“Sri Lanka” literally means “Resplendent Island,” and while most people, and birders, who have already visited there would readily agree with this description; to many Americans it remains a mysterious, far off land. While Sri Lanka has long been on the birding tour circuit amongst European birders, and especially British birdwatchers, it seems to be strangely missing from the list of must-see countries among many North American birders. So what is it the Brits know that Americans do not?
My British roots and love of nature helped solidify a long-held desire to visit Sri Lanka, the land of Ceylon Tea, and to walk among the island’s endemic-rich rain forests. After leading several tours in Sri Lanka, it became one of my favorite of all the myriad countries in the world to go birding, and I am no slouch having travelled to 50 countries. So, why the disparity between Sri Lanka’s perception amongst American birders and British “twitchers”? I cannot answer this clearly, but this piece may convince all who have not been, and especially those who have no desire to go, that they really should!
Sri Lanka’s Colonial History
In some ways the European interest in, and Brit’s near obsession with, Sri Lanka is only natural; it betrays the long colonial history of the island, which was occupied by various European powers for nearly 450 years, from the Portuguese in the 16th Century, Dutch in the 17th Century, and, finally, the British, who controlled then “Ceylon” from the 18th Century through to 1948, when it finally gained independence and later became known as “Sri Lanka.”
Sri Lanka is not India
Conversations with North American birders confirmed a misheld belief that I also held about Sri Lanka before I had actually experienced it. Some people assume that it is merely an extension of India. Its geography may have done Sri Lanka a disservice; it is a small, teardrop-shaped island, located within the Indian Ocean nearly 900 miles off the coast of southeast India.
Of course, people who visit India react in one of two ways; they either love it or they hate it, with few people sitting in between these distant goal posts; it is a land that generates only extreme reactions.
The reason for this is that India is so culturally different from westernized nations, it provides an immense culture shock that can probably only be matched, or exceeded, by China or Papua New Guinea. Some people relish this land of the strange, while others simply rally against it. The sheer volume of people, the high density of traffic, and the crazy nature of all of this around so many pollution-choked Indian cities, make it a challenging and chaotic place to travel around. India initiates equal measure of affection or loathing depending on your worldly outlook.
Thus, many who know this of India, are turned off going there by virtue of this reputation, but also paint this wide brush over Sri Lanka, a gross miscarriage of justice. While there are striking similarities between the two countries (the rich, tasty creamy curries infused with coconut, many of which find their roots in southern Indian, Tamil, cuisine), there are also vast distinctions, and it is such distinctions that made me fall for Sri Lanka.
Not Lions, but Lots of Leopards in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankans or “Sinhala” people, the dominant peoples of the island speak both the endemic language, Sinhalese, but also, widely English too, making communication relatively easy. The term “Sinhala” is said to mean, “Blood of the Lion,” which seems strange, when you consider there are no lions on the island (but they do occur in neighboring India). However, another animal that is often thought of as mainly (or even wholly) African; the leopard, is well established in Sri Lanka. In fact, Sri Lanka can genuinely boast the highest densities of leopards of any country in the world. Yet, many who know little of this “resplendent island” are blissfully unaware that in just a single day within Yala National Park, in Sri Lanka’s southeast corner, is often all that is needed to ensure a sighting of this large, photogenic cat.
Once War Torn, Now Peaceful
Perhaps another reason for American’s heretofore lack of interest in birding Sri Lanka, is its mistaken perception as a country of violence, which is frankly unfair in recent years ever since the end of the civil war in 2010. Sri Lanka has returned to the quiet, safe and peaceful country that it otherwise had been for centuries.
Thriving Bird Communities
For birders looking to visit Sri Lanka you will find a country dominated by people of Buddhist faith (70% are Buddhist, compared to India’s 1% Buddhist population), a country thriving with beautiful birds. One commonality with India, which Sri Lanka has, is that wherever there is any hint of habitat, from road verges, gardens and city parks to the thick forests and scrubby plains there are birds, and birds aplenty. Unlike some parts of the world, including Southeast Asia, birds are not persecuted in Sri Lanka and this has left them pleasantly abundant and conspicuous. Of 375 species listed for the country, only some 16 species, or just 4%, are listed as globally threatened by Birdlife International (1). It is therefore not uncommon for birding trips to see most, if not all, of what you seek, something that cannot be said of many other popular destinations.
Sri Lanka’s Endemic Birds
Islands are essentially species poor relative to their mainland counterparts, but what they lack in quantity, they make up for in quality; nearly 10% of the regularly occurring birds are endemic, over 30 species cannot be seen anywhere else.
Among these most desired of Sri Lanka’s birds are a small ginger-colored owl that was only discovered in the early years of the 21st Century (Serendib Scops-Owl); a few different parrots, one of which is known to hang upside down (Sri Lanka Hanging-Parrot); a large cuckoo relative with a scarlet face patch (Red-faced Malkoha); a large spectacular woodpecker with a blood-colored back (Crimson-backed Flameback); and a striking, blue-and-chestnut magpie (Sri Lanka Blue Magpie).
And that is just the country endemic species; for birders who have yet to visit southern India, there are also a number of additional specialties shared between the two; while the island also offers some of the best chances at a number of other more widespread species too. Among these are the glittering jewel-like Indian Pitta, a bird from one of the most coveted bird families of the Old World (the pitta family), by virtue of their jewel-like plumage. The plumage of the Indian Pitta is smattered with dabs of brilliant scarlet on the belly and electric, iridescent blue on its rump and shoulders – truly a sight to behold!
On top of that are difficult world birds like the handsome Pied Thrush, the entire population of which winters on the island, and the ruby-throated Kashmir Flycatcher; both birds that are very easy to find on their Sri Lankan wintering grounds (even occurring together in the same town park!), but near impossible elsewhere in the world, when they are breeding in different, dense, remote, and inaccessible forests of the Himalayan mountains.
Others in this set include the hulking Malabar Pied-Hornbill, which becomes even more striking when seen in flocks of dozens, while gathering in trees at pre-roost sites; and the cryptic and nocturnal Sri Lanka Frogmouth, which may well offer an entirely new family for many, (and is usually seen at close range, during the daytime, at staked out day roosts). And this is leaving out some of the regular, stunning looking birds, which are neither country endemics, or regional specialties, but which are equally appealing; birds like the bright green backed Emerald Dove, the arresting White-naped Woodpecker, or the white morph of the striking Indian Paradise-Flycatcher, a 7-inch songbird, which often has extravagant, ivory-white, tail plumes that extend a further 11-inches out the back end of the body! (2)
Sri Lanka is a bit smaller than Wisconsin and can be divided into five climatic zones; the vast majority of the island is made up of the Dry Zone, save for the southwest corner, which comprises the Wet Zone; this is where the bulk of the island’s endemics live in thick rain forests. A broad buffer between these two distinct zones forms the Intermediate Zone. The final two zones are much smaller, and less distinct than the first two: an Arid Zone exists on two segments of the island, in the rarely visited extreme northwest, and the well-visited southeast corner, a narrow area that lays claim to the mammal-rich Yala National Park (as previously mentioned). Finally, there is the isolated Hill Zone, within the hilly central section in the southern half of Sri Lanka. This overlaps geographically, but is divided attitudinally (usually above 2000 ft. or so), from the western segment of the Wet Zone and the Intermediate Zone. The highest mountain of the island is Mount Pidurutalagala (often simply referred to as “Pedro”), at 8,280 ft, is found there.
Taxonomic Change is Afoot! Separately Identify Those Subspecies!
Many birders visit with a view to trying to find all of the country endemics, which currently stands at some 33 species; but with the present fluid state of bird taxonomy that is currently focused towards splitting of species, and therefore expansion of the world and Sri Lankan bird list, this number is likely to swell very soon. Up to 47 species have been proposed! In addition to these species that are confined to the island, there are nearly 70 endemic subspecies, which may hold further “species-in-waiting” hiding among them, and there are several obvious candidates for this, such as the distinctive local form of Black-throated Munia or the black-backed local race of Indian Robin. In order to track most, if not all (and most tours do indeed see all of the Sri Lankan endemic bird species) of these endemic birds it is necessary to visit three of the climatic zones; the Wet Zone, the Hill Zone, and one of the Arid or Dry Zones.
The vast majority of the endemic species (at least 27) occupy the Wet Zone, and are best looked for there by visiting one or both of the two main rainforest parks, Kitulgala or Sinharaja (these two sites are often combined for a clean sweep of the Wet Zone endemic birds). As an interesting aside, the first site, Kitulgala, which sits beside the beautiful, torpid, Kelani River, sits near the site that masqueraded as northern Thailand, in the World War II film “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” an Oscar-winning movie starring Alec Guinness.
In addition, the Hill Zone, centered around the “City of Light,” Nuwara Eliya, offers four additional endemic species found nowhere else (Dull-blue Flycatcher, Sri Lanka Whistling-Thrush, Sri Lanka Bush-Warbler, and the beautifully odd Yellow-eared Bulbul), as well as the best chances at finding Sri Lanka White-eye that is literally one of the most abundant birds of the area. While both are also possible in the Wet Zone, Sri Lanka (Scaly) Thrush and Sri Lanka Wood-Pigeon are also possible in this zone too. Finally, the Arid Zone, or Dry Zone, needs to be visited for the country endemic, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, which is locally abundant in the right habitat, such as Yala National Park in the arid corner of the southeast, or Udawalawe National Park in the Dry Zone.
While some intense bird tours often avoid all but the Wet and Hill Zones in order to save time getting a clean sweep of country endemics (a “standard” 14-day offering may be whittled down to just eight to ten days); this is a shame, for the Dry and Arid Zone parks are about much more than just picking up the endemic woodshrike, then quickly exiting stage left. The two principal zones of Sri Lanka (i.e. Wet and Dry), are in stark contrast to each other, and make for a great combination of vastly different landscapes, birds and animals from one another. The Wet Zone environment is dominated by high temperatures (usually around 80°F), and sky-high humidity (often above 70%) within the lush, verdant, and tall rainforests, like Sinharaja.
The forest at sites like this and Kitulgala resemble the classic images that much of us associate with the word “jungle.” Being the Wet Zone, it also offers the very real chance of rainfall, even during the supposed dry season for much of the island, when most birders visit (i.e. November to March). And is also where leeches occur, which are completely absent in the drier areas. These, while harmless, and not carrying any diseases, can be somewhat bothersome, as the European colonialists of the 19th Century were only too happy to elaborate and embellish upon to the folks back home:
“How charming, how delightful, to spend one’s life in such a place (Ceylon), says the reader. True, it would, if only there were…no land leeches, which, despite all effort, cling to your legs, and bleed you nigh to the weakness of death.” William Dalton, writing in “Lost in Ceylon” in 1861.
“While I was wandering enchanted through the tall grass by the river under the tall crown of an oil-palm, and carefully tracing the convolutions of a climbing rattan, I suddenly felt a sharp nip in my leg, and on baring it discovered a few small leeches which had attached themselves firmly to the calf, and saw at the same time half a dozen more of the nimble little wretches mounting my boot with surprising rapidity, like so many caterpillars. This was my first experience with the much-to-be-execrated land-leeches of Ceylon, one of the intolerable curses of this beautiful island, of all its plagues the worst, as I was afterwards to learn by much suffering. This species of leech (Hirudo Ceylanica) is one of the smallest of its family, but at the same time the most unpleasant. Excepting near the sea and in the highest mountains, they swarm in myriads in every wood and bush; and in some of the forests, particularly near the river banks, and in the marshy jungle of the highlands and the lower hills, it is impossible to take a single step without being attacked by them… Often the bite is felt at the time, but as often it is not. Once at an evening party I first became aware of a leech by seeing a red streak of blood running down my white trousers.” Ernst Haeckel writing in “A Visit to Ceylon” in 1883.
“…the best way to frustrate the attacks of these insects on the nether man, is to case one’s-self in nankeen pantaloons with feet attached: this dress should be made with well-joined seams, and to tie round the waist.” Major Forbes, writing in “Eleven Years in Ceylon”in 1840.
Of course, nowadays, we are better educated on leeches, and they can be readily evaded with careful attention, plenty of insect repellent, and merely a handy pair of leech socks (also known as “anti-leech socks”), which keep them from your skin (read Leeches: A Nuisance, But Birding in Southeast Asia is Worth It!).
Thus, let us dispense with what sound like rather uncomfortable “nankeen pantaloons”! leeches can now be avoided, and be prevented from taking blood, when modern precautions are taken.
While walking in the deep, dark rainforests characterizes the exciting birding in the Wet Zone, where mixed flocks of endemic bird species will literally blow your mind (sometimes containing all of the following: Red-faced Malkohas, Ashy-throated Laughingthrushes, Orange-billed Babblers, Sri Lanka Scimitar-Babblers, Sri Lanka Drongos, Malabar Trogons, and even the striking Sri Lanka Blue-Magpie); birding in the Dry Zone could not be more different. Visits to parks like Udawalawe and Yala are done by jeep, with open tops, much in the style of an African safari except many of the birds and animals are vastly different to those found on that continent. Here, you may see species like Blue-faced and Sirkeer Malkohas, the endemic Sri Lanka Woodshrike, and the familiar, though still shockingly beautiful, peacock, or Indian Peafowl (to give it, it’s formal name).
The birds of the Dry and Arid Zones are also often the most photogenic on the island, so that birders with a photography slant cannot miss this area, for birds like glittering Green Bee-eaters, brilliantly-colored Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, and pretty Painted Storks often pose for cameras at close range. These places are also often good sites to see large impressive raptors, like Crested Hawk-Eagle, perched in the open, in excellent light.
Yala and Udawalawe parks are amongst the most popular in all of Sri Lanka, and after one look at the regular animal list, it is not hard to see why your average tourist would wish to visit; Udawalawe lays claim to the highest densities of Asian Elephants on the island, while Yala is arguably one of the most reliable places to see Leopard in Asia, if not the world. Most birding tours only venture inside the park for a single day, but most also leave with leopard entered on their checklist.
Outside of these national parks in the Arid Zone lies a town with the unwieldy name of Tissamaharama, (thankfully known as “Tissa” to most). This town has a lot going for it where birders are concerned; it offers both a pretty and practical location to be based in the Arid Zone, within easy reach of Yala and Bundala National Parks, the latter a must for anyone wishing to get a dose of Asian shorebirding, with its shorebird dotted coastal pans. Furthermore the town is located on the edge of a huge, scenic artificial lake or “tank,” as they are known in Sri Lanka. These tanks are now so old their artificial status is not obvious, as they teem with vegetation and birds.
Many of the hotels in Tissa are strategically located, so that hotel guests can view the lake from there, and just a short distance from the hotel lies excellent birding; on the tank itself, birds like Cotton Pygmy-Geese, Watercock, and the striking Pheasant-tailed Jacana roam, and in the regular birding season the adult Jacanas are usually in their elaborate breeding dress, complete with their long pheasant-like tail, a dramatic plumage that often makes them a tour favourite.
Around the edges of the tank lies scattered woodland, which should not be overlooked. The remarkable White-naped Woodpecker inhabits these woodlands, as do Jungle Owlets and Indian Scops-Owls, and two species, which may yield new, exclusively Asian bird families for first-time visitors to the region: Common Iora (family Ioras, Aegithinidae), and the shamrock-green Jerdon’s Leafbird (family Leafbirds, Chloropseidae). There are also massive roosts of the large Indian Flying-Fox (a fox-sized, fruit-eating bat). In short, to miss this zone because it offers few of the country endemics, would be a travesty, as there is much more besides, from regular day roosts for owls like the impressive Brown Fish-Owl, to frequent animal encounters, to some top notch Asian shorebirding, with Small Pratincole, and two species of thick-knee possible (Great and Indian).
Then, in marked contrast to both of these other zones, lies the welcome cooler climate of the Hill Zone. Whilst most of the rest of Sri Lanka could be described as hot, tropical lowlands, in the center of the southern half of the island, mountains rise to over 8,000 feet, and the climate cools to a more agreeable average of around 60°F.
The Hill Zone, and especially Horton Plains National Park, offers up Sri Lanka’s very best landscapes; one visit to this park not only gets you the chance to track down the endemic bush-warbler, the endemic whistling-thrush, the endemic white-eye, and see the subtle beauty of the Dull-blue Flycatcher, but also puts you in touching distance of the trail to the island’s scenic centerpiece, the “World’s End,” a gorge that drops off dramatically nearly 4,000 feet from the lookout.
There are, in fact, two World’s Ends, the deepest one, mentioned here, and another referred to by the signs along the 2½-mile trail to it, as the “Small” or “Mini” World’s End that merely drops off some 1,000 feet below! On the clearest of days, most likely to be encountered when birders go in their dry season, even the distant Indian Ocean can be seen like a mirage on the far off horizon.
To illustrate the wealth of natural history that makes Sri Lanka not only an absorbing birding destination, but one too for the general naturalist, the start of the World’s End trail is also home, to another odd, unique Sri Lankan animal, the handsome, lipstick-wearing, Black-lipped Lizard.
In the hill country city mentioned earlier, Nuwara Eliya, one of the strangest reptiles on the island is found: a lizard that sports a mini rhino’s horn, which protrudes, rather prominently, from its front end, and is therefore appropriately known as the Rhinoceros-horned Lizard. It is said that this strange appendage is “used” to attract insects to perch on, which are then hastily gobbled up by the owner of the horn.
Indeed, Sri Lanka offers a fantastic all-round natural history destination. Many tours there, even when primarily bird-focused, have checklists peppered with a wide variety of other animals too, from unique monkeys to giant squirrels, odd, endemic reptiles with bright scarlet heads, to a whole array of colorful butterflies. You do not need to affect the overall bird list by looking at these other animal groups, as they are readily seen, even on the most intense of bird tours.
Exploring The Cultural Icon of Kandy
Returning to the Hill Country, there lies the heart and soul of Sri Lanka, the city, and former kingdom, of Kandy. Formerly, the actual capital, it was “downgraded” by the British Empire, when they failed to capture it, and so they simply decided to classify conquered Colombo, a coastal backwater city, as the capital instead (which has remained so until this day)!
To most Sri Lankans, Kandy remains dear to them, and essentially is the cultural capital of the country, and one in which they are immensely and deservedly proud. The city encircles a large wooded lake, at the side of which lies one of the most important cultural sites in all of Sri Lanka: Sri Dalada Maligawa, now better known as Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a revered site that is said to hold the tooth of the Buddha.
This town is where any birder who wishes to shop should go; stores with elaborate, ornate woodcarvings, masks and furniture dot the city, as do places to purchase beautiful batik artwork, among a myriad tourist offerings, which can take days to discover in full. The city is also home to opulent gem stores, for Sri Lanka is home to many precious gems, most famously blue sapphires; the same blue sapphires that the United Kingdom’s Diana, Princess of Wales had embedded in her lavish wedding ring, when she married the Prince of Wales in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1981.
The Hill Country is also where some of the most widely admired tea in the World is produced, with the low tea bushes of the immaculately trimmed tea plantations carpeting the hillsides, the lush green color often interrupted by bright white or red clothing of the Tamil tea pluckers, whose tea-harvesting habits remain unchanged from the 19th Century.
Tea factories, where short, informative, tours can be taken, and where a variety of teas can be tasted and purchased, dot the roadsides of the Hill Zone, and are both easily, and often, visited as part of a bird tour, without needing to miss any birds for this absorbing diversion. Just don’t ask the sari-wearing Tamil tea servers for a coffee!
Sri Lanka, as you can see, is far from just another Indian state; it seems to me the caste system is nowhere obvious, and the devastating poverty, so often conspicuous in India, is largely absent in the country’s healthy economy. Sri Lanka takes its birds, and its natural places, very seriously indeed; they recently launched a whole series of new notes in the national currency, the Sri Lankan Rupee, each denomination proudly adorned with an endemic bird. Thus, if you wish to pay someone 1,000 Sri Lankan Rupees you merely hand them a “Parrot” for this bright green note depicts an image of the endemic Sri Lanka Hanging-Parrot.
Likewise if you need to pay a more hefty value of 5,000 Sri Lankan Rupees you will need to hand over a “Bulbul,” for on this yellowish note sits the wonderful Yellow-eared Bulbul, a bird of the Hill Country.
Sri Lanka is Resplendant. Thriving. Glowing. Alive. If you wish to sample some of the best tea in the world, or peruse plush gem stores for a significant ring, while on a tour watching some of the island’s unique birds and interesting animals, like Sri Lanka Blue-Magpie, or Purple-faced Leaf-Monkey, Sri Lanka is waiting for you. The country provides a marvelous natural history experience with unique reptiles, a myriad of stunning butterflies, monkeys, and other mammals, and these other animals can readily be seen, even on a focused birding tour, without compromising the bird list; it appears for Sri Lanka at least, you really can have it all!
As an added bonus, this resplendent island is often far more modestly priced than many of its Asian cousins.