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South Andaman, November 25th-28th 2010 and general information on birding the Andaman Islands,
I visited South Andaman for four days in November 2010 along with Les Colley and Andrew and Ann Duff. The visit was arranged for us as part of a more extensive southern India trip by Jo Thomas of Wild About India: Jo suggested suitable flights and through her contacts in India she booked our hotel and guide. I would recommend Jo for arranging trips to any part of India (email@example.com /01480 370593).
Before the trip I struggled to find much useful information on the birds we should expect to see and relied largely upon the range maps and status comments in the three main field guides to the region to prepare a list of likely species. I also used the Andamans sections of Where to watch birds in Asia (Wheatley) and also A Birdwatchers’ Guide to India (Kazmierczak and Singh) which includes a much more extensive section – referred to as ABGTI. There are very few trip reports, the most useful being by Jon Hornbuckle: see the websites Travellingbirder.com and Birds of India (www.kolkattabirds.com). Unfortunately I could not find a copy of the Zoological Society of India publication Birds of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands but this is probably well out of date anyway.
The birds of the Andamans are relatively poorly known and there must be a lot still to learn about what can be seen. Currently there is only one resident birdwatcher, Vikram Shil, who acted as our guide. Only a small number of mainly private birding groups visit, usually less than five a year. This is hard to understand as access is now straightforward and the birding rewards are considerable. Taxonomists seem agreed that the Andamans have 14 more or less endemic species, all but one of which can be seen on South Andaman:
Andaman Teal (split in turn from Sunda Teal and Grey Teal)
Narcondam Hornbill (only on the remote Narcondam Island)
Andaman Scops Owl
Andaman Hawk Owl
Andaman Nightjar (split from Large-tailed Nightjar)
Andaman Wood Pigeon
Andaman Cuckoo Dove
Andaman Serpent Eagle
Andaman Drongo (also found on two islands belonging to Myanmar)
The Andaman subspecies of another seven birds are sometimes given specific rank eg by Rasmussen:
Brown Hawk Owl
Pompadour Green Pigeon
Plus the Andaman form of Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker may be a separate species
Getting there and what to expect
The obvious way of reaching the Andamans is by flying to Port Blair on South Andaman. The Indian airlines such Jet, Jetlite and Kingfisher between them provide plenty of flights from Chennai (Madras) and Kolkata (Calcutta). The flight takes about two hours.
The Andamans is a ‘restricted area’ and so visitors need to complete permit procedures (filling in a long form) on arrival at Port Blair airport: you are directed to a table in the arrivals building before collecting your luggage etc. There is absolutely no advantage in applying for a restricted area permit in advance as even though three of us had them we still had to go through the same administrative process as all the other arriving foreigners. The permit allows foreigners access to certain areas of the main island and to named smaller islands. Some areas are off limits and others you are only allowed to pass through and not to stop so as not to interfere with ‘primitive’ local tribes and their culture.
Most tourism is centred on some of the smaller islands, notably Havelock which has highly recommended beaches. Even in Port Blair the main island of South Andaman does not feel touristy at all, being very undeveloped. A massive amount of damage was done by the Pacific tsunami a few years ago: it devastated coastal areas, killing many people and leaving behind large flooded areas and ruined buildings that remain today.
Port Blair is quite a large town and is rather rundown but generally felt OK. Even though we were some of the very few obvious foreigners we received no unwanted attention from the locals. There are few reasonable quality places to either stay or eat. We stayed at the TSG Emerald View Hotel, a mid-market establishment that is mainly used by businessmen and locals. It was fine except that we had problems with one member of staff who seemed deliberately unco-operative. Apparently Birdquest use a much more expensive resort hotel at Corbyn Cove a few miles out of town when their tour runs. Apart from the hotel restaurant we also ate at both ‘The Lighthouse’ and ‘The Lighthouse Residency’ which we reached by tuc-tuc. Both can be recommended but only the second serves alcoholic drinks: it also has rooms.
One thing to be aware of is that the whole of India uses the same time zone. Being so much further east than Delhi it gets light very early at about 5am and it is virtually dark by 6pm.
There is a malaria risk in the Andamans so prophylactics are recommended.
All of the main birding sites we visited are well within a 40km radius of Port Blair but some need to be reached by using the Chatham to Bamboo Flats ferry to avoid a much longer journey around a large bay: this runs regularly from dawn until after dark. Swiftlets roost under the piers at Chatham Jetty and emerge in a continuous swarm as it gets light.
Vikram organised a 4x4 vehicle and driver for us. One trip report mentions getting around on a motorbike. Roads were generally reasonable quality and an ordinary vehicle would be OK. Buses run along the main roads from Port Blair to Chiriya Tapu and Wandoor and there are the auto-rickshaws (tuc-tucs) everywhere for short journeys so a car is maybe not essential.
Some notes on birding sites
The main sites in order of importance are Mount Harriet National Park, Chiriya Tapu (often written differently) and various wetlands such as Sippighat and Chouldari.
Mount Harriet NP probably holds all the endemics apart from the teal. It is reached by driving a short distance east along the shore road from Bamboo Flats. A proper road winds up the hillside and the NP entrance is about half way up. There are full details in ABGTI. The stretch before the entrance is just as good as that in the park itself, and in fact the lower section is where we saw both Andaman Wood Pigeon and Andaman Cuckoo Dove, possibly the two most difficult endemics except the crake. The rest house at the top is not allowed to accommodate foreigners but Vikram was able to get the cook to provide us with omelettes and coffee to supplement the decidedly meagre pack-up the hotel had given us. We spent all of our first full day in the park, starting off with easy Andaman Treepies and Drongos, taking time to find Andaman Crake (a calling bird a few hundred metres below the rest house eventually showed itself to all of us after Vikram had used a recording to get it closer), and finishing off with superb views of Andaman Hawk Owl and reasonable ones of Andaman Scops Owl, both around the rest house area at dusk. We kept to the main road: there is a path that cuts up the slope below the entrance which is supposedly good for the pigeon and dove.
Chiriya Tapu is also covered in ABGTI. We did not do very well in the forest along the approach road but we did get Andaman Woodpecker which we had already seen at Mt Harriet and elsewhere. Our only Emerald Dove on the island was here, and we saw a Pacific Reef Egret on the shore. Endemics included the Serpent Eagle, Coucal and Drongo. We visited an open area near the village at dusk for night birds and had Andaman Nightjar (two seen well), the Andaman race of Brown Hawk Owl, or ‘Hume’s Hawk Owl’ (three seen) and Oriental Scops Owl (one seen and two heard – calls very different to mainland Indian birds heard later in the trip). Mangroves along the coast here are a site for Mangrove Whistler but we failed to find any here or elsewhere.
On the way to Chiriya Tapu we stopped where a stream/small river flowed close to the side of the road at Bidnabad: here we eventually saw Pale-footed Bush-Warbler which is a skulking scarce resident. We also heard an Andaman Crake on the forested slope across the river.
Bibltang, Sippighat, Chouldari and Oghala Branje are largely tsunami-created wetlands south-west of Port Blair, though there were marshes at some of these before the tsunami. Vikram had been seeing Andaman Teal in these areas, especially Sippighat, since the tsunami up until March 2010 but despite much searching on three of our four days we failed to find any. The only duck species we saw was Lesser Whistling Duck. We did see quite a few waders, including one or possibly two Marsh Sandpipers (I can find no previous reference to this for the Andamans) and eight Long-toed Stints at Oghale Branje. Whimbrel, Redshank, Wood Sandpiper and Lesser Sandplover were the most numerous species. All the snipe we saw called and/or looked like Common Snipe. Other species included Grey Heron and Whiskered Tern, both of unclear status. We also looked at a large marsh at Storegunj (Stewart Gunj) north of Bamboo Flats which we first saw from the top of Mount Harriet: this held large numbers of egrets, Lesser Whistling Ducks and swamphens.
The Andaman Teal was difficult to see before the tsunami, keeping further north and so away from the easily accessible areas. It may well now have retracted from the south again. The only other site mentioned in trip reports is a pool behind Beach 7 on Havelock island.
A small enclosed pond not far south of the Port Blair airfield east of the main road surprised us with six Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, a species we did not know was on the islands. Vikram told us he had been seeing them here since the start of 2010, and later I found a reference to one at Sippighat in January 2006, thought to be the first for the islands, in a trip report by Goran Pettersson.
We also had a short look along the road through an area of lowland forest at Ferrargunj, also known as Jirgatang, which is off the long road route back from Bamboo Flats to Sippighat and Port Blair: this produced Andaman Serpent Eagle, Woodpecker, Treepie and Drongo as well as both Long-tailed and Alexandrine Parakeets etc.