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Birding in Sri Lanka & Southern India
10 February – 5 March 2002
By Jon Hornbuckle
I spent 23 days in Sri Lanka and southern India with Rod Martins and Rich Hopf. We saw virtually all the specialities in range except for 4 owls and Slaty-legged Crake. Highlights included Painted Francolin, Green-billed Coucal, Ceylon Frogmouth, Mottled Wood-Owl, both races of White-bellied Shortwing and Scaly Thrush, Black-and-orange Flycatcher, Grey-headed and Yellow-throated Bulbuls, 4 fine endemic laughingthrushes and the superb Ceylon Blue Magpie. The transport arrangements were first class, with excellent vehicles and drivers, a new experience for us on the sub-continent. With peace in the air at last in Sri Lanka, there will hopefully be no more threats to life, and tourism will blossom here again, to the benefit of some of the hard-pressed people. The India-Pakistan conflict waxes and wanes, and we lost a day through a strike against economic conditions in Kerala, but having said that, I do recommend this region for excellent, safe birding with cultural interest to suit all tastes.
I flew Heathrow - Colombo and Colombo - Trivandrum (now known as Thiruvananthapuram) return with SriLankan Airlines (SLA), booked through WildWings. Service was excellent but seating cramped. The London office of the airline insisted that there was no room in the economy section for the return Trivandrum flights so that we had to pay business class, a cost extra of over £40. However, when Rich queried this in the US, he found it to be untrue and SLA in London then claimed they were not authorised to sell economy class tickets here, but as a special favour would now do so! If this happens to you, get your agent in Sri Lanka or India to buy the tickets or buy them yourself when you get there. Surprisingly, these Sri Lanka – India flights do get booked up (we were unable to change ours later on), because it is a well-used route from the Gulf, where a lot of Indians work, to southern India.
We had a good a/c mini-bus throughout Sri Lanka, from JetWing Tours, and a Toyota Landcruiser in India from TourIndia. JetWing's normal charge would be Rs 24 per km, with a minimum of 100 km per day, plus driver's costs of Rs 200 per day.
TourIndia's rate for an Ambassador car (which we had booked originally), including all charges and daily allowance of 150 km, was Rs 950 per day, with daily driver “bata” of Rs 150 and “night halt” fees of Rs 150.
Entrance/parking/toll fees per day would have been Rs 100 per person but we negotiated a discount as it was clearly too much. Plus 10% Services charge. We elected to pay extra for the more-roomy, air-conditioned and faster 4x4 at a total cost of Rs 37,000 compared to Rs 26,000 for an Ambassador.
ACCOMMODATION, FOOD and COST
We mainly stayed in basic to good hotels and lodgings in Sri Lanka, but in India our longest stay, at Thattekkad, was in very basic hostel. Main meals were good and usually cheap, but beer was not much cheaper than at home.
We used ATMs in Trivandrum and in Colombo, which may be the only town in Sri Lanka where they are available (none at the airport). The exchange rate was 48 Indian Rupees and 90 Sri Lankan Rupees to the US $.
Departure tax at Colombo was Rs 1000.
We had no security or health problems and I took no pills at all.
Visas are required for India, not Sri Lanka, costing £30 in the UK (obtained more quickly by post from the Birmingham office).
The weather was quite good, with little rain – mainly hot of course, except in the mountains. The best time to visit is in our winter period, probably November - March.
English is spoken by many people.
Internet facilities are available in major towns in India and at the airport and some good hotels in Sri Lanka, e.g. in Negombo.
Kazmierczak, K & van Perlo, B. (2000) A field guide to the birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Pica Press.
Grimmett, R., Inskipp, C. & T. (1998) Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Helm.
Harrison, J. (1999) A field guide to the birds of Sri Lanka. OUP.
De Silva Wijeyeratne, G. & Warakagoda, D. (2002) A checklist of the birds of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka NHS.
I used Kazmierczak & van Perlo, my preferred book, throughout, but in this report I have use Ceylon instead of Sri Lanka for bird names, in line with Clements (2000).
A Birdwatchers' Guide to India by Krys Kazmierczak and Raj Singh is very useful for site details in India but does not cover Sri Lanka.
Of the multitude of trip reports, Brian Gee's (not available on the internet, whereas many others are) may be the best, for maps at least. Susan Myers visited the same region just before us, with Stuart Dashper, and has produced good reports, available on http://www.websurf.net.au/~susan/.
There are recordings of most of the Sri Lankan birds on 2 tapes by Deepal Warakagoda and 1 by Steve Smith (but not Painted Francolin or the song of the Whistling Thrush, both of which I now have recorded and will give to BLOWS) The CDROM Birds of Tropical Asia 2 by Jelle Scharringa includes some species from both countries, and there is a tape of some of the southern Indian birds produced by Krys Kazmierczak.
RECOMMENDED TRAVEL AGENCIES
JetWings Eco Holidays: Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne on gehan at jetwing.lk or Amila on eco at jetwing.lk
Most birders have used Baur's. They have the most experienced guides and are recommended (especially if you like to be spoon-fed) but are appreciably more expensive. JetWings' driver-guides know the sites and Wicky, at least, is fast learning the birds; Amila and Gehan are very good but don't normally take tours, though Amila might, for an extra fee.
TourIndia: Babu Varghese on tourindia at vsnl.com
Excellent for transport, will arrange accommodation and will contact Jijo or Eldo, who you will need at Thattekad and can probably take further afield if you so desire. Our driver's English was only passable but he was very safe and reliable.
Useful contacts - Trivandrum: Sushanth on Csusanth at hotmail.com tel 437244
- Kottayam: Dr.Sreekumar B. ktm_bskumar at sancharnet.in
- Thattekad: Jijo Mathew on jijopappalil at rediffmail.com, tel 0485 570968
We are very grateful for the assistance given by Gehan, Amila, Wicky and Chandra in Sri Lanka and Jijo, Babu, Eldo, Goban and Dr Sreekumar in India. Chris Bradshaw, Krys Kazmierczak, Dave Pitman, Bill Simpson and Brian Sykes gave useful information beforehand. Rich and Rod were great birding companions.
SRI LANKA: February 10 - 20
Arrived in the early morning at Colombo airport to be met by Rich, who had just arrived from San Francisco via Hong Kong, and Wicky from JetWings. We left at 04.30 and reached Kitulgala just after dawn. The morning's birding gave Ceylon Junglefowl, Dwarf Kingfisher, Indian Scimitar-Babbler and Brown-capped Babbler. After lunch and a siesta, a return visit only added Spot-winged Thrush although Rich, who had stayed in the forest, saw the Spurfowl and Grey Hornbill. We were joined by Rod Martins for the whole trip, and Rod and I spent the following morning in tape-duals with Spurfowls, but had no sightings, while Rich saw Green-billed Coucal. We drove to Sinharaja in the afternoon and walked up to Martin's Guesthouse. The next day I saw Red-faced Malkoha, Malabar Trogon, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Dark-fronted Babbler, Ceylon Blue-Magpie, Ceylon Wood-Pigeon and a Spurfowl briefly. Early next morning I taped in a Frogmouth and later on a Chestnut-backed Owlet, while Rod saw Malayan Night-Heron and 3 Spurfowl.
We tried for owls in the evening and early morning without success, then I watched two Scaly Thrush feeding and found a mist-net holding a Black Bittern, 3 Ashy-headed Laughingthrush and a Scaly Thrush! A Frogmouth roosting in a bush near Martin's was the final bird before we walked down to the bus. We drove to Tissamaharama, seeing Crimson-fronted Barbet at the lunch stop, and located a White-naped Woodpecker at Deberawewa Tank. The next morning at Udawalawe National Park was fruitful with Brown Fish-Owl, Malabar Pied-Hornbill, Orange-headed Thrush, Indian Pitta, Sirkeer, Grey-bellied Cuckoo and many elephants, although Blue-faced Malkoha was not located. Pre-dusk at Pannegamuwa Tank, there was an Oriental Pratincole on the grass and Rod saw 5 Baillon's Crake by wading into the reeds. We proceeded to Yala Safari Beach Hotel and near there saw Tawny-bellied Babbler, with Indian Nightjar at dusk, but only heard Jerdon's Nightjar. A hard look for Blue-faced Malkoha the following morning on the edge of Yala NP was only rewarded with a fine Rosy Starling. After a 3 hour drive to Bibile we searched fruitlessly for Painted Francolin on Nilgala road, but did succeed the following morning, and saw Jungle Bush-Quail, Layard's Parakeet, Jerdon's Nightjar and Banded Bay Cuckoo.
We drove to Nuwara Eliya via Surrey Tea Estate, where the tea and fresh bread were good but Brown Wood-Owl elusive. At Victoria Park we had great views of Pied Thrush and Indian Pitta but no Kashmir Flycatchers. An early morning jeep ride to Horton Plains produced good views of Arrenga along with Ceylon Wood-Pigeon, Indian Blue Robin, Kashmir Flycatcher, and the Bush Warbler for Rod and Rich. No Wood-Owls were found in the Grand Hotel cypresses but Hill Swallows were located at Labookalie Tea Estate. At Horse Stable wetlands near Nuwara Eliya we saw Black-throated Munia and glimpsed Pallas's Grasshopper-Warbler, but no Slaty-legged Crake. An early drive back to Kitulgala the following morning was rewarded by Ceylon Grey Hornbill, and Green-billed Coucal for me at last. Finally to Colombo where the lakes near Thalangama gave Black Bittern. Hence in 11 days' birding we saw all the endemics except the new Otus plus all the likely specials except Blue-faced Malkoha, Slaty-legged Crake and Brown Wood-Owl.
SOUTHERN INDIA: February 21 – March 5
After a morning flight to Trivandrum we drove to Salim Ali Bird Reserve, Thattekkad (6 hours), where we were met by local guide Jijo. Due to the presence of a rogue elephant we were not allowed to go more than 1 km into the reserve and so spent the next day near Idamalayar power plant: Mottled Wood-Owl, Malabar Parakeet and Grey Hornbill, White-eared Barbet, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher and White-bellied Treepie. After dinner at a local house, we lost a tape duel with a pair of Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl and were devastated to hear from the more experienced guide, Eldo, that we had missed a day-roosting Bay Owl on the previous day. Returning to Idamalayar the next morning, we had White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, but only Rich saw Grey-headed Bulbul, while Rod and I lunched in the Power Plant canteen. We disturbed a large King Cobra while looking for the bulbul later on! Back at the reserve, a Frogmouth was on the nest but the Eagle-Owl was not even heard. Tried for Bay Owl early next morning but none was heard, whereas the Eagle-Owl was calling (at around 04.30). Spent the day in the reserve with Eldo and Frank Moffatt, seeing Blue-faced Malkoha but no other specialities.
Returned the following day to Idamalayar, with Eldo this time, and saw both the Bulbul and Wynaad Laughingthrush, plus Scaly Thrush for me. Streak-throated Woodpecker was located near Thattekkad on the way back. The following morning's owling was again unsuccessful but a flight view of Red Spurfowl was obtained. We drove to Ooty, where we saw the nominate race of White-bellied Shortwing at Cairnhill Forested Reserve in the late afternoon. Next morning along Sighur Ghat road we saw Painted Bushquail and White-browed Bulbul, with Nilgiri Laughingthrush, Scaly Thrush and a Gaur for me. The next stop was Naduvattam shola where Nilgiri and Black-and-orange Flycatchers and Nilgiri Laughingthrush were seen. Late afternoon near the Potato Research Station failed to turn up Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon but White-spotted Fantail and Common Rosefinch were a consolation. The whole of the next day was spent on a long drive back to Thattekkad via a what was supposed to be wetland at Ponnani, which barely existed, and the owling at Thattekkad was no better.
An early drive to Munnar, then on to Mannavan shola was seriously delayed by road blocks – part of a general strike in protest against the burning of Hindus on a train in Gujarat – all the shola birds including Grey-breasted Laughingthrush and the Wood-Pigeon were seen. An early visit to Mount Tagore school for Broad-tailed Grassbird was fruitless as the grass had been burnt so we headed for Bodi Ghat, seeing Nilgiri Pipit on the way. It took some time to find Yellow-throated Bulbul in the heat of the day. Returning to Munnar, we continued to Kunniamally tea estate and had sightings of Grassbird in flight and a stellar view of a perched Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon. We returned the next morning to scan the distant hillside of Rajamalai, closed as the rare Nilgiri Tahr were giving birth, and saw several distant Tahr at around 07.30, but, surprisingly, no Grassbirds were seen. However, there was a very co-operative albiventris Shortwing in the relict shola near the road.
Returning to Thattekkad in the late afternoon, we saw Red Spurfowl, White-bellied and Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, a huge scorpion, but no owls of course. The following morning Rod and I drove to Orullathany at the other end of the reserve for some stream-walking, while Rich went to Idamalayar to look for the Wynaad LT, previously missed. I had excellent views of Grey-headed Bulbul while Rod and Rich both saw Wynaad Laughingthrush. We had to leave a day early because of an impending general strike against the economic conditions in Kerala, so in the afternoon drove to Kottayam, where local birders took us to a wetland for Malabar Lark, before we continued to Trivandrum. The final day was a wash-out as the strike in Kerala meant we could not drive anywhere other than locally. In only 12 days birding at 3 localities we had seen all the southern endemics and specialities except for Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl and Bay Owl (an impending split), without visiting Top Slip or Periyar, which are normally included in birding trips. Unfortunately, we were well south of the locality for Jerdon's Courser, a mega-bird that can be time-consuming and difficult to see.
I returned to Sri Lanka on April 1 to help in the launch of a new ringing programme based at the Yala Safari Beach Hotel on the edge of Yala NP. It was a good opportunity to train young ornithologists from the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka and Wildlife Dept/ National Park employees in the techniques of mist-netting and ringing, and to handle a variety of interesting birds. Professor Sarath Kotagama of the University of Colombo, the senior ornithologist in the country, joined us for several days.
In 6 days we caught 42 waders of 9 species at Palatubana Lagoon, including both sandplovers, Kentish Plover, Little Stint, Stone-Curlew and Curlew Sandpiper, and 112 land-birds of 22 species including a Wryneck - the first confirmed record for Sri Lanka! It is planned to continue the project, which is sponsored by Jetwing Eco Tours, for a number of years. Experienced ringers are welcome to join in, especially during the winter period when large numbers of waders are present in the area. They will be able to stay at the 3 star hotel next to the beach and Yala NP at discounted rates. Contact Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne on gehan at jetwing.lk or Amila Salgado on eco at jetwing.lk for further information.
NOTES ON SITES
Kitulgala - this reserve is well worth a visit as it is easy to explore the lower section between about 200-500m asl, a very good area for most Sri Lankan wet zone forest birds, including the tricky endemic Spurfowl, Grey Hornbill and Green-billed Coucal. Slaty-legged Crake, Chestnut-backed Owlet and Ceylon Frogmouth are also seen here. The key bird is the Coucal, which frequents the gardens in the morning, before you enter the forest, particularly near the concrete bridge.
The most convenient accommodation is the Kitulgala Guest House, from where the river is crossed by canoe to get to the gardens and forest.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve - this site contains all the wet zone endemics. The only place to stay is Martin's Guesthouse, which is reached by a 30-45 min pleasant walk uphill or a 4km drive in a very expensive 4WD (the Baur way). Martin's costs Rs 2000 /double room/night but contrary to what Susan Myers was told, you do not have to take your own food as he will cook simple, pleasant meals from locally grown vegetables. You must pay an entry fee of $US5/person/day which includes a local guide who is supposed to stay with you, although they were not over-zealous in enforcing this, I'm pleased to say. Susan recommends asking for Thandula, an excellent guide; I have to admit that we all did our own thing here, so cannot comment on the guides. Permits have to be purchased at the Kudawa Camp Office at the base of the reserve, which works to normal office hours, closing at 5ish - somebody will have to go down to get them later, outside this time.
Most of the birds can be seen along the main track from Martin's to the Forest Station/ Research Centre. Key species are Red-faced Malkoha, Chestnut-backed Owlet, Ceylon Frogmouth, Spot-winged Thrush, Scaly Thrush, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Ceylon Magpie and White-faced Starling. Spot-winged Thrush, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush and Ceylon Magpie should not be a problem but the others all take some effort or luck. Ceylon Wood-Pigeon and Green-billed Coucal can also be seen but may be easier elsewhere. We saw the Spurfowl here, with difficulty, but had overlooked Nick Gardner's site some 10 mins walk from Kudawa Camp (OBC Bull 17, page 47) where it is said to be not so difficult. Rod saw Malay Night-Heron along the river/ stream – see Species Highlights. Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl occurs but in a part not normally visited by birders - ask Martin for details. The new Otus occurs here, and in at least 3 other forests apparently, but is unlikely to be seen without a tape.
Tissamaharama – there are several large tanks, or reservoirs, around here, most notable being
Deberawewa Tank where the scarce White-naped Woodpecker can be found in a coconut plantation (see Brian Gee's report for precise details); bitterns and Brown Fish-Owl also occur, along with Baillon's Crake and Watercock, though you may need to wade into the reeds to see these, e.g. at Pannegamuwa Tank, southeast of town along the main road (I think).
Udawalawe National Park – we had a good morning here, with a fair selection of mammals - Brown Fish-Owl and Malabar Pied Hornbill were the highlights, but we failed to find Blue-faced Malkoha (at what is said to be the best site). Other notable birds were Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Barred Buttonquail, Sirkeer Malkoha, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, Indian Pitta and Orange-headed Thrush. It is relatively expensive to visit at Rs 1,200 ($13.3) entrance per person, Rs 2,100 for a jeep plus ranger and 10% service charge. Like all the game parks, walking is not allowed except in very restricted areas, which is rather frustrating for birding.
Yala National Park – we only birded around the edge while based at the Yala Safari Beach Hotel, seeing a few good birds including Barred Buttonquail, Indian Nightjar, White-browed Bulbul, Tawny-bellied Babbler and Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark, not to mention waders and terns. After visiting the NP on the last day of my return trip in April, I almost agree with Susan that “you would be crazy to miss it as it's a fabulous experience with plenty of large game - Asian Elephant, Water Buffalo [supposedly wild], Chital Deer, Mugger Crocodile - and magnificent birdlife”. I had good views of a large Leopard, a fairly common sight here, and Sloth Bear is regularly seen around July when its favourite tree is fruiting. The NP is a good site for Blue-faced Malkoha and Malabar Pied Hornbill. The cost of visiting is similar to Udawalawe National Park.
Bibile area – being keen to see Painted Francolin, we decided to visit this site where it was said to reside - an easterly detour on the way from Yala to Nuwara Eliya. From Bibile we took the Nilgala road for 22km, parked at the police station, then walked down a track on the right just beyond the station, towards Gal Oya National Park, for 45 min until we reached a ford, which is the boundary of the NP. Although we stayed in suitable habitat till dusk, very few birds were apparent, but the following morning was a different story, starting with Jerdon's Nightjar, then Jungle Bush-Quail in bunch-grass on the right c.500m before the river. Painted Francolins started to call there too, from 07.10 to 08.30, and were seen in flight. Take a track 45 degrees to the right, before a house on the left; if you reach a river crossing, you've come c.500 too far. We also had good views of Pompadour Pigeon, Layard's Parakeet, Banded Bay Cuckoo, Crimson-fronted Barbet and Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike. Hearing of our success, several people have visited the area since: in April Keith Betton managed to see Rain Quail as well, and other possibilities are Streak-throated Woodpecker and Booted Warbler (ssp. caligata).
Surrey Tea Plantation - visit en route to Nuwara Eliya to look for roosting Brown Wood-Owl in the small fragment of forest near the big house. If the owners' son is in he can usually show you where the roost is, but if not, as when we went, it's a struggle since the birds change trees quite often. Susan found it but we did not.
Nuwara Eliya - this hill station at 2000+ m has two main attractions: the botanical gardens at Victoria Park and nearby Horton Plains. Victoria Park holds Indian Pitta, Pied Thrush, Kashmir Flycatcher, Indian Blue Robin, Ceylon White-eye and Slaty-legged Crake. We did not see the Crake or the Flycatcher but the Thrush alone is worth the visit – an unusually confiding Zoothera, with a rich song at dusk. We also spent some time checking out marshy areas around the town but the only notable birds were Pallas's Grasshopper-Warbler and Black-throated Munia, at Horse Stable wetlands. We looked fruitlessly for Brown Wood-Owl in the huge cypresses near the Grand Hotel, where it had bred 3 months earlier, and drove to Labookalie Tea Estate to be sure of seeing Hill Swallow.
Horton Plains National Park – the edge of the park is the only reliable site now for the Arrenga (Ceylon Whistling-Thrush). It is an attractive area, also holding Ceylon Wood-Pigeon, Yellow-eared Bulbul, the skulking Ceylon Bush-Warbler, Dull-blue and Kashmir Flycatchers, Ceylon White-eye, Black-throated Munia and an interesting race of the Blackbird. There are two checkpoints - one outside the park at a distance of some 10 km, the second at the entrance to the park. Just inside the first one is said to be a good area for Brown Wood-Owl, but unfortunately I misunderstood the directions and so failed to look for it even though we were there before dawn. Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl also occurs in this area, apparently.
The gate is locked until 06.00 when you can then drive on to “Arrenga Pool”, a natural pond on the right side of the road. At 06.40, still cool at 2300 m, an Arrenga started singing down in the deep valley on the left and soon popped up into a nearby tree in response to brief play-back. If my flash hadn't played-up, I should have got some great shots, as it stayed around for several minutes. Ceylon Wood-Pigeons and Blackbirds were common and vocal around here. Just before the second gate, we turned left along Ohiya Road and checked the roadside bushes for some distance: Indian Blue Robin, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Ceylon Bush-Warbler, Dull-blue and Kashmir Flycatchers were all seen here.
