Kulu’s Yala Camp has been a Birdwatcher’s Dream this January

21 Species including 7 migrants in the space of a few hours – a great morning of birdwatching at our very own campsite by the Yala National Park.

Recently (January 2017), we took a morning off from a typical game drive, and hung back at camp with one of our guests to enjoy the calm and tranquility of waking up with the birds. Kulu Safaris’ camp is located on the fringe of Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, famed for its leopard sightings.  Yala is home to not just wildlife, but a rich spectrum of birdlife as well.  The nature of commercial activity in the park has not won Yala as a birdwatcher’s paradise in Sri Lanka (yet!). But to the keen birdwatcher, a little treasure of a birding destination awaits.

Since most of the other guests were on game drives that day, there was very little human activity on our 6-acre property of regenerating forest-land, on which we offer 6 semi-luxury tents. Dawn broke over a chilly January morning, and the strong mocha-pot coffee was gulped down. As our last Land Cruiser  made its way out of camp, the only audible sounds was the chirping of birdcalls. Dressed in our khakis and equipped with cameras and binoculars, we stealthily took a gander through the many wooded path ways that snake in and around camp.

We eventually slipped beyond the camp fence and onto the dry lake-bed  in front of camp. Due to the drought, we recorded a very different portfolio of birds, compared to the usual visitors that would have comprised of teals, terns, plovers, storks and waders.

In a 6-hour span, we were able to photograph 21 species of birds, of which 7 were winter migrants. Migrants typically visit us from November through around March. Other migrants who were around, but escaped our lens included the Indian Pitta, Yellow Wagtail, and Brahminy Starling.

Below is a quick photo essay of our sightings from that special morning, this January. Follow our Instagram account @kulu_safaris to stay up to date of all our sightings.

Please write to us at safari@kulusafaris.com with any questions.

Enjoy!

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Red-vented Bulbul (resident)
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Purple Sunbird (resident)
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Purple-rumped Sunbird (resident)
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Chestnut-headed Bee-eater (uncommon resident)
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Ever the entertainer: Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Winter migrant)

A pair of Small Minivets (male and female) (uncommon residents) add a some flashes of striking colour.

Two very special guests – winter visitors, both at camp, made the decision to hang back at camp totally worth it! An Orange-headed Thrush, and what we suspect is a pale-morph Booted Eagle.

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Orange-headed Thrush (rare winter migrant)
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Pale-morph Booted Eagle (very rare winter migrant)
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Brown Shrike / Philippine Shrike
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Barn Swallow (Hirundo Rustica) Common winter migrant
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Sri Lanka Woodshrike (resident)
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Grey-bellied Cuckoo (uncommon winter migrant)
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White-browed Bulbul

 

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Asian Paradise-flycatcher (common resident)
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White-browed Fantail (common resident)
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Blythe’s Pipit (Regular winter migrant)
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Common Tailorbird (common resident)

A Hawk-eagle caught what may have been a giant squirrel and invited himself over for lunch …

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Common Iora (common resident)

Of course, the best part of birdwatching is sitting back with a beverage 🙂

And, complete list of birds that you may see in Sri Lanka is found in our Field Notebook that can be found in each tent.

Kulu Safaris Campsite in Yala is a great base for the avid birder and wildlife observer, who enjoys an experiential twist to their holiday in Sri Lanka. Visit http://www.kulusafaris.com or write to us at safari@kulusafaris.com to insure about your next birding visit!

Sri Lanka’s Migrant Birding Season Begins!

Kulu’s guide Ramani is looking forward to this year’s migrant birding season in Yala National Park! Here’s what to expect:

The annual journey of migrant birds to Sri Lanka is now in effect!  It typically starts around mid-August during the start of the Northern Autumn and extends into April.

Approximately 200 bird species can be expected to fly in from Northern India, Siberia, Scandinavia and Western Europe. But not all our visitors are from the North. Some pelagic species of seabirds like Shearwaters, Petrels, and Noddies migrate to Sri Lankan waters from Southern Oceanic islands during the southern hemisphere’s winter (March-October).

These seasonal migrations which are thousands of miles long have captured man’s curiosity and awe for millennia. Birds migrate for various reasons, and many of which are complex and not fully understood. The simpler explanations include ease of sourcing food, safe breeding grounds, and favourable weather.

The specific routes they take may be genetically programmed or learned to varying degrees. Many (but not all) take the same routes to return home.

And not all birds return after the winter. The immature birds of many wader species spend the 2nd year of their life in Sri Lanka, instead of immediately returning to their breeding grounds. They leave for breeding when they have reached maturity the following year.

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Yala National Park is well suited to host a broad array of birds because of its diverse ecology. During migrant season, Yala is home to a long list of visiting waders, shorebirds and forest birds so make sure to keep a look out on your game drive. Especially around water holes and lagoons.

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A Kulu guide does a birding walk with some kids at camp

The location of our camp in Yala makes it a great place for bird watching as well! The lake in front of camp fills up with the November rains and birdlife in and around your tent is plenty! This is great for kids because we can keep them occupied with birding and nature walks 🙂

You can enjoy a great view of some of these migrants from the deck of your tent or sit out by the water in the morning and watch these vibrantly coloured bombers whizz by while you sip your coffee. Commons winter visitors at camp include Blue Tailed Bee Eaters, Indian Pitta, Forest Wagtail, Brown Shrike, and the Bhahminy Myna. We’ll also be on the lookout for waders once the lake in front of camp fills up. Heading out on the water early morning, in one of our kayaks with a pair of binoculars is a great way observe birds!

During game drives, we will be scouring the waterholes and marshlands in Yala for a host of waders and shorebirds that include several species of duck (Gargany, Pintail and Teal), Plovers, Stints, Sandpipers and Terns. We’ll also be on the lookout for the famous Combed Duck who returned to Sri Lanka in 2012, after 80 years in exile 🙂

Whichever you choose, migrant season has begun and we look forward to hosting our winter visitors on your annual trek to Sri Lanka 🙂

Kulu Safaris guide Ramani is one of the most passionate birders on our team of guides. Shas been involved in bird research projects in the past, and has had some great exposure to the nuances of bird behaviour and their habits. Ramani has also worked with some ornithological experts during their research projects in Sri Lanka. 

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Bird watching is a great way to disconnect from the grid and spend time with nature

World Elephant Day – a Sri Lankan Perspective

Most of our wild elephants roam outside our national parks. We know exactly where to find them, but it also means we need to be more cognisant in how we protect them.

World Elephant Day — emotionally stirring social media posts aside, we feel that it also ought to be identified as World “WILD” Elephant day.

The elephant is perhaps the most controversial of all wildlife on the island of Sri Lanka. They are venerated by local culture and are a prominent fixture of our much-loved “peraharas”; they have played an important part in Sri Lanka’s history in both wild and domesticated forms. Yet in the villages, they are treated as rogues and are chased away with firecrackers, even shot with rifles when they wander into farm land (land that has in fact, encroached into their wild habitat). Owning an elephant is also a status symbol for an old-school, aspirational bourgeois.  Meanwhile, conservationists are puling their hair out trying to figure out more effective ways to protect and conserve this fascinating creature within a system of static, fenced, national parks that pay little heed to their innate nature to roam nomadically; some researchers estimate that an entire two-thirds of our wild elephant population roam outside our National Parks!

On the bright side, this means that we are not limited to National Parks to observe these beautiful, regal, intelligent, entertaining creatures. When we are fortunate enough to be amongst them, we typically see only a tiny part of their spectrum of behaviour — usually its feeding (elephants can consume the better part of a ton of food a day!) or asserting their comfort zone with warning gestures and mock charges towards a human audience, especially in the presence of young. But as social animals, there is amazing depth to the nuances of their behaviour — intricacies that can take a lifetime of studying to fully appreciate the riches of their existence.

 

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A pair of bull elephants square off in a battle of wits (and strength!) to test their dominance, in Kudakalliya, Arugambay

Kudakalliya Bungalow is part of our Haritha Collection portfolio, and sits on a relatively lonely stretch of beach in one of the most fascinating little pockets of ecological wonder (arguably in the entire country!). In front of the bungalow is a tiny island of a few acres with lush vegetation, surrounded by a brackish water moat, flanked by the ocean and rice paddy on either side. Hundreds of acres of such rice paddy are scattered in a messy grid across an expanse of jungle and scrub that informally extends from Lahugala National Park in the north of us, into Kudumbigala Sanctuary and the Kumana National Park to the south of us.

The tall foliage on this particular island makes the stealthy pachyderms almost invisible from ground level — but the balcony from our bungalow is an ideal vantage point to observe them unobtrusively. The video below was from a special morning when a group of bulls (male elephants who are typically solitary) who were feeding on the island decided to have a bit of fun in the moat right in front of our bungalow. Such amazing sightings of unusual elephant behaviour are rare throughout in the world!

 

 

Development in this part of the country was acutely suppressed by Sri Lanka’s battle with terrorism — the war (arguably) preserved these “unprotected” wild habitats that elephants enjoyed for much longer than their cousins who have been in conflict with humans in more developed regions. But with a recent surge of tourism taking over Arugambay (what was once a sleepy town that only the most hardcore surfers visited), these wild areas are under severe pressure to handle a new wave of economic growth without hindrance to a magnificent wild ecosystem right on Arugambay’s doorstep.

While the fate of our wild elephants hangs in the balance, a few pockets of informal wilderness still exist. Kulu Safaris and the Haritha Collection are fortunate to have the Kudakalliya Bungalow in our portfolio, that sits alongside such a fascinating wild oasis. The ability to have such exclusive, non-intrusive access to some of Sri Lanka’s most sought after wildlife — wild elephants, crocodiles, several species of eagles and migrant birds are all visible from the bungalow — is a special privilege. How would you like to sip your evening tea or a sundowner while watching an undisturbed group of wild elephants entirely to yourselves?

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A lone (wild) bull elephant grazes peaceful in front of Kudakalliya Bungalow, just a couple of miles south of Arugambay – Sri Lanka’s (and now, one of the world’s) hottest surfing town

The picture below is iconic of the life of a Sri Lankan wild elephant. Here, two males have wandered away from the refuge of the island at sunset, having swum across the moat. As night falls, they will (quietly and stealthily!) graze on what remains of an already harvested rice paddy. In the background, you can see power lines alongside the main road that connects Arugambay with Panama, Kudumbigala Sanctuary, and Kumana National Park.  The flip side of “Human Elephant-conflict” coin is “Human-Elephant cohabitation” — hopefully we can evolve to cohabit with these amazing creatures so that sights like these will be enjoyed by future generations.

Let’s not let the sun set on our wild elephants – they need us urgently.

“Happy” #WorldElephantDay to you all.

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Two male elephants banter at dusk, before feeding on the remains of an already harvested rice paddy – 10 minutes south of Sri Lanka’s surf hotspot Arugambay

Activities at Camp – Kulu Safaris

Safari isn’t all being driven in a jeep … connect with nature with our fun, adrenalin-pumping activities!

Going on Safari is arguably one of the most fun, interesting, and experiential travel activities on your “things to do in Sri Lanka” bucket list. We have the largest campsite of all the operators — on one side we are flanked by jungle alongside the Katagamuwa section of the Yala National Park complex, and in front of us, we have a beautiful lake that all our tents look out towards.

While a game drive (going on safari) is the most common activity that our guests partake in, we’re seeing an increasing number of them staying back to do some of the other cool things we offer at camp. 

Kayaking has been a recent hit, with clients of all ages. The serenity of being out on the water at dawn or sunset is unmatchable. Being eye-level with water birds also adds a unique and different perspective to birding, which can be a welcome change from repeated rounds in a safari jeep on dusty roads.

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Birdwatching from a kayak – a unique perspective

Our kayaks are top of the range. They are injection moulded, rugged plastic, ocean-going kayaks that are built for stability, strength and maximum safety — they are also insanely difficult to topple. All our kayaks are for two people, and even include water-proof hatches inside, so feel free to take your camera and snap a few pictures while out on the water! We are pedantic about safety precautions and life jackets copulsory.

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Getting out on the water will definitely get your blood flowing

If you read the “about us” section on our website, you would see that our founders have explored every nook and cranny of this island. We have used kayaks just like these to explore 22 rivers around Sri Lanka, and we have trusted them with our lives.

The other activity that is popular with guests is the nature walk. We advise clients that only those who have some experience with trekking and are relatively fit try this. Even though we call it a “walk”, it is as much a climb which includes navigating rocks, slopes, and manoeuvring through stubborn branches. And once you have come to terms with the terrain, be mindful that there ARE wild animals around, as seen by elephant droppings and leopard tracks on some our routes.

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Climbing down is just as challenging as climbing up!

The walk ends on the summit of a rock that has an amazing view across the lake in front of camp and the jungle that extends beyond. It’s a great location to spend the evening watching the sun go down, or to even walk up early morning and do some birding. Our walk is through jungle that is clearly outside the boundary of the national park.

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What a spot for a sundowner!

