Layard’s Parakeet and Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Ella, April 24th-25th

Little Adam's Peak, near Ella, Sri Lankan highlands. Extensively deforested and replanted with tea and non-native tree species, the area is nonetheless fairly rich in bird life.
Little Adam’s Peak, near Ella, Sri Lankan highlands. Extensively deforested and replanted with tea and non-native tree species, the area is nonetheless fairly rich in bird life.

We rounded off our three-week Sri Lanka trip with a couple of days in the highlands, based in the small town of Ella, where I was hoping to add a few of the higher-altitude endemics to my list. On arrival, the landscape initially looked rather unpromising, with no original forest to be seen, extensive tea plantations, and non-native trees including the dreaded Eucalyptus much in evidence.

However, as it turned out I was pleasantly surprised by the number and variety of birds – including several endemic species – that were in the area. In just two days I recorded 61 bird species, most of them within a short walk of our guesthouse, Ella Nature View Lodge.

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater near its nest site along the Ella railway line.
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater near its nest site along the Ella railway line.

Highlights:

  • Layard’s Parakeet – two pairs seen.
  • Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot – excellent views of a pair.
  • Yellow-crowned Barbet – common.
  • Crimson-fronted Barbet – fairly common.
  • Coppersmith Barbet – several.
  • Brown-headed Barbet – common.
  • Sri Lanka Junglefowl – commonly heard, seen once.
  • Common Hawk-cuckoo – heard only.
  • Black Eagle – two.
  • Booted Eagle – one, presumably late passage bird.
  • Crested Serpent Eagle – common.
  • Oriental Honey Buzzard – common.
  • Yellow-crowned Woodpecker – pair near our hotel.
  • Lesser Yellownape – one in trees along railway.
  • Black-rumped Flameback – fairly common.
  • Black-headed Cuckooshrike – one.
  • Asian Paradise-Flycatcher – several including a long-tailed male.
  • Indian Robin – several pairs in rocky areas.
  • Hill Myna – one.
  • Ashy Prinia – several on territory near hotel.
  • Sri Lanka White-eye – fairly common.
  • Small Minivet – fairly common.
  • White-browed Fantail – fairly common.
  • Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike – several.
  • Sri Lanka Swallow – common.
  • Indian Scimitar-Babbler – several along railway.
  • Tawny-bellied Babbler – fairly common.
  • Yellow-eyed Babbler – several at margins of tea plantations.
  • Jerdon’s Leafbird – one.
  • Golden-fronted Leafbird – several.
  • Loten’s Sunbird – common.
  • Purple-rumped Sunbird – common.
Tea plantations in the early morning sunlight.
Tea plantations in the early morning sunlight.

Lifers: Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Black-headed Cuckooshrike, Sri Lanka White-eye, Yellow-crowned Barbet, Ashy Prinia, Layard’s Parakeet, Jerdon’s Leafbird, Indian Scimitar-babbler (total 1,903).

Year ticks: Yellow-eyed Babbler, White-browed Fantail, Small Minivet (total 601).

Fiery sunrise from our lodgings in Ella.
Fiery sunrise from our lodgings in Ella.
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Some Sri Lankan endemics at Sinharaja, April 21st

The very first bird of the morning at Sinharaja was .... the spectacular endemic Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, actually inside the restaurant at Martin's Simple Lodge.
The very first bird of the morning at Sinharaja was …. the spectacular endemic Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, actually inside the restaurant at Martin’s Simple Lodge.

After quite a few very enjoyable but hardly bird-filled days on the beach or beside the pool, I felt ready for an adventure to try and grab a few more Sri Lankan endemics. We had moved along the coast to Tangalle, from where a scooter trip to the northern part of Sinharaja and the famous Martin’s Simple Lodge seemed within the realms of possibility. I borrowed a scooter from one of the hotel staff, and armed with a rather basic map, set off on what turned out to be a 5-hour drive to the Kudawa entrance of the famous Sinharaja rainforest.

Despite the excruciatingly slow mode of transport, and less-than-ideal roads, the ride was actually fairly enjoyable. Close to Tangalle I picked up several Black-headed Ibis feeding in damp rice paddies, a long overdue lifer, while a hilly area of tea plantations produced a pair of Indian Robins.

Martin’s Simple Lodge is famous for being accessible only via the world’s rockiest, bumpiest track. Most people get there by 4WD jeep. I wanted to walk the 3km track instead, in order to save money as well as perhaps see some birds, but according to the park staff this wasn’t an option. After making a nuisance of myself for a while around the ticket office at the park headquarters, I was finally informed that it would be OK for me to drive myself to Martin’s on my scooter. It was quite an incredible road to attempt on such a vehicle, but thanks to plenty of experience riding scooters on bad roads in Thailand and Taiwan, I finally made it to Martin’s with only minimal damage to my borrowed transport.

A terrible road to attempt on a 100cc scooter, but we made it in the end.
A terrible road to attempt on a 100cc scooter, but we made it in the end.

Unfortunately, my precious afternoon at Sinharaja was a complete washout owing to continuous torrential rain that continued well into the night. Fortunately, when I awoke at 5.45am the next morning, the rain had temporarily stopped, and I was able to enjoy about four hours birding in the vicinity of the lodge before embarking on my epic return scooter ride to Tangalle.

I decided against entering the park proper. I figured there was plenty of good rainforest habitat around Martin’s lodge, and I was just as likely to connect with the target birds there as deeper in the forest. Also, prior to entering the rainforest, I would have had to retrace my steps back to park headquarters to buy an entry ticket and arrange for a compulsory guide, which would have cost a fair amount of money and a lot of my very limited time.

The very first bird I saw, as it was getting light, was a beautiful Sri Lanka Blue Magpie …. actually inside the restaurant at Martin’s Simple Lodge. Lifers don’t get any easier, or more spectacular, than that. Leaving the lodge, I quickly racked up some good birds including the sometimes tough-to-find White-faced Starling, and Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot. In Martin’s back garden, a fruiting tree attracted a nice range of birds including a Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Black-capped Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, and both Dark-fronted and Tawny-bellied Babblers. Nearby I was able to enjoy prolonged views of a calling male Sri Lanka Junglefowl, that most superior of jungle chickens:

A splendid male Sri Lanka Junglefowl, a beautiful endemic chicken found only in forested areas of Sri Lanka and nowhere else in the world.
A splendid male Sri Lanka Junglefowl, a beautiful endemic chicken found only in forested areas of Sri Lanka and nowhere else in the world.

I left Sinharaja as the rain threatened to return at about 10.00am, stopping to enjoy great views of several Legge’s Flowerpeckers as I carefully negotiated the track down the mountain.

One of Sinharaja’s most notorious native species is the humble leech. Having flicked several from my shoes and trousers during the morning, I thought I had successfully fended them off – until I got home and found several inside my clothes, along with a lot of blood. When visiting Sinharaja, bring your leech socks – especially after heavy rain.

It was a little frustrating to have so little time at Sri Lanka’s foremost birding site, but seeing some of the special birds has whetted the appetite and I will be sure to return.

Lifers (inside Sinharaja rainforest): Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, White-faced Starling, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Black-capped Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Tawny-bellied Babbler, Legge’s Flowerpecker (total 1,895).

Sunrise from Martin's Simple Lodge, Sinharaja.
Sunrise from Martin’s Simple Lodge, Sinharaja.

Sunbirds, Barbets …. and Blue Whale, Sri Lanka, April 11th-16th

Blue Whale at sea off Mirissa, Sri Lanka, April 12th.
Blue Whale at sea off Mirissa, Sri Lanka, April 12th.

The southern Sri Lankan coast is one of the few places in the world where Blue Whale is reliably seen, and April one of the very best months for sightings. We joined a fleet of tourist boats setting off from Mirissa early in the morning, to the prime whale area about an hour’s boat ride from shore.

Over a 90-minute period, we saw a Blue Whale surface three times – a truly magnificent animal and definitely one for the “bucket list”.

In terms of the birds, tropical seas – away from breeding islets – can often be rather quiet for seabirds, and that was the case today. The only notable sightings were two large and fairly distant tern flocks, containing many summer-plumaged White-winged Terns and a handful of Bridled Terns, as well as many that remained unidentified due to distance. Also out here were at least three Flesh-footed Shearwaters passing fairly close to the boat.

We stayed in the town of Unawatuna, near Galle, which although a touristy beach resort did have the saving grace of a wooded hill close by. Our hotel – the Nooit Gedacht – also had extensive gardens including a lotus pond where many birds were seen. Loten’s and Purple-rumped Sunbirds were common and easily seen, and White-browed Bulbul, Green Imperial Pigeon, Brown-headed Barbet and Black-rumped Flameback were among the many birds nesting in the gardens or nearby. Other birds regularly seen around the hotel included the endemic Sri Lanka Green Pigeon and Sri Lanka Swallow, with Crimson-fronted Barbets common on the hill behind the hotel and Dark-fronted Babbler also seen there.

Finally, an early morning trip to Koggala Lake produced few birds at the lake itself, but the nearby airfield had a pair of Indian Stone-Curlews and several Ashy-crowned Sparrow-larks.

Lifers: Sri Lanka Swallow, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Loten’s Sunbird, Yellow-billed Babbler, White-browed Bulbul, White-bellied Drongo, Brown-headed Barbet, Crimson-fronted Barbet, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Black-rumped Flameback, Dark-fronted Babbler, Pale-billed Flowerpecker, Indian Swiftlet, Indian Stone-Curlew, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark (total 1,884).

Year ticks: Green Imperial Pigeon, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Bridled Tern, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (total 578).

Indian Peafowl on the roof of our Unawatuna hotel.
Indian Peafowl on the roof of our Unawatuna hotel.

6 new species in India, April 1st-8th

The Taj Mahal. There were a lot of birds around the buildings here and on the river behind.
The Taj Mahal. There were a lot of birds around the buildings here and on the river behind.

Birding took a back seat during my week in India. I was reunited with my fiancee Jenna after more than two months apart, and we had a busy schedule with visits to Agra and Varanasi – neither one a particularly famous location for birding! In addition, getting immersed in the chaos of India was really tough after the relative ease of Nepal, and I found that I had little inclination to get out there and try and make my way to any birding sites.

I did add a few new birds to the list. Bank Mynas were common throughout the places I visited. I had been looking forward to seeing this myna for some time, and it didn’t disappoint. They really are very handsome, clean-cut birds and a refreshing change from the legions of drab Common and Jungle Mynas I had been seeing in Nepal.

Having missed them in Cambodia on a dedicated birding trip there in 2012, it was good to catch up with the magnificent Sarus Crane  a pair showed well at a pool close to the main Delhi-Agra road.

Finally, the Taj Mahal proved surprisingly good for birds. Indian Grey Hornbills were easy to see around the buildings and gardens, while the river behind held some Bar-headed Geese, a flock of Greater Flamingo flying upstream, and lots of very distant birds of which only Painted Stork and Eurasian Spoonbill were identifiable through binoculars.

India lifers: Bank Myna, Sarus Crane, Bar-headed Goose, Indian Grey Hornbill (total 1,870).

India year ticks: Greater Flamingo, Laughing Dove (total 558).

Greater Flamingoes at the Taj Mahal.
Greater Flamingoes at the Taj Mahal.