After two years of vacationing in Goa – most satisfactorily, I might add – we decided that our beach vacation for 2009 would be to the Andaman Islands instead. Of course, my interest in going to Andamans was very far from beach bumming. Vijay Cavale’s trip report and the prospect of seeing several endemic birds was clearly the motivation for me. Andamans was reported to have 84% forested area, much of it relatively unexplored, with a remarkable biodiversity. Not that we were going to venture into unexplored wilderness, but the prospect of going where few birders had been before had a certain lure about it.
However, I was careful not to drop any hints about the true nature of the trip to my non-birding (and increasingly anti-birder) spouse, and instead packaged it as an idyllic holiday consisting entirely of consuming copious quantities of beer (or coconut water) while lying in a deck chair next to a pristine and deserted beach, and occasionally venturing for a dip in the crystal clear water. Having thus gotten my unsuspecting better half hooked on the idea, I proceeded to rope in our close friends Madhavi (my regular birding partner) and Ram (erstwhile birder who can sometimes be lured into birding through bribes of chocolate cake) for the trip.
Havelock island was identified as the focus of our holiday since it appeared to have all the required amenities to meet our varied expectations – pristine beaches (ranked among the top 10 in Asia), snorkelling/kayaking for the adventure minded and forested areas easily accessible for the birder, without requiring us to rough it out or sacrifice any of the modern trappings of civilization. Havelock was a 3hr ferry ride from Port Blair, and the constraints of ferry timings meant that we had to factor in a short stay in Port Blair on both ends. My colleague had visited Havelock last year, and recommended it highly, on his informative and useful blog post.
Day 1 – 26th Jan ’09
We flew into Port Blair by the 10 AM Kingfisher flight from Chennai. I did my homework on the flight and marked the endemics and species we were likely to see, using this checklist from kolkatabirds.com. Also made a note of the species we were NOT going to see – common “mainland” species like black kites and red vented bulbuls were completely absent. The flight itself was uneventful but afforded spectacular views of the islands on the descent. Our hotel Palm Grove Eco resort, slightly south of the airport and away from the main tourist area of Port Blair, had sent us a taxi for our pickup which was useful. The hotel itself turned out to be disappointing and nothing like what was promised on the website (in retrospect, the words “Eco Resort” should have alerted us!). Our rooms were right next to a dirty stream which looked suspiciously like it provided the water for our bathrooms (an assumption which turned out to be correct). I chose to look on the bright side and hoped we might at least see some kingfishers, but the only wildlife specimens we got there were an alarming number of monstrous mosquitoes which could possibly be mistaken for birds!
With this inauspicious start we were anxious to spend as little time as possible in the hotel, and immediately set off for Corbyn’s cove for lunch and waders. The first waders we got were the wrong species though – lecherous locals who had descended upon Corbyn’s Cove in droves for a splash on Republic Day. Not to be deterred by the unwanted attention we were drawing with our binocs and cameras, we scoured the tall trees next to the beach where we found several pairs of scarlet and small minivets, and could hear greenish warblers calling. Venturing a little past the tourist area, a rocky stretch of beach yielded Pacific golden plovers, Kentish plovers and common sandpiper. Finding nothing else noteworthy, we returned back towards the hotel, where a watercock mother and chick walked around in the marshy area next door. A brown coucal called nearby and gave a tantalizing glimpse, and I was happy to check off the first endemic of the trip. House sparrows and olive-backed sunbirds were found in the trees around the hotel, and oriental magpie robins singing away to glory.
After a hasty cup of tea we headed to the “town” for dinner and also checked out the sound and light show at the Cellular Jail, which turned out to be surprisingly good. We arranged for the taxi to arrive early the next morning and take us to Mt. Harriett National Park, where we had decided to spend the next day.
Day 2 – 27th Jan ’09
At the appointed hour we waited impatiently at the hotel entrance, anxious to start the long journey. Mt. Harriett National Park is located on Port Blair island at the other end of a C-shaped coastline, which means that it is a 60 km journey by road (which travels around the coastline) or a 15 km road journey following a short 5-min ride by ferry (which cuts across the bay). Since our interest was in birding, we wanted to go by road and take birding breaks along the way. Daylight comes early to the islands, as they are in the IST time zone but located way east, in fact closer to Burma. So it was all the more important for us to have an early start. However, our carefully laid plans came to naught. After numerous calls and curses, our taxi finally showed up at the hotel, with a driver who looked like he had just tumbled out of bed. Apparently there had been some miscommunication, and it came as a shock to him to find out that we intended to cover the entire journey by road. He flatly refused, for love or money, to take us there, and any number of abuses hurled at him couldn’t change his mind.
