Malabar Hill is a boutique hotel in the south of Sri Lanka, a little inland from Weligama Bay, known to surfers and whale watchers. It sits atop a hill with a view on one side of the Indian Ocean a few kilometers away, welling up into Weligama Bay. On the other side, there are views of rice paddies. The sloping, hillside grounds of the property are an abandoned cinnamon plantation that is being claimed by the wild through a natural process of wind-borne and animal-carried native shrubs and trees. The conversion to secondary forest is being accelerated by the management team actively planting native rainforest species. The climate in the area is hot and humid. But atop the hill, the paths linking the restaurant and pool area to the chalets are shaded and cool as a result of old trees with large canopies casting shade under the tropical sun. A journey of a kilometer or so from the tree-covered summit to the tree-cover-denuded paddy areas is a stark reminder of the cooling effects of tree cover.

The chalets are designed such that the entire front section is a panel of sliding and folding glass doors. It is pretty spectacular to draw open the curtains and/or panels and look down at the view. Also in the front is a balcony with a plunge pool. On one occasion, I sat with my feet in the plunge pool and watched a pair of endemic Sri Lankan green pigeons. Typically, watching endemic birds in a tropical country involves walking in a warm, humid rainforest and thwarting the efforts of leeches who attempt to clamber on to your feet. To birdwatch like this, part immersed in a plunge pool with a cup of freshly brewed coffee by your side, is almost surreal.

For birdwatchers, Sri Lanka is like one giant nature reserve. It is possible to stop almost anywhere at random (outside of a built area) and be treated to the type of birdwatching spectacle that, in many parts of Europe, would only be possible in a managed nature reserve. For wetland birds, a visitor to Malabar Hill can walk down (or be taken down in an electric buggy) to the paddy fields. Little, intermediate, cattle, and large egrets, black-headed ibis, purple herons, white-breasted waterhens, grey-headed Swamphen, and lesser whipling ducks are amongst the commoner waterbirds which can be seen easily. Within an hour’s drive-time radius are several lowland rainforest reserves, which are managed by the Forest Department. They provide the opportunity to see or hear several endemic birds such as the white-throated (or Legge’s) flowerpecker, Sri Lanka myna, spot-winged thrush, emerald-collared (or Layard’s) parakeet, etc. Other forest birds, such as Black Bulbul, are also best seen in these forest patches or village garden habitats adjoining forests. The rainforests are also interesting places to visit just to see what a lowland tropical rainforest looks like. The dipterocarp dominated rainforests in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia are the tallest types of rainforests.

I did visit both the paddy fields and the nearby Badulukelaya Forest Reserve on a visit in January. But I also spent some time birdwatching in the wooded walkway between the chalets and the restaurant. This is a small area, only a few hundred meters in length, but nevertheless rich in birdlife. One morning I stepped out at daybreak to the calls of two endemic birds, the Brown-capped Babbler and the Sri Lanka Small Barbet. Atop some Alstonia trees, I found another endemic, the Sri Lanka green pigeon. On the same tree, it was keeping company with the stunning orange-breasted green pigeon, allowing for a good comparison between the two species. The males are easily told apart by the Sri Lanka green pigeon having a purple mantle and the male of the latter having an orange breast. I kept a lookout for birds on the wing and, as expected, also saw the endemic Sri Lanka Swallow, with its red underparts and bluish upperparts.

Visiting the fruiting trees was another spectacular endemic, the Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill. It has a strident call that betrays its presence. But although it is a large bird, it can sometimes go unnoticed. A pair seemed quite habituated and would periodically visit the trees beside the restaurant. An endemic Lesser Sri Lanka Flameback called, a striking woodpecker with a red back. The male has a red crown, black in the female. A silk cotton tree was in flower, with its luscious red flowers being a good source of nectar. There was a steady procession of the diminutive and endemic Sri Lanka hanging parrot. I spent some time admiring them—little green birds with a red rump and a red crown. Like all parrots, they are very agile in the canopy. That brought the total endemics that regularly are seen atop the hill to eight species, not a bad proportion of the country’s 33 or 34 endemic bird species (the exact number depends on the authority).

