Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Birdwatching Sri Lanka 2016 - Bundala

Like Yala our trip to Bundala involved a 5.30 pick up by Pradeep (Safari in Sri Lanka; It's quite a long drive to Bundala across largely agricultural land and quite a few birds were seen along the way - especially bee-eaters. Almost everywhere we went the telegraph/electricity wires were covered in green bee-eaters. We saw hundreds of them.
Also on the way we stopped to take a small tortoise out of the road.

Our first stop was at a large lagoon on the road to the Park ticket office and visitor centre where we looked at loads of waders.........and the confusion began. Pradeep was pointing out lesser and greater sand plovers but with only binoculars I was struggling; in fact I was struggling to tell the difference between winter plumage Kentish and the sand plovers. I did take a lot of pictures but most of the time the birds were too distant for decent images.

Lesser Sandplover

Kentish plover

Kentish plover - summer plumage

What was easier to pick out were marsh sandpipers - there were several present along with greenshank and wood sandpipers.

Marsh sandpiper

Further out there was a small flock of terns - whiskered terns mainly many attaining their dark undersides and we had a white wing black tern do a fly-past.
Prideep had already asked if we had any particular targets and I said small pratincole and ashy crowned sparrow-lark and after we'd been there for a while he said there were some pratincoles out near the terns. They were too far for me any my binocs so I fired off a few shots. When I looked on the back of the camera it was clear they were collared or oriental pratincoles. They did come a little closer but were always distant.
I had rather hoped they would be orientals but I'm sure, from the pictures I obtained, they were the rarer (for Sri lanka) collared variety because the tail reaches the end of the wing tips, the tail of the oriental is distinctly shorter than the wing tips. So an excellent bird but not a life tick.

Collared pratincole - id by tail length
We then we moved on to the ticket office/visitor centre. If you go to Bundala try and stop for a few minutes at the ticket office because they have display cases of skeletons of many of the creatures you can see in the park including one of a crocodile.

Once in the park you drive through scrub which then opens out onto various pools. In the scrub we had brilliant views of blue-tailed bee-eater and Sri Lanka jungle fowl and in the early pools, egrets, herons, spoonbills and painted stork along with more waders (green and redshank, more marsh sandpipers, black-winged stilt, pheasant tailed jacana).

Blue-tailed bee-eater

The scrub soon gives way to the main lagoons/salt pans  where you drive along the embankment between lagoons/pans. Here we had paddyfield pipits on the embankments and along the shore lines Kentish, lesser sandplover and little stints and a few distant pacific golden plovers. By approaching very slowly or parking up and simply waiting allowed us to get close to these and get some great pictures.

Also on the lagoons were terns and again by parking up and waiting gull billed, little white winged black and Caspian terns flew past.

Gull billed tern

White winged black tern

Little tern

Towards the seaward end of the embankment we stopped to view a roost of terns - these were mainly lesser and greater crested terns:

The greater crested terns have the pale yellow beaks and the lesser crested the orange-yellow beaks.

It was here that Pradeep spotted a couple of small pratincoles - distant but at least we'd got the tick. We lingered here for quite some time photographing the aforementioned waders then Pradeep called our attention to small pratincoles flying past and towards another lagoon that looked linked to the sea.
Pradeep didn't normally go to the shore of this lagoon but another 4x4 had been along there so we tried our luck.
Once there we saw many of the same birds as we had already seen but whilst we parked up and after a short while a couple of small pratincoles came pretty close and were hunted for insects on the sands/mud either by picking them off whilst simply walking/running or flapping along just above the sand.

All too soon it was time to go and we started for home. We hadn't gone too far when Pradeep spotted a black shouldered kite in one of the taller tress in the scrubby area then back on the main road he spotted a black bittern on the roadside marsh and quite close.

Also on the way home he stopped for an Indian Roller on the wires and our final stop was for some ashy-crowned sparrow larks and an  oriental skylark that seemed to be thriving in amongst the extensive roadworks we encountered.

