Where does one start to describe the trip of a lifetime? In December ’15 I spent 12 days between Great Nicobar and Central Nicobar enjoying the pristine, untouched beauty of the islands (a selfish thank you to Govt of India for not allowing tourists into this paradise). There was amazing birding with many new birds (18 for me), great birding company, beautiful forests and beaches (mostly inaccessible with hardly any roads).
It started with a phone call discreetly informing me that Shashank, along with Gaurav Kataria, was organizing a 2 week birding survey to the Nicobar Islands in December. I lost no time in signing up but permissions took several months to come through, after diligent follow ups at the highest level by Gaurav. Finally I arrived in Port Blair on 12th along with Alka where we joined the rest of the group and promptly proceeded for evening birding at Chidiyatapu. Our first bird was a Crested Serpent Eagle (Andamans ssp) and at the beach (Bada Balu) we had a bumper sighting of 2 Beach Thick-knees in the dying light. Night birding added 3 species of owls to our kitty, including Andamans Masked owl, and the two hawk owls (Andaman and Hume’s), while the 2 scops owls proved elusive, though we heard their calls.
13th Dec – Port Blair, South Andaman
With this auspicious start, the next morning was spent at a forest called Kalatang, where I added Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike to my life list, and everyone enjoyed great views of the Andamans specialities like the woodpecker, treepie, drongo, cuckoo dove etc. The highlight though was a spectacular sighting of 3 Black Bazas perched in a tree right above our heads. We spent several fruitful hours there and finally left for Shoal Bay. En route, a halt in a field revealed a pair of White-breasted Woodswallows as well as around 20 Pin-tailed Snipes. Shoal bay itself was disappointing but that was to be expected as we were there at the peak of noon. Returning to Port Blair, we stopped at Sippighat to look at the flock of Andaman Teals, but our guide Gokul was super excited by 3 Garganeys that were in the group. Some bitterns, waders and reed warblers later, we headed back to Port Blair for an extremely late lunch, and in the evening set out again for more wader watching.
This time we had excellent views of Broad-billed and Curlew sandpipers, a lone Eurasian Curlew and several stints of questionable identity, which were hesitantly IDed as Red-necked and Long-toed. An excellent day of birding was rounded off by watching the roosting spectacle and cacophony of hundreds of Purple-backed Starlings (with many more Common Mynas) which would descend noisily into a group of trees and promptly disappear from sight.
14th Dec – Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar
The next day was the much awaited start to the Nicobar trip, with a helicopter ride to Campbell bay on the island of Great Nicobar. Before we could board the helicopter, everyone had to get on the dreaded weighing scale and pretend to be lighter than they actually were. Our bags were weighed as well (5kg limit!) but luckily noone seemed to notice that we had slung our heavy cameras and binoculars around our necks to prevent them from being a part of the baggage weight. Waders on the runway at Car Nicobar (refueling stop) provided a momentary diversion until we were reprimanded for the use of binoculars in a restricted area. The view of the pristine and dense forests of the Nicobar Islands was enough to set the pulse racing with anticipation of the avian treasures that lay within. We were received at the ‘airport’ by Atul and Shashank, sadly in a ‘normal’ car (Atul had been picked up a few days back in a fire engine!) and regaled with stories of a Hooded Pitta that sat like a ‘gulabjamun’ and a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler that Shashank heard and saw (while Atul refused to get out of the vehicle confusing it with Pale-footed Bush Warbler which he had already seen and hence relegated to the ‘kooda’ bin). En route from the airstrip we ticked off Collared Kingfisher and a flock of Yellow Wagtails (possibly Eastern). True to expectation, the culinary highlights of Campbell bay had already been identified and we were led directly to Suruchi restaurant for a quick breakfast of puri bhaji topped off with excellent gulabjamuns (real ones) to which we would return again and again for our sweet fix. The APWD guest house was to be our home for the next 3 days while we waited for the others in the group to arrive from Port Blair (since only 2 of us could get tickets for the helicopter each day), and from its porch Pied Imperial Pigeons, Glossy Starlings and a Chinese Sparrowhawk were quickly added to the list.
The island of Great Nicobar had two roads running through it – a North-south road which extends to 35 km from Campbell Bay, and an East-West Road going to Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve, where people of the Shompen tribe reside (and make a daily trip in a Govt vehicle to Campbell Bay where they receive “rations” of rice, dal etc). Campbell Bay itself was a one-street town with the PWD guest house the only place to stay, which also provided dinner to various local officials, including a jovial lady teacher from the Govt school nearby.
The weather was hot and sultry, and it was late afternoon when we set out on the East-West Road for a birding session. In the Biosphere reserve, Shashank quickly identified a Nicobar Jungle Flycatcher singing, which subsequently gave great views in a dark bamboo grove. We soon checked off a resplendent male Crimson Sunbird, the ubiquitous Black-naped Monarch, and sat on a bench at the ‘birding point’ enjoying the view. Soon after dusk, a Brown Hawk Owl started calling right above our heads and was joined by another individual. We decided however to postpone our owl quest till after the others had arrived, and made our way back to the guest house.
