On nearly reaching our destination, the road became too steep for our vehicle to negotiate without grounding itself, so we decided to walk the rest of the way, enlisting a tuk-tuk to carry the bulk of our luggage. We left the car at the small village, waving to immaculately dressed school-children who were arriving home from school. A lasting impression of the country is the smiles and waves that always greeted us almost wherever we went.
The hotel was occupied by just one other couple, and by the next morning, we became the only occupants. The view was stunning, overlooking a tea plantation beyond which was miles of uninterrupted rainforest. We ventured out for a lengthy walk and I was reminded immediately of the difficulties of rainforest birding. Birds could be heard all over the place, but rarely seen. The most notable species seen on this outing included Red-faced Malkoha, Orange-billed Babbler, Purple-faced Langur and Brown Shrike. It was on seeing the Brown Shrike that I noticed my shirt was covered in blood around my stomach. It was a leech, and further inspection revealed two more sucking away on my leg. They’re attracted by vibrations, and unless you’re lucky enough to feel a wet sensation before they bite, you don’t feel a thing, and the anti-coagulant properties of their saliva is such that you just keep on bleeding, long after they’ve dropped off. By the time we got back to base, we’d both attracted more and more leeches, and a new approach would be required the next day.
Next morning before entering the rainforest, we invested in some leech socks – finely woven hessian socks that are supposedly impenetrable to leeches which, so far, had already managed to attach to me through wool, canvas and cotton.
We spent most of the day exploring the rainforest. It’s probably the best place to hope to see as many of the island’s endemic species as possible. Of the many varieties of tree that make up the rainforest, two-thirds of them are endemic. Endemism is high here, whether it be birds, reptiles, amphibians, trees, this is a real biodiversity hotspot. The heat and the excessive amount of camera gear I was carrying made things pretty hard-going, and we were constantly checking each other for those leeches! The morning started with a couple of new reptiles – Common Green Forest Lizard and Sri Lankan Kangaroo Lizard (we’d later find Black-spotted also). The early birds included Black-naped Monarch, Malabar Trogon (Sri Lanka’s only trogon) and more of the endemic Orange-billed Babblers.
If there was one bird I’d wanted to see more than any other in Sri Lanka, it was the Sri Lankan Frogmouth. I didn’t rate my chances of seeing one, nor any of the loosely related nightjar family, but here was a pair of frogmouths. Getting a good view of them was hard enough, and getting a good photo was next to impossible. They were in dense cover, partially obscured by lots of vegetation. Careful, slow movements, and even more careful searching for a route for the lens to get the best view meant I was able to get something more than a record shot. This was definitely the best bird of the trip for me.
We continued on our search for one of the mixed species feeding flocks for which Sinharaja is famous. Along the way we came across Scarlet Minivet, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Sri Lankan Blue Magpie, the skulking Scaly Thrush, more lizards and no end in variety of butterflies, almost none of which was ever stopping long enough for a photo, if at all.
Eventually we came across the Sri Lanka Drongo (Ceylon Crested Drongo). For whatever reason, perhaps the species’ readiness to see off predators, this bird is apparently at the forefront of mixed feeding flocks, and we kept spotting and hearing more and more birds: Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Red-faced Malkoha, White-breasted Starling, Scimitar Babbler, Crimson-backed Flameback Woodpecker, and more.
I finally got to see our first snake of the trip, something I’d expected to have seen already by now, the Green Vine Snake. Later on I’d also find a Rat Snake which was too quick to photograph, along with a salamander sp. which will remain forever unidentified!
We were exhausted, and decided that the next morning we would move on to our next destination – Udawalawa. At least the leech socks worked.