Safari is not just about driving around a national park in a jeep. It is a very spiritual experience — connecting with nature and being one with your natural surroundings. It’s a great opportunity to turn your phone off and let the aesthetic beauty of the jungle and nature come to you; take the time to embrace it and to see and feel what it REALLY means to be alive.

So next time you’re with us and feel like doing something different on your trip, try some of our activities ! Follow us on Facebook to keep abreast of anything new. See you soon!

 

 

The Thrill of a Leopard Sighting!

Jeana’s back! Here latest story is about the rush of seeing a leopard in the wild and how you can NEVER be ‘used to it’! Even as a guide 🙂

Jeana is back, adding to her series of blog posts about her experience as a young guide at Kulu Safaris. Here, she recounts a memorable leopard sighting, but in the context that even as a guide who encounters leopard every day, each sighting is just as exciting as the first.

If I were to describe a typical safari “guide”, I imagine someone who remains cool and collected when being charged by an elephant, has a wealth of knowledgeable about flora and fauna, as well as has the confidence and people skills to share their knowledge with guests.

What struck me from the very beginning is that ‘calmness’ is merely an art we have to perfect over time. As a young guide, seeing an animal in the wild gives me the same adrenaline rush as any tourist. I have had to intentionally keep myself from exclaiming and pushing in front of my guests to catch a better view! I learnt fast that as a guide, I’m responsible for bringing to life the Sri Lankan safari experience.

As guides who lead clients on a safari, the pressure on us to track and showcase Sri Lankan wildlife is real and intense. Our typical ‘team’ on a game drive comprises of an excellent Kulu driver, who has a sixth sense for the jungle and a knack for picking routes (our drivers Preme, Rohana, Kumara, and Namal all qualify as excellent) and a good tracker to support our driver. We need to work in unison, as a cohesive team, to read the jungle for signs and clues, and to anticipate as well as react. There are many moving parts to a sighting: from the build up of following clues and tracks, to the nature of the sighting (eg: watching a comfortable relaxed leopard is far different to being in the presence of an irritable bull elephant in musth!). Also important is the positioning of the vehicle – are the guests rocking up with big zoom lenses and do we need to keep a distance to get their photographs, or are they happy to be a little closer to the animal etc. etc.

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A monitor lizard tucked into the hollow of a tree… not the easiest spot!

One afternoon in 2015, we ventured into Block 5 (also known as Lunugamwehera National Park) with our safari-modified Land Cruiser full of guests. Kumara was driving and I was the guide. Kumara’s eyes are magically accustomed to the jungle to such an extent that he can spot a monitor lizard in a tree hollow, while driving past (bear in mind that most often, the tree and the reptile are the same colour!!). As a guide, one of the aspects of your training is how to spot the little things, while keeping your eyes peeled for that hint of gold that’s out of place. It’s great to have a team that complements each other – knowing I can rely on Kumara and our Kulu drivers to spot animals early means I can spend more time conversing with guests.

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The young female leopard on a pallu tree…watchful, patient, regal… and makes for beautiful photography!

We slowly take a bend and I’m looking out to my right, towards a small rocky outcrop where we had a recent leopard sighting, when the jeeps abruptly stops and the engine is switched off. Kumara looks back at me through his side mirror and points upwards … “Leopard in the tree” he lip-syncs with a smug grin. Lo and behold, a stunning female sub-adult leopard is lounging on a low branch of a “pallu” tree within 20 feet from our jeep!

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A little inquisitive…shortly before she wandered off into the jungle again

 

Everyone in the jeep noticeably is in absolute awe of this beautiful creature, who is relaxed and comfortable in our presence. Thankfully, our guests appreciate the value of being quiet at a sighting and the only noises are of the jungle and soft camera clicks. I’m thrilled – Kumara and I share a silent “oh yeah” moment in the mirror while the guests are engrossed with the leopard.

The leopard yawns and licks and looks around until she finally stands up, stretches and descends elegantly down the trunk of the tree, before strolling casually into the jungle. We have the privilege of having her all to ourselves for close to half an hour.

As Kumara turns the engine back to life and we drive off, I feel the post-sighting buzz, as the jeep is full of chatter about the beautiful cat and the guests compare photographs. I share equally in their excitement and tell myself once again that no matter how many leopards I see… I will always be as amazed as the first time I ever saw one.

Curious about Kulu’s Tented Safari experience ? Visit us at www.kulusafaris.com or write to us at safari@kulusafaris.com