Atul Jain, who has ticked 989 species of birds in the Indian subcontinent, ventured to the remote Andaman island of Narcondam and was rewarded with many prize sightings
The Narcondam Hornbill is found nowhere else except on the remote Narcondam island
The Andamans conjure a mystic image of a forgotten land with turbulent history and exotic flora and fauna. It lived up to its reputation and rewarded us with some excellent bird sightings. It took six months of planning to organise a trip to Narcondam Island and the Andamans. Five intrepid birder-photographers (Harkirat Sangha, Manoj Sharma, Vinay Das, Aparna Jain and I) joined hands to visit this endemics hotspot. Each traveler brought a different skill-set to the table. Harkirat’s incisive knowledge about birds (and bees!) was helpful in cracking some of the most difficult identification issues and his word was taken as the final answer on any ornithological query. Manoj entertained us with his excellent sense of humour and was the de-facto group leader. He pushed us hard to go for more birds. Our lifer list would have been 50 percent fewer had he not shown rigour and doggedness. Vinay came prepared with background material on Andaman birds and it came handy very often. Aparna was the official “non-bird” photographer and provided feminine stability to the group.
The Andaman islands from the air
We had our ups and down while organising this trip. A few birders came on board and then dropped out due to various personal reasons. We took all this in stride and did not let our trip go haywire. We must admit that Ramki’s support was unstinting and he ensured that the trip remain viable. The inspiration to explore the Narcondam and Barren islands came from a similar trip organized by Janaki et al last year. We tread the same path and got in touch with Nick Band, proud owner of the sailing boat Emerald Blue. He is of British origin and is based out of Phuket. He has an enviable sailing experience of more than 39 years, has lived a bohemian lifestyle, and loves sailing to far-flung islands.
The Emerald Blue at anchor
We arrived in Port Blair two days before the actual sailing date with the objective of ticking as many lifers as we could. We even budgeted two additional days after we finished our Narcondam trip. We had the services of the only local birding guide in Port Blair, Vikram Shil. Vikram has good knowledge of birding hotspots and can claim to be an owl expert. We covered most of the birding areas under his tutelage — Chiriya Tapu, Mount Harriet, Sippi Ghat, Burma Bridge, Obara Barrage, Veterinary College and Wondoor. A few of these sites were visited many times to ensure that we did not miss any specialties. We were able to get most of the endemics and a few more interesting birds.
Catch of the day
We set sail on February 27 early in the morning. Our boat was moored at a slight distance from the jetty and we were quickly ferried by Nick in his inflatable dingy. We were greeted by Al, our Thai cook and only crew member besides Nick. The boat was neat and tidy and gave an appearance of prudence with space. Every nook and corner was used to store something or other. The living space was a little cramped and left us wondering what would have happened with three more people on board. Not to get bogged down with trivial issues, we all quickly settled down to the ways of a sailing boat including a hand-operated toilet flush. The food was Thai and was peppered with the catch of the day. We had endless supply of drinks and snacks and never felt short of good food. Harkirat was picked by Nick as his second-in-command. He kept vigil on the boat when Nick had to catch up on sleep.
Approaching Narcondam Island
The journey to Narcondam took approximately 36 hours and it was almost dark when we arrived. The island gives an impression of an extinct volcano — biggish with lush green forest cover. Nick quickly found a suitable place to drop anchor and we settled for the evening. All of us were very happy and agreed that it would be difficult to sleep.
Narcondam Hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondami)
We woke up to the calls of Pied Imperial Pigeons, which were abundant on the island. The excitement was palpable and with each flight of the pigeon, minute physiological details were discussed and lots of hi-fives exchanged. And then, a sudden war cry went up in the air. Somebody had pointed out a Narcondam Hornbill. And yes, indeed it was one! It was flying majestically from one tree to another. It is a small hornbill and reminded us of a smaller version of the Rufous-necked Hornbill. The tail is striking white and the rufous on the neck is resplendent. We decided to circle the island by boat and were able to see a few more hornbills. Besides hornbills and pigeons, we identified Alexandrine Parakeets, Hill Mynas and Asian Koels. Satiated, we decided to head back in the evening.
Barren Island has the only active volcano in Indian territory
Our next port of call was Barren Island, which has the distinction of being the only active volcano in Indian territory. True to its image, it was spewing ash and gases when we arrived the next day in the afternoon. Barren Island is not fully barren and does support sparse vegetation on its side. Pied Imperial Pigeons were seen hopping from one tree to another and a White-bellied Sea Eagle was sitting guard on a rock face. We again decided to circle the island by boat and observed that the volcano was active every 15-20 minutes. The whole experience of watching a live volcano was magical, though surreal. We made further stopovers at Neil and Havelock Island for a recce and were amply rewarded with good sightings of the White-breasted Woodswallow and the Andaman Serpent Eagle.
The volcano on Barren Island erupts every 15 to 20 minutes
Watching a live volcano at work was at once magical and surreal
We finally reached Port Blair on March 4 with a good six days on the high seas. Most of us were philosophical and were raving about the exhilarating experience of visiting remote islands in our country. Goodbyes were said and a promise to return some day was made.
Oriental Scops Owl
The next two days were as hectic as could be. Manoj was a man possessed and he mercilessly pushed us from 5 am – 9 pm. And it helped! We stumbled on a flock of 100 Daurian/Purple Backed Starlings. The starlings are vagrant and very few sightings have been reported from the subcontinent. Harkirat was of the view that A O Hume collected a single sample from this Island. Another significant sighting was of the Mangrove Whistler at Sippi Ghat.
White-bellied/Glossy Swiftlet, Asian Glossy Starling, Edible-nest Swiftlet, Olive-backed Sunbird, Pacific Reef-heron, Andaman Green Pigeon, Pied Imperial Pigeon (Narcondam Island), Narcondam Hornbill (Narcondam Island) and Andaman White-headed Starling are in good numbers and can easily be seen. Brown Coucal, Andaman Flowerpecker, Andaman Hawk-owl, Hume’s Hawk-owl, Oriental Scops-owl, Andaman Teal, Slaty-breasted Rail, Andaman Wood Pecker, White-breasted Woodswallow, Andaman Serpent Eagle, Andaman Bulbul, Andaman Shama and Andaman Cuckooshrike, Pacific Swallow are scarce but gettable with some effort. Oriental Reed-warbler, Mangrove Whistler, Andaman Cuckoo-dove, Andaman Woodpigeon, Andaman Treepie and Long-toed stints are rare and may pose a good challenge. A flock of Daurian/ Purple-backed Starlings!
Vernal Hanging Parrot
Photographs by Aparna Jain
Photographs of Narcondam Hornbill by special courtesy of Kalyan Varma
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The Green Ogre – Birds, Wildlife, Ecology and Nature notes from India.