Being keen but novice birders, we wanted a tour of Sri Lanka that would give us the opportunity to see as many of the birds of the country as possible, but also to see other wildlife, historic and cultural sites.
The aim of this report is to demonstrate that this is possible, and we would say advisable! It would be a great shame to visit the island and miss its other delights. Indeed some of our best and most memorable bird sightings were whilst doing more “tourist” activities, e.g. a Stork-billed Kingfisher whilst walking along the roadside of Kandy Lake; a Jerdon’s Leafbird whilst swimming in the pool at Amaya Lake Hotel.
We enjoy the thrill of spotting birds without the use of tape lures, preferring to let nature take its course, and are happy to watch the same species again and again, particularly when this offers the chance of a better view or photo opportunity.
Alan found the Jetwing Eco Holidays website, which offers a mix of tours giving us inspiration to plan our tour of the island. We had also read bird reports on other birding websites, which helped us decide on places to visit and hotels to use.
Once we had a rough idea, Alan emailed Jetwing, explaining that we are a couple of well-travelled 40 something’s, interested in birding, culture, nature, wildlife, history etc. Ajanthan Shantiratnam responded promptly replied and made a few suggestions – the tour was taking shape. After a few weeks, many emails and several changes we had the tour organised. We also decided to add on a 9-day beach holiday, which was booked through a UK tour operator in order to relax and to soak up the sun after the tour.
We chose Sri Lankan Airlines because they fly direct, the idea of stopping in Dubai again was not an option (we had a 2-hour stop over returning from India, and it is no fun if you are tired anyway from the first part of the journey).
Our flight was midday, and we arrived in Colombo at 4.30am the following day. The flight was comfortable and although 10 hours, the time passed quickly enough. On arrival at Colombo, we were pleasantly surprised to get our luggage, pass through customs and exchange money (it’s better value at the airport, with plenty of banks open at that time in the morning), all within an hour.
Jai, our driver/guide (for the first day) from Jetwing Eco was waiting at the exit. He was wide awake (more than could be said for us), after packing us into his minibus, we were off through Colombo as the rush hour traffic began to pick up. It took an hour to reach our first destination.
VILLA TALANGAMA is set in a quiet location facing a tank (manmade reservoir), Talangama is actually a village, which is being swallowed up into the suburbs of Colombo, but it still has the village feel to it, with much vegetation and dirt tracks with private residences set in well-stocked tropical gardens. We arrived at the villa at 6.30am, just as dawn was breaking, and it wasn’t until Jai stopped the minibus, and we alighted at the door, that the dawn chorus hit us. The whole area was alive with wildlife! The air was warm, the wildlife just waking up, and a good cup of tea from our host ‘Mr P’ (his name is unpronounceable) was a great way to start the day. The villa is an extremely comfortable building with wide ground level verandas, neat garden, and a very inviting swimming pool. Inside, the building has light and airy spaces, and beautiful pools of water with fish, both inside and outside the house. Our room was spacious, with a lovely 4-poster bed, and the bathroom was “outside”. In fact the shower was open to the sky, but the rest of the room was under the roof. What a great way to get up in the morning, a shower in the sunlight, or at night under the stars!
We had both thought that we would be tired, which we were, but the incredible sounds from the birds called us to the first floor veranda outside our room, so although we had planned to sleep, we actually spent the next two and half hours supping tea on the veranda, and viewing the tank for our first bit of birding. Eventually sleep overcame us and we managed to sleep for three hours before lunch, which was also served on the veranda, where we stayed with binoculars, and cameras at the ready!
At 1.30pm, Jai picked us up for a city tour of Colombo. Whilst we were in the city, we met up with Ajanthan, to settle the balance of our holiday (the deposit was made by bank transfer from England). He very kindly gave us a goody bag, which included brochures, and the much needed bird list, which became invaluable in writing up this diary. On our way back to the villa, Jai stopped just at the edge of the tank, where we spotted our first Yellow Bittern skulking in the undergrowth and a Common Kingfisher and a single Little Grebe. We walked around the tank with Jai who identified birds by sight and sound, and imparted information about Sri Lanka. Just as we reached one of the reserves' information boards, our first Shikra glided overhead. We also saw a troupe of Purple Leaf Monkeys in the trees.
Back on the veranda, we watched as Little, and Great Egrets, Purple and Grey Herons, and Black-headed Ibises flew in to a communal roost, whilst Black-capped Night Herons flew in the opposite direction. Noisy Rose-ringed Parakeets returned home, enormous Flying Foxes and owls (though which type, we’ll never know) departed for the night shift and the sounds of the evensong began. Well after dark, we were still on the veranda when a magical light show began: the Fireflies circled in the air just beside the veranda.
After having a refreshing open-air shower, we descended to the dining room where Mr P served a homemade three course evening meal of soup, fish and dessert, too much food for us, but absolutely fantastic. Eventually, after a couple of beers, we were ready to sleep and retired for the night. We encountered our first House Gecko; they can be seen on walls and ceilings everywhere, patiently waiting for an unsuspecting insect. I hadn’t counted on the racket these little creatures can make when two Geckos sang to each other across the ceiling of our room!
Alarm clocks? Who needs them when the birdsong alone is loud enough to wake you? The next day literally dawned on us. The night air was still very warm. Grabbing a shirt (and undies), we stepped out onto the veranda to watch the sunrise. We spent two hours quite happily viewing the show. Southern Coucals clumsily crashed into bushes, Yellow-billed Babblers (seven sisters as we came to know them) gossiped around the gardens, Herons, Egrets, Black-headed Ibis, Little Cormorants, and Asian Openbill Storks, departed from their roost to start the days feeding. Red-wattled Lapwings and White-breasted Waterhens chased along the tracks and verges. Indian Pond Herons sneaked up to the waters edge and a busy Common Snipe poked around nearby, a Water Monitor snaked its way through the water. A single Black Bittern skulked on the far side. A single Moorhen glided silently amongst the reeds. A Western Yellow Wagtail bobbed by the waterside. Two Lesser Pied Kingfishers spread their wings and hovered over the water. The inevitable White-throated Kingfisher together with an Oriental Magpie Robin, and Spotted Dove, came to greet us on the wire. A male Asian Koel sat on next doors balcony. Two Purple Swamphens squabbled and chased each other across the marsh dodging the Black-winged Stilts; a Brown-headed Barbet started its morning call. Red-rumped Swallows, Little Swifts, Blue-tailed Bee-eaters and Whiskered Terns swooped effortlessly over the water.
Around 7.30am, Mr P spotted us on the veranda and offered us tea, what a wonderful start to the day! Eventually we had to tear ourselves away to have breakfast and meet our driver guide for the tour. Mr P gave us the full works this morning: two freshly pressed fruit juices each, fresh fruit, curd and honey, bacon and eggs, toast, marmalades, jams, marmite (!) and coffee. During the meal, we were constantly on the look out for new sounds and sights. We breakfasted on the terrace beside the garden and watched the smaller birds flitting in and out of the hedge; these included Common Tailorbirds, Thick-billed Flowerpeckers, Purple Sunbirds and Purple-rumped Sunbirds. A Black-hooded Oriole flew through the trees, calling to its mate, and a White-bellied Drongo observed us from the wire. House Crows and Jungle Crows were seen everywhere.
Total number of bird species spotted at Talangama, 54, what a fantastic start!
As we finished breakfast, our driver/guide for the tour arrived. His full name is Supurna Hettiarachichi, but everyone calls him Hetti. We discussed the itinerary, and what we wanted to achieve from it. It was all very relaxed and it became obvious that timings of the tour would be flexible. We also explained to him that we are amateur photographers, and had two new digital cameras to test (Panasonic FZ20 and FZ5).
It was time to leave, so we thanked Mr P and climbed into the air-conditioned car, which became a welcome retreat on many occasions during the tour.
Our next stop was Minneriya National Park, about 5 hours away. During the next couple of hours, we discovered the unpredictable habits of the Sri Lankan drivers. The roads were very busy with cars, vans, busses, lorries, tuk-tuks, bicycles, ox-carts and motorbikes all vying for first place and overtaking any which way, regardless of the oncoming traffic, which stopped to allow the overtaking vehicle to carry out its manoeuvre! Nothing pulling out from side roads seemed to look before joining the traffic. Horns were only used to overtake vehicles and acknowledge drivers - never in anger. Road rage does not exist in this country. Through all of this, we sat and watched as Hetti expertly wove his way through the unpredictable melee, occasionally pointing out things of interest. After we cleared the outskirts of Colombo, the traffic calmed, except for the long distance busses, which clearly had deadlines. It is quite something to have a purple single decker bus tailgating and pushing past regardless of oncoming traffic. Of course, Hetti took all this in his stride and started to talk about the scenery and people of Sri Lanka and we started to get to know him.
We stopped for a coffee break and later lunch, during the tour these tended to be at transit hotels, or restaurants offering a Sri Lankan buffet meal, all were very reasonably priced and plenty of food. The meals usually consisting of main course, dessert and coffee or tea and all were very good.
We passed through Dambulla and Habarana and the scenery began to change with more arid tolerant trees and vegetation. We began to notice huge granite outcrops, which we saw island wide.
MINNERIYA NATIONAL PARK. At 4.30pm, we pulled up at the jeep park and Hetti organised the jeep with driver and tracker who were booked to take us into the park. The jeeps have open tops, which enabled us to climb onto the bench seats and get better views. On the downside, vegetation overhanging the tracks is liable to slap your face if you are not looking! The other thing to note is that the tracks, worn by other jeeps and elephants are not smooth, so it is necessary to hang on tight to avoid bruised ribs. The object of this game drive was to see elephants. Throughout the two and half hour drive, we saw plenty of evidence of them, but not a single elephant but we saw lots of birds. We saw one Ceylon Junglefowl scuttling into the undergrowth, a Ceylon Green Pigeon basking in the sunlight at the top of a tree, and a Brown Shrike. There were Little Green Bee-eaters, a Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters in the evening sky. Hetti pointed out a White-browed Fantail, which briefly spread its tail before disappearing into the bushes. Of the raptors, we were lucky to find a Grey-headed Fish-eagle perched on a dead tree overlooking the lake, and a coy White-bellied Sea-eagle. We were rewarded when a solitary Lesser Adjutant flew low across the lake. Our driver took us out to the edge of the lake where the terrain became wetter and marshier the further he drove. At one point, we were axle deep in mud and required a couple of attempts to drive out onto higher ground to get out onto the promontory. Two other jeeps behind us experienced the same difficulty, and one had to be towed out of the mud. Here there were plenty of shore birds: Grey and Purple Herons, all types of Egret, Great Cormorants, Asian Openbill and Painted Storks, Spot-billed Pelicans, and Black-headed Ibises.
Jeeps are robust vehicles, however, ours had had to put up with a lot of clutch burning, and overheated, we were stuck in the mud! Not deterred, our driver and tracker climbed out of the jeep into the mud and tinkered with the engine. We were off again, on the way back to the entrance before the gates were closed.
This was our first real day searching for wildlife and our guide and driver were concerned that we should see as much as possible. Because of the volume of wildlife, we had to learn to get the binoculars up first to observe the animal and then try to capture the image on camera afterwards. It was very confusing deciding which piece of equipment to raise to the eye first but as the tour progressed, we did get much better!
