Andaman Trip Report
Text and images by Garima Bhatia
26 January - 1 February 2009
Corbyn's Cove, Port Blair
Part 1: around Port Blair
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.
► 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.
Part 2: Islands in the sun
► Day 3 – 28th Jan ‘09
It was Babu who gave us a wake up call in the morning, saying he was waiting at the front gate, half an hour before the appointed time! Madhavi and I got ready double quick, free of the responsibility of dragging our respective spouses out of bed kicking and screaming. (The menfolk had voted for continuing their siesta and letting us manic birders go about our birdy business). After a quick morning session of birding, we were to catch the ferry to Havelock on our return. Chidiya Tapu is the southernmost tip of Port Blair island, and its name itself conjured up visions of a tropical paradise bustling with winged beauties that would give the Kingfisher calendar a run for its money.
It was a short 15 km ride from our hotel; we left for our journey in semi darkness, and covered most of the distance swiftly. The first good catch was a brown coucal (an Andaman endemic) which seemed to be searching for something it had lost on the road. A stretch of forest before reaching our destination provided the first birding break. A raptor perched silently and watchfully on a tall tree was identified as the endemic Andaman serpent eagle, going by its small size and very dark colour. Screeching groups of Alexandrine parakeets flew about, and we IDed Asian glossy starlings and possibly an Andaman cuckoo dove at the same spot, while the call of Indian cuckoo (‘toh-toh tah-toh’ or ‘one more BOT-tle’ to those so inclined) echoed in the forest.
The forest ended as abruptly as it began, and we found ourselves at a rocky coastline. We had reached the Chidiya Tapu forest resthouse, located on a hill overlooking the sea. True to our expectations, the start to the birding was heralded by a loudly screeching stork-billed kingfisher, looking like a version of Pinochchio with its outsize red bill, and further on we were greeted by its cousin the smiley faced collared kingfisher. A juvenile white-bellied sea eagle perched among the trees next to the forest rest house, while nearby a huge flock of pompadour green pigeons basked in the sun. The road past the resthouse led over a forested hill and ended in a beach with huge trees right at the shoreline, which were a sight to behold. Many of these were now just stumps due to tsunami damage.
Some tall trees next to the beach gave us our first sighting of red-breasted parakeets and white-headed starling, albeit too high up to allow any good pictures. At one end of the beach, a stretch of mangroves where a crested serpent eagle (of the endemic Davisoni suspecies) perched “spread-eagled”. A curious flycatcher nearby came closer to investigate the clicking sound from my camera, but left me no wiser as to its own identity (Asian brown or 1st winter red-throated). On the way back from Chidiya Tapu, a common sandpiper and some red collared doves were snapped up. Back at the hotel, only to discover to our dismay that the late morning ferry that we were booked on was cancelled and we now had a few more hours to kill.
At Havelock we were going to stay in a scuba diving resort called Island Vinnie, run by Pritha and Vinnie. (I discovered by chance that Vinnie (Vandit Kalia) was an ace photographer and fellow INW member, but sadly he was away the entire time we were at Havelock.) Island Vinnie offered a pickup/drop-off service from Port Blair, and they had arranged for our tickets for the ferry ride. We spent most of the journey on the deck of the launch rather than its stuffy interior, and we passed by our lighthouse view of the day before.
The journey was just over 2 hours, and a vehicle waited at Havelock jetty to pick us up. Havelock turned out to be a delightful little island and the resort finally held a promise of that idyllic vacation I had enticed my spouse with. Lovely tented cottages set amidst tall coconut trees, a cozy restaurant called “the hungry puppy”, after the two resident dogs Sam and Frodo, and most importantly the brilliant blue sea 20 metres away. An evening walk around the beach revealed some potential birding spots nearby, including a roost of about a dozen red-breasted parakeets, which I resolved to explore early next morning.
► Day 4 – 29th Jan ‘09
Morning birding at the beach was relaxed and though it wasn’t too productive in terms of numbers of species, I got to observe collared and stork-billed kingfishers at close quarters, while a whimbrel gracefully walked the shoreline in search of crabs. One particular tree at the edge of the water seemed to be quite popular, and was visited by a mixed flock of small and scarlet minivets, and among them an especially dull coloured bird which at first glance seemed to be a female small minivet, but was later confirmed to be ashy minivet! The red-breasted parakeets were found feeding and cooing to each other very high up, making for a difficult shot.
After a leisurely breakfast and swim we set out for our chosen adventure for the day – a kayaking trip through the mangroves in a section of the island! Barefoot Scuba offers a choice of a number of different half and full day trips, from scuba diving to snorkelling and kayaking. We chose the kayaking trip between village #6 and the jetty, a journey of around 2-3 hours with two double kayaks. Unfortunately it had to be done at midday when the tide was out and the water would be calm, but we didn’t feel the heat at all as we learnt by trial-and-error the technique to manouver the kayaks in a straight line. After getting stuck in the mangrove roots, Ram and Madhavi squabbled over whose fault it was, while Ranjeet scowled at me taking pictures and avoiding my fair share of work. The French couple accompanying us watched bemused while enjoying a leisurely smoke and made kayaking seem like child’s play.
Other than an olive backed sunbird on the road and a lovely leopard lacewing at the mangroves, not much else was sighted by way of birds/butterflies, although I got momentarily excited when a black/white bird flew across the mangroves, but didn’t get a good enough look to confirm it as mangrove whistler. The mangrove stream soon grew into a river and to our horror we soon found ourselves in the open sea (I can’t swim!). Rowing suddenly became really hard work, and I found myself picking up the camera often as an excuse to rest my arms. It was a fun trip, and we got back to the resort exhausted.
In the early evening we hung out at the beach, observing a white-bellied sea eagle flying low along the shore, the lone whimbrel in the distance and a pair of Pacific golden plovers close by, of which one appeared to be limping. The evening was spent exploring various restaurants at Havelock (they fill up fast and you must go early!), and speculating on the reasons why scuba divers seemed heavily inclined to smoking. One would think they need to preserve their lungs to indulge the hobby. Oh, and did I mention that the ban on smoking in public places does not seem to have reached Havelock yet.
Part 3: Emerald. Blue. And you.
► Day 5 – 30th Jan
This morning we headed to a stretch of forest at the southern end of Havelock, past Kala Pathar beach, escorted by Sudip, a staff member at the resort. He took us first to his
village, where on a pair of adjacent trees, hundreds of green imperial pigeons and Asian glossy starlings roosted high up. Some ficus trees had attracted a flock of black-naped orioles and long-tailed parakeets (all with short tails, though! moulting?) who were at easy photographing distance. The male parakeets with their bright red cheeks and the female with her pale pink cheeks looked extremely photogenic as they feasted on the berries. The path to the forest led through some fields ruined by the tsunami, and I was pleased to discover another Andaman endemic – white-headed starling offering me a pose on a raised embankment.
The forest too was degraded due to the sea water which had rushed in during the tsunami, and left the salt behind as it evaporated. Other than large flocks of red collared doves and pompadour green pigeons, we saw a large cuckooshrike (Andaman subspecies), a male and female Asian fairy bluebird, an Andaman serpent eagle calling and briefly in flight, and most exciting of all, the endemic we had been waiting for - the spectacular Andaman woodpecker, which sadly did not allow for a shot. The morning ended with Sudip inviting us to his house for a drink, and proceeding to climb the coconut tree to fetch it – the sweetest tender coconuts we’ve ever had!
Back at the resort, post lunch we rented scooters from the market and set about to explore beach No. 7, aka Radha Nagar beach, rated one of the top beaches in Asia by Time magazine. Some birding enroute to explore part of the trail towards Elephant beach, and I added Andaman drongo and Alexandrine parakeet to my images. The beach was spectacular – white sands, gorgeous blue water and huge trees right next to it. Quite well-maintained too, except for a garbage dump hidden behind some rocks where a pair of Pacific swallows hovered about. A board from the tourism dept listed the dos and don’ts, with its corny tagline ”Emerald. Blue. And You.” After the mandatory tender coconut, we watched the sunset and headed back to the resort.
► Day 6 – 31st Jan
Ram/Madhavi went snorkelling today with the Island Vinnie gang. I had to drop out for various reasons, but decided to make the most of the last morning at Havelock. Found a black-naped monarch flycatcher and the whimbrel in its usual spot on the beach in front of the resort. We still had the scooter, and I commissioned my spouse as driver and we headed out in search of white-breasted woodswallow which Madhavi had seen the evening before on the way to Radhanagar beach. Found a flock perched on the wires soon after the market area.
At Radhanagar, the forest near the Barefoot resort echoed with the calls of Andaman woodpecker, but attempts to track it down were futile. A pair of fulvous breasted woodpeckers chasing each other were similarly uncooperative, and a singing oriental magpie robin was the only obliging avian. Heading back to the resort, we finished packing and lazed in the hammocks. Ram/M were incredibly late coming back but were bursting with excitement at their snorkelling experience, and I resolved to come back next year with contact lenses and do some snorkelling while the corals are still around.
On the ferry back to Port Blair, we enjoyed the cool breeze on the deck and watched the sunset setting the sea on fire. Groups of flying fishes skipped in and out of the water, providing much excitement, and there was also a brief sighting of a dolphin. At Port Blair we grabbed a quick dinner, and headed to Chidiya Tapu for the final night’s stay, which we had arranged through my mother’s friend who was a senior Govt official in Port Blair for several years. It took a while to get there in the darkness, and finally we managed to convince the caretaker to open two rooms for us and collapsed on the beds, exhausted
► Day 7 – 1st Feb
Morning birding revealed the usual suspects seen previously – next to the forest guest house, flocks of Pompadour green pigeons, stork-billed and common kingfisher (first of the trip!), and Andaman serpent eagle. Walking up to the forested area, orange-headed thrush was found foraging in the undergrowth, while racket-tailed drongos kept up their noisy racket-making. Walking back, I alarmed a white-breasted water hen which managed to escape through the wire fence. Red collared doves on the roadside, and white-rumped munias near the forest rest house. We watched the antics of the cute vernal hanging parrots from the balcony of the guest house, and reluctantly packed our bags for the journey back to the airport, for which Babu had shown up well in time with his taxi.
This report originally appeared in Garima's Blog at http://bonerpakhi.wordpress.com/