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Sri Lanka Birds

This section features over 30 species of birds commonly found in Sri Lanka.

The common Myna
Indian Myna near homes in Kandy

After spending months in eastern Indonesia with its relative dearth of birds (at least in the area we were in) it was fantastic to spend time with some of the wonderful birds of the Indian Sub-continent.  Sri Lanka has over 400 species of birds, with some 25 of them being endemic (found nowhere else), and others found only in Sri Lanka and India.

For identification we mainly used two books: A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India and Nepal by Bikram Grewal (New Holland Publishers, London 1995) and Birds of India by R. Grimmet, C. Inskipp, T. Inskipp (Princeton University  Press, 1999).  If you want specific books on Sri Lanka's birds you might look for these titles: A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka by John Harrison or A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka by Wijeyeratne, Warakagoda and de Zylva.

Sue birding by the river in Yala National Park
Sue birding in Yala National Park

Although the original enthusiasm for birding came from Sue, Amanda is now almost equally interested and has become the family's primary bird photographer.  The latter may have to do with the new camera: Amanda is in love with our Canon SLR Rebel XT (digital) with its long, Image Stabilized zoom lens, and its immediate shutter response.  No more lag between pressing the button and getting the shot like we had with our much less expensive digital cameras which allowed the birds time to fly away.  But birding isn't all about photography -- in fact the majority of birds we see and identify are seen only through binoculars.  The advantage of getting a photograph, (even a poor one) is that one can sit quietly and study the bird, comparing it to illustrations in bird books, to get an accurate ID.  A good photo, of course, is magic!

All photos were taken in the wild, mostly in Yala National Park, with credit/copyright Amanda Hacking 2007, unless otherwise noted.

The birds shown below are:

Common Myna Indian Pitta Orange Breasted Green Pigeon
Jungle Crow Red-wattled Lapwing Magpie Robin
White Throated Kingfisher Common Tailorbird Blue-Tailed Bee-eater
Green Bee-Eater Purple Rumped Sunbird Rose Ringed Parakeet
Brahminy Kite Malabar Pied Hornbill White Bellied Sea Eagle
Sri Lanka Junglefowl Indian Peafowl Painted Stork
Woolly Necked Stork Asian Openbill Stork Black Necked Stork
White Spoonbill Great Thick-knee Indian Pond Heron
Grey Heron Purple Heron Black-headed Ibis
Spot-Billed Pelican Little Cormorant Great Egret
Lesser Whistling Duck Cattle Egret  

No listing of birds of the Indian sub-continent would be complete without a ubiquitous Indian or Common Myna Acridotheres tristis (above, at top).  We first encountered this bird in the islands of Fiji in the central Pacific Ocean, then again in Australia, Indonesia, and SE Asia. This is a brownish bird with black head, neck and breast, a yellow-orange bill, yellow orbital skin (the skin around the eye) and yellow legs. In flight the under wings are conspicuously white, with a white tail tip.  Noisy and gregarious, these are probably the most commonly seen and heard birds throughout the country.  Indian Mynas nest in holes in large canopied trees, often communally with crows, returning to the same trees for many generations.  They are opportunistic feeders, living happily off household scraps, nectar, fruits, large insects such as grasshoppers, geckos and other small lizards.  They can be found just about anywhere, especially near human habitation.

The colorful and squat Indian Pitta Camouflaged nicely into the brown and green grassland, the small (19 cm or 7 inches) Indian Pitta Pitta brachyura can be hard to spot.  It remains silently feeding on the ground until alarmed at which time it will fly into the always nearby shelter of bushes or trees.  When it does call it makes a sharp dual-noted descending whistle.  The Indian Pitta is a resident of India and the Himalayas but migrates to Sri Lanka in the winter.

Perched in the branches of a beach Scaveola bush, we saw this stout female Orange Breasted Green Pigeon Treron bicincta in Yala National Park.  The male has similar gray tail feathers and green back with dark gray wing tips but with a lavender band below the throat and a broad orange patch on the upper breast.  These pigeons are resident in Sri Lanka and neighboring India and the Himalayas.  They prefer moist subtropical broadleaved forest and are fruit eating. Female Orange Breasted Green Pigeon

Large-billed crow, in tea fields. A large-billed crow, cawing

High in the tea fields of central Sri Lanka a Jungle, or Large-Billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos hopped about between tea plants.  These large dark crows are found where ever there are people, always on the look-out for scraps of food. They are aggressive, and will attack even larger animals for food or to protect their young.  They make more of a croaking, than a cawing sound, and nest in large colonies, often for many generations. (Sri Lanka tea fields, Haputale)

On one of the lawns in the Peradeniya Botanic Garden near Kandy we came upon a lovely Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus.  Part of the plover family, this bird is seen fairly commonly near cities and in fields.  It is strikingly colored with its black head, neck and breast, with white band on the side neck and red wattle (which gives it its name), white belly and tan back.  We used the telephoto lens to "get close" to the bird which was obviously distressed to have anyone walking near it.  On closer examination we could see one tan and gray-speckled egg in the grass under the bird.  Lapwings eat insects, seeds and tubers, and are usually found in pairs. (Peradeniya Botanic Garden, near Kandy)
A Red-wattled Lapwing stands guard over its egg.
A Red-wattled Lapwing stands guard over its egg.

Oriental Magpie Robin, a common bird in Sri Lanka The Magpie Robin, also known as the Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis is a very common bird in Sri Lanka and neighboring India.  Found in gardens, parks, woodlands and open forest it often announces its presence with a lovely "swee-ee" song.  The female is similar to the male although the black back, head and tail may appear more gray.  It is often seen on the ground, hopping about for insects.  (Peradeniya Botanic Garden, near Kandy)

Blue back of the White Throated (Breasted) Kingfisher White Throated (Breasted) Kingfisher


One of the most commonly seen kingfishers in Sri Lanka is the White Breasted or White Throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis.  Less dependent on nearby water than most kingfishers, the White Breasted hunts from tree branches or wires, swooping down on small lizards, insects, frogs and sometimes fish.  Its large (in this case red) bill is characteristic of kingfishers.  It has chocolate brown plumage on its head and chest, with a large white breast.  Its back is a brilliant sky-blue.  Like its large relative, the Kookaburra in Australia, it emits a laughter-like call.  We saw this kingfisher in the highlands near Kandy, on the SE coast in Yala National Park, and in the suburbs north of Colombo.  (Kandy)

The repeated "towit towit" and "keea keea" alerted us to look for the bird making the lovely call.  Amanda spotted the sparrow-sized Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius on a branch outside our guesthouse in Kandy.  When singing, the Common Tailorbird shows a black necklace (barely visible in this photo) that separates its rufous head from its yellow-green back, and making a striking line in its white chin and belly.  It would have been great to see the nest of this small bird, because it is unique in that it consists of two or more living leaves sewn together to create a pouch for the eggs, giving the bird its name "tailorbird".  (Kandy) The Common Tailorbird on a branch in Kandy.

The Blue-Tailed Bee Eater We saw the chestnut-chinned Blue-Tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus in light wooded areas of Yala National Park and again north of Colombo outside the suburbs.  Even with poor lighting the upright stance, long tail and long down-curved bill gives you the jizz of a bee-eater.  When sun hits the ird you can then distinguish the colors and the species. Although we only caught a glimpse of the blue tail of the Merops phillipinus the rufous chin and green head were enough to give us an ID.  Our field guide does not mention the white streak beneath the black mask which appears so prominently in our photo. Bee-eaters are gregarious, often perching together in open branches or on wires from which they swoop off to feast on flying insects.  They are about 23‑26 cm (8‑10 inches) from head to tail tip.

Smaller than the Blue-tailed Bee-eater, is the more commonly seen Green Bee-Eater Merops orientalis. this gregarious brightly colored bird may appear green all over, or, in the right light, show off its blue throat, black band between throat and belly, and chestnut crown.  Both male and female have elongated pin (central tail) feathers although at times an individual may not.  Like other bee-eaters, they perch and roost communally, taking winged insects as prey.  We saw them repeatedly throughout Sri Lanka in wooded areas, near homes, in the hills and on the coast. Two Green Bee Eaters perched in Yala National Park

The back view of a Purple Rumped Sunbird Fussing about the many flowering plants of open forests and gardens in Sri Lanka was the Purple Rumped Sunbird Nectarinia zeylonicca.  The male is distinctive with a black down-curved beak, maroon rump, yellow breast, metallic green head and chestnut back.  The female is less colorful.  These birds can hover above flowers or perch on the delicate edges to sip nectar with their down-curved beaks. The call can be a metallic "chit" or a repetitive "ptsee-ptsee".  (Kandy) Beautiful yellow breast of the Purple Rumped Sunbird

On the edge of a lowland forest in Yala National Park we saw this lovely green and yellow, red-billed, mid-sized (42 cm or 17 inches) parakeet in the branches of a beach Scaveola tree.  The Rose Ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri, so named for the male's pale rose colored collar, is the most common parakeet in the Indian Sub-continent.  They can be found in open forest, fields, gardens and cities and although they are mainly arboreal they will come down into fields to feed on ears of corn.  At night they roost in huge flocks in the tree tops. Their call is a harsh "kree-kree". The Rose Ringed Parakeet in Yala National Park

Brahminy Kites in the trees in Yala National Park From the sea coast to the hills of Sri Lanka, but never far from water, you may see the handsome Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus.  The rich chestnut brown of the back contrasts well with the bright white of the head, neck, upper back and breast.  In flight the white breast stands out next to the chestnut tail and wings, along with black wing tips.  Juveniles are brown streaked overall.  Brahminy Kites are about medium size in the raptor range, at about 48cm (19in).  They feed on fish, crabs, frogs and even small birds.  Their call is two-part: "tssss herheheheheheheh" or a drawn out sound "kyeeeeerh".

For such a large bird, its hard to believe how easily this Malabar Pied Hornbill Anthracoceros coronatus managed to blend itself into the surrounding branches.  The largest of the hornbills found in Sri Lanka, the Malabar Pied Hornbill has a unique casque in that it is ax-shaped, with a dark path on the upper half.  This photo could be of either a male or female, but since we can't see the posterior end of the casque we can't tell.  (The male's has a black band, the female's does not.)  These hornbills have black bodies with white outer tail feathers, with a white trailing edge to the wings.  They can be found near inhabited areas and open forest. Malabar Pied Hornbill

A White Bellied Sea Eagle Found along the sea coasts of India and the whole perimeter of Sri Lanka, the majestic White Bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster is frequently seen soaring over the water in search of fish, or perched nearby, eyes alert for action on the water.  When gliding, the White Bellied Sea Eagle carries its wings in a distinct V‑shape, and its white belly, head and white under-wing coverts contrasts sharply with the black wing remiges (the trailing edges).  These eagles are often seen in pairs.  They feed on fish and sea snakes.

Indian Peafowl, hen Male Peafowl, or Peacock, presenting Lured by the majestic display of a male Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatus an interested hen (left) approaches in Yala National Park. Although Peafowl have been introduced to many parts of the world, here in Sri Lanka they still wander at will, undomesticated and untamed in woodlands and forest.  Peafowl rely more on their legs than their wings to escape danger but do fly.  In fact they roost at night in trees where their large bodies appear ungainly on small tree branches. Their call is a very loud "may-aw".

The bright Sri Lanka Junglefowl Shown here walking away, but looking back over its rich black and red plumage, is Sri Lanka's national bird, and it is no ordinary farm rooster.  The wild, large Sri Lanka Junglefowl Gallus lafayetii is a handsome bird found throughout most parts of Sri Lanka except the SE (more inhabited) corner of the island.  A member of the pheasant family, the Sri Lanka Junglefowl has purple-black tail and wings, an orange spot on the red comb and elongated reddish-orange feathers over the back.  The female is less strikingly colored, with black and white patterning on the breast.

Two Painted Storks feeding in Yala National Park Painted Stork feeding in fresh water marsh Probably the most beautiful of Sri Lanka's storks is the colorful Painted Stork Mycteria leucocephal with its yellow, slightly downcurved bill, coral-pink face and legs and black and white body with pink tail feathers. Found in fresh water habitat throughout India and Sri Lanka these large (93 cm or 34 inches) storks probe the silty, muddy bottoms of marshes and ponds for frogs, mollusks and crabs.

