Our first flight was from Birmingham to Dubai. Although we left home early in the morning, it was already dark by the time we landed, but we had amazing views along the way. I kept a close eye on the taxi-ways at Dubai, but was unable to spot anything such as Sand Grouse, and the species list would have to wait until Sri Lanka to get started! Two hours later, we were on our way to Colombo airport in Sri Lanka. It was still dark when we cleared the lengthy immigration process, and we found transport to our first destination of Wilpattu. Within 20 minutes on the road, dawn started to break, and the first bird activity was noted – the streets of this densely populated part of the country were full of House Crows, the first bird of the trip. Before long, Common Mynas were also being seen in large numbers on the pavements. Egrets could be seen in almost any patch of green, whilst cows would guarantee a number of Cattle Egrets loitering nearby. At this stage the only mammal life was the vast number of stray dogs on the streets.
As we moved further north, entering more rural habitats, we started to see more life. Indian Peafowl were very evident, and we were treated to our first display from a peacock, albeit from a distance whilst stood on the side of a busy road, which was dotted with enormous signs warning of the risks of crossing Elephants. An indeterminate species of Mongoose appeared on to the hard-shoulder, before disappearing back in to the grass. We then noticed that a Toque Macaque had been watching us all along from a nearby tree, affording time for a few photos before we moved on to Wilpattu, passing numerous red blankets of chillis laying out on the tarmac to dry in the scorching sun.
Our accommodation was quiet (only one other guest apart from us) and right next to the national park perimeter. In our time there we were able to see birds such as the Asian Paradise Flycatcher, White-breasted Waterhen, the constantly singing White-rumped Sharma, and the ever present Red-vented Bulbul – surely Sri Lanka’s most common species. We shared our room with a number of geckos.
Each time we headed out for walks from our base, we’d see new and different things. A nearby lake was used by local families for bathing and laundry, while Whiskered Terns, Indian Pond Herons, Purple Herons and White-throated Kingfishers hunted around them. Further away on the far shore, Painted Storks and large herds of Chital could be seen. Two species of Bee-eater (Green and Blue-tailed) were commonplace. Baya Weavers wove their dangling nests overhead, and different Munia and Prinia species were busy feeding amongst the grasses which were littered with termite-mounds, while raptors soared overhead. The first endemic species was seen – the Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl, the first of many seen over the next 17 days.
Here, we were afforded close-up views of species such as Crested Serpent Eagle, Great Thick-knee, Water Buffalo, Chital, Barking Deer (Muntjac), Toque Macaque and the ever-present Palm Squirrel, Sambar Deer, amongst briefer glimpses of Black-naped Hare, and an elusive Mouse Deer (Yellow-striped Chevrotain).
It was here that we encountered our first, and probably best, Leopard sighting. It was relaxing under a small area of trees, gaining shade from the searing mid-afternoon heat. The light was bad from a photography perspective, but the views were superb. Making the most of the available light and finding somewhere to steady the camera to gain longer shutter speeds, I was able to get some reasonable shots if I picked my moments carefully. Eventually it came forward in to a better lit area before soon deciding to lie out in the open sunlight for a few minutes. Eventually it got up, stretched, and moved on, and so did we.
The next notable species we found, and one that I didn’t expect to see anywhere near as well as we did, if at all, was the Sri Lankan Sloth Bear. It was approaching twilight, and the bear was constantly on the move. As such, I wasn’t able to achieve many decent photos at all, but it was a real pleasure to watch the Sloth Bear go about its business of finding and opening termite nests, and slurping up their contents, close enough to hear.
This part of the country delivered too many species to list here, but all are contained in the species list. It’s a beautiful place, rich in wildlife, and an area that until recently, wasn’t possible to visit due to civil war. We stayed around Wilpattu for four days, before moving on to Bentota.