Other sites of note we did not visit include:-
Bodhinagala – good for the Coucal, Owlet and Grey Hornbill, with Spurfowl and Frogmouth also possible
Bundala NP – good for waterbirds and waders including Small Pratincole
Kandy – Udawattakel reserve for Brown Wood-Owl and other forest birds
Sigiriya – spectacular rock, with surrounding dry forest good for Blue-faced Malkoha and Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl is a possibility.
Bellanwila-Attidaya – a wetland near Colombo which used to be good but is said to be rather disturbed now.
"Today, the status of the Western Ghats is depressing. They are under enormous pressure from plantation expansion, unregulated tourism, mining, logging, dam builders and encroachment. Greater protection and increased public awareness of one of India's most beautiful, yet fragile ecosystems, is perhaps the only way to preserve this unique wealth from slipping into ecological oblivion." Hornbill Oct-Dec 2001, the newsletter of the Bombay Natural History Society.
Thattekkad area - we gambled, successfully, on seeing all the Periyar and Top Slip specialities here, after Bill Simpson had extolled its virtues. Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, also known as Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, is easy to reach, being 12 km NE of Kothamangalam in Ernakulam District, Kerala state, about 50 km east of Kochi international airport. You could visit without your own transport, by taking buses or a tourist taxi - around Rs.10 per km – but a vehicle is essential if you want to visit areas outside the reserve. Go to Thattekkad ferry, which crosses the Periyar River every c.30 min from c.06.00-21.00. Turn right into the reserve gates after 200-300m and purchase an entry permit and accommodation from the office on the left. There is basic dorm with showers (Rs 130/ person) or a resthouse near the entrance gate and a watch-tower, with beds, 1 km into the reserve. Both the latter cost Rs 1000 and can be booked by phoning 485 588302 during the day-time. You can also stay cheaply, and eat without staying, at a nearby private house - a bit noisy overnight, but with good food and they will even bring beer up from the village. Entrance fees were a pittance here.
Specialities here include Red Spurfowl, Bay Owl, Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl, Ceylon Frogmouth, Blue-faced Malkoha, Rufous Babbler, Brown-breasted, White-bellied Blue- and Rusty-tailed Flycatchers, Grey-headed Bulbul and Wynaad Laughingthrush, while Slaty-legged Crake and Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon occur at certain times of the year. A guide is essential, not only to help in finding the birds and avoid getting lost, but to avoid the possibility of death from encounter with a rogue elephant: while we were there, an elephant charged and chased after 3 birders including guide Eldo - they had to stay in a narrow gully for an hour before the elephant left. Eldo is the best guide: K.V.Eldhose of Kavumgampillil House, PO box 25, Keerampara P.O. 686 691, India, and charges Rs 500 per day. He is very experienced and knowledgeable about the birds in the wide area, including Munnar, and seems to have permission to roam wherever he wants. The other guide is Jijo, a keen, helpful young man who has learnt a lot about the local birds in the last couple of years – he has even been able to photograph the secretive local race of Scaly Thrush with a standard lens, no mean feat.
The more difficult birds are Grey-headed Bulbul, Wynaad Laughingthrush and, of course, the owls. We found Orullathany, at the other end of the reserve, accessed by walking up the streams there, to be the best site for the Bulbul and Laughingthrush, although we also saw them outside the reserve on Idamalayar Power Plant land (where you can eat very cheaply in the local canteen or villages). The two owls were in the vicinity of the watch-tower, though we never did see them. Mottled Wood-Owl was easy at a day-roost on the south side of the river just beyond the town, near where both Jijo and Eldo live. Streak-throated Woodpecker and Yellow-billed Babbler were also seen in the dry open woodland near here. Other notable species seen within the main area of the reserve were Red Spurfowl, Ceylon Frogmouth (on the nest), Blue-faced Malkoha, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Malabar Grey Hornbill, White-bellied and Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, Rufous Babbler, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, White-bellied Treepie and Black-throated Munia.
Munnar – this hill station is situated at 1450m in the centre of a major tea-producing region, where only a few remnants of natural forest survive. Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon, Grey-breasted Laughingthrush, Nilgiri and Black-and-Rufous Flycatchers, White-bellied Shortwing and Nilgiri Pipit are found in this area, either on the plateau of the High Range (Nilgiri Hills), e.g. at Rajamalai (part of the Eravikulam National Park, 8 km from Munnar), or in the sholas - dense patches of natural evergreen forest in sheltered valleys. The grassy plateau is also one of the last haunts of the rare Nilgiri Tahr. Birders normally visit Rajamalai and Cardomom Shola for these species but, unfortunately, the former was closed because the Tahr were about to give birth, so we had to make do with birding on an adjacent hillside belonging to Kunniamally tea estate. Here we had Broad-tailed Grassbird in flight and a perched Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon, while the shola patch near the main road held the shortwing, both the endemic flycatchers and the skulking T.m.nigropileus Blackbird. Drive towards Rajamalai, cross 2 bridges over the river, pass the tea factory on the right and park at a double left turn (a dirt road and a sealed road, 10 min from Munnar). The shola patch is here but the Grassbird is above the tea plantation, so walk 100 m up the sealed road and take the track on the right up through the tea estate until the grassland is reached. Long grass near the first checkpoint along the entrance road to Rajamalai is also good for the Grassbird, and Painted Bush-Quail, according to Eldo.
At Eldo's recommendation, we went to Mannavan Sholar rather than Cardomom Shola. When we eventually got there, after a right turn at Marrayoor, it was indeed a fine area of shola, much bigger than Cardoman apparently, and all the shola birds, including Grey-breasted Laughingthrush and Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon, were seen in one afternoon's walk along a traffic-free track from 1750-2150 m.
We did not see Nilgiri Pipit on the tea estate but did find it by the roadside when driving to our third site, Bodi Ghat. This is the stake-out for Yellow-throated Bulbul, which took some time to locate in the heat of the day but was a pair was eventually spotted at Brian Gee's wooded gulleys at Km 13 (from Bodi and Bodimettu), along with White-browed Bulbul. It also occurs at Chinnar, according to Eldo.
Ooty (Udhagamandalam) – another hill station, at about 2250m in the Nilgiri Hills. The closest shola is Cairnhill Reserved Forest, 3 km from town on the Avalanche road, where Rufous-breasted (Nilgiri) Laughingthrush, White-bellied Shortwing, and Black-and-rufous, Rusty-tailed and Nilgiri Flycatchers all occur. In a late afternoon visit we only saw a pair of the rufous-flanked race of the Shortwing, but a good one to get as we only saw one other. The other two sites to visit near here are the Sighur Ghat road, Km 11-20, and Naduvattam Shola, 30 km from Ooty. An early trip down the former produced Painted Bush-Quail, the main target, and a Scaly Thrush for me, while an afternoon visit to the shola gave the Laughingthrush and flycatchers, near the “Mysore 127 km” post. The Potato Research Station, a site for the Wood-Pigeon and further on past Cairnhill, was unrewarding.
Other localities of note we did not visit include:-
Anaimalai National Park (Top Slip), near Pollachi – the problem here is that you are not permitted to stay more than two nights. Susan rated it the best area she visited, but she did not go to Thattekad. Her sightings in 2 days included Red Spurfowl, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Brown Hawk-Owl, Great Hornbill and Wynaad Laughingthrush, as well as Gaur and Dhole. There is also a possibility of Lion-tailed Macaque, although she did not see it.
Periyar NP – a fine reserve for mammals but not so good for birding as you are not allowed to walk in it. The main birding objective has been to see Wynaad Laughingthrush.
Mudumalai NP – another good mammal reserve, with a possibility of Tiger. Lots of birds here, mainly widespread species, but does hold White-naped Woodpecker, White-bellied Minivet and Grey-headed Bulbul. This was in our original plan but meant travelling further north into Tamil Nadu.
Taxonomy, names and sequence follow Clements, JF (2000) Birds of the World: A Checklist.
Numbers quoted are daily maxima seen by me.
(My records unless otherwise stated)
Malayan Night-Heron, Gorsachius melanolophus – Rod walked up the small river just beyond the Research Centre at Sinharaja, with difficulty, and flushed one after c.500 m. The following morning he walked further up the main trail, then dropped down to the river through the forest and again flushed a Night-Heron which he was able to locate perched high in a tree along with 1 or 2 others. As he said the spot would be difficult to relocate, Rich and I did not try to find it.
Black Bittern, Ixobrychus flavicollis – Martin said he had seen this species at Sinharaja, which surprised me, but the following day I found one in a mist-net set over the river near the Research Centre! We later saw 2 at a wetland 20 km E of Colombo.
Painted Francolin, Francolinus pictus – 2 at Nilgala road, Bibile on 18th, in bunch-grass just outside Gal Oya NP.
Jungle Bush-Quail, Perdicula asiatica – 2+ at Nilgala road, Bibile on 18th, c.200m from the Francolins.
Ceylon Spurfowl, Galloperdix bicalcarata – often heard but only seen at Kitulgala by Rich, where an uphill trail goes left off the main trail, and Sinharaja by Rod, on the left-hand loop off the main track well before the Research Station, and by me near the huge tree on the short loop beyond the river, near the Research Station.
Corn Crake, Crex crex – a crake/ rail with rusty wings flew briefly in the small marsh reached by the trail at the start of the first padi on the right, by the gate/ checkpost at Sinharaja – although classed as a vagrant, I can't see what else it could have been.
Baillon's Crake, Porzana pusilla – Rod saw 5 by wading thigh-deep in the marsh at Pannegamuwa Tank, Tissa – I was on the edge, nearby, but saw none, although I did see our only Sri Lankan Watercock there.
Red-necked Phalarope, Phalaropus lobatus – 2 at Palatubana Lagoon in early April when ringing.
Ceylon Wood-Pigeon, Columba torringtoni – 3 in flight on 12th at or near Martin's, Sinharaja, and 1 perched on 13th along the main track; at least 3 seen at Horton Plains.
Banded Bay Cuckoo, Cacomantis sonneratii – at least 1 at Bibile, taped in.
Red-faced Malkoha, Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus – 2 at Sinharaja on 12th were the only ones I saw.
Green-billed Coucal, Centropus chlororhynchus – heard and possibly seen at Sinharaja, near the Research Centre - definitely seen by the others – I only caught up with it on the return visit to Kitulgala when 1 was watched from 07.45-08.15 perched in a tree-top, calling sporadically, near the small bridge after turning left from the ferry, away from the forest track. It apparently feeds at the rubbish tip in a nearby garden every morning from 06.00-06.30. At 08.45-08.55 a pair fed in a garden near the concrete bridge before the start of the forest.
Brown Fish-Owl, Ketupa zeylonensis – 1 roosting at Udawalawe, a well-known stake-out.
Chestnut-backed Owlet, Glaucidium castanonotum – 1 was taped in mid-morning a few 100m beyond the Research Centre at Sinharaja. A pair was seen roosting in the high trees near the huge tree by Peter Rathbone et al but had gone the next day when I looked.
Ceylon Frogmouth, Batrachostomus moniliger – 1 at dawn near the first gate/checkpost at Sinharaja and 1 found by Wicky roosting near Martin's in a small bush, less than a meter off the ground.
Jerdon's Nightjar, Caprimulgus atripennis – 1 calling at dusk near Yala Safari Beach Hotel and 1 in flight at dawn at Bibile, with another calling. We drove along the roads and tracks at night outside Yala, expecting to find it, but with no success.
Black-backed/ Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Ceyx erithacus erithacus – 2 at Kitulgala on 10th, near the start of the forest, were display flying and calling, with was observed in a tree; also heard at Sinharaja.
Ceylon Grey Hornbill, Ocyceros gingalensis – although seen visiting a nest hole at Kitulgala by Rich on our first day, and heard there and at Sinharaja, I did not see any until our last day when I watched 3 noisy birds for some time at a clearing in Kitulgala forest; Rich also had 1 at Bibile.
Malabar Pied-Hornbill, Anthracoceros coronatus – 2 pairs at Udawalawe. It is important to see this species in Sri Lanka as it is very difficult in India now – Udawalawe and Yala NPs are the best sites.
Crimson-fronted/ Ceylon Small Barbet, Megalaima rubricapilla rubricapilla – 2 at Rakmana Resthouse and at Bibile were the only ones seen. Could be a split from the Indian form M. r. malabarica.
Eurasian Wryneck, Jynx torquilla – 1 netted by me at Yala on 5th April was the first confirmed record for the country!
White-naped Woodpecker, Chrysocolaptes festivus – 1 in the coconut grove at Deberawewa Tank, Tissa.
Indian Pitta, Pitta brachyura – 1 at Sinharaja, 3 at Udawalawe and 1 at Victoria Park, Nuwara Eliya – seems to be the world's easiest pitta, though I haven't looked for the Australian ones at the right time.
Hill Swallow, Hirundo domicola – 4+ at Labookalie Tea Estate, near Nuwara Eliya, breeding inside the main building.
Ceylon Whistling-Thrush, Myophonus blighi – 2 at Horton Plains – easy!
Orange-headed Thrush, Zoothera citrina citrina – 1 at Udawalawe was the only sighting of this winter visitor.
Pied Thrush, Zoothera wardii – 5 at Victoria Park, Nuwara Eliya; watching and hearing the males sing at dusk was a highlight of the trip for me, a stunning bird.
Spot-winged Thrush, Zoothera spiloptera – 2 at Kitulgala and 4 or 5 daily at Sinharaja, another surprisingly “easy” Zoothera.
Scaly Thrush, Zoothera dauma imbricata – 2 feeding along the loop trail by the river just before the Research Centre at Sinharaja on 14th, but not on other days; 2 were also seen in the hand after netting there – neither had white outer tail tips, normally a distinctive feature of dauma, and tails appeared short, bills big – a good split?
Ceylon Bush-Warbler, Bradypterus palliseri – 1 at Horton Plains.
Pallas' Warbler, Locustella certhiola – a singing bird seen briefly at Horse Stable marsh, Nuwara Eliya.
Kashmir Flycatcher, Ficedula subrubra – singles at Labookalie Tea Estate and Horton Plains. It had been showing consistently at Victoria Park but we did not spend much time there and it is an early-departing migrant.
Tawny-bellied Babbler, Dumetia hyperythra – 2 pairs on the approach road to Yala Safari Beach Hotel.
White-throated/ Legge's Flowerpecker, Dicaeum vincens – only noted in small numbers at Sinharaja but probably over-looked as it certainly occurs at Kitulgala.
Ceylon Magpie, Urocissa ornata – up to 6 at Sinharaja, mainly near the Research Centre, with 1 feeding a fledgling further back along the main trail. A 10+ min skirmish between a Green Imperial Pigeon and a pair of magpies was witnessed, which included both species knocking each other off perches! Heard but not seen at Kitulgala.
White-faced Starling, Sturnia albofrontata – only 2 at Sinharaja on 12th and 1 on 13th – a dead tree behind the Research Centre is favoured.
Rosy Starling, Pastor roseus – a single adult at Yala on 17th was the only sighting of what can be a numerous winter visitor.
Black-throated Munia, Lonchura kelaarti kelaarti – 2 in trees at Horse Stable marsh, Nuwara Eliya was my only sighting but Rich had a couple in padi at Kitulgala.
Short-toed Eagle, Circaetus gallicus – 1 at Bodi Ghat, a scarce bird in the south.
Grey-headed Fish-Eagle, Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus – 1 at the Idamalayar Power Plant dam.
Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Spizaetus nipalensis – 1 at Idamalayar Power Plant, Thattekkad was rather low for this sp. at c.400 (?)m asl.
Painted Bush-Quail, Perdicula erythrorhyncha – 3 Sighur Ghat road at c.1400 m; Eldo flushed 2 on the Kunniamally tea estate track.
Red Spurfowl, Galloperdix spadicea – I only saw 2 singles in Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary but Rod saw 5 one evening.
Grey Junglefowl, Gallus sonneratii – common in the Thattekad area with up to 6 seen daily.
Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon, Columba elphinstonii – 1 crippling view on Kunniamally tea estate with another in flight; 4 in flight at Mannavan Shola, 17.30-18.30, including 1 flushed from a nest only 2 m up in a bush near the start of the shola.