DEER PARK HOTEL, our home for the next two nights and we arrived around 8pm. We had booked an Angsana cottage, which was well appointed with all mod cons, complimentary fruit, and its own private gazebo jutting out over lush undergrowth. The view was somewhat disappointing as from the description on the website, we thought we were going to see quite a lot of the lake but with subsequent growth along the lakeside, the view was limited. We had not realised that the main road was between the lake and the hotel and was quite busy. This, however, during our stay did not detract, rather added to the experience! After an extremely good evening meal from the buffet in the dining hall (this included international cuisine as well as Thai and Sri Lankan fare), we had a couple of beers and returned to the cottage for the night. Just before bed, and what was to become a ritual, we sat for half an hour in the Gazebo enjoying the sounds of the night.
We were woken early with the clatter of feet across the roof of the cottage, another alarm call without the need for clocks! Included in the cost of this room type was morning and afternoon tea, so I donned the hotel caftan and wandered down to our gazebo. Alan followed picking up camera and binoculars and at the appointed time of 8am, our tea was delivered together with pastries. It was a glorious morning, an excellent cup of Ceylon tea, and the sounds of nature all around until a group of Toque Macaque Monkeys joined us. They had been absent the night before, so we weren’t aware of what was about to happen. First, the infants approached eyeing up the tasty morsels on the table, then the leader of the group wanting to ensure his cut of the meal leapt into the gazebo and grabbed the basket of pastries, he bared his teeth at us and then scarpered with his selection. We have great photos of them within three feet of us swinging on the aerial roots of the banyan trees! If you haven’t guessed, the patter of feet on the roof belonged to these mischievous creatures.
This was a free day for us until late afternoon, so we had a relaxing breakfast, and took advantage of the hotel facilities. A delightful three-tier swimming pool is set in the seclusion of the cottage accommodation and there are plenty of trees and beautifully kept lily ponds and gardens. Armed with camera and binoculars we spent a couple of hours around the hotel, and spotted Ceylon Grey Hornbill, and the ever-present White-throated Kingfisher. Grey Langur Monkeys (larger but more timid than the Toques) also shared the treetops with the birds, and Three Stripe Palm Squirrels were everywhere. Butterflies caught our attention, the most obvious ones being so much bigger than the UK varieties, the Common Crow and Crimson Rose were seen everywhere. As the lake couldn’t easily be seen from the hotel grounds, we walked down across the road and along the shoreline to join the Little Egrets. Here Lesser Pied Kingfishers showed off their hovering techniques and two graceful White-bellied Sea Eagles soared above the lake.
During the day numerous cars, busses and lorries carrying people and flying coloured flags passed by, they were going to a political rally, and when we got back to our gazebo, we watched the procession for a little while, and took some good photos of smiling faces.
We spent a couple of hours at the pool, before returning for our afternoon tea at 3.30pm. Having learned our lesson from the morning, we decided to have this in our cottage, so when it arrived it was brought in and placed on the side table. The door had been left open for just a few seconds, but this was long enough for the big male Toque to take the opportunity to saunter in and help himself to the complimentary fruit that the hotel had kindly placed on the coffee table! Having got his prize he swiftly exited.
We freshened up and gathered our paraphernalia together for the late afternoon birding session. As we left the cottage, we heard rustling above us, and looked up to see a Giant Squirrel happily gorging himself on the fruits of the tree. With excellent views, we couldn’t miss the opportunity and took lots of photos. This made us late meeting Hetti. We climbed into the car and set off for our lake session. Due to the political rally, and the numbers of vehicles and people along the lake road, Hetti decided it would be better to head up into an area beside another hotel, away from human activity. Here we took a path into the forest, and it wasn’t long before Hetti spied a White-rumped Shama in the undergrowth. It was difficult to spot this timid bird at first, but as we stood silently, we were able to get quite good views. Farther along the path he pointed out a Pied Flycatcher-Shrike, and Black-capped Bulbul. Right in the top of a tree in the sunlight, a Coppersmith Barbet was calling. The balmy evening air was attracting Barn Swallows, Crested Tree Swifts, and Little Swifts. Above them, a small flock of Alexandrine Parakeets flew to their roost. We had excellent views of a pair of Ceylon Grey Hornbills carousing in the trees beside the hotel grounds. Unfortunately, they didn’t keep still long enough to get a photo! As we peered into the trees beside the drive, Hetti pointed out a Large-billed Leaf Warbler.
That evening, as we sat on the terrace and enjoyed another fabulous dinner, the next table was interrupted by a large flying insect intent on dive-bombing into anyone’s meal. This turned out to be an extremely large cockroach, which was whisked away by a waiter. We all settled down again, when another flying insect decided to dive bomb our table. This turned out to be a bright green Preying Mantis, which clung tenaciously to my white blouse, until I managed to shake it off.
We were waylaid once again by wildlife as we walked through the hotel grounds, and late in meeting Hetti. At this point, I should say that although we had an itinerary to work with, we didn’t necessarily have a time schedule to meet on every occasion, so whenever we spotted anything of interest, Hetti was quite happy to pull up on the side of the road for a better view. One such occasion presented itself on this morning when Alan spotted an Indian Roller on the top of a dead palm tree. It sat there for ages and we were able to get some photos.
POLONNARUWA. This ancient capital of Sri Lanka is a large site, which can only be covered by transport, and to see all of the archaeology needs much longer than the time we had allocated. The day was meant for history and culture, but we did not want to miss any opportunities that arose, so armed with binoculars and cameras we walked around the most important parts of the site and Hetti explained in detail the history of the city and its inhabitants, and how it fell into ruin. With one eye on the archaeology, and explaining the history, Hetti still had time to interrupt himself when a new bird caught his attention. Our first bird of the day was a Paddyfield Pipit followed by White-rumped Munias and Tri-coloured Munias that were seen in most areas of the site. Brahminy Kites roamed the skies. We visited the Royal Palace, the Audience Hall, and a selection of the many dagobas and temples. As we drove along the Parakrama Samudra tank wall road, a Blue-faced Malkoha suddenly burst from its cover and flew into a nearby tree, Hetti quickly reversed the car so we could get a better view. It peered out from the branches at us, and I captured his eye on one photo, his tail on another, and then the whole bird with the exception of his beak, which was hidden behind a leaf! We returned along the tank and in the distance a flock of huge Flying Foxes erupted from their daytime roost, something must have spooked them; they flapped about, and then returned to settle once again like folded umbrellas hanging in the tree.
As we left the car at the site museum car park, Hetti suddenly pointed out a Stork-billed Kingfisher above the pond; we rushed across and got great views of it. The museum is very interesting, and Hetti brought many of the artefacts to life with his descriptions and explanations. It is worthwhile visiting even if only to cool off in the air-conditioned halls.
Our next stop was a temple where Hetti knew a Barn Owl had taken up residence; we deposited our shoes outside, and headed into the temple. Inside there were archaeologists working on the beautiful wall frescoes. Right at the back of the temple high up in the eaves, we could just make out the white moon face of the owl. The keeper in the temple shone his torch briefly on the bird so as not to distress it.
Our next stop on the site was the two most famous carvings of Buddha. We were dropped off at the entrance to the site, and then Hetti drove the car around to the car park. He said to walk through and meet up at the statues. Once he had driven off, we spied two raptors circling in the sky above us and spent some time trying to identify them. We stopped beside a lotus pond (an amazing lilac colour caused by pondweed) where we found Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, strutting through the leaves. Hetti had walked all the way back to meet us and told us that a Crested Serpent Eagle was perched on a dead tree just near the statues; we had a fine view of it. A large Land Monitor prowled around the site, and carefully stayed away from the humans. To get close to the statues, shoes and hats had to be removed. By this time, it was midday, and the ground was extremely hot, so we made a quick visit inside the cordoned area to photograph the statues.
We were thirsty by now, and although we had bottles of water, Hetti took us to one of the many refreshment stalls on the site, where we sat in the shade and enjoyed the milk of a large yellow coconut each. Our final stop on the site was the Quadrangle, which encloses a number of ancient buildings, including the Vatadage, a bo-tree shrine, the stone book and the Satmahal Prasada. On all of these sites, Hetti proved to be a mine of knowledge, and explained how the differing beliefs and religions were tolerated throughout the centuries.
After lunch, we visited to a woodcarving factory, where we were able to see woodcarvers in action, and a young guide explained about the different woods and demonstrated how natural colour paints are extracted from Rainbow wood using a variety of liquids and powders. There is a vast display of finished products from carvings of statues and elephants, through to garden and house furniture. We bought a couple of pieces to start our collection of souvenirs.
With the heat of the day, and Hetti’s excellent driving, we had nodded off in the back of the car, when Hetti slowed dramatically and roused us from our sleep. He stopped on the side of the road and said quietly “Elephants!” In the distance, a herd of wild elephants were making their way through the trees and scrub down towards Minneriya. Is that why we didn’t see them the first day? We watched for quite some time as the herd grew, spread out across the other side of the valley, males, females, babies, all tramped along. Even locals stopped and watched their progress. This delayed our arrival at the next hotel, but what a good reason to be late!
AMAYA LAKE HOTEL. The lane leading from the main road to the hotel is slightly elevated, from which in the late afternoon sunlight the scenery was beautiful. Acres of paddy field stretch out towards the horizon, a million different hues of green and yellow, the depth and quality of light was fantastic. Hetti pulled up beside a small group of trees in which we could see number of small birds: we found Oriental White Eyes and Loten’s Sunbirds.
When we arrived at the hotel, a group of country women beat a drum to announce our arrival and we were led down into an enormous reception area open on all sides. After we checked in, we were shown to our Eco Lodge. The room boy led us past the swimming pool and through the grounds to the chalets and lodges. After quite a long walk we arrived at our Eco Lodge. These are traditional mud huts which are large and well kitted out with tiled floors and lime washed walls inside, separate loo and bathroom, tea and coffee making facilities, and other tourist requisites. The only thing it didn’t have windows that one could look out of, or in fact open, except those netted off in the loo and bathroom. Our lodge was at the bottom of a dark hollow, surrounded by trees and it smelt rather damp. On the upside, we sat on the mud seat outside and in the glow from the electric light, we watched as the bats flew silently inches above our heads in and out of the veranda.
We were staying at this hotel for 3 nights and found the lodge dark and oppressive, so we asked to change rooms. They were fully booked but offered us a Standard Chalet for the remaining 2 nights. This was light and airy, and much closer to the public areas of the hotel and this suited us much better.
On the first night we went to dinner, we couldn’t find our way to the hotel, and a kind security man with a torch pointed us in the right direction. The display of food at the restaurant was excellent, stretching down one long side of the restaurant, with the desserts in a separate area opposite. After a relaxing meal and a Sri Lankan Lion Beer or two, we noticed that the bar had closed (this hotel has 10pm closing in the bar!?) we decided to return to our lodge.
We were late once again meeting Hetti due to the variety of birds flitting through the trees in the hotel complex. Alan spotted a male Asian Paradise Flycatcher perched right up in the rafters of the reception and he swiftly donned the flash onto the camera and took a photo.
SIGIRIYA is a short drive from the hotel. As we got closer an enormous granite boulder loomed up out of the earth, this is Sigiriya Rock. Around the base of the outcrop are gardens that were used by the King and entourage during summer months, and in times of peace. Only half of the gardens have so far been excavated, but what has been completed is spectacular. The site is surrounded by a moat (once occupied by crocodiles) and a large wall, originally needed to keep attackers out.
We got as far as the moat wall and the drive leading up to the entrance when Hetti spotted a pair of Woolly-necked Storks nesting in a tree outside the walls. To get a better look we parked up (where incidentally it says NO PARKING) and went across the wall to get closer. We could have watched them for a long time, but Hetti had spotted a Black-headed Cuckooshrike just along from the Storks, so we picked our way through the undergrowth to get better views. Alan spotted an Indian Black Robin hopping along behind us, and managed to get some very good images. It was probably about now in the tour we were beginning to get our birding eyes, and virtually anything that moved was questioned. One of the most frustrating birds we saw on the whole tour was the poor Red-vented Bulbul! We had seen them from day one, and knew how to identify them. If one was spotted from behind, or below, or beside, or above, or just fleetingly, it was easy to believe you have seen something new. Hence, from then we decided to rename the bird the “Smith” Bulbul due to Alan’s many mistaken sightings.
As I have said, we are not obsessive birders, but with so many opportunities, and such a nature rich country as Sri Lanka, we couldn’t help but be swept away with enthusiasm!
Our diversion from the cultural site delayed us by nearly an hour and Hetti thought we should get on and start the climb before it got too hot. He dropped us at the entrance and explained that we should walk through the gardens, and look for Blue Rock Thrushes and he would meet us at the steps after he had parked the car. We started the walk up through the gardens, waylaid by Asian Openbill Storks, a Common Kingfisher, Black-headed Ibises, and eventually spotted the Blue Rock Thrush. We continued slowly up the path, the granite rock now so huge, I started to wonder if we would make it to the top. As we walked through the last bit of garden Hetti caught up with us and explained how the gardens had been used, and just how many steps we were about to climb – 1100… how many??!
The temperature climbed and so did the many locals who visit the cultural sites at the weekends (this was Saturday). Onwards and upwards, we followed the path and stairs up through ancient molten rocks that form great arches that marked the way to the first serious staircase. Various breathers on the way up allowed us to view the unfolding landscape, and excellent view of the gardens below. We had good views of Indian Swiflets, Ceylon Swallows and Barn Swallows, always on the look out for Raptors, (this is usually a good site) we kept one eye out to the sky as we went. These days, much of the climb has been improved to allow the many visitors access to the site, but the climb for King Kasyapa and his entourage must have been treacherous. Part way up there is an opportunity to mount a spiral staircase to see the cave paintings of court beauties. We passed by the famous mirror wall, once highly polished and carved into it is ancient graffiti dating back to the 8th century. About two thirds of the way up there is a plateau, once a look out point and the entrance to the fortress, all that is left now are the giant paws of the lion, but originally it would have been complete with the face of the beast.
From here on the climb gets a little trickier, so after a rest we entered between the lion paws up through what would have been his mouth. The climb becomes extremely steep on metal steps, with scant handrails, which are constructed of scaffolding poles. Cameras and binoculars were slung out of the way and hats removed (it was getting breezy); two hands were needed here. The summit was in sight, and as we arrived at the top, it became apparent how much work and labour had been needed to build the fortress, everywhere there were mud bricks, now laid bare, indicating the base of the walls. The site is an ongoing archaeological restoration, and the necessary requisites are lugged up the steps by the present day labourers to carry out the repairs. We climbed the last and highest two steps on the site, the remains of what would have been a staircase up to a long lost upper floor – we had made it! The views from the top are magnificent, and you can see spread out before you on all sides, the lush landscape of paddy fields, forest, and lakes or tanks. Granite outcrops are scattered everywhere (I have to say that I think they look like dollops of elephant dung on a giant scale, what should be more fitting in this land of elephants?). In the far distance, you can see the beginnings of the hill country leading up into the centre of the island.
On the way down, Hetti spotted a raptor, and once we got back to the plateau we waited for it to glide around the rock and into view. It made a couple of sweeps around, and then disappeared. It was a Shaheen, but we didn’t get a good view. Farther down, we stopped for a rest, and I looked back to the top and spotted the Shaheen sitting on some of the scaffolding. Descending through the trees the inevitable Seven Sisters, Rock Pigeons, White-throated Kingfishers, Red-vented and White-browed Bulbuls and Common Mynas occupy the territory. At the bottom, the steps drop down amongst old monks cells under the granite boulders. Some of the original plasterwork is still evident on the ceilings of these ‘caves’.
We had a couple of hours free in the afternoon so when we returned to the hotel we went for a swim. We had the huge pool to ourselves, and exercised our aching legs. I am short sighted, and I had taken off my glasses for the swim, so when Alan called me over to look at the trees beside the pool, I couldn’t really see what he had spotted. There were Jerdon’s Leafbirds, Purple Rumped Sunbirds, and Thick-billed Flowerpeckers just feet away, but I couldn’t see any of them! That’s the last time I go swimming without my sunglasses, and Alan goes to the pool without his camera!
Hetti met us at 4.30pm with his binoculars and scope and we took a short walk along the lakeside. A Jerdon’s Bush Lark ran across our path, then, Alan spotted a snake, first he checked with Hetti that it wasn’t poisonous, and then he scooted off for a closer look and a photo. It was a Rat Snake, about 1.5m. Along the edge of the lake, the usual Egrets including an Intermediate Egret and Herons were seen and farther into the undergrowth we had another try for a White-rumped Shama, and uncannily, Hetti found one. As we walked back through the hotel grounds we could hear birdsong high in the trees bordering the children’s play area, these were Loten’s Sunbirds. Glowing in the evening light, a couple of Ceylon Green Pigeons sat side by side. There was still time to take a ride up along the lake road, but apart from the usual lake birds, we only saw a Southern Coucal, and perhaps a Crested Drongo, but this was only a fleeting glance. The views from the lake wall were beautiful in the evening light, a vista of paddy fields, trees, and powdery hills in the distance; it was a good opportunity for a sunset photo.
That evening, we had our first power cut; total darkness! Most of the hotels we had stayed in have either torches or candles in the rooms for this eventuality. I also have a tiny maglite torch; it gives enough light to see just beyond feet as one walks. I went to check on Alan, who was quite happily showering in the dark, and then about 5 minutes later the power came on again, and we finished dressing and went for dinner. The power went off again as we walked through the gardens, so with the aid of the torch, we made our way cautiously around the swimming pool to the dining room, then the power came back on again. We had a very enjoyable meal from the ample buffet and when we walked back through the gardens fireflies greeted us flitting in and out of the trees beside the path, as if marking our way, and when the power failed again, we had a spectacular view of the starlit sky above us.
ANURADHAPURA. An earlier start today – 8am. It was a long drive north, and we had a coffee stop en route, apart from other ad hoc stops for birds along the way. Just outside the hotel, a grey Mongoose trotted across the road ahead of us, people were out beside the waterway, having a wash or washing clothes, and at the main road, a motor repair centre was in the process of servicing a tuk-tuk up on a ramp. We drove on for a while discussing the various birds we had seen, when Alan’s beady eye caught another Indian Roller, this time sitting on a wire. We pulled up right underneath the bird, and Hetti then reversed back a little so that Alan could get a photo. The bird was very obliging, and we have two super shots at last! (The European Roller proved very elusive in the Greek Islands.)
On the outskirts of Anuradhapura, there are numerous lotus ponds, where Pheasant-tailed Jacanas and Purple Swamphens paddled across the leaves. Our first temple visit was Isurumuniya Vihara, which has a large walkway above with good views over the surrounding wetlands. The temple was hewn out of a large granite outcrop, and inside are statues of Buddha, this time highly coloured. Many of the temples are permanently open, which allows cliff/wall nesting birds to take up residence and at the end of the room there were a group of Indian Swiftlet nests.
The remains of the ancient city are spread over a large area, and in the heat, it is better to drive from location to location. The Sacred Bo-Tree is situated at the end of a long avenue leading through the city. It is clearly very important, and we joined the throng of visitors, most were Sri Lankan; we hardly saw any foreigners. We passed by the Ruwanweli Seya Dagoba, a huge monument, which was having restoration work carried out right at the top, and then came up to the Loha Prasada. We stopped here for a while and Hetti explained that this was once a huge building with nine upper storeys, which housed 1000 monks. All that remains are the ground floor pillars, which would have supported the rest of the wooden structure. The design of this building can be seen in many other cultural sites and even in hotels.
The sacred Bo tree is enclosed by a wall, which was made from robbed out buildings on the site. The wall was originally built to prevent elephants from eating the tree when the King abandoned the city. As a result, the tree has been protected, and is now reputedly the oldest tree in the world. Inside the walls, many pilgrims were seated around the tree praying and leaving offerings. Just outside, there is an area where candles are left, which gives the atmosphere a smoky and oily black hue.
As we walked away, I spotted another Indian Roller on a wire, this time it was a very dark colour, almost chestnut around the throat, and the usual blue patches had a slick iridescence like a peacock. Perhaps the darker appearance is a result of the oily atmosphere from the candles. I took a photo of the bird, and we retraced our steps down the avenue. Another oily Indian Roller flew across the path with the same dark appearance; also along the avenue, we spotted Red-vented Bulbuls, White-browed Bulbuls, Scaly-breasted Munias, Common Mynas and Ceylon Woodshrike.
The Ruwanweli Seya Dagoba dominates the skyline, and we decided to go into the grounds for a closer look, again removing our shoes. Be warned and wear a pair of socks, the ground here is stone and tile, and was absolutely scorching! We raced from shadow to shadow, and it became so painful it was almost impossible to go on or go back. We made it however, and got some great photos of the men at work at the top, using bamboo scaffolding and rope to create a walkway around the uppermost part of the dagoba.
At the car park, Hetti spotted two Rose-ringed Parakeets in a bole of a tree, obviously nesting, and more pairs were nesting nearby. Our next stop was to see the best-preserved moonstone on the site. As we arrived at the car park, I spotted a large bird flapping through the trees. On closer inspection, we found a pair of Ceylon Grey Hornbills, they flew off to perch above a refreshment stand, so Alan went over to photograph said bird, and bought some bottles of water whilst there. The moonstone is well worth seeing and Hetti once again showed his knowledge of the site, and explained in detail what it means. Our final stop was at the UNESCO site at Jetvanarama Dagoba. This is currently being restored and it has a massive metal scaffold off to one side where the workers climb up to work on the upper part. The monument stands almost 122 metres tall, and with a diameter in excess of 113 metres, was the largest manmade structure of its time.
We climbed back into the car and rejoined the traffic to make our way to our late lunch stop, and as we were queuing at a junction, I saw a Brahminy Kite having a paddle in a waterway. Hetti pulled up, and we just managed one quick photo before he spotted us and took off. Farther on, we had good views of Green Imperial Pigeon, and a Shikra, which was perched on a branch overhanging the traffic. Hetti’s’ ability to concentrate on the traffic, talk to us, and spot birds all at the same time is quite amazing! A little while later, we came across a coach of Japanese tourists that had stopped. It turned out to be a Star Tortoise that was crossing the road. Hetti picked it up a moved it into the grass, and we waited there until it finally poked its head out and started to move down the bank.
Late in the afternoon, we stopped beside a harvested paddy field, which was festooned with birds feeding in the muddy ponds. The usual Egrets, Herons, Ibises, and Storks were there, along with Red-wattled Lapwings and White-breasted Waterhens, but in amongst all of this, we could see varieties of Plover and Sandpiper. At first glance, they all looked the same to us, but Hetti very patiently set about pointing out the different Plovers. Hetti set up his scope, and this made identification easier, especially as the sun cast longer shadows. Added to our increasing collection were now the following waders: Pacific Golden Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, Common Greenshank, and Pintail Snipe.
Right in the middle of the field, was a small patch of rice, which we had all scanned, but Hetti suddenly exclaimed and whispered there’s another snipe, he grabbed his scope for a better look, and eventually pinned down a pair of Greater Painted-snipe! As they pottered in and out of the rice plants we desperately tried to get a photo as evidence. This was a great find for Hetti, as was to be heard about regularly over the next few days as it caused quite a commotion within the birding fraternity. We stayed there until there was no light left to see by and then piled back into the car eventually got back to the hotel around 7.30pm. Buoyed up by the new “wader site” we went to celebrate in the bar before changing for dinner.
Alan wanted to get some photos of dawn over Amaya Lake, so we got up just before dawn, and he made his way through the dark down to the lakeside. It is wonderful being up at this time of the day, when birds and wildlife wake up and the night sounds give way to the dawn chorus.
We all decided that a second look at the new site was necessary to make sure that the Greater Painted-snipes were still in residence, so we agreed to start out at 8.30am to return to the paddy field. We quickly scanned to check on the previous day’s sightings, but couldn’t locate the Painted Snipe. I think we all sensed that they would still be in the small patch in the middle of the field, and sure enough after half an hour Hetti spotted them. Satisfied that they were still there we continued our journey on to Kandy.
DAMBULLA ROCK TEMPLE is en route to Kandy. This was another lofty climb, above the museum with its modern giant gold image of Buddha, which can be seen for miles (even from the top of Sigiriya Rock). The five cave temples, which house statues of Buddha and Kings, have beautifully painted ceilings. At many of the entrances there were Indian Swiftlet nests and all over the site Toque monkeys prowled. The hillside is a mix of open ground and scrub trees where Thick-billed Flowerpeckers and Purple-rumped Sunbirds were spotted. A guide from another coach group (a colleague of Hetti’s,) shouted out “there’s a Shaheen!” which there wasn’t and we all laughed. Shortly after however, the laugh was on them because a Shaheen soared gracefully from behind the rock and then disappeared over the horizon.
For lunch, we had the most amazing Sri Lankan curry, a total of 12 dishes plus rice. Replete with food, we dozed off in the car until Hetti asked if we would like to see a family who have over 200 uses for the coconut palm. This sounded very interesting and we spent a pleasant half an hour at the house while they gave a special demonstration of some of the ways they use the plant. Firstly, we watched the husk being flayed and then twisted to make rope, and then the rope further twisted to make much larger hanks. The palm leaf is cleverly woven to make bags and roof coverings, the spines of the leaves are used to make brooms. The nutshell is used to make all sorts of spoons and ladles. The wood is carved into bowls and used as lovely columns on verandas of houses. They also demonstrated how to de-husk rice with pounding rods. I was invited to try the technique that looked quite easy, but was very difficult to get the rhythm going. Afterwards, the rice was “thrown” in coconut palm trays to remove the husks. The nectar from the coconut flower is “tapped” to make Toddy, which can be distilled into Arrack, or made into vinegar or treacle. From the coconut itself, the milk is used, and oil is extracted for use in cooking or as a lotion for skin or hair. We were also shown a typical Sri Lankan kitchen, the whole stove area was formed from mud and dung bricks including the floor, and we were treated to a demonstration of how to make curry paste on a stone slab which acted as mortar and pestle.
KANDY. We reached the outskirts of Kandy around 4pm and joined the busy afternoon traffic. The town is a major crossroads in the centre of the island, with many arterial routes fanning out all in all directions.
HOTEL SUISSE. We chose this hotel, as we knew it to be an older “colonial” style establishment. It has high ceilings, and many of the corridors are open ended to take advantage of any cooling breeze. The cocktail lounge has a colonial atmosphere, and had extremely helpful staff. There is also a wood panelled billiards room. Our room was somewhat tired in its appearance, but it had all the necessary requirements, and a good shower.
We had time for a walk into town so we dumped our bags and set off. Just outside, we saw quite a commotion going on in the treetops above us, and on closer inspection, it was a roost of Flying Foxes being disturbed by Jungle Crows. It wouldn’t be long before they began their night feeding, so one or two of them were beginning to wake up and stretch their wings.
A tour of the town revealed the market area where most of the street stalls were selling vegetables, which looked very fresh. Many of the old shop facades indicate that the buildings were built during the 20’s and 30’s many of which had their own House Sparrow. Above a shop, we spied an angry Toque monkey who was hell bent on breaking into the corrugated roof. It seemed as if the whole of the roof was going to give way under his wrath, and the din was quite startling. Having spent his anger, he leapt over to a nearby balcony and sat watching the traffic below. A Handicraft exhibition was being held in the Queens hotel, organised as a government initiative to help train, or retrain people in various crafts such as brass work, batique, embroidery, jewellery, and woodwork. It was very popular with locals and tourists and we bought a couple more souvenirs.
We walked back beside the tank and watched as groups of Egrets came into roost on the tree on the island, each flock accompanied by a Jungle Crow. Eventually the tree became white, as if it had enormous blossoms all over it. The short 10 minute walk back to the hotel took about 45 minutes, as first we spotted a Black-crowned Night Heron, a Stork-billed Kingfisher, and then a juvenile Night Heron, and a pair of White-breasted Waterhens with their chicks. We decided to have a cup of coffee before changing for dinner and it was the best coffee we had had on the island. The hotel offers a very good buffet of international and Sri Lankan cuisine. After dinner, we settled ourselves in the bar and had a couple of beers and cocktails – well one had to try the Arrack after seeing the coconut demonstration!
PINNEWALA. We left at 7.30am to get to the orphanage in time to see the elephants feeding. En route we saw Lesser Hill Mynas. At the compound, we were able to walk right up into the herd whilst they fed. I was a little nervous of this as they are still wild elephants, and unpredictable, so we stood back and watched. Some had been found orphaned in the wild, others with various degrees of disablement. One had only three and half legs, possibly caused by a land mine; another only had one ear, probably because of a leopard attack. The giant tusker who stood patiently at his post is blind. Others in the herd had been born there. Hetti took us down to the pens where they are given their milk. The animals are chained during this ritual, as they can become quite impatient; one managed to undo his chain, which was swiftly replaced by one of the keepers. It was lovely to see the look of contentment spreading across the elephant’s face each time it received a bottle. As we left the compound, Hetti heard a Ceylon Small Barbet calling in the treetops. This was quickly located and we watched it for a while. Our next stop was down to the riverside to watch the whole group washing in the river.
There are a number of riverside cafes and restaurants with terraced seating arrangements each table above the height of the one below, so everyone gets a great view. We ordered a pot of coffee, and then scanned the river for birdlife. On the far side of the river, sand banks tower out of the riverbed and are ideal for nesting holes. Indeed, we saw pairs of Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters and White-throated Kingfishers using the site. A lone Common Sandpiper skirted the edges of the rock pools and a Grey Wagtail wagged its way across the rocks.
Soon the herd of elephants followed the last of the onlookers down the path and they pushed past one another to get into the cool water. We spotted our three-legged friend as he cautiously made his way down the tricky surface into the river. Once they had bathed, I have to say half-heartedly, (we didn’t even see any water being sprayed through their trunks), it looked like they were all going to make their escape across the river and into the forest beyond. However, once they reached the other side, they scraped their bodies against the sand banks to coat themselves in a thick dust layer. We have a wonderful selection of photos of the animals dusting themselves with their trunks, babies and adults alike, and others playing at mock fighting. Eventually the mahout called out and the elephants were herded back across the river to return to the peace of the compound. This is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist attractions, but it is well worth seeing.
BOTANICAL GARDENS - PERADENIYA. First constructed in the mid 18th century, they cover some 60 hectares. The gardens deserve a much longer visit than we had, as we were only able to cover a small part. We have great photos of the largest bamboos we have ever seen and the enormous Java Fig tree in the centre of the lawns near the café. This tree sprawls out over a vast area, and offers plenty of shade on a hot afternoon. Our main target in the park was Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, which we saw flitting around the trees quite near to the entrance. Hetti pointed out Orange Minivets, chasing each other in mating courtship through the tree canopy. Plenty of Yellow-billed Babblers chattered amongst the undergrowth and a Jerdon’s Leafbird, a Ceylon Small Barbet, and Black-hooded Orioles flitted and called above us. Whilst we were craning our necks, a gardener suddenly pointed out a white Asian Paradise Flycatcher. It turned out that the gardener knows much about the different species of birds within the garden, but sadly, he would never hear them, as he is deaf. As we walked back to the main entrance Hetti spotted a pair of Ceylon Hanging Parrots in a tree, followed shortly by excellent views of Alexandrine Parakeets. A group of schoolchildren with their smart uniforms had spotted us, and decided to catch our attention by lining up and grinning, so Alan took a couple of pictures. The photos are excellent, the children casually leaning against each other’s shoulders, and smiling.
Mid afternoon, we stopped at a government tourist shop, which sells brassware. Below the shop, there was a brass maker’s workshop, and we went to see how the detail is hammered into the metal. The worker was very skilled, and could even hammer away at a design whilst smiling up at us! He made a beautiful little plaque with two elephants, and then proceeded to hammer our names into it, very nice.
TEMPLE OF THE TOOTH RELIC. The ceremony started at 7pm, so Hetti ensured that we were inside the building in plenty of time. We left our shoes at the shoe counter, entered through security at the gate. Alan took his camera, as he has a good flashgun, and I decided to have a rest from carrying anything, which was great. At the ticket office, we purchased a photo permit, and made our way into the temple.
The construction of the temple is much like the Loha Prasada in Anuradhapura, so it is possible to visualise the construction of the ruin by looking at the architecture in the Tooth Temple. Inside, the drummers beat out rhythms and as 7pm approached, the bells began to toll and a procession of Buddhist monks passed by to prepare for the opening of the temple doors. We were hustled upstairs by Hetti anxious that we should join the queue to see the reliquary, as there was a strict time limit; the doors would be shut promptly at 8pm. We waited and then filed past, just glimpsing the casket, before being pressed on further by other eager visitors. We had to make a quick dash to see the library which houses the Palm books and then swiftly on to the original shrine room. We were one of the last few to get into these two chambers before the doors were closed for the night. Lastly, we went into the large hall, which houses the museum, with many more statues, and a pictorial history of the island and how the tooth was brought to Kandy. This was our last cultural visit on the tour and well worth attending.
The descent down through the lower hills brought us to Kithulgala a small village on the Kelani River. We had only one stop on the way, when we got sight of a Raptor soaring above us. This turned out to be an Oriental Honey Buzzard.
RAFTERS RETREAT HOTEL. As the name suggests, it is a popular hotel for the river rafting fraternity, but we were the only guests that night. The owner has created a great outdoor living complex with a rustic terrace restaurant overlooking the river. The Eco Lodges (tree houses) are constructed beside the river under the canopy of trees. Each has its own balcony overlooking the river, either double or twin beds, and loo and shower. There is no glass in the windows, just simple crossed sticks, (or nothing at all) between the bedroom and the outside world. There were plenty of nooks and crannies for all sorts of creatures to hide in. The doors do possess locks, and keys are issued, however, if anyone wished to get into a room it would be easy to climb over the balcony.
As we lunched in the rustic hotel restaurant, (much of the furniture made from recycled components) a coach group stopped for lunch, and got very excited when they spotted a two-metre Rat Snake just below the terrace. After we had eaten, we walked through the hotel grounds, and spotted our first Emerald Dove, and a Brown-breasted Flycatcher.
KITHULGALA FOREST RESERVE. Rain forests are teeming with wildlife, and their sounds are amplified by the vegetation. Hetti’s birding knowledge and experience allowed him to tune out the sounds of the birds we had already seen, and tune into those which were new, or ones we hadn’t seen properly. We had been warned to wear leech socks to prevent the little critters getting their free lunch out of us, so we prepared for the walk with long trousers, socks, and trainers, Hetti had organised the leech socks for us. To get to the rainforest, we first had to cross the river, and this was by dugout canoe, which ferries the villagers back and forth. They are so narrow, that there is only room to stand. Conveniently, on either side of the river, there are little shacks to sit in and dry feet after wading to and from the canoe. We dried our feet and put on socks, tucking our trousers inside, then pulled on the leech socks, and tied them tightly around the tops, then pulled on training shoes which were quite a tight fit after all the material stuffed inside! The atmosphere in the river valley was heavy and humid, almost as if it might rain. Hetti led us along a pathway into the outskirts of the forest, and through the village, which was laid out on terraces on the forest floor. We didn’t go far when he started to identify the birds by their calls, and within ten minutes, we had very good views of a Black-rumped Flameback, a Lesser Yellownape, Yellow-browed Bulbuls, a Square-tailed Black Bulbul, Spot-winged Ground Thrushes, Ceylon Rufous Babblers, and a Ceylon Crested Drongo. We carried on through the forest, which became thicker and darker and got a great view of a Malabar Trogon. As it started to go dusk, the sounds of frogs (some sounding like angle grinders) and cicadas began, added to the cacophony of bird sound. I caught site of a bird, and had just brought my binoculars to my eyes when it flew away, I did however, get to see its red markings around its eye. I was my first glimpse of a Red-faced Malkoha but both Hetti and Alan didn’t see it. Looking across a small paddy field, Hetti spied a Crested Serpent Eagle perched in a low tree, presumably looking for his evening meal; there were probably quite a few snakes in the vicinity! Back into the canoe, we crossed back over and walked back up to the hotel.
We had had an excellent session in the forest, so to celebrate we started on the beer. Our evening meal was laid out for us in many dishes; another Sri Lankan curry delight, washed down with more beer. Hetti had received reports that a Chestnut-backed Owlet was nesting in the trees above the hotel, so we arranged to meet before breakfast to have a look. We tramped our way back through the trees to the tree house and prepared for sleep. This didn’t come easily as the noise from the river was tremendous, and combined with the humidity neither of us slept well. We had been looking forward to our tree house experience, but we did miss the windows to block out the roar of the river and the cooling effect of air-con! I forgot to mention that we didn’t see a single leech on the walk, not to say there aren’t any! Having eventually drifted off to sleep, Alan was woken by a sharp pain on his thigh, this made him jump, and woke me up. He was kneeling on the bed saying something had bitten him - possibly a leech? We had closed the mosquito net, so the thing must have crawled in with us. Alan had a small ammonite shaped burn on his leg. We then searched the bed and found a small black millipede splitting the scene! This was flicked out of the bed, and I hoped it would find its way outside before morning. The scar from the millipede burn remained on Alan’s leg right through the holiday, only healing towards the end of our stay.
After such a rough nights sleep, we were brought wide-awake by a shower. It was freezing cold water that gushed out of the stone sluice ensuring no escape! We were just getting dressed when one of the hotel staff started hammering on the door and told us that they could see the Owlet and to come quickly. We raced across the forest floor to meet Hetti who was standing watch below the tree as the pair were flitting around the higher canopy from branch to branch. We had excellent views of the Chestnut-backed Owlets. This particular nest is being studied, as there aren’t many known nesting sites and it contained two eggs.
Hetti joined us for breakfast and had a typical Sri Lankan meal. We tried the roti (somewhere between unleavened bread and a crumpet), which were delicious, and Alan tried some of Hetti’s onion curry. It was extremely hot and I’m glad I didn’t try it. A final tour of the hotel grounds brought us down to the riverside to be greeted with temperatures of nearing 40C. It was scorching! We stayed long enough to watch two Ceylon Grey Hornbills fly across the river and Chestnut Bee-eaters and Red-rumped Swallows swooping over the water, then we headed back into the forest and the shade where we saw Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers, Orange Minivets, an Asian Brown Flycatcher, and a Gold-fronted Leafbird.
Before we left, we had coffee, and talked with Hetti about Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve. For some reason we had opted out of staying there when planning our itinerary, but it was obvious after visiting this rainforest that we should have included it. We asked Hetti if he would be prepared to guide us for one more day at the end of the tour, to which he readily agreed. Sinharaja would be on the way to Kalutara, our beach resort, so he called Ajanthan and asked him to check on availability.
NUWARA ELIYA. The journey was long and winding as we climbed higher and higher away from the heat of the valley floor and tropical climate right up to the high hills at 2000 metres above sea level to Nuwara Eliya and the tea plantations. Soon we were travelling through low scrubland where the cooler atmosphere discourages the growth of vegetation. Only tall pines dominate the skyline and everywhere swirling patterns of tea plants cover the soil. The air became thinner, and clouds started to billow above the horizon. The constant swaying of the vehicle on the bends began to make us feel a little travel sick, and eventually we had to stop and stretch our legs. It was a good opportunity to get some landscape photos and have a closer look at the tea plantations, which grow right up to the roadside. It’s hard to believe that the tea pickers can walk between the bushes as they are so closely planted. We could hear bird song; we saw a pair of Pied Bushchats hopping in and out of the tea plants.
A little while later we made photo stops at St Clair’s and Devon waterfalls. A coach pulled up beside us at one of these stops, full of Chinese (?) delegates, of some importance, as they had a police escort. We stopped for coffee during which time the coach and police escort overtook us, and Hetti fell in behind them, this was very useful. We watched with interest as the police stopped oncoming traffic and got leading traffic to pull over and we followed the coach for a long time getting the benefit of the escort. As we reached the outskirts of the town, the clouds came down to meet us and it started to drizzle. Like all built up areas of Sri Lanka, the traffic is extremely busy, the difference on this day was the amount of fumes bellowing out of the trucks and vans. The steep roads take their toll on the wear of the vehicles.
ST ANDREWS HOTEL is situated on a hillside above the vegetable market. I had been slowly getting a headache, which I can only put down to the sharp change in altitude, so we ordered a quick lunch and a pot of coffee and then I went to sleep for an hour. Alan decided to have a walk around the hotel gardens. After about an hour, Alan returned and we decided to have a walk around Nuwara Eliya. With such a dramatic change in the temperature, 16C seemed freezing! Wrapped up in long sleeves, fleeces and waterproofs, we descended through the market area where trucks were being loaded and unloaded with all kinds of vegetables; one was absolutely stuffed to the roof with enormous leeks! Apart from tea, the region is important for its market gardening, and the crops are distributed from the town all over the island. A tour of the streets revealed a different quality of life from the rest of the island. Perhaps it was the weather on this day, but I got the distinct impression that life up here was harder. There is a small “bazaar” street in the centre, which sells cagoules, thick jackets, long trousers, and fleeces, from many well-known brands, just in case a visitor didn’t have the right clothing. The stallholders noticed the brand wear we were wearing, and immediately tried to match fleece with jacket or shirt with trousers.
The hotel was once a private landowner’s property and full of old world charm. Much of the architecture has been retained and the elegant dining hall in the centre of the building was apparently once the music room. Even if you do not play billiards, its worth having a quick look inside this room simply to view its décor. This was the only hotel where there was no dinner buffet, but the food was excellent, a choice of three main courses and scrumptious desserts and the staff were extremely helpful, and very efficient.
HORTON PLAINS. We were rudely awakened by our alarm clocks at 5am; no bird song to hear from these walls. Donning “winter” gear, we went to reception to pick up our packed breakfasts and ordered a quick cup of tea. No one else from the hotel had stirred and it was quite eerie walking through the corridors. The waiter on duty was brilliant; he had served us the night before, remembered us, and rustled up the required cuppa in no time. The drive up to the gate at Horton Plains would take about an hour. In the pitch dark, we began to climb ever higher into the hills. En route, we were lucky enough to catch a Civet Cat in the headlights, and narrowly missed a huge male Sambar Deer on the road. Shortly after that, a Blue-naped Hare ran for the cover of the undergrowth. The hairpin bends seemed never ending, and then suddenly the road flattened and we were outside the entrance gates. It was 5.55am. It is very disorientating in the dark, and we had no idea of the terrain or plant life around us. The park wardens are supposed to open the gates at 6am, we could hear them rousing themselves, and eventually they came across to issue tickets and open up for the day. The sky was beginning to lighten, and suddenly from a small pond came the sound of hundreds of frogs announcing the dawn.
Hetti was very keen to get us inside and stationed at Aranga pool, as the bird we had come to see is very timid. A taxi had brought another birder to the same site, and he was quickly given instructions as to where to park his minibus. The four of us now waited and all around us, we could hear the calls of many birds heralding the dawn and Hetti could hear our bird whistling. An Indian Blackbird hopped across the road. We were intent on just the one species, so all other sounds were blotted out, except one. For the next half hour, a continuous stream of minibuses passed the pool, and this probably kept the bird away. We were freezing cold, with numb fingers, and it was a welcome relief when the first rays of sun came through the clouds. We walked along beside the pool to get a little closer, all the while, Hetti could hear the bird, but he wouldn’t come out. We had excellent views of Dusky Blue Flycatchers, Kashmir Flycatchers, Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers and an Asian Brown Flycatcher, Ceylon Wood Pigeon and Yellow-eared Bulbuls. At 7.30am, we decided to eat our packed breakfast in the car, and left the Belgian birder on guard. Hetti finished first and returned to his post, and just as we were gulping down the last of our breakfast, we were called to come quickly. No need for silence any more, we scrambled out of the car and ran down the road. There whistling his heart out was our Ceylon Whistling Thrush! We were so close and he was quite content on his branch, Alan even managed to take a couple of photos with flash. Fantastic! The sun came out, the clouds had gone, and we began to warm up. We strolled up along the road for a while and spotted Zitting Cisticolas, Greenish Warblers, and Great Tits and we could hear woodpeckers calling. Hetti found the Crimson-backed Flameback flying quickly from tree trunk to tree trunk.
Horton Plains is the starting point for a walk to World’s End, which is a promontory to the south, with a drop of 700m. The best time to see the views of the lowlands to the south is at sunrise, when the air is clear and the heat haze has not yet formed, hence the traffic we experienced. The plant life on the plains includes “Cloud trees”. The weather and poor soil conditions cause the trees to take on a stunted knurled appearance and much lichen grows up the branches. It is very colourful, with hues from red through to brown, and greens of all shades. The “cloud trees” are separated by huge areas of grassland, some of it marshy with reeds following the watercourses. There were a number of Long-legged Buzzards ambling about in the shorter grass, a single Himalayan Buzzard sat upon a weathered tree and once we thought we saw a Pallid Harrier, but could not identify it properly. At a bridge crossing a brook we found Hill Swallows flying low over the water, and on closer inspection of the underside, I spotted a nest. They didn’t seem bothered by us, but continued to collect bits and pieces to add to it. One very kindly perched on the bridge wall, posing for Alan to take his photo before flying off to continue the nest building.
Satisfied with our morning birding, we returned to the hotel and instead of coffee, we ordered tea (they have a great selection on offer). Two waiters looked after us pouring the correct way and the tea was delicious. Unfortunately, they didn’t much approve of the way we served ourselves later judging by the horrified looks I saw on their faces, when Alan poured the hot water into the teapot for our second cup! They were very interested in Alan’s photos of the famous Whistling Thrush. We had another look around the hotel grounds and we had wonderful close up views of Ceylon White Eyes, just above our heads in the gardens. We also found Pale-billed Flowerpeckers and a Black-lipped Lizard. The hotel staff are charming, and the gardeners were very keen to show off their vegetable and herb patches, all so neatly laid out (I must make a mental note to do ours in the same way!) Right at the top of the garden the wetland area has informative notices explaining animals, birds, and plants you might see.
We visited The Pedro Tea Factory in the afternoon, which has been in operation since the 1866, and claims to be the earliest recorded tea plantation in Sri Lanka. We had a very interesting tour of the factory with one of the longest serving staff members, who took us through the stages from picked tea tips, right through to the packing and tasting of the teas prior to sending them off to auction. They are very concerned with hygiene, so we donned a mobcap and apron, and had to wash our hands before entering the zones, and were told to stay on the marked pathway. The tour took about half an hour and was well worth the time. There are some super slogans painted on the outside of the factory walls to motivate the workers!
Whilst at the tea factory, Hetti got confirmation from Ajanthan that we could add an extra night to the tour and go to Sinharaja. This was excellent news for us and that evening, we looked through the bird book we had with us, “A Field Guide to Birds of Sri Lanka”, by Tom Harrison to find out what other birds it may be possible to see. For a bit of fun, we presented Hetti with a list of what seemed to us to be more difficult birds to find, but he took it in his stride and said he would see what he could do.
Our final visit in Nuwara Eliya was Victoria Park, as it is known to have one or two birds that are otherwise difficult to find. The park creates a little bit of peace in a smoggy and noisy town, and although when in the park, the noises do intrude, they are muffled by the trees. Other birders were in the park, and keen also to see some rarer birds. Even our Belgian friend was here and we walked with him to the “smelly corner”, so called because of the accumulated rubbish. Here we found an Indian Pitta under the bamboo, and Hetti hoped we would be able to see the Slaty-legged Crakes on the waterway. Four birders from another group took up their stations in the rubbish to stake out the Crake, but we decided to cross to another part of the garden where Indian Blue Robins sometimes hang out, not today though. We did spot a Forest Wagtail beside the river, and later in the park, Hetti could hear Pied-ground Thrushes. There were about eight pairs in their mating rituals high in the trees, and we stood for ages watching by which time the other birding group had gathered to watch the spectacle. We left the park at closing time and Hetti suggested that we get up earlier on the next day to try to see the Crake, before we set off to Yala.
We were to be disappointed again, as there were no signs of either the Crake, or the Robin, but we had to get on the move, as the drive to Yala takes about 5 hours.
We stopped briefly at Hakgala Gardens, which are situated on the other side of a hill from Nuwara Eliya and although we hadn’t dropped in altitude, the gardens are somewhat tropical. The area we walked through had lush ground cover of different types of ferns, and then within these, tree ferns sprouted, above which was the canopy of other trees. It is well laid out, and had we known this we probably would have made more time for the visit. As usual with any organised park area, there were monkeys. Here, we saw Bear Monkeys. We had come to the park to see Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, and sure enough, we found one flitting down the tree trunks in this moist canopied area amongst the ferns. We could here Barbets calling high up in the trees, but try as we might we couldn’t locate them.
The descent down to Yala was breathtaking. At first, there were terraces of allotments covering the hillsides, where the local farmers produce vegetables for the island, and then as we dropped down through steep valleys, the mountain scenery became lush. We passed beautiful vistas across deep valleys terraced with lime green rice paddy fields bordered with the deeper greens of the tropical flora. We stopped for lunch at a place called Ella Gap. The restaurant stands on a promontory facing south behind it the mountains towering above like a high collar of protection at its back. Continuing downwards, we made a quick photo stop at another waterfall. This is a very popular spot with the locals, some of whom had climbed quite a long way up the falls. Dotted along the roadside were mobile food stalls, all with their own little fire burning ready to produce a hot snack for the visitors.
We were in high spirits as we left the hill country behind, and Hetti challenged us to guess the first bird we would see as we got down into the flat dry zone area of the south. I guessed that we would see a Plain Prinia, and I was right! Miles and miles of rice fields and banana plantations lined the road as it stretched away in a straight line to the coast.
YALA (RUHUNU NATIONAL PARK). As the time ticked on, we were eager to get to Yala in time for a bit of bird spotting, so we stopped only once en route across the plains, and immediately stepping out of the car the heat of the dry zone pounced. We were quite glad to regain the cool climate inside the car, and Hetti pressed on through villages and soon we were in Tissamaharama. This is the last town before Ruhunu National Park, which has many hotels and guesthouses. There is a large wetland area called Tissa tank, which is a well-known birding site. We passed through the town into the outskirts of the national park along the coast road. To the right of us lay great saltpans teeming with wildlife.
We stopped beside one of the saltpans, which was covered in waders of all kinds. Scanning through the many birds, we could see about 80 Northern Pintails, the majority of which had their tails in the air. There were Garganeys, Lesser Whistling Ducks, a Gull-billed Tern, Grey Plovers, Common Ringed Plovers, Kentish Plovers, Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers and Western Black-tailed Godwits. We toured around stopping to photograph Yellow-wattled Lapwings, Pied (Jacobin) Cuckoos, and Indian Peafowl, the latter seem to have much longer tails than we had seen in India, or indeed anywhere else. Suddenly a Common Hoopoe burst across the road, and settled on the ground, this is another bird we had chased around the Mediterranean Islands without much success, and this time we had brilliant views and Alan managed to get a super photo. Shortly afterwards, two others joined it. Other new birds included Yellow–fronted Pied Woodpecker, Ashy-crowned Finch Lark Yellow-eyed Babbler, and Orange-breasted Green Pigeon. A little while later Alan managed to complete his collection of Bee-eater photos, when a Little Green Bee-eater perched for a long while beside the road.
As we rounded a corner Hetti spotted a Great Thick-knee, how he could see this I have no idea, it is one of the best camouflaged birds especially in the scrub at Yala. It took me quite a while to find it. It was beginning to get dark and so reluctantly Hetti started to drive towards the hotel, but not before we had a great opportunity to take a few pictures of the sun setting.
YALA VILLAGE HOTEL. At the entrance to the grounds, which are controlled by security, there is a sign showing the times of the last sightings of Leopard, Sloth Bear, and Elephant on the driveway, and they were quite recent. The hotel is built in the low trees and scrub just away from the seashore. The accommodation is spread around the main hotel complex, which comprises of one building on three floors. The ground floor has a bar and small cinema which screens wildlife documentaries; the first floor is the restaurant, and on top is a bar/viewing platform right above the treetops, with views to the saltpan and the seashore, and inland towards the National Park. There are no boundaries to the hotel complex as far as wild animals are concerned so the hotel recommends that a room boy be called to guide guests to and from the bungalows after dark. Don’t want to startle an elephant herd, which may stroll through at night!
Our Jungle Bungalow was large and airy with air-con and electric fan, mini bar, tea and coffee, television and enormous bathroom. The furnishings are typically country style, and there a plenty of reminders around the room to encourage guests to think about water usage and the environmental impact of rubbish. The restaurant offers an excellent buffet, although the service was not as slick as previously experienced. We had an early dinner, as the next day would be another early start; 6.30am.
Hetti had booked Lal, one of the most experienced and knowledgeable drivers. Just as we approached the park entrance Lal spotted a bird sitting in dust in the headlamps beam, this was our first Jerdon’s Nightjar. After a short wait due to registration of vehicle and passengers and organising a tracker, we were off, in convoy with quite a few jeeps. As dawn approached, Lal pointed out Bee-eaters, which seemed to mark our way, all along the bumpy track. At this early hour, it got pleasantly warm even though the first hour of the morning had low cloud cover, but this soon burned off as the sun rose. Later we were sheltered from the sun by the canopy of the jeep. The landscape emerged out of the dawn, all around us there was low scrubland, and small wooded areas, every now and then watering holes appeared with large white lily flowers opening up in the sunlight. Large granite outcrops dotted the skyline, and they absorbed the heat during the day, and became resting places for the leopards to bask on in the evening. We concentrated on birdlife on the morning drive; however, as we found tracks of various animals Lal was encouraged to follow them. Hetti told us to look down the roads at every junction, as we might just see a leopard crossing. Just to prove his point, right up ahead of us he spotted a male Leopard crossing the road!
As it got light enough to start taking photos, Alan’s first was a great shot of a Brahminy Starling. Soon after, we found a Black-headed Cuckooshrike, and a Crested Treeswift. A Crested Serpent Eagle hunched on a low branch quite close and gazed around at us. Herds of Spotted Deer strolled through the grassland, and every Mongoose we came across, scampered quickly into the undergrowth. Lal was extremely patient and virtually curb crawled through the park, and constantly pointed out new birds for us to see. This was great, as all the other jeeps had disappeared ahead of us, so we didn’t feel crowded out. I think Hetti had primed him on which birds we hadn’t seen, as he didn’t appear to be pointing out any that we had already seen. A single Indian Pitta came into view, just long enough for Alan to take a photo, and then Lal pointed out Baya Weaver nests hanging in trees about 100 metres from the jeep. We watched while the males collected building materials to make the nests, each male hoping that his mate would approve of the nest so that he didn’t have to build another.
Lal drove beside a watering hole, which has quite a few dead trees standing in it. These provide excellent perching areas for the fish eating community, and one such tree was covered in Oriental Darters. We managed to drive a little closer for a better look at this peculiar bird. A few metres later, we captured a Large Cuckooshrike and a Loten’s Sunbird on camera.
Just before our breakfast stop we came across three jeeps parked up on the roadside, so Lal quickly drove up to them to find out what had been seen. They mentioned leopards, and elephant, so we passed them by and stopped for a couple of minutes, but Lal said he didn’t think they would reappear just yet so we carried on.
We breakfasted on the beach with all the other jeep groups. It could have been quite a party atmosphere but for the overriding factor that stilled this thought from our minds, which was the devastation on the beach that showed the massive force of the Tsunami. The foundations of the beach bungalows remain in the sand, but the walls of the buildings are heaped around the site. Just inland, it was clear to see the damage wrought by the tidal wave on nature itself. Many dead tree trunks lay on the ground, and there were visible outlines where great swathes of land were cleared by the force of the wave. Even though this was to be a refreshing break from the bumpy ride in the jeeps for all the tourists, it was very sobering and I think everyone there was moved by the atmosphere. It is evident however, a year later, nature has started to repair itself and new growth of low bushes and grasses are sprouting up all across the area. Soon it will be difficult to tell what had happened, except for the manmade construction, which may never be repaired.
After an excellent packed breakfast, Alan walked across to a small dune just at the beach edge. Lal came over to me and asked me to call him back as it wasn’t necessarily safe to wander too far, and quietly said to me that we would probably see leopards nearby very soon. We all jumped back into the jeep and drove to the junction with the main track. Lal, I think sensed something was about to happen, and turned back the way we had come in and one jeep was still parked up where the leopard had originally been seen. Lal had just brought the jeep slowly to a halt when a female Leopard with two cubs came out onto the road and just as quickly bounded back into the undergrowth. None of us managed to focus quickly enough and we missed the photo opportunity! The people in the jeep in front of us didn’t even see them as they were facing the wrong way! We stayed around the area for a little while afterwards, but the family group didn’t reappear.
