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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Andaman Islands: March 22-25, 2004, (direct from Bangkok),
The primary purpose of this report is to describe a new direct flight from Bangkok to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. These are the first international flights to Port Blair. Previously, all flights were internal Indian flights from Kolkata or Chennai, and the timing of flights often required an overnight stay in transit one or both ways. The direct flights are only 90 minutes from Bangkok. A series of three inaugural flights flew in late March 2004. These were operated by PB Air, a Thai airline, under charter to Barefoot Tours. These inaugural flights were primarily for publicity and to work out any logistical issues. Routine flights are scheduled to begin in December 2004, but they could begin sooner if there is adequate demand. However, the rainy season is from June to October in the Andamans; the December flights are scheduled to match the high tourist season.
The Andaman Islands have 11 endemics. In addition, the local Oriental Scops-owl has a call unlike any other Oriental Scops-owl and may be a new species, and the local White-rumped Shama is also quite distinctive with a white breast. Of the endemics, we saw Andaman Serpent-eagle, Andaman Wood-pigeon, Andaman Coucal, Andaman Woodpecker, Andaman Drongo, White-headed Starling, plus the Oriental Scops-owl during our brief visit. We did not see are the Andaman Cuckoo-dove, Andaman Treepie, Andaman Scops-owl, Andaman Hawk-owl, or Andaman Crake. However, we were there a very short time so our experience cannot be considered representative. From other sources we understand that all but the crake can be reliably found with a bit more time (the crake requiring some luck as well).
The tour operator plans to lobby for the Nicobar Islands, now closed to non-Indians, to be opened for selected eco-tours (primarily diving, but birding would also be available). The Nicobars are south of the Andamans, and host a further five endemics plus they share four of the Andaman endemics. While the direct flight from Bangkok is itself an exciting development, adding the possibility of the Nicobars would really make this an interesting trip. According to the tour operator, the Indian government is not generally encouraging tourism in the Andamans because most tourists to date have been back-packers who have not spent any money there. Indeed, most non-Indians we saw were definitely in the budget category. Apparently the Indian government heavily subsidizes the Andmanas, so they see no reason to subsidize the budget tourists as well. But this could change if tourists are flying in from Bangkok and leaving a few more rupees there. The Nicobar Islands are also in a military area, but the consensus was that this was not as big an issue as it was a few years ago.
We took the second international flight to the Andamans on March 22 (the first reserved for government dignitaries) on PB Air. Because the Andamans are part of India, an Indian company, Barefoot Tours, actually chartered the flights. E-mail: Ashish Gupta [firstname.lastname@example.org]. We were the only birders on the flights. Most others were divers, with some press plus representatives of other tour companies interested in using the flights to open a new market. The cost for the airfare, plus three nights lodging including three breakfasts, and the ferry ride to/from Havelock, was 15,000 baht (approx USD 400) per person. This was an introductory rate so normal fares may be somewhat higher.
Because of the structured itinerary on these initial flights, we ended up having very limited birding time. We had a scheduled departure from Bangkok on March 22 at 11AM. Because of some delays, we arrived in Port Blair at noon local time (Port Blair is 90 minutes behind Bangkok, which coincidentally is the flight time to Port Blair from Bangkok). Immigration went smoothly at Port Blair, despite the fact that this was the first time they had really done international immigration there. We were met by the efficient representatives of Barefoot Tours and immediately transferred to the 1:30PM ferry to Havelock. (the critical point here is that if we had been delayed by another 30 minutes, we would have missed this last ferry of the day and the entire itinerary would have fallen apart).
At Immigration, we were given our entry permit, which is an incredibly important document. This has identification information as well as shows where you are allowed to go. We had to show this often.
The ferry from Port Blair to Havelock takes 4 hours with a brief stop at Neil Island. So the time on the ferry amounts to a significant amount of time for a short trip such as we had. We stayed at the Jungle Resort on Havelock Island for two nights before taking the ferry back to Port Blair, where we stayed one additional night at the Fortune Bay Resort. This is a terrible itinerary for a short birding trip, as we spent a total of eight hours on the ferry, round-trip. Based on comments from others, there is no real need to go to Havelock Island, as the key birds are also found on the main South Andaman island. However, we did have more success on Havelock Island than on the main island. Snorkeling is reported to be good on Havelock, but this is at Elephant Bay, not at the Jungle Resort beach. The beach itself at Jungle Resort is beautiful.
