The Andaman Archipelago in the Gulf of Bengal is one of several sensitive Indian peripheral regions that have opened up to foreign tourists in recent times. To the hobby ornithologist, the islands offer much in the way of endemic birdlife, even more so after the publication of Rasmussen and Anderton’s field guide, which treats many former endemic subspecies as full species.
Lying close to Burma, the islands were formerly inhabited by little-known tribes unrelated to either South-east Asian or Indian people. These natives presently persist only on a number of small islands that are out of bounds to tourists and in designated “reserves” on the main islands. The capital Port Blair and the main settlement area on South Andaman is well-indianised these days, and regrettably we saw no traces of the native population during our stay.
Virtually all the endemics can be seen on day trips from Port Blair to some of the forest fragments and ponds in the settled part of South Andaman. One of two exceptions is the famous Narcondam Hornbill, which is confined to tiny Narcondam Island almost 250km from the main islands, and which can only be seen once monumental bureaucratic and logistical hurdles are overcome. The second exception involves the local bush-warbler taxon osmastoni, which is currently classified as a race of Pale-footed Bush-Warbler, but which will doubtless turn out to be distinct at the species level once re-discovered. It is only known from old specimens (Rasmussen says: “at least South Andaman – Oct, Dec, Jun”) which consistently differ from mainland Pale-footeds in bill size and plumage It is therefore likely to be a resident form that has eluded rediscovery despite repeated searches. (A couple of recent trip reports mention potential sightings of this bird in the mangrove section of Chidiya Tapu).
We stayed in the Andaman Resort in Port Blair and covered the sites by taxi or (in the case of Mt Harriett) by ferry and tuk-tuk. Pre-booking of accommodation is not a bad idea, as we struggled to find something the first day and spent 5 hours checking over 10 hotels. The holiday season is very busy with Indian tourists. Hotels are definitely a bit overpriced in Port Blair.
Sites visited: Chidiya Tapu (CT), Mt Harriett (MH), North Wandoor (Centre for Island Ecology; NW), Sippighat (S), KM 33 and KM 35 from Port Blair (north of Wandoor)
Chidiya Tapu (CT) (=Chiriya Tapu)
This is one of the two key sites for forest endemics. The village of Chiriya Tapu is located on the south end of the island (35 km from Port Blair) and is easily accessible by bus and taxi from Port Blair. The best forest patch – which we visited on three days – is from approximately KM 4 to KM 1 along the main road from town (towards Port Blair). Additional good forest can be found along the coastal road turning left in town and carrying on for a couple of KM; however, we only spent a brief afternoon there.
Andaman Crake came in to tape rather cooperatively on the very first evening and was in fact the first Andaman endemic all of us saw well. Follow-up searches on the subsequent days in the forest around here and at Mt Harriett were less fruitful, so that our first encounter remained the only good sighting. The same area of roadside forest seems to be the most reliable location for Andaman Woodpigeon: we saw them flying by on a couple of occasions amongst the numerous Green Imperial-Pigeons of the endemic race andamanica, and James eventually found us one beautifully perched at close quarters.
Our only encounter with Andaman Cuckoo-Dove involved a single individual alighting on a branch in front of us for prolonged gripping scope views. This species proved rather elusive and silent during our stay, and we failed to record it at Mt Harriett where birders usually succeed.
The tall, logged forest structure along the roadside makes this site ideal for sightings of large non-passerines, including such stunning birds as Andaman Serpent-Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle (distinct andamanensis race), Andaman Green-Pigeon, the endemic local subspecies of both Alexandrine and Long-tailed Parakeet, as well as Andaman Woodpecker. Good forest passerines such as Andaman Shama, Andaman White-headed Starling and Andaman Treepie were also noted.
Night-birding in the forest at Chiriya Tapu was enjoyable, with sightings of Andaman Boobook and the local race of Oriental Scops Owl (the latter was seen much better in Port Blair), though a number of Andaman Scops Owls would refuse to come in to tape. Best of all, however, was a pair of the highly distinct Andaman Barn Owl, which performed beautifully.
The bracken fields, paddies and remnant mangroves at the edge of the forest just out of town offered rewarding views of open-land birds, such as the distinct davisoni race of Crested Serpent-Eagle or the fumigata race of White-rumped Munia. A bash through the high grasses and reeds was extremely productive, with 2 or 3 Rusty-rumped Warblers coming in to tape, apart from the more usual Oriental Reed-Warblers and a surprising sighting (and photographs by James!) of 3 Black-browed Reed-Warblers, which may constitute the first documented record for India. After dusk, Hume’s Boobook perched on the wires in the paddocks around here. The pond at the north end of town had interesting waterbirds in the form of an Eastern Baillon’s Crake and a Slaty-breasted Rail, the latter of the aptly named “darker” race obscurior.
