The Raging Birder - Sri Lanka

Trip Report Title: 
theragingbirder -- Sri Lanka Sri Lanka Part 1: Kitulgala, Kandy, Udawatta Kelle forest, Horton Plains 
Tour Strat: 
Sunday, March 17, 2019
Tour End: 
Friday, March 29, 2019

Trip Report Year:

Sri Lanka Part 1: Kitulgala, Kandy, Udawatta Kelle forest, Horton Plains 
Greetings. 

After my solo Panama trip (which was rather rough - with me getting 2 diseases and missing the main target bird by a shave), it was a nice change to have hired a private guide to organize everything for us and do all the driving, and to sleep in actual hotels without risking exposure to parasitic diseases, etc. Ramata found us a great outfit called "walk with Jith" and superstar guide Thilina Karunanayaka for this laid back yet somewhat hardcore birding and cultural tour. 

After a long 7 months and a 2 day journey (sleeping in 2 airports), I reunited with my better half. We set off on a Tuesday morning in Colombo. First we headed to another hotel to meet Jith, the company owner, who had a surprise waiting for us in the garden: 

Indian Scops Owls
Indian Scops Owls

We headed toward Kitulgala, an area of hills known for its night birding. We bagged some beautiful endemics along the way.

Crimson-fronted Barbet (E)
Crimson-fronted Barbet (E)

Sri Lanka has 34 endemic bird species, making it an attractive choice for a 2-week holiday (just enough time to see all of them with a day to spare). The first main trip target was the Serendib Scops Owl, that one documented in 2005 which is shocking. Thili's strategy for this one was to meticulously inspect all known roosting areas during the day - which are usually low which is convenient. We participated in the search with full effort but to be honest we did little to help - I've heard it is quite common for clients who are less 'nimble' to wait by the trail while the guide goes into the bush, finds the owl, then brings the clients to the spot. It was inevitably Thili who took all due credit when he spotted 2 juvenile owls and an adult roosting nearby. We could have been chillin' on lawn chairs on the path sipping coconut cocktails and had the same chances of success but that's just not our style I guess!

Ramata - Beautiful and cryptic - thinking like a Scops
Beautiful and cryptic - thinking like a Scops

I think we could have gotten better pics but chose to maintain a respectful distance so as not to spook these highly endangered owls - unlike many (most?) photographers who are absolute ANIMALS).  Crawling on my belly I was able to achieve a pretty satisfactory shot of the adult, but at a sacrifice...exposing my body to the ravenous land leeches of southern Asia. One can be seen on my throat in the pic below, while another successfully finished a feed in my armpit, the aftermath of which I discovered the following morning when my bedsheets were dotted with blood stains. The leeches' saliva contains anesthetic to reduce likelihood of being detected, and anticoagulant to allow them to ingest the blood rapidly. Ingenious.

baby Serendib Scops Owls! 
baby Serendib Scops Owls!

Adult Serendib Scops Owl
Adult Serendib Scops Owl
 

Ramata
Ramata

Note the leech on my neck - Thilina, Ramata and Timo
Note the leech on my neck! 

After a leech bite - Too late for this one
Too late for this one
 

Green Pit Viper (E)
Thili accidently happened upon this green pit viper (E) while searching for the owls

The green pit viper was an amazing bonus as were more endemics: Red-faced Malkhoa, Green-billed Coucal, etc. Thili had seen Bay Owls roosting on this hillside as well, but that would require much more luck! A Sri Lanka Spurfowl cackled from the nearby bushes but seeing it was another matter.

We tried our luck at a nearby nest site for endemic Chestnut-backed Owlets, but quickly had to dash for cover under a rickety wood shack to avoid a sudden tropical downpour. We came back later that afternoon and snagged a beautiful owlet high up in the tree, looking very angry at us for disturbing it!

Chestnut-backed Owlet (E) Chestnut-backed Owlet (E)
 
Another lovely Zoothera species, the Spot-winged Thrush
Another lovely Zoothera species, the Spot-winged Thrush

Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill
Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill

A long scenic hike in tea country got us our sole encounter with white-faced starling at Thili's special spot. The man was constantly scheming on how to secure the next endemic with his very strategic mind. "I like the way you think" I told him.
 

White-faced Starling (E)
White-faced Starling (E)

We returned to the earlier trail at night, in an attempt to listen for the enigmatic Sri Lanka Bay Owl and the more ubiquitous Sri Lanka Frogmouth. It required us to take a small ferry service across the river like we were escaping the Shire from some black riders to get the the Inn of the Green Dragon.

The owls were silent but something landed on the tree: not a bird but an Indian Giant Flying Squirrel, not rare but seldom seen!

The owls remained silent but we heard quite a number of frogmouths. We tried pretty hard for them but with no success. Having resigned and en route back, a frogmouth suddenly blasted from right beside the trail. A quick spotlight revealed a male Sri Lanka Frogmouth, gray in colour, followed by a nearby female. We admired these strange, wide-mouthed and long-whiskered birds resembling an unholy union between a nightjar and an owl.
 

Sri Lanka Frogmouth (male)
Sri Lanka Frogmouth (male)


 Sri Lanka Frogmouth (female)
Sri Lanka Frogmouth (female)
Next order of business was to locate the Indian Pitta and Asian Dwarf Kingfisher at a nearby garden (Sisira's River Lounge I think). The Pitta called from the shrubs but eluded a glance, while the kingfisher put required patience but eventually showed up with with a lizard, revealing a nest hole behind the bathrooms. It reminded me of the African Dwarf Kingfisher, minus the little black forehead.
 

Asian Dwarf Kingfisher
Asian Dwarf Kingfisher
 
Asian Dwarf Kingfisher
Giant Squirrels were common

Crossing over a walking bridge, the biggest lizard I've ever seen in my life swam under us - an Asian Water Monitor. It was nearly 3m long!

 Asian Water Monitor
Asian Water Monitor

Then we had a cultural tour of the 'temple of the tooth' in Kandy, a magnificent palace purported to house one of the Buddha's teeth preserved for a couple thousand years. It was a very busy temple with locals coming to pray as well as tourists.
 

Sacred Tooth Relic Palace

We had to remove our sandals to enter, but the pavement was BBQ hot so they had poured water over the tiles to avoid people burning their feet - quite literally. We finished off the day with a beautiful performance by the famous Kandyan dancers and a display of fire-walking.

 Flower altar in the Sacred Tooth Relic Palace

Sacred Tooth Relic Palace inside

 

A very old British style letter box
I've spotted these iconic post boxes in a few former British colonies

 Kandy Lake Club Cultural Show
Famous Kandyan dancers - a definite trip highlight
 

Sri Lanka Traditional Drum Dance

Kandy Lake Club Fire Walking Ritual Show


After Kandy, we proceeded up in elevation, spending a morning at Udawatta Kelle Forest. It was not overly impressive, although there was a huge amount of suspense while circumnavigating the pond for Brown Fish Owl. We did not find it, although we saw another Chestnut-backed Owlet and a couple of Indian Muntjack deer while running around chasing Sri Lanka Scimitar Babblers! 
 

A Crested Serpent-eagle warmed up by the pond
A Crested Serpent-eagle warmed up by the pond

En route we got to see a parade for a buddhist celebration which takes place every full moon. They were proper decked out and even had 2 very smartly-dressed elephants!

Nuwara Eliya - a Buddhist procession with an Elephant

Our peaceful hotel in Nuwara Elia packed us full of rice and curry with countless vegetable varieties. According to Ramata every hotel in Sri Lanka was "determined to make us fat."

Rice and curry

While not my first idea of a birding spot, Thili took us to Victoria Park, which seemed too well-groomed to contain good birds. However, Thili is known for thinking outside the box. All the good birds were in a little wooded ravine full of garbage, sludge and rats. We sat in silence while a mixed flock surrounded us: Pied Thrushes, Kashmir Flycatcher, Blyth's Reed Warbler and Indian Blue Robin all joined the party and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch was snagged nearby.

Kashmir Flycatcher
Kashmir Flycatcher

Jungle Crow
Jungle Crow

Indian Blue Robin
Indian Blue Robin

Pied Thrushes
Pied Thrushes

 

Thili had arranged a special performance that evening. Not more famous dancers of Kandy but a rare and elusive endemic bird of course - the highly crepuscular Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. The bird only reveals itself at the brink of darkness in the vicinity of heavily vegetated steep ravines. True to Thili's prediction, right at dusk we had a gorgeous male land in a tree, announce its presence with a high-pitched whistle, then fly over to the path and hop around for a good while.The headlamp revealed its difficult to see metallic blue shoulder patch. By the time we were done observing it, it was pitch dark! Of course Thili acted all like we might not see it and then got super excited when we did, later admitting that he pretty much knew it was gonna be in the bag...what a gangsta.  

The Fulmoon - getting bored during the stake-out
getting bored during the stake-out
 

Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, male (E)
Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, male (E)...well worth the wait! 


Next was off to Horton Plains, not a very Sri Lankan-sounding name at all, presumably after some colonizer. This beautiful and rugged forest was once home to pygmy forest elephants, but they were shot by British colonial hunters, we were told. Still remaining was a sort of island of highland moist forest interspersed with plains and moors, strikingly similar to the Albertine Rift in East Africa I thought! It then made sense that a species of Bradypterus warbler lives up here - with most of its genus found in East African highlands! The resemblance of Sri Lanka Bush Warbler to cinnamon bracken warbler or evergreen forest warbler in Uganda/Rwanda was uncanny. One of my favourite genera of warblers as they are so hard yet so satisfying to see! 

Sri Lanka Bush Warbler (E)
Sri Lanka Bush Warbler (E)
 

Dull-blue Flycatcher (E)
Dull-blue Flycatcher (E)

Horton Plains (~2,500m) actually does have plains in the center of park, and epic views of the tallest mountains including Adam's peak - a famous hike to a temple. We didn't really have time to go there.

Ramata in Horton Plains

It took a good deal of hunting to get a good view of Sri Lankan Wood Pigeon, but eventually we got it at on of Thili's 'secret spots.' It was very peaceful away from the massive load of vans and cars conglomerating around presumably the one and only popular trekking trail around. I'd never seen anything like that, except at Yellowstone and Yosemite! 

Trekkers at Horton Plains
 
Sri Lankan Wood Pigeon (E)
Sri Lankan Wood Pigeon (E)

 Morning at Horton Palins
Morning at Horton Palins
 
A trip to the tea factory
A trip to the tea factory

Descending from the Horton Plains, we took a long and windy alternative through an area of rubber cultivation which didn't seem like much for habitat but was in fact one of Thili's 'secret spots.' The little ravines had enough native vegetation to support Scaly Thrushes. After loads of walking, listening for their thin, wispy whistle and being patient, we finally heard one at the limit of human hearing. Two of them were walking along a little stream. We needed to stalk them very carefully to get good views. It reminded me of of my first year floor-mate Dinuka Gunaratna telling me a story about seeing his first scaly thrush as a teenager, back when we were only 18. I figured I would like to make it to Sri Lanka one day, so Dinuka if you are reading this - I did it!
 
Can you spot the Scaly Thrush?
Can you spot the Scaly Thrush? 
 
Scaly Thrush (E)
Scaly Thrush (E)

It was later one evening that we had one of our most special wildlife encounters. It was one of those times when we had some free time and nothing really else to do so might as well go for an evening walk - there is always a chance we could see something, and we hadn't seen Gray-headed Canary-flycatcher so that provided an excuse. The flycatcher was easy, and we were entertained by a troupe of Toque's Macaques who had a tiny baby that seemed to be having some difficulty and none of the older monkeys were helping him!

 

Tokque Monkey
Tokque Monkey

A little further down, we were stopped in our tracks by a menacing Legge's Hawk-eagle resting at eye level! We watched it for a long time, hoping desperately for it to go for the baby monkey. It eventually did, causing pandemonium, but unfortunately it missed its target and flew off.

Legge's Hawk-eagle
Legge's Hawk-eagle

On the way to Tissamaharama, we stopped at the strangely named Surrey Bird Sanctuary which is sort of an outdoor meditation retreat that has owls. A beautiful Brown Wood Owl took a little effort to find while a Besra snagged a Purple-headed Sunbird.
 
Brown Wood Owl
Brown Wood Owl
 
Besra
Besra
 
Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler (E)
Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler (E)


After a 5 hour drive, I thought the rest of the day would be mostly a write-off but I was wrong. Thili had been scheming again, calling some local 'village boys' who were working behind the scenes to get us some owls...

 

Sri Lanka Part 3: Sinharaja Rainforest

With some sick species under our belt we drove to Sinharaja Rainforest, the crown jewel of Sri Lanka. Barely saved from logging in the 70's due to its hilly topography and inaccessibility, it is a unesco biosphere reserve and absolute treasure trove of endemics. In fact, between 60 and 80 percent of the plants are endemic and 20 of Sri Lanka's 26 endemic birds live here.

Thilina, Ramata, Timo and local trekker in Shinharaja
Thilina, Ramata, Timo and local trekker in Shinharaja

We had some tough targets ahead us, which we strategically took down one-by-one. It turns out all rare Sri Lankan special birds love eating cooked rice. So a rice feeder was duly staked out for Blue Magpie and soon we had a group coming, announcing their presence with loud screams!

Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl
Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl

Sri Lanka Blue Magpie
Sri Lanka Blue Magpie

Sri Lanka Blue Magpies
Sri Lanka Blue Magpies

Emerald Dowe
Emerald Dowe

Ramata, Thilina and Timo
Ramata, Thilina and Timo

At night, we walked to a village from our hotel, where a lady described to Thili a "very scary" sound she'd heard in front of her house in the middle of the night, coming from the bushes. In fact from her description it sounded like it could have been a Bay Owl, which would have been pretty crazy. Thili instructed her to call him immediately if she heard it again! A try for Forest Eagle-Owl went without success.

Ramata and Timo in Sinharaja
Ramata and Timo in Sinharaja

Our first morning in Sinharaja could not be wasted, which is why we got straight to task with one of the trickiest of endemics, the Sri Lanka Spurfowl, at a nearby blind that had been set up. The blind was a new one because they stopped going to the traditional one (which had become well-known). It consisted of a tarp with some slits cut out for taking pictures, and a plank for sitting on. After a couple of hours we got super bored of sitting there in silence and figured we'd try somewhere else, when the guide from the other tour group called Thili and told us to hurry our asses back to the blind because the Sri Lanka Spurfowl were feeding! Man, we left 1 minute too early. The pair stayed a while, screaming loudly and pecking discreetly at the rice (unlike the Junglefowl which were greedily gulping it down and throwing it everywhere). They retreated into the dark forest, leaving us with a memory of a lifetime.
SRI LANKA SPURFOWL!!!!!!!

SRI LANKA SPURFOWL!!!!!!!

Riding the high, we spend the bulk of the day searching for the Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, our last tricky endemic. We walked many km on various different trails but no sign of this scarce bird. During a long period of boredom putting one foot in front of the other, a feeding flock approached, invariably led by the fearless Sri Lanka Crested Drongo. The flock moved away from the trail though, up a steep slope, and we lost it. So, we ran back to a junction and took a different trail up a steep hill, in an attempt to flank the flock. We thought we'd lost it for sure but still stood for about 10 minutes, listening. Then the park ranger and Thili detected the faintest of distant calls in the distance, which they figured to be the laughingthrush (although the orange-billed babblers sound almost the same). We quickened our pace in their direction and as we got closer, entered stealth mode, moving very slowly and carefully to avoid spooking them. With patience, we all had superb views of a dozen Ashy-headed Laughingthrushes foraging in the understory to mid-levels in a mixed flock with babblers.

Ramata crossing a foot bridge
 

Thilina and Timo on a hanging bridge

 

A pitcher pant 'tree'
A pitcher pant 'tree'

Rat snake
A harmless (2m long) Rat Snake

Malabar Trogon
Malabar Trogon

 

Ashy-headed Laughingthrush!!!
Ashy-headed Laughingthrush!!!

The only endemic left was then Legge's Flowerpecker. First, we headed to Martin's Lodge for an epic lunch and jackfruit (not sure about the salt and pepper though?). During lunch we were entertained by acrobatic Blue Magpies snagging some tasty-looking red berries in the garden.

Blue Magpie
Blue Magpie

Lion Beer
When you work your ass off at your job like I do, it is critical to enjoy life's sweet nectar to the last drop!

We walked up to a small museum which was unattended except by a pair of Heart-faced Monkeys which were adorably cute and agile.

Purple faced Leaf Monkey
Purple faced Monkeys

Purple faced Leaf Monkey
Purple faced Monkeys

White throated Flowerpecker
Legge's Flowerpecker

Tiger Beetle sp.
Tiger Beetle sp.

We found our Forest Eagle-Owl, but looking worse for wear.

Forest Eagle-Owl
Forest Eagle-Owl

 

It was part of a collection of preserved specimens in jars of formaldehyde or alcohol, some of the with the lid held on by a rock!

Preserved Specimens

 

As the sun set on this epic day, we tried the village again for Forest Eagle-Owl but with no luck, although a phantom-like flash of a dark shape did slip over our heads Thili's peripherals, making no sound but almost certainly was an Eagle-Owl attracted by our calls. We went back to the hotel for dinner but Thili still had epic plans for us...

Sinharaja

After sleeping for an hour we met in the driveway with our flashlights and bins, minus Ramata who prefered to sit this one out. It was going to be a long night, for we were going for the Bay Owl. I was already epically tired and I slept in the back seat for the entire 45 minute drive. Thili's ranger friend joined us since he might come in handy should anything happen. The next thing I remember was Thili waking me up frantically saying "BAY OWL, BAY OWL, BAY OWL." Which made me instantly fully alert. These kinds of moments are once in a lifetime.

There we were, bushwacking up a steep slope in the rainforest in the dead of night, hoping not to brush up against a pit viper or something, but not caring. Thili was adamant about keeping the lights off, which he kept reminding his ranger friend and I. The light of one cell phone was all he would permit, since the Bay Owl is super easily frightened. I could hear its spooky whistling call getting louder as we approached. It seemed as though the owl was moving itself further away as we got closer, but we quickened our pace to catch up with it, still climbing and trying not to thrash the bushes too much. We intermittently played the call from the phone, trying to achieve that precarious balance between seducing the bird and frightening it off. We lowered the volume until it was barely audible to our pathetic human ears. It was close. We continued our approach. A long silence. Then from about 45 degrees above us it called. "Get ready," Thili whispered. "You only get one chance." I'd already checked my camera settings. He turned on the flashlight. Three agonizing seconds of "where the hell is it?" then BOOM! "There it is!" he whispered in a super intense way. I whammed off as many shots as I could and gave the binoculars to the ranger. He had never seen a Sri Lanka Bay Owl in binoculars before.

Sri Lanka Bay Owl - my favourite world liferSri Lanka Bay Owl - my favourite world lifer

I can definitely say that is my most epic night of owling of my life, and I'm pretty sure my most epic world bird ever. This miniature version of a Barn Owl with a square head is so unique and only lives in the most pristine epic forests in the world. The Congo Bay Owl has never been seen by a birder (only banded once), and the Oriental Bay Owl had never been photographed until not that long ago. So being the easiest Bay Owl to see does not make it easy!

But like me, Thili is never satisfied, so we tried for Brown Hawk Owl down another road. We could hear four different ones calling from one spot, but they were too far from the road. We also heard the super spooky call of the Serendib Scops Owl, which is even spookier than the Bay Owl. It's crazy that one was never seen until 2001!

Brown Hawk Owl
Brown Hawk-Owl

Brown Fish Owl

Brown Fish Owl

Palm Civet sp.
Palm Civet sp.

We walked down to a little village with some street lights, being careful not to disturb the sleeping residents in the dead of night. After some effort we finally spotted two Brown Hawk Owls at the same time, in different trees. An epic night! We then drove to the house of our hotel's owner, who says he's heard an owl call 'frequently' that matches the description of the Forest Eagle-Owl. After much searching of the dirt roads behind his house, we never saw one although we did spot a Brown Fish Owl and a Palm Civet which was pretty cool. By that point I was so tired I was lying down on the road with my eyes closed while we listened for Eagle-Owl. We got back to the hotel and it was about 2 am I think. Needless to day the next day was a lie-in!

With no endemics left and my #1 dream bird seen (epically), we had a chill day of swimming in a river, eating food and playing carrom, an Asian version of crokinole.

Timo and Ramata
Timo and Ramata

March 30th was our last day (I had to work on April 1st!) so there wasn't really anywhere else we could drive to that would be worth our while, but that was fine because Thili had a special bird in his back pocket that he'd kept secret from us until now. It was the Slaty-legged Crake, and it is regularly seen at a nearby tea farm. All you need to do is sit on some plastic chairs, sip tea and eat biscuits, and wait. And, occasionally, chase away the local dog which was being quite annoying, but the residents of the house helped us chase it away with the help of a few well-tossed rocks.

Slaty-legged Crake
Slaty-legged Crake

It took it a while but eventually the Slaty-legged Crake could not resist the delicious rice we'd served up for him and he gave us a beautiful showing. We made a lifer dance to commemorate the occasion.

Stackin' lifers and snacks IN STYLE!
Stackin' lifers and snacks IN STYLE!

The 'lifer dance'
The 'lifer dance'

And so, after nearly 2 weeks, our trip to Sri Lanka had come to an end. Ramata had survived the mud, bushwacking and forest leeches, I had seen the mythical Bay Owl of my dreams and we'd made a new friend. We had experienced some of the best natural beauty this region has to offer, and walked in the shadow a a true birding master, Thilina Karunanayaka. We had learned alot about the resplendent isle and about how to find birds. Suddenly we were in the middle of Colombo city, being treated to dinner by the company owner, Jith, a very classy guy.

Until next time - A beer with Jith
Until next time!

 
Author/s of the report: 
Timo Snieder

Country:

Group size: 
2
Members of the group (clients): 
Timo Snieder
Ramata Cisse
Tour Guide: 
Thilina