The Hambegamuwa district, while nowhere as famous as the neighbouring Udawalawe, is still a great location for naturalists. With hundreds of acres of unspoilt forest and lakes, barring a few small self-sufficient villages, the area is a haven for the endemic species and for avid birdwatchers.
Try and time your visit either shortly after dawn or before dusk - it's not too hot, and the birds will be in full play.
the lake, the mangroves, the boats
The lake, while man-made during King Mahasena's time (presumably), boasts natural flora pushing 400 years and a variety of aviary species residing in the mangroves. If you're going to Udawalawe for some quality elephant time, it might be worth it to drive down about 30 minutes to Hambegamuwa to unwind on the lake. There are also a couple of small hotels in the area, notably the Banyan Retreat
which we recently stayed at.
If you're staying in the local area, you'll easily find an abundance of fishermen willing to take you for a scenic ride around the lake. They have charming and surprisingly stable canoes that seat 3 in total (one boatman and two pillions). They don't have a fixed rate as this isn't a legitimate tour, but I'd say Rs. 500 plus a head minimum for a half hour plus is the lower limit. The fisherman we were lucky enough to get leisurely rowed us about for around an hour and had lots of lovely anecdotes about crocodiles and birds nearby, especially since he knew it like the back of his hand.
If the vernacular is a bit of a challenge for you, ask one of the hotel staff to have a chat on your behalf. Or you can submit to the murky waters of amateur sign language.
We experienced a whole variety of birdlife on our one hour glide around the lake. A point and shoot camera doesn't really do justice to the vibrancy we saw, but I assume most hardcore enthusiasts do their exploring with hardcore DSLRs. As far as I can recall, we saw the Indian darter, cormoran, yellow bittern, cattle egret, great egret, open bill stork, white ibis, white bellied sea eagle, grey headed fish eagle, Alexandrine parakeets, brown headed barbet, rare crimson fronted barbet, common kingfisher, white breasted kingfisher, malabar pied hornbill, asian paradise flycatcher, red vented bulbul, and Indian robin.
If you're a fan of birds (the type with feathers), make your way to Hambegamuwa Lake during a Udawalawe or even Yala weekend. If you're not really a huge birdwatcher, the lake is still totally worth it if you're in the area or passing through. It's pure, unspoilt nature, fresh air, and beauty. You'll also probably meet some supremely unconcerned buffaloes, langurs and crocodiles.
The place to be for avid bird watchers.