Seeking the endemic frogs and reptiles of the Knuckles Mountain Range

Day 1

The day began at 6 a.m. with a journey from Colombo to Riverston. The team’s main goal this time was to photograph as many frogs, lizards, and other tetrapod reptiles as possible. The Classic Wild team reaches the Riverston area midafternoon. On their way, heavy rain accompanied them through Rattotta to Riverston. They reached the hotel, where they were to spend two nights while the rain continued. The Riverston Grand Hotel is located in the heart of the montane forest. Trees covered with moss and a floor covered with ferns in the surrounding area of the hotel make up the brilliant scenery. After checking in to the hotel, members of the Classic Wild team prepared to explore the wilderness of the Riverston area. Because of the heavy population of leeches in the area, it is a must to wear leech socks if not, one will end up with blood flowing down their legs within minutes. The team began the exploration by visiting the hotel garden. The hotel maintains the vegetable farm for their meals. They continued their exploration down the newly discovered side road in the vegetable farm. While they kept turning the boulders and logs to see if snakes or skinks were hiding underneath them, suddenly they find a skink, and at that instant, the seasoned naturalists identified the breed of skink; Taylor’s tree skink, which is endemic to Sri Lanka. The genus of this skink itself is found only in Sri Lanka, hence, the find was quite significant.

Thereafter, the group headed down to another path following the sound of flowing water from a stream. While traversing the rugged terrain they came across two more endemic reptiles; a Leaf-nosed Lizard and a Sri Lankan bronze skink. The Leaf-nosed Lizard is an endemic tetrapod to the Knuckles Mountain region, which means they are found only in this location and not seen in any other location on the island or the globe.

Riverston is on the northern margin of the Knuckles Mountain region. Rain and a misty climate are common in the area due to the altitude. Because of the weather, the team had to wait until evening to leave the hotel.

After dark, the team began their night foray seeking the many endemic frogs found in this region. In general, most shrub frogs are active at night time, therefore, after dark is the best time to venture out.

The very first frog they found was not outside but on the frame of a window at the hotel. It was a Knuckles Shrub Frog calling on the window frame. Because of the luck of the team, an important natural phenomenon happened that night. Numerous winged ants were flying around the hotel grounds. Some of these ants that become wingless or had broken wings lay on the ground. Those ants are a delicious meal for frogs and lizards. With that blind luck, the team found two frogs feeding on the ants on the hotel grounds.

Both the Pug-snouted Frog and the Steiner’s Shrub Frog were feeding on those winged ants, partway through their meal when the team discovered them.

The naturalists ventured to the back section of the hotel where they found a frog species that the group could not identify using the current keys for amphibians in Sri Lanka.

Late at night, the team decided to go out of the hotel towards the Forest Department entry point, to see if there were any more frogs there. The rain poured down relentlessly but despite the harsh weather the team kept going on, seeking their rare finds.

Within a few minutes, they had sightings of both the Knuckles Shrub Frog and Steiner’s Shrub Frog, which are common in the area. Both species are generalists which means they are not dependent on special habitats or foods in the area. That caused them to become more common around the area.

Suddenly, one of the team members spotted a large frog waiting on the road. It was identified as a Bronzed Frog, which is another endemic amphibian to Sri Lanka. But the team was unable to take photographs of the frog because it was quite fast and shy, and would not stay in one place.

There was a small water stream near the main road, and the team saw a large frog waiting under the water at the edge of the water stream. One of the naturalists, Ashan, got closer to the frog to identify the individual. But it suddenly hopped to the underside of the stream and swam away. But he was lucky enough to see the characters, and it was a Dumbara Corrugated Frog another endemic unique to the region.

That species was recently discovered in the Knuckles region by herpetologists. The team did not care about the rain and kept searching for the animals, and suddenly, Rajiv Welikala, the Senior Manager of Classic Wild called out, “There is a green frog on the road.” The team quickly gathered and observed it. It was a lovely specimen of Stuart’s Shrub Frog. Usually, this endemic species mostly live on trees but this may be a coincidence. The team placed the frog on the tree branch because they observed many vehicles still driving up and down this road. The bright green colouration of this species provided some excellent photo opportunities. The team continued walking on the road after that, however, the rain came down much heavier than before. Then they decided to call it a day and end the nighttime foray.

Day 2

Within the tic-tac sounds of amphibians and numerous bird calls, the second day had started. Fine sunshine kissed Riverston Mountain in the morning, indicating that the team was being blessed by Mother Nature. The team spent their night at the green view suite, which is located on the second floor of the hotel. The team can easily see the scenery and surrounding nature at eye level due to the height of the room overlooking the tree line.

A Yellow-fronted Barbet and a Yellow-eared Bulbul were feeding on orange-coloured berries at the tree near the green suite, which was the first bird sighting of the day. Both are Sri Lankan endemics with stunning plumage that brightens the morning. The team spent a long time photographing the birds before deciding to go down and explore the surrounding area in search of more birds. Within a few minutes, they are blessed with a Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, a Pale-billed Flowerpecker, a Sri Lanka Myna, a Square-tailed Bulbul, and a Dark-fronted Babbler. A short bird call was heard all the time on the top of the canopy when they were searching for the birds, and our Senior Naturalist, Supurna Hettiarachchi, identified it as a Green Warbler. Within a few minutes, the team had a chance to witness a migratory bird, the Green Warbler, hopping and flying on top of the trees.

After breakfast, naturalist Ashan was looking around the hotel garden to see if there were any creatures they had not encountered before. After a while, a hotel staff pointed out a lizard on the top of a tree branch. It was Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard another new endemic having a sun bath.

Lizards are ectothermic animals, which means they use the outside environment to warm their bodies. Though it was high on the tree, they managed to take good photographs of the animal. While they were photographing the lizard, Ashan discovered two more lizards, one a large Leaf-nosed Lizard and the other another Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard. Ashan was surprised to see a snake sunbathing on a tree while looking for the lizards. It was a Striped Bronzeback Snake, which is a rather uncommon species to see in the wild. Bronzeback snakes are usually well aware of their surrounding environment, and their fast-moving ability helps them escape if anything unusual happens. Luckily because of the morning, the snake acts quite lazy preferring to sunbathe than slither away in the presence of us naturalists.

Afterwards, the team decided to go to Pitawala Pathana, which is a famous plain habitat near Riverston. Pitawala has two major tourist attractions in the Knuckles Range: Mini-World’s End and Pitawala Patana Plains. To reach the area, the team had to drive up Riverston Mountain and then descend to Pitawala. They had an amazing sighting of a montane variant of the endemic Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys while driving. After passing the forest area, the road was going through patches of Patana grassland and small forest patches. When driving through the forest patch, they encountered an autumn leaf butterfly. When this species is resting it resembles a dried leaf on the substrate, only if you are trained can your eyes identify this species of wildlife.

After travelling a long distance, the team arrives at the location which is a known habitat of the endemic and rare Kirtisinghe’s Rock Frog. Regarding the species, it is one of the most threatened amphibian species in Sri Lanka. Having destroyed its habitats, and lack of microhabitats to live in, it took the attention and effort of most of the conservationists on the island to preserve their habitat.

The microhabitat of the frog was in the crevices between boulders and the substrate, which has considerable water retention. To see this frog, someone has to turn over the boulders and see if the frog lives under them. Without entering the Pitawala Patana area or polluting the habitat of the creatures, the team managed to see one of the rarest amphibian species in Sri Lanka. After taking a few photographs, the team decided to leave the animal and leave the place after placing the boulder exactly where it had been. When they are about to leave, naturalist Supurna spotted an Oriental Honey Buzzard resting on a dead tree branch at quite a distance but making an amazing sighting.

How lucky was the team that not even a drop of rain had yet kissed the earth! Naturalist Ashan got off the vehicle when the team arrived at the intersection where the road connecting the communication towers met the main road. He decided to walk towards the hotel while others drove there. He expected to be able to explore the wilderness more while walking than when he was in the vehicle. He had sightings of a troop of purple-faced leaf monkeys, a migratory grey wagtail, and numerous lizards, proving his idea to be sound. He looked extra carefully to find the Knuckles Pygmy Lizard. Inhabiting microhabitats are mossy and decayed tree branches which can be very well camouflaged into the surrounding. When he was looking along the margins of the main road, which were sometimes separated by a rocky wall or a soil wall, he managed to find the diurnal gecko species. The Beautiful Round-eyed Gecko is an endemic species to the Knuckles region. Luckily, he found three individuals when he reached the hotel with one specimen of Taylor’s tree skink. When he was close to the hotel, he heard a call like a bird call, and he waited silently to see who made that call. By waiting patiently, he observed to whom that call belonged, and it was not a bird but a mammal. A dusky-striped squirrel is calling and wandering around the thicket.

When night came to Riverston, the team decided to go back to the mountain just like the previous night to find nocturnal beauties, once again. They had come across their first shrub frog species of the day after a long walk. It was a luminous-coloured More’s Shrub Frog on a tree branch at the peak of their vision. It was a joyous occasion for everyone to witness an animal in such splendour. Senior manager, Rajiv managed to take excellent photographs of the animal by taking maximum advantage of the opportunity. While other members were photographing, Ashan went to search to see if there were any more frogs in the area. He managed to find a few individuals of Stuart’s Shrub Frog, which they had seen the previous day and another individual of Moore’s Shrub Frog.

