Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Sri Lanka

2016 Narrative

During the tour in two weeks we encountered 247 species of birds including all the country’s 34 endemics and a further 44 Indian Subcontinent endemics. Eleven species of owls, frogmouth and nightjars were seen. We also encountered 20 species of mammals on the tour, including a Leopard and Asian Elephants. Several species of reptiles were encountered including a few endemic Agamid lizards and Mugger Crocodile.

20 February:  at The Gateway Hotel near airport.

We all, eight participants with a local trainee guide Hasitha and myself, met in the garden outside the hotel lobby in the early evening for our first birding session in Sri Lanka. It was our first introduction to the many birds found in home gardens of Sri Lanka. While walking we came across one species after another, and some of those gave superb ‘scope views. There was Brahminy Kite, Shikra, Spotted Dove, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Asian Koel, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Brown-headed Barbet, endemic Lesser Sri Lanka Flameback, White-bellied Drongo, Common Myna, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Oriental Magpie Robin, Red-vented Bulbul, Common Tailorbird, a flock of Yellow-billed Babblers, and Purple-rumped and Loten’s Sunbirds. Behind the hotel garden there is a small water area where we found some waterbirds such as Little Egret, a Grey Heron, Indian Pond Heron, White-breasted Waterhen, Red-wattled Lapwing. Before dusk we managed to find a roosting pair of Brown Hawk Owls at a corner of the hotel garden. Our first mammal was Indian Palm Squirrel, several of which were seen running around in the garden. Later at dusk we saw several Indian Flying Foxes while we were returning to the hotel rooms before gathering for dinner.

21 – 22 February:  in Sigiriya.

We sat for an early breakfast at 6.00 am as we had to check out of the hotel. We needed to be on the road as soon as possible because we had to take a longer journey to Sigiriya than usual. The normal route is under construction and heavy traffic jams on it take a very long time to get through which causes long delays.

Soon after breakfast we left for Sigiriya, which was our first main birding location on the tour. During our journey to Sigiriya we saw a number of waterbirds as we went pass many paddy fields and other wetlands. Noteworthy was a large congregation of 60 Cotton Pygmy Goose in a roadside reservoir (a.k.a. a tank), and four Woolly-necked Storks at a water hole.

After we had checked-in and had lunch at our hotel in Sigiriya, followed by a short rest, we commenced our first birding exploration in Sigiriya by mid-afternoon. Birding in the hotel garden and its surroundings gave us chance to see many birds, amongst them was a beautiful cock of the endemic Sri Lanka Junglefowl which was seen while we were looking at a stunning Indian Pitta which was giving us full views, even in the ‘scope, for a long time, in the undergrowth. It is one of the most sought-after birds in Sri Lanka and is on the target list of any visiting birder to the country, and so, the group was thrilled to see the pitta so well. Later we saw another beautiful bird in the area, an Orange-headed Thrush which everyone was very pleased to see too.

Subsequent birding in the forest area in Sigiriya yielded us many birds including a few of the island’s endemics such as Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Crimson-fronted Barbet, Lesser Sri Lanka Flameback and Black-capped Bulbul. Our search for Oriental Scops Owl at dusk was not so productive as we could only hear the bird calling and unfortunately it didn’t come into view. We concluded our birding for the day and returned to our hotel for dinner and overnight stay.

The whole next day was spent birding in and around Sigiriya. We had very good chances to see many interesting birds in the area including a few more endemics, Crimson-backed Flameback, Sri Lanka Woodshrike and Brown-capped Babbler. A pair of tiny Indian Pygmy Woodpeckers came into the bare trees nearby giving us wonderful views. Other interesting birds encountered in the morning were Common Iora (male) in bright yellow and bluish-black breeding plumage, Small Minivet, Orange Minivet, Gold-fronted Leafbird, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Indian Blue Robin, White-browed Bulbul, Oriental White-eye, Green Warbler, Large-billed Leaf Warbler and Thick-billed Flowerpecker.

In the afternoon we stopped by the tank to look at some waterbirds. There were a good number of Purple Swamphens, Pheasant-tailed Jacanas in breeding plumage, Purple Herons and four species of egrets amongst the waterbirds. Later in the evening we were thrilled to find a pair of Oriental Dwarf Kingfishers, these colourful birds stood out like jewels against the green forest background! A pair of Common Kingfishers in the vicinity nearly did the same in the forest. Several White-rumped Shamas were singing their powerful and beautiful songs around us in the evening. We saw the pair of Shaheen Falcons residing at the Sigiriya Rock and circling around the rock. The area resounded with loud calls of Alexandrine Parakeets of which we had ‘scope views of a few. A Drongo Cuckoo was calling some distance away and later came near giving us to give superb ‘scope views. Three Orange-headed Thrushes emerged from thicket towards late evening.

Before returning to the hotel we managed to have very good looks at a pair of Brown Fish Owls and a Jerdon’s Nightjar.

23 February:  in Kandy.

Before breakfast we went for another bird watching session. We had another chance to see a number of interesting birds we saw the previous day, and the highlights of this morning were a pair of skulking Blue-faced Malkohas; one of which sat outside a tree bathing sun, giving us opportunity to look at it through ‘scope, and Jerdon’s Leafbird.

After breakfast at the hotel we set out for our next destination, Kandy, in the lower hills. On the way we stopped at a spice garden to look at how spices are grown and used in Sri Lankan cuisine. We reached our hotel for a rather late lunch. In the evening we spent our time birdwatching in Udawattekele Forest Reserve.  It was our first exposure to wet zone forest birding. Our aim was to find some woodland birds but many were only heard in or above the dense canopy such as Sri Lanka Hanging Parrots, Layard’s Parakeets, Yellow-browed Bulbuls, Black Bulbuls, Lesser Hill Mynas and more but none gave us satisfactory views. During the walk we saw Brown-breasted Flycatcher and Forest Wagtail quite well.

24 – 25 February:  in Nuwara Eliya.

Early morning we visited the Udawattekele Forest again. This time we saw endemic Yellow-fronted Barbet, a couple of Indian Pitta, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Lesser Hill Myna, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Square-tailed Black Bulbul, and a Brown-capped Babbler quite well amongst more other birds seen.

After breakfast back at the hotel we left for Nuwara Eliya. On our way we stopped to look at a Booted Eagle and a Rufous-bellied Eagle flying over the road on two occasions.

We then continued our journey to the high hills. We reached our hotel in Nuwara Eliya by noon and soon had lunch after checking-in at the hotel for two nights. In the late afternoon we visited Victoria Park in Nuwara Eliya town to find our first hill specialities. In the park we foundtheendemic Yellow-eared Bulbul, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler and Sri Lanka White-eye, and another most sought-after bird the Pied Thrush (five of them), and further we saw Cinereous Tit and Forest Wagtail.

Very early the next morning, at 04.45, we left for Horton Plains National Park which is a picturesque plateau with grasslands interspaced with cloud forest, situated in the hills higher than Nuwara Eliya itself. Still in the dark a Brown Fish Owl flew across the road and disappeared into the woods by the road. As dawn broke we were on the plains and saw a few Indian Blackbirds feeding on the ground at the first light. One of our main targets here was the endemic Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush which is mostly a skulking and a crepuscular bird in habits. Our search for it finally yielded a male thrush emerging into the open while feeding on and close to the ground.

We then concentrated on the other endemics we needed to find on the plains and saw two pairs of Sri Lanka Bush Warblers, ten Dull Blue Flycatchers, many Yellow-eared Bulbuls and groups of Sri Lanka White-eyes. Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon eluded us as it was very hard to find up on the plains on this day, only a few in the group saw one in flight briefly. Other hill birds such as Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers, Pied Bush Chats and Hill Swallows provided us with good views too. We also encountered two Steppe Buzzards perched on dead trees during our drive on the plains. On our way back we looked for another most sought-after bird in this hill region, Kashmir Flycatcher, which we could not find last evening at the park. By trying at a suitable location we came across a male which everyone eventually managed to see well.

We returned to the hotel in time for a rather late lunch. In the evening we explored a forest area just on the outskirts of the town, mainly looking for the Wood Pigeon but had no luck this time either! However, we saw many birds at the forest - those we had seen this morning and previous days.

