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BIRDING TRIP REPORT:

Sri Lanka: Introduction

26 January to 9 February 2019

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction & General Negombo/Kitulgala/Nuwara Eliya Sinharaja Udawalawa/Yala Bundala/Weligama Summary/List

Introduction

Our last long haul trip to Australia in 2017 was very successful and had left my life list at 1867, i.e. 133 species short of the 2000 mark! This total I regard as quite significant as it has taken me over 50 years of birding to achieve it. I don't realistically expect to achieve the next milestone - 3000 as it took me 15 years to add the last 1000.

So the key question for our next trip was where to go to allow a reasonable chance of reaching the 2000 target. The Indian subcontinent was somewhere I'd never been before, so it stood to reason that many lifers should be available there. Hence a few months after returning from Australia it was very interesting chatting with Andy Last (a fellow Oxon birder) during a chance encounter in the local Standlake Pit 60 hide. He had recently been on a trip to Sri Lanka with some other keen Oxon birders, where they had been on a private guided tour with Baurs Travel. This sounded an intriguing if unusual concept for us, as we are more used to independent travel.

The following summer, some enquiries to Baurs showed that they could provide a reasonably affordable private trip for the two us, starting and ending in Colombo. So after a few iterations, a 14-night trip was settled on, with 11 being birding and the last 3 at a hotel by the beach in the south west of the island. Baurs made all the in-country arrangements, so all we needed to do was book the flights and present ourselves at Colombo airport on the due date. A novel concept for us! We weren't quite sure what to expect, but in the event this tour worked really well and it certainly took the hard work out of planning and making travel arrangements. Also with the expert guide provided by Baurs (more of whom later), we undoubtedly saw far more than we would have done if we had travelled independently. Without other customers on the same tour we could of course decide exactly how much or how little we wanted to do each day, although we did generally follow our guide's recommendations.

We were assured beforehand that seeing the required extra 133 lifers would be easy, but I wasn't so sure given my existing list. To see if I reached the magic 2000, you will need to read on!

General

Flights
We flew direct from Heathrow to Colombo with SriLankan Airlines and returned the same way. Unlike other recent long haul trips, we flew economy as the only alternative was a prohibitively expensive business class. We were quite impressed by SriLankan Airlines economy - despite the inevitably rather cramped conditions, the food and service was fine, and probably better than Singapore Airlines Premium Economy which we used for our 2017 Australian trip. The longer return flight from Sri Lanka was around 13 hours (a very long day!), whereas the outward evening flight made for a very short night arriving mid afternoon. This was convenient for trying to catch up with missed sleep on the first night in Sri Lanka. without having to do anything much on the day of arrival. Both flights were on time or slightly early.

Note however that SriLankan have a very miserly 7 kg hand luggage allowance and quoted dimensional limits smaller than many other carriers. Reading this the day before the trip I  went out and purchased a cheap, smaller piece of wheeled hand luggage into which all my camera gear etc just about fitted. Despite all this, but unlike Australia, we weren't challenged on either the outward or return legs. Many others on both flights were clearly exceeding the dimensional limits at least.

Car Hire
Not needed! Baurs travel provided all our transport needs on the birding part of the trip and arranged an airport transfer from our beach hotel at the end of the trip.

Map
I always like to have a map of the areas we visit, so in advance I purchased a small scale, inexpensive one for Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka Travel Map, Third Edition from Periplus 1:525,000), but as all navigation was somebody else's responsibility I hardly ever referred to it.

Birding information
For birding ID we used "Birds of Sri Lanka" by Deepal Warakagoda et al (in the Helm Field Guides series) which I can recommend - reasonably compact, with good illustrations opposite the text and clear distribution maps. Not that a field guide was essential for this trip given our expert guide!

Weather
The highest temperatures we experienced were in the low 30's C in the afternoons near the coast. The lowest were close to zero at dawn on the Horton Plains in the centre of the island at about 2,000m altitude. Although there was some sun, we experienced several cloudy/dull days which didn't do much for my photography. In the Sinharaja rain forest area, and on the south west coast, we experienced some heavy afternoon deluges. There was also some rain and dull conditions in the supposedly dry south east but generally the tour  was largely dry.

Baurs Travel
Baurs Travel are a long established SriLankan travel company with a larger parent company having much wider interests. Being a Baurs' client seemed to give us benefits in some of the hotels (e.g. a good table for dinner) as their name was clearly widely respected. All their arrangements worked very well with no problems at all over reservations or travel arrangements.

On arrival we were greeted by a friendly driver who took us to our first hotel for a one night stay before the tour started the next morning. We were expecting a chauffeur/guide but it quickly became apparent that we were to have both a guide, the excellent Dhammi, as well as the driver of the minibus which was normally used for group tours. So we had the rear of the 10 or so seat vehicle to ourselves!

It quickly emerged that Dhammi was one of Baurs' most experienced guides who normally led their group tours. Apparently all the chauffeur/guides were otherwise engaged and it was our good fortune to receive Dhammi's undivided attention for the entire tour! He was a very sharp, friendly and professional guide. He was also patient in helping us (me especially) get onto the birds and with 18 years of experience clearly knew the right spots to go to in each location for the best birding. He also had a network of local helpers in different locations, including the "owl boys" who earned extra pocket money by searching for the day time roosts of owls to show to visiting birders like us! Without their efforts we wouldn't have seen 3 of the 4 Owl species we saw.

Photos
All the pics shown in this report were taken with a Canon EOS 7D Mk II with an EF100-400f5.6 II lens. As for Australia, this flexible zoom lens worked well on this trip.  At various times, the ability of the 100-400 to (a) focus down to 1m, (b) zoom out to 100mm and (c) work well with the x1.4 TC (but with only the central focusing square active) were all useful features. The 4 stop IS was invaluable in the low light conditions we experienced in many places, especially in the forest at Sinharaja and in the early mornings at many places.  The 500mmf4 would have been too bulky and heavy to take and lug around the various birding sites we visited on foot. It might however have been useful for the game drives in jeeps but would have been impossible to accommodate given the SriLankan Airlines  hand luggage limits.

All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 9.0/2019 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website. Note that in the low light conditions frequently encountered, I had to use very high ISO settings up to and including 16000 to get exposure times of around 1/50sec at which is was just about possible to get sharp images using the 100-400 handheld, unless of course the bird was moving. These images of course looked very noisy/grainy straight out of the camera, but it was amazing how effective NeatImage was at cleaning this up.

Itinerary

Here is a summary of our itinerary devised for us by Baurs Travel:

26-Jan Arrival/Negombo
27-Jan Negombo/Kitulgala
28-Jan Kitulgala
29-Jan Kitulgal/Nuwara Eliya
30-Jan Nuwara Eliya/Horton plains/Nuwara Eliya
31-Jan Nuwara Eliya/Sinharaja
01-Feb Sinharaja
02-Feb Sinharaja
03-Feb Sinharaja/Udawalawa
04-Feb Udawalawa/Tissamaharama
05-Feb Tissamaharama/Yala/ Tissamaharama
06-Feb Tissamaharama /Bundala/Weligama
07-Feb Weligama
08-Feb Weligama
09-Feb Weligama/Return


All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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