into the open (Sri Lanka Spurfowl) (Sam Woods)

Days 5 – 6: Sinharaja
Known as the “Kingdom of the Lion” this forest area is a world-renowned biodiversity hotspot, being a designated biosphere reserve and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the number one site in the country for Sri Lankan endemic birds, with all but one or two species occurring, plus plenty of other wildlife besides. With two full days in the area, we will focus on some of the species that are either not possible at Kitulgala, or are much rarer there, like Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Red-faced Malkoha, Crimson-backed Flameback, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Sri Lanka Myna, White-faced Starling, and the rare and difficult Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush (the toughest of all the birds to see on this trip), while also getting further chances at birds like Serendib Scops-Owl, Green-billed Coucal, Sri Lanka Drongo and Sri Lanka Scimitar-Babbler.

Another Blue Magpie, because they're worth it!
Another Blue Magpie, because they're worth it! (Sam Woods)

This area also offers the best shot at Sri Lanka Frogmouth, which are frequently found, in pairs, dozing during the daytime. Keep a close eye on the surrounding hills may also yield raptors like the scarce Legge’s Hawk-Eagle, Rufous-bellied Eagle, or Crested Hawk-Eagle.

Red-faced Malkoha is one of the most attractive endemics
Red-faced Malkoha is one of the most attractive endemics (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Sinharaja to Udawalawe
After a final few hours trying to track down any gaps in our list, we will drive east into the markedly different Dry Zone, and the town of Embilipitiya, where we will overnight. The hotel grounds sometimes host roosting Indian Scops-Owls, which will be our first target bird in the area. This is a great base for exploring Uda Walawe National Park, (which we will do the next day); an important sanctuary for waterbirds and other wildlife. During the afternoon we will make our first foray birding in the Dry Zone, which will open the floodgates on a sea of new species. On the first leg of the trip we will have birded (at times), within lush, dense, rainforest; however, in this area we will be birding open grasslands, wetlands and stunted dry woodland and scrub, of a completely different nature to that experienced before. During the afternoon, we will be visiting some areas just outside Udawalawe National Park, for a mix of songbirds and waterbirds. The waterbirds are likely to include Spot-billed Pelican and Painted Stork, while in the surrounding scrub and woodland we may find Marshall’s Iora, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, or Yellow-eyed Babbler.

Udawalawe NP is a great spot for Asian Elephant
Udawalawe NP is a great spot for Asian Elephant (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Udawalawe NP to Tissamaharama
We will spend the morning on board a jeep, as we take a game drive inside Udawalawe National Park. This will be the first of three game drives of the tour, by jeep, in three different parks of southeast Sri Lanka (Udawalawe, Yala, and Bundala). Udawalawe is famed for its large concentration of Asian Elephants in particular, and we are likely to see some herds of these as we stop in on the mosaic of habitats found inside the park borders. Indian Rollers are likely to feature for the first time, and we will be, especially, on the lookout for two species of malkoha: Sirkeer and Blue-faced Malkohas. Like all three of the parks to be visited in the coming days, these are likely to offer the most relaxing and easy birding of the tour, with much of this being done from the specially adapted jeeps for game drives, which affords excellent bird and game viewing, as well as photography for those carrying cameras on the tour; getting extreme close-ups of birds like Blue-tailed and Green Bee-eaters, Painted Storks and Asian Openbills, and perhaps even a roosting Brown Fish-Owl, is not only possible, but likely! Other possible birds inside the park include Barred Buttonquail, the rare Orange-headed Thrush, our first chance at Forest Wagtail, Lesser Adjutant and Woolly-necked Stork. Aside from the avian fare, animals like Gray Tufted Langur, Toque Macaque, and Ruddy Mongoose may also feature too.

The incredibly confiding Green Bee-eater
The incredibly confiding Green Bee-eater (Sam Woods)

In the afternoon we shall visit a wetland area, en-route to “Tissa”, where the quality of shorebirding in Sri Lanka should come into sharp focus; birds like Great and Indian Thick-Knees, as well as Black-tailed Godwits, Kentish Plovers and Pacific Golden-Plovers may all be encountered, among others, along with Yellow-wattled Lapwings. We’ll also visit an area of tanks, where Streaked and Baya Weavers may be nesting, and watch as a pre-roost gathering of Malabar Pied-Hornbills takes place. While, at dusk, we shall check the edge of Bundala National Park for two “goatsuckers”: Jerdon’s and Indian Nightjars. At night we shall check into our hotel in Tissa, situated on the edge of a large lake, and close to two more national parks: Yala and Bundala.

A Painted Stork comes in to land at Udawalawe
A Painted Stork comes in to land at Udawalawe (Sam Woods)

Day 9: Yala NP
Yala is Sri Lanka’s premier game-viewing park, and one of the most popular wilderness areas on the island. The reason for this? In a word: Leopards. Yala holds the highest density of Leopards anywhere on the planet; the absence of other large cats, present where they occur in Africa for example, means that Leopards occur there in extraordinary quantities, never matched in Africa, ironically where they are better known from. We will have a full day in the park at Yala, and in doing so, have a reasonable chance of running into this must-see cat, with sightings occurring on most days at Yala. Indeed, the park is a mammal hotspot, with some days yielding more than ten species of mammal; other possibilities are Chital (Spotted Deer-the main prey item of the Leopard), Sambar, Golden Jackal, and Wild Asian Water Buffalo. Yala is also a scenic park with prominent rocky outcrops making for a wild and wonderful landscape in which to do our birding and game viewing. Birding wise, we have a shot at Small Pratincole, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Pied and Gray-bellied Cuckoos, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, White-rumped Shama, and even male Indian Peafowls, or “peacocks” in the throes of full display. At dusk, we will return to Tissa for the night. After dinner, we may take a short drive to look for Jungle Owlet or Indian Scops-Owl, in the neighborhood of our hotel.

A day in Yala gives us a good chance at finding Leopard
A day in Yala gives us a good chance at finding Leopard (Andrew Spencer)

Day 10: Tissamaharama and Bundala NP
In the morning we’ll stick close to our hotel, birding the edge of one of the big “tanks” (or reservoirs), which provides good birding of its own. Our primary target will be the scarce, local, Sri Lankan race of White-naped Woodpecker in the trees surrounding this huge lake, which may also hold Jungle Owlet and Jerdon’s Leafbird, among others. While, on the tank itself, we have a chance to find the rare Watercock, Black and Yellow Bitterns, or Cotton Pygmy-Goose. There is also a huge roost of Indian Flying-Foxes (a huge, fruit-eating bat species) that make for great photos in this area too.

We’ll return to our near hotel for lunch, before take an afternoon game drive, the last of the tour, in Bundala National Park, an internationally recognised RAMSAR site for its significance as a hotspot for migratory waterbirds. Among the possibilities among the shorebird horde include Small Pratincole, Red-necked Phalarope, Eurasian Curlew, Kentish, Little Ringed and Common Ringed Plovers, Curlew Sandpiper, and Little Stint. As we head out of the park around dusk, we will get more chances for two nightjar species (Jerdon’s and Indian), if needed.

The wooded edges of the tanks at Tissa are home to the scarce White-naped Woodpecker
The wooded edges of the tanks at Tissa are home to the scarce White-naped Woodpecker (Sam Woods)

Day 11: Tissamaharama to the Hill Country
After some final time around Tissa, searching for any missing birds like Greater Painted-Snipe or Ruddy-breasted Crake, we will travel out of the Dry Zone, and ascend into the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. En-route to the “city of light”, Nuwara Eliya, (where we’ll spend the next two nights), we enter into some truly scenic areas, including Rawana Falls, with its attendant crowds snapping photos, and attendant Toque Macaques raiding the tourists! Nuwara Eliya is in the heart of “Tea Country”, the Hill Country, where the finest Ceylon Tea is produced and exported to the world under well-known brand names like Lipton, Dilma, and PG Tips. The city is also nicknamed “Little England”, as the crop-covered hills and climate suggest that country. Indeed, the sharp rise in altitude (to nearly 2000m/6560ft), will be accompanied by a likely change in the weather, which may resemble the cooler climate and rainy habits of an English summer! In the afternoon, we shall bird the hills behind the city, for some of our final remaining endemic birds of the tour; Sri Lanka White-eyes adorn almost all of the flocks in the area, and we also have our first shot at the stunning Yellow-eared Bulbul, the rare Sri Lanka Whistling-Thrush (actually a flycatcher), and tough-to-see Sri Lanka Bush-Warbler. We will also get further chances at Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush and Legge’s Hawk-Eagle in this area too, along with Indian Blue Robin and Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher.

Pheasant-tailed Jacanas are in resplendent breeding dress at this time
Pheasant-tailed Jacanas are in resplendent breeding dress at this time (Sam Woods)

Day 12: Horton Plains NP
This day will be in marked contrast to all other experienced on the tour. While much of the trip is spent in the steamy lowland jungles of the Wet Zone, or the open hot grasslands and wooded areas of the Dry Zone, this day will see us visit the highest site of the tour, in Horton Plains National Park, which offers the very best landscapes in the country. Birding this area, we will be among cloudforests and Rhododendron-covered hillsides, completely unlike anything seen before on this trip. While will be some major avian targets still waiting for us on this day, it may be as popular for the scenery, as it is for the birds. Several deep ravine cut through the hillsides, and have become a popular pilgrimage for local and international tourists; the deepest of these is known as the “World’s End”, while the smaller of the two is nicknamed the “Mini World’s End”. The trail to these is swathed in beautiful, wet dwarf forest, and grasslands, which are home to the endemic race of Indian Blackbird (a possible future split as an endemic species), Hill Swallows, and the Sri Lanka Woodpigeon. Other areas of the park offer chances at two of the hardest of all the 32 endemic species on the island; Sri Lanka Bush-Warbler and Sri Lanka Whistling-Thrush, as well as the endemic, and poorly-named, Dull-blue Flycatcher. The area is also a good stake-out for a hardy endemic reptile too, the Black-lipped Lizard, which can often be found too.

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch; more typically seen in the treetops with flocks!
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch; more typically seen in the treetops with flocks! (Sam Woods)

In the afternoon We will arrive back in Nuwara Eliya in time to explore the ornamental grounds of Victoria Park, a great place to pick up two key hill country bird; the boldly-marked Pied Thrush and striking Kashmir Flycatcher winter in the park each year, and it ranks as one of the best sites on Earth to see these species. A last night will be spent in Nuwara Eliya.

Victoria Park is a great place for wintering Pied Thrushes
Victoria Park is a great place for wintering Pied Thrushes (Andrew Spencer)

Day 13: Nuwara Eliya to Kandy
The final leg of the tour will see us move into another site in the Hill Country, the scenic city of Kandy, which envelopes a large lake. However, before reaching Kandy, there will be time to visit a factory for one of Sri Lanka’s most famous exports, tea. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, as it was formerly known when under British rule, is world famous, as the producer of some of the finest teas in the World, colloquially known as “Ceylon Tea”, although there are, of course, a wide variety among these. A short stop will be made at a factory, right along our route, to see how the famous Ceylon Tea is produced, and to taste test some of this, and also to purchase these teas, which are usually reserved only for export, and are therefore not widely available in-country. Hill Swallows also feature regularly around the factory, which is located in the hill country.

Common Mynas in Sri Lanka are just that; common!
Common Mynas in Sri Lanka are just that; common! (Sam Woods)

Kandy is revered amongst Sri Lankans as their cultural heartland, and is the location of the “Temple of the Tooth”, where the actual tooth of the Buddha is said to be housed in a tomb. Short, cultural add-ons, to visit this and other nearby areas, are recommended for those with a wider slant than birding, and can easily be arranged by Tropical Birding. Kandy was the former capital, before the British, in their former colonial grip on the country. moved it to Colombo. However, in the hearts of most Sri Lankans, Kandy is still their capital, culturally at least. On the edge of this wonderful city lies the rainforest of Udawattakele, which offers up further, final, chances at species like Crimson-backed Flameback, Brown-capped Babbler, White-rumped Shama, Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher, and even the local race of the rare Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl (or Forest Eagle-Owl), although luck is always needed to see the latter. It is also a great spot for Brown Wood-Owl, with a single bird regularly found day roosting at the site.

Indian Pitta is a common winter visitor, possible at many sites on the tour
Indian Pitta is a common winter visitor, possible at many sites on the tour (Sam Woods)

Day 14: Kandy Hills and departure
We will spend our final morning in the hills around Kandy, wherever our time is best spent, before a spot of local souvenir shopping, and taking lunch back at our Kandy hotel. After lunch, and freshening up before checking out, we will be transferred to the international airport in Colombo for evening departures.

PLEASE NOTE: As most international flights leave in the middle of the night, and our arrival in Colombo is likely to be late in the afternoon, there is likely to be a long wait at the airport. However, if you would like day use of a local hotel room, please let us know and we can arrange that for you. Please be aware this though will be at extra cost, as this is not included in the tour fee.

The rubbish pile behind Blue Magpie Lodge can be a great spot to see Asian Paradise-Flycatcher
The rubbish pile behind Blue Magpie Lodge can be a great spot to see Asian Paradise-Flycatcher (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Birding is usually best in the morning, so fairly early starts can be expected; breakfast is typically at 5:30am; there will be opportunities for downtime after lunch on at least five days of the tour. At least three breakfasts and three lunches will be packed lunches. At least five days of the trip involve drives of 3-4 hours. Jeeps are needed to get to Sinharaja; it’s about an hour each way along a very rough, unpaved road. We will be using official jeeps to travel inside the parks of Udawalawe, Yala and Bundala. These are good, comfortable game-viewing jeeps, but it is necessary to spend long periods inside them, since you are only permitted to get out of the vehicle in designated areas.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Much of the birding is along easy, wide open tracks or dirt roads, but there will also be some longer walks on trails, some of which are slightly inclined and a bit slippery – a walking stick helps a lot. Most days will involve 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 km) of walking, though there will be one longer hike of about 4 miles (6.4 km) at Sinharaja, and some participants may want to walk to World’s End and back at Horton Plains (5 mi/8 km). The highest point of the tour is about 7500 ft (2300 m).

CLIMATE: Warm to hot in the lowlands with daytime highs of about 91°F/33°C and nighttime lows of about 72°F/22°C. In the wet zone it is also quite humid. In the highlands (days 11-13), lows could be down to about 41°F/5°C. While this is the dry season for much of Sri Lanka, the Wet Zone can be wet year round, and so some rain can be expected.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent, except for the three nights at Sinharaja. All of the hotels and lodges have private en-suite bathrooms, 24-hour electricity, and full-time hot water. Except for Sinharaja, all accommodations have air conditioning and wifi. At Sinharaja, a simple birding lodge is used, which is the best option in the area. This lodge has great food, excellent service, and fans in the rooms; the building is old and the quality of the rooms is lower than elsewhere on the tour, though still acceptable.

PHOTOGRAPHY: While there are no feeders at any sites, there can be some good photo opportunities on this tour, especially during the game drives in the Dry Zone (days 8-10). On these days we will using open-sided jeeps, which are set up for game viewing, and act very well for getting photos of animals and birds. On these drives large waterbirds, bee-eaters, raptors, and mammals like elephants, buffalo, and deer often feature. While the photography in the rainforests of the Wet Zone (mainly days 1-7) is more challenging, the birds of Sri Lanka have not been widely persecuted and can be abundant in some places, making this a surprisingly good bird tour for photography.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; it must be valid for at least months beyond your date of departure. All visitors need to obtain an electronic travel authorization in advance, but this is usually easy to obtain online.Travel requirements are subject to change, please double check requirements with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to driver and driver’s assistant, tip to Sri Lanka local guide and hotel/guesthouse staff; accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 13; meals from lunch on day 1 to lunch on day 14; safe drinking water throughout; tea is also typically provided with most dinners and some lunches; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from morning of day 1 to afternoon of day 14; one local driver throughout; required local guides/rangers in all national parks visited; one local Sri Lankan guide throughout; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary; jeep transfers in and out of Sinharaja; one morning game drive (by jeep) in Udawalawe on day 8; one all-day game drive (by jeep) in Yala on day 9; one half day jeep drive in Bundala on day 10; entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for any luggage porters used; international flights; visa/electronic travel authorization fees; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extra nights or time in hotels at the start or end of the tour (as international flights arrive and leave in the middle of the night, some people prefer to arrive a day earlier to have some downtime after their international flights before the first day’s activities; and some also like to have day use of a hotel room at the end of the tour to prevent a long wait in the airport); extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.