Yong Ding Li, 23, a Singaporean birder, had seen 1,217 species of birds in Asia by the time he visited Sri Lanka for a birding trip. Ding Li was determined to break the record of Ben King—who has seen the most number of birds in Asia. He was referred to me by Enoka Kudawidanage who is doing a PhD studies at NUS (National University of Singapore), where Ding Li is a student. Although Ding Li first wanted to do a very low budget backpacking style trip, inviting me to join him at a few key birding sites such as Sinharaja rain forest, I was able to lure him to accepting a more structured itinerary. It was good a group tour—to keep costs low.
The result was a birding trip done between 10-19 Dec 2007 with 5 other Singaporean birders joining in. They included Ding Li’s birding buddy: Albert Low, 21, who had seen 1,107 bird species in Asia and 1,500 species in the world by the time he came to Sri Lanka.
Others were Alan Owyong—a keen videographer, who had visited Sri Lanka a couple of times; Alfred Chia—a serious birder and a keen photographer with a sharp eye and an even sharper wit; Willie Foo—a keen videographer; and Yang Pah Liang—a keen birder who had travelled extensively.
We combined several key birding sites: Kithulgala, Sinharaja, Morapitiya, Udawalawe National Park, Tissamaharama, Nuwara Eliya and a host of local patches, and a bit of sight-seeing at Kandy, before heading back to Katunayake for the final night.
Ding Li and Albert Low stayed on for two more days of birding and cultural explorations. During this extension, Albert and I did a "water birds day tour" combining a few wetlands north of the airport: Chilaw sandspits, Annaiwilundawa Ramsar wetland, Palawi saltpans, and the massive Nawadamkulama tank.
Our final bird trip list stood at 221 species—seen. Our top birding highlights were Green-billed Coucal, Chestnut-backed Owlet, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Red-faced Malkoha, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, White-faced Starling, Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Spot-winged Thrush, Brown-capped Babbler, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Malabar Trogon, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Brown-backed Needletail, Besra, Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Dull-blue Flycatcher, Kashmir Flycatcher, Pied Thrush, Indian Blue Robin, Slaty-legged Crake, Indian Blackbird, Hill Swallow, Blue-faced Malkoha, Osprey, Jungle Owlet, Brown Fish Owl, Jungle Prinia, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Indian Nightjar, Blyth’s Pipit, Indian Scops Owl, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Spot-billed Pelican, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Indian Pitta, Lesser Cuckoo, White-naped Woodpecker, Indian Think-knee, Indian Pygmy Woodpecker, and Yellow-wattled Lapwing.
Albert’s water birds tour with me produced Eurasian Oystercatcher, Sanderling, Great Thick-knee, Caspian, White-winged, Little and Lesser Crested Terns, Lesser Sand Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Grey Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Kentish Plover, Brown-headed Gull, Garganey, Watercock, and Indian Reed Warbler.
On the main tour, we managed to bag 31 of the 33 endemic birds; plus many of the sought-after migrants and sub-continental specialties. Our notable miss was Serendib Scops Owl. The closest we got for this endemic bird discovered in Janurary, 2001 was when we heard it across a shallow stream at Kithulgala. It was rainy, yet I could have shown it had my visitors been willing to following me in cross that stream. Our second attempt at Morapitiya ended up in failure with heavy rain and greatly swollen streams hampering our movements.
On account of our missing this rarity, Albert thought it should be named Serendip Scops Owl in our final bird list! The other endemic that eluded was the Crimson-backed Flameback.
As mentioned above, we had to contend with rainy weather—at times rather heavily on certain days because the period of our travel coinciding with a untimely monsoonal peak. Leading to this trip, I was quite surprised as to how many dry and sunny days I enjoyed in November this year, which is usually rainy due to the onset of the North-East monsoon. This monsoon brings rain to the dry zone (3/4 of the island) as well as the wet zone (the balance 1/3). The intensity of rain expected in November was clearly not there this year. (During a trip done in November, I spoke to a farmer in the dry zone, and was concerned by the delayed monsoon.)
A Malabar Trogon at Sinharaja rain forest.
It seemed to me the rain overdue had been delivered with interest December this year!
The heavy monsoonal rain caused extensive floods in some areas in the north-central and eastern districts in the dry zones after a lapse of many years. This was especially due to spill gates in certain tanks (reservoirs) having to be opened due to very high water levels.
Our non-birding highlights came in the form of Yellow-striped Chevrotain Moschiola kathygre, which we encountered on the trail while driving up to Martin’s at night and Bear Monkey Trachypithecus vetulus monticola in Nuwara Eliya.
Considering rainy weather we ha and us not visiting three national parks usually visited on standard birding tours (Horton Plains, Yala and Bundala), overall we could be happy of what we achieved in such a short span of time.
Sri Lanka White-eye at Nuwara Eliya.
Ding Li left Sri Lanka boosting his Asian tally by 63 ending up at 1,280 seen. Albert Low left Sri Lanka high, raking in 91 lifers to stand at 1,198 Asian birds seen.
Edit: The newly rediscovered Sri Lankan breeding resident Marshall's Iora was seen briefly on this tour at the Lunugamwehera; and made it to the final trip list. After this, I had very convincing views of this bird on my Absolute Birding tour in Feb, 2008. A detailed report of it is here here.
The pair of Jungle Owlets that I spotted from a moving vehicle at Tanamalwila.
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