Friday, October 11, 2013

The Greener side of the Andamans - Part 3: Birds of Andamans

This post is a little late in coming. It is exactly a month since I returned from that very short and sweet trip to the Andamans but I haven't been able to post the entire trip report here yet.

View previous post here.

Now with the threat of Cyclone Phailin expected to hit the Odisha coast tomorrow, I was once again reminded about my Andaman trip because I had heard that Phailin had prevented a few flights from landing in Port Blair!
Pic courtesy:

Let me confess. One of the reasons I had agreed to go was the opportunity to do something a little different. When you think Andamans, the first thing that pops up in everyone's mind are pristine beaches. My mind was thinking 'green' instead of 'blue' but it also thought of so many other colours! Andaman has a rich bird population many of which are endemic.

First thing I did sometime in mid-august, before packing my stuff for Andaman's, was to type out a list of birds (and reptile) I hoped to see. I admit, four days with a rather cramped schedule was not exactly ideal for birding, but the optimist in me was not about to give up. My list include some 69 birds, including the Narcondam Hornbill though I wasn't going even remotely close to a boat to Narcondam!

If you are a serious birder, Andaman should be on your list of 'to do' birding spots. The  only issue is that you have to set aside a good 10-12 days for it. Birding in Andamans will require you to travel by road and by boat so you have to be prepared for spending time for that.

The fundamental mistake I made, and I admit it, is that I was a little unprepared. Since the primary reason for the trip was a book release I carried photography gear for the occasion. Bird season was still a couple of months off and I did not expect to see much in that little time I had!

Mistake number 1: My longest and fastest lens didn't make the trip because I wasn't keen to lug some 5.5 kgs to a book launch.
Mistake number 2: I took a 75-300 mm tele-zoom hoping that the digital 2x in the camera would help. (Don't call me an idiot, I know I'm one!)
Mistake number 3: I left my binoculars behind, partly because I wanted to carry less weight on my rain forest trek and partly because I didn't want to be clapped in the Cellular jail for snooping around sensitive military installations!
Mistake number 4: I completely misjudged the weather and didn't carry my rain cover for the gear. It was in the camera bag with the Zuiko 300mm f2.8 that I so injudiciously left behind.
Mistake number 5: I left all my Manfrotto support gear including the tripod, monopod and the 393 heavy lens support behind. I carried only a small tripod. Reason; less luggage more comfort!

So there I was, standing in Andaman Teal House ruing the decisions regarding my gear. Now I have some pictures that I'm really ashamed of!

The rain didn't need a reason in Andamans. It just poured whenever I hoped it wouldn't. The end result was that these are the worst set of bird photos I ever got. Not that I'm a skilled photographer but some of these pics are worse than novice level!

The first birds were the rock pigeons that were fluttering about the roofs of our guest house.

They seemed a little darker than the ones we see back on the mainland but I could be mistaken.
The drongos and hill mynas were too far to get a decent picture so didn't bother considering that I had a trip to Chidiya Tapu and Havelock planned.

Since there was some confusion regarding the book release and the rather unpredictable weather, my trek plans to Chidiya Tapu had to be shelved but I was determined to do a trip just to see how the place was in the rain. A detour to Sippy Ghat was a waste of time. I had got a white bellied sea eagle on my last trip there but this was off season and was hoping for some early migrants but I only lost a good hour driving up for nothing.

An hour in Chidiya Tapu (Bird Island) on 04/09/2013

By the time we reached Chidiya Tapu it was past 4.30 and the light was fading fast. The continuous drizzle wasn't helping either. When you turn left at the Forest Guest house to Munda Pahar beach, the road passes through a bit of forest. The first sign of the rich bird life came into view as we turned a sharp corner. The Emerald Dove was on it evening stroll, picking some juicy tidbits from the road. 
Emerald dove on the road to Munda Pahar

I knew if I stepped out of the car it would be the last I saw of it. I squeezed of a couple of shots before I tried to get out without attracting its attention. I failed in that endeavor and the bird took off.

There were a fair number of cars in the parking lot at Munda Pahar and the beach had it's share of noisy drunken tourists. My eyes, however were on the trees. I could hear the squawking of the parakeets high up in the dense canopy. There seemed to be birds everywhere but I couldn't really get any lined up in my sights. The sky was a somber grey, as if to reflect my mood, which was also getting increasingly darker because of the drizzle. 

I couldn't set my aperture wider than around f8 because the birds were to high up and I needed a little DOF. Anything smaller would mean a slow shutter speed and at 300mm with shaky hands the pictures would be completely out of focus as the one above shows. Even hiking the ISO to between 1600 and 4000 wasn't really helping. At that moment I regretted leaving my big lens behind. There were plenty of birds and in the half an hour I was in Chidiya Tapu I got at least four endemics.
Andaman wood pigeon with an oriole and parakeets. Too far for my lens!

Red breasted parakeet

Collared kingfisher

Long tailed parakeet

En route to Mount Harriet on 05/09/2013
The other place I had in mind was Mount Harriet and more than birds it was reptiles I was hoping to see. My trek in Chidiya Tapu was washed out so I was hoping I would encounter some snakes at least in Mount Harriet. It was a truly wonderful experience to be tramping along alone in a rain forest but it was too dense for any bird sighting. The house sparrows were everywhere including on the ferry to Bambooflat!

House sparrows on the ferry

The only consolation was the white bellied sea eagle sitting on a barren tree and surveying the scene below. Looked like a juvenile and it wasn't looking to go anywhere.

24 hours in Havelock (6th & 7th September, 2013)

Our ferry to Havelock was scheduled to leave at 7.30 but as with all private ferries plying from Port Blair they waited to have the seats filled. Consequently, our departure was delayed by an hour. Hanging around on the jetty along with the passengers were the usual sparrows....

....and also a lone bird whose identity I really wasn't sure of. It looked like one of the plovers (Pacific Golden) in non breeding winter plumage but I stand to be corrected. 
Is this a Pacific Golden plover?

After a rather late breakfast in Nala's at the Havelock jetty we reached our resort a little after half past eleven. The first bird I met was this handsome fellow right near the reception.

Red breasted parakeet
Then a little later as I was strolling around a flash of white caught my eye but before I could get a decent shot it disappeared and I never saw another bird of the same species again, a white headed starling, in the time I was in Havelock.
Spot the white headed starling in this picture!

A black-naped oriole was too well camouflaged and the dense foliage wasn't making things easy.
Black-naped oriole
There were plenty of cackling hill mynas in the resort. I should put it on record here that the Barefoot Resort is itself a great place for birding. You can just walk around the resort property and the birds are all around you.
Hill myna

My niece wanted to eat a wood fired pizza that was apparently a specialty in one particular eaterie called German bakery. Though we had no clue where this place was, we decided to drive around. The evening was free because my proposed trek to the Elephant beach never materialized, courtesy the weather!
The 'Lee Meridian restaurant' & German Bakery!

The German bakery has shifted its location to a place across the road from where it originally was. It is on the road to Kalapathar village, along the beach No.5. They now have thatched cottages too. At the end of the path along the cottages, just beyond the fence is a tree with no foliage, and on that tree was this bird trying to attract my attention!
Juvenile crested serpent eagle
It was also too far away to get a decent shot but it kept turning its head as if to tell me there was more to see in the area.

Sure enough, on another tree a little farther away was a flock of red breasted parakeet. It gets dark in these islands very quickly and there was nothing else to do. We retired early. It had been a long day and we were exhausted.
Red breasted parakeets
Dawn comes early to the Andamans. It is bright by 5 AM and despite a light drizzle  I thought I'd take a chance. At the edge of the Radhanagar is a fairly dense forest and my first bird of the morning was this collared kingfisher, one of the many I saw that morning. There was a stork billed kingfisher that used the canopy to hide from my prying lens. It kept flitting ahead every time I reached withing shooting distance. Finally, it scooped a fish from one of the tide the shallow tide pools and settled briefly on a branch. Unfortunately, there was a very bright back light and I couldn't get to adjust my settings to get a decent shot.
Collared kingfisher
I was hoping to see some waders as I walked up the beach but the only birds I encountered were small flocks of lesser sand plovers. They usually scamper quickly the pause for a few seconds and then scamper off again in search of the small crabs that are found on the sands.

