SRI LANKA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Note: The 2022 tour is one day shorter, having three nights rather than four at Sinharaja.
Sri Lanka: Day 1 Our Sri Lanka birding tour begins this morning in the Colombo airport area, which is situated well to the north of the city of Colombo, from where we will drive to Kitulgala for a two nights stay. First, we pass across the coastal plain and then travel through foothill country with rubber estates and small rural villages.
The resthouse at Kitulgala is picturesquely situated on the banks of the Kelani River, where ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ was filmed. During the afternoon we will set out for some birding in the Kelani River Forest Reserve on the opposite bank.
Sri Lanka: Day 2 The Kelani River Forest Reserve consists of steep, partly forested slopes intersected by several watercourses, areas of tall forest with fairly dense undergrowth and a few clearings where former swamps have been converted into small rice paddies. We shall be exploring the lower section of the reserve between about 200-500m.
This is a very good area for most Sri Lankan wet zone forest birds, including many of the endemics. Of the latter, we can expect to easily find Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Layard’s Parakeet, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Crimson-fronted Barbet, Red-backed Flameback, Black-capped Bulbul, Brown-capped and Orange-billed Babblers, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler and Legge’s (or White-throated) Flowerpecker. We also have first chances here for the secretive Green-billed Coucal, the recently-discovered Serendib Scops Owl, Chestnut-backed Owlet, Sri Lanka (or Sri Lanka Crested) Drongo and Spot-winged Thrush.
Species endemic to Sri Lanka together with South India include Indian Swiftlet, Malabar Trogon, Jerdon’s Leafbird, Orange Minivet, Yellow-browed and Square-tailed Bulbuls, Dark-fronted and Yellow-billed Babblers, Southern (or Lesser) Hill Myna and Loten’s Sunbird.
Other birds we could well encounter at Kelani River include Rufous-bellied Eagle, Spotted Dove, Common Emerald Doves, Green Imperial Pigeon, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Banded Bay Cuckoo, Greater Coucal, Alexandrine Parakeet, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, the huge Stork-billed Kingfisher, White-throated Kingfisher, Brown-headed Barbet, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Common Iora, Black-hooded Oriole, Indian Jungle Crow, White-bellied Drongo, Red-vented Bulbul, Common Tailorbird, Asian Brown and Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers, Indian Paradise Flycatcher, Tawny-bellied Babbler, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Common Myna, Indian White-eye, Pale-billed Flowerpecker, the restricted-range Purple-rumped Sunbird and White-rumped Munia.
Sri Lanka: Day 3 After some final birding at Kelani we will drive to Sinharaja Forest for a four nights stay.
If the weather is fine as we approach the base of the central mountain massif of Sri Lanka, we should be able to see Adam’s Peak (2249m) to the northeast. Sinharaja is situated in the area of heaviest rainfall, receiving up to five metres of rain every year! The surrounding region is famous for its gem-bearing gravels and the temple of Saman Devale (which controls religious activities on top of the holy mountain, Adam’s Peak) owns many gem-producing lands, some of which have produced rubies, sapphires and cat’s-eyes since the dawn of history, and is very rich.
During the late afternoon, we will begin our exploration of the Sinharaja area.
Sri Lanka: Days 4-6 Sinharaja World Heritage Site, a superb tract of rainforest which extends to some 10,000 hectares, was saved from large-scale logging about 20 years ago and the one area of the forest which was selectively logged has dramatically recovered during the intervening period. Sinharaja is the last area of rainforest of any size left in Sri Lanka and today is a National Heritage Wilderness area under the administration of the Forest Department, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The forest, which is dominated by dipterocarps, lies at an elevation of about 300-800m and is very rich in both plants and animals, with the largest selection of endemic birds on the island. As one walks along the forest tracks amongst trees festooned with parasitic orchids and creepers, giant Ceylon Tree Nymphs (very large butterflies) flap slowly along and strange Sri Lankan Kangaroo Lizards scuttle past before disappearing amongst the thick understorey.
As well as offering another chance to see those forest birds that can also be found at Kitulgala, Sinharaja provides our only opportunity to see such endemics as the spectacular Red-faced Malkoha, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush and White-faced Starling, and our best chances for Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Serendib Scops Owl, Sri Lanka Hill Myna, Sri Lanka Drongo and Sri Lanka Blue Magpie.
Sinharaja has some tricky endemic specialities and a longer stay improves our chances of seeing all of them.
We also have a very good chance at Sinharaja for the near-endemic Sri Lanka Frogmouth. If we are very lucky we will even come across the rare and poorly-known Sri Lanka Bay Owl, a species restricted to Sri Lanka and southern India. Overhead, we may well see Legge’s Hawk-Eagle (also restricted to Sri Lanka and southern India), Crested Treeswift and Brown-backed Needletail. More widespread species at Sinharaja include Ashy Drongo and Black-naped Monarch, as well as the wintering Green, Greenish and Large-billed Leaf Warblers.
Mammals are not conspicuous but we should see troops of endemic Purple-faced Langurs (or Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys) moving through the canopy and we may also encounter the impressive Sri Lanka Giant Squirrel.
Sri Lanka: Day 7 This morning we will continue onwards to the ‘Dry Zone’ of southeastern Sri Lanka for an overnight stay at the small town of Embilipitiya. The journey takes us along the base of the central massif, through rice paddies, and rubber and tea plantations.
This afternoon we will visit the attractive Uda Walawe National Park which surrounds a large reservoir and enjoys a scenic backdrop formed by the Kaltota Escarpment and the central mountain range. The park was set up to protect a healthy resident population of some 300 Asian Elephants and other mammals that are regularly seen here include Chital (or Spotted Deer), Eurasian Wild Boar, Toque Macaque and Tufted Grey Langur.
Uda Walawe has a diverse avifauna and is notable for its raptors, which include Black-winged Kite, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Grey-headed Fish Eagle and wintering Booted Eagle and Pallid Harrier.
Our main targets here will be the endemic Sri Lanka Swallow and the endemic Sri Lanka Woodshrike, as well as Blue-faced Malkoha, the impressive Malabar Pied Hornbill, Jerdon’s Bush Lark and White-browed Bulbul, all of which also occur in South India. Additional species of particular interest include Spot-billed Pelican, Painted Stork, Lesser Adjutant and Sirkeer Malkoha.
Other species that are regularly seen here include Indian Peafowl, Indian Pond and Grey Herons, Eastern Cattle, Great, Intermediate and Little Egrets, Little and Great Cormorants, Oriental Darter, Woolly-necked Stork, Brahminy Kite, Crested Serpent Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Barred Buttonquail, Black-winged Stilt, Red-wattled Lapwing, Marsh, Green and Wood Sandpipers, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Jacobin Cuckoo, Grey-bellied Cuckoo (wintering in Sri Lanka), Asian Koel, Rose-ringed (or Ring-necked) and Plum-headed Parakeets, Indian Nightjar, Asian Palm and Little Swifts, Indian Roller, Common Kingfisher, Asian Green and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Coppersmith Barbet, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Barn Swallow, Black-headed Cuckooshrike, Small Minivet, Brown Shrike, Yellow-eyed Babbler, White-rumped Shama, Zitting Cisticola, Grey-breasted, Ashy, Plain and Jungle Prinias, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, White-browed Fantail, Indian Robin, Purple Sunbird, Baya Weaver, Indian Silverbill, and Scaly-breasted and Tricoloured Munias. If we are reasonably fortunate we will find Blyth’s Pipit, Thick-billed Flowerpecker and Streaked Weaver.
Sri Lanka: Day 8 After spending the early morning at Uda Walawe we will drive to Tissamaharama for an overnight stay.
Bundala National Park, situated not far from Tissamaharama, is perhaps the most important wetland in Sri Lanka for both resident and migrant waterbirds. The area lies close to the Indian Ocean, cut off from the sea by a wide beach and fringing dunes. As well as several lagoons and saltpans, there are large dry, open areas around the lagoons and extensive areas of scrub. Around ‘Tissa’ itself are several ancient ‘tanks’ (reservoirs) that also hold numerous waterbirds. The most interesting birds here are Indian Cormorant, Small Pratincole, Indian Stone-curlew, Great Thick-knee, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Brown-headed Gull, the impressive Brown Fish Owl, Indian Scops Owl, Indian and Jerdon’s Nightjars, the stunning, restricted-range White-naped Woodpecker and Clamorous Reed Warbler.
More widespread species we may well find include Little Grebe, Yellow and Black Bitterns, Purple Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Asian Openbill, Eurasian Spoonbill, Black-headed Ibis, Lesser Whistling Duck, Shikra, White-breasted Waterhen, Watercock, Grey-headed Swamphen, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Common Ringed, Little Ringed, Kentish, Lesser Sand (or Mongolian), Greater Sand, Grey (or Black-bellied) and Pacific Golden Plovers, Little Stint, Curlew and Common Sandpipers, Pin-tailed Snipe, Eurasian Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Ruddy Turnstone, Gull-billed, Caspian, Greater Crested, Lesser Crested, Common, Little, Whiskered and White-winged Terns, Pied Kingfisher, Oriental Skylark, Paddyfield Pipit and House Crow. We could also see a more uncommon winter visitor to the area, such as Western Osprey, Red-necked Phalarope or Black-capped Kingfisher. The lagoons at Bundala also hold a population of Muggers (or Marsh Crocodiles).
Sri Lanka: Day 9 After some final birding in the Tissa area we will leave for the highlands, where we will stop at Surrey Estate where a block of former tea land has been allowed to grow wild over several decades and now supports some interesting birds, including the endemic Sri Lanka Woodpigeon and the widespread Brown Wood Owl.
Towards evening we will climb up the steep eastern slope from the rolling hills of the Uva Plateau to Nuwara Eliya, where we stay for the next two nights. This former hill station of the days of the British Empire is situated at nearly 2000m and used to provide a cool retreat for the British governors of the island. Nowadays, it is a popular escape from the lowland heat for well-to-do Sri Lankans.
Sri Lanka: Day 10 During our time at Nuwara Eliya we will visit Victoria Park and also Horton Plains National Park, an area of upland grassland and dense, cloud-wreathed montane forest where the stunted trees are hung with lichen and epiphytes. Clear days are none too common in this area, but if we are lucky at Horton Plains we will enjoy distant views of Adam’s Peak. Sri Lanka’s second and third highest peaks, Kirigalpota and Totupola, protrude from the plains and the beauty of the area is further enhanced by the pinks, orange and browns of the new forest growth.
Species of particular interest include no fewer than seven endemics: Crimson-backed Flameback, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, the skulking Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Dull-blue Flycatcher and Sri Lanka White-eye, plus three species that also occur in South India; Hill Swallow, Black-throated Munia (which is sometimes treated as distinct from the Rufous-bellied Munia of south India) and the uncommon Indian Blackbird. We should also find the gorgeous Indian Pitta, the smart Pied Thrush and the pretty Kashmir Flycatcher, three ‘hard-to-see-elsewhere’ migrants from the northern part of the Indian subcontinent.
Nuwara Eliya is the only easily accessible site for the whistling thrush and we shall make a special effort to see this generally difficult-to-see and largely crepuscular bird, although we may have to wait around a long time for even a view.
Widespread species found in this area include Pied Bushchat, Cinereous Tit and with luck Slaty-legged Crake. Additional winter visitors include the fairly restricted range Brown-breasted Flycatcher, the attractive Forest Wagtail, Grey Wagtail and the lovely Indian Blue Robin.
Sri Lanka: Day 11 After a final morning around Nuwara Eliya we will head for the ancient Sri Lankan capital of Kandy, the heartland of Sinhalese culture, for an overnight stay, crossing the Ramboda Pass en route and then descending through extensive tea plantations. In the evening we will try to find a Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl before visiting the famous Temple of the Tooth, which preserves a tooth taken from the ashes of the Buddha’s funeral pyre.
Sri Lanka: Day 12 This morning we will have a final chance to see some forest birds at Udawattekelle Sanctuary close to Kandy. This is a particularly good area for seeing the endemic Crimson-backed Flameback, should we have missed it earlier, and we may also come across Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, a real jewel of a bird.
After lunch, we will transfer to Colombo airport, where our Sri Lanka birding tour ends in the late afternoon or early evening.