Bill Oddie's most excellent adventure in Sri Lanka

On assignment for BBC Wildlife Magazine, Bill Oddie gives blood to the rainforest, meets some familiar feathered friends, experiences the ‘Rainforest Rainbow’ and has four game drives in which to find a leopard…

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Bill Oddie's adventure in Sri Lanka article spread

 

We tried again the next day, which was an official national holiday and brought hordes of people into the park. Even when we had retreated to a remote hinterland, we turned a corner to find the road blocked by more badly parked 4x4s than the morning school run in Hampstead.
 
After a conversation with the people in another jeep, we decided that we wouldn’t wait an hour or two – as they had – staring at some bushes behind which a leopard may or may not have left the remains of a kill that it may or may not have made a couple of days ago, and to which it may or may not come back.
 
Even if it did return, it would be hidden behind the bushes, so we wouldn’t see it. With this in mind, we decided to try elsewhere. But by now it was sunset and we had to leave.

Reflections on the day
 
The day hadn’t been a total blank. We had seen a porcupine under a rock that had left sufficient quills poking out to constitute a decent sighting.
 
And there had been the changeable hawk-eagle that gave us a demonstration of unsuccessful snake-catching and the excuse to discuss what was ‘changeable’ about it. Does it change colour or turn into something else?
 
I was just explaining that what it really means is that not all individuals have the same plumage, and was about to point out that many raptors have different colour ‘morphs’, when our guide told me to shut up with just a jerk of his hand.
 
He pointed, we looked and there it was, only a few metres from the road, sauntering down a path. Talk about mixed feelings. Yes, it was a leopard, lithe, muscular and spotty, but I wouldn’t mind seeing its head.
 
We willed it to stay and be admired and, though it was too dark for photography, with perfect timing it stopped, turned, glared and vanished. Beat that, Sinharaja.
 
Fresh blood
 
Back in the rainforest, we were ready to face the challenge of how many Sri Lankan endemics we could spot in a day – at least I was, once I’d got my ‘leech-gators’ on. But leeches are devious.
 
We had barely been in the forest for half an hour when the shoulder of my shirt began to change from khaki to pink. I reached under my collar and flicked off what felt like a sliver of wet chewing gum. An hour later, another scarlet patch appeared, this one rather more unnervingly about 10cm below my belt.
 
During a Kit Kat break, I rolled down one leg of my leech-gators to investigate. The crimson tide in my trousers was the work of two leeches.
 
One had clearly been there a while, the other a few minutes, and the pair neatly demonstrated how what starts off looking like a snippet of shoelace turns into a big, fat blob of plum jelly. A little gruesome, yes, but fascinating.
 
The way one was pulsing and stretching was hypnotic, and it was transforming from thin to fat before my eyes. Now that’s ‘changeable’.
 
Catch the bird wave
 
As I walked the forest trails, blooded but not bowed, we ran into some of the most gorgeous insects I have ever seen – huge luminous butterflies called blue mormons, and others with stained-glass-window wings and names such as ‘painted sawtooth’.
 
Then it happened. The guide cupped his ears and murmured, “Bird wave.” With no louder fanfare than a few ‘tsips’, ‘chips’ and ‘tchucks’, we were in a cascade of birds.
 
Different shapes, different colours and too many species to count. I just kept looking, checking out every flit and flutter, and committing it all to memory. After 10 minutes, the forest fell silent, except for my breathing, now audible with excitement, and the guide’s softly satisfied voice. “That was a Sinharaja bird wave – we call it the Rainforest Rainbow.”
 
Serendib serendipity
 
I saw 20 endemics that day, the most memorable being the Serendib scops owl. Our guide led us into the understory, where we had to crawl, doubled-up, to avoid being whacked in the face by branches, and then through and over streams, one of which I duly fell in.
 
Finally, he stopped and pointed, and there, barely a couple of metres away, was the owl: a tiny bird blinking at us with huge round eyes. Even in the murk of the forest, they glowed. I glowed back.
 
“Did you enjoy the wildlife?” our host asked that evening. “Very much,“ I replied. “Including the leeches?“ I smiled and shrugged. “Bill, look at it this way – today you gave your blood to the forest.” All I could do was look up at the trees and mutter, “You’re welcome.”
 
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