Sri Lanka 14-23rd March 2019

May 12, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Immediately after my visit to India (see my previous blog post) I travelled to the island of Sri Lanka for more wildlife encounters. I flew direct from New Delhi to Colombo where I was reunited with my wife and our daughter who flew there from Bali.

Whereas my trip to India was organised through a tour company, our Sri Lanka trip was all done independently - we hired a car and drove ourselves. Despite what I had read online, I found driving in Sri Lanka perfectly civilised. I had booked our hotels in advance and had also tried to pre-arrange safaris etc. but I realised on arrival that there was really no need!

Our first destination was the seaside town of Mirissa on the south coast where we stayed at 'Wayside Guesthouse'. Due to our late flights, we had to drive through the night and arrived at our hotel at around 2am - much to the surprise of the hotel staff who assumed we were a no-show (despite my emails informing them of our expected arrival time...). We were brought to Mirissa for one reason only - whales! I had long wanted to go whale-watching, and Mirissa is special because the whales that can be reliably seen there are the largest animal that has ever existed on the planet - the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus).

After conducting some online research we chose a company called 'Raja and the Whales'. The trip was expensive at $52 per adult (apparently the government have recently added a hefty tax to the activity) but they were a decent enough operator and they certainly looked after us - providing various foods and refreshments throughout the trip, and a good narrative of events as they transpired. We saw numerous whales and our daughter in particular loved the experience, despite one instance of seasickness! I didn't get my camera out for this one - after a bad experience from a dolphin-watching trip in Bali I decided it wasn't worth the risk to my equipment.

A quick note on ethics - I agree with several other blogs / reports on the issue of these sorts of trips and I think we will not undertake this sort of activity any more. On both dolphin- and whale-watching trips that we have been on we have witnessed the overcrowding and chasing of animals which is definitely not good for them. We were fortunate that our chosen operators conducted themselves well but everyone that goes contributes in some way. Until these activities are properly regulated then it is impossible to say that going along doesn't have some impact.

After spending the evening in Mirissa (one day there was enough!) we set off for a lodge on the outskirts of Yala National Park. We stayed in the vicinity of the small town of Katagarama at a rather eccentric place called 'Humbhaha Jungle Eco Resort'. Strangely (to me), we were the only people staying there that had any interest in wildlife - the others were all apparently there for religious / spiritual reasons - and seemed a bit perplexed that we weren't...

As with the whale-watching, I had my reservations about visiting Yala because of reports describing large numbers of jeeps. We thought we would give it the benefit of the doubt anyway and were really glad that we did. I'm not sure if we were just there in the low season or if the Katagarama entry to the park is just quieter - but we saw hardly any other people. I would say we saw 3 or 4 other jeeps on each safari.

In general, the wildlife was abundant and spectacular. The big draw of the park are the Sri Lankan leopards (Panthera pardus kotiya) and they did not disappoint - 20 minutes into our very first safari we chanced across one in a clearing and had a very intimate encounter:

Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya)Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya)

We had a few more sightings of leopards at Yala - but none quite as close (or in the open) as this!

The other stars of the show at Yala were the Sri Lankan elephants (Elephas maximus maximus) - the island's subspecies of the Asian elephant. Here we saw one small herd with a few youngsters in tow:

Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus)Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus)

Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus)Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus)

We saw two different species of primate - firstly tufted gray langurs (Semnopithecus priam) which we saw throughout the park:

Tufted gray langur (Semnopithecus priam)Tufted gray langur (Semnopithecus priam)

Secondly, toque macaques (Macaca sinica), which we only saw at a picnic spot at the edge of the park:

Toque macaque (Macaca sinica)Toque macaque (Macaca sinica)

In terms of other mammals, we saw a few ruddy mongoose (Herpestes smithii):

Ruddy mongoose (Herpestes smithii)Ruddy mongoose (Herpestes smithii)

As the evening drew in, we saw increasing numbers of Indian hare (Lepus nigricollis), like this one in deep vegetation:

Indian hare (Lepus nigricollis)Indian hare (Lepus nigricollis)

Next up is the reptile life, though there's not too much to report here! We saw just one species at Yala - mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris). First an impressive adult:

Mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris)Mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris)

And later on, a juvenile:

Mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris)Mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris)

The bird life at Yala was amazing and almost warrants a post of its own. We saw a huge diversity of species in our 2 days there. Starting with the birds of prey, we had at least 5 encounters with changeable hawk-eagles (Nisaetus cirrhatus). These birds truly live up to the 'changeable' description - each one looked different:

Changeable hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus)Changeable hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus)

We had several encounters with crested serpent eagles (Spilornis cheela), a species I have been lucky to see throughout Asia:

Crested serpent eagle (Spilornis cheela)Crested serpent eagle (Spilornis cheela)

We saw one grey-headed fish eagle (Haliaeetus ichthyaetus):

Grey-headed fish eagle (Haliaeetus ichthyaetus)Grey-headed fish eagle (Haliaeetus ichthyaetus)

There was an impressive variety of storks, including the painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala)...

Painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala)Painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala)

...the lesser adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus)...

Lesser adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus)Lesser adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus)

...the woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus)...

Woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus)Woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus)

...and finally the Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia). It looks like the one in the foreground may have had a recent run-in with a predator:

Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)

There were also two species of lapwing: red-wattled (Vanellus indicus)...

Red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus)Red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus)

...and yellow-wattled (Vanellus malabaricus):

Yellow-wattled lapwing (Vanellus malabaricus)Yellow-wattled lapwing (Vanellus malabaricus)

We saw 3 of the 4 species of bee-eater that are found in Sri Lanka. The most frequently encountered was the beautiful little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis):

Green bee-eater (Merops orientalis)Green bee-eater (Merops orientalis)

We saw a single blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus)...

Blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus)Blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus)

...and also a single chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) - this one actually in the grounds of our accommodation:

Chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti)Chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti)

Other birds included one little cormorant (Microcarbo niger), drying its wings in a characteristic cormorant pose...

Little cormorant (Microcarbo niger)Little cormorant (Microcarbo niger)

...one brown shrike (Lanius cristatus)...

Brown shrike (Lanius cristatus)Brown shrike (Lanius cristatus)

...a rather distant sighting of two Malabar pied hornbills (Anthracoceros coronatus)... 

Malabar pied hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus)Malabar pied hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus)

...and a white-browed bulbul (Pycnonotus luteolus):

White-browed bulbul (Pycnonotus luteolus)White-browed bulbul (Pycnonotus luteolus)

After Yala we then began our journey onwards to Udawalawe national park.

On the way I had to stop the car to help an Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) cross the road. Please note I only photographed it after I had moved it to safety!:

Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans)Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans)

I chose Udawalawe national park as as our next stop as it sounded like our best bet for seeing elephants, which were not otherwise guaranteed elsewhere. Obviously we did see them at Yala but I wasn't to know that when planning the trip! To be honest, Udawalawe really wasn't a highlight - there were plenty of elephants but the place felt like a bit of a theme park and was crowded with jeeps.

The best thing about our visit was that our accommodation (Bright Sun Safari Hotel) was superb, easily the best of our trip. The hotel was immaculately presented and the service, organisation, food and well, everything - was excellent.

The park itself seemed to be covered in some kind of invasive plant species and didn't look to be in ecologically good shape. Apart from the elephants we didn't see much, but we did see a Bengal monitor (Varanus bengalensis) hiding in a tree - the drivers / guides called these 'land' monitors, presumably to distinguish them from water monitors which also exist there:

Bengal monitor (Varanus bengalensis)Bengal monitor (Varanus bengalensis)

After Udawalawe we headed further north up to Sigiriya. This was partly to break up the long drive to Wilpattu but also because I had heard that it was a good destination for spotlighting for nocturnal wildlife. On the evening of our arrival I went out on a spotlighting drive with a local naturalist. Unfortunately, it was a full moon and this meant that the drive was almost completely fruitless. After about 3 hours we had seen absolutely nothing - very disappointing! Eventually we saw one Jerdon's nightjar (Caprimulgus atripennis) - the first sign of life - calling from a perch:

Jerdon's nightjar (Caprimulgus atripennis)Jerdon's nightjar (Caprimulgus atripennis)

Just as we were about to head back, we finally saw a bit of eye-shine and to my delight, it was my target species - a gray slender loris (Loris lydekkerianus). Lorises have been my favourite animal ever since I learnt of their existence so this sighting was very special to me!:

Gray slender loris (Loris lydekkerianus)Gray slender loris (Loris lydekkerianus)

The next morning we headed out to the base of the Sigiriya rock fortress. We were debating whether our not we would manage the climb with our 2-year old daughter, but after pottering around the area we decided it probably wasn't going to happen! The high price of admission also put us off, so we thought we'd save it for our next trip there. After a couple of hours exploring some of the archaeological sites around the base we got back in the car and drove onwards to Wilpattu national park.

I had originally intended to spend 3 full days at Wilpattu, as it seems widely described as the jewel in Sri Lanka's wildlife crown. Unfortunately for us, our experience couldn't have been further from this!

We arrived at our accommodation (Thimbirewewa Ecoresort) to a very puzzled reception - despite the fact that I booked it months prior through Agoda they did not seem to be expecting us! There was no-one else staying there so they honoured our booking anyway. We had a few communication issues with the staff there but we discussed the safaris that we wanted to do and it appeared that all was understood. That afternoon, we got ourselves ready to go on safari but 20 minutes after the agreed time, no-one had yet come to collect us. When I finally managed to locate the 'ecoresort' staff they managed to find a driver who came for us...however by this point we had missed almost an hour of our (expensive) safari. Not a great start! At least there was an oriental garden lizard (Calotes versicolor) outside the lodge to keep me occupied while we waited:

Oriental garden lizard (Calotes versicolor)Oriental garden lizard (Calotes versicolor)

Our safari started off well - with an early sighting of a sloth bear (Melursus ursinus). The bear was sleeping in thick vegetation so it wasn't a photo op...but it was a nice encounter anyway!

We also had a very close encounter with another leopard - it crossed the road right next to our jeep.

In terms of other wildlife, we really saw very little. It was a real contrast to our experience of Yala where we saw animals almost constantly. The only species of note was the Sri Lankan junglefowl (Gallus lafayetti) - the national bird of Sri Lanka. We saw these at Yala as well, but had better photographic opportunities at Wilpattu:

Sri Lankan junglefowl (Gallus lafayettii)Sri Lankan junglefowl (Gallus lafayettii)

We had arranged another safari for the next day but decided to change our plans and leave early. Due to a combination of the poor organisation of our accommodation, the fact that we saw very little wildlife and a nice bonus that I started coming down with some kind of fever we headed back down to Colombo early.

This gave us 1 1/2 days to see a little of the city which was pleasant enough - we all enjoyed the shopping opportunities and some creature comforts after 9 days on the road and on safari!

In all, the trip started off superbly, then petered out a little for us... Sri Lanka is definitely worth a second visit however - for a start there's a huge diversity of reptile life which I made little effort to see!

Cheers!

Robin.


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