26 February:  in Udawalawa.

After an early breakfast we left for our next destination, Udawalawa, in the dry lowlands. Our plan was to explore a site on the way for two target birds, the elusive Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon and a roosting Brown Wood Owl. The Wood Pigeon still kept eluding us at this site but the owl was seen beautifully through the ‘scope. There was a Common Hawk Cuckoo calling vigorously from a large tree and our search for it finally gave us good ‘scope views through a gap in the foliage. Also, a Lesser Yellownape woodpecker was seen in the woods there.

We arrived at the hotel for late lunch. After lunch we drove to Udawalawe National Park. In the park we took a safari drive in two jeeps with large open sides with a raised canopy, which gave easy viewing around us from inside the jeeps. Amongst the many birds we saw here the following were interesting: Painted Stork, Black-headed Ibis, Oriental Honey-buzzard, Black-winged Kite, Crested Hawk Eagle, Booted Eagle, Indian Peafowl, Plum-headed Parakeet, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, Sirkeer Malkoha, Green Bee-eater, Indian Roller, Coppersmith Barbet, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Marshall’s Iora, Jungle Prinia, Yellow-eyed Babbler, Jerdon’s Bushlark and Blyth’s Pipit. This park is very good for wild Asian Elephants but we saw only a couple during our safari drive. Also, a small herd of Chital (Spotted Deer) was in the tall grass. We came out from the park before dusk and on our way back to the hotel we tried for Indian Nightjar and saw a pair coming out from their roost.

27 – 28 February:  in Tissa.

A pre-breakfast birding session yielded us White-bellied Sea Eagle, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Little Ringed Plover, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, a pair of Marshall’s Iora, Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike, Sri Lanka Swallow, Grey-breasted Prinia, a group of Ashy-crowned Sparrowlarks, and a Citrine Wagtail. Then after having breakfast at hotel we left for our next destination, Tissa, where we were going to spend the next two nights. On our way we made a couple of stops at some good birding spots and spent some time at each place. At one place, we saw a Jungle Owlet amongst a number of other woodland species, and at a wetland area we saw a good number of interesting waterbirds including Spot-billed Pelican.

In the afternoon we were on a safari drive in two jeeps in Yala National Park. The jeeps were very similar to those we had earlier and so these, too, allowed easy views around us from inside. During our safari in the park we saw many interesting birds including a pair of Barred Button-quail, Pintail Snipe, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Indian Peafowls, Great Thick-knee, Pintail Snipe, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Crested Tree Swift, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Eurasian Hoopoe, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Yellow-fronted Pied Woodpecker, Brahminy Starling and Oriental Skylark. Leopard was the highlight of the mammals we saw in the park however the following are worth mentioning too: Indian Hare, Ruddy Mongoose, Goldon Jackal, Asian Elephants, Eurasian Wild Boar, Sambar, Spotted Deer and Tufted Grey Langur amongst others. On our way back to the hotel in the dark we tried for Indian Scops Owl and saw one very well in torch light.

The following morning we visited Bundala National Park and its adjoining saltpans. This park is as big as Yala but holds many good habitats for waterbirds, and for scrubland and forest birds. The saltpans are usually full of shorebirds and terns. We encountered a large flock of Garganey, Yellow Bittern, Black Bittern, a Black-necked Stork, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, a pair of Barred Button-quail, Watercock, Pintail Snipe, a pair of Indian Stone-curlew, Small Pratincole, Brown-headed Gull, Great Crested Tern, Lesser Crested Tern, Rosy Starling, Sand Martin, Syke’s Warbler, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Hume’s Whitethroat and a Blue-headed Yellow Wagtail amongst many other species. We returned to the hotel for lunch.

Late that afternoon we dashed to a corner of a village on a news of a roosting Spot-bellied (Forest) Eagle Owl which we managed to see after putting in quite an effort to locate it and then find a window through dense foliage to put a telescope on it. We then came to a wetland area to look at flocks of Black-headed Munias, Streaked Weavers and Baya Weavers in the reeds. Late in the evening we reached a coconut grove to find a very attractive big woodpecker, the White-naped Woodpecker. Having seen the woodpecker there we returned to the hotel for dinner.

29 February – 02 March:  in Sinharaja rainforest.

We had an early morning breakfast and left for our next destination where we were going to experience our first rainforest birding on the tour. On our way we stopped at a tank to find Black Bittern which most of the group were unable to see the previous day when one came across flying over the reeds. Our search ended up with finding two bitterns – one of which we ‘scoped for a long time. Further on we explored a forest patch looking for a couple of Blue-throated Flycatchers which had been seen there recently. We were successful in seeing one and we then continued our journey. We reached our hotel which is situated in a village close to Sinharaja rainforest, by early afternoon. After we checked in for next three nights we soon sat down for lunch. After the meal we hurried to get to the rainforest as soon as possible to catch up with the birds we needed to find there.  

When we reached the forest it was quite wet due to the rains earlier in the day. While walking not far from the main entrance we heard the call of the endemic Green-billed Coucal from the dense vegetation in the shallow gorge on one side of the trail. After waiting there for some time we finally got good views of the bird as it was coming out into open on and off while moving through the vegetation. We then came across a pair of endemic Spot-winged Thrushes feeding at a muddy spot on the track, and found few more of them further along the trail. While we were trying to get more views of a Malabar Trogon moving in the mid canopy we spotted a perched Chestnut-backed Owlet close to the trail. This endemic owl gave us superb views through the ‘scope. We also saw the endemic Yellow-fronted Barbet, White-faced Starling, Sri Lanka Hill Myna, White-throated Flowerpecker, and a flock of Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes along the trail. While walking back we came across a pair of endemic Sri Lanka Scaly Thrushes feeding on a muddy part of the trial. We had a very successful evening at the forest before heading back to the hotel.  

Next two days we did our birdwatching in the rainforest looking for the remaining rainforest endemic and other important birds. We started an hour before dawn from the hotel and returned to the hotel after dusk on both days. We had both breakfast and lunch in the forest, which we took with us from the hotel.

We came across several mixed species feeding flocks (bird waves) during our explorations where we saw Orange-billed Babblers, Sri Lanka Crested Drongos, Red-faced Malkohas, Sri Lanka Blue Magpies, more Malabar Trogons and flocks of Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes together with many other birds. We also had an opportunity to look at a pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths roosting in a dense tree fern grove.

During one morning we took a jeep ride to another part of the forest to find a pair of endemic Sri Lanka Spurfowls coming to the backyard of a house bordering to the forest. And on one of the days we trekked deep into the forest along a narrow fairly difficult footpath through tangling vegetation in thick woods to see a roosting endemic Serendib Scops Owl which was found by one of the forest guides that morning.

03 – 04 March:  in Kitulgala.

Having had very successful days in Sinharaja we were ready to head to our next destination still in the wet zone. We spent about an hour birding in the hotel garden before breakfast and then headed to Kitulgala. Close to lunch time we reached Kitulgala Rest House and checked in for two nights there.

In the evening we went exploring some habitats in the village and got more chances to see again some of the birds which we had seen before but this time we got better or prolonged views of some, such as the endemic Layard’s Parakeet and Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot. Further on we found a pair of Chestnut-backed Owlets, one of which gave super ‘scope views. 

Next day we made a special exploration to find Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon which was the only endemic most of the group hadn’t seen. So far it had evaded us at all the usual sites we have visited and we thought of giving a last try for it, although chances for it could be quite small. After having an early breakfast we drove quite a way in the hills. After about three hours searching at the location no sign of the pigeon was found. But, we had good views of many other birds there including a magnificent sight of a pair of Black Eagles and a pair of Mountain Hawk Eagles flying close to us.  We spent the evening birdwatching again in Kitulgala.  

05 March:  back to the airport hotel.

This morning we spent bird watching in the Rest House garden as well as in Kitulgala rainforest where we saw Crested Serpent Eagle, Emerald Dove, Layard’s parakeet, Malabar Trogon, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Lesser Yellownape, Sri Lanka Crested Drongo, Sri Lanka Blue magpie, Orange Minivet, Lesser Hill Myna, Sri Lanka Swallow, Black-capped Bulbul, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Squire-tailed Black Bulbul, White-throated Flowerpecker and Loten’s Sunbird, amongst many other birds.

After lunch at the Rest House we left Kitulgala for our Colombo airport hotel. By evening we reached The Gateway Hotel. After we had checked in we had about an hour before dark to bird watch again, after two weeks, around the hotel garden where we again found one Brown Hawk Owl. With dinner at the hotel we concluded another very successful Sunbird tour in Sri Lanka. 

- Deepal Warakagoda  

Created: 31 May 2016