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Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Focus - Andaman Islands!

The Andaman Islands is quite unlike any other part of India I have visited. Lush evergreen forests and the sea all around. A closer look throws up abundant joy for any nature lover in these less explored islands. Here you must always be prepared to stumble upon the unexpected!

Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park - Wandoor, Andaman Islands.
There are over 250 species of birds in Andaman Islands. We had a wonderful time sighting, photographing and recording calls of some of these birds in the six full days we spent there.

As usual, I am happy to share this experience with you. Hope you enjoy the journey...

Like I said, I would never have expected to see this Green Lizard right inside our room at the Bartang - Forest Rest House, Andanam Islands!

The Andaman Islands are a group of islands in the Bay of Bengal, and are part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territory of India. We spent 18th to 24th September, 2007 in Andaman Islands. While we did manage to photograph and record calls of many birds, we ended up discovering and photographing many other subjects as well.

A Little about habitats we encountered ..

The land area is actually made up of several islands. South Andaman, Middle Andaman and the North Andaman are comparatively close together forming the bulk of the land area. The three are divided by straits that one can easily cross by ferry.

1. The inland habitat that we saw were mainly wet, cultivated land. Some with crop, some without. We could walk into this habitat freely, but our feet would be buried in slush.

2. Almost all forest area were thick evergreen. Impossible to navigate as we did not find any well formed roads at all. Most of our walks into this forest were into dark, wet, narrow tunnels. Many a time we had to make our own path. Lots of thorns too. No mammals sightings. Plenty of leach and swarms of mosquitoes. Bamboo, cane, palms and all! Here is how the evergreen forest looks...

3. The endless shores were clean and tranquil. We hardly saw any humans and could walk around freely. Thousands of crabs though.

4. There were of course mangrove forests everywhere. At Bartang, they have made a "Mangrove Walk". Unique exerience!

Get set, go...

Pratap Singh Ji (PS), currently at WII, Dehradun initiated this trip. PS is an IFS officer who has a great passion for recording bird calls. I am not aware of any other human who has recorded calls of over 800 species of birds found in India! Unique. Very many thanks to him for making everything you read below happen!

Giri Cavale (Giri), my other companion during this trip, as usual was a great asset. He was able to photograph many species of birds during this trip. His sharp eyes never misses anything and his enthusiasm is quite contagious. Thanks Giri for all the help.

On the 17th night, Giri and myself left Bangalore by flight and landed in Chennai at midnight. PS had taken a train to Delhi from Dehradun and then a flight to Chennai. We all met and loitered in the Chennai airport for about 4 hrs before we boarded our flight to Port Blair at 4.30 am on the 18th morning. So, the first night we had no sleep at all! Thus, started our endurance test!

Our two hour flight from Chennai to Port Blair was quite uneventful except that the captain announced that we could expect some delay in landing due to a thunder storm at Port Blair. I did not know quite what to expect, as there had been a tsunami warning even before we left home! However, we landed on time at 6.30 am on the 18th of September, 2007 at Port Blair. The rain had just stopped as we deplaned.

Mr. Thomas, the Assistant Conservator of Forests at Port Blair met us at the airport and gave us a warm welcome! He helped us with all logistics for our entire stay at Andaman. Thanks very much Mr. Thomas for making our stay in Andaman so very comfortable!

Giri and myself had absolutely no idea of our itinerary. PS had already spent four years in Andaman, two of which as the Conservator of Forests. All we had to do was blindly follow him!

I have split this report into three legs based on our place of stay for the night.

First leg - Chidiyatapu - 18th Night.

From the airport, we quickly bundled into our vehicle and headed straight to Chidiyatapu, a bird paradise not very far from Port Blair, about 20 kms. The drive to Chidiyatapu, from Port Blair is along the coastline. 10 mts on this road we were already photographing birds with the usual excitement of spotting a new species in a new place! A Collared Kingfisher gave us a very friendly welcome raising our expectation of the journey ahead by several notches!

We checked into the Forest Rest House at Chidiyatapu at about 8 am. The location of this Rest House is magnificent. It over looks a vast stretch of sea on one side and is surrounded by evergreen forest that are full of birds!

We spent the rest of the morning along the coastline road, in our vehicle, as it would rain often for short spells. At noon the skies opened up and it poured like there was no tomorrow. We had to rush back to the Rest House and were held hostage by the continuous heavy rain until the next morning!

The next morning (19th) the rains stopped! Giri and myself walked the rain forest round the Chidiyatapu area from 7am to 1pm, constantly looking for shooting opportunities. We saw and heard many birds. The star sighting was an Andaman Crake that dashed off before we could wink! Photographing birds was a major challenge as most of them would stick to the higher branches of the tall trees. However, we did manage to shoot some.

We left Chidiyatapu at about 3 pm and headed out to reach Wandoor via Port Blair. We made a brief halt at Van Sadan and met the Chief Conservator of Forests who himself is a very good wildlife photographer. PS, who had spent the night at Port Blair joined us from then on as we proceeded to reach Wandoor by dusk.

This ended our first leg during which we encountered the following birds:
(All names from the “ Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp.)

1. Collared Kingfisher. 2. White-bellied Sea Eagle. 3. Whimbrel. 4. Common Sandpiper. 5. Greater Sand Plover. 6. Stork-billed Kingfisher. 7. Scarlet Minivet. 8. Small Minivet. 9. Oriental White-eye. 10. Olive-backed Sunbird. 11. Plain Flowerpecker. 12. Crested Serpent Eagle. 13. Common Kingfisher. 14. Blue-eared Kingfisher. 15. Asian Fairy Bluebird. 16. Andaman Drongo. 17. Long-tailed Parakeet. 18. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. 19. Magpie Robin. 20. Red-whiskered Bulbul. 21. Andaman Treepie. 22. Brown-backed Needletail. 23. Common Myna. 24. Red Collared Dove. 25. White-headed Starling. 26. White-rumped Munia. 27. Black-naped Oriole. 28. Pacific Reef Egret. 29. Orange-headed Thrush. 30 Lesser Whistling-Duck. 31. Vernal Hanging Parrot. 32. Andaman Crake. 33. Little Heron. 34. Andaman Cuckoo Dove.

Second Leg - Wandoor - 19th and 20th Night.

Traveling around Andaman is quite pleasant. Not much traffic on the road and the distances are short. It was dark by the time we reached the Forest Rest House at Wandoor. As we sat down with a welcome cup of tea, I saw a cat pawing at something. A closer look reveled a medium sized snake defending itself from the cat. Giri was in action with his camera! We watched the cat withdraw and the snake fade into the darkness of the night. Welcome to Wandoor!

Early next morning (20th) at 5.30 am, we left the Forest Rest House and took a boat to the opposite island. We had just about crossed over and were contemplating our next move when it started raining. We spent sometime on the shore safe guarding our equipment with umbrellas! As the rain continued, I decided to head back to the Rest House while PS and Giri decided to explore the thick, dark and wet rain forest! They came back at 10 am after recording calls of several birds. Giri had photographed a couple of birds that we still have to ID.

There were plenty of birds around the Rest House. I had a great time photographing some of them in the "on and off" rain.

From the Wandoor Jetty, just below the Rest House, one can take a boat ride and watch corals. This is a major tourist attraction in the area. We had to skip that, as the sea was rough due to recent rains.

After a late breakfast we hired a vehicle and left for the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, Wandoor. We made short stops along the way as we sighted, photographed and recorded calls of many birds.

At one place, in my excitement of photographing Grey Plovers, I left my tripod just off the road. An hour later when I returned in search of it, the tripod was standing right there! Such a relief!

Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park

The Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park (MGMP) is situated at Wandoor, 29 kms west of Port Blair in the South Andaman Island. Spread over 15 islands and covering an area of 281.5 sq km, this Marine National Park hosts tropical evergreen forests, mangroves, coral reefs and a huge variety of marine life.

Since our focus was birds, we had to ignore the marine life! After entering one part of MGMP, we drove along the coast for a short distance and then went for a long walk in the dense rain forest. That afternoon just melted away in the lap of mother nature. The sea, the clean shores, the thick forest all around was quite a heady experience, more so as we were the only humans around!

Soon it was time to head back. It gets dark at 5.30 pm in Andaman. We were back in the Forest Rest House at dusk. An early dinner and we called it a day! About 12 hrs of non-stop activity, rain or shine!

Here are the additional species of birds we saw on the 20th :

35. Hill Myna. 36. Black-headed Bulbul. 37. Changeable Hawk Eagle. 38. Green Imperial Pigeon. 39. Grey Plover. 40. Mangrove Whistler. 41. Great Egret. 42. Little Egret. 43. Watercock. 44. White-rumped Shama.

Third Leg - Bartang - 21st and 22nd Night.

Next morning (21st) we left Wandoor and drove straight to Bartang, about 100 kms from Wandoor. We had to abandon our plans to proceed to Mount Harriet National Park as we got information that the access road was blocked due to heavy rains. Our vehicle with Peter as the driver arrived at 5 am. Peter was very resourceful and stayed with us for the rest of our time in Andaman.

The drive from Wandoor to Bartang was the longest and the most exciting road journey we made in Andaman. On the way we spent an hour trying to photograph a Cinnamon Bittern in a paddy field. Finally, Giri got a decent flight shot.

We reached the RFO's office and met with Ms. Bharka. She was kind enough to accompany us to the ferry crossing at Bartang. On the way we sighted several birds. On crossing over the "strait" in a ferry we reached our Forest Rest House at Bartang. We quickly had lunch and left to explore the area. That afternoon too passed in a flash. We sighted, recorded and photographed several birds and we were soon back to bed after a great dinner at 8 pm.

Lime Stone Cave

Early next morning (22nd) we went in a boat to explore the Lime Stone Cave! This Lime Stone Cave is about 8 Kms from the Bartang Jetty. The early morning (5.30 am) boat ride was refreshing as we passed vast stretches of mangroves. We kept a sharp look out for birds all the way and back. The cave itself is a major tourist attraction as hundreds of boats reach this place each week. Inside the dark cave we saw, by torchlight, various intriguing formations of Lime Stone dropping down from the roof of the cave. Certainly something to wonder about!

Lime Stone Cave
After visiting this cave we headed back to the Rest House for breakfast. We then went on a long drive in the Bartang area. We spotted several birds all along.

Water Monitor

We were lucky to see this Water Monitor in the rain on this drive.

Water Monitor
At 4 pm as the light began to fade, I left PS and Giri to continue recording bird calls and went to see the "Mud Volcano".

Mud Volcano

The Mud Volcano was quite unlike what I had imagined it to be. I walked up a small slope of what looked like dry mud to reach a small area at the top. This fenced area had four or five anthill like projections from which I could see some kind of liquid bubbling out. I could see bubbles pop-up now and then. There were several warning boards all around cautioning me about the danger at the place where I stood! There was no one around except Peter and me. I stood there for about 15 minutes thinking, wondering!

Mud Volcano - Bartang, Andaman Islands.
I returned to the "Rest House" at dusk. The other two returned much later with some Owl sightings and call recordings. Giri had managed to photograph an Owl.

That night we watched the two T20 cricket semi finals at the Bartang Rest House! What a day this had been! 5 am to 1 am. Poof!

Parrot Island

Next morning I woke a bit late as PS and Giri went to look at the Mud Volcano. On their return we had breakfast and left for Port Blair. At the Jetty, we came to know that we could hit the road only at 11. 30 am. We had two hours to kill. The local RFO Mr. Sharth suggested we take a quick boat ride to Parrot Island. He told us that thousands of parakeets (mixed group) roost in this island every night. At dawn they fly away. He wanted to know if we knew why they choose only this Island?

Parrot Island turned out to be a very small piece of mangrove right in the middle of nowhere! We could see that this particular patch of mangrove had been neatly pruned by the birds and looked close to a just plucked, tea garden! Why just this patch? Only questions no answers! Maybe some other day, we will be back to see the Parakeets roost. That would certainly be a sight to watch!

Parrot Island - Bartang, Andaman Islannd. (Only that small green patch you see in front)
Salt Water Crocodile!

From Parrot Island as we were heading back to the ferry, we saw the world’s largest living reptile, the Salt Water Crocodile. This one was huge! It sat calmly in the water as we clicked away from the boat – one for the road!

Salt Water Crocodile - Bartang, Andaman Islands.
We then drove straight back to Port Blair and checked into the New Circuit House. On the drive back we were able to stop a few times to photograph and record calls of a few more birds. This ended the 3rd and final leg of our journey to Andaman.

Here are some additional birds we saw in this 3rd leg:

45. Black-naped Monarch. 46. Emerald Dove. 47. Forest Wagtail. 48. Pacific Swallow. 49. Dollar Bird. 50. Andaman Woodpecker. 51. Violet Cuckoo. 52. Cinnamon Bittern. 53. Andaman Scops Owl. 54. Andaman Hawk Owl. 55. Large-billed Crow. 56. Pompadour Green Pigeon. 57. Large Cuckoo Shrike. 58. Grey Wagtail. 59. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater. 60. White-throated Fantail. 61. House Sparrow. 62. Black-naped Tern. 63. Pacific Golden Plover. 64. Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker. 65. Barn Swallow. 66. Glossy Swiftlet. 67. White-throated Kingfisher. 68. Brown Shrike. 69. Andaman Serpent Eagle.

We learnt that it could suddenly pour in Andaman without warning. Just keep shooting. Birds can pop-up anytime anywhere, just keep watching! Many of the birds call differently from the ones we find in Mainland India. Even the crows! The plumage and colors of many birds differ from those found on the mainland. For example, the White-rumped Shama here has a white breast. The Emerald Dove has a black beak? Plenty of scope for splitting and growing the list of species I guess.

Crabs Everywhere!

When I stepped on any beach at Andaman Islands, I would see thousands of crabs! A sea of crabs on the shore! All sizes, shapes and color. They would be inside snail shells, holes in the sand, on dead wood, almost everywhere! I found some inside snail shells in the rain forest too! They would freeze on sensing any danger and then slowly emerge from their hiding. I managed to shoot some of these fascinating creatures!

This one would emerge from a hole on the beach, make a perfect ball from the sand and throw it away! Then, it would start again thus forming an interesting pattern of minute sand balls around its hole. I could see hundreds of such patterns on one undisturbed beach!

Home run...

On reaching Port Blair at about 3 pm, we grabbed a quick lunch at a local restaurant and checked into the New Circuit House for our night stay. That last evening Giri and myself explored Port Blair for about 2 hrs. We found the place to be full of people from all parts of Mainland India. A little India if you wish!

PS had a lot of socializing to do. At 8 pm he led us to Mr. Naik’s house. Mr. Negi had just arrived, both senior IFS officers in Andaman. After thanking Mrs. Naik for a wonderful a cup of coffee, we all left to have dinner. Mr. Thomas joined us and as usual had found a great place for dinner. Thus, we signed off a most memorable trip to Andaman.

Except for Port Blair which is a bit crowded, we found Andaman Islands to be calm and peaceful. The lonely stretches of clean beaches, the evergreen forests and the sea are really soothing. My six full days went by like six winks. Surely one of my best trips into natural India!

Our flight to Chennai departed on time at 7am on the 24th. I was back home in Bangalore at 2 pm. My excitement continued as I watched the 5.30 pm India – Pakistan T20 cricket final! I quite felt like I had played that match :-) Phew!

Vijay Cavale
September, 2007