Ashan heard a frog calling in the distance, and he followed the call. Within seconds, he observed that the call belongs to a shrub frog, and the exact species is new to the team. He called the team to come to see the animal. It was a male individual of the endemic Asanka’s Shrub Frog calling to a female. Regarding frogs, usually, only males can do the call. When they are calling, a balloon-like pouch will appear under their throat. Rajiv, the senior manager, was able to capture stunning images of the frog not only sitting but also calling. The amazing phenomenon was how the team managed to observe the change of the frog’s colour from a dark tan colour to a pale grey colour.

Following those sightings, the team proceeded up the road, where they encountered a brown-coloured frog. It was a juvenile specimen which could not be identified; it could be a member of a scientifically undescribed species. The team decides to return to the main road after having their amazing memories captured in photographs. As they returned to the left side of the road, Ashan noticed something unusual in the foliage of the shrubs. It was a juvenile of Pethiyagoda’s crestless lizard sleeping on the branches of a shrub. When the team got back on the main road, they observed a flatworm climbing a tree near the road. It was a blood-red colour with black markings on the body, the most colourful flat worm anyone on the team has ever seen. It was around 9.45 p.m. when the team returned to the hotel.

Day 3

The third day begins a little late because the entire team is resting from the previous day’s hard work. The naturalist Ashan, by the way, woke up a little before the other members and prepared to go to the morning birdwatching session. He had already seen a Gray Wagtail looking for food in the hotel’s backyard. He went downstairs with binoculars and started to feel the nature and cold of the montane zone. The weather was different from the previous day, with a few raindrops here and there. When he arrived in the backyard, the grey wagtail had vanished, but the most captivating animal had appeared. A grizzled giant squirrel was taking its breakfast on orange-coloured berries where birds were feeding yesterday. The former species is known as the national animal in Sri Lanka even though it is considered a pest species. In montane areas like this, you can encounter much darker-coloured subspecies of a grizzled giant squirrel. He had that incredible sighting for nearly 15 minutes until the squirrel left with a belly full of berries. When the birdwatching session ended, the team went downstairs to have breakfast, and Ashan also joined the team.

Third-day, senior manager Rajiv decided that the team should go to a different hotel for inspection and spend a night. So, the team had to leave the Riverston Grand Hotel, but its delicious meals and the generosity of the workers won their hearts forever. When the vehicle was driving to Sir John’s Bungalow, where they would spend the night, on that day, they observed a troop of purple-faced leaf monkeys resting on the canopy near the road. Within 30 minutes, the team reached their destination. After checking in and unpacking at the hotel, they came to the lobby to rest. They heard a very familiar bird call, it was a Crested Serpent Eagle. Naturalist Supurna identified the call, and he managed to show the bird resting on a treetop far away. The hotel premises were full of bird sounds such as Southern Hill Myna, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Indian Blue Robin, and Spot-winged Thrush.

The rain appeared to have stopped at 4.30 p.m., but the sky was dark and cloudy. But both of the naturalists on the team, Supurna and Ashan, decided to go to the evening birding session. They were interested to go birding because they heard many bird calls while resting. Both naturalists returned to the road from which they had come after making the necessary preparations for leeches and other things. While walking, they had sightings of the Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Cinereous Tit, and Common Myna. They kept searching for fascinating migrant species such as the Pied Thrush and the Cashmere Flycatcher, but they were unsuccessful and were not even able to hear their calls. They walked to the back of the hotel, which has an open space and could see the forest for quite some distance, after doing some birding. The trees in the area had holes in their trunks, which appeared to be nesting sites for many birds. They easily spotted Southern Hill Myna, Sri Lankan Myna, and the Common Myna calling, flying, and resting on the trees. The sound of a flock of Layard’s parakeets and Black-hooded Orioles entertains the environment surrounding them. Ashan heard a very interesting bird call near the ticket that was in front of them. Supurna identified it as the call of a migratory bird, the Indian Blue Robin. They had waited patiently for nearly 15 minutes to see the particular bird, and they finally succeeded! The spot-winged thrush was also calling around them at the time, but it never showed up while they were waiting. When they were going to leave the place, Ashan saw a Layard’s squirrel climbing a tree to canopy level.

A hotel staff member helped the team find the endemic gecko species on the hotel wall. Ashan informed the team, and the team prepared to photograph the animal. It was a Knuckles Bent-toed Gecko, which only lives in the knuckles mountain area.