The Jungle Resort was described by another guest there as "rustic" which is a fair assessment. It was clean, but with lots of insects. Mosquito nets are on the beds. The food was quite good, but the menu was basic and would be tedious after a few days. Our tour operator said that the reason why there were no better hotels on Havelock is that the budget tourists will not pay more than 500 rupees (USD 10) per night, so there is no incentive for anyone to build a nicer place. This would certainly change if demand developed. The Fortune Bay hotel in Port Blair was a 3-star hotel, and is apparently the nicest in the Andamans.
Overall, the Andamans are cleaner and more organized than mainland India, but it is still India. The ferry was chaotic and there was a lot of bureaucracy.
Flight from Bangkok to Port Blair, transfer to ferry to Havelock, arrive Jungle resort at 6PM. As the Andamans are the same time zone as mainland India far to the west, sunrise is at 5AM and sunset at 6PM, so we arrived too late for any birding this day. Looked for owls after dark, no luck. Possibly heard Andaman Hawk-owl.
Walking trails around the resort and on some trails in the forest behind the resort (starting near the yoga center) in morning and afternoon. Endemics seen were: Andaman Coucal (common, around the resort as well as in the forest behind the yoga center); Andaman Drongo (common in forest); White-headed Starling (common around the resort); Andaman Woodpecker (one seen near the beach); Andaman Serpent-eagle (one perched in the forest, another later flying); Andaman Wood-pigeon (a few seen near the beach, not easy to separate from the many Green Imperial Pigeons). Mid-day spent snorkeling and enjoying the beach. After dinner, walked around and heard several and saw three Oriental Scops-owls around the grounds. These owls sound completely unlike "normal" Oriental Scops-owls, and very much like an African Scops-owl with a slightly lower-pitched trill. Many thanks to Dave Sargeant for advising us about this or we would have been very puzzled.
Quick hike around a protected forest near the beach. 10 AM ferry departure back to Port Blair. Arrived for lunch, then departed to Mount Harriet Park. This involves taking a ferry from Port Blair (Chatham landing) to Bamboo Flats, which takes about 20 minutes, and then a taxi to the top of Mt Harriet. Another option is a taxi to the bottom of Mt Harriet, and then walking up and down. Others have reported Andaman Cuckoo-dove and Andaman Treepie near the bottom - we did not see these birds, although we had a received a report of fly-by Andaman Cuckoo-doves in the late afternoon at the top of Mt Harriet. We only had time to go up, arriving at 3PM, and to walk down before dark.
We did not see any new endemics at Mt Harriet. We did see another Andaman Woodpecker, plus a lot of SE Asian birds we had not seen on Havelock. We waited until dusk and then started walking down the hill, trying for owls. Near the bottom we heard several Andaman Hawl-owls, at least one within 25 meters, but we never saw one. We did not hear any other owls.
Key points re the trip to Mt Harriet:
1) When returning from Bamboo Flats, be sure to take the ferry back to the Chatham landing at Port Blair. Other ferries go to other "Port Blair" locations;
2) Ask about the ferry schedule. The ferry nominally runs every half-hour until 9:30PM. But the 8PM ferry did not run, and we caught the 8:30PM, which turned out to be the last of the day. Getting stuck at Bamboo Flats after the last ferry would mean a long and expensive taxi ride back to Port Blair.
3) Ferry fare to Bamboo Flats was only a few rupees; taxi was 300 rupees each way to the park (he waited for us); park admission was 500 rupees for two. We elected a taxi but tuk-tuks are also available and cheaper, but I wonder if they can even make it up the hill.
4) We recommend hiring a taxi for the return trip to Bamboo Flats when making the trip to Mt Harriet. Others have suggested that it is easy to get a taxi at the bottom, but when we arrived at the bottom at 7:30PM the place was deserted except for our waiting taxi.
Depart to Bangkok immediately after breakfast.
So, we essentially had only one and a half days of birding. In addition to the endemics, we saw a wide range of typical SouthEast Asian birds as listed below.
As noted above, our short trip is probably not representative of what to expect on a dedicated birding trip. We would recommend staying on the main South Andaman Island and spending time at Mt Harriet and at Chiriyatapu (at the south end of the main island). Snorkeling is available on some nearby islands on day trips so a visit to Havelock is not necessary for that. The following report has good general information:
A Birdwatchers Guide to India, Kris Kazmierczak and Rakj Singh, BirdWatchers Guides / Prion Limited, distributed by the National History Book Service, UK, has maps and bird lists.
In addition, David Sargeant advises he will soon post his report on a recent visit on Worldtwitch.
Bird List (endemics in bold)
Pompadour Green Pigeon
Green Imperial Pigeon
Pied Imperial Pigeon
Vernal Hanging Parrot
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo