In March this year (2021) a few birders and I visited the Andamans.
This incredibly biodiverse archipelago of 572 islands (if one includes Nicobar) is chock-a-block with pristine beaches, crystal clear waters and dense virgin forests that are home to some of the world’s most ferocious game fish and a host of endemic birds not found anywhere else on this planet.
This was my third trip to the area, each one being remarkably different. In fact, in many respects they were surprisingly complementary.
2012 was purely fishing and without a doubt it lived up to its reputation as an angling paradise!
2017 was a combination of both angling and birding. We stayed on a boat, the White Horse (below), for the first four days doing a 200km. round trip angling all the way from Chidyatapu to Little Andaman island and back. I stayed on for an additional 4 days in Port Blair to see – and photograph – the endemic birds of the area. (I had written a 4 part blog on the birding leg.)
This trip in March 2021 was pure birding and it differed from the first two on number of counts.
For one, we were in the middle of a pandemic and, as you can well imagine, it added a whole new dimension to the overall experience. I cannot remember any other holiday where we were forced to constantly make last minute changes to our itinerary … including rescheduling our return flights home!
For me the icing on the cake was the inclusion of 5 days in Greater Nicobar this time around… but more about that later!
We flew to Port Blair on the 9th of March via Chennai. Arriving in the evening we were taken to our hotel, The Seascape, a family run establishment. The rooms were really nice, our stay comfortable and the staff great. Although not on the waterfront I would still highly recommend it.
That evening we drove down to Chidyatapu. I’m pleased to say nothing had chanced since my last visit 4 years ago. The two tea stalls on the small beach were still there and serving great bhajiyas. The sunsets too were just as spectacular as we had experienced previously and even the Sea Horse was parked in the very same spot in the middle of the bay! (If you look carefully she can be seen in the distance beyond the boat on the right in the image below.)
At sunset we set off in search of owls and spent the next hour or so negotiating our way under torchlight through a Bhendi (lady finger, ocra) field. Within no time two of the four owl species we were looking for got ticked off our list.
Similar to my previous trip, hawk owls respond willingly to a recorded call. Between the two, sightings of the Andaman hawk owl (Andaman boobook) (above) were more frequent than Hume’s hawk owl (below).
Our guide Danish T is one of the most enthusiastic guides I have ever had the pleasure of birding with. He puts his heart and soul into his job and there were times when we had to actually console him when a particular species played hard to get! Typically he would ask us to stay put while he ran off into the forest. Once he located a bird he’d come back to fetch us.
That evening’s pattern was the same. He’d leave us standing in the dark in the middle of tall bhendi stalks and take off. We’d see his torch beam scanning the trees for owls on the periphery of the field. There were times when I could have sworn I saw wisps of smoke caught in the beam, but then again, it could have been my imagination.
On one such occasion we were concentrating on his torch beam about 50 yards ahead when Yash decided to switch on his own torch and scan the trees around us. Behind us, perched on a branch barely 20 yards away was a Walden’s scops owl. It appeared to be observing us following Danish and it’s expression seemed to say it all: “What on earth are these idiotic humans doing traipsing around a Bhendi field in the middle of the night”
Three endemic owl species in one night was more that we hoped for and really set the tone for the rest of the trip!
The other forest owl that is endemic to the Andamans is the Andaman scops owl and we got several sightings of this otherwise elusive species later in the trip (below).
The initial plan was to spend the next day, 10th March, birding in and around Port Blair and catch the ship to Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar on the 11th and bird there for 5 days. The pandemic unfortunately had put a spanner in the ship’s schedule. A tentative date for the next departure to Nicobar was postponed to the 16th and even then there was a huge demand for tickets. The bottom line: There was no guarantee that we would make the trip.
More… much, much more, if fact… on that later!
And so it was that we had no choice but to spent the next seven days birding in the Andamans.
For me personally, birding in the Andamans was filled with a sense of de ja vu. Each day was packed with familiar names and places like Bamboo flats jetty… Chatham Jetty… Shoal Bay… Biological park, Chidyatapu…Sippy Ghat… Mount Harriet.
There were not many ‘lifers’ to be had as I had already seen most of the species on my previous visit. However, when I combine the images of both trips I realise that both sets complemented each other. Take, for instance, the Andaman wood pigeon above that I got this time. On my previous visit I had only managed to get a distant ‘record’ shot.