Day 4

The fourth day began with sunny weather, despite the previous night’s heavy rain. The team decided to leave the premises early. When they reached the Riverston Mountains, the place had a really quiet atmosphere. All the members of the team were amazed because, for the previous three days, that place was filled with tourists and local salesmen. After getting tickets to enter the Riverston Tower, the road team starts to walk on the road. Within minutes, they met a leaf-nosed lizard crossing the road. When those lizards are on the ground, they change their body colour to resemble earth colours, like blackish brown. Having seen the animal, the team kept walking forward on the road.

After barely 10 minutes of walking, they reached a place that had a stone wall covered with moss. The drips of water keep flowing on top of the wall surface. They’d discovered one of the most colourful organisms they’d seen on the trip on that wall. Several individuals of the Sri Lanka Red Crab, which has bright red bodies, were resting on that wall. The members of the team were elated. Regarding the freshwater crabs, Sri Lanka has to offer 51 species of freshwater crabs which are all endemic to Sri Lanka. They hurried to take photographs of those amazing creatures. Supurna, a naturalist, discovered a Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon perched on a distant tree while they were photographing the birds. While others are taking good photographs of the crabs Ashan saw a small shrub frog climbing the stone wall. It was a juvenile Steiner’s shrub frog, but with beautiful colours. While examining the specimen, he saw a frog near him, well camouflaging itself against the rock wall. It was a new species for the team. The microhabitat of the Big-footed Shrub Frog was moist, with water dripping from rock walls. The species has a well-developed camouflage body to hide on exposed rock surfaces. It was a happy moment because they had started with one species and ended up with three beautiful species.

While walking up the trail senior guide Supurna identified the call as belonging to a large-billed leaf warbler. The bird was hopping around on top of the canopy, looking for food. While they are walking, Rajiv spots a beautiful butterfly resting on the edge of the road. It was a Tamil Tree Brown butterfly. When they looked around, they found several bamboo species growing there, which are feeding plants for that particular butterfly. As they continued walking, the surrounding forest became stunted. That is the characteristic feature of the montane forest. Because of the wind effect, the forests on the tops of mountains will become stunted. Another lovely leaf-nosed lizard was discovered resting on a tree branch near the road’s edge. A flock of black-throated munia flew over their heads while they were out in the open. It is the hardest species of munia to see in Sri Lanka. After some time, the surroundings became too covered with mist, hence the team decided not to go any further and turned around.

The team arrived at the starting point in 20 minutes. They found it easier to descend the mountain than to climb it. When they reached the ticket counter, they heard a very familiar bird call. A Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush was calling farther away in the dense forest. It is one of the hardest species to see in Sri Lanka because of its shy nature and where it lives. We were trying to find it, but it was far away. It was a wonderful memory for them to end their journey with the sound of such rare beauty. The team decided to say goodbye to Riverston while promising to come back again.

Species Encountered in The Field Vist


1Grey-headed Canary FlycatcherBrR
2Pied BushchatBrR
3Red-vented BulbulBrR
4Dark-fronted BablerBrR
5Yellow-eared BulbulBrR
6Sri Lanka Hill MynaBrR
7Yellow-fronted BarbetBrR
8Green WarblerM
9Pale-billed FlowerpeckerBrR
10Grey WagtailM
11Oriental Honey BuzzardBrR
12Brown ShrikeM
13Spotted DoveBrR
14Little SwiftBrR
15Crested Serpent EagleBrR
16Indian Blue RobinM
17Cinereous TitBrR
18Velvet-fronted NuthatchBrR
19Southern Hill MynaBrR
20Common Palm SwiftBrR
21Common MynaBrR
22Layard’s ParakeetBrR
23Sri Lanka Wood PigeonBrR
24Large-billed Leaf WarblerM
25Black-throated MuniaBrR


1Leaf-nosed Lizard
2Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard
3Striped Bronzeback
4Tailor’s Tree Skink
5Sri Lanka Bronze Skink
6Knuckles Bent-toed Gecko
7Beautiful Round-eyed Gecko


1Knuckles Shrub Frog
2Steiner’s Shrub Frog
3Pug Snouted Frog
4Stuart’s Shrub Frog
5Asanka’s Shrub Frog
6More’s Shrub Frog
7Pera Corrugated Frog
8Sri Lanka Bronzed Frog
9Keertisinghe’s Rock Frog
10Big-footed Shrub Frog


1Dusky-striped Squirrel
2Purple-faced Leaf Monkey
3Flame-striped Squirrel


1Sri Lanka Tiger
2Autumn Leaf
3Red Helan
4Sri Lanka Tree Nymph
5Glad Eye Bushbrown
6Tamil Treebrown
7Narrow-banded Bluebottle
8Glassy Tiger

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