by Greca Durant,
An Ornithologist’s Paradise Highest Number of Endemic Birds in Asia
On peak birding season, Sri Lanka plays caring host to 482 bird species, migrants and vagrants, including 26 endemics. A real island paradise for birds and birders alike.
Sri Lanka has been in the forefront of wildlife conservation since the 3rd century, thanks to King Devanampiyatissa’s acceptance of Buddhism. In his famous sermon to the king of Sri Lanka, Arahat Mahinda, son of King Dharmasoka of India and the bearer of the Dhamma, preached on the king’s responsibility as the guardian of all birds and beasts, whom he said had equal rights to co-exist with the king and his people.
Sri Lanka as an Endemic Bird Area (EBA) and Signatory to International Conventions for Avian Protection and the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL)
According to the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL), Sri Lanka is a signatory or party to several international conventions on avian conservation such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Ramsar Convention for the Protection of Wetlands of International Importance, and the Convention on Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS/Bonn Convention).
The island, home to 227 resident bird species, including 26 endemics, plus a few hundreds of migrant and vagrant bird species, has a huge task of implementing these conventions, which call for the birds’ protection. The government agency in charge of carrying out the conservation and protection of birds is the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, No. 3 of 1937/1973 (FFPO).
FOGSL, the national affiliate of Birdlife International, is headed by Prof. Sarath W. Kotagama of the Department of Zoology, University of Colombo. Formed in 1976, it is a non-profit organization that strives for the conservation of birds and the environment as a whole.
Birdwatching in and around Colombo City, at the Parliament Grounds, at the University of Colombo, and at the Sinharaja Forest Reserve
The birding season commences in mid-August, when wintering waders start to arrive and crowd Sri Lanka’s waterways and reservoirs. December to February is peak birding season, which coincides with high tourist arrivals. It is also in December when FOGSL holds its annual bird count.
In Colombo city, a sure way to encounter birds would be to visit the Parliament grounds and the grassy areas of the University of Colombo, after a heavy downpour. With these areas turning marsh-like overnight, bird watchers may feast their eyes on mixed-species bird flocks happily feeding together: purple swamp hens, white-breasted waterhens, black-winged stilts, pintail snipes, red-wattled lapwings, grey plovers, little egrets, cattle egrets, grey herons, Indian pond herons, rock pigeons, and joining in the frenzy, would be dozens and dozens of squawking house and some large-billed crows.
The dawn chorus starts way before the first stirrings of the rising sun. A white-bellied drongo may start whistling wistfully at three, in the wee hours of the morning. Then it stretches into a song and dance routine for two drongo mates. This goes on till five, when the other birds chime in, and the neighborhood wakes up to the rhythms and beats of the avian philharmonic orchestra.
Those who live next to paddy fields and coconut groves are treated to a daily program of color and sound show from Sri Lankan hanging parrots and Layard’s parakeets, darting white-throated kingfishers, red-backed woodpeckers, and black-hooded orioles. Front and backyard gardens provide front-row seats to bird activities: red-vented bulbuls picking at wild berries, common mynas walking around the lawn, Loten’s sunbirds and bee-eaters fleeting from tree to tree, pairs of greater coucals sitting unobtrusively in the underbrush, a solitary bar-winged flycatcher shrike surveying its surroundings from the safety of a “high-wire,” and of course, the babbling “seven sisters.”
With the high density of bird species found in and around the city center, bird lovers need not go far. But if a birder wants to go further out, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1989, is home to 17 endemic bird species. Only four hours drive from Colombo, on the southwest of the island, it is one of the best sites for birding. Entrance fee, US$ 6/ head plus more for jeep hire and guide.
Tips for a Successful Birding Expedition
Prof. Sarath W. Kotagama, in his book Pictorial Pocket Guide — 1 Common, Endemic & Threatened Birds of Sri Lanka, gives some advice on what to take and do on a birding expedition:
- To wear comfortable, earthy-toned clothes, and good walking shoes
- To take binoculars with 7×50 or 8×40 magnifications
- To carry a field guide book, a notebook and pen to write
- To go with a small group, for better coordination
- To walk slowly through paths or hide behind bushes; patience is the key
- To check the physical characteristics of the bird being observed
- To learn bird songs as a way of identifying birds
- To conduct one’s self in ways that don’t disturb the habitat
- To shy away from using “tape lures”
- To leave nests alone.
Armed with all these tips and an efficient digital camera, a birder’s day is set.