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Sri Lanka - birds and mammals [SL001]

Kandy - Horton Plains - Kithulgala - Sinharaja - Udawalawe - Tissa, Yala & Bundala - extension to Mirissa




Despite its small size, the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka hosts an astonishing array of birds and mammals, including a range of endemic species found nowhere else on earth, and more shared only with the Indian peninsula.


Our 14-day birding and mammal-watching tour, which also incorporates time to appreciate many other aspects of Sri Lanka's natural history, provides comprehensive coverage of the island's principal habitats in all climatic zones.  We begin the tour in the highlands, exploring the grasslands and cloud forests of Horton Plains National Park for endemics restricted to this habitat and elevation.  From here we descend into the lowland rainforests of the wet zone, in particular exploring the spectacularly lush Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve, home to almost all island endemics and the largest itinerant bird waves in the world, which make for exciting birding.  Finally we move into the dry zone, to the jungles and coastal lagoons of the southeast of the island, where among a selection of birds we have a good chance of the Sri Lankan subspecies of Leopard at Yala National Park.


Sri Lanka is an exhilarating place for birders, and this tour provides an excellent overview of the islands natural history.  There are extremely realistic chances to catch up with all 34 birds endemic to the island, as well as a host of restricted range species shared only with peninsular India, and a selection of migrant visitors from India and further afield in Asia which overwinter here.  As well as this, two of Asia's most iconic large mammals, a good selection of endemic mammals, reptiles and an abundance of butterflies, and spectacular locations.


A 2-day tour extension provides the chance to experience some spectacular whale-watching during morning pelagic excursions from the island's southern coast.  These waters are fast becoming recognized as one of, if not the best site for Blue Whales in the world, regularly seen here alongside a host of other marine mammals.



Outline itinerary: 

Day 01 - arrive Colombo, transfer to Kandy, evening birding at Peradeniya botanical gardens

Day 02 - morning birding at Udawattekele Reserve, followed by transfer to Nuwara Eliya

Day 03 - full day Nuwara Eliya & Horton Plains National Park

Day 04 - transfer to Kithulgala, afternoon birding within Kelani Valley Forest Reserve

Day 05 - full day Kithulgala & Kelani Valley Forest Reserve

Day 06 - transfer to Sinharaja, afternoon within Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve

Day 07 - Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve

Day 08 - Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve

Day 09 - transfer to Udawalawe National Park, afternoon game drive

Day 10 - morning at Udawalawe, followed by transfer to Tissa, afternoon game drive at Yala National Park

Day 11 - Bundala National Park & Tissa

Day 12 - Bundala National Park & Tissa

Day 13 - morning birding around Tissa, afternoon transfer to Colombo

Day 14 - depart Colombo


Whale-watching extension:

Day 13 - morning birding around Tissa, afternoon transfer to Mirissa

Day 14 - morning whale-watching pelagic excursion, afternoon at leisure/birding locally

Day 15 - morning whale-watching pelagic excursion, afternoon transfer to Colombo

Day 16 - depart Colombo



Tour focus:  Endemic birds and mammals


Tour focus (extension):  Cetaceans


Best time to visit:  November to April




• Comprehensive coverage of the island's endemic birds and mammals

Coverage of sites in all of Sri Lanka's distinct climatic zones

A range of habitats, from tropical rainforest to high altitude grasslands, coastal lagoons and scrub 

• Relatively easy birding and mammal watching in most places 

• Extremely rich, varied birdlife with birds relatively confiding, exhilarating mixed species flocks at Sinharaja 

• Opportunites of a wealth of mammals, including 3 endemic primates and some of Asia's most sought-after species

• Opportunites of a selection of whales and dolphins, including good chances of Blue Whale (extension only)

A variety of birding experiences - on foot and by open jeep

Spectacular greenery and scenery, especially in the hills 

• Comfortable accommodation throughout 

• Excellent local & continental cuisine throughout


Tour info


Tour code:  SL001


To register: Contact us, or see our tour calendar, for forthcoming dates and prices, or to arrange a custom tour.