Woolly Necked Stork, with wings spread Woolly Necked Stork Yala National Park is a fantastic place for viewing some of Sri Lanka's 5 species of stork.  Strutting along the road was a small flock of Woolly Necked Storks (also known as White Necked Storks) Ciconia episcopus.  These large storks (up to 92 cm or 33 inches tall) have black bodies with white "woolly" necks, black caps, bills and wings, with red legs.  They are not very gregarious, nor noisy. The main sound they make is the sound of their mandibles clacking when their heads are thrown back.  They, like other storks, often soar on thermals.

A community of nesting Asian Openbill Storks, Yala national park Asian Openbill with a newly caught frog in its bill. The Asian Openbill Stork is one of the smallest, but most unusual of Sri Lanka's storks.  It has an overall white plumage (grayish when non-breeding) with black flight feathers, pale pink legs, a gray head and a long gray bill that closes with a long gap (hence the name "openbill"). Like other storks it makes large messy nests (left) in trees, usually communally.  After breeding these communities tend to disperse. Openbills feed on frogs (right), mollusks and crabs.  The purpose of the gap in the closed mandibles is not known.

Although a bit far away to see real detail, we were very lucky to spot one of the two pairs of Black Necked Storks Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus that reside in Yala National Park, in SE Sri Lanka.  These relatively large (up to 150 cm or 60 in) storks reside throughout much of the lowlands of India and Sri Lanka, but are becoming more and more rare.  Unfortunately, they are not a protected species, and we couldn't find any information on why they are not very often seen anymore.  Like other storks they soar on thermals, then come to fresh water to feed on frogs, insects, fish and small lizards. The Black Necked Storks are seen mainly in pairs and are wary.  They have a black neck, bill, head and tail, and in flight they display a broad black band across the otherwise white wings. The not-so-common Black Necked Stork

White (Eurasian) Spoonbills in Yala National Park Unique in appearance is the Eurasian or White Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia with its long black, flat bill ending in a broad "spoon" shaped tip which may appear yellow.  Adult birds are all white except in breeding season when then develop a yellowish white crest, a red patch at the base of the throat and a beige "necklace".  In the photo, some of the birds have breeding plumage, and some do not.  Spoonbills  are found throughout India and Sri Lanka near rivers, lakes and marshes.  They feed by moving their bills in the water while opening and closing them.  They eat both plants and small animals.

The Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii is a widespread resident throughout most of India and Sri Lanka. In flight is appears two-tone with white wings and a buff-colored back.  The photo (right) shows the non-breeding plumage.  In breeding season, the adult has a more yellow head and neck and maroon-brown back. One of the smallest herons (42‑45cm or 17‑18in) this bird is found on both inland and coastal areas --anywhere with water, be in natural or man-made. IN fact it has taken so well to rice paddies, it is colloquially known as the Paddybird.  Like other herons, it poises in the water, alert, attentive, until it suddenly strikes out for its food of frogs, insects, or small fish. The Indian Pond Heron

A Great Thick-Knee on the rocky coast of Yala National Park. A member of the plover family, the Great Thick-knee Esacus recurvirostris (literally "re-curved nose") is commonly seen on the rocky, sometimes sandy, edges of lakes, river banks, and coastal shores.  This is a tall wader (49‑54cm or 20‑22 in) with striking facial markings: strong black and yellow upturned bill, gray head with white "spectacles" and black bars.  The Great Thick-knee is territorial and give off a rising whistle call: "kree-kree-kree kre-kre-kre-kre..."  We were lucky to get this photo on the rocky shore of a small pond in Yala National Park, as these birds are normally crepuscular (meaning they come out at twilight) and nocturnal.  In flight these birds appear duck-like.

Living on the edges of fresh water or salt/mangrove inlets, the Grey Heron Ardea cinerea is often seen standing motionless, waiting for a chance to strike at its prey.  Grey on the back, with white neck and chest, this bird also has a black eye-stripe which extends back to become a black cap, followed by black head plumes.  The front of the white neck appears decorated with gray feathers in a vertical line.  Grey Herons are gregarious and roost in communal  trees, making large clumsy nests of sticks.  An adult Grey Heron stands about 98cm (40in) tall.

Grey Heron in a pond in Yala National Park

A Purple Heron moves quietly through the reeds. Another large heron seen often in Yala National Park is the Purple Heron Ardea purpurea.  About the same size as the grey Heron, is has a dark purple-tan (as opposed to white) neck and a more purple-slate colored back than the Grey Heron.  the Purple Heron tends to be solitary and emits a croaking groan when disturbed.  They are found throughout India and Sri Lanka in open wetlands, marshes and near rivers.

The only ibis we saw in Sri Lanka was the Black-headed Ibis Threskiornis melanocephalus.  It is resident throughout much of western India and the lowland perimeters of Sri Lanka.  Like other ibises, it has a long down-curved bill which it pushed into mud or grasses to extract food -- both plant and animal.  In breeding season the adult develops chest plumes (seen in the photos to the right), gray scapulars and long gray tertials.  It lives in colonies and has a vibrant grunt.

Black-headed Ibis, Yala National Park

Spot-Billed or Gray Pelican, Kandy Lake Head swiveled around, and casting an alert eye, this Gray or Spot-Billed Pelican Pelecanus philippensis was not very interested in leaving its perch in a sturdy tree on the edge of Kandy Lake, in the town of Kandy, Sri Lanka.  This bird is named for its plumage which is more dirty-white than the White Pelican, and the bill which shows small gray spots on the upper mandible on adult birds. These pelicans can be found alone or in large colonies.  They breed in colonially in Sri Lanka and India and are found near large inland lakes and coastal waters.  (Kandy)

Cormorants are found on just about any body of water in the sub-continent.  These two were sunning themselves on the edge of Kandy Lake, in the hill country of Sri Lanka. We're pretty sure the one on the left is a Little Cormorant Phalacrocorax niger, but the one on the right remains unidentified.  Given its size, we can guess it is the slightly larger Indian Cormorant or Indian Shag Phalacrocorax fuscicollis, but the gular pouch beneath the bill (with which one can distinguish one species from another) is not visible, so we're not sure.  All cormorants need to dry their wings after swimming and they're often seen with wings spread wide in the sun.  They swim with their necks and head just out of the water, then dive for fish which they capture in their long, strong bill.  (Kandy)  (Photo by Chris Hacking) Cormorants on the edge of Kandy Lake

Great Egret in Yala NP The Great Egret Casmerodius albus stands amazingly large and white on the top branches of trees where it roosts.  The largest of all the egrets, this is a pure white bird with a black gape that extends well past the eye. The normally yellow bill turns black when breeding.   This bird seems to be changing into breeding plumage as the bill is only partially black, and it is showing the characteristic light plumes on the lower back of a bird in breeding.  It can be found on rivers, lakes and mudflats, including inundated cultivated fields.

Lesser Whistling Ducks Dendrocygna javanica tend to hang together in large flocks on shallow, reed-covered ponds and marshes.  They are common throughout Sri Lanka and India.  Also called the Lesser Whistling Teal, these birds make a constant whistling sound "whi-whee" usually while flying.  Even their wings make a whistling sound.  They often roost in trees in the day, preferring to feed in dense reeds at night.  They nest in tree hollows, or deserted nests of other birds. Lesser Whistling Ducks in yala National Park

Cattle Egret by the side of the road, Sri Lanka hill country. Commonly called the Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis for their habit of sitting atop cattle or water buffalo to pick the insects off them, these small (50 cm or 20 in) egrets are actually found in many habitats.  They might be seen in inundated fields, pond and lakesides, or around human habitation or grassy fields.  They nest communally in trees and are usually silent except during breeding when they make groaning and croaking sounds.  The breeding adult wears a buffy-orange plumage on the head, neck and back; non-breeding adults are pure white with a pale yellow bill and yellow-black legs.  (Photo by Sue Hacking)

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