Serendib Scops Owl is one of the most sought-after birds on the Sri Lanka tour. Photo: Uditha Hettige
Early travelers romantically named Sri Lanka “the teardrop of India.” Just 270 miles long and 140 miles wide, this small island does indeed look like a tear that has fallen from the face of the subcontinent to become petrified in the Indian Ocean. Having in reality risen from the sea millions of years ago, and ever since subjected to continuous geological upheaval, Sri Lanka has developed into a magical land of mountains, gently undulating hills, open plains, and lush valleys. Running through the landscape are countless rivers dotted with beautiful waterfalls, many hidden beneath a dense cloak of rainforest.
For the birdwatcher, islands have the added attraction of endemic species that have evolved through centuries of isolation. With 33 unique birds, Sri Lanka is no exception, and we’ll hope to encounter them all during our visit. A large number of northern migrants winter on the island, joining many resident species that are difficult or impossible to see on our usual birdwatching circuits of northern India. Add to this a rich cultural history and the world-famous hospitality of the Sri Lankan people, and you have the recipe for a perfect birdwatching holiday.
The forests of Sri Lanka are home to one very special bird, a new species of scops owl discovered in 2001 by our tour’s leader. WINGS was the first tour group to see this bird, now named Serendib Scops Owl, and we’ve seen it every year since, a record we hope to maintain on this, our twelfth tour of this magical island.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Night in Colombo.
Day 2: The calls of the ubiquitous Asian Koel are sure to awaken us, and after breakfast we’ll drive to our hotel at Sigiriya. Perhaps the most striking sight on Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is a 600-foot-high pinnacle of rock rising out of the jungle. One of the island’s seven World Heritage Sites, Sigiriya is famous for the ancient fortress on its summit and for the ancient rock paintings or frescoes that adorn the walls. After checking in to our hotel, we’ll have time to explore the surrounding forest for our first birds, which could include Ceylon Gray Hornbill and a selection of woopeckers, including White-naped and the striking crimson form of Black-rumped Flameback. Night at Sigiriya.
Day 3: Around the base of the imposing rock there are extensive ancient ruins, most of which have been swallowed by the encroaching jungle. It is this jungle that will provide many more birds for us today, as we wander an extensive network of tracks and roadways in search of Oriental, Forest Eagle, and Brown Fish Owls; Indian Nightjar; Blue-faced Malkoha; Drongo and Banded Bay Cuckoos; Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher; Ceylon Woodshrike; Large and Black-headed Cuckooshrikes; Indian Pitta; Blue-winged Leafbird; Orange-headed Thrush; White-rumped Shama; Indian Black and Indian Blue Robins; Jungle, Ashy, and Gray-breasted Prinias; Green and Large-billed Leaf Warblers; and Brown-capped Babbler. For those who wish, there is also an opportunity to climb the long staircase to the top of Sigiriya to admire the paintings and the carved fortress. Night in Sigiriya.
Day 4: Leaving Sigiriya, we’ll travel to Kandy, the home of traditional Sri Lankan culture and famous for the temple that houses a sacred tooth rescued from the Buddha’s funeral pyre in 543 B.C. We’ll visit the temple and the splendid Royal Botanical Gardens, which contain a surprising number of birds and a large colony of flying foxes. Night in Kandy.
I don’t think any bird in Sri Lanka dares to move without Deepal’s permission! I can’t say enough good things about this tour—it was sublimely wonderful. And thanks again to the office staff for all the help in setting up my extension, which turned out even better than I could possibly have hoped.
Frank G. Witebsky
Days 5-6: We’ll continue our drive into the highlands and to the town of Nuwara Eliya in the heart of Sri Lanka’s hill country. We’ll pause on the way up to sample the region’s tea. Over the next days we’ll be visiting many sites, including the elegant Hakgala Botanical Gardens to look for Kashmir and Dull Blue Flycatchers. Among the formal shrubbery of Victoria Park we should see Indian Pitta and Pied Thrush, while on the Horton Plains we’ll be searching for Jerdon’s Baza, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Ceylon Scimitar-Babbler, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, and Sri Lanka White-eye, among others. But the real prize of our visit to this region will be the Arrenga or Ceylon Whistling-Thrush, one of the rarest of the island’s many magical birds. Nights in Nuwara Eliya.
Day 7: We’ll leave the high country behind to descend into the warm tropical “wet zone.” Our first destination is Kitulgala, on the banks of the River Kelani, where we should arrive in time for some birdwatching on the grounds of our hotel. Our first birds might include Green Imperial and Ceylon Green-Pigeons, Layard’s Parakeet, and White-throated Flowerpecker. Night in Kitulgala.
Day 8: It was here that Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed, and in the early morning we’ll cross the river by dugout canoe to bird the tropical forest in search of such birds as Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Sri Lanka Gray Hornbill, Malabar Trogon, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Black-capped Bulbul, Spot-winged Ground-thrush, Tickell’s Blue and Brown-breasted Flycatchers, Black-naped Monarch, and a variety of woodpeckers including Lesser Yellownape, Rufous, Brown-capped, and the recently split Crimson-backed Flameback. We’ll return to our guest house for lunch and a midday break, but will return to these bird-rich forests in the late afternoon and remain there until after dark in search of Serendib Scops Owl, Chestnut-backed Owlet, and the bizarre Sri Lanka Frogmouth. Night at Kitulgala.
Day 9: After another morning in and around Kitulgala, we’ll drive to the town of Ratnapura in the heart of the island’s gem-mining region. Night in Ratnapura.
Days 10-11: We’ll spend these two days exploring Sinharaja and other rainforest sites in the heart of the wet zone. Though our hotel is the nearest suitable accommodation, it is still some distance away from Sinharaja, so we’ll need to make some early starts to reach the forest by first light. The park’s extensive birdlist includes most of the country’s endemics, and we have a good chance of most of them, although some are easier to find than others. Finding the ground-dwelling Sri Lanka Spurfowl will require stealth and sharp eyes, while roving flocks of Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes and Orange-billed Babblers are much more obliging. Ceylon Hill-Mynas call loudly and clearly from exposed positions while Ceylon Hanging-Parrots shriek past.
The exquisite Ceylon Blue Magpie is a real gem, and with luck several will be seen here; we’ll also be keeping a sharp eye open for Red-faced Malkoha cavorting around the tangled vines and creepers. Another rare and shy inhabitant of the forest here is the Green-billed Coucal, and we’ll listen carefully for the distinctive calls that betray the presence of this remarkable bird.
White-faced Starling may appear high up in the trees, and the very elusive Chestnut-backed Owlet haunts the dense canopy. Multicolored butterflies the size of saucers float in and out of the warm humid forest, which at times echoes to the excited calls of mixed-species bird flocks. Sinharaja will undoubtedly be a rewarding experience—perhaps even the highlight of the tour. Nights at Ratnapura.
Day 12: We’ll head south and out of the wet zone, reaching our next hotel in time for lunch before spending the afternoon in Uda Walawe National Park. Established to protect the forest catchment of a large reservoir, this park is home to good numbers of waterbirds and mammals. We’ll switch to open-topped jeeps and drive around the park searching for the distinctive Sri Lankan forms of Crested Hawk-Eagle and Barred Buttonquail, as well as for Malabar Pied Hornbill, Plum-headed Parakeet, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Brown Fish Owl, Forest Wagtail, and Blyth’s Pipit. We can also expect close encounters with some of the park’s many wild Indian Elephants. Night at Embilipitiya.
Day 13: After breakfast we’ll visit an extensive area of marsh and coastal lagoons to look for Black and Yellow Bitterns, Watercock, Ruddy-breasted Crake, a variety of shorebirds including Pacific Golden Plover and Pintail Snipe, and hordes of stunning Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. We’ll then travel east to the village of Tissa, famous for its large lake and ancient domed Buddhist shrine or dagoba.
After lunch we’ll visit the drier forest and open grasslands of Yala National Park. These habitats are very rich in birds, and we’ll be looking for Lesser Adjutant, Asian Openbill, Spot-billed Pelican, Great Thick-knee, and Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark among others. Yala is also home to many mammals, including Indian Elephant, Wild Boar, Tufted Gray Langur, Sambar, and Spotted Deer. When dusk comes, we’ll linger to search for Jerdon’s Nightjar and the commoner Indian Nightjar. Night at Tissa.
Day 14: This morning we’ll explore the shorebird-rich pools of Bundala Sanctuary, where Little Pratincoles breed. Mixed flocks of roosting terns here will hold Caspian, Great Crested, Lesser Crested, and, with luck, Saunders’s Terns. There will also be hordes of shorebirds to search through, and we’ll see good numbers of Lesser Sand Plovers and a few wintering Red-necked Phalaropes. We’ll also search a coconut plantation for the elusive White-naped Woodpecker. Deepal has recently discovered a population of Marshall’s Iora breeding in the Tissa area, a significant find for a species previously thought to be restricted to the Indian mainland; we have a good chance of seeing this latest addition to the Sri Lankan avifauna. Night at Tissa.
Day 15: We’ll leave Tissa and begin the journey back to Colombo, arriving in the early evening. Night in Colombo
Day 16: The tour concludes this morning in Colombo.
Updated: 04 May 2013
- 2014 Tour Price Not Yet Available
- (2013 Tour Price $2950)
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
* This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Please review the explanation of our Sunbird pricing here.
Maximum group size 8 with one leader.
A three day extension to look for Blue Whale is scheduled March 10-12. Please contact the WINGS office for details.
Anyone wishing to accompany the tour participants flying from London, England, should contact the WINGS office for more information.