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Horton Plains - the beauty of the cloud forest

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

The central highlands of Sri Lanka is a remarkable place of beauty and different ecosystems. In my opinion, the crown jewel of the central highlands is the plateau that is surrounded by some of the highest peaks of the country - Horton Plains National Park. #hortonplains

Image 1: View of 'Piduruthalagala'mountain range in the distance on your way to the summit of 'Kirigalpoththa'.

At the roof of Sri Lanka, this plateau, also known as Maha Eliya Plains (මහ එළිය තැන්න), plays a very important role both ecologically as well as environmentally. At an altitude of 2,100 meters above sea level, Horton Plains spreads across over 3,169 hectares of the highest tableland of the island. Its unique position and landscape in the shadow of the 2nd and 3rd highest peaks of Sri Lanka, Kirigalpotta (2395m) and Totapolakanda (2357m) respectively, make it a unique location not only in Sri Lanka but in the world. This uniqueness and a large number of endemic flora and fauna that can be found here led to Horton Plains being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Image 2: View of the cloud cover below the plateau.

For anyone serious about Sri Lankan birds, Horton Plains is a 'must go' location. With many species not only endemic to Sri Lanka but easily accessible only at Horton Plains, this beautiful cloud forest with its patchy wild grasslands, rocky outcrops, marshy lands, and misty ponds is one of my favourite National Parks in the country.

Image 3: Baker's Falls inside the park.

In my opinion, the best option for bird watching is to go off the beaten path to 'Worlds end' and take the rugged foot trail to 'Kirigalpoththa' mountain peak. It's a 6km trek through the patchy cloud forest and grasslands. The last 2km is tough as it ascents to the summit. However, if you have the strength, it's definitely a worthwhile trip. Best is to travel in a group as the trail is barely visible in certain places. Only a small fraction of the people take up this trail. On the day I took this trail, it was a long weekend and Horton Plains had lots of visitors. But only one other group took the Kirigalpoththa trail that meant I was virtually undisturbed.

Image 4: View from the summit of Kirigalpoththa is breathtaking. My clumsy attempt at a panorama does not do any justice to its beauty.

The most adored picture of a bird I have taken thus far is at Horton Plains. A Yellow-eared bulbul, this beauty is an endemic resident breeder in the highlands of Sri Lanka. Classified as 'Near Threatened', this iconic bird epitomizes the rugged beauty of Horton Plains.

The unique high-altitude forest and plains are home to many different bird species and a number of them are endemic to Sri Lanka. Out of the 32 endemic bird species of Sri Lanka, it's claimed that around 20 can be seen at Horton Plains. I have so far come across the following endemic species at Horton Plains.

Out of the lot, photographing the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler was a real treat. They are very shy and spend most of the time jumping around the bushes inside the dark undergrowth of the cloud forest. Thus, taking a decent picture was an exercise in patients and anticipation. I'm yet to come across the famous Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush who is another rarity that calls Horton Plains home.

There are many other bird species who can be seen at Horton Plains. My captures include:

One of the most amazing encounters took place at the summit of Kirigalpoththa. As I was sitting down at the peak, resting after the tough climb, I heard a sound as if a plane flew by really fast. It was a quick 'whoosh'... sound. It was a Shaheen Falcon. It set down at the edge of a cliff after a few flybys. I assume there must be a nest somewhere in the peak. What a great experience to see one of the fastest flyers up close.

In addition to birds, Horton Plains is a paradise for mammals, insects, and reptiles.

Early in the morning as I was entering the park, I came across a rare and near-threatened Sri Lankan subspecies of the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra nair). I have never seen one this up-close ever. However, taking a decent video with my telephoto lens was a tough task. Hence the low-quality video.

Overall, a trip to Horton Plains National Park is an amazing experience. The cloud forest, rolling hills, occasional clouds that roll in like a thick fog, twisted trees, crystal clear waterways, the amazing views from the peaks, sheer cliffs that plunge more than 1200 meters and the amazing biodiversity makes it one of the most rewarding treks to take in Sri Lanka.

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