(In birding parlance a ‘record’ shot is an image that is taken simply to ‘record’ or document that the bird was sighted and/or to be used later to assist in identification. It is usually taken from a distance, and often has little or no aesthetic appeal.)
Another case in point was this sighting of a female Andaman Woodpecker on a visit to the forested area around Shoal Bay.
On my previous trip in the very same location (probably the very same tree as well) I got the image of a male. Note the red moustachial patch and the extended red crest upto the beak in the male below.
Also at Shoal bay I got decent sightings and images of the Andaman treepie. These are fairly frequently seen but simply refused to give me good images on my previous trip!
Conversely, I was fortunate to get great images of an Andaman cuckoo dove on my previous trip. The bird below was so engrossed in devouring the berries off a fruiting tree in Shoal Bay that it paid little or no attention to us clicking away!
The same goes for the lovely white-breasted woodswallow of which I only got a ‘record’ sighting on this trip. The image below was taken on my previous visit.
It is the month of March and forests are full of fruiting trees that attract a large number of birds.
The tree above in shoal bay was no exception. It was really nice to set up the cameras in the shade of the tree – (being so close to the equator it is incredibly hot at this time of the year) – and shoot to our heart’s content the multitude of birds that flocked to partake of its berries.
These included Andaman green pigeons, Asian fairy bluebirds, glossy starlings, common hill mynas, red-whiskered bulbuls, Andaman bulbuls, Andaman flowerpeckers, Andaman cuckooshrikes, Andaman drongos and black-naped orioles.
We made several visits to the area and on one occasion I decided to use my flash with extender. With the tree’s dense foliage cloaking the birds in shadow and heavily backlit by a bright sky the flash made a huge difference to the image quality. The downside from a photography point of view was it did tend to give give the birds a ‘red eye’ that needed to be attended to in post processing.
The black-naped oriole above was also taken on the fruiting tree in Shoal Bay. There are three species of oriole to be found on the west coast of India from where I come from. These include the Indian golden oriole, the black-hooded oriole and the black-naped oriole. Of these I have only seed the first two in locations close to home (Mumbai/Goa). This is the only place I have seen the black-naped variety.
The mangrove forests in and around Shoal bay are home to the ruddy kingfisher. We did get a couple of good sightings and images (above) but I think I still prefer the images I got in 2017 (below).
Another interesting and much sought after inhabitant of the mangroves is the mangrove whistler. This is an ordinary looking bird with an beautiful call. Thanks again to Danish T we got amazing sightings and images of this unusual species.
One of the few endemic species that I failed to spot in 2017 was the Andaman nightjar. Promising to right that wrong Danish very kindly arranged to dedicate one night at the okra farm in Chidyatapu to finding the bird. The image below is the result of his determination to keep his word and a reflection of his birding skill!
Most of the species you’ve seen above are endemic to the Andamans. Which means that you will not find them anywhere else. One of the main reasons for this is the islands are isolated from all other major land masses which makes it difficult for birds to migrate to and from the area.
The Andaman serpent eagle below clicked in the Biological Park in Chidyatapu is one of the endemic birds of the Andamans that usually figures close to the top of the list of most birders visiting this area.
Some of the endemics like the Andaman bulbul above and the Andaman coucal below are remarkably different from their mainland cousins.
Others like the Andaman drongo below do bear a varying resemblance to their respective counterparts .
Apart from the established endemic species there are a number of others that, although clubbed with the mainland species, do have definite differentiating features.
Some, like the collared kingfisher above (taken en route to Chidyatapu) have been given sub-species status (T. c. davisoni). Likewise the orange-headed thrush below (taken at Shoal Bay) (G. c. andamensis).
Many experts believe that, with the advent of genetic testing, a large number of these birds here will be given their own unique status.
So the bottom line on this trip was ‘shoot on sight’! You never know which one will be separated from the pack and be recognised as and independent species. Heaven knows even a common bird like the black-naped monarch (below shot at Chidyatapu) may just turn out to be accepted as a unique species!
(Between you and me, it does not take much coaxing for me to take images of these colourful and cute little guys!)
Of course there are some birds, like the violet cuckoo below shot outside the biological park at Chidyatapu, are so beautiful and unusual that you can’t help but fill the camera’s memory card with them despite the fact that they do not figure in the list of ‘endemics’!
No birding trip to the Andamans is complete without a trip to water bodies especially those in and around Sippy Ghat. The apex target species is of course the Andaman teal or the Sunda teal. These birds were critically endangered a few years ago but have gradually been making a comeback thanks to their protected status.
Apart from the teal there are a lot of other interesting species to be seen along the banks.
The dusky warbler above was foraging deep in the bushes and kept me waiting for a quite a while before it eventually took pity on me and came out in the open and posed for brief few seconds before diving in again!
We were at one of the water bodies around Sippy Ghatt when our vehicle needed to be dispatched on an urgent errand. While waiting at the water’s edge for the car to return we noticed Andaman teal were making regular, ultra low level sorties in groups of twos and threes across the water… ideal conditions to hone our ‘birds-in-flight’ photography skills!
We must have been there for at least half and hour and were so engrossed in lining up the duck whizzing past that we almost did not notice the usually shy yellow bittern (below). It was surprisingly unperturbed and gazed unflinchingly at us from the reeds on the water’s edge barely 10-15 metres away!
By the time the car got back it was well past 9 am and the heat forced us to hurry back to the vehicle but not before a short pause for a pair of olive-backed sunbirds.
When the tsunami struck in 2004, large areas of land were inundated with water. In a number of places the water did not recede creating huge swampy water bodies. Sadly, many locals who had invested in plots of land, lost out and one can still see the now partially submerged marker posts that originally demarcated the plots.
Man’s loss was Nature’s gain and these areas have turned into feeding grounds for waders. Of late the reclamation process has been stepped up (evidenced by the large number of of bulldozers) and the available swamps are shrinking dramatically.
The oriental pratincole above is not an endemic bird but was a lifer for me and it allowed me to come reasonably close before flying off.
It was shot at one of the reclaimed areas, as was the red-throated pipit below. It was one of a feeding group of red-throated pipits that were not as accommodating as the pratincole and I had to satisfy myself with the heavily cropped image below.
Our target species at the swamps was the long-toed stint and we did spot several although they only allowed us to take record images like the one below.
As the evening wore on we did get to see a large number of waders in the fading light including this comic striated heron that puffed up its feathers and raised its left wing in an attempt to look big and intimidating when a rival heron threatened to invade its feeding space!
Without a doubt this was a wonderful trip. But if I had to choose one image that really made it extra-special then it would have to be our sighting of the Andaman crake.
This bird is highly secretive and shy. We did hear it call on several occasions on both my trips here but I never ever managed to get a sighting.
On our last day, deep in the forest of Chidyatapu thanks to our ace guide Danish T we finally managed to get great sightings of a couple of these beautiful chestnut coloured birds with unusual apple green beaks and legs! The dense canopy filtered most of the evening sunlight and I needed to stretch the ISO to 6400 to get the image above.
The last few images I shot were of a group of black-naped terns at Chatam Jetty at Port Blair. They were perched on a concrete structure (an old discarded jetty perhaps) a distance away from the shore. Fortunately the bright sunny conditions allowed me to add a 2x teleconverter and take my focal length to 1000mm.
And so ended our 7 days in the Andamans.
As I mentioned earlier the Pandemic had created havoc with the scheduling of the ships that plied between Port Blair and Campbell Bay in Greater Nicobar.
The past week was great from a birding point of view but I’ve been here before and the main reasons I opted to join this trip was the inclusion of at least 5 days of birding in Nicobar. The ship was due to leave on the 16th and it was made clear to us that priority would be given to the local population especially those who missed the boat on previously cancelled trips.
The journey from Port Blair in the Andamans to Campbell Bay in Greater Nicobar is not a short trip.
It covers 529 Km. across the Ten Degree Channel that separates the Andamans from Nicobar Islands and takes, on an average, 36 hours!
Apart from the schedule, the pandemic had also changed the ticketing process. Normally booking a berth was similar to booking an airline ticket where not only is your ticket confirmed but also your seat. On the ship it was a choice between a cabin berth or a berth in the dormitory.
This time around one had to apply for a ticket and an hour before departure a list would be pasted on the wall at the gates of Haddo Jetty that would include the final list of names that would be allowed to buy a ticket. A choice of berth (cabin/dormitory) would be given on a first come/first served basis at the jetty at the time of boarding!
So…. did we make the list at all?… And did we get our preferred cabin or were we stuck in the dormitory?
Stay tuned to this space to find out!