Archive for the ‘India’ Tag

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.

Western India part 6: CEDO and the Bhuj area, Gujarat – 24th – 26th January 2016   Leave a comment

This post covers our two and a bit days in the Bhuj area of Gujarat, specifically three outings arranged by CEDO, the Centre for Desert and Oceans. We arrived in the mid afternoon and immediately boarded their jeeps for an excursion in search of the critically endangered Sociable Lapwing.

IMG_3493 Sociable Lapwing

Sociable Lapwings breed on the steppes of Central Asia and pass through the Middle East to winter in north-east Africa and western India. Once plentiful, habitat destruction has reduced the population to 5,600 breeding pairs, but winter counts in the Middle East and Turkey suggest that this might be an underestimate. They are scarce in India and this flock consisted of just seven birds.

IMG_3486 Sociable Lapwing

In spite of their global rarity this species has turned up in the UK as an autumn vagrant with some regularity. There have been about 40 records in the UK since 1958, although none in the last few years. I have seen this species five times in Britain, in South Wales, Kent, Hampshire, Dorset and Scilly between 1984 and 2008. I have also seen it in Oman and Kazakhstan.

IMG_3469 CB Sandgrouse m

We also had good views of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse in the same area.

IMG_3499 marsh sunset

The day ended at a very birdy marsh but there were few places where we could get a view unimpeded by vegetation, and although the sunset was glorious it did little to aid the viewing conditions. In spite of this we saw many Common Cranes coming into roost, lots of waders, pelicans, a Red-necked Falcon and several Paddyfield Warblers.

IMG_3509 Crested HB

The following day we were at an area of scrub soon after dawn and found a couple of Oriental (or Crested) Honey Buzzards still at their roost.

IMG_3515 Grey Hypocolous

It wasn’t long after that our main target appeared, the enigmatic Grey Hypocolius. This a much sought after bird as it is placed in its own family (although thought to be most closely related to the Waxwings). As it breeds in Iran sightings come mainly from wintering areas, especially Bahrain (where I have seen it before but only in flight) and here in Gujarat. This is a male ….

IMG_3516 Grey Hypocolius

….whilst the female lacks the black mask. There were quite a few family collectors in our group so this species was voted number 2 in the ‘bird of the trip’ contest – after Great Indian Bustard of course.

IMG_3546 RT Wheatear

Other birds we saw that day included more Red-tailed Wheatears ….

IMG_3569 YW Lapwing

…. Yellow-wattled Lapwings ….

IMG_3573 Syke's Lark

…. Syke’s Lark, which was a life bird for me ….

IMG_3603 Indian Bush Lark

…. the bulky Indian Bush Lark ….

IMG_3604 Indian Bush Lark

…. with it’s very well-marked breast  ….

IMG_3578 White-naped Tit

…. and the rare and elusive White-naped Tit (another lifer).

IMG_3588 Indian Courser

We got better views of Indian Courser ….

IMG_3593 Green Bee-eater

…. and great views of Green Bee-eater. The new Lynx Illustrated Checklist treats Green Bee-eater as three species, the all-green viridissimus in Africa, the blue-headed cyanophrys in the Middle East and the blue-throated orientalis from southern Iran eastwards.

IMG_3616 Yellow-fronted WP

We only saw a few woodpeckers on this trip, this Yellow-fronted Woodpecker only posed briefly.

IMG_3609 selfie time

The selfie craze has reached India, these girls knocked on the door of our vehicle and asked for a selfie with Heidi.

IMG_3620 crossing the beach

The following day we left early and arrived at the coast to the west of Bhuj at dawn

IMG_3623 the beach

The rising sun soon backlit the flats. Crossing the channels was quite hard for those who didn’t bring suitable footwear as we sunk well past our ankles in the soft mud, however the going was easier closer to the shore.

IMG_3632 the beach

Behind us was a vast expanse of mudflats full of waders and gulls.

IMG_3628 Little Stints

Wader/shorebird species included Little Stints ….

IMG_3695 Sanderling

…. Sanderlings ….

IMG_3683 Lesser Sand Plover

…. Lesser Sandplovers (and the occasional Greater) ….

IMG_3703 Tereks

…. and Terek Sandpipers.

IMG_3672 Grey Heron

Whilst herons were represented by the familiar Grey Heron (which I hope doesn’t get tangled in the discarded fishing line)….

IMG_3668 Great Egret

…. the almost cosmopolitan Great Egret (which should really be split into three species New World, Old World plus SE Asia and Australasia).

IMG_3635 Western Reef Egret

Western Reed Egrets are mainly dark phase here. In winter they occur as far east as Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, further east Eastern Reef Egret replaces it.

IMG_3707 Pallas' & Heuglin's Gulls

Most large gulls were Heuglin’s Gulls, currently treated as a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull, but probably worth species status. The bird on the left is a Pallas’ Gull, a winter visitor from Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Tibet.

IMG_3713 Pallas' & SB Gulls

Here two Pallas’ Gulls in near adult summer plumage pose with a group of much smaller Slender-billed Gulls. Pallas’ Gulls used to be called Great Black-headed Gull but that invites confusion with the similar sounding Great Black-backed Gull and requires that the familiar Black-headed Gull’s name is given a modifier, usually Common Black-headed Gull (which in turn invites confusion with Common Gull). Pallas’ Gull also celebrates the life of Peter Pallas, a great explorer of Central Asia in the late 18th century.

IMG_3700 Brown-headed Gulls

We also saw a small number of Brown-headed Gulls, quite like Black-headed Gulls at rest but with a strikingly different wing pattern in flight.

IMG_3663 Gt Thick-knees

Two birds stood out in our exploration of the coast. The first was a group of eleven Great Thicknees (seven seen here), a relative of the Stone Curlew.

IMG_3646 Gt Thick-knee

Only present in rocky area, they gave superb views, far better than I have had before.

IMG_28951 Crab Plover FL

The second highlight was Crab Plover, another species in its own family. Several were seen some way off but as the tide came in they left the distant sandbar and flew towards us. At that moment my camera battery died and I found I had left he spare in the vehicle. This photo and the next were kindly given to me by tour leader Frank Lambert.

IMG_28772 Crab Plover FL

A Crab Plover with two Little Terns in winter plumage. Photo by Frank Lambert

IMG_3634 the beach

Well that was that for the shining sands of Kutch. We headed back to CEDO making a few stops on route.

IMG_3763 village scenes

We passed through many settlements on route with their hard working villagers ….

IMG_3762 village scenes

…. and inevitable cattle-jams.

IMG_3731 Indian Fruit Bats

One village had a large colony of Indian Fruit Bats. In many part of the world fruit bats living so close to people would have been eaten but in India there is a respect for nature in spite of its burgeoning population.

IMG_3727 Indian Fruit Bats

We were able to get excellent views of the colony from the roadside

IMG_3758 Indian Fruit Bats

…. and watch the bats fly over the village as we enjoyed a glass of tea.

IMG_3765 dipping on owls

Our final stop was this gorge where we tried to improve on our earlier views of Indian Eagle-Owl, but to no avail.

That ended out time in Gujarat. The following morning we left early for a flight to Mumbai. Here we had several hours to kill before we took another flight to the city of Nagpur in the state of Maharashta, pretty much in the centre of the country. That will be the subject of the seventh and final post on Western India.

 

 

Western India part 2: Bikaner and Khichan, Rajasthan – 16th January 2016   Leave a comment


India is famous for its raptors, but in recent years many species have undergone a serious decline, none more so than the resident species of vulture. This alarming loss of natures garbage disposal has meant that dead animals (roadkill etc) now lie beside the road to rot where they would have been consumed within hours in the past.

The cause of this dreadful decline which has reached 99.9% in most areas is due to the veterinary use of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac (known as Voltorol when used in humans). The drug given prophylactically to cattle will cause renal failure in most vulture species that feed on the carcass. The four large resident species, White-rumped, Slender-billed, Indian and Red-headed are threatened with imminent extinction. Only the smaller Egyptian Vulture seems to be surviving.

In 1986 vultures (mainly White-rumped) were everywhere. Although the two trips are not directly comparable, the former trip was mainly in the east of Rajasthan and also visited the Himalayan foothills, but both involved visits to the Jaisalmer area.

Sorry this table is not aligned properly – it was pre-posting!

                                                                             1986                                2016

Black Kite                                                              2500                                    160
Red-headed Vulture                                            54                                        0
Cinereous (Black) Vulture                                   7                                        4
Eurasian Griffon Vulture                                   67                                      20
Slender-billed/Indian Vulture                         36                                         4
White-rumped Vulture                                      5000                                         1
Egyptian Vulture                                                 2500                                     160
Slender-billed and Indian Vultures were not split in 1986 hence the two species could not be separated for this table. All the ones seen on this tour were Indian Vultures. The species that showed the least decline were Cinereous and Griffon Vultures which are winter visitors (and as such have not been exposed to diclofenac to the same extent). Most of the 160 Egyptian Vultures were at the one site shown below..

