It has been recorded that humans have been migrating to Sri Lanka since prehistoric times. The many mass migrations of the past two and a half millennia have sculpted the landscape of the country culturally, linguistically, as well as religiously. If you haven’t figured it out already, this article is not about humans, but about a sort of migration that has been happening for much longer than humans have been around. Hundreds of species of birds have been flocking to Sri Lanka in large numbers for its warmth, the abundance of food, and the generally dry weather during the winter months.

Have you ever wondered where birds fly when they fly south for the winter? Well, Sri Lanka is one such destination. As a tropical country – located very close to the equator – Sri Lanka’s climate is warm year-round, and its lush evergreen jungles, its wetlands, and its warm, nutrient-filled oceans are just the holiday that weary birds need during the cold months.

Some quick stats:

  • A total of 103 migrant bird species have been recorded in Sri Lanka.
  • The total number of bird species in the country is approximately 492.
  • There are 26 species of bird endemic to Sri Lanka
  • Approximately 50 species of migrant birds can be seen every year
  • The other species are nomadic, meaning that they might not visit every year, or visit rarely
  • Only one species is known to migrate to Sri Lanka in the Summer – the Pink Tern

Migrant birds generally do not breed in Sri Lanka, as it is difficult or even impossible for chicks to develop their flight feathers during the short period they spend on the island. Most birds generally go through a moulting process, where their worn-out feathers get replaced by another set. This process leaves birds vulnerable and requires a lot of energy and therefore a lot of food. This last requirement is found in abundance in Sri Lanka.

Among the types of birds that Sri Lanka welcomes every year are water birds such as egrets and storks, raptors such as eagles and kites, and smaller birds such as orioles, fly catchers, and kingfishers.

Sri Lanka’s many national parks are havens for migrant birds of all varieties and sizes. The Udawalawe National Park, known predominantly for its population of elephants, comes alive during the migrant season. Other National Parks such as Kaudulla, Bundala, Yala, Minneriya, and Gal Oya are also among the favoured destinations for these temporary visitors.

The months of October and November, and on occasion December are known to bring plenty of rain to Sri Lanka’s national parks. This raises the water table in most national parks, and large areas become accessible to wading water birds such as Painted Storks, Open Bill Storks, Common Sand Pipers, and Indian Pitta. The abundance of fish, amphibians such as frogs and toads, and crustaceans such as crabs is one of the main reasons why Sri Lanka’s national parks are such a hit with these migrating water birds.

Water birds are great to look at, and are fascinating on their own, but nothing gets the adrenaline pumping like seeing a raptor – a bird of prey. Many different species of raptor come to Sri Lanka during the migratory period, and feast on fish, small mammals, serpents, and other small critters. Among the more common sights at Udawalawe National Park are the Crested Hawk Eagle, distinguishable by its crest of four feathers that gives it a majestic look; the Crested Serpent Eagle, so named as their diet consists of serpents; the Brahminy Kite, with its easily distinguishable appearance; the White-bellied Sea Eagle (also known as the White-bellied Fish Eagle or the White-bellied Tank Eagle), with its grey-white plumage; the Grey-Headed Fish Eagle, with its large, stocky body and large talons; the Black-wing Kite, with its distinctive appearance, including its red irises. Honey Buzzards and Shikra are among the other raptors that can be seen in and around Sri Lanka’s National Parks.

Although it is not common for migratory birds to nest in Sri Lanka, there are some exceptions. For example, a nest of a White-bellied Sea Eagle was spotted in the Udawalawe National Park, indicating that these eagles were in fact breeding there.

In Sri Lanka, you don’t have to go to a national park to see migratory birds. Suburban and rural Sri Lanka is alive with these birds during the season, and spectacular birds such as Paradise Fly Catchers can be seen even closer to Colombo, the commercial capital of the country. Kingfishers are a common sight in urban areas, as they can feast on a multitude of small creatures such as geckos and small lizards to complement their diet of fish. Black-headed Orioles are a common sight in most parts of Sri Lanka during the season as well.

Nature is a wonderful teacher. It teaches us that if resources are abundant, we can share it with the rest of the world. On the other hand, if your resources are scarce, there might be someone willing to share their resources with you. Sri Lanka’s natural abundance paves way to an amazing range of colourful and fascinating visitors from lands far away. Birds come here every winter. Why not make next winter your season to spend in this fascinating little island in the sun?

Naturalist: Puwathara Jayawardena

Written by: Nirmal Kirtisinghe