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By tour participant Barry Shaw

It was 12 tired but keen participants who assembled at Colombo Airport in February 2003 for Birdfinders’ first tour of Sri Lanka. Despite the long flight everyone was eager to start birdwatching and the joys of a holiday on this tropical island soon became apparent as our air-conditioned vehicle sped through picturesque Singhalese villages amidst verdant countryside. As we headed towards our first destination there was an irresistible urge to stop to observe the many kingfishers, bee-eaters and rollers perched along roadside telegraph wires.

It was not until the following morning, around our Hotel at Sigiriya, that we discovered that forest birding was not so easy – obtaining good views of our first Indian Pitta in the dimly-lit undergrowth proved to be a frustrating experience, although eventually the bird performed magnificently for us. Over the next few days the group began to familiarise itself with a continual stream of new birds, not to mention the bewildering array of barbets, bulbuls and babblers. This first locality also produced the first of the endemic species including the Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill and Brown-capped Babbler. As we soon discovered even urban areas produced good birds – a stunning male Indian Blue Robin and a male Pied Thrush were found in a town park at Nuwara Eliya.

The dry lowland zones in the southeast of the country were equally productive with stunning views of Great Thick-knee at Tissamaharama, Barred Buttonquail at Yala and Small Pratincole at Bundala. Amongst the more "exotic" birds the group even recorded a migrant Red-throated Pipit – a first ever sighting for Sri Lanka.

Highlight of the trip for the majority of the party had to be reserved for our final destination in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, where the rustic charm of the accommodation at Martin's Bungalow was an experience in itself. Any lack of facilities was, however, fully compensated by birding in the largest tract of surviving rainforest in the country. It was here that, in addition to the leeches, nearly all the endemic birds of Sri Lanka were found, with the most spectacular of these being the Sri Lanka Blue-magpie and Red-faced Malkoha. In addition, the site produced an abundance of magnificent butterflies from the canopy-loving Tree Nymph to the Blue Mormon and Common Birdwing.

Choosing memorable moments amongst so many is an almost impossible task, but few will forget the pair of White-naped Woodpeckers feeding young at their nest in a palm tree, or the Changeable Hawk-eagle swooping inches above our heads to snatch an unsuspecting Ashy Prinia. It is not often that a group records virtually every species that they hoped to see on a trip, but with a record count of 255 birds for a two-week tour, including all 24 endemic species, it is hard to think of anything that was missed.

For anybody contemplating a birdwatching holiday to the Indian sub-continent, an ideal choice would be Sri Lanka. With birds, mammals and butterflies in abundance, coupled with relatively short travelling distances, beautiful scenery, an ancient culture, good food and friendly people, you will not be disappointed.

Sri Lanka Blue-magpie

Sri Lanka Blue-magpie