Eastbourne Strikes Twice

This morning, after struggling through incredibly thick mud, I reached a huddle of birders all looking at a small Robin-sized bird with a faint blue crescent on its breast feeding on the edge of a large reedbed. It was a male Bluethroat, a fantastic record for the time of year and for Sussex.

The bird was first seen last Sunday at West Rise Marsh in Eastbourne and identified from photos on Tuesday. Luckily it stayed around and has since allowed many Sussex and national birders to see it although it has been elusive. Unusually for me, it was not as elusive when I went to see it as I immediately had it in my binocular view after arriving. Much better than standing around for hours in the biting wind which some birders have had to do over the past week!

It appears to be a White-spotted Bluethroat, one of two subspecies of Bluethroat that have been recorded in the UK. It seems to be the less frequent subspecies, with the Red-spotted Bluethroat being the other that sometimes reaches our shores. Due to the difference in latitude of the two subspecies’ breeding ground, they typically arrive at different times of year. The White-spotted is most commonly found in late March and April whereas the Red-spotted is more likely to be found in May. Although White-spotted is the earlier arriver, it is more likely that this bird has been wintering in the UK, rather than having overshot its breeding grounds on its spring migration.

Occasions of Bluethroats wintering in the UK are occasionally recorded, for example last year a bird was found in February in Lincolnshire which remained until the end of March. Presumably it then attempted to migrate to where it thinks its breeding grounds are. It will be interesting to see if this Eastbourne bird stays much longer and whether it tries to set up a territory here or flies elsewhere to breed.


Fantastically, this is not the first Sussex rarity that Eastbourne has had to offer this winter. Black Guillemots, although they breed on remote islands in the north of England, are even rarer in Sussex than Bluethroats, so for one to turn up in Eastbourne’s Sovereign Harbour was quite special. It has been present since late November, although I waited until the New Year before going along to see it. It’s a wonderfully confiding bird in a great setting!






The invasion continues

This winter Europe has been host to an avian phenomenon I wasn’t even aware was possible. Hawfinches in the UK are very rare and elusive birds, mainly confined to large areas of forest such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest. Indeed, in February 2017 I hitched a lift with Josie Hewitt for a two hour journey to the New Forest especially to see these birds, and it’s funny to think how oblivious I was to the fact that it would become clear by the end of the year that it was an unnecessary trip.

I don’t think anyone is quite sure why, but this winter Hawfinches have truly irrupted from their core European breeding grounds. The areas where these usually strictly forest-dwelling birds have been recorded over the past few months is incredible, including the Moroccan Sahara, Kuwait and Alaska! In Sussex, where hardly any are seen outside of West Dean Woods, flocks have surpassed 100 individuals at locations scattered across the county. I am not aware of any previous such invasions of this species, so it definitely feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Last weekend, I was ringing at fellow trainees Dave and Penny Green’s garden near Wisborough Green. I had heard that there were one or two Hawfinches visiting their large Yew tree, so I was fairly hopeful that some brief sightings would enliven our ringing session a little more. However, it soon became clear that my expectations were far too low! We were treated to an almost constant presence of Hawfinches throughout the day, at least 6 I think and possibly up to 10 were visiting the Yew at one point. This allowed for some absolutely brilliant views of this normally tricky-to-see species.


Beautiful male Hawfinch

As you can see from the photo, Hawfinches have a massive bill. These have evolved to crack really hard nuts and seeds, such as cherry stones which they can easily crack. They certainly are attractive, chunky finches and I do hope that the invasion continues, and perhaps there’ll be a bumper breeding season for them here in the UK!

Pan-species Listing: Top 15 New Species of 2017

2017 has been another fantastic year for me with regards to pan-species listing. I am pleased that I am continuing to add species even throughout the quieter months and although I am sure to slow down sooner or later as the number of species I can add is not infinite, I am still yet to break my steady stride. I have managed to delve into groups I haven’t tackled before such as lacewings and springtails. In this blog post I will list my favourite species added to my Pan-species List in 2017, out of about 700 added this year. If I have written a separate blog post about that particular species, the species name is hyperlinked to that post.

