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Sri Lanka Birding

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Getting away from the dreary end of a UK winter for a week in the Sri Lanka sun sounded irresistible. In the event, the UK had the mildest of winters and a veritable heat wave during the week I was away. Still, the UK couldn’t compete in terms of either sunshine or wildlife. Our first stop was Wilpattu National Park on the north west part of the island. Out of bounds until recently because of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Wilpattu is a haven for both birds and mammals and does not have too many tourists (unlike Yala NP in the south east). We were lucky enough to stay inside the park in a basic but comfortable bungalow overlooking a lake frequented by elephants, wild pigs, deer and a selection of birds. On our game drives we had spectacular sightings of leopard, for which the park is justly famous. 

Wilpattu literally means land of little lakes and the central area of the park comprises a series shallow pans which attract many waders and herons. There were large numbers of pintailed snipe, Pacific golden plover, bar-tailed godwits, redshank, greenshank, woodsandpipers and many others. In the water itself there were pheasant tailed jacanas, black bittern, various egrets, grey and purple herons, open-billed storks, painted storks and woolly-necked storks. One of the most striking birds was the paradise flycatcher, the males – mostly of the white morph – floating like a white ribbon through the trees. On two occasions we saw white paradise flycatchers associated with back-naped monarchs (a beautiful cobalt blue flycatcher) and we were told by our guide that they often occur together. Why???

IMG_1343After Wilpattu we went to the north east of Sri Lanka, north of Trincomalee – another region that was off limits during the war. This is a dry area with relatively few people, although I predict that the beautiful coastline will soon be developed as a holiday destination. Lots of water bodies here and our main target was a huge wetland known as Kokkilai Bird Sanctuary – a massive, biologically productive lagoon. The birds were almost indifferent to the numerous fisherman: cormorants, herons, egrets, kites, sea eagles and many others.

IMG_1458There are house crows everywhere: cheeky, confiding and confident. Has anyone tested their cognitive abilities? They seemed super-smart to me and I bet they bend wire in their sleep.

Our final stop was Lion Rock, or Sigirya, a spectacular lump of rock some 200 m high situated smack in the middle of the island. Reaching the top involved a breath-taking (literally) climb up rickety steel ladders and steps, but it was worth it. Half-way up here are some great rock paintings of some special ethereal maidens.  The view from the top was fabulous and included close views of the beautiful dark race of the peregrine.

Thinking of bird watching in Sri Lanka? I recommend it. The people are charming, the food is wonderful, and this time at least, there were very few mosquitos, and without trying too hard we clocked up around 120 bird species in just two main locations in 7 days.

Tim Birkhead
16 March 2014

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IMAGE CREDITS: Map from WorldAtlas.com; all other photos by Tim Birkhead
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