15th Dec – Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar
We left from the guest house at the unearthly hour of 3.30am, aiming to scope out a possible active nest of Nicobar Megapode, one of our main target species on this trip. A heavy downpour at 3am turned into a steady drizzle as we drove in the dark to forest guard Prem Kumar’s house, who was to lead us to the nest. [A side story: Prem was later nicknamed ‘LK’ for reasons that shall remain undisclosed, but apparently he had been the recipient of a solid earful from his better half a couple of days back, as witnessed by our intrepid duo A and S, for suggesting that she make tea for them. He reportedly was subsequently seen meekly preparing and serving tea for the guests himself.]
We arrived at Prem’s house at ’35 mile’, which was the southern end of the North-south road (there are plans and work under way to extend this all the way to the southernmost tip of Great Nicobar, also the southernmost tip of India, called Indira Point, though the road would be cutting through pristine forest and destroying habitat for no good reason). He then led us on foot up and down a slippery shortcut which left us drenched in sweat and woke up my muscles in a jiffy. Through the shortcut we made our way down to the beach and from there into the adjacent forest where we soon found the nest and settled ourselves behind our hide to wait for the bird to show up. The Megapode, though, had other plans, and several hours later with countless mosquito bites and severely cramped legs we made our way back dejected. This time instead of the shortcut we took the longer route along the road under construction, which was just a river of slush thanks to the downpour. A sardar in charge of the road construction provided Atul with a more amenable target (rather than yours truly) on whom to hone his Punjabi speaking skills. On the drive back we encountered a Serpent Eagle (verdict awaited on its identity) and a Honey-buzzard soaring in the thermals. Back at the PWD guest house we met the next two arrivals of the group, and decided to start for the birding session only after lunch once the heat of the day had reduced.
Afternoon birding at the Biosphere Reserve revealed the usual suspects – flocks of Glossy Starlings, Long-tailed Parakeets and Pied Imperial and Nicobar Imperial Pigeons, with a family of Long-tailed Macaque (also called Crab-eating Macaque) posing near the birding point. A Hooded Pitta was particularly vocal but never showed itself in the dense undergrowth, while the familiar “one-more-bottle” or “kaifal-pako” of the Indian Cuckoo could be heard in the distance. Suddenly, a pair of large pigeons flew across the valley, and the prominent white tail led to a collective whoop of delight – Nicobar Pigeons! On the way back we heard a Cuckoo call that sounded unfamiliar (and was recorded), while just outside the forest checkpost, the chattering of Nicobar Scops Owls made us tumble out of the vehicle in time to catch a glimpse of two individuals calling and chasing each other.
16th Dec – Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar
We decided to spend our final morning at Campbell Bay birding at the Biosphere Reserve, since all our sessions there so far had been in the evening. Walking past the birding point, we encountered the usual suspects – Black-naped Monarch, Imperial Pigeons and Glossy Starlings, in addition to the very vocal Racket-tailed Drongos and Hill Mynas. We had heard the Asian Koels calling on every single visit, and wondered whose nest they might be parasitizing in the complete absence of crows on the island. While the others got up close and personal with a Nicobar Jungle Flycatcher, I admired a far-away Nicobar Parakeet through my binoculars. A bird flew across the path, and was seen hopping away in the undergrowth – Orange-headed Thrush. It did not have the black face stripes of the peninsular subspecies, and indeed the species found on Nicobar islands was distinct from both of the mainland subspecies. However, none of us could manage a photograph. The birds here were generally quite skittish, and we guessed it might be due to prevalence of hunting among the tribal communities on the island.
We returned back to the guest house early (ostensibly because we wanted to meet the final two arrivals, but in reality the dosas planned for our breakfast were on everyone’s mind), on the way we again saw the Himalayan Cuckoo and Common Kestrel in exactly the same place as the previous day. At the guest house we finally met up, in full strength, and some people welcomed the new arrivals by the unique ritual of holding up their smelly socks to their unwitting noses. The dosas were par excellence, and effusive compliments to the women cooking in the kitchen were speedily delivered. We now had a few hours to kill until lunch, and everyone made use of the time to do laundry or to catch up on sleep. I made my way down to the beach nearby, which turned out to be a lovely little patch, totally secluded but well-maintained by the forest department, where I met an elderly Bengali forest guard who had actually accompanied Ravi Sankaran and Sivashankar on their early birding expeditions for the Megapode!
We started out soon after lunch, back towards the Biosphere reserve, but on the way we stopped to photograph the handsome Pied Imperial Pigeons and Glossy Starlings that appeared to be nesting in the tree stumps along the road. Our party of eight now made a conspicuous sight on this island where no tourists were generally seen, and we were soon approached by two plainclothes policemen demanding to see our permits, which were duly produced. Attempts to find the Pale-legged Leaf Warbler proved futile, but before the forest checkpost we got good views of a distant Nicobar Parakeet. We failed to add anything new to our lists, and settled down to wait for dusk for an attempt at the Nicobar Scops Owl. We found an individual near the forest checkpost again, and Shashank got busy trying to record its call, while Atul and I tried yoga poses on the road under the guidance of Sumathi, in an attempt to provide relief to our still-severely-cramped muscles, yet to recover from our Megapode scramble the previous day. Recording done, we headed back to the town, where we tracked down some more Nicobar Scops Owls and made purchases of essential supplies such as chocolate to prepare for our camping sojourn the next day.
To be continued… up next… Camping at Galathea Bay!