Sri Lanka: Photo Tour
Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island lying off the southeast coast of India. While often considered a mere extension of India, this is quite unfair to Sri Lanka, which is an independent Buddhist country with a cultural identity all its own. It is not uncommon for people who have previously visited some of the more chaotic, culturally extreme parts of the country of India to be pleasantly surprised at the slower pace of life in Sri Lanka, and its gentle Buddhist ways. In common with India, the birds are fantastic, abundant, and often very photogenic. While there is overlap with Southern India, there is enough in Sri Lanka that is different to make this worthy of a standalone trip. For starters, there are more than 30 species only found in Sri Lanka, and some of these are not only dramatic in appearance, but also typically photographed on the tour, like the spectacular Sri Lanka Junglefowl, the striking Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, and handsome Yellow-fronted Barbet. Alongside these specialties are wider-ranging Indian birds that are a joy to photograph, like Blue-tailed and Green Bee-eaters, Painted Stork, Indian Peafowl, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, parakeets, kingfishers, hornbills, several day-roosting owls, and even Indian Pitta!
16 February - 1 March ($4900; single supplement: $700)
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Other Tour Details:
Length: 14 Days
Starting City: Colombo
Ending City: Colombo
Physical Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
Focus: Birding & Wildlife Photography
Max group size: 6+1 Trip Leader +1 Local Guide
Day 1: Arrival in Colombo; to Kitulgala
After arrival (usually in the morning), and perhaps some brief birding around some local marshes for photographing common Sri Lankan birds like Common Myna, White-throated Kingfisher and Rose-ringed Parakeet, we will depart for our first major destination, Kitulaga. This is the location where the Oscar-winning film the Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed. After arriving around lunch time, we will begin our exploration of the park and its surrounds. The first of two nights will be spent in a hotel in 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.
Day 2: Kitulaga
We will have a full day to photograph birds around Kitulgala. The area comprises a mosaic of habitats, from dense rainforest, to sparsely wooded areas, plantations and gardens in the Wet Zone of Sri Lanka, all of which host birds, and some of which are only found on this island. Often times the best photography can come out of walking the tracks that dissect the gardens in the area, which can hold standout birds like Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Indian Pitta, sunbirds, flowerpeckers, and Orange-billed Babblers, among others. If there is news of any roosting owls inside the park (occasionally, the rare Serendib Scops-Owl can be found there in the daytime), we will move deeper into the forest to see if we can photograph that too. Other species in this area may include Asian Emerald-Dove, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Yellow-fronted Barbet, and Tickell’s Blue-Flycatcher. We may also pick up our first mammal, and Sri Lanka’s national one at that, the substantial Grizzled Giant Squirrel. Around the lodge and surrounding areas, it is also possible to find a striking reptile, the Green Garden Lizard, the males of which often have emerald green bodies and bright scarlet heads. A second night will be spent in our Kitulgala hotel overlooking the Kelani River that featured in the Hollywood movie.
Day 3: Kitulgala to Sinharaja
After a final morning in Kitulgala, we shall continue our journey through Sri Lanka, remaining in the Wet Zone, but driving south to Blue Magpie Lodge, close to Sinharaja Forest Reserve. We will arrive with some time in the afternoon to drive up the road towards the reserve, but remain outside it, photographing birds in the local gardens. This is a great spot for photography as the road rises gently uphill, and brings you at eye level with some trees, which can yield photos of species like Sri Lanka Hanging-Parrot, Layard’s Parakeet, Green Imperial-Pigeon and White-bellied Drongo. The next three nights will be spent in the Blue Magpie Lodge, where most of the rooms have been upgraded in recent years. Behind the lodge, an area of scrub often attracts species like Indian Paradise-Flycatcher, White-browed Fantail, and even Water Monitors, which can sometimes be photographed.
Days 4-5: Sinharaja
On these days we will visit various areas in and around the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Within the forest, the photography can be more challenging than the local gardens, but it offers up some different species that have a liking for the forest interior. Among these are the striking Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, and the odd Sri Lankan Frogmouth. The latter is a nocturnal species, but the local rangers often know of a location where they can be found during the day. In another part of the park, we will visit the small house and garden, of another of the local rangers, who feeds some birds in front of his dwelling each day. Among the potential visitors are the striking Sri Lanka Spurfowl, bold Sri Lanka Junglefowl, and endemic Spot-winged Thrush. During our time there we will use the house as a well-placed blind from which to photograph.
Day 6: Sinharaja to Southern Sri Lanka
After a final morning at Sinharaja, looking for island specialties and common Sri Lankan birds like Purple-rumped and Long-billed (Loten’s) Sunbirds, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Red-vented Bulbul, and the striking Black-rumped Flameback, we will travel to the southernmost tip of the island, and the coastal town of Weligama. In making this drive south we will have moved out of the rainforests of the Wet Zone and into the Dry Zone. We’ll spend one night in the town, our launching point for a whale watching trip the next day.
Day 7: Blue Whale boat trip; to Udawalawe
Sri Lanka is not only a bird photography destination, but a good all-round country for natural history, ensuring that you will leave with not only memorable bird photos, but with photos of lots of other mammals, butterflies, and even a few reptiles. On this morning we will take a boat out of Mirissa, where the biggest of all mammals will be on the agenda, the Blue Whale. After a morning with whales, we shall drive north to a hotel in the town of Embilipitiya for the night. However, we should have time in the afternoon to bird some open country just outside Udawalawe National Park, and we might be in company with our first Painted Storks, Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Purple Sunbird, or even the endemic Sri Lanka Woodshrike. We will stay in a wonderful hotel overlooking a large lake, or tank, where Spot-biled Pelicans often drift by, and sometimes roosting Indian Scops-Owls can be photographed in the garden in daylight.
Day 8: Udawalawe NP to Tissamaharama
On this morning we will take out first “game drive”. The park holds a healthy population of Asian Elephants, and they will be a major focus of our time here. However, as we drive the tracks looking for this massive gray beast, we will bump into photogenic birds as we go; species like Crested Hawk-Eagle, Indian Roller, Jerdon’s Bushlark, Brown Fish-Owl, and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. In the wetter areas we may get to photograph larger birds like Lesser Whistling-Ducks, Painted Storks, Asian Openbills or Woolly-necked Storks, while Indian Peafowl are also very conspicuous. After the morning jeep drive, we will drive east to “Tissa”, where we will spend the next three nights at another hotel overlooking a large tank of water. This town will be our base for further game drives within the driest part of the island. In the afternoon we may visit some smaller tanks that can hold breeding weavers; during breeding periods Baya and Streaked Weavers can often be photographed.
Day 9: Yala National Park
This is Sri Lanka’s premier park, not least because it holds the world’s densest populations of Leopard. We will have a full day to try and catch sight, or photograph that wild cat. However, even if leopards do not perform, the park is loaded with birds and other natural photography opportunities. On some days we get a dozen different species of mammal out of this day, which could include Sambal (Asia’s largest deer species), Chital, Asian Wild Water Buffalo, Gray Tufted Langur, Toque Macaque, and Ruddy Mongoose. As we criss-cross this huge park with jeeps we will stop frequently for both birds and animals, and this will feel somewhat like an African game drive but with a completely different set of birds species! Some of the other possibilities include Malabar Pied-Hornbill, Eurasian Hoopoe, Orange-breasted Green-Pigeon, the huge Lesser Adjutant, Asian Koel, and Gray-bellied Cuckoo, among others. This day will involve lots of excellent light, and plentiful birds and animals from start to finish.
