Stranded in time
A bird watcher’s paradise, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are home to over 270 species and sub-species of birds, of which several are found nowhere else on the planet. We explore the vivid avian diversity found within the canopied forests of the Andamans.
“Saltie!” Someone shouted from the canoe ahead and there was a great rush as everyone tried to swim hastily to the safety of the beach. It was a cloudy afternoon on Redskin Island and a thundershower was imminent. Despite the weather, we had spent two hours snorkelling in the shallows close to the island. Most of us barely witnessed a tapering, scaly tail glide far away on the water surface, but the presence of the saltwater crocodile effectively and hastily brought the snorkelling session to an end.
Since we still had some time before the boat left for Wandoor, I decided to use the precious few minutes to look for one of my target species, the Beach Thicknee (Esacus magnirostris). I thought that the best strategy would be to climb to higher ground and scan some open areas of the beach. As I ascended the slope, I hopped across a huge Dipterocarp tree and came face to face with the most difficult of all of Andaman’s endemics: the Andaman Nightjar (Caprimulgus andamanicus). The bird was sitting quietly on the ground, quite confident of its camouflage. I slowly turned around, descended back to the beach and called out to the rest of the gang. When we got back to the spot it took me about a minute to find the bird again as it had moved a little and was behaving rather strangely. It reminded me of the grey Nightjar’s ‘broken winged display’ which I had witnessed a few years earlier in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. I was just pointing this out to Suhel when he pointed towards two neat pinkish coloured eggs on the ground. We all took a good look and decided to head back and leave the female alone to guard her eggs. This was one among many exciting sightings we had on our visit to the Andaman Islands.
Since the day I joined the WCS-NCBS ‘Master’s Course in Wildlife Biology and Conservation’ I had waited for the marine biology module to begin. The sole reason was that this module was conducted in the Andaman. For any avid birder or wildlife biologist, Andaman is a dream destination. It hosts an amazing number of endemic species and subspecies and offers an enviable number of lifers for any birder. Additionally, it poses the best possible biogeographic scenario for a wildlife biologist. One often finds oneself pondering about the millennia of environmental isolation that caused this speciation. Being both a birder and a biologist I was thoroughly enjoying both aspects of avifauna in these beautiful islands.
The birding action had begun in earnest from the moment we landed at the airport in Port Blair. I have few memories of waking hours in the Andamans during which my hands and eyes were not glued to the binoculars. In theory, my plan was quite simple. I had to try and see as many of the 30 new bird lifers as possible. In practice, I was faced with a two-fold challenge. Firstly, the priority of this visit was to complete a comprehensive course in marine biology as a part of our M.Sc., which left me very little time for birding. Secondly, all regular birding places were located far away from our field base.
One of the first species we encountered was the glossy swiftlet (Collocalia esculenta), which was very common. However, the sighting of a pair of Black bazas (Avicedal euphotes) soon stole the limelight. As we drove south towards ANET (Andaman Nicobar Environment Trust) in Wandoor, there was a steady trickle of good bird sightings, such as the Pacific swallow and Eastern reef egret. Although these birds are not endemic to the islands, they are nearly impossible to sight in mainland India.
An important target for me was to see all five species of owls. We grabbed the first opportunity of a free evening and began the birding session with a Waldan’s Scops owl at 19:30 hours inside the ANET campus. This is a recent split from Oriental Scops owl (Otus modestus), which has a wide distribution across South and Southeast Asia. After some great views of this bird, we headed towards the beach from where we could hear calls of the Hume’s hawk owl (Ninox obscura). It did not take us long to locate an individual. While we were admiring this beautiful owl, a semi-venomous Dog-faced Water Snake surprised us by slithering between our legs. With no luck at sighting the Andaman Hawk Owl, we began to walk slowly back towards ANET. As we neared the gate, a faint poop-poop-poop-poop-poop call from our left made us stop on our tracks. There was evidently an Andaman Scops owl (Otus balli) nearby. It took us nearly 15 minutes to locate the individual, but once it popped out of the trees, we had a stunning view of it just a few feet away from where we stood. By the time we reached ANET, dinner was long over and everybody decided to crash. However, I was kept awake by the call of an Andaman hawk owl (Nino xaffinis), which sounded tantalisingly close to our room. I gave up on sleep as Ashwin and I spent another hour trying to spot the bird. We had a distant but great view and by the time we called it a night it was already two in the morning. Needless to say, I was euphoric after having found four of the five owls in a single night.
Between our lectures and snorkelling sessions, the quick birding periods continued to yield some great species. We ticked off several common birds in the nearby secondary forests of Wandoor. Almost all of them were either endemic species or subspecies to the Andaman Islands. Occasionally, we also got some stunning sightings of rarer species too, such as the Andaman Crake (Rallina canningi), mangrove whistler (Pachycephala grisola grisola) and Andaman barn owl (Tyto deroepstorffi) (heard only).
Having exhausted all the birding that Wandoor offered, we were still missing a few important endemics of the Islands. Since the class was given an off on Sunday, we Hatched a plan to visit some further birding hotspots. The strategy was to reach Mount Harriet at the very first light of the day and bird till the afternoon. On the way back, we were to visit some of the important areas where we could twitch Andaman Teal (Anas albogularis). This scheme worked out beautifully. Within the first five minutes of reaching Mount Harriet we were welcomed by an Andaman Treepie (Dendrocitta bayleyi), Andaman wood pigeon (Columba palumboides), Andaman woodpecker (Dryocopushodgei), Andaman cuckoo- dove (Columba palumboides), Andaman green pigeon (Treron chloropterus), Andaman cuckoo-shrike (Coracina Dobsoni) and Spot-breasted woodpecker (Dendrocopos Analis andamanensis). It took us a little longer to sight the Andaman serpent eagle (Spilornis elgini) but by the time we reached the top of the mount we had seen all the target species for the region. After a quick lunch, we headed down to get the final bird for the day, the Andaman Teal. This posed a greater challenge than we expected as high tide had set in and was quickly flooding the only access to the most reliable site for Teals. Most Of the team got cold feet at this point and stayed back. Only two of us decided to wade across the creek, as we were unlikely to get another opportunity from our busy schedule. We then had to walk barefoot for another Kilometre on a hot, stony path. But the effort paid off and we counted a total of 33 individual Teals. To make this whole outing all the sweeter, we also spotted an Oriental reed warbler (Acrocephalus orientalis), which is otherwise a very difficult species to sight within Indian political limits.
With this last trip, we had finished with all but one of my targeted species. Although we had just spent a week on the island, the marathon birding session was nearly complete. Most of the next week’s birding happened at a relaxed pace. Eventually, we managed to get 19 of The 20 endemics. We did hear the twentieth endemic, an Andaman Barn Owl, but failed to see it. I had bagged a total to 29 lifers on the islands. However, I still have something left. There are an endemic subspecies of the Pale-footed Bush-warbler, which was collected from Mount Harriet a long time ago; these endemics still exist in Nicobar. I dream often of going back to these glittering emerald forests and white sands, back to the islands that have so much promise in store.
Endemism in the Andamans
The diversity of species present on the islands of the world’s oceans is varied, but one thing these islands have in common is the high level of endemism. Cut-off from the mainland, the land-based life on such islands evolves in isolation over several generations until these animals develop several characteristics that are different from the mainland parent species; often leading to a state where the two are no longer able to breed with each other. Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a continuation of the Himalayan chain of mountains on the northern end, which was formed as a result of the Indian plate colliding with the Eurasian plate; while on the southern end, they are an extension of the Malay Archipelago, which is volcanic in origin. Being connected, although indirectly, to two biodiversity hotspots, the islands of Andaman and Nicobar are understandably teeming with an amazing diversity of life forms. Isolated from the mainland for millions of years, several of these developed into endemic species. And this endemism is not just restricted to birds, but several lizards and a few mammals are also endemic to the islands. The only reason why the level of endemism in other groups, such as insects, frogs and mainly underwater fauna, seems to be less is simply that detailed studies of these groups have not yet been carried out on the islands.
Cover Pic: The Hume’s Hawk Owl (Ninox obscura) photographed by Dhritiman Mukherjee
Read also: The Giants of the Ocean Bed
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