A few meters beyond the public beach is a small shallow stream that flows into the sea. Along its edge is a bit of mangrove and dense vegetation that was swarming with many birds. Red whiskerd bulbuls were very in larger groups than I was used seeing at home.

There were so many other birds, busy flitting about their morning chores....
Another black-naped oriole

A group of large cuckooshrikes

Scarlet minivets

Large cuckooshrike

Stork-billed kingfisher
As I walked further up the beach the drizzle wasn't letting up and the tide was starting to come in.

There was no point in risking my gear and limbs (there is a lot of large drift wood on Radhanagar  now and my aunt was felled by one that hit her shins!) and breakfast winds up at 9.30 in Barefoot.

I would have time for a bath before taking care of my rumbling tummy. I had been out on the beach for 3 hours.

Breakfast over, we packed up for the return ferry. The ferry was at 4 PM but since check out was at 11 we thought we'd hang around till lunch before catching our cab to the jetty.

There were more birds seeking relief from the rain like me. This emerald dove was too cold to even move a feather despite my standing right under it!
Emerald dove

Andaman drongo

Asian fairy bluebird

Greater racket-tailed drongo

Scarlet minivet females
There were more birds I sighted but couldn't get on camera. A black eagle, common kingfisher, white breasted kingfisher, glossy swiftlet, Andaman crake, a tern and a ?bittern I couldn't identify. 
I have to go back again but the weather pattern has changed completely and I have been hearing of flights being diverted elsewhere recently!

If anyhow, after reading this, you have had an inspiration to go to the Andamans for birding here are a few tips.

Travel Facts:

  1. Choose your season well. Many websites do mention that the monsoon is over by September but the last few years have seen rains spilling over for a couple of months further. Either way, be prepared for fickle weather.
  2. The light is also very unpredictable. It gets cloudy very quickly and if you are in thick rain forest it is a real disadvantage. Day starts early, as early as 5 AM, and the sunset is also consequently, much earlier than then on the mainland. 
  3. As I said in my last post the trees are very, very tall so you need to carry your longest reaching and fastest lenses. If you have a prime telephoto things are easy but try to keep your aperture setting at f8 and manipulate your shutter using ISO settings.  
  4. You will need a sturdy tripod or monopod. The small ones are not of any help. I was trying to take pictures of the waves with long exposures and the tripod gets shaken by the waves. 
  5. Carry a rain cover for your gear. It can rain at the most unexpected moments.
  6. Don't leave your binoculars behind like me. Besides the tall trees you also have obstacles like the mangrove forests and the tides, which come in the way of good close sighting.  
  7. Have your Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Grimmett & Inskipps handy. You are going to meet a lot of unusual birds that are not seen on the mainland! 
  8. Be ready for my friends, the little leeches. Don't worry, they only drink a fraction of the blood that their mainland cousins feast on! On the beaches you have the sand flies instead of leeches.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Greener Side of Andamans - Part 2 : Mt. Harriet's Trekking Secrets

Prologue: I am a certified 'green' guy and that is why I coined the term 'woodcrawler'. One free day, and I'm off searching for some place green to wander around in. So when the trip to the Andamans came up my green antennae started quivering. I wanted to do something different and go off the beaten track. Andamans have, besides the beaches and coral reefs, large tracts of virgin rain forests. While researching for detailed information on trekking in the Andaman's rainforests I realized how little information is available on this. The purpose of this post is to help other woodcrawlers make a start.

Of Leeches & Lizards....

When you get off the flight in the Veer Sarvarkar International Airport at Port Blair the thing that is very obvious are the clothes worn by the passengers disembarking with you. There are all  sorts of reds, blues, yellows and oranges but rarely green! I guess that has something to do with what most people do when they go to the Andamans; jump the clear blue waters of the Bay of Bengal! It is therefore, very rarely anyone gets off the plane in olive green because that is a colour associated with the forests. I belong to this breed of creatures who will search out the nearest patch of green even in a city!

I realized very quickly that my grandiose plans to do three treks and some snorkeling would not materialize for two reasons. The book release function, mentioned in the last post, itself was not sorted out fully so I could not 'fix' a plan. The weather was not looking very good and the timing of our trip to Havelock was also uncertain.  I just about managed to squeeze in a trip to Chidiya Tapu on the evening I landed (see previous post) but a trek there had to be abandoned. Mount Harriet was the next on the agenda and I was determined to do at least one serious attempt, weather notwithstanding.

5th September, 2013

It seemed that the 'best laid plans of mice & men' jinx was following me. I had instructed the driver of my cab to report at my hotel at 8 AM. The drive to Mt.Harriet itself passed through a lot of areas rich in water birds so I thought I'd go by road instead of taking a shortcut by ferry. 8.30 AM and no sign of my transport so I called the driver but he tells me his boss hadn't given him any instruction. I wondered if that driver was deaf or had poor memory. He was the one who told me that he would be there outside my guest house at 8 AM!

Anyway, the taxi operator sent a substitute vehicle a little after 9 AM but I was wondering if it would be worthwhile anymore. As I mulled over the possibilities I realized my car was standing in a queue to board a ferry at the Chatham Jetty! For a moment I felt my blood boil. It seemed that all the drivers I got were either  deaf or morons. I had told him I wanted to go by road and here he was waiting to board a ferry. Then realization dawned on my muddled head; Providence had intervened.

If I had driven by road I'd have reached Mt.Harriet for lunch, considering the amount of time I usually spend coaxing the feathered kind to pose for me! My lunch, Gagan's biryani, was to be picked up by my sister and carried to Ross Island where we were supposed to meet and have a picnic with some carnivorous chitals! So there was nothing on me, save a bottle of water and chewing gum! If I had gone by road, I'd have collapsed due to hypoglycemia in some corner of Mt.Harriet National Park! Luckily, my driver decided that I was an idiot and did the next sensible thing!

The alternate route, and the shorter one is to take the ferry (one every half hour) to Bambooflat across the channel. The ferry ride is 15 minutes and you may have to wait for 10 to 15 minutes after boarding. If you don't have a vehicle of your own you can cross by ferry and hire one of the rickety jeeps standing outside the ferry terminal.

From Bambooflat it is a 15 minute drive uphill. The Mt.Harriet National Park gate is about 3 kms before the summit where you have to pay a small fee for your vehicle and yourself. The nice gentleman did not charge me for my camera. Once you reach the top there is a forest rest house like in Chidiya Tapu, which can be booked from Port Blair. Unless you are very keen on a trek early in the morning you'd be better off staying in Port Blair. There is a short path from the FRH to the view point and there is a board showing the direction to the trek path beside it. The actual trek is some 14 kilometers and goes all the way down the hill to the Madhuban beach. If you can get a boat to pick you up (I'm not sure if it's possible) you can make it back to Port Blair faster.

 It is a downhill trek mostly with a few ups and downs. Going forward is less tiring but the return can sap you if you are unprepared. It is a RAINFOREST on the coast. Humidity is high, and the canopy does not let in much sunlight but it makes you sweat in bucketfuls so carry plenty of water. If you are afraid of encountering wild animals, your fears are misplaced. There are wild pigs but you rarely see them. Reptiles will be there but they won't pounce on you unless you get careless with them. Don't mess with them, just let them be.

The walk had me floored, literally. I had arrived in the wrong season so there was an intermittent drizzle. The ground underfoot was covered with rotting leaves so it was difficult to assess how firm it would be. Sometimes my feet sank into the mud, sometimes it gave way that I almost slipped on my bottom. Throughout the two hours I spent walking the trail I only encountered six people. It was like being in an Indiana Jones movie.

Sunlight rarely penetrates to the forest floor so it was wet and slushy. Even the trees were wet and covered with green moss.

I was hoping to encounter some snakes but it just wasn't my day. There wasn't enough sunlight to draw them out for their warming up. Lizards were everywhere and I'd have missed them if I hadn't been looking for the snakes.

It was obvious they weren't exposed to the presence of humans because they did not attempt to run away even when I went close to them. They just hunkered down and waited for me to pass.

Every step forward took me into a totally different world. I was alone, with no particular agenda or pressures of the outside world. Gagan's biryani had disappeared from my thoughts 10 minutes into the trek! I do not know how the rainforests of South America or Borneo are but this was a special place, and it is in India!
"My personal pool"

A strange snail

Obstacle course

Reaching for the skies

When you walk this track, it is like God envelopes you in your personal cocoon, with music from the invisible birds and insects around you.

Love does strange things! A tree hugging giant creepper.

Straight out of the movie 'Avatar' ...Mother Tree

I was too busy searching the roots and rotting logs for signs of reptiles that I lost sense of time. The rain forest does that to you. Every step brings into view something beautiful that your feet don't move.

When your feet don't move they are magnets for a certain friendly little creature called the LEECH! Mt.Harriet's forest has it's share of leeches but even the most queasy individual will fall in love with them! They are brown, slimy & very, very tiny compared to some I've seen in other places. I guess that is because there are no warm blooded creatures worth mentioning in these forests. The occasional wild pigs are the only ones the leeches on the forest floor can feed on.

Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw a sudden movement and I thought "Snake!".  Unfortunately it wasn't a snake but there was this little fellow on a fallen log with one leg up in midair.
Spot the reptile!

If that shaft of sunlight hadn't hit his head and upraised leg, he'd have got away without any attention from me. He kept his posture despite my poking my camera almost into his nose. The only thing that moved was that shifty eye!

He was so well camouflaged and I'd have missed him 8 out of 10 times without that sunshine falling on him. It was as if he was part of the moss on the log! That leg was always in the air. I let him be and moved on.

There is a small clearing about a kilometer and a half from the view point, with two narrower paths going off at right angles to the main track. They looked like potential areas for snakes so I went into one of them. It was getting narrower and steeper as I progressed and there was clayey wet soil underfoot. I was alone and with a bad back I decided that discretion was better part of valor. If I went slip-sliding down no one would know. I back tracked, marking a way point on my GPS. I have to come back here again.......

There is so much on Mt. Harriet if you are a woodcrawler. I was thinking, if I could go down to Madhuban beach on the first day, camp over and look for the robber crabs and salt water crocs, then return early morning back to the top; it would be a wonderful experience. Any takers?!

On the way back my driver stopped at a point where you could see the light house. Apparently this was the scene printed on the back of the old 20 rupee note! I didn't have a 20 rupee note, old or new,  but you can check it if you have one on you!

As we reached the bottom of the hill I sighted the only significant bird that morning. A juvenile white bellied sea eagle sitting high on a bare tree. Too far for a good picture but still a picture for my records.

I'm coming back to Mt. Harriet and want to spend two days there........

Travel facts:
  • The best place to stay will be the Forest Rest House on Mt.Harriet so you can get an early start. Dawn comes early on these islands.
  • If you are staying in Port Blair you can reach Mt.Harriet in two ways. A longer (55 kms) drive by road through farm land and forest (if there is a birder in you), or the shorter route by catching the ferry from Chatham Saw Mill jetty to Bambooflat jetty (15 mins on the ferry). You can hire a jeep from Bambooflat to Mt.Harriet but ensure that the waiting time is discussed properly. The jeep drivers usually give you only an hour's stop at the top!
  • Carry food and water. There is nothing on top. The Forest Rest House will arrange food if you are booked in. High energy chocolate bars with water should see you through the trek. Of course, you can carry Gagan's biryani for lunch!
  • If you want to trek, wear a pair of trekking shoes. Your beach sandals are useless. Once the slush get on the sandal you have no grip and your sandal goes one way and foot the other!
  • If you dislike leeches wear a long pant or use gaiters. Leeches are harmless and their bites are painless. As a matter of fact, allowing them to feed on you cleanses your blood!
  • If you have a hand held GPS, carry it along with you, there are no guides for trekking. My Garmin could pick up the satellites despite the dense canopy. AGPS on your mobile phones might be useless.
  • Mt. Harriet is also supposed to be a good spot for birding but I guess my timing was wrong. I heard a few, saw next to nothing. If you plan to carry heavy gear for bird photography be very careful while walking, especially when it rains. Light is not good, and the trees are too tall so you need very, very long and fast lenses. The routine zooms may not be adequate for these forests. 
  • It is a good place to try out your macro & wide angle lenses. Carry them along. I assure you that you'll get better pictures than what I got. I was on a 'test trek' and had a light camera bag!
Watch this space for more on the Andamans............