The tropical island country of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) lies in the Indian ocean, about 1,421 km (883 mi) southwest of mainland India. It is a place of postcard quality beaches, rich cultural heritage, flavourful cuisine, emerald green tea plantations, ancient Buddhist temples, a rich and accessible wildlife assemblage, friendly smiling people, stunning countryside train rides and excellent value.Sri Lanka boasts 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites scattered around the country and many colourful religious festivals are hosted throughout the year. Sri Lanka was a Dutch, Portuguese and British colony from the early 1800s to 1900s, so splashes of European influence are reflected in the architecture, food and a massive passion for cricket. Sometimes complimentarily referred to as “India Lite”, it has become a must-experience travel hotspot after years of civil unrest (that ended in 2009) and in 2019 Sri Lanka was voted by Lonely Planet as the best country in the world to visit!
Sri Lanka, despite its small size (65,610 km2/ 25,330 sq mi), is one of 25 biodiversity hotspots on the planet, and has the highest biodiversity density in all of Asia, as well as an incredibly high endemism percentage. The island boasts 123 mammal species (21 endemic), 179 reptile species (109 endemic), 122 species of amphibians (112 endemic) and 3,210 flowering plant species (916 endemics). The country has diverse and favourable climatic conditions and natural habitats, such as forests, scrublands, grasslands, wetlands, seas and agricultural lands. A true birders’ paradise!
Of special interest to us is that Sri Lanka’s confirmed bird list is at well over 430 species, including at least 33 endemics. Over 80 species are also found on the Indian mainland, but the ones on Sri Lanka have developed distinct characteristics from their Indian relatives and count as full species. BirdLife International considers Sri Lanka as one of the world’s Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs).
On this Nature Travel Birding tour we will visit key areas around the country, maximising our chances to see as many of the endemic and special bird species as we can, not forgetting the other diverse species of fauna and flora, as well as stunning scenery, local food and drink, cultural heritage and so much more.
Let’s go birding in sensational Sri Lanka!
NEXT DEPARTURE DATE: 29 November 2021
DAY 1: Arrival in Sri Lanka & drive to Kitulgala
This Sri Lanka birding adventure starts when you land at Bandaranaike International Airport, the country’s main international airport, situated 20 miles (33 km) north of the capital, Colombo, on the west coast of the island. The airport is actually in the Katunayake suburb of the city of Negombo.We will not see much of Colombo, but it is the nation’s longstanding capital, biggest city and most important commercial centre. Due to its large harbour and its strategic position along the East-West sea trade routes, Colombo was known to ancient traders 2,000 years ago. Today it is a popular tourist destination and known for Galle Face Green, Gangaramaya Temple, Viharamahadevi Park, the National Museum, the famous Ministry of Crab restaurant and many fantastic markets.
You will be met by the local guide and driver outside the airport and from here we will make eastwards through many rubber plantations into the island’s centre, toward Kitulgala, about 3 hours away. On the way we will look out for our first birds of the trip, and these could include White-throated Kingfisher, Indian Swiftlet, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Greater Coucal and Indian Pond Heron.
If time permits (depending on your flight’s arrival time) we will do our first birding when we arrive at Kitulagala in the hilly wet zone of central Sri Lanka. It is a small town situated on the banks of the Kelani river, and famous for the fact that the Academy Award-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed on the river near Kitulgala. The town is also a base for several adventure sports, including white-river rafting and hiking. Agriculture is also big here, with plantations of Solitary Fishtail Palm, bananas and rubber trees prevalent. It is a popular stop on birding tours, as there are many rainforest species to see here.
Possible species we will look for on our first walk in the forest include Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Crimson-backed Flameback and many more.
We will check into our accommodation (our home for the next two nights), have dinner and enjoy our first evening in sensational Sri Lanka!
DAY 2: Kitulgala
We will enjoy breakfast at our lodge, situated within a former coffee plantation, and overlooking the Kelani river. This might be our first chance to try the famous Sri Lanka dish of “poppers”. It is composed of a thin, crepe-like batter that is infused with coconut milk and spices and crisped into a bowl shape to hold fried eggs. It’s versatile enough to serve as a breakfast dish, quick snack or even a hangover cure!
During breakfast remember to look out for Green Imperial and Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Brown-headed Barbet, Scarlet and Orange Minivet, Oriental Magpie Robin, Pale-billed Flowerpecker, and Purple-rumped and Loten’s Sunbirds in the lodge gardens.
After breakfast we will have a full day of birding in the Kitulgala Forest Reserve. It is a low country rain forest containing a host of endemic birds and other wildlife unique to the island. We will return to the lodge for lunch and short rest and then go out in the afternoon again.
Possible noteworthy species include Black and Rufous-bellied Eagle, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Brahminy Kite, Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Serendib Scops Owl, Chestnut-backed Owlet, Brown Hawk-Owl, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Layard’s and Alexandrine Parakeet, Common Emerald Dove, Green-billed Coucal, Red-faced Malkoha, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Black-capped Bulbul, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Spot-winged Thrush, Brown-capped and Orange-billed Babbler, Sri Lanka Hill Myna, Sri Lanka Drongo, Legge’s Flowerpecker, White-rumped Munia, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, White-browed Fantail, Brown-backed Needletail, Sri Lanka Swallow, Crested Treeswift, Indian Swiftlet and many more.
We will return to our lodge in the late afternoon, have dinner and a good night’s rest.
DAY 3: Kitulgala to Nuwara Eliya
We will try to get some pre-breakfast birding done should there be any species we might have missed out on. Keep an eye on the nearby riverbanks for Purple Heron, Woolly-necked Stork and Asian Openbill.
After breakfast we will continue further east, ascending into the cooler highlands of central Sri Lanka. We are heading for Nuwara Eliya, about 2 hours away.
Nuwara Eliya is a beautiful town, located at 1,868 m (6,128 ft) above sea level, which really shows its colonial roots. It became a popular retreat for British ex-pats due to its cool climate during the hottest season of the year, and it earned its nickname “Little England”. It is also known as “city on a plain” and “city of light”. The town is surrounded by impressive scenery and immaculate tea plantations, and is overlooked by Pidurutalagala, the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka (2,524 m (8,281 ft). There are some beautifully kept gardens in town, along with many impressive colonial buildings. It also has the only remaining horse racing venue in Sri Lanka, the Nuwara Eliya Racecourse.
We will spend the afternoon birding in Victoria Park, an attractive and well-kept public park next to the Tudor-style Nuwara Eliya Post Office. The The Nanu Oya river runs through the 11 ha (27 acres) park, creating a number of small lakes. There are also many mature trees next to the river, attracting a host of species.
Here we will look for Pied Thrush, Indian Pitta, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Slaty-legged and Ruddy-breasted Crake, Forest and Grey Wagtail, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Indian Blue Robin, Brown Shrike, Kashmir Flycatcher, Sri Lanka White-eye, Greenish Warbler, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and many more.
We will then check into our accommodation (surrounded by woodland and tea plantations and offering stunning views of the town below) for the next two nights, have dinner, complete our lists and have a good night’s sleep.
DAY 4: Nuwara Eliya
This morning we will have a very early start, enjoying a packed breakfast later on. We are heading for the fabulous Horton Plains National Park, about 32 km (20 mi) away. This is a key wildlife area with two distinct habitats: open grassy woodland plains and evergreen subtropical cloud forest. The region was designated as a national park in 1988, mostly to protect the rich biodiversity and high endemism that occurs here. It is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. Early morning visits are best, both to see the birds and wildlife and to view World’s End (a sheer precipice with a 4,000 feet (1,200 m) drop) before mist closes in during the latter part of the morning.
Special mammals that occur in Horton Plains NP include Leopard, Sambar, Purple-faced Langur, Red Slender Loris and Toque Macaque, along with over 20 other species. Nearly 750 species of plants belonging to 20 families have also been recorded in the park. Another attraction is the 20 metre (66 ft) high Baker’s Falls, a waterfall named after Sir Samuel Baker, the famous British explorer.
The park is also an Important Bird Area (IBA) with many species not only endemic to Sri Lanka but restricted to the Horton Plains. Almost 100 species have been recorded for the park, including 21 endemics. We will look for Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Legge’s Hawk-Eagle, Crimson-backed Flameback, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Pied Bush Chat, Sri Lanka Thrush, Indian Blackbird, Dark-fronted Babbler, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Kashmir, Dull-blue and Dusky-blue Flycatcher, Sri Lanka White-eye and many more.
In the late morning, we will return to the hotel for lunch and will then pass the remainder of the day in the beautiful Hakgala Botanical Gardens. It is the second largest garden in Sri Lanka, situated about 16 km (10 mi) from Nuwara Eliya. The garden is over 150 years old and many folklore tales mention the gardens. It is famous for the number of orchids and roses planted there, and attracts over 500,00 annual visitors.
A number of localized endemics, restricted to the higher elevations, can be found at Hakgala. Possible species include Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Forest Wagtail, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Pied Bush Chat, Sri Lanka Thrush, Indian Blackbird, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Cinereous Tit, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Kashmir and Dusky-blue Flycatcher, Sri Lanka White-eye and many others.
We will return to our excellent hotel, enjoy some great food and get a good night’s rest after another exciting day in Sri Lanka.
DAY 5: Nuwara Eliya to Tissamaharama
We are up again early this morning, and after an early breakfast we make our way south into the lowlands of Sri Lanka. It is a fairly long drive (4 to 5 hours) to our next destination, but if there is time we will stop at the Surrey Bird Sanctuary along the way. En route we will keep our eyes peeled for any interesting species, which may include Jungle Prinia, Small Minivet, Blue-faced Malkoha and Sri Lanka Woodshrike.
We will find a nice spot on our journey and enjoy a packed lunch.
Our destination is Tissamaharama (just “Tissa” to the locals), home to an amazing variety of water-associated birds. The town itself used to be the capital of the Sinhalese Kingdom of Ruhuna as early as the 3rd century B.C., but these days it is more important as a gateway to the nearby Yala National Park.
We will explore the Tissa lake, marshes and associated wetlands, and boost our aquatic bird list for the trip! We will look for Spot-billed Pelican, Greater Flamingo, Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Lesser Adjutant, Purple Heron, Black-headed Ibis, Oriental Darter, Lesser Whistling Duck, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Indian and Little Cormorant, Black and Yellow Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Black-winged Stilt, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Watercock, Stork-billed and White-throated Kingfisher and many others.
Some of the other species we might pick up here include Brahminy Kite, Indian Scops Owl, Brown Fish Owl, Jacobin Cuckoo, White-naped Woodpecker, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Green Bee-eater, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Baya Weaver, Plain Prinia and many more.
We could also see some interesting other fauna species, like Mugger Crocodile, Grey Langur and Indian Flying Fox.
At the end of our excursion we will head for our accommodation for the next two nights, a top-rated hotel situated on the shores of the Tissa Lake. There is a viewpoint at the top of the hotel where we can enjoy a sundowner and marvel at the 360 degree view of the lake, old temples and mountains. We will enjoy dinner and a good night’s rest, because we are up early again tomorrow.
DAY 6: Tissamaharama (Lunugamvehera NP)
This morning we are up early, and will have a packed breakfast at some time during the early morning.
We are heading for a full day jeep safari in Lunugamvehera National Park! The 23,500 ha (58,000 acres) park was declared a national park in 1995 and is an important habitat for elephants, as it serves as a corridor for them to migrate between nearby Yala National Park and Udawalawe National Park. It is a much quieter park than the famous Yala, and thus perfect for birdwatching!
Lunugamvehera lies in Sri Lanka’s dry zone, and is exposed to annual drought in the non-monsoon season. A mosaic of scrubland and grassland complement the monsoon forest areas of the park. There are many artificial cement-lined waterholes throughout the park, located near the small roads, and also a large dam on one side, while a river runs through the park. Fauna of the park includes 21 fish species, 12 amphibians, 33 reptiles, 184 birds and 43 mammals. Asian Elephant (Sri Lanka subspecies), Asian Buffalo, Sambar, Wild Boar, White-spotted Chevrotain, Chital, Tufted Grey Langur, Grizzled Giant Squirrel and Common Palm are some of the common mammals in the park. There is even a small chance of seeing the elusive Leopard (Sri Lanka subspecies)!
We might see some interesting reptiles too, including Mugger Crocodile, Common Green Forest Lizard, Bengal and Water Monitor, Indian Python, Indian Cobra and Russell’s Viper.
From a birding perspective we will search for Painted and Black-necked Stork, Lesser Adjutant, Black-winged Stilt, Eurasian and Great Stone-curlew, Small Pratincole, Yellow-wattled and Red-wattled Lapwing, Pacific Golden Plover, Grey, Kentish, Lesser Sand and Greater Sand Plover, Marsh, Wood and Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Bengal Bush Lark, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Brahminy and Rosy Starling, and many more. Recently the Marshall’s Iora, which has never been spotted in Sri Lanka before, was even seen nesting in the park!
We will return to our hotel after a fantastic day in Lunugamvehera to eat and rest up.
DAY 7: Tissamaharama to Udawalawe National Park
After breakfast this morning we will proceed to the popular Udawalawe National Park, about 90 minutes northwest from Tissa. We will enjoy a jeep safari in the park, returning for lunch to the hotel where we will stay tonight.
Udawalawe was established in 1972, mainly to provide a sanctuary for fauna displaced by the construction of the Udawalawe Reservoir on the Walawe River. This extensive (308.21 km2 (119.00 sq mi)) reserve is home to over 250 Asian Elephants and provides an important habitat for water birds. Open grassland plains dominate the topography, although there are also some mountainous areas and marshes along the river too. Species recorded from the park include 94 plants, 135 butterflies and over 40 mammals.
Some special mammals that could be seen here, apart from the elephants, include Leopard (rare), Sloth Bear (rare), Jungle Cat, Rusty-spotted Cat, Fishing Cat, Golden Jackal, Sambar, Chital, Southern Red Muntjac, Golden Palm Civet and Indian Hare.
Important for us is that Udawalawe is also a very good birdwatching site, and holds some scarce bird species like Malabar Pied Hornbill, Blue-faced Malkoha and Barred Buttonquail.
Other species we will hopefully encounter include Spot-billed Pelican, Oriental Darter, Lesser Adjutant, Painted Stork, Grey Heron, Eurasian Spoonbill, Montagu’s and Pied Harrier, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Booted Eagle, Sri Lanka and Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Plum-headed Parakeet, Sirkeer Malkoha, Indian Roller, White Wagtail, Black-capped Kingfisher, Indian Peafowl and many others.
We will return to our stunning hotel (designed to blend into the surrounding landscape) in the late afternoon, enjoy some sumptuous local cuisine in the restaurant, and have a good night’s rest.
DAY 8: Udawalawe to Sinharaja Forest Reserve
After breakfast we proceed westwards for about 3 to 4 hours to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. This reserve is well known among ornithologists for having the widest variety of forest birds in all of Sri Lanka. It is a treasure trove of endemic species, including trees, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
We have the full afternoon to bird around our peaceful, cool lodge (after having lunch at the lodge), and we will look for Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot, Layard’s and Plum-headed Parakeet, Black-rumped Flameback, Crimson-fronted and Yellow-fronted Barbet, Sri Lanka Hill Myna, Forest Wagtail, Sri Lanka Swallow, Crested Treeswift, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Orange Minivet, Loten’s and Purple-rumped Sunbird, Scaly-breasted and White-rumped Munia, and many others.
We will return to the lodge to update our lists, have dinner and a good night’s sleep. The lodge will be our base for the next three nights. It is situated on the doorstep of the rainforest and even in the beautiful gardens some spectacular birds can be seen. The food in the open-air restaurant here is also something to look forward to!
DAY 9 & 10: Sinharaja Forest Reserve
After an early breakfast each day we have full day excursions to Sinharaja with picnic lunch daily.
The internationally important 88.64 km2 (34.22 sq mi) Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a national park, a Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reserve’s name translates as Lion Kingdom. It is a biodiversity and endemism hotspot, and one of the most important protected areas in all of Sri Lanka, being the country’s last viable area of virgin tropical rainforest. It is a beautiful place of ridges and valleys, with lofty trees, intertwined with shrubs, woody climbers, vines and dense smaller trees and shrubs. More than 60% of the trees are endemic and many of them are considered rare.
Of Sri Lanka’s 33 endemic birds, the 20 rainforest species all occur here, and the reserve’s total bird list sits at 282 species. Some of the birds we will look for during the two full days include Rufous-bellied and Black Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Crested Goshawk, Besra, Chestnut-backed Owlet, Sri Lanka Spurfowl, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Green-billed Coucal, Red-faced Malkoha, Malabar Trogon, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, White-faced Starling, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Spot-winged and Sri Lanka Thrush, Sri Lanka Drongo, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Brown-capped, Dark-fronted and Orange-billed Babbler, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Legge’s Flowerpecker, Brown-backed Needletail, Black, Yellow-browed and Black-capped Bulbul, Black-throated Munia and many others. It is here where we will enjoy our best “bird parties” of our trip, with some of the largest mixed-species feeding flocks of birds in the world!
Possible mammals include Grizzled Giant Squirrel and Purple-faced Langur. Though they are almost never seen, local reports suggest there are a few Asian Elephants left in the reserve, and as many as 15 Leopards.
Sinharaja is also home to a colourful variety of butterflies and frogs, as well as several species of lizards and snakes. The latter group include endemic species such as the Ceylon Pit Viper and Hump-nose Moccasin.
A night walk on one of the evenings may even produce Sri Lanka Frogmouth and Serendib Scops Owl.
We will return to our lodge every night for dinner and a good night’s rest. You could also have a bath in a stream (from a natural spring) flowing down the forest in front of the lodge if you want!
DAY 11: Sinharaja to Katunayake
After breakfast we will have our final birding session around the lodge grounds, hoping to pick up some of the species we might have missed.
We will have lunch at the lodge and then drive for about 5 hours northwards to Katunayake, north of Colombo. Katunayake is a suburb of the city of Negombo and the site of the Bandaranaike International Airport.
We will check into our comfortable city hotel close to the airport and have a final farewell dinner together as a group.
DAY 12: Transfer to airport and Departure
After breakfast at the hotel we will make the short transfer to the airport in time for your onward international flight.
Do you have a quick question about this birding tour? Speak to a specialist at