Heading for Hakgala? Watch out for the birds
“Look! “There’s one on the branch…it’s just caught a worm,” my friend whispered. The bluish bird looked suspiciously at us, but satisfied that we meant no harm, it descended and disappeared, its breakfast still in its beak. We looked around, but couldn’t find the bird. It descended a few more times and only then, did we see its well-concealed nest close to the footpath. Without disturbing the nesting site, we adjusted our binoculars to peer into the nest. We observed two tiny fledglings huddled together.
The nest of the Dull-blue Flycatcher was built in a rock cavity at the edge of a bed of carnations, well camouflaged from thousands of eyes that admire the beauty of the flowers. The father Flycatcher also emerged from behind another branch, so we quickly withdrew, allowing the parents to take care of the wide open mouths of the fledglings.
Just 10 km from Nuwara Eliya, Hakgala is where Ravana is supposed to have kept Queen Seetha. According to legend Hakgala was his pleasure garden. Re-established by the British in the 1860s to grow Cinchona, Hakgala is today the second largest botanical gardens in Sri Lanka. Botanists and other visitors find plenty to interest them. An attractive Orchid House, a true English Oak, a Camphor wood tree and all the flowers of an English cottage garden like roses and carnations draw the crowds. But Hakgala offers much more and one should not forget to enjoy its fascinating birdlife, both migratory and endemic. Most of the birds that are common in Hakgala are specific to the hill country, which enhances its importance.
The Dull Blue Flycatcher, a highland bird species that is endemic to Sri Lanka, is probably the star of Hakgala. Though its privacy is restricted by human presence, this sparrow-sized flycatcher is abundant in the park. The birds appear to be tolerant of human visitors, so you can even get very close, if you have the patience. The shady trees inside the garden are a safe refuge for them and they can be seen perched on tree stumps too. Often they catch their prey and return to the same spot, a common behaviour of the flycatcher.
Hakgala is also a good breeding ground for the Dull-blue Flycatcher. We observed two more nests during the same birding tour in July. One was in a cavity which was a compact mass of moss and fern. Both were located near the pathways but were well-concealed. If you do spot a nest, don’t get too close. The nests we spotted were well-camouflaged, but your presence might expose them to predators that would find fledglings a tasty meal.
The Sri Lanka White-eye, a tiny sociable bird is a frequent visitor to the flowers at Hakgala. Often seen feeding on the nectar of the flowers, this acrobatic bird sometimes hangs downwards while sucking nectar. It also feeds on little insects and caterpillars, searching every leaf for its prey.
White-eyes move as small flocks across the misty terrain and are known for their “cheep.. cheep” sounds. They have a white eye-ring broken at the front, hence the name. The Sri Lanka White-eye is another highland species and common in Hakgala. There are more –the active but amazingly tame, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher – similar in size to the White-eye is another bird that will fearlessly keep his perch until you go very close to it. It is always on the move.
Larger than the other two, but another star of Hakgala that usually moves on the tree-tops is the Yellow-eared Bulbul. This is another highland endemic seen in Hakgala. If you hear a pigeon call or a heavy flying sound, pay attention, it could be the endemic woodpigeon – identifiable by the chessboard like pattern on its neck.
The list of fascinating birds that you can observe in Hakgala exceeds fifty. The best time for birding at Hakgala is early morning. The misty mornings are sometimes cold, but you will be rewarded with many bird sightings. Hakgala is also relatively visitor-free at this time. The gardens open at 8.30 a.m., but birdwatchers can try to get permission to enter early.
Getting to know hill country birds
Based on climate and topographic differences, Sri Lanka has been divided into a number of avi-faunal (bird) zones. The birdlife that inhabits the misty hills and plateaus of the highlands is known as Hill Country Avifauna. About a quarter of the birds found in this region are endemic to Sri Lanka.
The Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka(FOGSL) is conducting a four-day special workshop on hill country birds from May 1. The society based at the University of Colombo, welcomes those who are interested to join. Contact FOGSL on 5342609 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.