The Andaman Islands – India: 15th -20th November 2018   Leave a comment

Once again I’ve been tardy in keeping this blog up to date, but here I report on a trip I made in November 2018 to South India and the Andaman Islands.

The trip could be taken as any one of three modules or combinations of such. The first part was to the Andaman Islands, the second to South India and the third to Sri Lanka. Having already visited Ski Lanka in 2004 and there only being one or two new birds for me, I declined to book on that section. Undoubtedly when I see the trip report and reflect on what I could have seen I’ll regret that decision, but it was quite a lot more time and of course money.

Unfortunately we had a fair bit of bad weather in the Andamans which curtailed our birding to some degree, but in the end we saw 19 out of the 20 endemic species (plus one more, an endemic subspecies of Scops Owl that deserves to be split).

Another downside was that my bridge camera started playing up as soon as I arrived, only focusing at one focal length (and that focal length depended on the distance to the subject). As a result I missed many good shots and only got mediocre results from the ones I did take. My pocket camera however allowed me to get some scenery pics. The bridge camera died completely a few days after I returned to the Indian mainland, but more about that in the next post.

 

The Andaman Islands together with the Nicobars form an island chain that almost connects the north tip of Sumatra with southern Myanmar (Burma). Both island groups belong to India and lie some 1400km east of the Indian mainland. Tourism isn’t allowed in the Nicobars (which is a shame as they have a number of endemic species) but up to 140,000 tourists visit the Andamans each year. The capital Port Blair is situated near the southern tip of the largest island South Andaman and we spent all of our time birding within a few hours drive of the capital. Map from Wikipedia.

 

After overnighting in Bangalore the group assembled for the late morning flight to Port Blair. There were six of us, plus the tour leader, two from Australia and the rest from the UK. This photo was taken during our descent into Port Blair.

 

Compared to other Indian cities Port Blair seemed to be a relatively quiet. Whilst spread out over a very large area, it seemed (at least from what we could see) to lack skyscrapers and modern buildings and predictably suffered from the usual Indian traffic chaos.

 

Port Blair is situated on the east side of a bay in the southern part of South Andaman. Our pleasant hotel, where we stayed for our four nights, was situated on the shores of the bay. The hotel is proud of the fact that view across the bay is portrayed on the 20 Rupee note …

 

… although vegetation now partially obscures the view seen on the note, so my photo above is directed somewhat to the left.

 

I was amused by this illustration of sea/shore birds in the hotel. Whilst I acknowledge that the poster states that all these species would never be seen together, why would illustrate the bird life of the Andamans with pictures of Whooper Swan, Black Guillemot and American Avocet, and other than the Osprey, Mallard and the Diver how many species could you actually identify from this picture?

 

We passed numerous attractive bays as we drove around South Andaman but saw little in the way of birdlife except a few egrets …

 

… and Common Sandpipers.

 

At least this bird allowed me to get a shot of its complex underwing pattern.

 

Other birds of open country included Blue-tailed Bee-eater …

 

… and Brown Shrike. Interestingly the birds that winter in the Andamans are of the race lucionensis which breeds in E China, Korea and S Japan but winters mainly in coastal China, Taiwan, Philippines and N Borneo. One would expect the nominate race, that winters in India, Myanmar and the Malay Peninsula, to occur instead.

 

Many of the birds were more typical of the Malay Peninsula and Greater Sundas than India, such as these Long-tailed Parakeets …

 

… whilst others like the large Alexandrine Parakeet occur in both faunal areas.

 

However most of the endemic species are forest birds so we spent most of our time walking roads and trails like this.

 

Only a few endemics were photographed. Here is the Andaman Drongo …

 

… the powerful Andaman Woodpecker …

 

… Andaman Bulbul …

 

… and one of my favourites, the elusive yet quite common Andaman Crake. My photos of this species are useless so I’ve taken this shot by Kayla Varma from Wiki Commons.

 

Another endemic species is the Andaman Serpent-eagle …

 

Interestingly the endemic race of the very similar but widespread Crested Serpent-eagle occurs in sympatry with the Andaman Serpent-eagle. A bit paler below with differences in underwing and tail pattern, clearly care is needed in separating these two species.