I'm sure if we were just bird watching (and had a scope) we would have seen more species because we spent a lot of time at our stops trying to get decent pictures..
As a photographer I could have done with several sessions in the park because for a number of species I failed to get a usable shot (eg greater sand plover) or I only managed  record shots - you could easily have spent most of a session on the terns alone.
It would also be useful to know the place well enough to chose the best time to be at individual pools - ie with the sun behind rather than in front of you.
However it was excellent as was Pradeep who was helpful, patient and was sympathetic to our needs (the desire to get photographs of what we saw) and managed to locate the species I asked for ( small pratincole and ashy-crowned sparrow lark).
Pradeep did invite us back to his home for a Sri Lankan lunch but we'd already been out way longer than we had booked for and we had an appointment with a beer by the pool with our wives.

Tomorrow we were off to Mirissa.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Bird watching Sri Lanka 2016 - Yala National Park.

On our second day at Jetwing Yala we went on a safari to Yala National Park. This was organised by Pradeep Kumar who has just started up his own company (Safari in Sri lanka; and can be contacted on We actually met Pradeep in Victoria Park, Nuwara Eliya, where he was guiding a group of birders. We had a chat where we learned he came from Yala and about his company. He said he could arrange our Yala trip (though he would be in Kandy) but he would be back in the Yala area for our planned trip to Bundala.  His rates (at the time) were excellent at SR 9000 for the day (4500 for a half day) for either destination. This covers the 4x4 and the driver. Entrance to the parks themselves is extra at SR3000 per person for Yala and around SR 2500 for Bundala. For the Bundala trip Pradeep acted as driver and guide; I think the going rate for a guide organised by Pradeep if he can't be there is SR2000 (~£10) so no big deal.
Anyway we were picked up at around 5.30am (the driver being a few minutes late and for which Pradeep apologised for continually when he took us around Bundala).
If judged by whether we saw leopards or not then Yala was not a successful trip. None were seen by anyone whilst we were there though one was spotted as the light was fading and just before the park closed at 6.00pm. We were long gone by that time having given up by 3.00 pm. There are quite a lot of 4x4s in the park and as soon as anyone finds anything of note the news gets around very quickly. We saw an example of this when a bear was found. Our driver was told by someone who was leaving the scene so off we shot with our driver telling anyone he met. So if anyone has found a leopard every 4x4 in the park will soon know.
Despite not seeing a leopard and only having obscured views of a bear it was a very enjoyable day because we saw plenty of crocodiles, quite a few elephants and had some brilliant views of birds.

One "view" of an elephant was particularly interesting. We were going up a track when a group coming the other direction told us a 4x4 up ahead had been attacked by an elephant and had the windscreen broken. A few seconds later several more 4x4s were reversing towards us.............the angry elephant moving purposefully after them. As we reversed up to a junction the elephant could be seen coming towards us but at the junction it disappeared into the bush.

One angry elephant

Later that night back at the hotel I was speaking to another birder and it turned out it was his 4x4 that was attacked.

Anyway as we drove around we did see lots of birds and some of the bee-eaters were ridiculously close - we'd told the driver we were interested in birds so he stopped whenever he or we spotted something.

Green bee-eater

Chestnut headed bee-eater

I'm not sure whether it was the bush telegraph in operation or our driver being in the know but he took us to a brown fish owl.  I'm sure he couldn't have spotted it as we drove along but only one other 4x4 turned up at the place but perhaps the others weren't interested in birds.

Here's a few more shots taken during the day:

Spotted deer - very distant


Mugger crocodile

Yellow-wattled palwing

Greater thick-knee

White-bellied sea eagle

Malabar hornbill

Black-headed ibis

Painted stork

A good day.


Thursday, 24 March 2016

A little bit of spring

I've not been out that much since returning from Sri Lanka but the reports on Birdguides suggested a few things were moving, so the last few days I have made a little bit of an effort. Today it paid off.
I started on the rifle range at Kingsdown and as I parked the car I could see a male stonechat on the fence which wasn't there yesterday. I  went to try and get some shots and found a female black redstart was there as well.

Stonechat on the wire

Black redstart taken through the wire.

Moving down the range, no sign of a wheatear but in the scrub at he base of the cliffs there were 2 firecrests and a goldcrest.

Next stop was Restharrow scrape. No garganey but 18 curlew were in residence.

My search for a wheatear was rewarded at Dickson's corner where a very bright male could be seen.

 Continuing the stroll I found another 2 firecrests along the edge of the cellars along with a goldcrest and in the Elms another 2 goldcrests and a chiffchaff.

All in all quite an enjoyable morning.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Bird Watching Sri lanka 2016 - Yala

It is a long haul from Nuwara Eliya to Yala taking around 5 hrs though we stopped for another set of water falls, to look at some guys ploughing a set of paddy fields terraced into a steep hill and for a drink.

It's scenes like this that makes you ignore cattle egret as a subject matter for the camera..............and leaves you wondering why is it you haven't taken any pictures of cattle egret when you get home.

We were staying at Jetwing Yala, one of the hotels very close to the entrance to Yala national Park and one that was set in the enormous sand dunes that line the coast of this region.

Beach bar

My "Patch" 

Whilst here we had two trips planned - one to Yala National Park itself and the second, for Pete and myself, to Bundala.

After unpacking we agreed to meet up at the pool for a beer and a swim. I'd unpacked and went out onto our small patio to have a nose where, less than 10 yards away, were a pair of imperial pigeons. Back inside for the, click....done This is my kind of birding!!!!!!!

Green Imperial Pigeon - note the eye lids.

For the last hour of daylight we went for a stroll around the surrounding dunes/scrub spending most of the time wondering about the identity of the pipits we could see. In the end I decided it was easier to assume they were all paddyfield.

The hotel has it's own waste water treatment plant where the treated water is used on the gardens with the rest feeding a pond and adjacent damp area. In the damp overflow from the pond Pete spotted a green bee-eater hunting from a perch we could get close to under cover of a tree.

Green bee-eater

The next morning I went out at first light and there were a lot more birds around than the previous evening however my fun was soon to be interrupted.  I was only 30 yards from our room when I came round a bush I found myself staring at an elephant - less than 20 yards away. Oh ****. I shot off up the dunes whilst the elephant, thankfully,  tried to go in the opposite direction only it's exit was blocked by the elephant wire that was supposed to keep the elephants out. You could almost see it thinking about what to do next. Fortunately it disappeared off down a track that ran immediately behind the hotel and along which it must have come. No pictures I'm afraid because it was far too close for my 400mm lens and it's hard to take photos when you are running up a sand dune!
Scare over I went back to birding and excellent it was too with brahminy kite, palid harrier and red wattled plover flying past and in the scrub a flock of 11 brahminy starling, 4 or 5 grey bellied cuckoos, green, chestnut headed and blue-tailed bee-eaters, black hooded oriole, purple and purple rumped sunbirds, Sri Lankan swallow and brown shrike plus some other more common bits and pieces.

A rather poor picture of the immature palid harrier that flew past.

Brahminy starling

Black hooded oriole

Grey bellied cuckoo

Sri lanka swallow

Brahminy kite

Purple sunbird

Purple rumped sunbird

Around the pool formed from the outflow of the waste water treatment plant were half a dozen pond herons, 3 great white, a couple of little and cattle egret plus a family of 3 or 4 kingsfishers and a white fronted kingfisher. I had hoped the green bee-eater would be hunting from the same perch as the previous evening so I could attempt some flight shots but it had disappeared.
Needless to say I didn't get decent images of all of the birds I saw on the first morning (and some never) but I had several days to add to those I didn't get the first day and every morning a few more species were added to the list the most notable being the Jacobin cuckoo.

Jacobin cuckoo

A couple of additions to the list were made whilst we were around the swimming pool  in the form of a common sandpiper and a very cooperative shikra.

The pool. The shikra being in the tree just left of the sun shades in the foreground.

Other than the elephant the hotel was frequented by what I first thought were boar but I think they are probably just some sort of local pig - there were a few dozen snuffling around the gardens. Only one species of monkey seemed to live in the grounds, grey langurs, which liked to play in the trees adjacent to the pool and indeed drink from it.

Next Yala and Bundala National parks