Ohiya and the Horton Plains

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November 28th 2016
Published: November 29th 2016
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Purple-faced langur (Trachypithecus vetulus)Purple-faced langur (Trachypithecus vetulus)Purple-faced langur (Trachypithecus vetulus)

the montane race, also known as the bear monkey for its thick fur.
When I was at the Popham Arboretum there was a friend of Jayantha's also staying there for a couple of days. He lives in a village called Katugastota which is the one right before Kandy (which as noted previously is three hours from Dambulla, where the Arboretum is). I ended up staying at his house in Katugastota for the next two nights before catching the train from Kandy to a little mountain village called Ohiya.

My original plans for the Central Highlands had involved only the town of Nuwara Eliya. Everyone goes there to go to the Horton Plains National Park. The park itself is quite expensive to enter and to get to from Nuwara Eliya (because of tourist prices), but there are a couple of botanic gardens in/near the town where you can see all the endemic highland birds as well as the montane purple-faced langurs (the bear monkeys). But when I was at Wilpattu House, Sereno had told me that Nuwara Eliya isn't some nice Bukit Fraser-ish village but a really big town, not my scene at all, and I would be better off going to Ohiya which is surrounded by mountain forest and where I can just
Purple-faced langur (Trachypithecus vetulus)Purple-faced langur (Trachypithecus vetulus)Purple-faced langur (Trachypithecus vetulus)

the montane race, also known as the bear monkey for its thick fur.
walk everywhere for free without having to pay to get to places. Ohiya is also, as it happens, the second entrance way to the National Park, on the opposite side to the Nuwara Eliya entrance, but not many people use it so the entry road is quite free of traffic. This all sounded promising, and more so when I was told by the German girl at my homestay in Sigiriya that Nuwara Eliya is not a place for cheap accommodation (and she even said she had thought it would be like the hill stations in Malaysia, and in reality it's just a big town). So I figured I would go to Ohiya and if it was good for birds stay there for a few days, otherwise move onwards and if need be make my way to Nuwara Eliya because at least there I knew where the bird sites were.

Sereno had given me four hotel names and phone numbers, so while in Katugastota I rang them all to get costs. The first one was the Hill Safari Eco Lodge where their cheapest single room was 4000 LKR (about NZ$40). Next was the Acacia Inn where the chap who answered
Purple-faced langur (Trachypithecus vetulus)Purple-faced langur (Trachypithecus vetulus)Purple-faced langur (Trachypithecus vetulus)

the montane race, also known as the bear monkey for its thick fur.
the phone didn't speak English and told me I had the wrong number. Third was the Forest Inn where the number didn't work. Fourth was Horton Place where, as far as I understood over a bad line and bad accents, they had a room for 2500, and it was right near the train station. Still not cheap but if I was able to just be out birding all day then the room and food would be the only costs.

The train ride from Kandy to the highlands is one of those things that every tourist does. Most of them are going to Ella which is about an hour further on from Ohiya. Whenever I said to someone that I was going to Ohiya from Kandy they would say "you mean Ella". I would say, "no, Ohiya". And they would say, "no, Ella. E. L. L. A. That has all the tourist things in it". I did pass through Ella at a later stge, and I'm glad I didn't go there. It just looked like your standard tourist hang-out, with every streetside cafe filled with backpackers. Also it's about 700 metres lower in altitude than Ohiya so no good for my purposes.

Trains in Sri Lanka are really cheap, only 210 LKR from Kandy to Ohiya. I never got round to talking about the intricacies of train travel in India because I left that country prematurely without having taken any (I will probably come back to the subject when I return to India), but unlike the Indian rail system that of Sri Lanka is as simple as can be. I had gone to the Kandy station the day before to get a ticket and check the schedule but they don't pre-sell second-class tickets, only first-class, so I just had to buy it on the day. First-class has reserved seating and costs about 600 LKR. A second-class ticket is cheaper but does not guarantee a seat - if you are first on you get a seat, otherwise you stand. It's not as bad as it sounds, even when it is five hours to Ohiya. The train is pretty full of locals when it arrives in Kandy (coming from Colombo) but it empties out along the way so it doesn't take too long before you can sit down. Although most of the people on the train when it arrived in Kandy were locals, almost all the passengers getting on at Kandy were tourists. The ratio of tourist to local waiting on the platform was something like twenty to one.