We saw many Spotted Deer, and in the distance, Elephants could be seen by watering holes, where Mugger Crocodiles basked and Water Buffalo wallowed, a herd of Wild Boar with piglets roamed cautiously beneath the scrub. The inevitable Egrets and Herons stalking the waterside and a Eurasian Spoonbill sieved its way through the water. We constantly saw Changeable (Crested) Hawk Eagles, each one looking frustratingly different from the last, that I kept thinking we were seeing different birds. Two Jackals appeared on the road behind us and scampered along quite happily.
It gets very dusty in the back of the jeep, so binoculars and cameras should be protected when not in use. It is also very sticky sitting on the plastic seats, so by the time we had returned to the hotel for lunch we were drenched and plastered in dust. We had just enough time to shower off the dust and then went straight to the pool to exercise our weary limbs. We had a quick bite to eat and then we were off on the afternoon drive.
At the entrance, we saw another Changeable Hawk Eagle perched just off the ground right next to our jeep. We focused our lenses on it and it focussed its beady eyes on us! This time Lal drove past where we had been in the morning to get to new territory. Around a corner, we came across a huge male Sambar Deer proudly standing at the edge of the track. Then we had our first sightings of Malabar Pied Hornbills, silhouetted in a tree, Lal said we would see more later so we carried on. We drove along some little used tracks, over boulders, almost tipping the jeep right over, through narrow tracks, the bushes scraping the side of the vehicle. Suddenly Lal killed the engine and we stopped. We were surrounded by quivering bushes. Hetti whispered, “Keep still and silent, we’re in the middle of a herd of elephant”. All around us the tops of the bushes swayed as the herd munched their way through it, and occasionally we could see a large dark shape moving. It is amazing how so thin a screen of scrub can hide such large animals. After a while, we moved on, not wanting to disturb the animals. Lal spotted recent paw prints of a Sloth bear, so after inspecting the direction we moved off. I was studying the ground on the other side of the jeep and just as we started to move, a Barred Buttonquail shot out of the long grass and scuttled off into cover. Unfortunately, we were not to see a Sloth Bear.
As the afternoon wore on, it appeared unlikely that we would manage to find any more leopards. At another birding site, in the late afternoon light, we had super views of a solitary Lesser Adjutant, followed by a Painted Stork, and soon afterwards, we got much closer to a Great Thick-knee. Hetti and Lal were still optimistic about finding a leopard, and although we were quite a long way from the entrance, which would close at 6.30pm, we toured around a few rocks where they had seen leopard before. As time ran out, we returned down the main track and ahead of us, there were number of jeeps at a small junction. As we got closer, it looked like the whole jeep population had congregated. Sure enough basking in the evening light on top of a granite outcrop a single male Leopard lay out with his back to his audience. All the jeeps jostled for position and cameras were out. We waited hoping that he would look our way, when above him a flock of approximately 50 Malabar Pied Hornbills flew across to their roost. Eventually, the leopard gave his audience a casual glance, so satisfied, we drove off to find the Hornbills. They were just around the corner, dusting themselves on the track, and then flying up to roost in a nearby tree.
Lal had one last thing to show us. This was a beautiful view across the park with a large lily lake and the scrubland flowing away in the distance to a granite rock formation that is fondly known as Elephant Rock.
It had been a fantastic day and we bumped our way back extremely dusty and tired. The excitement of the day and the bumps had started to make our muscles ache! At dusk, we arrived at the hotel complex and Lal spotted an Indian Nightjar, hopping madly up and down on a rock singing his heart out, as if to welcome us back.
As we drove through the bungalows, a herd of wild boar also made their way slowly through the complex – another good reason to be accompanied to the restaurant after dark! To celebrate, several beers with Hetti and a recap on the bird report, followed by another good meal.
Just outside our bungalow, we spotted Common Ioras and Small Minivets flitting about, one of which left a small calling card on Alan’s hat. We left at 8am for the long drive to Sinharaja after packing our luggage and increasing number of bags of souvenirs into the boot, and set off around the saltpans. Here Hetti pointed out Little Stints, a Curlew Sandpiper, and Common Redshanks. We had gone about half a mile when for some reason Alan remembered we hadn’t paid Hetti for the extra night at Sinharaja, and it was then I started to check the bags, and my bum bag was not with us! Panic! This contained all our money, travellers’ cheques and passports! Hetti virtually did a U-turn on the narrow dirt track and sped back to the hotel. He stopped at the stairs to the restaurant and I raced up to the table where we had breakfast, it was empty. Down the other side of the restaurant to the reception, I was now really worried, but as I ran up to the desk I could see it sitting on the counter. Thank goodness! I was really shocked by my own stupidity.
We set off again, and it took me at least half an hour to settle down. Hetti cruised along the saltpans towards Tissa, and eventually pulled up on a corner overlooking the water. We scanned the waders again to see if there were any new birds, and Hetti spotted a Ruddy Turnstone. Just along from this three Lesser Pied Kingfishers were having an early morning clean. It was a beautiful clear morning with little traffic, and when I looked up into the sky a vanguard of Little Cormorants flew across followed by at least 80 Spot-billed Pelicans, a glorious sight as they approached their landing, gliding this way and that, until they were all settled on the water.
We stopped briefly at a lotus pond outside Tissa, as Alan wanted to get a photo of the Pheasant-tailed Jacana and Purple Swamphen. Then it was a sleepy drive up towards Udawalawe National Park and across the Reservoir Dam. We didn’t have time to visit the park, which is well known for its elephant herds. As we drove along the perimeter, Hetti pointed out the electric fence, erected to protect the banana plantations opposite. Elephants have a very keen sense of smell, and are partial to fruit. It provided the opportunity to take even more photos of this wonderful animal as quite a few stood near the electric fence tantalisingly close to the forbidden fruit. Inside the park, we spotted a White-bellied Sea Eagle on an enormous twig platform on a tree and farther along a Black-winged Kite was perched in a tree.
As we crossed the dam wall, we saw an Ashy Prinia, and Oriental Skylarks hopped from post to post and soon we were back up into the hills towards the Wet zone, and the lush tropical forests. We briefly stopped at a pastry shop; we needed to get to Sinharaja for the late afternoon walk. We bought three coffees, and five sweet and savoury pastries (a total of 280 rupees). Scrumptious!
SINHARAJA. At the bottom of a dirt track, Hetti pulled up and we got out, just as it began to rain. After leaving the air-conditioned car, the atmosphere was humid and this seemed intensified with the rain. Another jeep ride jolting along up hill on a very rough track into the rainforest. As the canopy of trees closed above us, the noise of the rain and the birdsong grew. We travelled about 10 kilometres up to the entrance of the Reserve, where the necessary paperwork was filled in, and then a few minutes later we arrived at our next overnight stop by which time the rain had stopped.
MARTINS SIMPLE LODGE. The buildings are of simple block and mortar construction and built on a steep hillside, so that the view from the dining terrace overlooks the tree canopy below. The rooms are simple: bed, mosquito net, shelves, and an all in one shower and loo. Nevertheless, it is clean and comfortable, and the hosts are friendly. Dumping our stuff, we had a quick lunch on the terrace, whilst all around us, we could here the sounds of monkeys, squirrels, cicadas, frogs and birds – it was magic. A Black Bulbul posed for us just beside the terrace, and a female Junglefowl with two chicks strutted up beside the buildings.
We were now in “leech territory”, so we put on leech socks, and carried with us our miniature brolleys. As with all parks and reserves, we had a tracker join us on the path, to make sure we abided by the rules. We had only gone about 10 metres into the reserve, when Alan spotted Ceylon Scimitar Babblers right beside the path, and then immediately afterwards a pair of Ceylon Blue Magpies and their chicks appeared in the trees.
Underfoot it is quite damp and much of the low plant growth contains ferns and mosses, and the earth is rich with leaf mould. These are ideal conditions for Ground Thrushes, insects, and reptiles, not just leeches. A little farther on Hetti told us that we may be able to see a nesting Ceylon Frogmouth (this was on our list of “must sees”) and we peered up into the trees to look for the nest. It was very difficult to locate as the bird, nest and branch are all the same colour, but eventually we could make out the tail overhanging the branch. Alan ventured off the main path and into the wet grass, and quick as a flash two black leeches were straight on to his socks, quickly trying to burrow down into his shoes. They really do move fast, so Hetti moved in quickly and removed them, showing us how to roll them up and flick them away, and checked his fingers afterwards to make sure they really had gone. After this attack, we checked each other’s legs at intervals to remove the little blighters. I felt sorry for the tracker; he only had flip-flops on and was constantly picking them off his legs. We walked farther on up the track and came to a clearing, which allowed a little fresh air to penetrate. At this point, we could now see the skyline in the distance and it was here that we had our first views of Layard’s Parakeets, flying back and forth. Also lined up on the skyline were Ceylon Hanging Parrots, Ceylon Hill Mynas and a couple of White-faced Starlings.
Hetti had mentioned the possibility of seeing a mixed flock and he said that usually the leader, known as the policeman, was a Drongo. Very shortly afterwards, a Crested Drongo came into view and stopped in a tree just ahead of us, and then the flock arrived! There were Dark-fronted Babblers, Ceylon Rufous Babblers, Yellow-eared and Red-vented Bulbuls, Yellow-fronted Barbets, Legge’s Flowerpeckers, Purple-rumped Sunbirds, a Malabar Trogon, and two Red-faced Malkohas (who were mating!). Hetti could hear an Ashy-headed Laughing Thrush, “laughing” nearby, and eventually it was spotted in the undergrowth. We had another good view of a White Asian Paradise Flycatcher; it was beginning to seem that they were more abundant than the red ones! The last animal we found as we left the reserve at dusk was a Kangaroo Lizard, frozen on the spot by our feet.
All through the walk, it hadn’t rained, but the air was heavy with moisture, and it was nice to get back to the lodge and remove our socks and shoes. We had a proper lesson in how to remove the leech socks, and to make sure that none of the little critters had crawled inside our shoes and trouser legs, none had. After a hot shower we joined the other guests and sat down to a very tasty vegetarian and tinned fish Sri Lankan curry, followed by fresh pineapple and washed down with beer. It had been an exhilarating afternoon, and we had a lively conversation with the other birders, and compared notes on what we had seen.
We were up early for the morning walk and after breakfasting on omelette, toast, bread, jams, marmite, tea, and coffee we set off. This time there were more visitors to the reserve. We appeared to be over-dressed with our leech socks, whilst other visitors only wore shorts, or open trouser legs. A group of Sri Lankan schoolchildren in their white uniform were doing a field trip, and they smiled and giggled at us as they passed by, maybe they thought we were wimps protecting ourselves from leeches!
We had better views of the Magpie family, and a second look at the Frogmouth confirmed that there was also a young bird on the nest, which would soon take its first flight; still we didn’t manage to see the face of the bird. Preferring to get away from the other visitors, Hetti took us through the undergrowth and across a stream. We managed to spot a Ceylon Junglefowl and then a dog joined us, which was hurriedly shooed away by our tracker. When we got back to the research centre the other visitors had arrived, and by now, they had tucked their trousers into their socks, perhaps the leeches had found them? The forest seemed quiet today, and as a result, we only found a Greenish Warbler and a Bright Green Warbler, both difficult to see in the sun rays permeating the canopy above us. It is a good area for butterflies, and large Tree Nymphs flitted delicately along beside us. We also saw Common Rose, Crimson Rose, and Great Eggfly. Alan came across a millipede, 15cm long (a bigger version of the one which stung him in the night), so naturally he had to take a photo, for the record.
On our way back to the lodge, we eventually spied a Ceylon Scaly Thrush, just beside the path, and as we got back to the entrance, Hetti could hear a Lesser Yellownape calling. We waited, listened, and just managed a brief glimpse before it disappeared across the valley. This had been our last part of the tour and we discussed the birds we had seen and those which we hadn’t found, and probably out of the list which we had given Hetti as a bit of fun, we had only missed out on two; Green-billed Coucal, and Racquet-Tailed Drongo. Overall, we were happy anyway, because we really hadn’t expected to see all that we had, a total 200 bird species, and 29 endemics, not bad for amateurs!
We packed our luggage back into the jeep as it started to rain. On the way down the drivers thought they heard a coucal calling, so we pulled up and waited. The coucal didn’t appear, but we did see two Brown-capped Babblers courting just beside us. The driver stopped once more to point out a venomous Green Pit Viper (small one, 50cm) right beside the road, and a Giant Squirrel of the dark mountain species. At the bottom of the track, the rain stopped and we bade farewell to the drivers and piled back into the car for an almost silent journey to our “final” destination: a week relaxing by the beach. We had got to know Hetti really well by now, and with 14 days on tour with him, it seemed as if we had known him for years, so it was quite sad when we finally arrived at the hotel and said our goodbyes.
28th February – 6th March
ROYAL PALMS BEACH HOTEL, KALUTARA. We had chosen this hotel from a selection in a tour operator’s brochure. The public areas are grand and spacious, and the rooms offer the standard comforts of a four star hotel. It has a lovely pool area amongst tall coconut palms, with access on to the beach. The beach drops sharply down into the sea, but it appears quite shallow for some way out. As the sea current is very changeable, the hotel displays warning flags advertising when it is safe to go in. All meals are buffet service, and there was a vast array of choices for all meals, and two alternative a la carte restaurants, which didn’t appear to attract many guests, probably because the majority were on “all inclusive” arrangements. We had half board but ate in one of the restaurants once, and the food was excellent.
Immediately behind the hotel, the main railway line from Colombo runs down to Galle, and although the brochure warns about possible noise, it really isn’t a problem. Just one thing of note, there are no barriers, or fences blocking access on to the line, and occasionally locals seemed happy to take a walk along the railway tracks. Kalutara is a bustling town on the main road up to Colombo, but we didn’t have a look around it, preferring to relax at the hotel, and stroll along the local road, which had the usual tourist shops and restaurants.
At first it seemed as if the area was devoid of any bird life, after being so used to birdsong, it was very quiet, except for the hubbub of hotel life. For the first two days, we relaxed by the pool, until on the second afternoon, there was a sharp downpour of rain and everyone abandoned the pool and headed indoors. It didn’t last long, but this became the norm for the next few days. When the rain eased off, we walked down to the “shops” and discovered that after the rain, the birds were more active and we spotted quite a number of species previously seen on the tour: Brahminy Kites, Rose-ringed Parakeets, and Southern Coucals. White-throated Kingfishers took turns with Blue-tailed Bee-eaters to perch on the hotel’s lightning conductor. Along the railway track, we saw Yellow-billed Babblers, Purple-rumped Sunbirds, Oriental Magpie Robins, a Ceylon Small Barbet, Black-hooded Orioles, and White-bellied Drongos. We watched while a Shikra plunged into the top of a coconut palm and two birds were flushed out; we didn’t see what they were, but the Shikra stayed in the palm tree for ages, and we think that it had plundered the nest. In the evening, Flying Foxes and owls (again, not sure which type) were also seen.
We had heard that the local tailors were very good at copying clothes, so we arranged for two shirts and a dress to be copied by a tailoress, just by the railway crossing. These were well made in two days and were incredibly cheap. The railway crossing guard had told us there was a small river just beyond the residential area, and a lovely walk through the trees. We explored this on one afternoon. About half an hour into the walk, we reached the river when a friendly local came to talk to us, and told us it would rain soon. Just as we left him it started, and it really was heavy, so heavy in fact that our little brolleys didn’t cope very well, so we turned back and squelched our way to the hotel.
We tried the Ayurvedic treatment at the Tangerine Hotel next door and booked an afternoon appointment. This was a good decision, as we had just sat down in the Jacuzzi, when the heavens opened. It was a marvellous experience, bubbling away in warm water under a canopy in the gardens whilst all around us it poured down!
After a few days, we decided that we wanted to move on from the beach hotel and get back to birding so we spoke to Ajanthan who arranged for us to return to the Villa Talangama for one night and then a final night at Ranweli Village Hotel.
The last day at the Royal Palms produced some more birds. At the back of the hotel complex there is an area of land planted with trees to screen the railway line. We spent ages wandering along the corridors, which are open to this sanctuary of trees and we saw a male red Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Asian Koel, Scaly-breasted Munias, and Loten’s Sunbirds.
That evening as we sipped our coffee on the balcony, watching the rain, a male Asian Koel came and joined us, sitting on the plant right next to us.
As I took a last look at the hotel pool from the balcony, a Black-rumped Flameback landed on the bottom of a palm tree nearby. It hammered its way up the trunk, and I was just about to get my camera (this was the best view we had had!), when two hotel guests walked past and frightened it away! The taxi arrived and we were suddenly very excited again going on another adventure, back to the lovely Villa Talangama.
VILLA TALANGAMA. A couple of hours later, and we were back in the peace and quiet beside the tank, and enjoying a light lunch – Mr P makes the best chips ever! At the beginning of the holiday, we had no time to use the pool, now we had a lovely swim and then sat out in the sunshine with our binoculars and watched the bird life. No new birds were noted, but this time, with more practised eyes, we were able to confirm what we had seen the first time around, and take in the sights at a more leisurely pace. As the afternoon started to cool down, we went for a stroll along the waters edge, and got a fabulous view of a Yellow Bittern.
As we got ready for dinner there was a power cut and I had a lovely hot shower in the open air by candle light. The electricity resumed as we sat down for dinner, which was fabulous: homemade vegetable soup, lamb chops, and then bread and butter pudding!
Ajanthan had organised the transfer from Talangama to Ranweli village, and who should turn up to collect us? Hetti! It was great to meet up with him again, and we talked about the many highlights of the tour and went over one or two queries we had with our birding diary.
Negombo is on the north side of Colombo, which meant travelling through the city, which was very busy with traffic. Although there is no definable border between the two towns, the architecture and landscaping in Negombo suggests a much more relaxed attitude. Hetti gave us a guided tour along the seafront where the fish market covers a large beach area, and beside the harbour where the sea going vessels are moored and finally through the main hotel area. This was once the main tile manufacturing area and many of the old brick chimneys and warehouses can still be seen by the roadside.
RANWELI VILLAGE HOTEL is built on a peninsular and guests are transported to it by means of a raft type ferry. The bungalows are well appointed and light with an outdoor seating area. Amongst the bungalows are gardens where they grow vegetables and medicinal plants. The hotel boasts a swimming pool right beside the sea, and two bars, and a lovely stretch of beach for the sole use of the guests. It was extremely hot (no rain since we left Kalutara!) and we went for a walk along the beach looking for shells, of which there were thousands along with lots of crab holes.
The hotel reception has a lot of information about the local wildlife and flora. As an eco hotel, their main aim is to preserve the wildlife. They offer nature walks through the mangroves and boat trips along the waterways and we booked a one-hour boat trip. It was a lovely gentle ride behind the mangroves. We passed by little settlements of houses where people were preparing food, or doing repairs to their houses. Children played beside the water, and older folk gathered for a gossip. Everyone waved and smiled. Some stretches of the waterway are quite narrow, so it was easy to see into the reeds on either side. A Water Monitor was up ahead of us, and from our position on the water, it looked just like a moving log with a tongue flicking out every now and then. The light was perfect, increasing the depth of colour and the water mirrored the scenery beautifully. It became obvious to the young boatman that we wanted to photograph birds, so he did his very best to get as close as possible to them.
As we glided along a flock of Barn Swallows gathered on the tops of feathery grasses, just in the sunlight. At the waters edge amongst the reeds there were Yellow Bitterns and Striated Herons, White-breasted Waterhens and Indian Pond Herons. Every now and then Little Egrets, or Indian Shag or Little Cormorants sat on low branches interspersed with Common Kingfishers and White-throated Kingfishers. As we passed under some wires, two Lesser Pied Kingfishers let us get incredibly close. Every now and then, they would take it in turns to hover over the water looking for their supper. A little later on amongst much taller reeds we spotted a Purple Heron, and then just beside it a Stork-billed Kingfisher perched on a tree. Not forgetting to look up into the sky our boatman pointed out a White-bellied Sea Eagle, soon after a Shikra swooped across the water. Blue-tailed Bee-eaters took advantage of the balmy evening flashing across the water from one lookout to another. A small group of Asian Palm Swifts sieved the air searching for insects. Our boatman, caught up in our enthusiasm, had gone farther than he had anticipated, so we agreed to extend our trip, and he carried on a little farther. Alan spied yet another male white Asian Paradise Flycatcher, and our boatman pushed the prow of the boat into the low branches so we could have a better look. The sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon, so we had to turn back. Other birds included Grey Heron, Asian Koel, and Southern Coucal. The cows were making their way home in the dusk and a young boy ferried his goats on a raft across the waterway. We stopped at one spot just as the sun dipped to the horizon and managed to get a couple of sunset photos through tall palm trees.
We were determined to have our last Sri Lankan curry and made the most of the variety of dishes on offer. Later we sat at the beach bar and watched the moon rise above the hotel as we sipped our last Sri Lankan beers.
Ranweli Village is only half an hour from the airport, which made it a very convenient location for our last night. Although not part of our original itinerary, we enjoyed our brief stay here, particularly being able to get so close to the wildlife on our boat trip. The flight was on time and the service very good. We arrived back to a cold wet England.
We had booked a 13-night tour and a 9-day stay put, which in the end became a 14-night tour, 6-night stay put and two extra nights back “on tour”. We felt as if we had been on holiday forever, having experienced so many Sri Lankan delights.
Jetwing obviously has some very good connections throughout the island, which means that they can organise events smoothly, and because of that touring with them will be a very rewarding experience. We would like to thank Jetwing Eco Holidays for their professional and friendly service, their super-efficient organisation, and total flexibility in coping with any changes that we requested. In particular:
Ajanthan is very friendly, professional, and patient and was able to tune in to our requirements and make excellent suggestions.
Hetti is a fantastic guide. Of historic and cultural sites, he explained all that you would want to know, but never too much, and makes sure that you are in the right place at the right time. As for birding, his knowledge is incredible, especially being able to filter out the calls of birds we had already seen, and to tune in on those we hadn’t was amazing. He understood what we were looking for in our holiday, accepted our idiosyncrasies, and communicated brilliantly with us in every way. He was always friendly, humorous, and good company. His enthusiasm each time we saw a new bird, was almost as if he hadn’t seen it before either.
Would we do anything differently? Yes, only slightly:
1. Due to the early morning arrival in Sri Lanka, an additional night at Villa Talangama would have allowed time to acclimatise, and enjoy the peace and quiet this magical place has to offer along with the abundance of birdlife in the area.
2. An additional night at Yala would have allowed time to visit the Tissa Tank area and Bundala National Park.
3. We would have had a shorter beach holiday, perhaps only 5 days.
We had a lot of fun and have so many great memories from this trip. If you got this far, you will know what we mean!
The underlying message from this dissertation is: VISIT SRI LANKA, YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED!
There are lots of places and many more birds for us still to see - we hope to return one day.