For people who are not on a dedicated birding tour to maximise endemics but are looking for a luxury holiday with a good mix of birds included, this is a good place. I would not make out that Malabar Hill is a birding site in itself. Well, not now anyway, but who knows what the future holds? The slow and gradual rainforest restoration which is taking place could dramatically transform the site as a refuge for birds and other tropical wildlife. If hundreds of privately owned properties also undertook rainforest rehabilitation in this way in the country’s wet lowlands, it may provide a chain of stepping stones for the more mobile of the country’s endemic wildlife to spread out and be more resilient to deforestation and climate impacts. Also, it will be amazing for those enjoying a break in a hotel or lodge of whatever pricing level to be able to enjoy the country’s biodiversity as a result of habitat enhancement in this way.

Continuing my walk, towards the common area where the restaurant and swimming pool are, I encountered many of the common garden birds. A flock of yellow-billed babblers with their piercing blue eyes. Dainty and colourful purple-rumped sunbirds visit the red Hibiscus flowers for nectar. An Oriental Magpie-robin, one of the finest singers in the country, was singing. Its song makes up for the lack of colour as the name suggests, it is a two-tone bird, black and white. Also on the grounds, I have seen its close relative, the Black Robin, which in recent years has become more widespread in the wet zone. A few decades ago, it was largely a bird of the dry zone, and its austere and mournful song was very much a part of the dry zone acoustic signature. I kept a sharp eye out for movements or calls in the shaded mid-layer of the trees around me.

I picked out some of the woodland birds: the small minivet, white-browed Bulbul, black-headed oriole, common drongo, common Iora, and Asian Paradise Flycatcher. The male of the last is a spectacular bird with a long tail. In the resident race, males are red, and in the migratory Indian race, the males turn white over a period of three to four years. Other migrants were present, including brown shrikes and brown flycatchers. Hawking in the air was the beautiful migrant, the blue-tailed bee-eater. They were not the only birds using the airspace. I had glimpses of birds of prey, including the shikra and the serpent eagle. But the most exciting was when I was seated in the restaurant, enjoying a glass of fruit juice. A rufous-bellied hawk-eagle flew past. I have only seen it around forested hills, and it was a highlight on this visit. On previous visits, I have also had the magnificent White-bellied Sea Eagle cruise past the restaurant whilst I was breakfasting.

One of the most charming birds I observed from the restaurant was a white-browed fantail, a member of the fantail family found in Sri Lanka. Colonial planters called it the Drunken Piper. It is an apt name, as it has a melodious song. While singing, it also has the habit of swooping up and down in seemingly random fashion, as if it were intoxicated. I also spent some time watching and listening to an Oriental White-Eye song. Looking towards the sea, on a little cluster of trees, I noticed a small troop of the endemic purple-faced leaf monkey.

That evening, I joined Sanjiva Gautamadasa, the general manager of the property, and his engineer, Ruwan Batagalla, for sundowners on the restaurant terrace. We resumed a discussion on how Malabar Hill can provide a research platform for local university academics or those in conservation NGOs to study wildlife. Installing camera traps and performing regular surveys of fauna and flora was one of the topics we discussed, as no special permissions are needed to perform these on a privately owned property. I also picked up on an idea I had sounded out earlier with Sanjiva Gautamadasa and Dominic Scriven about creating a special visa that would allow volunteers and interns from overseas to undertake unpaid work in Sri Lanka with local partners so that Sri Lanka would gain access to international expertise and networks in a mutually beneficial arrangement. It also creates revenues from new types of tourism. Malabar Hill is one of tens of hotel properties in Sri Lanka that could work with local academics and conservation NGOs, together with local and foreign volunteers and interns, to undertake field studies that benefit a wide range of stakeholders in different ways.

As the light faded away, an Indian nightjar flew past. Without too much effort, I had seen nearly 40 species of birds within a 400-meter radius of the restaurant. Sanjiva and Ruwan are very committed to rewilding the hill. It would be interesting to measure the results of rewilding through a properly organised survey being performed, say quarterly or biannually. There are a lot of exciting ways for the private sector and local conservationists and scientists to collaborate. The future can be promising because, despite the huge losses of forest cover, Sri Lanka is still an incredibly biodiverse place, and more and more private land owners are buying into the idea of rewilding their properties to provide a refuge for the country’s precious biodiversity.