15. Marsh Frog

Adding new non-bird vertebrates is not easy, and so it was great to see several Marsh Frogs on a mid-June day at the nearby Warnham Local Nature Reserve. Although they’re non-native, they come in many different shades of bright green and so are much more attractive than the Common frogs!


A couple of Marsh Frogs on the edge of a pool in the summer sunshine

14. Purple Toothwort

Plants are more regular pan-species listing additions for me, and although I’m still getting to grips with their huge diversity I have found that attending some Sussex Botanical Recording Society meetings throughout the year has been really helpful. This plant however was found in March, one of my earliest plant additions of the year, at Wakehurst Place. It’s one of several really fascinating plant species in the UK which lack chlorophyll to photosynthesise and therefore gain their nutrients directly from other nearby plants!


A patch of the bizarre leaf-less Purple Toothwort, one of many found at Wakehurst Place

13. Waxwing

The winter of 2016/17 was one of the much hoped-for Waxwing ‘invasion’ years, and therefore it would be rude not to see some! The first flock I saw comprised over 30 birds, which is an amazing number for so far south in the UK. It was at a typical setting, an industrial estate! Waxwings often prefer these habitats because of the wealth of berry-producing bushes that grow there. I also saw a couple more later in the year, feeding in a Davidia (Paper Handkerchief) tree at Wakehurst Place, the fruits of which are large and kiwi-like. Very weird food for Waxwings!


A Waxwing at Wakehurst Place, among the Davidia fruits.

12. Vestal

I have been moth-trapping in my garden for a few years, yet save for many Diamond-back Moths I hadn’t caught any migrants in my trap. Autumn presented a window of favourable air-flow from southern Europe and North Africa, which seemed likely to bring decent numbers of migrant moths to our shores. I put my trap out with anticipation on a couple of occasions that week, and on the second I caught exactly what I had been hoping for: 3 Vestals!


One of the Vestals on the wall by the moth trap. They’re not the most attractive of moths but I was really pleased to see them!

11. Stemonitopsis typhina

I have very few slime-moulds on my list like this one, partly because they’re so tricky to identify. However this species, which I came across during a Sussex Fungus Group outing, was a great excuse to research their fascinating life cycle.


10. Wryneck

In September, I was really lucky to be able to venture up to Spurn Bird Observatory in Yorkshire for the annual Migration Festival. Spurn is undoubtedly one of the major sites for rare birds in England and even quite early on in the vagrant season I managed to see brilliant birds such as Long-billed Dowitcher, Barred Warbler, Long-tailed Skua, Short-eared Owl, Caspian Gull, Roseate Tern, Black Tern, Little Stint, Little Gull, and one of my highlights, a Wryneck. This bird showed beautifully well, feeding on the cliff edge near the Sandy Beaches caravan site. It was so great to watch that I visited the bird three times over the weekend to take in the marvellously intricate plumage.


Wryneck, taking a break from feeding on ants on the cliffside vegetation.

9. Cut-grass

This rather unassuming rare species of wetland grass has a deadly secret! Its blades are exactly that, as sharp as a knife. I didn’t want to test the sharpness on the Sussex Botanical Recording Society outing to Amberley Wildbrooks on which we saw it, however the blades are apparently able to slice through human skin thanks to the minute stiff hairs along the edges!


Cut-grass: blades of steel

8. Devil’s Fingers

I’m sure that many people who are lucky to come across a Devil’s Fingers fungus by accident will not be certain that this intriguing organism is natural at all. It bears resemblance to an octopus that had been stuck into the ground upside down, with only its red tentacles emerging from the soil. Furthermore, the tentacles seem to have begun to decompose, with a foul-smelling covering of dark brown goo attracting flies that disperse the fungus’ spores.


The Devil’s Fingers fungus that we came across on a Sussex Botanical Recording Society meeting at Chailey Common.

7. Green-winged Orchid

Orchids are surprisingly one of the groups that I haven’t seen many of. During the course of the year I added a few species, no rarities unless you count the Greater Tongue-orchids of dubious origin at Wakehurst Place. The Green-winged Orchid was my first orchid species of the year, at Danehill Churchyard. It was great to see the orchids with the nice church in the background, yet I think that the lawn where they were growing was scheduled for mowing. I didn’t have a chance to revisit to check if they were left alone or not, however hopefully they did have the opportunity to flower a little longer.


A dark-purple Green-winged Orchid in front of Danehill Church. There were also light pink varieties present.

6. Beewolf

One of the highlights of my summer holiday was a two-day course led by Steven Falk on solitary bee identification at the fantastic Rye Harbour Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve. Of course, although we identified huge numbers of solitary bees, it wasn’t all about them on the weekend. We also came across a large wasp known as the Bee Wolf, which is the invertebrate equivalent of the wild canine. Females will catch adult Honey Bees and bring them back to their nest hole, where they will place the bees in a chamber. It’s within this chamber that the young Beewolf develops. At Rye Harbour, we were lucky to watch Beewolves excavating their nest holes and bringing Honey Bees into the chambers.


5. Queen-of-Spain Fritillary

Birds are the group of organisms most likely to be associated with the word ‘vagrant’. However, during the summer a fortunate lepidopterist found no less than three Queen-of-Spain Fritillaries on his transect near Peacehaven, a species that is unable to breed in the UK as they can’t survive the cold winters. They are therefore very rare summer visitors at best. I am very grateful to the farmer Colin Appleton for allowing lots of keen naturalists onto his land to watch these three regal butterflies ‘lekking’ around a bonfire. Although they apparently travel in groups, explaining why three arrived at once, they are very territorial and the bonfire was the central spot for their territorial disputes, like a boxing ring.


One of the Queen-of-Spain Fritillaries basking in the sun near the bonfire.

4. Moon Carrot

This wonderfully named plant is not very distinctive, looking very similar to more common umbelliferous plants such as hogweed, yet it’s rare nationally. To make up for its likeness to the other members of its family, it has chosen a spectacular site at which to grow. What seems to be the only modern site for this species in Sussex is the cliffs at Seaford, near the Cuckmere. Some individual plants grow right on the cliff-edge, and look marvellous with the Seven Sisters cliffs in the background. They’ve even made the cover of the new Flora of Sussex!


The Moon Carrot is so-called as it apparently glows in the moonlight!

3. Wood Warbler

I loved listening to a male Wood Warbler sing its heart out at an undisclosed site in Sussex this year, although it was quite a sad experience. This was the first Wood Warbler on territory for 3 years in Sussex, a county where it once used to be a regular breeder. The energy the warbler put into its song was incredible, for weeks it would sing as loud as it could non-stop while hopping tirelessly from tree to tree. Yet due to the species’ rare status in Sussex these days, there was never a female to respond.


A brief pause from what must be absolutely exhausting for the Wood Warbler

2. Lesser Glow-worm

Of all the species included in this top-15 blog post, this one is my most recent find. In fact it was just before Christmas that I found a beetle larva beneath a log at Hedgecourt NR. I sent it to Max Barclay, the beetle curator at NHM London asking what it could be as I was stuck. I had only managed to find one possibility, Phosphaenus hemipterus or the Lesser Glow-worm, however I doubted it was that as it is the rarest of all the glow-worms found in the UK. As far as I know there is only one known modern-day colony in the whole of the country, at a site in Hampshire. To my surprise Max kindly replied saying that he did think it was indeed a Lesser Glow-worm, and he had even received confirmation from another expert on glow-worms! Now we’re just waiting to hear back from some specialists in the Czech Republic before we can be 100% certain, yet it certainly seems highly likely I’ve found quite a rarity!

beetle larva

Despite a thorough search of around 20 logs a few days later, I was unable to find another larva.

