Sri Lanka in February 2020 – Wasgamuwa National Park

A pair of male Elephants having a 'discussion' - Wasgamuwa National Park, Sri Lanka
A pair of male Elephants having a ‘discussion’

A little over a year ago we were given the chance to join a small group of photographers on a conservation/photography trip to Sri Lanka. The conservation aspect was involving Elephants and was planned for morning activity, with afternoons allowing general wildlife photography. The result was on a wet Saturday evening in mid-February, we met up with two fellow photographers and a tour leader at Heathrow for an overnight flight to Colombo.

It was just as the Covid-19 virus was starting to spread, but no travel restrictions were even being discussed. We knew there was one confirmed case in Sri Lanka, but it never entered our heads not to go. The only abnormal things we encountered, were the flight crew all wearing face masks and all arrivals in Colombo being remotely temperature checked. That was it.

Our first night in Sri Lanka was due to be spent in Colombo and after a transfer of about an hour, we arrived at our hotel. A plan had already been hatched to visit Viharamahadevi Park to photograph the Fruit Bats, so after a quick freshen up we set off in a couple of Tuk Tuks. It was a short, but interesting, journey and unfortunately we managed to get separated. The result being we were dropped at different entrances to the park and took some time to locate the other members of the party.

In all honesty, it was a bit of a waste of time, because the bats were high in the trees and only took flight as the light was failing. It did however give us a fascinating insight into the local culture.

By now we were all feeling hungry and walked around the area for a while trying to find somewhere to eat. It wasn’t a fruitful search and although we knew we could get a meal in the hotel restaurant, they weren’t due to open until 9pm. We were weary after our flight from London and had to be ready to leave the hotel at 5am next morning, so that wasn’t an option. Luckily, we found a Dominos Pizza restaurant and although not quite what we were expecting, it fitted the bill. Food consumed, it was a walk back to the hotel and climb into bed.

Next morning we departed at 5am for what was to be a very long transfer. Even at that time the roads were busy and we were soon seeing children making their way to school. It was quite frantic too, speeds are high and horns are used at all hours of the day and night. It seemed a long time before we left the built up area and an easing of the traffic flow, but it was approaching lunchtime when we arrived at our destination.

We were quite surprised by what greeted us by way of accommodation and equally what was being planned for us. There was no expectation that we should do any conservation work and we were being viewed more as a test group for future photographic tours. It also transpired there had been a misunderstanding about our rooming arrangements and after some lunch we were shown to our bungalows in the grounds.

Changeable Hawk Eagle - Wasgamuwa National Park, Sri Lanka
Changeable Hawk Eagle

The plan was for a late afternoon drive to an area known as the Elephant corridor in the hope of seeing some Elephants around sunset. No one told the Elephants though.

We had a leisurely start next day spending some time around the camp, which is run by the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society. There was some birdlife in the grounds to keep us occupied between breakfast and lunch, Kingfishers, Bulbuls, Munias and Weavers, before a visit to the Wasgamuwa National Park in the afternoon.

Soon after arrival in the park we encountered our first Elephants and immediately started comparisons with the African Elephants we are so familiar with from our safaris. Most striking were the smaller ears, a general lack of tusks and a slightly different head shape. We spent some time with them until they moved into an area where we couldn’t get a clear view at which point we moved on.

The rest of the afternoon was spent on birds, namely Bee-eaters, a Crested Serpent Eagle, an Indian Robin, Oriental Skylark, Indian Rollers and Brown Shrike. As the sun was starting to set, we found the Elephant herd again and were rewarded with some backlit shots, interspersed with the sighting of a Changeable Hawk Eagle.

Next day we were out early paying another visit to the Elephant corridor. Again, the Elephants were missing, but there was some birdlife and a chance to do some arty shots involving a mist-covered lake. Bird of prey interest this time was provided by a Grey-headed Fish Eagle. We also had Rose-ringed Parakeets, Spotted Doves, Kingfisher and Little Cormorant.

We headed back for breakfast and spent some time in the gardens, as we couldn’t access the national park until the afternoon. It was around a ten to fifteen minute drive to the park and then the same sort of time signing in and being assigned a ranger. We were quite lucky that we got a good ranger and he stayed with us for the whole trip.

Green Bee-eater - Wasgamuwa National Park, Sri Lanka
Green Bee-eater

It was no surprise to find the first sighting of the afternoon involved Bee-eaters. Mainly we saw the Green and the Blue-tailed species. Along with the Elephants, they were the most common sightings and gave us some beautiful images.

Moving further into the park, we next arrived at a swampy area and had quite a lot to see. First up was a Painted Stork followed by an Oriental Darter and then slightly further along on a fallen tree, a Crocodile sunning itself with its jaws wide open. Somehow it was managing to look both intimidating and docile at the same time. A Pond Heron was next and as we were parked up, we noticed straight ahead of us was a Bee-eater on a solitary branch.

Spotted Doves are quite common in the park and rather attractive. A pair of them were next up, followed closely by more Bee-eaters and then more Spotted Doves. Variety was reintroduced when we chanced upon a Greater Coucal, although it was not well positioned to be photographed. After that we had an Oriental Skylark beautifully positioned on a single branch with a clear complimentary background.

Oriental Skylark - Wasgamuwa National Park, Sri Lanka
Oriental Skylark

By now, it was time for some more Elephants and right on cue we encountered a large herd, which contained some very young ones. In fact it was this sighting that produced one of the shots of the whole trip with one of the babies suckling its mother. A memorable end to our second full day in Sri Lanka.

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