Our last destination was the magnificent Yala National Park, Sri Lanka’s second largest and most popular park, hugging the Indian Ocean along the southeast coast. Encompassing nearly 400 square miles of habitat, mostly off-limits to visitors, the park is famous for a high density of leopards, along with abundant elephants, deer, monkeys, and birds.
We explored 2 of the 5 blocks, a mixture of lowland dry thorn forest, wetlands, and patches of short grass. We travelled dusty roads in rugged, open-sided safari jeeps, and arrived before dawn each day to ensure entry ahead of other vehicles. We sipped hot tea and listened to Jerdon’s Nightjars calling before the first rays of light. Breakfast in the bush is most memorable!
Our first morning we had excellent but brief sightings of Leopard, a big male and a younger one with a broken tail!
There was a fine assortment of other mammals. We admired numerous Asian Elephants, including a rambunctious youngster, and one showing how it kicks up short grass, twists its nimble trunk to pick it up, and shakes off dirt before feeding, and one feisty male that stopped traffic by sauntering into one lane of a busy public road bisecting the park! Sounders of Wild Boar, herds of Chital (Spotted Deer), pairs of curious Ruddy Mongoose, gigantic Water Buffalo, Black-naped Hares, Golden Jackal, Toque Monkeys and Grey Langurs…all were marvelous!
One endemic we found in Yala that we did not see elsewhere was Sri Lanka Woodshrike. Other birds enjoyed were White-browed Bulbul, Blue-faced Malkoha, three species of bee-eater, Asian Paradise Flycatchers splash-bathing, Jerdon’s Bushlark, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, White-bellied Sea Eagle and the majestic Malabar Pied Hornbill.
Wetlands of the park and nearby Tissa teemed with water birds – Asian Openbill, Painted Stork, Woolly-necked Stork, Black-tailed Godwit, Lesser Whistling Duck, Purple Swamphen, Watercock, Pin-tailed Snipe, Spot-billed Pelican, Cotton Pygmy Geese, Black Bittern, Western Reef-Heron, Great Thick-knee, a mix of shorebirds and multitude of Garganey, as well as Pheasant-tailed Jacanas in full regalia. At dusk we watched egrets, herons, ibis and pelicans coming to roost while thousands of Indian Flying Foxes were taking off for the evening, an extraordinary sight we will never forget.
We delighted in seeing Jungle Owlet, the huge Brown Fish Owl and Indian Scops Owl, all roosting in different corners of a small village. We happily paid our young village guide, knowing this fosters a win-win for everyone; a thriving small business helps keep the owls (and their habitats) safe, respected, and undisturbed, so that birders can view these sought-after species.
On our final morning, we left at the usual pre-dawn hour, and drove down to Bundala National Park on the coast. Less crowded and a little more open than Yala, the parks wetlands, lagoons, and dunes provide critical refuge for thousands of migratory and resident birds. Shorebirds abounded – Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, Lesser Sand-Plovers, Pacific Golden-Plovers, and Eurasian Curlew – along with Yellow and Red-wattled Lapwings. Waders of many sizes and colors stalked shallow waters, including Black-headed Ibis, Black-winged Stilt, and Eurasian Spoonbill. We watched a Crested Hawk Eagle tear-apart a freshly-killed Purple Heron, and spotted a Lesser Adjutant moving into tall reeds. Oriental Skylarks foraged with Paddyfield Pipits on short grass.
We continued on the several-hours journey back to Colombo. One more surprise awaited us just a few minutes from the airport. Our final endemic, #33, was seen at a tea stop arranged especially for us – a Crimson-fronted Barbet that we had somehow missed in previous days. This beautiful bird highlighted the end of a wonderfully memorable experience of Sri Lanka’s endemic birds, and so much more!
all photos © adrian binns