1. Wart-biter

At number one, the Wart-biter must be one of my favourite finds from this year. It’s a massive, elusive bush-cricket that’s hard to find at only 5 known modern-day sites in the UK. I visited one of those sites, Mount Caburn on the South Downs, with the Amateur Entomologists’ Society in August specifically to look for this species. The easiest way to find them is to listen for the stridulation (singing), however they only stridulate on warm, calm days and there was a heavy band of rain moving in. I decided to use the highly sophisticated technique of walking around and hoping to chance upon one and it worked! A female jumped from my feet as I was walking, to land in a perfect position for all of the attendees of the field meeting to get an excellent view.


The Wart-biter gets its name from the old Swedish method of getting rid of warts: allowing this cricket to bite them off!

There concludes my top-15 pan-species listing additions of 2017. It was very hard to condense all the brilliant finds into just my 15 favourites, this blog post could easily be 10,000 words long.





This morning, for the second time this week, I was standing on a well-trodden track on the Surrey-Berkshire border looking up at a couple of pine trees. This track crossed a plain of moor-grass and heather interspersed with small clumps of pines, known as Wishmoor Bottom. Since late November a flock of Parrot Crossbills has resided here, part of a national influx of this rare species.

The influx started with a large flock found on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, at Santon Downham. The numbers there peaked at an incredible 42 on one day, which is possibly the highest number ever recorded in the UK. Wishmoor Bottom was then the second site to host the Parrots, with slightly lower numbers remaining around a constant maximum of 16. The Derbyshire-South Yorkshire border was the next county boundary to be treated to Parrot Crossbills, with the forest around Howden Reservoir holding about a dozen. Most recently, 3 turned up at Broxbourne Woods in Hertfordshire (just inside the London boundary!) a few days ago.


The Parrot Crossbills’ favoured tree in the drizzle

Influxes such as this one we are currently experiencing – I wouldn’t be surprised if further flocks are found – are mainly caused by a dearth of food in the species’ usual ranges. The Hawfinch invasion that’s in the news at the moment is most likely caused by a lack of beechmast and other tree nuts in continental Europe, with the crossbill invasion probably due to a poor crop of pine cones in Scandinavia.

After a long drizzly walk from the car park to what appear to be the crossbills’ favoured trees, we waited patiently for about an hour to see if the crossbills would show up. In that time a few other birders joined us; then we received a message through Rare Bird Alert that there were 16 Parrot Crossbills present on-site, right where we were standing. There were no other birders in sight!

“Someone must be having a laugh,” one birder said; we probably would have found it more humorous if we had by then actually seen the birds.

We were just about to split up to search the other clumps of trees spread out across the Bottom when my mum and I spotted a small group of birds fly towards us and alight in the tree directly in front of us. Most dived right into the needles of the pine, although one remained perched in clear view for a few seconds, enough for us to identify it as a Common Crossbill. That was good news, at the other sites where Parrot Crossbills have been present, they sometimes form mixed flocks with Commons.

Once the crossbills within the tree had surveyed their surroundings to make sure there was no danger, they set to work extracting the seeds from inside the pine cones. This made them more visible, and we were able to see that there were indeed Parrot Crossbills within the flock! Over the next hour I was able to watch them incredibly well. Although crossbills have a habit of staying firmly out of site within the dense branches, during the time we watched them there was always at least one on show.


The above photos show the red-colouration of male crossbills, the females being a paler green colour. They also show the fascinating bill, with the lower mandible curving upwards on one side of the bill and the upper mandible curving downwards on the other side. It is unclear what determines the side on which each mandible curves, although the numbers of birds with mandibles curving each way seems to be equal. A crossbill feeds on the seeds within the cones by inserting its crossed bill between the scales and opening them and extracting the seed inside with its tongue.