 

 

IMG_2384 Bikiner fog

Early morning mists had not cleared as we arrived at the tip outside of Bikaner. As cattle are not for human consumption in most of India any carcasses are left in certain areas for scavengers to dispose of.

IMG_2423 Gippos and feral dogs

Although there were no fresh carcasses the area was full of Egyptian Vultures and feral dogs.

IMG_2449 puppies

We found this litter of puppies in a shallow depression, proof that the dogs were living wild.

IMG_2424. Bikiner tip

Surrounding trees were covered with Steppe Eagles and Egyptian Vultures.

IMG_2440 Gippo imm

Immature Egyptian Vulture.

IMG_2434 Gippo

Adult Egyptian Vulture

IMG_2459 Steppe Eagle

Immature Steppe Eagle – a winter visitor from Central Asia

IMG_2445 Griffon & Gippo

Also in the area where small numbers of Eurasian Griffon Vultures, another winter visitor to the area, but our only White-rumped Vulture of the entire trip was one seen briefly in flight. What a change compared to my visit 30 years ago.

IMG_2473 Black Kite

Although not affected by the poisoning effect of veterinary drugs, Black Kites have also shown a marked decline compared to my last visit.

IMG_2461 Black Drongo

This Black Drongo chose a rather unattractive perch to pose for a portrait.

IMG_2469 Variable Wheatear

Variable Wheatears come in three forms, all from different areas to the north and west; the almost all-black opistholeuca, the white-capped capistrata and the common and widespread picata (above).

IMG_2481 Nilgai

The huge Nilgai (aka the Blue Bull) is the Indian equivalent of the African Eland

IMG_2501 cultivated desert

A mammal I really wanted to see was the elegant Blackbuck, but all the areas where they have been seen before on this itinerary have been irrigated and turned over to agriculture.

IMG_2496 Chinkara

We did see the delicate Chinkara though.

IMG_2507 Kichan village

Later we made our way to the little village of Khichan. On the surface it looked like any other small Indian village but it held a wonderful secret.

IMG_2505 Brown Rock Chat

The Brown Rock Chat is a bird that ‘does what it says on the tin’ – its brown, it’s a chat and it perches on rocks. Nice though it is, it wasn’t the reason why we had come all this way.

IMG_2523 Demoiselle Cranes

Just around the corner there were a coupe of lakes absolutely packed with Demoiselle Cranes.

IMG_2593 Demoiselle Cranes

A rough count between those on the two lakes and those in the air came to about 8000.

IMG_2589 Demoiselle Cranes

As with all large gatherings of cranes their bugling calls filled the air.

IMG_2529 Demoiselle Cranes

I have seen spectacular large gatherings of Common, White-naped, Hooded, Red-crowned and Sandhill Cranes but these must be the most beautiful cranes of all.

IMG_2533 Demoiselle Cranes

The birds seemed largely undisturbed by the passing villagers.

IMG_2536 Demoiselle Cranes

The smallest of the 15 species of crane, Demoiselles breed in Central Asia and migrate over the Himalayas to winter in India. Small numbers turn up elsewhere and I have seen single birds in far-eastern Russia and Japan plus good numbers on their breeding grounds in Kazakhstan

IMG_2548 Demoiselle Cranes

The villagers of Khichan have had a long love affair with this beautiful bird. Each winter grain is put out for the birds in an enclosure within the village. This tradition persists even though Khichan is no longer as prosperous as it once was (due to end of trans-desert camel trains) and is now supported by donations from clansmen from abroad.

IMG_2520 Demoiselle Cranes

We didn’t see the birds in the enclosure as we were too early for ‘feeding time’ and it seemed pointless hanging round for ages when we had such wonderful views around the lakes.

IMG_2595 Pond Heron

Here are a few other birds we saw around the lakes – Indian Pond Heron

IMG_2575 Green Sand

A wintering Green Sandpiper from Siberia

IMG_2538 personata White Wag

Another wintering bird, this time from Central Asia – the personata race of White Wagtail aka ‘Masked Wagtail’

IMG_2581 Yellow Wag

Yellow Wagtails can be difficult to assign to race when not in breeding plumage but this is probably of the race thunbergi from the boreal zone of northern Europe or Siberia

IMG_2601 Little Grebe

Little Grebes are a resident species ….

IMG_2571 Red Wattled Lapwing

…. as is the ubiquitous Red-wattled Lapwing.

IMG_2618 Demoiselles and Doves

As we left a flock of Rock Doves flew over, but high above them were more Demoiselle Cranes flying in for the afternoon feast.

IMG_2617 Demoiselle Cranes

With many miles to go to our next stop, we could only marvel at this wonderful sight as we headed south to the town of Jaisalmer. Definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip.