Our birdwatching tour to Sri Lanka begins with a nonstop SriLankan Airlines flight overnight from London Heathrow to Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.
Days 2 - 3
COLOMBO TO KITHULGALA FOREST
We arrive in Colombo at lunchtime on Day 2, where our local guide and driver will be waiting to welcome us. The transfer east to our first hotel at Kithulgala will take around four hours, but along the way we are likely to spot a variety of the commoner birds of Sri Lanka’s ‘Wet Zone’. Species to watch out for include Shikra, Spotted Dove, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Asian Koel, Brown-headed Barbet, Oriental Magpie Robin, Red-vented Bulbul, Common Iora and Black-hooded Oriole.
Kithulgala is located beside the Kelani River and is famed as the spot where The Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed. After settling in, we’ll spend the remainder of the afternoon birding locally - either from the hotel viewpoint (where it’s often possible to see 40-50 species in just a couple of hours) or going in search of our first Sri Lankan endemic, the handsome Chestnut-backed Owlet in nearby woodlands.
Next morning, having been ferried across the river, we have our first chance to try for one of Sri Lanka’s most eagerly sought-after endemic birds: Serendib Scops Owl. First described as a species new to science as recently as 2004, this delightful little bird is still only known from around half-a-dozen sites and strictly nocturnal in its habits - so the chance to try and see one during daylight hours is a rare privilege indeed! Although we can’t of course guarantee that the birds will be present every time, our local guides have an excellent record in tracking this diminutive forest owl for us. (If we are unlucky with the owl here, then we have another chance to try again at our next stop, Sinharaja Forest – fingers crossed!)
Around the hotel grounds and along some of Kithulgala’s quieter trails are several exciting endemics like Legge’s Flowerpecker, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Orange-billed Babbler and Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill. As well as these unique residents, the area is rich in other bird life: Indian Swiftlets swirl overhead as we look for Crested Goshawk, Crested Treeswift and the shy but noisy Rufous Woodpecker. The sight of the recently split endemic Crimson-backed Flameback will surely take our breath away if one lands on a nearby trunk, while flowers in the gardens can hold many species of butterfly - Bluebottles, Nawabs and the lovely Crimson Rose are all names to conjure with!
Strident calls and whistles often herald the arrival of Sri Lanka Crested Drongos, which accompany mixed foraging parties. And as the afternoon cools and the exotic chorus of cicadas and tree-frogs begins, we’ll watch for one of the island’s rarest and shyest endemics: Green-billed Coucal. If we missed it before, we can try again for the local endemic Chestnut-backed Owlets. Two nights Kithulgala Lodge
RATNAPURA & SINHARAJA
Our hotel grounds and nearby gardens and farms are home to a wealth of exciting birds and we will have time to explore these before we bid farewell to Kithulgala. The still of dawn may be broken by the songs of Oriental Magpie-robin and Yellow-browed Bulbul, while fruiting and flowering trees can hold Legge’s and Pale-billed Flowerpeckers, Purple-rumped and Loten’s Sunbirds, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Brown-headed Barbet and many more. Winter visitors to watch for include numerous Green Warblers and with luck we could find our first Indian Pitta, perhaps calling loudly beneath a tree close to the hotel.
After breakfast, we leave Kithulgula and travel south towards our destination this evening - Sinharaja Forest Reserve.
We'll stop along the way at Ratnapura, taking lunch followed by a short walk in the grounds where we may be rewarded with White-browed Fantail, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and rufous-chested Sri Lanka Swallows. Yellow-fronted Barbet, Indian Robin, Indian Paradise Flycatcher and White-rumped and Scaly-breasted Munias are also possible.
Refreshed, we complete our journey to Sinharaja, arriving there towards dusk for an extended three-nights stay at the remote Birds Paradise Hotel, which lies within an easy drive of the magnificent Sinharaja Forest Reserve - Sri Lanka's most important site for endemic birds. Rooms at the lodge are simply furnished but comfortable, and all have en suite bathroom. Night Birds Paradise Hotel
Days 5 - 6
Sinharaja is home to more than half of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies - and, remarkably, all but one of Sri Lanka’s wonderful endemic birds! With its wildlife most active between daybreak and mid morning, an early start is essential to reach the higher level as the forest bursts into life - and another good reason why our lodge is such a great place to stay.
As the first rays of sunlight start to filter through the verdant canopy, they may reveal an obliging Sri Lanka Junglefowl foraging on the tangled forest floor. As we enter the forest, we’ll be looking carefully for Green Imperial Pigeon or mixed feeding flocks that might hold Malabar Trogon, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Black-capped Bulbul, Sri Lankan Scimitar-babbler, Brown-capped Babbler, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, White-faced Starling, Sri Lanka Hill Myna and the fabulous Sri Lanka Blue Magpie.
From time to time, we may be sidetracked by a myriad of colourful butterflies, including the stunning endemic Ceylon Tree Nymph, Sri Lanka Birdwing and Blue Mormon. Movements in the canopy high above might reveal the presence of a stunning Red-faced Malkoha - although not all movement may be from birds, but betray the presence of Grizzled Giant Squirrels or the island’s two endemic monkeys, Purple-faced Langur and Toque Macaque.
After an exciting morning in the forest, we’ll return to our lodge for a short siesta and/or some leisurely birding near the hotel grounds.
Lured by the irresistible appeal of Sinharaja’s fabulous forest birding, our second full day here offers further opportunities to try for any ‘Wet Zone’ specialities we may have missed before. The notoriously elusive Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush and Sri Lanka Spurfowl will both be high on our ‘most-wanted’ lists, but we shall need to be in place just after dawn to have any real prospect of seeing either species. Two further nights Birds Paradise Hotel
EMBILIPITIYA & KALAMETIYA
It will be with some reluctance that we bid farewell this morning to Birds Paradise Hotel. Passing through neatly clothed hills of tea plantations, we journey out of Sri Lanka’s ‘Wet Zone’ and drop down towards the island's ‘Dry Zone’, en route to the coastal lowlands. We'll make occasional roadside stops along the way - perhaps to enjoy the sight of an impressive Black Eagle soaring overhead or to watch as a cluster of Ashy Woodswallows gathers on a roadside wire.
We should arrive at our next destination, Embilipitiya, in time for lunch. Our hotel here overlooks a large man-made lake, one that's liberally sprinkled with Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns, and Little and Indian Cormorants; Spot-billed Pelicans float sedately by and Brahminy Kites soar on thermals.
After lunch and a break in our rooms, we'll take a 40-minute drive south to the coast to spend the cooler hours of the late afternoon exploring the Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary. Greater Crested, Lesser Crested and Caspian Terns patrol the shoreline, while on Kalametiya’s lagoons we may find Yellow-wattled and Red-wattled Lapwings along with Indian Stone-curlew and Great Thick-knee, Blyth’s and Paddyfield Pipits, Pied Kingfisher and Rose-ringed Parakeet. Reedbeds are the haunt of the diminutive Yellow Bittern and wintering waders could include Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint, Oriental Pratincole, Pin-tailed Snipe, Pacific Golden Plover and Lesser Sand Plover. Night Embilipitiya
UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK & 'TISSA TANKS'
Our overnight stay at Embilipitya will enable us to spend a full morning today exploring the dry savanna country of nearby Udawalawe National Park. Using 4WD vehicles, we will drive the tracks through the scrub jungle and grasslands, which are surprisingly rich in species variety.
One of the park's most conspicuous residents is the breathtaking Indian Peafowl, looking even more spectacular in its native haunts! But the likes of Crested (or Changeable) Hawk-eagle, Black-winged Kite and Malabar Pied Hornbill will also be demanding attention. Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers are likely to be patrolling over the grasslands, where we’ll receive a 'masterclass' in prinia identification with Grey-breasted, Ashy, Plain and Jungle all popping up to sing for us - in addition to that ‘prinia impersonator’, the curious Yellow-eyed Babbler.
Driving the tracks of the park, we may also discover that the strange ‘moped-engine’ sounds coming from the grasslands in fact originate from the pint-sized female Barred Buttonquail! Blyth’s Pipits and Blyth’s Reed Warblers winter here, a long way from their northern breeding grounds, but if its colour you crave then Coppersmith Barbet, Indian Roller, Plum-headed and Alexandrine Parakeets, Green and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, and Orange-breasted Green Pigeons should oblige.
Mammals are not to be ignored at Udawalawe and we shall have time to admire enormous Indian Elephants, while other possibilities include Jungle Cat, Golden Jackal, Chital, Wild Boar and Ruddy Mongoose. We then travel a short way (35 miles) east to reach our next hotel, at Tissamaharama - happily more often referred to simply as ‘Tissa’ - at the start of a three-night stay.
Tissa is renowned for the concentration of rich wildlife sites within close proximity, ranging from its extensive 'tanks' (manmade reservoirs) to orchards and coconut palm plantations, each home to a unique group of species. After lunch and a brief siesta, we will make a five-minute drive for our first visit to one of these tanks, where we’ll spend some time searching for Cotton Pygmy Goose and Lesser Whistling Duck, Grey-headed Fish and White-bellied Sea Eagles and the scarce White-naped Woodpecker. With luck, we will find the impressive Brown Fish Owl, too. Night Tissa
Days 9 - 10
BUNDALA & RUHUNU - 'YALA' WEST - NATIONAL PARK
With Sri Lanka’s troubled past behind it, we are once again able to visit wonderful Bundala National Park – Sri Lanka’s first RAMSAR (wetland) site. We’ll also visit Ruhunu National Park, which lies about an hour’s drive from Tissa. Better known simply as ‘Yala’, Ruhunu forms a key part of Sri Lanka’s oldest and most famous National Park.
Beginning at Bundala, we are in for a real treat this morning! Taking a picnic breakfast with us, we’ll be able to make the most of our morning here, before the heat gets up. Although quite close to Tissa, it may in fact take quite some time to reach our destination for the access road bisects a wonderful wetland that’s simply alive with birds - expect a plethora of herons, egrets, ibises, spoonbills and a multitude of waders!
Soon we’ll be sifting through the large numbers of spindly-legged Marsh Sandpipers and other shorebirds at Bundala. Picking out Broad-billed Sandpipers amongst the throngs of Little Stints will keep us on our toes as we also strive to identify Greater Sand Plovers amidst the flocks of Kentish and Lesser Sand Plovers. If we’re lucky, we should encounter several diminutive Little Pratincoles, roosting on the nearby bunds.
Up to eight species of tern roost on Bundala’s extensive saltpans, ranging from the massive Caspian to the diminutive Little Tern. Here we can see both Greater Crested and Lesser Crested Terns standing side by side, and pick out winter-plumaged White-winged Black Terns amongst the more numerous Whiskered. The strange Great Thick-knee presents rather less of an identification challenge, however! Oriental Skylarks, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-larks and the recently split Jerdon’s Bush Lark also occur in the scrub, while the big Clamorous Reed Warbler proclaims itself loudly from the stands of tall Papyrus.
We'll save our visit to Yala West National Park for our final afternoon at Tissa – in part because it’s not possible to bird on foot within the park, but also because this is an excellent time to seek Leopard, which are often to be found dozing and draped over a shady tree bough beneath the hot afternoon sun.
As we enter the park we can expect to see big Mugger Crocodiles, which frequent the riverbanks here. And as we explore the southern sector for Leopard, we should encounter plenty of Grey Langur, Sambar and Chital (or Spotted Deer), too.
Yala’s birdlife is abundant with a fine mix of species to enjoy, from Indian Peafowl, Lesser Adjutant and Black-necked Stork through to Spot-billed Pelican and White-bellied Sea Eagle. Dry country birds include Pied and Grey-bellied Cuckoos, Small Minivet, the exceptionally ‘spotty’ Yellow-crowned Woodpecker and the minute Brown-capped Woodpecker, the recently-split Sri Lanka Woodshrike and both Blue-faced and Sirkeer Malkohas - the latter looking remarkably mongoose-like as it runs between the bushes!
Marshall’s Iora, an Indian species only recently discovered in Sri Lanka, has latterly been found to be breeding in the park. We've been lucky to see this bird on several recent tours and will again hope to encounter this striking gem - although separating it from the more abundant Common Iora can be something of a challenge. As wildlife activity starts to wane towards dusk, we can try for Indian Nightjar. Two furtner nights Tissa
Days 11 - 12
THE HILL COUNTRY: HORTON PLAINS & VICTORIA PARK
Leaving the heat of the coastal lowlands behind, we shall no doubt welcome the more ‘English’ climate of our next destination, Nuwara Eliya.
Birding as we go, we'll break our journey today with a stop for lunch at Surrey Bungalow, inside the Surrey Tea Estate. Here we also have the chance to see the workings of a tea factory in the hills - and to search for the impressive Brown Wood Owl, which though not always present, can sometimes be found roosting nearby.
After an enjoyable lunch, we continue on to Nuwara Eliya. Set at an elevation of nearly 2000m (6500ft), this famous old hill-station is the hub of Sri Lanka’s tea estates. Extensive areas of superb montane forest still remain, holding hill-forest specialities such as Sri Lanka Woodpigeon, Hill Swallow, Sri Lanka White-eye, the extremely secretive Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Black-throated Munia, Dull-blue Flycatcher, Indian Blue Robin and the shy Indian Blackbird. But we shall need to be out early next morning to have a chance of seeing what is regarded as the island’s trickiest endemic, the rare Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush.
Nearby Horton Plains is a moorland plateau inhabited by Pied Bushchats and Paddyfield Pipits, where we can scan the forest slopes for Mountain Hawk Eagle or even a Black Eagle - the latter specialises in snatching Giant Squirrels from the woodland canopy!
We’ll also pay a visit to Victoria Park, the haunt of many montane forest specialities and within easy walking distance of our base for these two nights, the very comfortable Araliya Green City Hotel. Birds to watch for within the park include the stunning Kashmir Flycatcher, Indian Pitta and Pied Thrush, all of which overwinter here, as well as Sri Lanka White-eye and the highland form of Purple-faced Langur - known locally as the ‘Bear Monkey’. Two nights Nuwara Eliya
TO THE COAST, VIA KITHULGALA
We bid farewell to Nuwara Eliya this morning and head back west through the hill country towards the coast.
We will break our journey with a return visit to Kithulgala, where we began our birding on this tour. We shall pause to enjoy lunch here and have another opportunity to watch for endemic birds such as Legge’s Flowerpecker, Yellow-fronted Barbet and Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill in and around the productive environs of the hotel.
After lunch at Kithulgala, we complete our journey west to Wattala, enjoying a farewell dinner and overnight stay at a comfortable beachside hotel convenient for our return to Colombo Airport tomorrow. Night Wattala
FLY COLOMBO TO LONDON
Following a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, we transfer to nearby Colombo Airport for farewells and check-in for our nonstop SriLankan Airlines flight home.
Evening arrival (same day) back at London Heathrow, where our birdwatching tour to Sri Lanka concludes.