A female tackling a cone

Crossbills are by no means showy birds, so it was a real Christmas treat to be able to see this flock so well. Fingers crossed the influx continues and more flocks are found, possibly even closer to home!


Lover of a lonely mountain (or London reservoir!)

When I awoke on the morning of the 25th November, I had no idea that American Horned Larks existed. So just before breakfast, when I checked the notifications on my phone and saw “Horned Lark still present 8am” I thought that the perilous auto-correct had struck once more. However, once I looked into it in more detail, I realised that this wasn’t just the product of a birder with cold and numb fingers.

I have to say that Staines Reservoirs is not the most inspiring birding location, which is probably why my parents have been unwilling to drive me there before. It is comprised of a North and a South basin, with a central kilometre-long monotonous causeway separating the two. Yet when I was dropped off at one end on the chilly November morning, I was quite eager to get to the other.

The news was negative when I first arrived at the far western end of the causeway, where most of the visiting birders seemed to be clustered. I began to scan the cold concrete apron on both sides of the causeway, to no avail after about 10 minutes. The resident Pied Wagtails were constantly distracting me with their calls.

It wasn’t long until negative turned to positive however. Alerted by a call that sounded almost fluty, I spotted a quite chunky small bird fly low over the causeway. The careful rush of the birders closest to where the bird had landed confirmed my suspicion that the bird had returned. For the next 30 minutes or so, the assembled birders had brilliant views of the the American Horned Lark on the northern side of the causeway, often venturing within 10 feet.


The photos I was pleased  to have taken of quite a mobile bird show the features that separate this American Horned Lark from the more regular Shore Lark. Shore Larks are winter visitors to the UK, with usually around a hundred overwintering on the East coast. As their name suggests they are mainly restricted to the coast, so even a normal Shore Lark would have been a brilliant record for London/Surrey.

Eremophila alpestris is the species that Shore Larks and American Horned Larks belong to. Although some authorities split them into separate species, most recognise them as only subspecies. The species is actually split up into a massive forty-two subspecies by some authorities, which is what makes Horned Larks so confusing. The regular Horned Larks found in the UK (Shore Larks) belong to the subspecies flava. And although this particular Horned Lark is named as ‘American Horned Lark’, around twenty-one of these 42 subspecies are found in USA and Canada. This particular bird is considered to be either:

  • alpestris – the nominate subspecies, found along Eastern Canada and Eastern USA.
  • hoyti – found in Northern Canada, wintering in Northern USA.
  • praticola – sometimes lumped together with alpestris, found in South-eastern Canada, North-eastern and East-central USA.

Luckily, and unsurprisingly for a bird with so many subspecies, there are noticeable differences between the British flava and the American subspecies listed above. The main ones are:

  • The extent of the yellow on the face is much less than in flava (as the name suggests, flava translating as yellow, golden), with a completely white ‘eyebrow’.
  • The flanks and overall colouration are much more russet than the pale-brown colouration of flava.
  • More obvious breast streaking than flava.

So although at the moment there is little doubt that the Horned Lark at Staines during the last week of November was of an American origin, the challenge of identifying it to subspecies still remains. Luckily however, if the Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris is split into different species, it is likely that all the American subspecies will remain as E. alpestris and the British subspecies will become E. flava.

A nice article to sum up the proposed splits of Eremophila alpestris can be found here: http://birdingfrontiers.com/2014/02/06/horned-lark-not-one-but-six-species/

Oh, and if you were wondering about the title of this blog post, Eremophila alpestris roughly translates from Latin to ‘lover of a lonely mountain’ – a reference to the breeding habitat of most of the subspecies!



Pectoral Sandpiper

Last Sunday afternoon I sat in the West Mead hide at Pulborough Brooks, with my binoculars focused on the far right corner of the pool directly in front of me. Among the Lapwings and the Teal was the silhouette of a Pectoral Sandpiper in terrible back-lighting.

