It was night when we arrived at Sisira’s River Lounge on the banks of the river Kelani in Kithulgala, the next stop on our Sri Lankan birding trip. After four days, we had a wonderful dinner – Sisira was an executive chef with the Taj group and has worked in India – and went to bed wondering if Kithulgala would be as abundant as Sinharaja had been…
Day 5 – The bird of the trip!
We rose with the sun to be welcomed by an Indian pitta
a brown-capped babbler, and a lesser yellownape.
Along the riverside, we saw several green imperial pigeons. In a neighbouring garden, we found the endemic chestnut backed owlet calling away…
If pre-breakfast birding was so good, we couldn’t wait to find out what awaited us after the lovely breakfast that Sisira had laid out for us. For this, we had to cross the Kelani river and go into the rainforest on the other side. This was accomplished by means a narrow catamaran dugout – it was a bit scary to get in, but the ride was great fun! If only the river wasn’t so narrow, we could have had a longer ride!
Thankfully, the leeches appeared to be resting. Chami took us on a quest for the brown hawk owl, which didn’t want to be met. On the way, we came across a couple of kangaroo lizards, one with a huge moth in its jaws…
To see something special, you have to make an extra effort. Especially when it happens to be a very rare and rather sensitive bird. We trekked through densely forested hillsides sloping at a 45o angle, following Chami’s exhortations to remain absolutely silent, to see the bird of the trip – Sri Lanka’s newest endemic discovery – the Serendib scops owl! What a present for all of us on Garima’s birthday!
Don’t you think this beautiful bird has a face like Lord Ganesha? Though we remained very quiet, those large lovely eyes followed our every movement. Chami said that it would change its roost now that it had been spotted.
(Sorry about the shake…)
On the return trek, we saw a Malabar trogon and a Tickell’s blue flycatcher.
After lunch, Chami drove us to a rubber plantation, with many birds busy getting their evening meal. There were Layard’s parakeets, chestnut headed bee-eaters, white-browed fantails,
and the red backed black rumped flameback, which is endemic to Sri Lanka.
Day 6 – The merry coucal chase
Next morning, Chami took us to a riverside location to get shots of Layard’s parakeets and hanging parrots. Having missed seeing the green-billed coucal earlier, Garima and I headed back to Sisira’s. We found one in a jackfruit tree and tried hard to get a decent shot. Soon the others joined us and the green-billed coucal led us in a merry chase, during which we entered a garden with an incessantly barking dog. A yellow fronted barbet was hopping around outside.
After a bit, the dog gave up, but we didn’t, and in the tree in which the green-billed coucal had hidden itself, we saw a brown headed barbet.
On the way back, we ran into another Indian pitta!
And got a good look at some black bulbuls.
Back at Sisira’s, we got a close look at a chestnut backed owlet, but I missed seeing the rufous woodpecker.
After breakfast, we started for Nuwara Eliya, a long, tortuous, uphill drive that was hard on a few of our tummies. En route, we stopped at a beautiful tea estate called St Clair’s.
The vistas at St. Clair’s were scenic, with a couple of lovely waterfalls…
The route took us through endless stretches of tea gardens – all of them created at the expense of the rainforest. I asked Chami if the forest would survive the tea industry, and he didn’t answer. Here’s a video of a partially deforested hillside…
We reached Nuwara Eliya in pouring rain and freezing cold, so the first order of business was shopping for jackets. A brief visit to Victoria Park gave us a glimpse of a forest wagtail. As it grew dark, we headed to a wooded area where we got another brief glimpse, this time of the scaly thrush. Then it was too dark to see anything, so we headed to Humbugs bungalow – to hot showers, warm beds and a cute cat!
Day 7 – Thrush tapasya on Diwali
Imagine waking up at 3 am on a freezing morning and driving for two hours to see a bird that shows up only at the crack of dawn! That was our tapasya this Diwali day – reaching Horton’s Plains at 5 am in pitch darkness – waiting for daybreak to see the Ceylon whistling thrush! It is an extremely rare and difficult bird to see. We got out of the van as the light crept into the sky, and saw an Indian blackbird in the gloom – but no thrush… Chami told us that he had seen a whistling thrush couple nesting near the ladies’ toilet on his last visit. So we stood some distance away, with our eyes fixed on the entrance to the toilet. Still no thrush. Suddenly three minibuses pulled up and disgorged a horde of elderly European women – at least 20 of them, dressed in colourful outfits, conversing loudly. On this freezing morning, what could they do but make a beeline for the loo! We gave up hope of seeing the thrush and walked around in the drizzle. Then, out of the mist, the thrush whistled – and bestowed darshan on us! Not only the male, the female too! Our tapasya did bear fruit!
This thrush has a high-pitched whistle, unlike the more melodious song of the Malabar whistling thrush.
In spite of the mist and drizzle, we saw a dull blue flycatcher couple, (here’s the female preening)
a grey headed canary flycatcher,
yellow eared bulbuls, Sri Lanka bush warbler and a troop of purple faced bear monkeys!
As the sun rose and the mist cleared, Horton Plains revealed itself.
Hungry, we headed for the sanctuary canteen, where a huge male sambar called Raja allowed people to get quite close, though he wouldn’t take grass from my hand.
Chami then took us to the Pattipola railway station to see munias – instead we came across a flock of yellow eared bulbuls and a troop of purple faced monkeys, and some of us got good views of the Ceylon woodpigeon!
Most of the afternoon was spent in searching for a place to have lunch (all restaurants were closed on account of Diwali). We ended up at the coffee shop of the Grand Hotel, where I had absolutely the worst pizza I have ever eaten!
Day 8 – Foggy birding
Last day. We went to Victoria Park once again. It was dark and foggy…
A forest wagtail foraged along the stream…
Ceylon white-eyes are a darker olive green than Oriental white-eyes…
We got just a glimpse of a pied thrush. Then we headed to the scaly thrush place again and came across the last bonanza of the trip – a male Kashmir flycatcher busily displaying! We just couldn’t get our fill of it, when someone from the forest department chased us away, saying we were not supposed to do any photography there 😦
Since we had missed seeing the crimson-backed woodpecker, Chami decided to make a brief stop at the Udawattakele reserve forest at Kandy. It was almost 4 pm and getting dark when we entered the gates. Barely ten minutes into our walk, we realized that all of us had several leeches clinging to us and climbing steadily. These leeches were the quickest we had seen, and we ran back to get our leech socks. By then it was too dark to go looking for the woodpecker, though we heard its call.
Day 9 – Dawn at the beach
We reached Colombo late in the night, shopped a bit, ate some dosas (finally!!) and pizza (not me!) and spent the night at a homestay in Negumbo. Some of the others woke early to visit the nearby beach, where they saw some gulls and terns. Our departure was as dramatic as our arrival, as our 9 am flight was turned back to Colombo due to high wind speeds at Chennai. It took off again only in the afternoon, and it was well past midnight when we reached Bangalore.
Such drama, and much physical hardship!! But it was all worth it – the BULBs’ Sri Lanka endemics tour rocked! Thanks are due to Rajneesh for putting it together and to Chami for his indefatigable chauffeur-guiding! And to all the others for the vibrant company!
Wonder where we’ll go next…
Some more pics here…
Diwali 2010 was a landmark for our birding group – the BULBs’ first birding trip abroad! Rajneesh’s Wayfarer put together an itinerary for us to see the endemic birds of the emerald isle, and some of the group (Rajneesh Suvarna, his wife Suma, Garima Bhatia, her dad Mr Jitender Bhatia, Gayathri Naik, Jainy Maria and I) set off for Sri Lanka on the penultimate day of October!
Day 1 – Drama in the dark!
Rajneesh had driven us into Chennai the previous evening, and we awoke to pre-dawn drama. In pouring rain, our cab to the airport, which was already late, punctured a tyre near T Nagar. The cab driver, a strong, silent type (too silent, not strong enough) struggled ineffectually to change the tyre. We were just about to flag down some autorickshaws when an empty van (on its way to the airport for a pick-up) arrived like an angel from heaven!
At Colombo airport, we were met by Chaminda Dilruk, our inseparable guide-cum-chauffeur for the entire trip. He took us to Martin’s Lodge close to the Sinharaja Heritage Forest atop a hill, with amazing views of a range covered with dense rainforest.
Our trip was characterised by what I can only call close-encounter birding. The first one was en-route with a crested serpent eagle sitting on a lamp-post right above our heads, calling and posing for a long time.
Then on the walk up the hill to Martin’s Lodge, we saw Layard’s parakeets, which are endemic,
orange minivets which are not 🙂
as well as a Ceylon hanging parrot, a Ceylon small barbet, Ceylon green pigeons, and black bulbuls. And a cobra that crossed the road just a few feet away!
The real close encounters came when we reached Martin’s Lodge – an emerald dove, a young Ceylon junglefowl and a huge water monitor!
Nightfall at Martin’s Lodge did not mean that all the wildlife went to bed. This beautiful hawk moth paid us a visit,
as did hundreds of flying termites, followed by a couple of frogs who gobbled up the termites with glee. Sometime during the night, so did this massive atlas moth (almost 10 inches across) – we found it early next morning, surrounded by ants, flapping its wings very feebly…
Day 2 – Birding bonanza
The day started with an unfamiliar call just outside our door – two brilliantly coloured Ceylon blue magpies feasting on dead flying termites from the previous night!
When I look at this bird, I feel that God would have drawn its outline, and given it to a kid along with a box of crayons, and asked the kid to colour it. It is one of the gaudiest possible birds with a very strange colour combination – bright blue body; bright red beak, feet and eye-ring; brown head and wings; white and black tail feathers!
Happy with this wonderful start to the day, we set off into the dark depths of the rainforest, leech socks and all. Our foray was extremely productive, netting us several birds! The first one was the endemic spot-winged thrush. (This video has a loud background noise).
It was followed by the Ceylon scimitar babbler, black capped bulbul, red-faced malkoha, yellow fronted barbet, Ceylon rufous babbler, Malabar trogon and Legge’s (white-throated) flowerpecker.
The brown breasted flycatcher seemed to be everywhere.
The Ceylon crested drongo looked to me like a cross between the racket-tailed drongo and the bronzed drongo 🙂
A couple of times, a flock of ashy headed laughingthrushes passed alongside…
There were Sri Lanka giant squirrels in the trees around, their calls exactly like those of the Malabar giant squirrel.
For me, the find of the day was the brilliant green pit viper, of which we were lucky to see two!
I thought the Ceylon junglefowl at Martin’s Lodge was bold as he was used to coming there everyday, but another couple we saw on our trek turned out to be even bolder, coming right up to us, just a couple of feet away!! I asked Chami about this, and he said that the birds seemed unafraid as the Sri Lankan wildlife protection laws were very strict and nobody killed wild animals or birds. Any thoughts on this, Mr. Jairam Ramesh? 🙂
And here he is, coming towards us!
Day 3 – Leeches galore!
The leeches were out in full force after the previous day’s rain. Most of us gave generous blood donations. I had encountered leeches by the hundred in Agumbe before, but Sinharaja had the greatest variety in leech size. I found a tiny, less-than-half-cm-long leech between my toes! Having dozed off in my chair after lunch, I was awakened by screams of ‘leech! leech!’ I awoke to find everyone looking at this blood-sated monster on the floor.
So I’ve donated blood (very unwillingly) to the tiniest and the largest leeches in Sinharaja!
In spite of the rain, birding was good – Suma gave us a present on her birthday by spotting the brown capped babbler, which flew circles around us before settling down to pose for the photographers. It has a call very similar to our puff-throated babbler.
We had great sightings of a flock of yellow browed bulbuls from the dining area of Martin’s Lodge.
Another close encounter at the Lodge was with a Ceylon grey hornbill, which sat and posed on a tree for a long time.
Day 4 – Seeking the Spurfowl
Our last outing into the Sinharaja forest was the toughest and leechiest, yielding white-faced starlings, besra, three red-faced malkohas, a pair of hornbills and several other birds. A few of us trekked up with Chami to a spot to see the Ceylon spurfowl which are notorious as very shy skulkers – we got a good look at them, but this was all the photography I could manage as the birds took flight at the slightest noise!
Unlike this fellow, who was completely still, no matter how much the camera shutters clattered!
And here’s an actual green one…
On the way down from Martin’s Lodge, a bonanza awaited us – a tree full of crested treeswifts!
The surroundings of the Blue Magpie Lodge where we stopped for lunch, provided an exciting finish to the birding at Sinharaja. We saw this rufous and white Asian paradise flycatcher,
a small flock of black capped bulbuls,
white rumped munias, kingfishers and a crested serpent eagle in action. Then, happy and exhausted, we said goodbye to Sinharaja and set out for Kithulgala…
Some more photographs here …
Coming up next, Kithulgala and Nuwara Eliya.