I arrived at the Ohiya station at 1.45pm and was met by a young chap named Umesh. There's not much at the station, just a few lonely buildings on the opposite side of the tracks. I had booked on the phone to stay at Horton Place (or so I thought) but Umesh took me in his tuktuk along a winding road to the three-cabin Angel Inn. This confused me to start with - I thought perhaps Horton Place had changed its name to Angel Inn - but it turned out that Horton Place (which in fact is right next to the shop opposite the station) was fully-booked already for that night. I went back up to the shop for lunch and talked to the owner's wife Kumudu. While Horton Place was 2000 per night, including breakfast and dinner, the Angel Inn cabins were 3500 per night and only included breakfast. This didn't sit so well with me but there wasn't much I could do given the limited accommodation options there, and I was told I could move to Horton Place for the next night. A while late the owner Gamini turned up and said I could have the cabin for 2500, including breakfast and dinner, because that was what he had told me on the phone.

They are really nice people, but everything is run in such a disorganised manner. It sort of seemed like they take a booking, then book someone else in for the same room, and then just shuffle people round to make everything fit. They said I could just stay in the cabin for the next few nights, because it was nice being isolated in the forest (albeit eucalyptus forest with no animals in it), but then the next morning said all three cabins had been booked, so I had to move to Horton Place anyway. It was a bit cheaper, so I didn't mind, but it was difficult knowing from one minute to the next what was going to be happening there. Nevertheless I would definitely recommend staying there if at Ohiya, because it has the best location and prices. Just don't expect anything to be on time or to make sense.

So my first day in Ohiya I spent most of the afternoon at the shop not getting far with anything. At the end of the day I had a wander in the forest around the cabins but it was entirely eucalyptus and of course nothing in Sri Lanka can live in eucalyptus forest. Along the fence by the cabins was a yellow-flowered plant and while I was idly watching this in case a sunbird or something got lost and appeared here, a beautiful orange-breasted bird suddenly popped out and perched on a log. It was a male Kashmir flycatcher. This is quite a special little bird. It breeds only in a small area of Kashmir in the northwest Himalayas and winters only in Sri Lanka and the Western Ghats. You have limited opportunities to see it, and most birders do so at Victoria Park in Nuwara Eliya. At least I would have seen one good bird at Ohiya, even if otherwise things didn't work out. The next morning while having breakfast, the Kashmir flycatcher returned and brought with him another new bird, a yellow-eared bulbul. Yellowy-olive with a black and white head, and with a bright yellow tuft like it has put a flower behind its ear. This was one of the endemic highland birds I was here to find. Endemic bird number eight on day number eleven - I was running a bit behind.

The road from Ohiya up to the Horton Plains National Park is literally right beside the train station. Everyone told me it was 11km to the entrance, except one person who told me it was 6km; the sign at the start of the road also says 6km. I think it might be somewhere in the middle. There are numbered marker stones every kilometre - the station is just before km22 and the park ticket counter just after km29 (I think the stones start at the town of Wellimada in the opposite direction: the Angel Inn is at km21). I don't know how accurate the kilometre markers are - the lower ones seem right but the higher ones seem too close to be a kilometre apart.

It probably sounds a bit weird but I wasn't actually going to go into the national park itself. The entry is over 3000 LKR for a foreigner and I was hoping that all the animals I was looking for would be outside the gates along the access road. It would depend entirely on if there was good forest along the road, but if so it would save me quite a bit of money.