There was no mistaking that this was a bird I was very pleased to see. One challenge of mine for this year is to get to 200 bird species for BBC Wildlife Magazine’s #my200birdyear, and this was my 193rd. Furthermore, Pulborough Brooks is exactly where I saw my first and only previous Pectoral Sandpiper, over 3 years ago. On that day in 2014 the Pectoral Sandpiper was so distant I didn’t even attempt a photograph, however this time this one was unusually close.


The lighting was really poor, but at least I attempted a photo unlike my previous sighting three years ago!

Pectoral Sandpipers breed in North America and Eastern Siberia, yet despite the great distance from their breeding grounds they are still the most common Nearctic wader to reach our shores each year, mainly during autumn. Sussex definitely seems to attract its fair share, and in my experience Pulborough Brooks seems to be the best site in Sussex for them at the moment. There may have been at least three at this wetland site this autumn, which is an amazing total for a bird that would have had to cross the Atlantic or the whole of Siberia and Europe to reach here.

I have about a month and a half to find seven more species to make 200 for the year. It is possible, although it will be difficult. There are quite a number of species I’m yet to see, but it will all rely on how lucky I am!


Sri Lanka 2017 Part 3 – Lunugamvehera & Sinharaja

We certainly made the right decision on the morning of the 18th July. The previous day we had been touring Block 1 of Yala National Park, seeing very little. Yala is the worst nightmare of anyone who likes to watch wildlife in peace and in near-solitude, as no less than 125 Jeeps were crammed into this tiny section of the park that day.

However, the following morning we decided to go that extra bit further to Lunugamvehera National Park, which is attached to Yala however significantly less popular. I have no idea why that is, because as soon as we entered the park were we racing towards our first Leopard sighting of the day.


We had brilliant views of this Leopard, much better than I’ve ever had before. In most other places where Leopards are found, there are other big cats inhabiting the area which drive the leopards into cover for a lot of the day and they become very shy. In Africa, it is lions and in India, there are Tigers. However, in Sri Lanka, there are no predators larger than Leopards and therefore they’re far more relaxed. We were able to watch this Leopard for a long time as it rested within a thin thicket, before getting up and moving slowly into the shade of a tree where it would probably spend the first few hours of the Sri Lankan day-time heat.

Lunugamvehera is not a huge park, and therefore we made a few circuits during the day. There are always new things to see on every circuit, such as Lesser Adjutants and a Stripe-necked Mongoose on the dry river bed, a pair of Stork-billed Kingfishers above a beautiful secluded river, and on the open plains an Indian Roller perched on a bare tree for all to see.


Stripe-necked Mongoose


Lesser Adjutant


Stork-billed Kingfisher


Indian Roller

The second circuit was a little more exciting than the others, however. We were driving through the arid woodland when the guides noticed huge tracks on the side of the road that could only belong to one animal: a Sloth Bear! We increased our speed slightly as we drove in the direction the rather fresh tracks were heading, and after a bit of driving back-and-forth we heard from the other vehicle that they had just seen the Sloth Bear heading our way. We waited on the road and sure enough, we managed to spot a bear slowly ambling through the small trees towards the road in front of us. As it reached the road it increased its speed suddenly and lolloped across the track: a wonderful sight.

The rest of the day in the park continued as one would expect it to in the searing heat of the Sri Lankan arid zone. There was not too much happening mammal-wise, although as the sun and the temperatures began to sink, that all changed.

The Jeep drivers and the local guides all know each other really well, and therefore an efficient network is maintained that allows drivers to know about sightings in the vicinity. This came into play very nicely as our Jeep driver became aware of a Leopard that had just been seen near the reservoir in the centre of the park.

It’s a huge reservoir, with an impressive dam that is featured on Sri Lankan currency (the 5000 rupee note). It is surrounded by a forest of skeletons, the remains of the forest that had stood in the area before the construction of the dam. The washed-out trees still stand sturdy like statues, creating a unique landscape, dotted with large ponds left behind by the receding water of the dry season. These ponds are full of a plethora of water birds, such as the Painted Storks struggling with fish far too large and the Indian Pond Herons chasing each other around the muddy edges.


The bird-filled ponds


Indian Pond Heron

It was just after we pulled up beside one of these ponds that we spotted the Leopard strolling nonchalantly towards rim of the pond basin – scattering the storks, herons, plovers and ibises – where it lay down. It just seemed completely oblivious to the vehicle, and everything else around it. As the setting sun cast an awe-inspiring glow over the Leopard’s beautiful coat and the bizarre landscape, it really was a memorable moment.


Unfortunately, we soon had to get going to avoid being fined for a late exit. However, even as we were rushing back to the gates, our experience in Lunugamvehera was not over. All of a sudden, one of the guides knocked three times on the side of the vehicle, meaning ‘stop’. As we halted and began to reverse, none other than our third Leopard of the day came into view. It was drinking from a watering-hole no more than 15-20 metres from the road! An amazing end to a brilliant day in Sri Lanka.

The following morning, as we were leaving our hotel at Yala, I realised that we only had a limited amount of time left in Sri Lanka. However, I think we had saved the best until last. We were leaving Yala for the Sinharaja Rainforest: a serious birder’s dream and a leech-hater’s worst nightmare!


We were lucky to have two full days within the rainforest. My ambition for the trip as a whole was to manage to see as many of the endemics as possible, and we were already doing well. I had 13 left to see, and all of them could be found in the Sinharaja Rainforest and the surrounding area. It would be very tricky to see them all; however I would try my best.

Entering the Sinharaja Rainforest with a guide is compulsory, and the tour leaders made sure that we had a guide that would be able to show us as much of our target wildlife as possible. It turned out that the leaders had made a very good choice; within only about 45 minutes we had already seen a number of the target birds, including Green-billed Coucal, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Sri Lanka Myna and Sri Lanka Crested Drongo. This was because it’s a long drive up from the ticket counter to the reserve entrance, only about 1km however incredibly bumpy due to the floods the month before. We were travelling in a Toyota Pickup, meaning that our local guide was able to stand up in the back and spot all the birds that we would otherwise have missed!


Sri Lanka Myna


Sri Lanka Crested Drongo

By the time we arrived at the entrance it was around 8am and too late for the morning activity; however I only had 9 more endemics to see. Although due to the rainforest canopy keeping out a lot of the hot sun, birds are active to some extent throughout most of the day. Many species form bird waves that travel through the forest feeding on anything in their path. These we were actively seeking out, as they almost always have a few goodies among them!

It wasn’t long before we came across our first bird wave of the morning. The bird waves are usually dominated by Orange-billed Babblers, and Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes were also a key part of them (another new endemic!). We were also able to add Red-faced Malkoha to our list! Unfortunately, birds in the bird wave are always quite mobile; the rainforest is thick with vegetation, meaning that these birds were incredibly hard to take photos of!

After the bird wave passed through, it was almost as if it was becoming night-time! We heard two and possibly even three Spot-bellied Eagle-owls began to call to each other. It was quite a surreal experience! Meanwhile, our guide was down among spiny vines in a large, deep ditch trying to locate another bird of the night, which is known to roost here in roughly the same place every day. These were Sri Lankan Frogmouths, a near endemic, and it was great to be able to see them at such close quarters. The males and the females are very sexually dimorphic, which the males being the more drab and dull of the two. This is because he is in charge of incubating the eggs.


Sri Lanka Frogmouths, Male (L), Female (R)

The next bird wave came through slowly afterwards, with more Red-faced Malkohas and Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes in the mix. And after being shown a particularly co-operative Spot-winged Thrush, I only had 6 more species to get!


Spot-winged Thrush

Finally, we noticed that the 3rd and final bird wave was coming through. And it carried a surprise! I noticed a small, brown bird fly up on round wings onto a branch where it was half-hidden. ‘Owl’, I exclaimed! Despite all my efforts, I was unable to get anyone else onto it other than the guides. Thank goodness I had a few ‘record shots’ as proof! While the bird was actually in view, I didn’t have any time to think about what it could be. However, on looking back at my photos, I saw that it could be nothing other than a Chestnut-backed Owlet, an endemic! This species is actually diurnal like the other owlets, which would explain why it was out in the daytime. It still wasn’t something I was expecting at all!


We moved on through the rainforest, seeing plenty of interesting invertebrates. We came across so many butterflies, including the Sri Lanka Birdwing, and I also spotted an incredibly long-legged tiger beetle. On arrival back home, it was kindly identified by Fabian Boetzl as a Sri Lankan endemic, Calochroa discrepans


Eventually, we arrived at where I would hopefully see my number one target for the whole trip. The Serendib Scops Owl was first described as new to science in 2004 from this very rainforest, and it still remains the best place in the world to see it. However, it’s not easy to get to! First, we had to descend a steep and slippery slope to get down into a very large ditch, and then we had to wade through treacherous mud and dodge very thorny vines for quite a while. It certainly all paid off however, as we were treated to excellent views of not one but two of these brilliant owls roosting in the giant ferns. I think this was the highlight of my entire Sri Lankan holiday, being able to look right into the eyes of a ‘mythical’ bird.


Serendib Scops Owl

The next day was very similar; however we were focused on the two species we had left to see: the Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush and the Sri Lanka Spurfowl. Being perhaps the hardest of all the endemics to see, I knew it was going to be a challenge. There were a few known places where the former could be seen, and I was eager to try some out. The first is just beside the path not too far from the entrance, and it appeared we were in luck when we heard one calling. The call is not loud and not distinctive either, and the bird was clearly moving. We crept along as silently and as quickly as we could in order to catch up to the bird, which was clearly moving unseen along the dark forest floor in front of us and to our left.

Eventually, we spotted a movement. We had caught up with the bird quicker than we anticipated. It was feeding just behind a patch of plants in front of us, right next to the path. I eased forward as slowly as I could manage, in order to get a good view of it. I have never seen a bird so camouflaged! The scales that give it its name really allow it to blend into the forest floor. Despite being only 10 metres away, if I took my eyes off it, it would take some finding to re-locate it! Not only were we able to watch it feeding so well but it also hopped up a log and flew into a tree, where it perched in the open quite high up. For an almost completely ground-dwelling species, this really was a special encounter!


Scaly Thrush

The time of this sighting was only around mid-morning, so we were off to a good start. However, despite marvelling at a superb array of rainforest wildlife, the Sri Lanka Spurfowl eluded us for the whole day. As we headed back down the bumpy track to our lodge, I thought that we would have seen 33 out of the 34 endemics, which I wasn’t too displeased about.

Originally, I had planned to have a lie in on our final morning before heading back to the airport hotel. However, I’m glad I changed my mind at 6am! I knew I couldn’t miss the pre-breakfast bird walk, just in case something exciting was seen. You never know! And it turned out that I made the right decision…

We walked along the road from our lodge, seeing many common birds such as Green Imperial Pigeons and Thick-billed Flowerpeckers. It’s not a large or dense village, with very few houses, and soon we were walking along a cobbled road through thick forest towards some outlying buildings. Unlike the Scaly Thrush, Sri Lanka Spurfowls are very territorial and have a very loud call, which starts low but builds to a climax as the pair are duetting. Suddenly, we heard it rise up from the depths of the forest, I couldn’t quite believe it at first! They sounded quite far off but they were getting closer, toward an area of open ground beside a stream. We kept our eyes on that area of open ground and sure enough, two spurfowls  walked into view! They were quite distant, however they completed our set of endemics for the trip, which I was elated about. A super end to a super trip!