 

There were plenty of beautiful butterflies in the forest but as usual I don’t know their names.

 

Personally I don’t ‘give a fig’ about selfies!

 

In coastal area like this we would sometimes come across …

 

… Collared Kingfishers …

 

… whilst White-throated Kingfishers were commonly found around pools and streams in nearby woodland.

 

However in spite this information board advertising it’s presence, we never saw any ‘Stroke’-billed Kingfishers although we did come across the almost identical STORK-billed Kingfisher!

 

We spent one morning at a series of wetlands along the road that leads north.

 

Intermittent showers produced some spectacular rainbows.

 

Waterbirds seen included this Grey-headed Swamphen, part of the multiway split of Purple Swamphen.

 

We also saw several Cotton Pygmy Geese, here seen with a Common Moorhen. Bizarrely these tiny ducks were known as ‘Quacky Duck’ in the older Indian bird guides.

 

But one of my most wanted birds in the Andamans (and probably the reason I booked on the tour) was Andaman Teal. This was one of just five remaining wildfowl that I hadn’t seen. The remaining four are Baer’s Pochard (China), Freckled Duck (Australia), Laysan Teal (of the Hawaiian island of the same name and effectively ungettable) and Campbell Island Teal (which I tried to see on Campbell Island but was prevented from doing so by a thoughtless and over enthusiastic local). That means there are two more I might see and two more I’ll never see, but out of 165 extant species of waterfowl that’s not bad going. I was unable to get a photo of the distant birds so here is a lovely photo by Jainy Kuriakose see https://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/profile/278406/

 

The Andaman Islands have a wonderful run of nightbirds, Andaman Nightjar, Andaman Hawk-owl, Walden’s Scops-owl (treated as a race of Oriental Scops but deserving a split) and the three species shown here. In all cases I was unable to get a photo with my failing camera. After an initial dip we had great views of Andaman Scops Owl on our third evening. Photo by Stanislav Harvancik www.birdphotoworld.sk

 

We tried for Hume’s Hawk-owl on our first evening and were rewarded with great views of two. During our search our leader suddenly stopped and said ‘there’s another group here and they are playing a recording of the the wrong species’. What he had heard was some Indian photographers playing a tape recording of ‘Hume’s Tawny Owl’ an inhabitant of the Middle East now usually called Desert Owl. Once again a good reason not to tick birds on sound alone; you never who is playing what just round the corner! Photo by Jacob Albin from Wiki Commons.

 

But the nightbird of the trip, indeed probably the best bird of the Andamans section of the tour was Andaman Masked Owl, which we saw in the grounds of a college just after dark. Apart from the three species of barn owl, African Marsh Owl and possibly the two grass owls, members of the Tytonidae (barn owl family) are very difficult to get, so seeing this species and another member of the family in South India was a real highlight. Photo by Garima Bahit from the Oriental Bird Club images site http://orientalbirdimages.org

 

By the last morning we were still missing two endemic species, Andaman Cuckoo-dove and Andaman Woodpigeon. Early in the morning crossed the bay by ferry to try a new area of forest on the far side.

 

At that time of the morning the only other passengers were a bunch of ‘fishwives’ ladies taking big bowls of fish to sell at market.

 

That the ferry was a bit of a ‘rustbucket’ was made clear when we passed its sister ship coming the other way.

 

We entered a lovely dense area of forest on the east side of the bay and scored with the missing cuckoo-dove but unfortunately not the woodpigeon. We also had more great views of Andaman Crake and several other endemic birds.

 

Paradoxically the best birding area was around this rubbish tip, where several species including this endemic Andaman Coucal came out of the forest to feed on the flies.

 

We pretty well concluded our birding on the Andamans with this more widespread but still handsome Large Cuckooshrike.

 

The return trip on the ferry was considerably hotter and more crowded than our pre-dawn crossing.

 

Then there was just time to pack, shower and have lunch before a return flight to Bangalore and the South Indian mainland.

The next post will cover part of our journey through South India.

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