Mt Harriett (MH)
This 300m mountain on the other side of the bay from Port Blair constituted the second key site for forest endemics on our tour. Access is complicated and involves catching a ferry from Chatham Pier in Port Blair to Bamboo Flats (earliest 5 a.m.) and onward tuk-tuk transportation to the mountain (8km to the top). The open mountain top has been a reliable spot for Andaman Nightjar in the past, but our dusk vigil only yielded a brief bout of faint call notes in the distance, and other sites proved more fortuitous on our visit. Apart from a cryptic Orange-headed Thrush feeding in the leaf litter, the bits of forest up from the gate were very silent throughout the day, and we soon concentrated our diurnal birding on the forest directly at and below the gate, where all of us eventually obtained stunning views of Andaman Cuckooshrikes flitting through the canopy. Another goody around here was a raucous flock of Andaman Treepie (plus one 500m up from the gate).
Despite poor daylight activity up from the gate, night-birding proved highly rewarding, as we had stunningly close and prolonged views of two different individuals of Andaman Scops Owl, in addition to visual encounters with a pair of Andaman Boobooks of similar quality.
Other exciting species around Mt Harriett included: Andaman Serpent-Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Andaman Green-Pigeon, Andaman Woodpecker and Thick-billed Warbler.
North Wandoor (NW)
We visited the Centre for Island Ecology as part of our teal search after having received a tip-off on the presence of ducks at the Centre’s pond, which turned out to be Lesser Whistling-Ducks. The Centre is located in agricultural habitat at the edge of mangroves, where a rising tide almost cut us off from the mainland as we observed and photographed Mangrove Whistlers and Ruddy Kingfishers. Spotlighting at night produced no less than 6 Hume’s Boobooks in the fields, mostly perched on wires or poles.
Located near the intersection between the roads to Wandoor and to the north of the island, the ponds around here provided fruitless ground for a thorough teal search during our stay. Nevertheless, we did turn up a few other endemic taxa worth seeing, such as the distinct slaty race spodiogaster of Striated Heron. The shallow far end of one of the ponds on the south side of the road had a Grey-headed Lapwing and an unexpected Greater Painted Snipe in the scope. Spotlighting in the fields around Sippighat after dusk finally rewarded us with good though slightly distant views of a perched Andaman Nightjar.
Our efforts to find the elusive Andaman Teal took us to the big lake in the vicinity of KM 33 (along the road to the island’s north) on two occasions. The second time luck was on our side at last when Martin struck gold by locating a flock of 26 individuals in a far corner of one of the smaller pools to the north of the lake. The birds were in a feeding frenzy and provided great opportunities for the photographers amongst us.
KM 35 (north of Wandoor)
This was another pond site with the usual waterbirds that we checked for teal without success before encountering them at KM 33. Striated Heron of the race spodiogaster and numerous Cinnamon Bitterns were notable here.
Andaman Trip List
Based on field notes by Frank Rheindt; species only seen by others may have been omitted
Sites abbreviated as in above accounts; cm = common
1. Pacific Reef Egret (cm, KM 35)
2. Little Egret
3. Great Egret
4. Chinese Pond Heron (min. 1 identified to species level; Ardeola spec. cm at KM 35)
5. Striated Heron (spodiogaster, a few at KM 35 and S)
6. Cinnamon Bittern (KM 35 a few)
7. Yellow Bittern (KM 35+33)
8. Lesser Whistling-Duck (21 at NW)
9. Andaman Teal (26 at KM 33)
10. Black Baza (7 Port Blair)
11. Accipiter spec. (1 CT, 1 MH, both fly-by’s, probably Besra)
12. Andaman Serpent-Eagle (a few CT+MH)
13. Crested Serpent-Eagle (davisoni CT 1)
14. Changeable Hawk-Eagle (andamanensis Port Blair, CT, MH)
15. Osprey (1 S, 1 KM 33)
16. White-bellied Sea-eagle
17. Slaty-breasted Rail (obscurior 1 CT)
18. Eastern Baillon’s Crake (1 CT)
19. Andaman Crake (1 CT, heard also at MH)
20. White-breasted Waterhen (insularis; a few sites)
21. Common Moorhen
22. Painted Snipe (1 S)
23. Black-winged Stilt (1 S)
24. Grey-headed Lapwing (1 S)
25. Pacific Golden Plover (cm)
26. Lesser Sandplover (100s at S, also elsewhere)
27. Little Ringed Plover (S)
28. Eurasian Curlew (c. 10 at KM 35)
29. Whimbrel (KM 33+35, a few)
30. Bar-tailed Godwit (dozens KM 35)
31. Black-tailed Godwit (1 S)
32. Terek Sandpiper (1 at KM 35)
33. Common Greenshank (KM 35, S)
34. Wood Sandpiper (cm)
35. Common Sandpiper (aptly named)
36. Marsh Sandpiper (1 S)
37. Common Redshank (cm)
38. Curlew Sandpiper (a few at S)
39. Rufous-necked Stint (100s at S, also elsewhere)
40. Common Snipe (min. 1 at KM 33)
41. Pintail Snipe (many: CT, KM 35+33)
42. Green Imperial-Pigeon (andamanica, cm, MH+CT+NW)
43. Pied Imperial-Pigeon (MH 3)
44. Andaman Woodpigeon (1+2+1 CT)
45. Red Collared Dove (cm)
46. Andaman Cuckoo-Dove (1 CT)
47. Emerald Dove (maxima MH+CT)
48. Andaman Green-Pigeon (cm, CT+MH)
49. Vernal Hanging-Parrot (cm, MH+CT)
50. Alexandrine Parakeet (magnirostris, cm, CT)
51. Red-breasted Parakeet (cm)
52. Long-tailed Parakeet (tytleri, cm, CT+MH)
53. Violet Cuckoo (a few in song flight CT, perched views of 1 at MH)
54. Asian Koel (cm)
55. Andaman Coucal (cm)
56. Andaman Boobook (2 MH, 1 CT)
57. Hume’s Boobook (1 CT, 6 NW)
58. Andaman Barn Owl (CT 2)
59. Andaman Scops Owl (2 MH, also heard CT)
60. Oriental Scops Owl (1 CT, 1 Port Blair; heard elsewhere)
61. Andaman Nightjar (1 near Sippighat)
62. White-bellied Swiftlet (cm)
63. Edible-nest Swiftlet (inexpectatus CT)
64. Pacific Swift (2 at KM 35)
65. Brown-backed Needletail (indicus, cm, e.g. MH)
66. Stork-billed Kingfisher (osmastoni, cm, e.g. Sippighat)
67. Ruddy Kingfisher (mizorhina 2 NW)
68. Collared Kingfisher (davisoni cm)
69. Black-capped Kingfisher (KM 35, NW)
70. White-throated Kingfisher (cm)
71. Common Kingfisher (KM 33)
72. Blue-tailed Bee-eater (CT)
73. Spot-breasted Woodpecker (cm, daily)
74. Andaman Woodpecker (CT, MH)
75. Pacific Swallow (Port Blair)
76. Barn Swallow (cm)
77. Western Yellow Wagtail (1 CT thunbergi)
78. Eastern Yellow Wagtail (CT, Sippighat; all birds with supercilium were probably Eastern, though ID remains tentative)
79. Gray Wagtail (MH+CT)
80. Forest Wagtail (MH 3)
81. Andaman Cuckooshrike (2+3 MH)
82. Large Cuckooshrike (andamana, MH+CT)
83. Scarlet Minivet (cm)
84. Small Minivet (cm)
85. Red-whiskered Bulbul (cm)
86. Andaman Bulbul (MH+CT)
87. Asian Fairy Bluebird (cm)
88. Brown Shrike (cm, mostly lucionensis, also cristatus)
89. Black-naped Monarch (cm)
90. Orange-headed Thrush (andamanensis 1 MH)
91. Andaman Shama (MH+CT)
92. Oriental Magpie Robin (cm)
93. Mangrove Whistler (2 NW)
94. Asian Brown Flycatcher (cm)
95. Rusty-rumped Warbler (CT 2-3, centralasiae)
96. Black-browed Reed-Warbler (c. 3 CT)
97. Oriental Reed-Warbler (CT, KM 33)
98. Thick-billed Warbler (KM 35, MH)
99. Dusky Warbler (KM 33, CT)
100. Greenish Warbler (CT, MH; probably mostly Two-barred plumbeitarsus)
101. Andaman Flowerpecker (cm)
102. Oriental White-eye (CT, NW)
103. Olive-backed Sunbird (andamanicus, cm)
104. White-rumped Munia (fumigata, CT, MH)
105. House Sparrow
106. Black-naped Oriole (andamanensis, cm)
107. Black Drongo (CT+S)
108. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (otiosus, cm)
109. Andaman Drongo (cm)
110. Andaman White-headed Starling (MH+CT)
111. Asian Glossy Starling (tytleri, CT)
112. Common Myna
113. Hill Myna (andamanesis, Port Blair, CT, MH)
114. House Crow (Port Blair)
115. Eastern Jungle Crow (CT, MH, Port Blair)
116. Andaman Treepie (CT min. 15; MH 8+8)