Day 10: Tissamaharama and Bundala NP
In the morning, we will stick close to our hotel, birding the massive lake or tank that our hotel is beside. Lightly wooded areas can be good for birds like the local White-naped Woodpecker, Jungle Owlet, and Jerdon’s Leafbird, while the lake itself is likely to littered with waterbirds like Purple Swamphens, cormorants, darters, egrets, herons, ducks and bitterns. On this morning, we shall also visit a large colony of Indian Flying-Foxes (a huge, photogenic bat), which should provide more than ample opportunities to photograph them as they hang calmly in the trees overhead. These bats usually provide excellent individual profiles but also nice group portraits too. After lunch back at our hotel, the afternoon will see us take our third jeep drive in our third park, this time Bundala National Park, which adds pans to the otherwise similar habitat to Yala. While it also offers species like Marshall’s Iora, Barred Buttonquail, Blue-tailed and Green Bee-eaters, Asian Openbills and Painted Storks, it also attracts a large congregation of shorebirds that can be photogenic too, for a very different element to other parts of the tour; species like Marsh and Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stint, Kentish Plover and Common Redshank all occur. Sometimes too Small Pratincole can be seen also. As well as other animals too, we will be on the lookout for the striking Star Tortoise that can often be noted in the Tissa area.
*PLEASE NOTE: Sometimes the order here is switched around, with day 9 and 10 being done in the opposite order (i.e. Yala would then be done on day 10, not 9 as listed here). This is usually decided at the time by the Tropical Birding tour leader, based on local information, weather, and so forth.
Day 11: Tissamaharama to the Hill Country
After some final birding in the dry lowlands around Tissa, we will depart for Nuwara Eliya in the heart of “Tea Country” in the Central Highlands. The scenery on the way is impressive, and we will stop at Rawana Falls along the way for a traditional selfie! The cooler weather will be a nice change, and with the change in climate will come a significant change in birdlife. During the afternoon, we will bird one of the local spots, where we may come across the endemic Sri Lanka White-eye, the striking Yellow-eared Bulbul (another species confined to Sri Lanka), along with regular Pied Bushchats perching around our hotel. Two nights will be spent in the town of Nuwara Eliya, where good tea is part of the program and always on tap!
Day 12: Horton Plains NP and Victoria Park
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, Horton Plains National Park, which offers the very best landscapes in the country. We will be among cloudforests and Rhododendron-covered hillsides, completely unlike anything elsewhere on this trip.
This day may be as popular for the scenery as it is 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), and Hill Swallows. Other species we may find in the park include Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Cinereous Tit, and Orange Minivet. We may also try and call in a Dull-blue Flycatcher, one of the local specialties for photographs. Even here, high in the mountains there are other animals on offer for our cameras, as Black-cheeked Lizard and Sambar Deer are often found too. After a morning amongst the fabulous landscapes of Horton Plains, we will return to Nuwara Eliya, perhaps checking around the well-groomed Victoria Park in the afternoon for rarer species like Pied Thrush or Forest Wagtail.
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 Sri Lanka’s most famous export: 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 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. 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. 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.
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.
PACE: Easy. 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: Easy to Moderate. Much of the birding/photography 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). There is a boat trip to search for Blue Whales on day 7, so please be aware that some might suffer from motion sickness, although the sea here at this time is usually reasonably calm.
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. All of the hotels and lodges have private en-suite bathrooms, 24-hour electricity, air conditioning, and full-time hot water. Except for Sinharaja, all accommodations have wifi, though it is often slow.
PHOTO GEAR: 100-400mm zoom lenses would be useful, and 500mm/600mm lenses would be suitable too.
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 local guides and hotel/guesthouse staff; accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 13 on the main tour and night of day 1 through to night of day 8 on the extension; meals from lunch on day 1 to lunch on day 14 on the main tour and lunch on day 1 to lunch on day 9 on the extension; safe drinking water throughout; tea is also typically provided with most dinners and some lunches; Tropical Birding tour leader with audio gear from morning of day 1 to afternoon of day 14 of the main tour, and afternoon of day 1 to evening of day 9 on the extension; one local driver throughout; boat trip to look for Blue Whales on day 7; required local guides/rangers in all national parks visited; one local Sri Lankan guide throughout the main tour; 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 (i.e. the flight from India to Sri Lanka for the pre-tour extension is not included); 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.