I guided three avid birders on a monsoon birding trip from late June to early July. The main organiser, Pieter van der Luit from Inezia Tours, and his colleague, Teus (Dr. Teus Luijendijk) came from the Netherlands. They both were terrific birders and had 3,138 and 3,777 birds in their respective life lists. Pieter won one of the books that I gave away at a quiz that I did in the “IATB #75”—birding blog carnival.
The third person, Philip Johnson, was a client of Pieter's. Phil is a Professor at the University of Alabama in the department of civil engineering. He was determined to reach 5,000 birds before he turns 60—on the 30th December. After visiting five other countries in the oriental region since May, birding, Phil’s life list stood at 4,897 birds when he arrived in Sri Lanka. He left Sri Lanka with a tally of 4,950. Pieter and Teus bagged 138 and 51 lifersrespectively.
The monsoon really had a dampening effect at some of the key birding sites we visited. Nevertheless, we trudged along and achieved a tally of 194, which included thirty-one endemics, and eight of the fifteen resident night birds. We missed out on two endemics: Sri Lanka Spurfowl and Serendib Scops Owl—both were stubbornly silent.
We did quite well with mammals, seeing a total of twenty-six species including Sri Lanka’s big three: Elephant, Sloth Bear and Leopard. Being a target-driven world birder, non-birdie subjects to Phil were as unattractive as non-estrous females to a Silverback.
Of course, he did not resort to chest-beating and grunting to show his displeasure, but instead he conveniently lumped them in a catch-all category named NFF—No F***ing Feathers! And moved on to find his next life bird.
Despite his avowed indifference to creatures with no feathers, Phil kept on stumbling some rarest non-birdie gems—for people like us. And he was nice enough to share them. The star among these serendipitous finds by him, was an adorable Red Slender Loris, that he spotted while it was moving slow and low in a thicket in the amazing Sinharaja rain forest. This nocturnal endemic mammal is rather rare, and all of us had great views of it.
His next best exploit was chancing upon a Muntjak at Welimada, which is not as rare, but cool nevertheless.
Moving on to birding specifics, our search for the Sri Lanka Bush-Warbler near a pool at the cloud forests of Horton Plains National Park (2,100m) to me was the most memorable birding experience of the trip. It was in a very cold morning with temperatures in single digit ºC, when intermittent downpours, and foggy conditions conspired with high gusts to spell very little hope for our cause.
Yet we stood there tenaciously, with bins firmly in our grips, ready to lift them at the slightest detection of a movement in the low-vegetation that stood before us. A movement that would betray the presence of this endemic LBJ – that can prove pain in the neck at elevations lower down. Our agonizing vigil was interrupted by my pep talk how I have shown cracking views of it at this site before on previous tours. And how we should not call off play, on account of the elements. And stay positive just like this Sambar.
Fifteen minutes on, there was no let up; it was bitterly cold.
I then I decided to take a stroll with the team to see whether we could pick its metallic call in the low shrubs. No hope. Even the bubbly Yellow-eared Bulbuls remained stubbornly silent. And the gregarious Sri Lanka White-eyes too seemed to be on a token strike, protesting the weather. Not even a Dull-blue Flycatcher sang its sonorous call—which would have been fitting for the moment. We didn’t need that Flycatcher. Phil spotted it the day before at Welimada to give great views for all of us. In fact, we had three individuals, which included a newly fledged one. One good view is just enough for hardcore birders. The name of the game is to move on to look for new birds.
With little success from the walk, I called that we should go back to check the pond.
Minutes after arriving back at the original position, our hopes were raised when Phil detected a movement of something birdie, in the low thickets, but lost it before he could find it in his binoculars. It was too misty and gloomy. Phil finds it a bit difficult to see things in low-light. And the optics gathered water droplets whenever we took off the protective covers to scan the surroundings, impairing our vision further.
With this being the state of affairs, seconds later, the bird rematerialised in a reedy patch at the edge of the pond—seemingly on transit. It was good enough for the Dutch duo to get their fills of this rare skulker. But, Phil was not on it, still struggling with his bins, wiping the mist on his glasses, and all that. Quite frustratingly, before we could show him this LBJ, it flew off across the pond, and disappeared into the bordering thickets. Only UTVs—Un-Tickable-Views. That means, it will not be counted as seen.
I alerted to stay focused as it might pop out again. Soon, as predicted, I picked up a slight movement across the pond—bingo—I got Phil on it this time. I could read its details just enough through my Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42. But then, Phil claimed he could still see only the dark blurry profile of the bird just to say that it looked like a Bush-Warbler but nothing beyond. That hinted that it was still a UTV as far as he was concerned!
I then gave him my bins to try. And that worked. He at once claimed to see its details much clearer than through his 10 x 42s, (which were pretty worn out). The Dutch duo too were sporting Swarovski EL 10 x 42 binoculars. Pieter and Teus too took turns to look through my bins at a now preening Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, out in the open— to confirm what Phil observed. The superior light gathering ability of Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42 does have its uses in low-light forest birding.
Although the weather improved very little thereafter, birds, however, began to come out as the day wore on. It seemed like they had resigned to the fact that things will not get any better. Raising our hopes, Sri Lanka White-eye, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Indian Blackbird, Orange-billed Babbler, Grey Tit, Dark-fronted Babbler, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Common Tailorbird, Dull-blue Flycatcher, all came in quick order as we pressed on.
A short respite from the rain, brought a couple of Sri Lanka Bush-Warblers to an eye-level perch for much improved views. Shortly afterwards, another one low-down. Way better.
Due to weather induced misfortunes, the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush kept eluding us until our final morning at Nuwara Eliya, when I gambled to check a new site. It worked. And the male Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush that I found for everybody not only gave jaw-dropping views, sitting on an open branch, but also entertained us with its song—which I heard well for the first time. Teus and I got decent sound recordings of it.
Whistling Thrushes are ultra-elusive birds and seeing them involve a sound technique.