Tony Neilson Trip Report

Trip Report Title: 
Tour Strat: 
Saturday, February 23, 2019
Tour End: 
Thursday, March 7, 2019

Trip Report Year:

Tony and Christine with Thilina
Tony and Christine with Thilina

Tony and Christine visited Sri Lanka twice to tour with Walk With Jith. This report is made from his second visit in 2019. 

More about Sri Lanka here:

This trip report is created from these sources:





Sri Lanka’s shy little Serendib scops owl

It is difficult to know what to say after a photography trip to a country of great beauty, wonderful people and spectacular wildlife when you see its religious and social foundation blown apart in a single day.

As we know, that is what happened in Sri Lanka when suicide bombers took the lives of more than 252 people (revised down from 350-plus) in a series of carefully targeted attacks against Christians on Easter Sunday. (And let’s not forget the 50 Muslim worshipers gunned down at two mosques in Christchurch barely a month earlier.)

But rather than get lost in the misery of it all, this month’s blog will hopefully go some way to reminding those who have been to Sri Lanka – and others who may now be hesitant about doing so – what a fantastic array of birds and animals call the Teardrop Isle home.

 ©Tony Neilson

A pair of Sri Lankan frogmouths (male facing) – only 23 cm and difficult to see. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Serendib scops owl

Nobody had seen the amazing little serendib scops owl until 18 years ago, and when ornithologist Deepal Warakagoda actually clapped eyes on one on 23 January 2001 it was the first new bird discovered in Sri Lanka for 133 years.

Now it is the bird every self-respecting birdo (and serious photographer) wants to see. And given that there may only be 200 – 250 of them; that they are only 16 cm high; nocturnal and roost low-down in dense rainforest undergrowth, it is remarkable how often they are seen.

My sighting required the sort of physical flexibility and stealth for which I am not renowned, and the patient assistance of our bird guide and the farmer on whose Sinharaja property in Sri Lanka’s south-west this particular endangered creature lives.

 ©Tony Neilson

Another of Sri Lanka’s small owls, the collared scops. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Penetrated defences

Lying on my back under a tangle of very low bamboo – and wondering how many leeches had penetrated my defences – I was unable in the low light to distinguish the owl from the mass of foliage and shadows. ‘It is there!’, the guide kept saying, pointing with increasing anxiety into the gloom.

He grabbed my head, twisted me a few degrees right and up, and suddenly, there it was – about three metres away and staring right at me. As the accompanying images show, there was very little natural light and I had great difficulty getting a clear full-face shot of the owl through the bamboo.

Don’t disturb

It was also very important that I did not disturb the undergrowth or trouble the bird in any way in my efforts to get ‘the shot’.

In the end, it was the betel-nut-chewing farmer who took the hero shot for me. After a quick lesson on the Canon 5D MkIV, the slightly built man slipped easily through the jungle tangle, shot a burst and emerged looking nonchalantly pleased. (I suspect he had done this before.)

Serendib (aka serendip) was the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka and is linked to the English word serendipitous (the facility of making fortunate discoveries by accident). Seems an appropriate definition all round.


The importance of the right match

 ©Tony Neilson
Tili Karunanayaka in ‘listening’ mode – a great bird guide who ‘understands’ photographers. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Birdwatchers and bird photographers are different species. So, when they go someplace where a local guide is necessary, it really does pay to match like with like.

For a recent second trip to Sri Lanka – this time for the primary purpose of photographing a challenging list of their top birds in under two weeks – I managed to score one of the best bird/photography guides ever.

Thilina Karunanayaka (‘call me Tili’) works for bird and wildlife tour specialists Walk With Jith, and his skills, relentless enthusiasm, creative awareness and contacts are worthy of special mention.

Wildlife artist

A former heavy truck driver, Tili learned his craft from several famous Sri Lankan guides and has taught himself to mimic the calls of every land bird in the country. He is also an amateur wildlife artist, which enables him to appreciate the importance to photographers of good light and composition. Bird photography is not a numbers game. It takes time and requires considerable patience.

Put simply, the images I managed to capture on this trip would not have been possible without his unfailing patience and devotion to my being able to photograph birds and animals in the best possible situation. Sure, we lucked out on a few occasions – like the rarer waders at Bundala – but that’s the name of the game.

Thanks, Tili – I hope you get to see this month’s blog and some of the images you made possible.

(My comments and the link to WWJ above are unsolicited and provided without any financial or other reward.)


The Gallery (below) features a selection of other bird images taken during my March trip to Sri Lanka. Next month it will be the turn of the incredible butterflies, insects, animals and other oddities.

he stork-billed kingfisher is well equipped to snare large meals. Photo: ©Tony Neilson ©Tony Neilson
The stork-billed kingfisher is well equipped to snare large meals. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The endemic Sri Lanka blue magpie is ‘vulnerable’ and has a restricted range. ©Tony Neilson
The endemic Sri Lanka blue magpie is ‘vulnerable’ and has a restricted range. ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
The primary feathers of this black eagle have taken a recent beating. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
The beautiful malabar trogon (male) feeds exclusively on insects. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
We came across this crested hawk-eagle finishing off a meal of squirrel while we trudged up a steep slope in Sinharaja. The bird was just a few metres away. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
The blue-faced malkoha is a non-parasitic cuckoo that favours scrub and deciduous trees. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
Grey hornbill, Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
An oriental honey buzzard with honey in talons. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
Ancient Egyptians considered the distinctive hoopoe sacred. In Israel it is the national bird. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
Jungle owlet – relatively uncommon and found in Sri Lanka’s dry zones. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
Male purple sunbird has a narrow maroon breast band. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
Malabar pied hornbill coming in to land. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
Pied kingfishers battling over a fishing perch. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
Painted stork with good catfish meal. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

 ©Tony Neilson
The little yellow bittern likes dense, wet habitat. Photo: ©Tony Neilson


©Tony Neilson, Natural Images 2019



Tony Neilson

©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

Author/s of the report: 
Tony Neilson


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