Wednesday, 20 February 2019

SRI LANKA 20019: Uda Walawe and Sinharaja (1-4 February)

Continuing on the Naturetrek Sri Lanka Endemic Bird trip, with eleven others and two excellent leaders (Indi and Dinal), we had arrived at the Centurion Hotel beside Chandrika Lake in Embilipitiya.

01 February 2019. We left the hotel as it was getting light at 06:00 with a packed breakfast and drove to the entrance of Uda Walawe National Park where we decamped into three jeeps (we had tracker Lionel in ours) and joined a long queue of other tourists waiting in jeeps for it to open. As usual with Sri Lanka permits had to be bought on the day which rather wasted the best part of it. Once in we soon branched off from most jeeps which were concentrating on elephants. We drove around in a loose convoy for three hours seeing a lot of birds without them including anything special, at least as far as I was concerned. I had only marginally better and still not countable views of another Grey-bellied Cuckoo and failed to get onto a Blue-faced Malkoha that Lionel spotted and only Peter saw. We had no luck at all with Sirkeer Malkoha which I had been particularly hoping for. Indi later mentioned that afternoon drives were more productive but not possible on our very tight itinerary (although an earlier start from Nuwara Ellya should have allowed it). An afternoon visit would have involved less of a scrum to enter the park and more bird activity as it started to cool down late afternoon rather than the heat of the day we mostly had. The contrast between what we saw in our morning and Dave Cooper and Brenda Kay on an afternoon the previous November rather emphasised this (http://eastsussexbirding.blogspot.com/2019/01/30th-november-2018-nuwara-eliya-to.html). I had seen lots of Jerdon’s Bush Larks and a Jungle Prinia was also new while a pair of Great Stone Plovers were excellent as were a pair of Orange-breasted Green Pigeons. Indi also had a new bird – White Wagtail - although it didn't do a lot for us. Back in the bus we drove to a nearby hotel for an early lunch. I stayed out but it was just too far (2km) to walk to the woodshrike area and back in the time I had, although I could have done if I’d realised we would be driving back past it. As it was my walk along the edge of sugar cane fields was rather unproductive (and hot). We drove to Sinharaja arriving at 15:30. A look around the entrance failed to find the ‘resident’ Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, the suspicion being that a crowd of noisy school children had disturbed it. We drove on to our hotel, the Blue Magpie Lodge, and I was a little disappointed to find it was a couple of km outside the park in fairly uninspiring habitat. Not that it matter much as we were soon hit by a very heavy rainstorm which limited birding to the veranda. From there Dave spotted a Slaty-legged Crake visiting the hotel’s rubbish dump 100m away. Its appearance was short lived thanks to two Grey Mongeese and then a local cat but it was a nice end to what been an enjoyable if rather disappointing day. Tomorrow was likely to be the trip’s make or break day and having made no inroads on the remaining endemics today I was starting to feel rather stressed!
Jerdon's Bush Lark at Uda Walawe
a good start when one of the first birds seen is new but sadly it didn't continue that way despite plenty of potential for it to do so 



Paddyfield Pipit
Blyth's Reed Warbler

Malabar Pied Hornbill in superb light


Common Iora
definitely no white in its tail
Yellow-eyed Babbler
Philippine Brown Shrike
Crested Hawk Eagle


Indian Pewfowl
with the odd broken feather
still puts on an impressive display


male Orange-breasted Green Pigeon
Indian Silverbill
Rose-coloured Starling

Jungle Prinia
Indian Roller
Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Uda Walawe's main attraction
Great Stone Plovers were very nice too

Indian Stone Curlew
Oriental Darter

Painted Stork
Purple Heron and Little Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover

Kentish Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
Little Stint
Red-wattled Lapwing

Yellow-wattled Lapwing
not as brightly coloured as Red-wattled but I thought all the better for it

Little Green Bee-eater

Ashy Prinia outside Uda Walawe
Fruit Bats on the way to Sinharaja
Purple-faced Leaf Monkey


02 February 2019. I slept poorly, the number of birds we had left to see playing heavily on my mind. It was almost like a major twitch with several really good but potentially difficult birds to see and very likely no second chances given our limited time. Arguably the most important day of the trip started with a predawn visit to sign in. It can’t be done in advance - doubtless a hangover from British bureaucracy. While waiting in the dark one of our trackers for the day, wandered off and spotlighted a Sri Lankan Frogmouth but I only had naked-eye views before it flew. Not a very auspicious start as it was my most wanted non-endemic. We signed in as it was getting light and in quick succession a Sri Lanka Blue Magpie flew in to feed on moths around the building’s lights and a Spot-winged Thrush appeared at the edge of the car park. This was more like it even though the light was too poor for photography. We returned to the Blue Magpie Lodge for breakfast and at 07:00 clutching packed lunches left in two jeeps with Indi, Dinal and our two expert trackers Dhanushka and Shantha for the steep climb up to the park entrance. Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush here we come, all 16 of us! More than half-way there we stopped to check some trees where White-faced Starlings often fed early morning. Our trackers quickly found one which gave reasonable views. Not the most inspiring of species but with possibly the smallest range of all Sri Lanaka endemics another potentially tricky bird out of the way. We arrived at the entrance behind another group and followed them for a short distance, as if we weren’t handicapped enough, until we were told to wait on the trail while our trackers wandered off into a shallow ravine to look for Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush. They soon returned not having found one but they knew another site further on and it had given the other group time to get further ahead. We saw male Sri Lanka Junglefowl (the first of several), two more Spot-winged Thrushes by the trail and a roosting Sri Lanka Frogmouth just off it (the first of six seen which put my concern about missing the early spotlight view in perspective). A small flock contained Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and Indian Paradise Flycatcher and nearby our first (of two) Red-faced Malkoha. We came to a small side trail and waited while our trackers went in to look around. They came out having seen a Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush but it had moved further away. Shantha led us down the small track and then he and Dhanushka tried to out flank the bird and encourage it back towards us. This worked when I saw it hopping across a small gap, although not through binoculars. We waited and first one then two thrushes hopped up onto a low branch before flying further into the forest. I saw the first briefly but fortunately I had my binoculars on the low branch when the second bird appeared on it and had a good clear view, for all of 3-4 seconds. Everyone in the group had seen the bird, Indi later told me it was the first group he’d had where that had been the case. We went to a nearby clearing with a research building outside of which we had our packed lunches. It had been a brilliant morning but there were still birds to see, although we were still in the clearing when our trackers called that they’d found Ashy-headed Laughingthrush. A three minute dash and we were watching a party of three. No sooner had they moved on than a pair of Malabar Trogons appeared and another male Indian Paradise Flycatcher and we returned to the clearing via a roosting pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths. Collectively the group had seen all but three of the endemics although only three of us had been lucky with Crimson-backed Flameback. The three were Serendib Scops Owl, Sri Lanka Myna and Sri Lanka Spurfowl. All were more likely to be found outside the National Park than in it and we would be visiting a feeding site for the latter the following morning. The owl was the most important so were happy to go along with Indi’s suggestion that we leave the park to maximize our chance of finding it. We returned to the park entrance seeing a female Sri Lanka Junglefowl with small chick then a couple of posing male junglefowl, two more Spotted Ground Thrushes and a Brown-breasted Flycatcher on the way. At the hotel we were left while Indi, Dinal, Dhanushka and Shantha went back out. I wasn’t a great fan of hanging around while a guide looked for something, preferring to involve myself even if my efforts were very unlikely to do any good. I was also worried about getting in the way but when they returned over an hour later and Indi gave me the thumbs up as they drive up to the hotel I seriously regretted not having been with them. At least I’d have been on site. It seemed to take ages to get the group moving but it was probably less than ten minutes before we were heading back down the road. It was a short drive to where they’d found the owl, a group effort of all four of them carefully searching likely roosting areas in an area they knew a bird usually was. Despite this it took them over an hour to find. It was another ‘two at a time’ job and Dave and I followed Indi up a bank, being careful not to grab hold of a vine and disturb a pair of roosting Sri Lanka Frogmouths. The bird was only 50m from the road in a particularly thick clump but Indi couldn’t find it and my heart sank. Dhanushka came to help and said it was still there but could only be seen from one position. Even then it took Indi an inordinate amount of time to see it, well 30 seconds that felt like 5 minutes. He positioned me in the right place and there it was, a Serendib Scops Owl partially obscured behind leaves and twigs. I had a quick look and left to give others a turn and promptly joined the back of the queue. It was a stunning looking bird and definitely worth a prolonged view. My turn came around again and I enjoyed further views but couldn’t manage to focus on it although maybe I didn’t even find it in the viewfinder. Dhanushka offered to creep in to take photos for me and I happily handed over my camera. There were no other takers for a third view so I went back again. Brilliant, as were the photos Dhanushka took for me. We left it in peace and drove back up towards the National Park entrance where we walked a section of road on the lookout for Crimson-backed Flameback and Sri Lanka Myna. On the way back down we saw two distant mynas on the opposite side of the valley which flew over to our side. They fitted the bill but views were not great. It then started to drizzle and we wandered back, but not before two Sri Lanka Mynas appeared in tree tops on our side of the valley. Another session on the veranda as the light faded was memorable for the 20 Brown-backed Needletails blasting around overhead.  A brilliant end to an amazing day with pretty much everything falling into place, in no small part to our guides and trackers. What a difference 24 hours can make.
White-faced Starling at Sinharaja


Spot-winged Thrush

Red-faced Malkoha
its red face put it at a disadvantage when palying hide and seek
Brown-breasted Flycatcher
male Malabar Trogon
female Sri Lanka Frogmouth
a pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths


Green Garden Lizard
male Sri Lanka Junglefowl with a tatty tail
another male Sri Lanka Junglefowl although with Red, Green and Grey Junglefowl elsewhere in Asia this one might have been better called Orange


who's a pretty boy then
Kangaroo Lizard at Sinharaja
female Sri Lanka Junglefowl with chick

another male
another pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths, guarding the way to the Serendib Scops Owl roost. Fortunately they allowed us to pass ...
White-breasted Waterhen from the Blue Magpie Lodge veranda
Serendib Scops Owl (photos taken with my camera by Dhanushka). My views were good but more obscured than this and I wasn't able to focus on it
probably the best Scops Owl I've seen
my bird of the trip, how could it not be
its very prominent ears are apparently rarely seen at night and most illustrations do not show them. Not an issue in my field guide which was published in 1999 before its discovery.
03 February 2019. We left the lodge at 05:00 in two Jeeps with a packed breakfast for the 45 minute drive to the spurfowl site. It was the back garden of a house on the edge of the forest much further along the road where we’d seen the Serendib Scops Owl. We arrived before dawn to be sure of being able to see the area as there was only limited viewing, from their kitchen window or beside the house. As it turned out we were the only group trying that morning and I opted for the side of the house where I made use of my small collapsible stool. Some chairs were found for the others waiting outside and we anxiously overlooked the small open area into which their drain flowed. The spurfowl had appeared at 07:20 the previous day but didn’t always show. Not what I wanted to hear. A male then a female Sri Lanka Junglefowl appeared and we ended up seeing at least two females, three juveniles and four small chicks. We also saw three Emerald Doves, two Spot-winged Thrushes and four Orange-billed Babblers while a Slaty-legged Crake made a quick pass. By now it was 07:15 but the light was remaining stubbornly poor. At 07:25 a male Sri Lanka Spurfowl appeared and slowly and rather erratically made its way across the clearing. The final endemic, at least for a few of us. We birded along the road hoping to find Crimson-backed Flameback with no success. Perhaps the forest was too open as we saw two Red-backed Flamebacks. Improved on views of Sri Lanka Myna were some compensation and we saw another Green-billed Coucal and Sri Lanka Blue Magpie. We returned to the Blue Magpie Lodge where Indi, Dinal and Dhanushka took Dave, Tony and I back along the road up to the reserve for a final look for the flameback. No success although a male Indian Paradise Flycatcher was nice. I birded from the veranda until it was time to leave. We left Dinal and four of the group to head for the coast and some whale watching while Indi took the remaining eight of us back to Colombo and the Airport Garden Hotel. We arrived in daylight and I wandered around the gardens until dark seeing Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Brown-headed Barbet and Yellow-billed Babblers but not much else. Immediately after dark Indi took some of us out to look for Brown Hawk Owl in the hotel grounds. It was about the easiest night birding I’ve done with it coming in immediately. How easy it had been made me regret that we’d not been able to try any night birding elsewhere although as the trip had exceeded my expectations I shouldn’t really be complaining. At 22:00 I said goodbye to Shane as he got in a taxi to the airport for his long flight back to New Mexico. He’d been a good room-mate not complaining at my late hours.

spurfowl site near Sinharaja
female Sri Lanka Junglefowl
bushy-tailed male Sri Lanka Junglefowl
Spot-winged Thrush



Sri Lanka Myna

Philippines Brown Shrike

Indi and Dhanushka at Sinharaja
Common Green Forest Lizard
jeep ride
Dhanushka, Dinal and Indi looking for Crimson-backed Flameback
three-quarters of the group
Sri Lanka Green Pigeon
Indian Paradise Flycatcher above the Blue Magpie Lodge
me and Dinal
me and Indi, he'd been an excellent leader and was the main reason the trip had been a success
view from our hotel window. My efforts to reach the not so distant lagoon from the hotel grounds failed
part of a faded bird display in the hotel grounds. Not faded enough to hide a very suspect identification
Brown-headed Barbet in the Airport Garden Hotel grounds
Yellow-billed Babbler
04 February 2019. We were to gather in the hotel lobby at 08:45. I’d worked out from my phone that it was about a 15 minute walk to the edge of the lagoon the hotel was near too. I’d established the previous evening that there was a canal and high fence between us and the dual carriageway that bordered the lagoon and it would be necessary to walk back to the road we’d come in on, follow it for 500m before turning back towards the lagoon which could be accessed by an underpass. I packed my bag and set off at 07:00, a little later than anticipated. It took slightly longer than 15 minutes to reach the lagoon and it was a little disappointing with only Little Cormorants, egrets and Whiskered Terns visible although a Striated Heron was new for the trip and I saw Red-wattled Lapwing, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Grey-headed Wagtail on the way. Back in the hotel gardens a Spoonbill flew over and I saw Stork-billed Kingfisher, Red-backed Flameback and more Yellow-billed Babblers making a nice end to the trip. I just had time to grab my bag and a bit of breakfast before we left for the airport. Indi had been a great leader and thankfully quite relaxed about my wandering off at meal times (in my own time as he nicely put it when one or two comments were made). Our flight was on time and even got into Heathrow slightly ahead of time. I made it to Victoria in good time for my pre-booked cheap train ticket, in the event the one before would have been fine. The train was 15 minutes late arriving at Shoreham but that is Southern Rail for you. Megan came down to meet me and we were home at 23:30 (05:00 Sri Lanka time).
pre-departure check: All endemics seen? Yes plus the more recently split and not illustrated Red-backed Flameback