2005 SRI LANKA TOUR (29 January-14 February)
by Deepal Warakagoda
We were in rain forest vainly trying to see the newly discovered Serendib Scops-Owl, which kept calling from just after dark but was staying in dense cover, refusing to show itself. After a long while, when we were nearly ready to give up, I decided, as a last effort, to creep a little into the forest in the direction of its call. As I neared the sound, I flashed the torch in the direction of the call and there was the small rufous-brown owl perched about 8 ft. from the ground. I took the group in and we enjoyed a superb view of the calling owl.
While we were looking at the owl, a Ceylon Bay Owl called faintly behind us. The Bay Owl in Sri Lanka, formerly treated as a subspecies of the widely distributed Oriental Bay Owl, was recently split as a full species together with the form in South India. It is the rarest owl in Sri Lanka and there have been less than a handful of sightings in the wild, all recent. Its vocalization was learned only recently. I quickly informed the group about the Bay Owl and asked them to have a final good look at the Serendib Scops-Owl before leaving.
We quickly got back on the trail and listened for the Bay Owl. After some time we heard it again. I played a tape recording of the owl and we waited. No response. We listened intently as we waited more. Finally we heard the first part of the call from the forest behind us. From time to time the bird repeated the partial call. I searched the dense vegetation to no avail. Then, through a gap, the owl was suddenly in the beam of the flashlight. It was staring at us while firmly holding on to a vertical trunk of a small tree. We had good views of it while a second bird, its mate, called from time to time from farther away. It was the first sighting of a Bay Owl on a tour in Sri Lanka.
Of the other nocturnal birds we had good views of Brown Fish-Owl, endemic Chestnut-backed Owlet, Ceylon Frogmouth, Jerdon's and Indian Nightjars, and heard Brown Wood-Owl.
On our second visit to Uda Walawe National Park, in the early morning, we came across and identified two species never found before in Sri Lanka. Surprisingly both these birds were feeding together on the main road of the park. They were males of Red-headed and Black-headed Buntings. Thus, a new bird family, Emberizidae, was added to Sri Lanka list, which caused great excitement amongst Sri Lankan birders, some of whom managed to see them.
By the end of the tour we managed to see all the Sri Lankan endemics, as well as most of the other Indian Subcontinent endemics. Great fun!
2003 SRI LANKA TOUR (24 January-10 February)
by Deepal Warakagoda
After failing several times in our effort to see the Ceylon Spurfowl, we walked deeper into the forest at Kitulgala. Later, as we approached a large tree with buttress roots, a hen spurfowl flushed up from the base of the tree and flew off into the forest. Brought to attention by its alarm note, we all saw it, though not well. Searching among the roots, I found two slightly warm eggs indicating that the hen had been sitting on them. The spurfowl is one of the most difficult of the Sri Lanka endemics to see and this was the first nest I found. We quickly left the area to minimize the disturbance and allow the hen to return. The next day we returned and managed with considerable effort to spot the incubating hen from some distance. The view was poor because of intervening vegetation and poor light, but we were pleased to be able to see her at greater length without flushing her again. Two days later, while walking at noon in Sinharaja Forest, a pair of Ceylon Spurfowl stepped out onto the road and walked a few meters in full view before disappearing into the forest, giving us good views. Thus we completed our list of lowland forest endemics, and other lowland rainforest specialties, such as: Ceylon Junglefowl, Green-billed Coucal, Red-faced Malkoha, Chestnut-backed Owlet, Ceylon Frogmouth, Malabar Trogon, Ceylon Grey Hornbill, Indian Pitta, Spot-winged Thrush, Brown-capped Babbler, Indian Scimitar-Babbler, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Long-billed Sunbird, White-faced Starling and Ceylon Magpie.
Later, in the dry lowlands, we had these special birds amongst many other forest and water birds: Crested Hawk-Eagle, Indian Peafowl, Great Thick-knee, Jerdon's and Indian Nightjars and White-naped Woodpecker. In the hills we had good views of Ceylon Wood-Pigeon, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Ceylon Bush Warbler, Indian Blue Robin, Pied Thrush, Ceylon Whistlingthrush, Dusky Blue Flycatcher and Kashmir Flycatcher, amongst other birds. The Tawny Pipit and Eurasian Sparrowhawk were two new migrants for Sri Lanka that added some spice to a successful and enjoyable tour.
1999 SRI LANKA TOUR
by James and Marian Cressman
Our first day (post flight day) was an easy early morning visit to Bellanwela Attidiya Bird Sanctuary. Had 35 trip birds in less than 2 hours including 4 Black Bittern, 6 Yellow Bittern and many Purple Swamphens. Great scope views of these birds sitting in the open in sunshine. A fruiting tree had Brown-headed Barbet, Crimson-fronted Barbet, White-browed Bulbul and Yellow-billed Babbler. Also had several Pheasant-tailed Jacana in breeding plumage. Our second day, we were off to Bodinagala. We saw the Ceylon Frogmouth, Malabar Trogon and Rose-ringed Parakeet immediately. We heard Green-billed Coucal, Ceylon Spurfowl and Brown Boobook.
On our drive to Kitulgala, we saw a pair of staked-out Indian Scops-Owls. Late in the afternoon, we crossed the nearby river and went into the hills, where we saw the Ceylon Magpie and Chestnut-backed Owlet. We actually saw the Owlet on 3 different days. Heard the Green-billed Coucal again.
On Wednesday, we crossed the river again and went further up into the hills. Spurfowl called and were responsive to tape. Deepal saw, but Marian and I missed them. Heard Green-billed Coucal again. Saw Ceylon Hanging Parrot, Layard's Parakeet, Ceylon Grey Hornbill and Forest Wagtail. Thursday morning we finally saw Green-billed Coucal. Drove to Ratnapura. On our late afternoon walk, we had Indian Pitta, 3 of them in leafless trees.
Next day, we departed early for our drive to Sinharaja--a successful day, Red-faced Malkoha, White-faced Starling, Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes and Ceylon Junglefowl. Heard Ceylon Spurfowl again.
Next day, we tried for the Spurfowl at another location. The Spurfowl responsive to the tape and came in, Deepal saw again but we missed them again. The only endemic we didn't see.
Had a good drive to Embilipitiya, and the Centauria Hotel, while comfortable, was weird. We had 2 good runs in the Uda Walawe Nature Preserve: Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Wooly-necked Stork, Crested Hawk-Eagle, Indian Peafowl and Brown Fish-Owl. On our drive from Embilipitiya, via Uda Walawe to Tissa, we had 128 species.
We saw White-naped Woodpecker, Jerdon's Nightjar, Indian Nightjar, Barred Buttonquail and 23 different shorebirds. Our drive in Yala National Park was great. In less than 3 hours we saw a bear, a wild boar, an elephant, and a leopard less than 50 feet from us. He was sunning himself on a large rock. We eyed each other very carefully.
Our second day in Tissa, we revisited Bundala and had 10 elephants go by as we checked a lake. At the Tangmalai Sanctuary we had Ceylon Wood-Pigeon, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Dull-blue Flycatcher, Ceylon White-eye and Black-throated Munia. We spent the last 3 nights at the Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya.
One morning we went to the Surrey Estate and saw the Brown Wood-Owl and Pied Thrush. At the Horton Plains we had both the Ceylon Bush-Warbler' and Ceylon Whistlingthrush in a matter of minutes. - Deepal is a fine leader, he has good eyes and great hearing and knows where to look for the endemics. I don't understand why Americans will not visit Sri Lanka. We didn't see one American during our trip. Saw lots of Europeans; a tourist report released while we were in country indicated 75,000 Germans visited in 1998. The security problems appear to be in the north and we were far south the entire time. I felt safe the entire trip. Our meals were better than expected; we were able to avoid curry most of the time. Accommodation quite adequate and comfortable for a birding tour in a third world country. The people were very friendly and we received smiles, waves and warm hellos. Many people tried out their English on us. All in all a great trip. We got all but one endemic plus 55 other life birds.
1997 SRI LANKA TOUR
It was the morning of my last full day in Sri Lanka. We had already tried one evening until dark, one morning beginning before light and another evening until dark to see the Ceylon Whistlingthrush, without success, in one of its standard places. So we set off long before dawn and arrived at a spot where Deepal said we had another chance for it. At 5AM, we stood in the dark waiting for dawn.
"I hear one," he said. We went up the road, where he pointed out a silhouette just visible against the light of the sky in the east. I put my binoculars on it and then my 200000cp Lectroscience recharge-able spotlight. Sure enough, there it was, the Ceylon Whistlingthrush perched on a branch. Then it flew right over my head, crossing the road and a small pond and landing in full view on a tree across the pond. While it was in flight I could see the brilliant blue shoulder flashes which cannot be seen when it is perched. My spotlight still on it, I could see its eye shine which was a brilliant white.
Then followed an amazing twenty-five minutes. We found this bird near a pond that Ben King had discovered in 1973 when he nicknamed it "Arrenga Pond" (Arrenga is the Sinhalese name for the Ceylon Whistling-thrush.) He was the first to discover that the bird could be seen sometimes at this spot. Our bird then hopped out and stayed around the pond and was clearly visible on sticks and logs and in the grass. I got my telescope' on it and had soul-satisfying studies of it as it moved from place to place, temporarily vanishing under the grass or into the foliage, but reappearing consistently. Finally, I tried to take a flash photograph of it with my 500mm lens at quite close range. Alas, it was too dark. It was still not quite full light but getting brighter and the day could not have been brighter for me for this was the 23rd of 24 endemics that I was to see on this trip.
Later that morning I saw the 24th, making a clean sweep of Sri Lanka's currently recognized endemic bird species. I saw all but one of these endemics clearly in my telescope -- the only one I did not see in the scope was the secretive Ceylon Spurfowl which I saw very clearly through binoculars as it walked towards us on a wooded hillside. I was astonished and delighted at Deepal Warakagoda's phenomenal skill at finding difficult birds. Not only the endemics, but I managed to see Malayan Nightheron and many other birds on my personal wish list. Deepal never seemed to be hurried but he continued methodically and consistently producing birds. I ended up with 58 life birds thanks to his dedication and skill. The previous year's list only included 53 of my life birds. ¡ KingBird Tours has a real treasure in Deepal as a leader.
SRI LANKA SUCCESS
(1992 KingBird Sri Lanka Tour)
For years it looked as though I'd never get here. By the time I'd learned about all the great birds to be found in Sri Lanka, it was in the headlines with serious upheavals and Tamil terrorism--largely in the north of the island. Consequently bird tours simply weren't coming here through most of the '80s.
A happy circumstance, however, has placed the wet zone and the highlands, where the endemics occur, in the southwest--well away from most of the trouble. Enterprising birders, mainly from Britain and Europe, continued to trickle into Sri Lanka during the '80s and reported seeing most of the birds without danger or trouble--enticing. Ben King took two clients here in '88 and managed to see all 23 endemic species--even more enticing. Needless to say, when Ben announced a '92 Sri Lanka tour, I jumped at the chance.
Our group of six plus Ben, with the assistance of two superb local guides, Upali and Deepal, pulled off what is surely the best-ever bird tour of Sri Lanka. Among the 23-24 endemic species (depending on your taxonomy) there are some very difficult ones, esp. Ceylon Spurfowl, Green-billed Coucal, and Ceylon Whistlingthrush. In addition the Ceylon Frogmouth (which also occurs in southern India) is almost never seen by visiting birders--let alone resident ones!
We got off to a fine start by having scope studies of the elusive coucal the first morning out. Our local guides knew a good spot, and Ben's tape of a calling bird produced the desired result--a lifer not only for all of us, but for our very experienced guides as well. If these two hadn't seen it before, it is a tough one.
The lowland rainforests of Kitulgala are in a scenic setting--used for the filming of The Bridge On the River Kwai. They should have kept the bridge, however. Crossing the river from the hotel to the forest had to be done (several times) in quite indescribable small boats. But well worth it, for the place produced scope views of a Chestnut-backed Owlet (another lifer for our local guides) in tape response at dusk, and then unbelievably, an almost immediate vocal response from a Ceylon Frogmouth when night fell. Shortly thereafter we had great views of a total of three birds (singly) in the light beam within an hour. Others were heard, more distant; clearly the frogmouth is common here. The icing on the cake came the next mid-morning when Ben played the frogmouth tape and got a daytime answer from this highly nocturnal species. He went into the forest alone and achieved the unheard-of result of finding a pair (one gray, one rufous) snuggled together on a daytime roost high in a dense leafy tangle--with one small gap which allowed us to focus a scope for a fantastic close-up. (Oh yes--this was my 7,000th species, so it was really extra-special for me.)
The Owlet cooperated nicely in the daytime as well. At this point we were beginning to think the tough ones were easy and vice-versa, since the common Ceylon Hanging-Parrot was frustrating all of us by repeated bullet-like (and uncountable) fly-overs. It came around in the end, of course, and at times the little parrots seemed to be virtually dripping from the flowering trees.
Ben's tape worked a proper miracle with a Spot-winged Thrush, one of the fancy and sneaky Zootheras. The bird sat on top of a boulder in the forest and sang its heart out for us. Here we also encountered our first Ceylon Magpie--a blue and chestnut knock-out. It proved to be the only one I ever saw well, and the population is certainly on the decline. The Ceylon Myna gave us great scope views also, but we saw it well only once gain. A number of these marvelous endemics are becoming harder to find as time goes on, and even the "common" ones can be missed, it seems.
Sinharaja is a marvelous and sizeable tract of lowland rainforest with one major drawback: it is a 2-hour drive on bad roads from the nearest reasonable hotel. Getting into the forest by 6 or 7 AM means getting up at 2:30 or 3:30, having a good breakfast (miraculously achievable in Asia) before leaving, and then arriving back at the hotel at 9 PM or later for dinner--and having to do it all again the next day!
Our first day here was a bit discouraging. This is the spot for most of the lowland endemics (some of which we'd fortunately already seen), and many of them are found in the large feeding flocks which are usually encountered in a morning's walk along the road. This may have been one of the quietest days in the history of the place, and for no apparent reason. We found only one decent flock, which fortunately contained the endemic laughingthrush. While we were in the forest getting better views, Ben played the Spurfowl tape. He'd tried this before, near calling Spurfowl at Kitulgala--and failed. We hadn't even heard one where we were today, so I could hardly believe it when I saw a female and then a pair walking through the forest. Ben's incredible persistence paid off with good views had by all in the end. Another tough one added to the list.
Clearly our second day here was to be our last chance for the Red-faced Malkoha and White-faced Starling. The thought of not seeing this glorious Malkoha was too painful to consider--but we needed the essential and elusive flock. We staked ourselves out at a location where the flock with the malkohas had recently been seen, and the morning crept uneventfully on. Ben went scouting farther down the road, and after a time we heard his whistle. He seemed to be a half-mile away as I ran down the road, scope and umbrella bouncing and flying. He'd found the flock and seen malkoha, then ran to signal us. As we all arrived breathless, several more malkohas flew across the road against the sun--silhouettes only, and not good enough for this stunner. Finally, after we'd all managed decent views of birds moving through the canopy, one came out of a bush in perfect light and sat and preened in the sun. It's one of Sri Lanka's finest.
The White-faced Starling can be a problem as well, and was a long time in cooperating for everyone. Any of the specialties here could be missed; a bit of bad luck with the flocks could easily undo your best efforts.
Next stops were eastward and into the dry zone. An Indian Pitta at Uda Walawe gave me one of my most enjoyable pitta sightings ever. It hopped and fed along the road directly in front of our jeep for as long as we cared to watch--extraordinarily satisfying. We happened on a leopard here as well.
Yala National Park in the southeast gave us superb views of my last Pelican--Spot-billed. An abundance of shorebirds, marvelous Painted Storks and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas in breeding plumage (contrasted to the winter plumage in which one sees them in northern India), Pied and Gray-bellied Cuckoos, Malabar Pied Hornbills and the strikingly beautiful endemic Ceylon Junglefowl were all added to our growing list.
As night fell in Yala, Ben glimpsed a nightjar flying, and then tried tapes of the two species known to be present. The large, dark Jerdon's Nightjar (a recent split from Large-tailed) responded immediately and dramatically and gave us splendid views. Next Ben played Indian Nightjar, and sure enough, soon we heard one calling distantly, then close, and finally this smaller nightjar flew past us in the light, calling, and then perched in the road.
We'd done the lowlands. The cool hills sounded wonderful and held our missing endemics. A stop at Tangmalai Sanctuary at about 5,000 ft. yielded excellent looks at the endemic Ceylon Wood-Pigeon, the flashy Yellow-eared Bulbul, and some lovely flycatchers. A brilliant bit of spotting by Ben through dense vegetation produced views for all of a male Pied Thrush feeding at length in the fork of a huge tree.
The Ceylon Whistlingthrush has the well-deserved reputation of being extremely elusive. Not only is it notoriously shy, but it is also virtually impossible to get at significant stretches of its habitat--narrow streams with dense vegetation, often involving waterfalls and treacherous terrain. One is therefore mostly confined to sitting hidden and motionless at the few accessible locations where it has been seen--and waiting and hoping. We tried this twice using up 2 precious hours each time, with no results whatsoever.
We were braced for another long vigil to take place on our last afternoon. That morning, however, we were up at 7,000 ft. on Horton Plain, walking along a road through a wonderfully beautiful and unique area of Sri Lanka, with grassland, a picturesque forest of gnarled trees, and lovely crimson rhododendrons. We could hear the running water of a small stream, densely overgrown, near the road. Quite unexpectedly we heard the shrill, sibilant whistle of the whistling-thrush. Ben got some critical moments of this on tape, played it without great expectations, and the bird--a beautiful male--popped miraculously into view and worked around us on relatively open perches in a quite confiding manner. This was the last tough one!
Now we had only the endemic race of the Black-throated Munia to see. And this relatively common edge and open-country flocking species took us two days to find! We scoured numerous known haunts to no avail, finding only the more common Scaly-breasted Munia. Not till we were on our way down and out of the highlands on the last morning did we find this final "important" species--which had become rather a joke by then.
Our grand finale was a study of a splendid breeding plumage Caspian Plover (very rare in Sri Lanka) which had been found and correctly identified in its confusing winter plumage in December by Deepal, one of our sharp local guides. The bird was still present in a grassy field outside Colombo, and had undergone most of its molt prior to migration.
It will be a big challenge to match or top this one in any future trip. We had a masterful, persistent and inspired leader in Ben, and extremely capable and helpful local guides, but also miraculous good fortune. It was probably the single overall most successful bird trip I've ever done.
[Editor's note: the late Phoebe Snetsinger was quite an accomplished birder, having seen over 8,400 species of birds, still more than anyone else, ever.]