Saturday, July 10, 2010

Birding at Horton Plains National Park and the Hakgala Botanical Gardens

The annual field trip to the hill country for the year 2010 organized by the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) took place from 25-27th of June with the participation of 18 members. It provided unique opportunity for us to spend two nights in the dormitory at Horton Plains National Park (HNP) and experience the “watershed effect” of the place to its maximum. Horton Plains, a gently undulating highland plateau lying at 2,100m at the south end of the central highlands is the birth place of tributaries of three major rivers of Sri Lanka, namely the Mahaweli, Kelani and Walawe, as the grasslands act as a sponge in storing rain water. The South-West monsoons bring ample rainfall to the area, and the day we arrived was governed by very strong gusty winds, rain and fog. The visibility was very low as most of the time thick mist seeped in and out. Although it was not a good day for birding, we were fortunate enough to spot two Eurasian Blackbirds and a Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher during the evening hours just outside the dormitory.

The next morning we had a closer encounter a Sambur, which is known as the “beggar” right outside our dormitory. This particular Sambur is quite tame and now habituated to humans and likes to steal or beg a meal from the occupants of the dormitory. After photographing the sambur in all angles, we set off to the Arrenga Pool in order to catch a glimpse of the rare endemic Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush or the Arrenga. Even though it is an extremely shy bird our group had high hopes of seeing one. But, the thick mist kept the bird hidden and we only heard its call. Although we were disappointed at not being able to see the Arrenga, we were thankful to the weather gods as we started our hike to Baker’s falls and Worlds End. Blue skies appeared above us and we immensely enjoyed the panoramic views of the mountain ranges covered with patana grasslands and cloud forests. The bright red flowers of the Rhododendron trees added colour to the scenery even though concerns have been expressed about the rapid spread of this plant.

There was never a dull moment on the long trek to Baker’s falls as we were always on the look-out for birds. Seeing Baker’s falls cascading down was indeed worth the long trek. After the trek to Baker’s falls we all stopped to catch our breath and to re-hydrate ourselves. As we were tucking into some biscuits we were able to spot a very cute Dusky-striped Squirrel foraging on the ground.

On our way to World’s end, Chaminda our guide, who is blessed with very sharp eyes, spotted three Greater Flamebacks, a species of woodpecker which is also a proposed endemic bird on the trunk of a dead tree. All of us had a great opportunity to observe them through binoculars. When we reached the top of World’s end we were greeted with a clear view of the surrounding areas as all the mist had cleared. We were able to identify many distinctive land marks including the reservoirs, roads and buildings located far below us.

After world’s end and mini world’s end were both ticked off from our things-to-do list, we all had a welcome lunch as well as a rest before walking along the Dayagama road searching for more birds. We managed to spot a species of snake called the Boie’s Rough-side, known commonly as the “Le Medilla” in Sinhala along the path. The adventurous and enthusiastic went after a bird flock into the forest where species such as Orange-billed Babbler, Great Tit and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch were sighted. We were extremely lucky to see a wild boar close to our vehicle when we were returning to our dormitory after our walk.

All of the highland endemics as well as several rare migrants such as the Kashmir Flycatcher are found at Horton Plains and the area has been identified as an Important Bird Area of the country. The most suitable season for birding is from September to April. Other than birds, the most prominent animal of Horton Plains is the Sambur. Presently there are over 2,000 individuals within the 3,160 hectares, a fairly high number for a single species of herbivore. It has been suggested that the growth of the Sambur population might be triggered by the introduction of new grass species (e.g. Pennisetum glabrum) and the lack of predators, the only predator being the leopard with around 15 recorded individuals.

Many people flock to Horton Plains just to see World’s End and therefore sadly many miss the point of enjoying and protecting the unique biodiversity Horton Plains has to offer! Removal of plants and flowers, drunken behaviour, lighting of fires, littering, harassment of fellow visitors and noise pollution are some of the major problems associated with tourism. It is highly vital to educate visitors to Horton Plains before they are allowed to enter into this important watershed and a true laboratory of nature.

Our wake up call on the 27th was 4.30 a.m. as we left Horton Plains to Hakgala Botanical Gardens at 5.30 sharp to evade the large crowds that invade the gardens during weekends. Our arrival was greeted by a slight drizzle and a Sri Lanka Dull-blue Flycatcher who was enjoying picking insects near a pond. The highlight at Hakgala was the close encounter with a Brown Fish-owl.

We left Hakgala and breakfasted on the windy shores of Gregory Lake in Nuwara Eliya before returning to Colombo.

The nights were certainly cold and we would all have preferred another day at Horton Plains but the birds, animals and friendly people who joined us on this once in a lifetime trip more than made up for it.

Reported by: Asitha Samarawickrama and Nishanthi Perera
Photos and Bird list: Indrika Pradeepa

Participants: Sanjeewa Udawatta, Chaminda Jayaratna, Nishanthi Perera, Ranjith Perera, Mohamad Faris, Asitha Samarawickrama, Janaka Disanayaka, Wernon Fernando, Sulakshi Weragama, Lakshini Bambaradeniya, Rohan Kaththiriarachchi, C.R.I. Gomez, Shamila Perera, Sindy de Silva, Asoka Jayasekara, Malaka Rodrigo, Indrika Pradeepa, Chaminda Mahanayaka

Bird species recorded
Sri Lanka Spurfowl
Sri Lanka Junglefowl
Indian Pond-heron
Crested Serpent-eagle
Rock Pigeon
Sri Lanka Wood-pigeon
Spotted Dove
Sri Lanka Hanging-parrot
Brown Fish-owl
Alpine Swift
White-throated Kingfisher
Yellow-fronted Barbet
Greater Flameback
Scarlet Minivet
Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
Jungle Crow
Great Tit
Jerdon's Bushlark
Zitting Cisticola
Black-crested Bulbul
Red-vented Bulbul
Yellow-eared Bulbul
Asian Black Bulbul
Common Tailorbird
Sri Lanka Bush-warbler
Brown-capped Babbler
Sri Lanka Scimitar-babbler
Dark-fronted Babbler
Orange-billed Babbler
Sri Lanka White-eye
Oriental White-eye
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
Common Myna
Eurasian Blackbird
Oriental Magpie-robin
Pied Bushchat
Dull-blue Flycatcher
Tickell's Blue-flycatcher
Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher
Pale-billed Flowerpecker
Long-billed Sunbird
House Sparrow
Black-throated Munia
Scaly-breasted Munia
Tricoloured Munia
Paddyfield Pipit


Amila Kanchana said...

Must have been a great experience.Any photos of the recorded birds?

Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka said...

To see more photos visit

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