Duration:  13 nights / 14 days (15 nights / 16 days with tour extension)


Arrival & departure:  This tour starts and ends in Colombo.

Arrival in Colombo should be before 10am on day 1, departure from Colombo may be at any time on day 14/16.  You may require additional accommodation before/after the tour which we would be happy to arrange for you.


Tour price:  On enquiry


Prices:  Our prices are inclusive of all road transport and domestic flights, accommodation, all or most meals, all birding/wildlife activities, park entry fees, and guiding throughout by one of our professional bird tour leaders.


Tour documents:  Partipants will receive detailed tour information with important details regarding health precautions, accommodation, clothing & what to bring, spending money, the visa application process etc., as well as a comprehensive species checklist and list of recommended field/sound guides.


Maximum group size:  8


Key species


Key birds:


34 island endemics: 

• Ceylon Spurfowl 

• Ceylon Junglefowl 

• Ceylon Woodpigeon

• Ceylon Green-pigeon

• Ceyon Hanging-parrot

• Layard's Parakeet

• Green-billed Coucal

• Red-faced Malkoha

• Serendib Scops-owl

• Chestnut-backed Owlet

• Ceylon Grey Hornbill

• Yellow-fronted & Ceylon Small Barbets

• Crimson-backed Flameback

• Ceylon Swallow

• Ceylon Woodshrike

• Black-capped & Yellow-eared Bulbuls

• Spot-winged Ground-thrush

• Ceylon Scaly Thrush

• Ceylon Whistling-thrush

Dusky Blue Flycatcher

Ashy-headed Laughingthrush

Brown-capped & Ceylon Rufous Babblers

Ceylon Scimitar-babbler

Ceylon Bush-warbler

Legge's Flowerpecker

Ceylon White-eye

• Ceylon Hill Munia (considered by some authorities as conspecific with India's Black-throated Munia)

White-faced Starling

Ceylon Hill-myna

Ceylon Crested Drongo

Ceylon Blue Magpie


Key mammals:  

• at least 2 endemic primates - Toque Macaque and Purple-faced Leaf-monkey, plus a chance of the endemic Red Slender Loris 

• Leopard 

• Asian Elephant


Key cetaceans (extension only):

• Blue whale

• Sperm whale

• Long-snouted Spinner Dolphin 




Day 1: Arrive Colombo, Kandy & Peradeniya

On arrival in Colombo, head to the heart of Sri Lanka to the island's ancient capital, Kandy (3hrs).  Spend the afternoon exploring Peradeniya botanical gardens whose 147-acre landscaped grounds, dating back to 1371, are productive for a host of birds, and we can expect to encounter our first island endemics here, possibly including Layard's Parakeet, Ceylon Small Barbet and Brown-capped Babbler, alongside overwintering Kashmir Flycatcher, plus Yellow-billed Babbler and Emerald Dove.  Spend the night in a comfortable hotel.


Days 2-3: Udawattekele, Kandy to Nuwara Eliya & Horton Plains National Park

Spend the early hours of the morning at Udawattekele sanctuary, a densely forested historical reserve attached to Kandy's famed Temple of the Tooth, where in particular we hope to find the endemic Crimson-backed Flameback, Red-faced Malkoha, stunning but secretive Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher and Brown Fish-owl.  After breakfast we will experience a dramatic change in landscape and habitat as we head into the highlands to the Raj-era hill station of Nuwara Eliya at an elevation of 1868m atop the Uva Plateau (2hrs).  The journey will take us through some spectacular vistas past rolling hills carpeted with some of the world's finest Orange Pekoe Tea, and past the picturesque Rawana Ella Falls.  At Nuwara Eliya we will focus on Sri Lanka's upland specialities, visiting the botanical gardens of Victoria Park, whose dense undergrowth provides shelter to skulking Ceylon Scaly Thrush, as well as some much sought after migrants from the subcontinent, in particular Indian Pitta, Pied Thrush, Indian Blue Robin and Kashmir Flycatcher.  The morning of day 3 will be spent exploring the grasslands and sub-tropical montane cloud forests of the atmospheric Horton Plains National Park, an isolated plateau 2100-2300m above sea level which preserves a unique high altitude habitat, likened to similar sites in southern India's Western Ghats, where the influence of altitude results in a distinctly temperate environment despite the tropical latitude.  The mosaic of montane grassland and stunted cloud forest, restrained by the cool climate, mist and limited sunlight, is home to all of Sri Lanka's highland endemics, in particular the skulking Ceylon Bush-warbler, Ceylon White-eye, Ceylon Woodpigeon, and the crepuscular 'Arrenga' or Ceylon Whistling-thrush, as well as Yellow-eared Bulbul, Dull Blue Flycatcher, Indian Blackbird, Pied Bushchat, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Mountain Hawk-eagle and all three of the island's endemic primates.  Nights in a comfortable hotel in Nuwara Eliya.


Days 4-5: Kithulgala & Kelani Valley Forest Reserve

Following two days in the hills we will journey back down into the foothills of Sri Lanka's lowland region to Kithulgala (2hrs), to spend two days birding in the productive and easily accessible rainforest of the Kelani Valley Forest Reserve.  The sanctuary preserves an important remnant of the low altitude forest of Sri Lanka's wet zone, now largely cleared for plantations - a reality that is starkly illustrated by the dominance of rainforest along the sanctuary side of the Kelani River, with intensive plantations on the other.  This is an area of forested, undulating terrain intersected by water courses, and a stronghold of the island's lowland endemics.  Among our primary targets here are the endemic and secretive Gree-billed Coucal and recently described Serendib Scops-owl.  Other key endemics at Kitulgala include Ceylon Grey Hornbill, Ceylon Green-pigeon, Ceylon Hanging-parrot, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Brown-capped Babbler, Spot-winged Ground-thrush, Ceylon Junglefowl and Chestnut-backed Owlet, complemented by a host of other species such as Stork-billed Kingfisher, Emerald Dove, Alexandrine Parakeet, Lesser Yellownape, Malabar Trogon, Jerdon's and Golden-fronted Leafbirds, Pied Flycatcher-shrike, Tickell's Blue and Brown-breasted Flycatchers, Black-naped Monarch, Rufous-bellied and Black Eagles and Oriental Honey-buzzard.  Nights in a comfortable lodge along the Kelani River.


Days 6-8: Kithulgala to Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve

Depart Kithulgala for Sinharaja (4.5hrs), to spend the remainder of day 6 plus a further two full days birding in the largest and most important remaining patch of lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka.  Saved from extensive logging by inaccessibility Sinharaja is now a National Heritage Wilderness Area and UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose old logging trails facilitate access to a continuous stretch of primary forest in the foothills, at altitudes of 300-1500m.  This region experiences some of the heaviest rainfall during the island's monsoon periods, making the rainforest spectacularly lush with exotic flora, trees hung with creepers, orchids and pitcher plants, and plentiful butterflies including Common Birdwing, Common Banded Peacock and the endemic Ceylon Hedge Blue, Ceylon Snow Flat, Ceylon Palmfly and delicate Ceylon Tree Nymph.  Almost 150 species of birds have been recorded at Sinharaja, and the sanctuary is home to virtually all of the island's endemics, including many of those previously thought to be confined to the hill zone.  Sinharaja is particularly famed for its characteristic itinerant bird waves, the longest studied and largest in the world.  Almost 60 species are known to associate with these mixed feeding flocks, which can comprise up to 100 individual birds sweeping noisily through the various levels of the forest ecosystem from ground to canopy, the aggregation of birds increasing feeding efficiency and providing protection from predators.  On average, each flock contans 42 individual birds of 12 species, with 90% of flocks containing Ceylon Drongo and Ceylon Rufous Babbler, both of which are active in forming and coercing the group.  Other endemic species commonly found within these waves include Red-faced Malkoha, Ceylon Blue Magpie, White-faced Starling, Ashy-headed Laughingthrush, Ceylon Hill-myna, Layard's Parakeet and Legge's Flowepecker, alongside Asian Paradise Flycatcher, White-bellied Drongo, Common Iora, Dark-fronted Babbler, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and Purple-rumped Sunbird, regularly accompanied by Ceylon Giant Squirrel, Purple-faced Leaf-monkey and Mouse Deer.  Here we also have the chance of Ceylon Spurfowl, Ceylon Scaly Thrush and Ceylon Bay-owl, a secretive and poorly-known species restricted to Sri Lanka and southern India.  Spend three nights in a simple forest lodge on the edge of the sanctuary.     


Day 9: Udawalawe National Park

Depart Sinharaja in the morning, travelling out of the island's wet zone to Embilipitiya in the dry zone of the southeast (4hrs).  Travelling through rice paddies and plantations our next port of call is Udawalawe National Park, whose open plains, against a backdrop of the central mountain range, are a landscape in stark contrast to the rainforests of the wet zone.  The sanctuary was established to protect its 250+ Asian Elephants, and hosts a variety of other mammals including Chital (Spotted Deer), Wild Boar, Toque Macaque, Tufted Grey Langur and Ceylon Giant Squirrel.  Birdlife is diverse in the mosaic of habitats represented here, and during our afternoon jeep drive through the park we may come across Woolly-necked Stork, Orange-breasted Green-pigeon, Yellow-fronted Pied Woodpecker, White-browed Bulbul, Ashy-crowned Finch-lark, Indian Silverbill, Scaly-breasted and Black-headed Munias, Yellow-eyed Babbler, Baya Weaver, Blyth's Pipit, Barred Buttonquail numerous raptors including White-bellied Sea-eagle, Grey-headed Fish-eagle, and Crested Hawk-eagle, and our key targets here - the endemic Ceylon Swallow and Ceylon Woodshrike.  Night in a comfortable wildlife lodge in Udawalawe.


Days 10-12: Yala & Bundala National Parks and the wetlands of Tissa

After a further morning game drive at Udawalawe depart for Tissa (2hrs), our base for exploring the town's wetlands, the coastala lagoons and saltpans of Bundala National Park, and scrub jungle of Yala National Park.  The afternoon will take us on a game drive in open jeeps into Yala, perhaps the best site in Asia to come across its most secretive big cat, Leopard, thriving here with one of the highest densities of Leopard in the world.  Yala is also home to Sloth Bear, Chital, Sambar, Wild Boar, Asian Elephant, and a selection of birds including Blue-faced Malkoha, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Painted Stork and Lesser Adjutant.  Over the following two days we will visit the 'tanks' or reservoirs of Tissa, that host a selection of species, most notably Indian Stone-curlew, Yellow and scarcer Black Bitterns, Purple Heron, Asian Openbill, Watercock, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, White-naped Woodpecker and Brown Fish-owl, with further game drives into Bundala National Park.  Cut off from the Indian Ocean by a wide beach and sand dunes, Bundala is perhaps the most important wetland in Sri Lanka for both resident and migratory species, and here we can expect to see a great selection of waterbirds and shorebirds with some additional species in adjacent scrub.  Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Great Thick-knee, Small Pratincole, Black-crowned Night-heron, Lesser Sand-plover, Gull-billed, Caspian, Great Crested and Lesser Crested Terns and Brown-headed Gull can all be seen here, with the chance of Indian and Jerdon's Nightjars in the scrub at dawn.  Nights in a comfortable hotel in Tissa.


Day 13: Tissa to Colombo

Spend a final morning around Tissa, departing after lunch for Colombo (6hrs) (or for those opting for the tour extension, Mirissa (3hrs)).  Overnight in a comfortable hotel near Colombo airport.


Day 14: depart Colombo

Depart Colombo on your onward journey.



Whale-watching extension


Days 13-15: Mirissa

Those joining the whale-watching extension will leave the group in the afternoon of day 13, travelling west from Tissa to the small Indian Ocean fishing port of Mirissa (3hrs) for the following two nights.  Here, just a few km west of Sri Lanka's southernmost point, the continental shelf is at its narrowest, with depths of 1km and deeper found just 6km, or 40mins, away from the shore.  The next two mornings will take us on 3-5 hour morning pelagic excursions out beyond the continental shelf.  Blue Whale, the largest mammal ever to have lived averaging 25m and weighing in excess of 100 tonnes, is the highlight of whale-watching here, occurring regularly from November to April in concentrations not seen anywhere else in the world.  The relative calm of the sea in the mornings makes the blows and splashes of marine mammals visible at a distance, and while concentrating on Blue Whale a host of other cetaceans are likely to be seen, possibly including Sperm Whale, Bryde's Whale, Short-finned Pilot Whale, and large pods of Long-snouted Spinner Dolphins that often include other species such as Indo-Pacific Bottlenosed, Pantropical Spotted, and Striped Dolphins.  Afternoons will be free to relax, enjoy the stunning coastal location, or spend time birding locally around the hotel grounds.  Spend two nights in a comfortable beach resort, returning to Colombo (3hrs) in the evening of day 15.


Day 16: depart Colombo

Depart Colombo on your onward journey.


What to expect


In summary 

• Easy to moderate walking requirements

• Comfortable en-suite accommodation throughout

• Road transport in modern, comfortable car(s) or minibus

• Roads variable but generally good, some drives of moderate duration

• Variable weather - warm to hot in lowlands, cool and misty at altitude especially at Horton Plains

• Excellent photographic opportunities throughout

• Exhilarating birding and mammal watching with knowledgeable guides

• Spectacular marine mammal watching (extension only) 



Tour grading & health requirements

The walking requirements of this tour are generally easy to moderate, and although most birding is on foot no long treks are involved.  High temperatures and humidity in lowland rainforests can however make walking more challenging in places.  Most birding at Udawalawe and Yala will be by open jeep by necessity.  There are no specific health considerations providing you are in good health and can walk reasonable distances at a normal walking pace.  Mosquitoes are not prevalent at altitude where temperatures are cooler, however suitable precautions should be taken to deter mosquitoes at lowland sites.



All road travel will be in modern, comfortable car(s) or minibus.  There will be some moderately long drives on roads of varying but generally good quality, but we will stop to break the journey where we can, usually for some en-route birding.



Daytime temperatures are likely to be warm to hot  (15-30C) in the lowlands, cool to cold at altitude, particularly at night and in the early hours of the morning.  Suitably warm clothing is required, as are sunhats and sunscreen for midday periods.  Humidity throughout the island is high for most of the year, ranging from 60-90%, and especially high in rainforest areas, while dense mist is likely at altitude.  Sri Lanka experiences two monsoon seasons, although some degree of rainfall is likely throughout most of the year in the wet zone of the island's southwest, less falling in the dry zone to the southeast.


Accommodation & food

Accommodation throughout the tour will be in comfortable and friendly wildlife/birding lodges and hotels, with all rooms en-suite.  Meals are often served as a buffet incorporating a range of delicious Sri Lankan dishes, with Indian, Chinese and Continental cuisine available.  On some days breakfast may be served as a picnic in the field.


Special Requirements

Leech socks required for use at Kitulgala and Sinharaja.




Map coming soon...



Ceylon Blue Magpie Tickells Blue Flycatcher Serendib Scops Owl Leopard Indian Blackbird
Ceylon Blue Magpie Tickell's Blue Flycatcher Serendib Scops-owl Leopard Indian Blackbird
Udawalawe NP

Asian Elephant

Brown Wood-owl Indian Blue Robin Ceylon White-eye
Udawalawe NP Asian Elephant Brown Wood-owl Indian Blue Robin Ceylon White-eye