Our birdwatching tour to Sri Lanka begins with a nonstop overnight flight from London Heathrow to Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.
Days 2 - 3
COLOMBO TO KITHULGALA FOREST
Arrival in Colombo on Day 2, where our local guide will be waiting to welcome us. We make the two-hour transfer east to our first hotel, at Kithulgala. Along the way, we are likely to spot a variety of the commoner birds of Sri Lanka’s ‘Wet Zone’. Possibilities include Shikra, Spotted Dove, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Asian Koel, Brown-headed Barbet, Oriental Magpie Robin, Red-vented Bulbul, Common Iora and Black-hooded Oriole. In particular we’ll hope to see some Ashy Woodswallows, which are often to be seen hawking from roadside wires.
Kithulgala is located beside the Kelani River and 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, is the first chance for a highlight of our visits to Kithulgala in recent years: the opportunity to look 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 is 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 here we have another chance 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 the shy (but noisy!) Rufous Woodpecker, Crested Goshawk and Crested Treeswift. The sight of the recently split endemic Crimson-backed Flameback will surely take our breath away if one lands on a nearby trunk! The flowers in the gardens can hold many species of butterfly too, including Bluebottles, Nawabs and the lovely Crimson Rose.
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 will try again for the local endemic Chestnut-backed Owlets. Two nights Kithulgala Lodge
RATNAPURA & BLUE MAGPIE LODGE
Our hotel grounds and nearby gardens and farms are home to a wealth of exciting birds and we will have time to explore these thoroughly before we say our farewells to Kithulgala. The 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 here include numerous Green Warblers and, with luck, we could find our first Indian Pitta, calling loudly beneath a tree close to the hotel.
After breakfast, we bid farewell to Kithulgula and travel south to Ratnapura. Here we’ll enjoy a sumptuous lunch, followed by a short walk in the grounds where we may be rewarded with White-browed Fantail and Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, as well as Yellow-fronted Barbets and rufous-chested Sri Lanka Swallows, Indian Robin, Indian Paradise Flycatcher, and White-rumped and Scaly-breasted Munias.
Refreshed, we continue our journey to Sinharaja, arriving there towards dusk for a two-night stay at the remote Blue Magpie Lodge. This is the only accommodation to offer adequate comfort within a short drive of the magnificent Sinharaja Forest Reserve. The rooms here have recently been upgraded and, although simply furnished, all have en suite facilities. Night Blue Magpie Lodge
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.
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 or some leisurely birding near the hotel grounds.
Lured by the irresistible appeal of Sinharaja’s fabulous forest birding, the following day we have further opportunities to try for any ‘Wet Zone’ specialities we may have missed yesterday. 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. Night Blue Magpie Lodge
SINHARAJA TO EMBILIPITIYA
Depending upon what we saw at Sinharaja yesterday, we will spend some time this morning trying again for any of the forest's specialities that may have eluded us before.
It will be with some reluctance that we bid farewell to the ‘Blue Magpie'. 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 make occasional roadside stops along the way, perhaps to enjoy an impressive Black Eagle as it soars overhead or to watch a cluster of Ashy Woodswallows gathered on a roadside wire.
Our destination today will be Embilipitiya, arriving there in time for lunch. Our hotel at Embilipitiya is situated beside a large man-made lake, 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.
Mid afternoon we set off on 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 flooded 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 NAT. PARK & TISSA
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 along the coast to our next hotel, at Tissamaharama (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' (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 them, 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 8 - 9
BUNDALA & YALA WEST NAT. PARK
Now that Sri Lanka’s recent troubled past is behind it, we are once again able to visit wonderful Bundala National Park – Sri Lanka’s first RAMSAR site. We’ll also visit Ruhunu National Park, which lies about an hour’s drive from Tissa. Better known simply as ‘Yala’, Ruhunu forms 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 take quite some time to reach our destination... the access road bisects a wonderful wetland that’s simply alive with birds - including 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, and Clamorous Reed Warblers sing 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, and 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 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 and the minute Brown-capped Woodpeckers, the recently-split Sri Lank 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 were lucky on our 2015 and February 2016 tours and will again hope to see 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 further nights at Tissa
Days 10 - 11
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. The impressive Brown Wood Owl is one possible treat before arriving at our next hotel for lunch.
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, 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.
At nearby Horton Plains, a moorland plateau inhabited by Pied Bushchats and Paddyfield Pipits, we can scan the forest slopes for Mountain Hawk Eagle or even a Black Eagle - the latter specialising in snatching Giant Squirrels from the woodland canopy!
We’ll also pay a visit to Victoria Park, the haunt of montane forest specialities - and within easy walking distance of our comfortable hotel. We may find the stunning Kashmir Flycatcher, Indian Pitta and Pied Thrush, all of which winter here, as well as Sri Lanka White-eye and the highland form of Purple-faced Langur - known locally as the ‘Bear Monkey’. Two nights at the Hill Club Hotel, Nuwara Eliya
Days 12 - 13
TEA COUNTRY TO SIGIRIYA
After some optional pre-breakfast birding, we depart Nuwara Eliya and head across the hill country towards Kandy, stopping along the way to investigate a working tea factory - for both a refreshing cup of tea and to see its resident Hill Swallows! Formerly treated as a subspecies of Pacific Swallow, the latter is now recognised as a full species, one that's restricted to Sri Lanka and the Western Ghats region of southern India.
Passing through the very busy town of Kandy, we will break our journey for lunch at a spice garden – or maybe even beside the huge golden statue of Buddha at Dambulla - before pressing on to Sigiriya, where we stay for two nights. This World Heritage Site for Culture is also a superb birding spot in its own right and, if travel time permits, we will spend the late afternoon sampling some of Sigiriya's avian delights - or simply staring in awe at the flat-topped stone inselberg that dominates the landscape here.
At 200m high, the massive rock thrusts from the forest-floor and is surrounded by a moat and protected woodlands that attract many new and exciting species. Crimson-fronted Barbets, Indian Robins and Black-headed Cuckooshrikes are among species frequently seen. Around the rock sweep hundreds of Little Swifts and Indian Swiftlets, and must-see Crested Treeeswifts can sometimes be found nesting on twigs, their simple nest and single egg precariously perched.
Two nights at the very comfortable Sigiriya Hotel - with its view of the World Heritage Site across the swimming pool - make for a lovely relaxed end to our Sri Lanka tour. A pre-breakfast birdwalk in the hotel grounds, out to the nearby lake, can be very rewarding with many barbets, White-rumped Shama, Fork-tailed Drongo-cuckoo and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher to look for. Indian Paradise Flycatchers are often about, as is the engaging White-browed Fantail. Another of our targets will be Shaheen, the distinctive Indian race of Peregrine Falcon, which have made the rock their home and which often fly about the rock in the early morning sun.
The birdlife at Sigiriya is excellent and we will spend our time enjoying some easy birding in this tranquil idyll, with chances of anything from Jerdon’s Leafbird to Thick-billed Flowerpecker. In the flooded forest below the monument we have another opportunity to pick out more the exotic Indian Pitta and will be hoping especially to see the heavenly Orange-headed Thrush and Oriental Dwark Kingfisher – a tiny jewel that shines in the forest!
The nearby woodlands hold many other birds typical of this region. The endemic Crimson-backed Flameback, Red-backed Flameback, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Black-headed and Large Cuckoo-shrikes, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Grey-headed Fish Eagle and White-bellied Sea Eagle, Changeable (or Crested) Hawk Eagle, Tawny-bellied Babbler, and Indian and Grey-bellied Cuckoos are all possible here.
As dusk falls over the Rock and our hotel, we have an opportunity to look for the impressive Brown Fish Owl and the attractive Jerdon's Nightjar, a species endemic to southern India and Sri Lanka. Two nights Sigiriya
SIGIRIYA TO NEGOMBO
We have a final morning at Sigiriya, with a chance perhaps to visit the World Heritage Site (optional)*1 or maybe take a drive into the surrounding fields in search of Blyth’s Reed Warbler, and Baya and Streaked Weavers. Raptors often soar above this landscape and there is a good chance of seeing Rufous-bellied Hawk-eagle, too. Or some might simply prefer to relax about the pool and hotel grounds…
After lunch at Sigiriya, we board our bus and head back west to Negombo for a farewell dinner and overnight stay at a beachside hotel convenient for Colombo Airport next day. Night Negombo
FLY COLOMBO TO LONDON
Breakfast and morning transfer to nearby Colombo Airport for farewells and check-in for our nonstop SriLankan Airlines flight home.
Evening arrival back in London, where our birding tour to Sri Lanka concludes.
*1 Please note: our visit to Sigiriya does not include a sightseeing trip to the World Heritage Site itself. However, if you would prefer to experience this rather than go birding with the group at Sigiriya this morning, our guides will be happy to assist you in making arrangements for a sightseeing visit to the rock. Fees for entry and guidance are payable locally - not included in our tour price.