Finally, we gave up and attempted to find a mode of transportation to take us into town where our chances of getting a taxi to Mt. Harriett were higher. An auto was commissioned, and we piled into it and headed straight to Ananda restaurant for breakfast. A hearty meal later, we hired a taxi driven by an affable and ever-smiling chap called Babu, who quickly endeared himself to us with his remarkable agility in screeching to a halt at a split second’s notice when an interesting bird was in sight. A soaring white-bellied sea eagle called out the first stop, followed by a wood sandpiper.
Soon after, at Sippighat, a sighting of hundreds of waders, and among them, a dozen or so dabbling ducks which were promptly identified as the endemic and rare Sunda teal. The waders largely consisted of common sandpipers and Kentish plovers. A few kms on, another huge flock of Sunda teals in one of the numerous small “lakes” formed during the tsunami when sea water entered agricultural fields and failed to retreat. At the same place, collared and white-throated kingfishers, red collared doves and a little heron. Another stop for glossy swiftlets high in the sky. Brown shrikes were ubiquitous, and we encountered one every few metres throughout our stay in Andamans. They were as numerous as the bl***y bulbuls back home.
The drive took us well over 2 hours, with frequent stops for birding. One of the stops was called out by Babu, who then led us to a “scenic point” on a slope. Once there, he dramatically whipped out a Rs. 20 note, and pointed to the image depicted on the back of the note – a view from a hill, overlooking a bay with a distant lighthouse seen through tall coconut trees. We were delighted to find that we were at the very same spot, looking at that view in person! Some birding at that area also revealed a flock of Asian glossy starlings, another lifer for us.
Mt. Harriett turned out to be a spectacular tropical evergreen forest of the kind I had never seen in India before (reminiscent of some forest areas of Singapore) with a remarkable biodiversity of trees, even to my untrained eyes. The forest guest house located on top of the hill had beautiful views of the coastline, and a watch tower at eye level of the tree canopy. We had reached past noon, and after placing an order for bread and omelettes at the kitchen, we set off to explore the trails, where we spotted fulvous breasted woodpecker, racket-tailed drongo and the endemic Andaman drongo, a changeable hawk eagle perched high on a tree, the Andaman subspecies of black-headed bulbul, in addition to several butterflies and some lizards.
Back at the forest guest house area, and an encounter with a curious and incredibly cute vernal hanging parrot which evidently got taken in by my imitation of its call and kept peering down from its perch (atop a lamp-post) to take a closer look at yours truly. As is usual in such circumstances, my camera was not with me then. A ficus tree had attracted quite a lot of birds, and we spotted black-naped orioles and fairy bluebirds lunching together there, while brown backed needletails zoomed around overhead. The watch-tower was a perfect look-out point, and we spotted dozens of green imperial pigeons in the tree canopy, a hill myna and fulvous-breasted woodpecker came visiting, and the orioles and hanging parrots provided colour to the scene.
Before leaving we decided to head for the trail again to try our luck, and this time we managed to spot the endemic Andaman treepies, which made quite a racket like their mainland cousins, but proved very hard to photograph due to the thick tree cover. No other species were added to our list there, and we left Mt. Harriett with some time to spare for unscheduled birding stops on the return journey. By this time Babu was getting the hang of birding, and would slow down every few minutes to point out any and every bird, most of them red whiskered bulbuls. However, soon enough a beautiful emerald dove appeared on the road and posed nicely. We were careful not to make any sound or attempt to get down from the car, and it rewarded us by allowing itself to be photographed at leisure.
At the base of the hill, at Bamboo Flat, we decided to cut short the journey and take the ferry back, driving the car onto the launch. The ride took only a couple of minutes to Port Blair jetty, and after an early dinner, we headed back to the hotel, commissioning Babu to show up early the next morning to take us to Chidiya Tapu.
(continued in Part 2)
Other pics from part 1: