Thursday 31 January 2019

SRI LANKA 2019: Kithulgala and Nuwara Ellya (27-31 January)

Introduction.  Sri Lanka had always been in the back of my mind as somewhere I’d like to visit at an appropriate time but as the years rolled by the opportunity never came. Taxonomic changes have made it a more attractive destination, there were twenty endemics when I first looked into it in the late 1970s but are now 34. I’d had my eye on Naturetrek Endemic Bird trips which, despite being in country for less than nine full days, seemed to see between 32 and 34 endemics and a few other specialities shared with Southern India. In the autumn Naturetrek were advertising a room share on their January trip which made it more affordable. With other ideas not materialising I put my previous experience with a Naturetrek trip out of my mind (birding between meals) and booked. Dave Cooper and Brenda Kay visited Sri Lanka as part of a longer trip before Christmas and did extremely well seeing all and photographing most of the endemics (see This should have been encouraging but a couple of species were very secretive and I had learnt ours would be a group of 11.

26 January 2019. I arrived at Heathrow in good time for the Sri Lanka Airlines flight to Colombo only to discover it would be at least an hour late arriving. The delay stretched to two hours and we finally departed at 23:00.

27 January 2019. It was a decent flight, helped by me having two seats, and we arrived at 14:00, 90 minutes late. Immigration was easy but I had the usual worry waiting for my rucksack to appear but it did and wasn’t the last off. I soon found our leaders (Indi and Dinal) and the rest of the group which when assembled was now 12 strong. We departed in a 20 seater bus for the 3.5 hour drive to Kithulgala, travelling though busy towns and cultivated lowlands for most of the way. A few of the birds seen from the bus were identifiable and included Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, my first new bird and an endemic to boot. We had a 15 minute stop to break the journey seeing a family group of comical Yellow-billed Babblers, White-browed Bulbul and Loten’s Sunbird, all of which were new. We arrived at the Plantation Hotel just as the light was going. I was sharing with Shane from New Mexico who had just finished a tour of South Vietnam. Everyone else of the trip were Brits. Dinner was lots of spicy dishes which I avoided settling for plain rice, just about manageable dal and chicken. Not overly special. I went to bed at 20:30 (02:00 UK time).
Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, my first endemic

White-throated Kingfisher
Yellow-billed Babbler
tail-less juveniles
28 January 2019. I didn’t sleep well being heavily jet lagged although was woken by my alarm at 05:30. We left the hotel at 06:15 for a short drive (500m) up the road to a track down to a metal plate suspension footbridge across the Kelani River and into some secondary forest patches at the base of some hills. We birded the area for three hours seeing a good range of species including 14 new birds. Two Spot-backed Thrushes were best with Chestnut-backed Owlet and male Sri Lanka Junglefowl close behind. Other new birds were Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Layard’s Parakeet, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Red-backed Flameback, Orange Minivet, Orange-billed and Dark-fronted Babblers, Black-capped, Yellow-browed and Square-tailed Bulbuls and Purple-rumped Sunbird. Only untickable views of Green-billed Coucal (I never saw its bill) marred the morning but we would try again tomorrow. We returned for a late breakfast (omelette and toast) then drove a couple of kms back down the road and, in two groups, caught a small passenger ferry across the river. We walked a trail up through cultivation to the reserve entrance seeing Yellow-fronted Barbet, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and Southern Hill Myna and White-throated Flowerpeckers while Indi signed us in. We continued up into the rainforest but it was dry and somewhat birdless compared to the more open areas although a Brown-breasted Flycatcher was very nice. We were left at a shelter overlooking a clearing which we scanned for half an hour or so while Indi and Dinal went looking for a roosting Serendib Scops Owl. We sat around seeing nothing and they could not find the owl. Some mention was made of a photographer going too close and flushing it despite his guide telling him not to although it may not have been that morning. Disappointing but Indi was confident of finding one at Sinharaja where we would finish the trip. As I was lagging behind on the way back down to the reserve entrance a Crimson-backed Flameback few across in front of me, landing briefly a couple of times before disappearing. It was to be the only one I saw and an endemic most on the trip missed. We returned for lunch at 14:00 but I opted to sit on the riverbank instead which was enjoyable but not overly productive although I did improve on my earlier poor views of Sri Lanka Swallow and Indian Swiftlet. After lunch we drove up a narrow road away from the river and onto a hillside above the valley. We walked an open section of the road beside a tea plantation seeing Crimson-fronted Barbet, Black-headed Cuckooshrike, Tawny-bellied Babbler and another Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker. An Indian Pitta flew out of the tea and across the road and out of sight into a thick bush in front of me. A bird I’d not seen since 1982. As we tried to see it in the bush it flew back into the tea but I was unsighted. We returned to the hotel at dusk (18:00). A very good first day with 24 new birds but many were likely to be common and be seen again.
Chestnut-backed Owlet at Kithulgala

Orange-billed Babblers at Kithulgala
Red-backed Flameback, the most recently recognised endemic
Green Imperial Pigeon
Spot-winged Thrush at Kithulgala
perhaps my most wanted endemic (until I saw it)
forest near Kithulgala

Layard's Parakeet at Kithulgala
The Kelani River, made famous by the film the Bridge of the River Kwai
ferry across the river, our large group needed two trips
Oriental Magpie Robin in the Plantation Hotel garden

Blue-tailed Bee-eaters at the Plantation Hotel. The amount of brown/chestnut cast on the head came as a bit of a surprise

29 January 2019. We left the Plantation Hotel at 06:15 and after our three minute bus ride returned across the suspension footbridge to the Green-billed Coucal area. Two Brown-capped Babblers showed well on the way, a potentially tricky endemic we did not encounter again. The Green-billed Coucal showed briefly soon after we arrived on site. I was fortunate to be in the right position when Indi saw it and had a decent view of its bill but most missed it altogether. We continued birding a bit further on seeing our first Sri Lanka Drongo before returning. The coucal was still in the area and gave a few brief glimpses before a good close flight view over our heads satisfied everyone. We returned to the hotel for breakfast after which I sat by the river again seeing seeing a Crested Treeswift before we left at 10:00  It was a three hour drive to Nuwara Ellya with a couple of brief stops on the way seeing Oriental Honey Buzzard, Crested Serpent Eagle and a probable Crested Hawk Eagle. We checked into the Heaven Seven Hotel and while the others had lunch and prepared for the afternoon’s excursion I wandered around outside. There wasn’t any decent accessible habitat nearby although I saw my first Sri Lanka White-eye, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Alpine Swift, Hill Swallow and Pied Bushchat in the immediate vicinity. We drove to Victoria Park and spent an hour and a half looking around there. Highlights were male Kashmir Flycatcher, two male Pied Thrushes and Forest Wagtail. The Pied Thrushes were in the smelliest part of the park – in complete contrast to seeing them in their breeding habitat in the Himalayas. We left the park and drove a short distance to a lay-by and fruit stall on the rim of the plateau. We made our way down to a short open section of a fast flowing stream which Indi told us was a good site for the super-shy Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. We were to wait quietly in the hope the thrush would appear as the light faded. I might have been confident had there been three or four of us but it would require a miracle for a group of 14 to all see such a shy bird. More so when some started talking which encouraged others to do so too and soon it sounded as if I was in a noisy school playground. Indi had a few words and the volume was reduced but there was still a lot of muttering and shuffling around, perhaps inevitably. We saw our first Yellow-eared Bulbuls, expectedly Sri Lanka’s best, and a brief male Indian Blue Robin but the whistling thrush had not appeared by 18:15 and we left with just about enough light to find our way back up to the road. We would doubtless be returning.

rather large Water Monitor at the Plantation Hotel, Kithulgala

it or another on the opposite bank of the Kelani River
Indian Pond Heron
Little Cormorant at the Plantation Hotel
Crested Serpent Eagle on the journey
highland tea plantations
waterfall on the way to Nuwara Ellya
Sri Lanka White-eye outside Heaven Seven in Nuwara Ellya

Pied Thrush hidden amongst the plastic waste in the least salubrious part of Victoria Park
30 January 2019. A very long successful day despite missing a Leopard. We left at 05:15 in two minibuses, the one I was in appeared to be in pole position to lead off but Indi climbed into the other and left first. We in the second vehicle missed a few junglefowl and a Wild Boar along the road. We drove for an hour stopping just after the last railway crossing in an area which dawn revealed to have some thick but scattered groups of trees. More importantly they held at least nine Sri Lanka Wood Pigeons, an endemic we were only likely to see here and usually at dawn. We watched for 15 minutes before continuing on to Horton Plains National Park where we joined a long queue at the entrance. We saw our first Dull-blue Flycatcher and only Black-throated Munias around the ticket office while waiting. Once we had our permits we drove into the park stopping by a small roadside pond in an area of decent forest. It was another Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush sight and Indi heard one calling but only Shane saw anything resembling one. Two Sri Lanka Bush Warblers were some compensation for the rest of us. We continued to the reserve centre and joined many other tourists walking out across the plain. It was more like moorland and was being encroached by rhododendrons with more substantial scattered patches of woodland. We walked a km or so along the main trail to a woodland patch where we saw Pale-billed Flowerpecker, Indian Blue Robin, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike. The plains were fairly devoid of birds with Paddyfield Pipit and Pied Bushchats most evident. We also saw Black-winged Kite, Hill and Barn Swallows and when back at the centre a Legge’s Hawk Eagle in the top of a very distant line of trees I had been scanning through binoculars. Unsure if it was a large eagle or an oddly shaped branch I borrowed Dave’s new 90mm Swarovski scope to reveal its identity. We left the park in convoy but us in the second vehicle didn’t realise when the first vehicle stopped half-way out of the park that it was for a Leopard. By the time we cottoned on it had disappeared which was rather disappointing although views didn’t sound great. Three Sri Lanka Wood Pigeons were in the same trees as earlier and the light was much better showing them in all their subtlety. We returned to Heaven Seven at 13:30 and I walked to Victoria Park while the others had lunch. It was only 12 minutes walk and I had almost two hours there before the others arrived. I couldn’t refind the Kashmir Flycatcher which I’d hoped to photograph but the two Pied Thrushes were in the same area and showed well in somewhat better light. I looked around for Indian Pitta with no success, that the preferred area had been cleared of leaf litter by gardeners probably didn’t help. I joined the group when they arrived and we walked around again, annoyingly Indi briefly seeing a pitta in one of the areas I had looked in earlier. A smart pair of Sri Lanka Scimitar Babblers was our only new bird before we returned to look for the whistling thrush again. This time a few of the group opted to stay in/return to the hotel and it was somewhat quieter. The male Indian Blue Robin put in several brief appearances and a Sri Lanka Bush Warbler had us going at one stage. An Otter appeared below us but despite the smaller group being much quieter nothing had shown by 18:15. This time Indi decided to give it another 5 minutes as it wasn’t completely dark. A minute or two later the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush appeared, except I missed the first three views being poorly positioned/ unsighted or not sharp enough. Luckily it stayed in the ravine and I obtained several silhouette views, good enough to see it was a small Whistling Thrush but not a male as others had noted. It then flew over our heads and landed on a moss covered branch with the remaining light behind us. I was soon in pole position and noted its dark blue colouration before it dropped out of sight. Quite a relief to finally have had a decent view. It was reckoned by Indi to be the hardest of the endemics to see, at least for a large group, and against the odds we remained on track to see them all (although a couple of the others were notoriously tricky too). We were back at Heaven Seven at 18:45.
Dull-blue Flycatcher, much nicer than its name suggests
a distant view of Adam's Peak, one of the highest in Sri Lanka at almost 2250m high
Horton Plains
Red-wattled Lapwing on Horton Plains

female Pied Bushchat
Horton Plains
Horton Plains centre
Pale-billed Flowerpecker
Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike
Black-cheeked Lizard 

more extensive woodland on Horton Plains, sadly we didn't have time to visit it

Brown Mongoose
Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon
a smart bird when seen in good light
 Oriental Magpie Robin in Victoria Park 

Grey Wagtail
Forest Wagtail in Victoria Park

better views of Pied Thrush in Victoria Park
still amongst the old plastic bags though

Brown Shrike in Victoria Park

31 January 2019. I birded outside the hotel for half an hour before 07:30 breakfast seeing Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Ashy Prinia. Our success the previous evening with the Whistling Thrush meant a pre-dawn start wasn’t needed, although I would have happily tried again. We left Nuwara Ellya and drove for an hour to the Surrey Bird Gardens, a smallish forest patch on our route. Here we walked along the side of the wood before Indi led us in and left us while he went to look for a roosting Brown Wood Owl. A short time later he returned having located it and led us in two at a time for views. It was a little obscured but a close viewpoint would have risked it flushing. I went in again when everyone had seen it and managed a few photos. A couple of the group saw Crimson-backed Flameback while I saw another Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler. We continued on to Ella for lunch. I birded outside but saw very little, a couple of Grey Langars best. Our next stop was just outside Uda Walawe in a patch of scrub by the road. It held lots of birds includedthe hoped for Sri Lanka Wood Shrike (the only 'dry' countery endemic), Marshall’s Iora (not actually in my book) and another Indian Pitta flight view. Some of the group saw a Grey-bellied Cuckoo but I was late on the scene and only saw it fly out of the back of the tree it was in. Our final destination was the Centurion Hotel beside Chandrika Lake in Embilipitiya. A pair of Indian Scops Owls was roosting in the car park and gave excellent views although the light was poor for photography. We checked in and I spent the last hour of light birding. I soon exhausted the potential of the hotel grounds (Stork-billed Kingfisher, distant Spot-billed Pelicans), not helped by not being able to find a way out to the lake shore immediately th eother side of the large fenced perimeter. I left through the entrance and walked for 10 minutes to what looked like a dried up river course running into the lake. There were lots of birds here including Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Indian Stone Curlew and best of all three Malabar Pied Hornbills flew over towards the hotel grounds to roost. A great end to what was basically a travel day.
Ashy Prinia outside Heaven Seven, Nuwara Ellya

Hindu Temple outside Nuwara Ellya
Toque Macaque
one of a sizable group beside the road, many climbing along telephone wires towards a village in search of food
Brown-headed Barbet at Surrey Bird Gardens
roosting Brown Wood Owl at Surrey Bird Gardens
view from our lunch stop (at the restaurant on the right)
peaks opposite, small groups of walkers were visible along the ridge
Common Garden Lizard by the restaurant
Spotted Dove on the same wood pile
Common Koel near Uda Walawe, the same tree later held a Grey-bellied Cuckoo but I'd wandered off by then
Indian Scops Owls roosting in the car park of the Centurion Hotel

Spot-billed Pelicans, Great Cormorant and Whiskered Tern on Chandrika Lake

Stork-billed Kingfisher in the Centurion Hotel grounds

female Indian Robin
Yellow-wattled Lapwings beside Chandrika Lake
one of the most elegant waders
Indian Stone Curlew
in rapidly fading light