Saturday 11 April 2020

14th March Mirissa to Colombo

After missing out on Blue Whale yesterday, today was our last chance. On the plus side we had the Captain of choice. Purely speculation but I think tourist numbers had dropped for a number of reasons besides the impending Pandemic, so I think the boats were rationed to spread out the tourists available.

In the harbour we had the prime seats on the top deck at the front (as we had yesterday) whilst we were waiting Greater Crested, Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns fed in the harbour as well as numbers House Crow.
Greater Crested Tern

House Crow
Soon we were out to sea this time heading along the coast in a westerly direction, we were seeing most of what we had seen before Pilot Whales and Spinner Dolphins, but there were many more terns with good numbers of Whiskered Tern and Bridled Terns. We also saw Lesser Crested Tern which was new for the holiday. We travelled miles, but at least we seemed to have a plan, this Captain seemed to be a leader, yesterday's was a follower. One of the fishing boats reported a Blue Whale so we and the other boats headed that way but without success. Our Captain having sailed a good way past turned and slowly made his way back to the area. Twenty minutes past and then one of the crew let out a shout and the boat sped up, in the distance we could see a Spout of water shooting into the air.

What followed for the next hour consisted of watching the Blue Whale dive, then we hung around waiting for it to resurface before chasing after it. I have to say that they have introduced a code of conduct to stop boats getting too close. Six years ago it was a free for all, so todays is a big improvement. Eventually most of the other boats headed back to harbour, but our Captain wanted one last look, eventually the beast got up not far from us and we had great views, before returning to harbour ourselves.


Distant Blue Whales, tail-up as they say

Blue Whale

Soon we were packed and off to Colombo where we had a hotel room booked for a few hours before our flight at 2.00am back to Heathrow.

The trip was good,  for my part there was only two new species, but the mammals were impressive, Our guide Saman was excellent, knowledgable and friendly, he was proud of his country and its wildlife and clearly enjoyed sharing it with us. He even managed to get Andy excited over Forest Eagle Owl and the Serendib Scops. I would heartily recommend Sri Lanka Birding Adventures, I after all have now used them twice – and I wouldn’t rule out a third trip, Sri Lanka is that good!

13th March – Pelagic

We were up early where we were greeted with the news that the boat that Saman normally used was not available. To cut a long story short, Blue Whales are not quite as numerous as they once were, we had a good time seeing Pilot Whales and Spinner Dolphins and a large Manta Ray just under the surface. Before long, we started to return to shore, one got the impression that the Captain wasn’t overly bothered, that may be a little unfair, but it was my opinion.

I was disappointed as this is what I had sold the holiday to Andy and Gemma on – Blue Whale.

We had the option of visiting a Turtle hatchery in the afternoon, which if I am honest, I wasn’t that bothered about, I could not have been more wrong.

The people running it were extremely dedicated and they had a number of tanks with several species that were all injured in them. Accidents with fishing nets and boats were the main cause of these majestic creatures loosing limbs, but they, in conjunction with a local vet, create artificial limbs for them and release them back into the sea.

Also locals bring them the eggs of turtles that get disturbed on the beaches (which are crowded) and the rescue centre hatch these and release them into the wild. I was that impressed that I parted with a £10 note into the donations box (mistake). Andy put his donation in as well. We later found out for 1,500 rupees we could release one of these turtles into the sea. Unfortunately, we only had 3,000 rupees so Gemma released a turtle, I wish Andy, Joy and I had the opportunity but our generosity worked against us for once.

The view from the hotel room

At the Turtle hatchery

12th March Yala then Mirissa

Yesterday, Saman must have thought that we were struggling driving from Yala to the hotel in the Jeep - which we weren’t, so he arranged for our driver to take us to Yala to meet the Jeep. We arrived just before dawn and stopped outside the park in an attempt to connect with Nightjar. We played a tape and an Indian Nightjar responded but did not show, which was a little disappointing.

Once in the park, the intention was to try for Sloth Bear so we made our way slowly birding as we went. We hadn’t travelled far when there was a scrum of vehicles in front of us, a quick phone call came to inform us that there was a Sloth Bear on the path, craning out of the side of the Jeep I saw part of it, but it soon walked out of view. We were at the back of this scrum and Jeeps were all jostling for position, a better word for it would be carnage! A vehicle behind us went off the side of the road tossing its passengers over, fortunately none actually feel out of the back, but it was close.

Sloth Bear

Eventually the Bear walked across the road and in front of our Jeep, it really wasn't bothered, it spent the next ten minutes just foraging in the general area before disappearing into the bush. This was not a species I was expecting to see, Saman estimated that he only see's Sloth Bear on a 1 in 10 ratio, so we were very lucky, very lucky indeed.

We checked out a few of the lakes in the park seeing a good variety of bird, seeing Pied Cuckoo which was a bird I had only seen briefly in the past, so was as good as a tick. Then all hell broke loose as another Leopard was located, the next ten minutes were similar to a ride at Alton Towers as our driver tried to get there as quickly as possible. As we arrived the Jeeps were all milling for position, but it soon became apparent that the Leopard was not in view. We parked up at a reasonable spot overlooking a water hole and waited. 20 minutes passed and I noticed that the vehicles behind us all started reversing, within seconds we were doing the same. The leopard had crossed the road into thick cover, but importantly there was a small water hole 300 yards ahead of the direction it was moving, so our driver got Position A.

The Scrum
Our third Leopard of the week

Ten minutes later I picked up a movement and this cracking animal moving into view, then all hell broke loose as jeeps came from nowhere to join us. The leopard sat drinking about 100 yards away but seemed aware that it was being watched, a German woman who was in the Jeep behind us boarded our Jeep and was trying desperately to photograph the thing on her phone! Saman managed to get her to look through his binoculars, but she seemed more intent on photographing it. Soon the Leopard just walked away and left us.

Black-headed Ibis

Mugger Crocodile

We continued birding until it was time to return to the hotel seeing a few Mugger Crocodile and a good variety of waterbirds, which included good numbers of Garganey. We left the park and had a group photo, our driver who had played a blinder, received a tip from Saman, Saman who appreciated his performance asked as if we would like to enhance his remuneration, unfortunately we were in the habit of not carrying much in the way of cash. Andy had a little with him and we gave him that, I hope not, but I feel that he may have been expecting a little more, certainly by looking at his face when we took a group shot at the end.

Saman, Joy, me, Andy, Gemma and the driver

Soon we had returned to the hotel for lunch, we soon packed and were soon on our way to Mirissa our last destination of the holiday for two days Whale Watching. We arrived at the hotel which was of a high standard with comfortable rooms, the patio doors opened up to the gardens then straight onto the beach. With a few hours to spare we had a wander along the beach with Andy and I walking into the breakers which was fun. Me being me managed to pick up a Whimbrel that flew past. There were also a few Whiskered Tern and a couple of Gull-billed Terns – I wish I could turn-off on occasion.
The food at the hotel was up there with the best of the holiday, being of good quality and plentiful.

Friday 10 April 2020

11th March – Yala

We had a full day at Yala NP which was a 45 minute drive on a Jeep in the cool of the morning, it was a tremendous experience, that time either side of dawn in the Sub continent I find stunning.

We soon entered the park, us and about another 50 Jeeps, we headed off onto the quieter trails and had a great time, its easy birding and species came thick and fast, also birds tend not to be put off as the Jeep passes as a mobile hide.
Malabar Pied Hornbill
Little Cormorant

During the morning we received a call to say a Leopard had been located, what followed was a rather fast drive, we arrived with around 20 Jeeps in front of us jostling for position, eventually we got unrestricted views for about five minutes and the Leopard showed really well. Soon we left and made our way to the rest area on the beach as traffic is not allowed to use the roads between noon and 2.00pm?

Gemma & Andy
Joy and I
The Group

It was rather hot and if I'm honest it was a little boring, there was not much in the way of facilities apart from a toilet. A stall selling cold drinks could have made a fortune. There was also a memorial to a number of tourists who died during the Boxing Day Tsunami. The rest of the afternoon was a little more leisurely and we parked up to stake out a site for Sloth Bear, after an hour I could tell that the heat was getting too the others, so I suggested to Saman that we should call it a day and have another go in the morning as we were due another visit. Also we had the chance of Eastern Barn Owl close to the hotel. We got back, got showered and went out again about an hour before dark. We waited by one of the large lakes in the area and just as darkness fell we found four Eastern Barn Owl which showed well.

Green Bee-eater

Lesser Adjutant and Painted Stork

Greater Thick Knee

10th March – Udawalawe NP

We were picked up early – yet again. What followed was a really good mornings birding with a lot of birds seen, before long we had to return to the hotel to pack for the next stage of the journey.

Of more importance to me was that I had my first new specie of the trip with not one but six Marshall's Iora.

Asian Elephant 
Marshall's Iora

Chesthut-headed Bee-eater
After our return we went in search of White-naped Woodpecker a species that I had missed on my previous visit. We parked up in someones garden and sat down to wait at the roost site. I set up the scope and waited, it soon became apparent that there was a beak sticking out of the hole! There was also a Jungle Barred Owlet in the garden which we took in turns to look at. It was whilst Joy was off enjoying this bird that the Woodpecker put in an appearance, then it promptly disappeared. It was at least 20 minutes, just before we had to leave both birds reappeared. That left us time to get back in time to watch 1000s of fruit bats leaving the roost near the hotel. It was soon the end of a great day with more importantly the Woodpecker providing me with my second and last tick of the holiday.

White-naped Woodpecker

Barred Jungle Owlet

White-naped Woodpecker

Chinese Fast Food – achoo

Monday 9th March

We started off with a pre breakfast visit to the entrance to Sinharaja Forest Reserve mainly to have another look at Sri Lankan Blue Magpie which had proved rather elusive on our walks, the only ones we had seen were in the same place on our first day at Sinharaja. Despite a coach load of locals who all wanted to sit by the feeders we managed to see a couple plus a Sri Lankan Grey Hornbill. Unfortunately as it was quite early the light was not good enough for photography.

Sri Lankan Grey Hornbill

Sri Lankan Blue Magpie

Sinharaja Entrance

Outside the Blue Magpie Lodge
Soon we were off with a trip to an Elephant relocation centre on the way to our next destination. The others enjoyed the parade of Elephants while Saman and I slipped away, as he had an Indian Scops Owl to show me.

Indian Scops Owl
This time a little more cryptic

We arrived at our hotel which was luxurious, Saman want to take us birding later, but as he only lived a few miles away I told him not to bother and just go home for the evening, he was very reluctant but I insisted, there was a nice pool and we all needed a break. There was an large area of scrub and a lake within walking distance so I told him if I felt the need to go birding I would enjoy identifying birds on my own for an hour. At the time I had no intention of birding, but later in the afternoon Andy said he fancied going for a walk. We walked from the hotel seeing a good variety of waterbirds before heading into the scrubby area for an hour. We did really well seeing a good variety of birds in a short period including Barred Buttonquail which was a real bonus.

Sunday 8th March

At breakfast this morning we were joined a Cinnamon Bittern in the dinning area, it eventually flew off, but was remarkable small when seen out of its preferred habitat.

We had another trip into the rainforest with the Jeep picking us up early. It was a very similar day to yesterday, but we saw more of the endemics such as Red-faced Malkoha and Ashy-headed Laughingthrush really well. In a way it was better and yesterday, a little more relaxed.

Black-capped Bulbul

After lunch the resident guide who had been unsuccessful during the morning in trying to locate Serendib Scops Owl went to try another roost site whilst we searched again for Scaly Thrush. I tried as best as I could to explain to Saman that the Thrush didn’t matter as I had seen one before, but his profession pride wouldn’t allow such a relaxed approach!

Serendib Scops Owl

Our guide reappeared sporting a broad grin and announced he had located an Owl. What followed was hard at the time but magical in retrospect. We had to walk through thick cover following a faint path through the jungle, clambering through the underground, up and down muddy banks until we arrived at the roost site. It was that cramped for space that we could only view the bird one at a time. Everyone seemed really chuffed to eventually see it.

My second Serendib Scops Owl

We had an enjoyable rest of the day and after we arrived back at the Blue Magpie Saman asked me if I would like to see another Serendib Scops Owl and Green-billed Coucal – ? For whatever reason none of the other wanted to join me. I think tiredness and a relief that there were no more Leeches for the rest of the holiday had lulled them in to a false sense of security – they were staying put!

We drove a couple of miles and then we started to make our way up a sleep slope of around 250 yards, then there was the quarry roosting about four foot of the ground oblivious to our presence. We then visited an area quite close to the Blue Magpie where the impressive Green-billed Coucal put on a great performance.