Although the road is going upwards the whole way (Ohiya is at 1774m and the Horton Plains at 2130m) the gradient is mostly gentle. It really is an easy walk. If you're not up to walking the distance a tuktuk to the top costs 500 LKR, but that would defeat the purpose of walking along the road looking for wildlife. The first two or three kilometres of the road were useless - it was all forest but exclusively of eucalyptus trees except in a few gullies where the natives remained. It was completely silent, not a single bird calling. At about 2.5km you pass a side road to the Hill Safari Eco Lodge which is on a tea plantation. The lodge is 4km from the station, and the sign at this fork says it is a further 1.5km, hence my "about 2.5km". There's no point walking down the side road if looking for wildlife because it is just eucalyptus and scrub - but about a kilometre along it are some monstrously tall eucalyptus which are well-worth seeing. I've seen the tallest tree in New Zealand which is a mountain ash (a type of eucalyptus), and these seemed much taller. After passing the fork (if remaining on the main road) new trees get mixed in amongst the eucalyptus for about the next 2km, namely conifers and big old tea trees. Tea plantations look like hillsides covered in bright green topiary, all the bushes kept at about waist-height by the constant plucking of young leaves from the top, but if tea is just left to grow it is a proper forest tree and looks quite different.

There weren't any birds in this mixed eucalyptus-conifer forest either, but there were purple-faced langurs. The montane race is popularly called the "bear monkey", a name I quite like and will keep using. The bear monkeys look very different to the lowland dry-zone langurs I had seen a few days before at Sigiriya. Living in colder conditions they have long shaggy fur, hence the popular name. They proved abundant along the road - on this first day I saw six groups. Most of the "groups" were only one to three animals, but the final group of the day had about ten in it. This last group was actually right down the bottom of the road, only about fifty metres from the train station. On the second day I saw even more, with nine sightings (although several were probably repeats as I and the monkeys moved up and down the road). However the second group that day had about twenty animals in it. The call of the bear monkeys sounds sort of like a gibbon. It starts with a bark, followed by a loud whooping. I heard it commonly both days I was along the road.

At about the 4km mark there are a couple of "forest rest houses", which are little wood-and-mud houses built for walkers to take a break in. They are more than a little neglected now, almost ruins in fact. Directly after these rest houses there is an abrupt change from the mixed exotic forest with its bare ground, to pure native forest with an understory of low bamboo. There is literally a straight line between the two forest types. Just as abrupt is the change from the dead-silence of the exotic forest to there suddenly being bird-song everywhere.

The first native animal I saw after crossing this threshhold wasn't a bird, although there were a lot of unseen birds making a racket in the vicinity. It was a dusky squirrel. There are three small squirrel species in Sri Lanka (by which I mean "small squirrels" as opposed to the giant squirrel and the flying squirrels). All three are palm squirrels in the genus Funambulus. The commonest is the three-striped palm squirrel which is found everywhere. The other two species also have three stripes on their backs but the flame-backed squirrel of the rainforests has the central stripe bright orange, while the dusky squirrel of the highlands can be distinguished by its very dark colouration. The dusky squirrels are tiny things, much smaller than the three-striped palm squirrel, and they dart about on the trunks and branches like rockets. I saw three of them on the first day - the first one poorly, the second one better, and the third one very well indeed (and then the first one at the 26km marker post I saw again on the way back down) - but they were so fast and liked to remain in the gloom of the forest that I couldn't get any photos. On the second day I saw four of the squirrels and actually managed to get photos of three of them, although most of the photos weren't exactly spectacular.

The native forest stretch goes for probably three kilometres before you reach the ticket building for the national park. There were birds everywhere along this stretch of the road, including three more of the highland endemics: the Sri Lankan white-eye, the Sri Lankan scimitar-babbler, and the dull-blue flycatcher which is more slate-coloured than dull-blue although when in the sun the crown shines like turquoise. With those three additions my endemics total reached eleven endemics on day eleven. I had caught up. I also saw a Sri Lankan junglefowl, probably the most widespread endemic bird, which I had so far seen at every site I'd been to (Wilpattu, then Sigiriya, then the Popham Arboretum, then here). The very best section was the first 200 metres, where I saw almost all the species at some point, as well as dusky and giant squirrels. The montane race of the giant squirrel looks totally different to the dry-zone race.

When I was at Wilpattu Sereno had told me that from Ohiya you can walk up the road to the entrance gate of the park, then there was a 2km track through the park which you didn't need to pay for because it just joined to another road and you can follow that down to Pattipola (the train station/village before Ohiya). The whole walk would be about 20km, and apparently through forest the entire way. I expressed doubt that they would let a foreigner use that track for free, but he assured me it was free because it lead between the two villages. When I got to the ticket counter I explained to the guy there that I wasn't going to World's End (the reason tourists visit the park) and I had been told there was a path to Pattipola. Yes, he agreed, I could take the path to Pattipola - it would cost me 3600 LKR. Hmm. No chance. I turned around and went back the way I had come. It was fine, the birds I was looking for were along this road; I just spent the rest of the day walking up and down the same 3km stretch.

There were three more endemic birds from the central highlands which I wanted to find. Top of the three was the Sri Lankan woodpigeon, a bird I definitely wanted to see. The other two were the Sri Lankan bush-warbler which prefers to never come out from the undergrowth, and the Sri Lankan whistling thrush. I repeated what I did yesterday - walk up to the native forest and then just cover the same 3km stretch of road looking for birds. Immediately on reaching the native forest I encountered a bird-wave with three of the endemics from yesterday (white-eye, bulbul and flycatcher - I didn't see any scimitar-babblers today although I saw lots the previous day), as well as green warblers, great tits, common tailorbirds, grey-headed canary-flycatchers, dark-fronted babblers, and velvet-fronted nuthatches. The dusky squirrel was in there as well following the birds around (they seem to be regulars in the bird-waves).

The rest of the morning and early afternoon was much the same. The highland endemics which I had already seen were all very common here and seen repeatedly. The other birds were the same as yesterday. I had become resigned to not seeing the three extra birds I was looking for. Then, while watching a mixed flock of canary-flycatchers and white-eyes, a movement near the base of the tree caught my eye and I found myself looking straight at a Sri Lankan bush-warbler. They are actually common enough, just extremely skulky. I don't know how many birders see them without using tapes to lure them out. This one was fairly visible as it moved along the edge of the road, and then it went down the slope and disappeared. That was neat, but what I really wanted to see was a Sri Lankan woodpigeon.

Two bends further down the road, I saw a couple of Indian blackbirds in a fig tree, looking like English blackbirds but with bright red legs and eye-rings, and a deep orange bill. There were some bear monkeys nearby. The blackbirds had left the tree but something else was moving in there. I put the binoculars on it and was stunned to see a pair of Sri Lankan woodpigeons, just hanging out on a branch. They weren't doing much, just preening and being generally lazy, but I watched them for ages. I tried to get some photos but they were too far inside the tree for that. After a while I moved on, and at the very next bend I looked down at the little stream which ran through the forest below and saw another woodpigeon down there drinking. That one I could get some better photos of because it was in the open, although quite far below me.

Before leaving the native forest and heading back to Ohiya I had a little walk down a dirt track which leads off the paved road to the tea plantations. This was more on impulse than anything, but it was a good idea because I saw another bush-warbler and also a dusky squirrel (in another bird-wave) of which I finally got a decent photo.

So a good result for the two days at Ohiya. The only highland endemic I missed out on was the Sri Lankan whistling thrush so I'll be at least one endemic short by the end of the trip. I also didn't see any toque macaques which was a shame. Like the bear monkeys the highland race of toques has long thick fur, and I would liked to have seen those.

The next morning I caught a series of buses to end up in Tissamaharama (aka Tissa for short) which is the town for Yala National Park.


29th November 2016

You really have to do Nuwara Eliya if you dont see the Pied Thrush anywhere else. Such a classic bird and very hard on its breeding grounds. It is best seen to the right of the main bridge in Victoria Park at crack of dawn. Also Kashmir FC was in the park..........I was there just 2 weeks back.

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