Malabar Parakeet, Psittacula columboides – fairly common around Thattekad and a few around Munnar.
Blue-faced Malkoha, Phaenicophaeus viridirostris – 3 together c.1.5 km beyond the watch-tower along the main track at Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary on 24th.
Spot-bellied(Forest) Eagle-Owl, Bubo nipalensis – heard on 3 nights at Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, including a pair duetting high overhead on 22nd.
Mottled Wood-Owl, Strix ocellata – a pair with a large juv. in isolated trees at Thattekkad.
Ceylon Frogmouth, Batrachostomus moniliger – 1 on the nest throughout at Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, with others heard.
White-rumped Needletail, Zoonavena sylvatica – 1-3 on 3 days at Idamalayar Power Plant.
Malabar Trogon, Harpactes fasciatus – 1-2 on 3 days at Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary.
White-bellied Woodpecker, Dryocopus javensis – 1 seen once and heard on 2 other days at Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary.
Streak-throated Woodpecker, Picus xanthopygaeus – 2 at Thattekkad.
Heart-spotted Woodpecker, Hemicircus canente – singles on 2 days at Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary.
Indian Pitta, Pitta brachyura – 1-2 daily around Thattekad and 2 along Sighur Ghat road.
Malabar Lark, Galerida malabarica – 3+ at a wetland, partly filled in, near Kottayam, display-flighting. We grilled these because the habitat seemed wrong but were sure of the identity. Failed to find it around Ooty.
Nilgiri Pipit, Anthus nilghiriensis – 2 south of Munnar on the Bodi Ghat road. A pipit at Kunniamally tea estate may have been this sp. but was not seen well enough.
Grey-headed Bulbul, Pycnonotus priocephalus – Rich saw 1 in a flock of drongos and spiderhunters at Idamalayar Power Plant on 24th, then we saw 3 at c.Km 7 there on 25th, and I had great views of 3+ at the Orullanthany end of Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary on 4th March.
Yellow-throated Bulbul, Pycnonotus xantholaemus – 2 at Bodi Ghat Km 13, singing like a quiet Red-whiskered Bulbul.
Malabar Whistling-Thrush, Myophonus horsfieldii – up to 5 daily around Thattekad and at least 1 at Mannavan Shola. The song is a beautiful human-like tune, quite different from any other Myophonus I've heard.
Orange-headed Thrush, Zoothera citrina cyanotus – 1 or 2 of this distinctive race daily around Thattekad.
Scaly Thrush, Zoothera dauma neilgherriensis – 1 flew from roadside bushes at c.Km 14 on Sighur Ghat road into a tree c.6 m up where it called with a short “tsit” several times – if only I had had my camera with me! Another was seen briefly bathing in a small stream at Idamalayar Power Plant, Km 7-8.
White-bellied Shortwing, Brachypteryx major – 2 major at Cairnhill Reserved Forest and 1 at Potato Research Station, Ooty and 1 or 2 albiventris in the shola patch by Kunniamally tea estate; several heard unseen at Mannavan Shola.
Thick-billed Warbler, Acrocephalus aedon – singles on 22nd and 25th at Idamalayar Power Plant.
Western Crowned Leaf-Warbler, Phylloscopus occipitalis – 2 at Naduvattam Shola and at Idamalayar Power Plant.
Broad-tailed Grassbird, Schoenicola platyura – 1 confirmed flight sighting at Kunniamally tea estate and 2-3 poor sightings of what was probably this skulking species.
Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Muscicapa ruficauda – 1-2 daily around Thattekad.
Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Muscicapa muttui – 1 on 3rd and 2 on 4th at Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary.
Black-and-rufous Flycatcher, Ficedula nigrorufa – singles at Naduvattam Shola and Kunniamally tea estate shola, with at least 3 at Mannavan Shola – a little beauty.
Nilgiri Flycatcher, Eumyias albicaudata – fairly common throughout the Nilgiri woodland.
White-bellied Blue-Flycatcher, Cyornis pallipes – up to 3 daily around Thattekad.
Blue-throated Flycatcher, Cyornis rubeculoides – singles at Idamalayar Power Plant on 22nd and Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary on 4th March.
Spot-breasted (White-throated) Fantail, Richipidura (albicollis) albogularis – only 1 of this dubious split was noted, in eucalypts near the Potato Research Station, Ooty.
Wynaad Laughingthrush, Garrulax delesserti – c.10 with 4 Scimitar-Babblers at Idamalayar Power Plant, Km 7-8 on 25th; Rod had another 10 in Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary on 4th March and Rich saw them at Idamalayar on the same date.
Rufous-breasted Laughingthrush, Garrulax cachinnans – 2 at Sighur Ghat road and at Naduvattam Shola on 27th.
Grey-breasted Laughingthrush, Garrulax jerdoni – quite common with at least 6 seen at Mannavan Shola, and 2 at Bodi Ghat.
Rufous Babbler, Turdoides subrufus – 10+ on 22nd and a few on 25th at Idamalayar Power Plant.
Yellow-billed Babbler, Turdoides affinis – a small flock on 25th at Thattekkad was the only sighting.
Black-lored Tit, Parus xanthogenys – 2 at Naduvattam Shola and 6 at Mannavan Shola.
Crimson-backed Sunbird, Leptocoma minima – 2 on 3 dates around Thattekad.
White-bellied Treepie, Dendrocitta leucogastra – up to 5 daily around Thattekad.
Black-throated Munia, Lonchura kelaarti jerdoni – 8 at Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary on 24th, drinking at a small pool.
Sri Lanka's first Wryneck