Birdwatching in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a wide variety of habitats each with a characteristic flora and fauna. The island divides into wet and dry zones while altitude is also a significant factor. There is a coastal plain where the sea influences the vegetation and which is often dominated by coconut. There is then a lowland plain all the way around the Island. The high lands in the centre are in two main blocks divided by the Mahaweli river valley. The largest is around NuwaraEliya and Bandarawela and includes Horton Plains. Much of this is between 5.000 and 7 000 feet (1600m to 2000m). The second block is the Knuckles Region which isn’t quite so high but ranges from 3000 and 5000 feet (1000m up to 1500m). Most of this highland is in the wet zone except the extreme North eastern slopes which are in the rain shadow of the South West monsoon and are thus dry zone.

The natural vegetation is almost entirely determined by the mix of rainfall and altitude and so, therefore, are the animals and birds that go with it.

It is particularly in the Knuckles region that a lot of natural forest remains, forming the Knuckles National Park. Here there is a suite of endemic plants, trees and birds isolated from other highland regions in India by the dry zone forests at low altitude. It is in this region that Rangala House is located.

We are surrounded by tea estates and there is a tea factory a mile or so further up the road. The tea fields have more or less naturally forested patches either above them as water catchment protection, or amongst them in river valleys. It is in these patches that the interesting birds can usually be found. The birds often move about in mixed species flocks called here “bird waves”. These same flocks may pass through the Rangala House garden when moving from patch to patch.

Towards Corbett’s Gap there is some of the highest land in the Knuckles and the native vegetation becomes properly montane forest. Its low growing dark green shiny leaved trees grow tightly packed together, protecting them against the strong winds and strong sunshine. The characteristic birds of this area (see list below) include the nectar feeders on the flowering trees – e.g. the Sri Lanka hanging parrot, the purple and the long billed sunbirds, the birds of the trees feeding on a variety of fruits and insects – e.g.the parakeets, the barbets, the leaf birds, flower peckers, hill mynahs, minivets, bulbuls and the white-eyes. Out and out insect eaters include the brown shrike, white bellied drongo and the bar winged flycatcher shrike. Then, on the tree trunks, there is the brilliantly coloured red-backed woodpecker with its characteristically loud laughing call; and in the more open spaces, feeding from perches, the white-fronted kingfisher. On the ground or in hedges and tall grasses, the munias, the tailor bird (of rikkitikkitavi fame!), and in the Northern winter the gorgeous Indian Pitta can all be seen. In the sky are the swallows (Sri Lanka swallow and hill swallow), the swifts (little swift with house martin colours with white rump, the palm swift, brown with narrow wings and deeply forked tail, and the Indian swiftlet with notched tail which is the bird that makes the nest of bird’s nest soup). Then above them are the raptors – the largest is the black eagle with characteristic silhouette, and the serpent eagle whose characteristic mewing cries are a feature of the Rangala House verandah!

Migrants: There are many bird species that winter in Sri Lanka and so are found only in the months between October and March. Several of them are real treasures but hard to find. The Indian pitta, the Indian blue robin, the barn swallow – here known as the East Asian swallow, the forest wagtail with double breast bands. There are others that move around, maybe following the rains like the Cattle Egrets, and the various cuckoos.

Birds familiar to European bird watchers include the grey wagtail, the common sandpiper, the barn swallow, the great tit – here also known as the grey tit as it has none of the yellow colour of the European forms.


Birds shown in italics are endemic.

The following birds have been identified recently from the verandah at Rangala House:

Banded Bay Cuckoo
Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
Black Bulbul
Black Eagle
Black-hooded Oriole
Bright Green Warbler
Brown-headed Barbet
Cattle Egret
Changeable Hawk-eagle
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Common Hawk Cuckoo
Common Mynah
Crested Serpent Eagle
Crimson-fronted Barbet
Flame Minivet
Golden-fronted Leafbird

Great Coucal
Great Tit
Hill Mynah
Indian Swiftlet
Large-billed Crow
Layard’s Parakeet
Little Swift
Long-billed Sunbird
Magpie Robin
Oriental White-eye
Pale-billed Flowerpecker
Palm Swift
Phillipine Shrike
Pied Thrush
Purple-rumped Sunbird

Red-backed Woodpecker
Red-vented Bulbul
Scaly-breasted Munia
Scimitar-billed Babbler
Spotted Dove
Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill
Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot
White-bellied Drongo
White-browed Fantail
White-throated Kingfisher
Yellow-billled Babbler
Yellow-fronted Barbet

In addition, the following birds have been identified within walking distance of Rangala House:

Black-backed Robin
Crested Treeswift
East Asian Swallow
Sri Lanka White-eye
Sri Lanka Paradise Flycatcher
Sri Lanka Swallow
Yellow-browed Bulbul