We were in Bhitarkanika National Park on 19 and 20 March. Everyone said that it was pretty late in the season and our sightings would be minimal. It was true that most of the winter migrants had left. Still the area is so rich in bird life that in three outings in the small area between Khola and Dangamal villages we saw eighty two species. Eighty one of them are listed here. The one I haven’t yet been able to identify is the slate and red bird in the photo below.
Contrary to the advise of some experienced birdwatchers, I’d expected this. My confidence was based on the comprehensive checklist published a decade ago which was a result of G.V. Gopi’s thesis work. This work listed a very large number of endemic species. Gopi put me in touch with the people whom he met during his field work, and that helped us enormously.
We had several lifers (marked in bold) and saw a few of the species which are globally threatened (marked with a star). Some of the birds I have written about in other posts; they are linked. Interestingly, every species we saw is included in Gopi’s checklist!
Little Cormorant: Phalacrocorax niger
* Darter: Anhinga melanogaster
Little Egret: Egretta garzetta
Purple Heron: Ardea purpurea
Large Egret: Casmerodius albus
Median Egret: Mesophoyx intermedia
Cattle Egret: Bulbulcus ibis
Indian Pond Heron: Ardeola grayii
Striated heron: Butorides striatus (formerly Little Green Heron)
Rufous Treepie : Dendrocitta vagabunda (formerly Indian Treepie)
Eastern Jungle Crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
Common Crow: Corvus splendens
The list leaves out birds which we heard but did not see. These include not only the ubiquitous Indian Koel and the Common Hawk-Cuckoo (more widely known as the Brain Fever bird, due to its call), but also a couple of owls and a nightjar.
Bhitarkanika has several avian habitats. The area that we visited (coloured red in the map here) is reputed to be best for kingfishers and the pitta. Closer to the sea one should see the gulls and terns which we missed completely. There are also multiple viewing season. The time we visited is the leanest. Soon after the end of the monsoon one should be able to see herons nesting. The winter months will bring in the migrants, so loved by bird watchers in India. All this is in addition to the views of saltwater crocodiles, sea turtles and monitor lizards which this place is famous for.
I end this post with a mention of the most unlikely sight we saw: a monitor lizard being harried by a flock of Green Bee-eaters. The monitor lizard was probably interrupted in its search for eggs in the nests which the Bee-eaters build on the ground. These birds do not usually flock. They came together to harry the lizard, and successfully drover it away. I was so taken up by the events that I forgot I had a camera. You see wonderful things when you are in a forest.
It was a dark and stormy day. Well, not stormy as much as rainy. But the wind was strong enough to ruffle the feathers of a common sandpiper by the sea-shore (featured photo).
In any case it was a dark and wet day when we met up with a lone birder standing by a bend in the Great Andaman Trunk Road near its end in Chidiyatapu. We had a scope, binoculars and cameras. He had a scope and binoculars. The first words he said were "Andaman shama". When you hear a call like that it confirms that you have met a birder.
We spent about half an hour in that one spot by the road. It was not very early, but since the day was pretty dark, the birds were feeding late. In a short while we saw not only the Andaman shama, but also the bright scarlet minivet with its yellow companion (The Family’s favourite), a small minivet, a couple of black-naped orioles, a spot-breasted kingfisher, an Indian fairy bluebird, an Andaman treepie, an Andaman drongo and a white-headed starling. Mark Smiles, the birder we met on the road, was a fantastic spotter.
We were off to Chidiyatapu for breakfast. Since Mark also wanted to go there, we gave him a lift. At Chidiyatapu we saw two different kinds of kingfishers, three kinds of parakeets, and the Andaman flower-pecker before Mark left. The sea was calm (see photo above) as we settled down for breakfast. It had been a most unusual trip to Andaman till now.
Shaktivel had a plan. Gokul, Senthil and Shakti wanted to do night birding in Chidiyatapu. We’d had a long day: waking at 3:30 in the morning to catch our flight, only to cool our heels in Chennai for a delayed flight to Port Blair. We’d not had a great lunch either. So after sunset in Sippighat, when Shakti told us about the evening’s plans, The Family and I voted to eat something first. Senthil started on the drive to Chidiytapu. On the deserted road through a bit of deserted forest we spotted a lone birder with a scope. Our meeting with him the next day was interesting enough for a separate post. When we reached the waterfront it was just a little after six, but it was completely dark. We were thrilled to see a line of small eateries. We stopped at Infinity Cafe and ordered a bunch of assorted bhajiyas.
We set out fortified. Shakti handed a torch to Gokul and a head lamp to me. The Family did not want a light. Senthil took a turn on to a side road and almost immediately Gokul’s torch found an owl sitting on a dead tree. It was half turned from us, so we could see both the brown back and the streaks across the chest. It was a brown hawk owl. It sat there for a long time, and eventually tired of the bright lights and flew off.
We walked along the road. Most of the time our lights found common birds roosting: brown shrikes, as in the photo here, or red-cheeked bulbuls. We passed a bridge under which swifts nested. We refused Gokul’s offer to clamber down in the dark, but saw them the next morning. We heard a musical hooting in the distance. Our companions knew that this was the call of a Hume’s Hawk Owl. Out came their bluetooth speakers, as they started playing their recorded calls of this bird. It clearly wasn’t attractive enough, since the owl made no move to come nearer. We heard it sitting in a fixed spot. Eventually a further Hume’s Hawk Owl also started calling. Gokul walked into the woods to look for them, but came back without having seen anything more. A different, softer chirruping call started up; probably an Oriental Scops Owl. But our luck had run out. The Family and I were dead on our feet, and begged off. Shakti, Gokul and Senthil reluctantly called off their hunt.
We finally reached the hotel at nine. It had been a long day. We decided to skip dinner, fell in bed and were instantly asleep. We’d had a fantastic first day in the Andamans, and we had another long day planned.
Just after the Almora-Gopeshwar road crosses the Kosi, a little road-side bazar has sprung up, invisible on maps and satellite photos available to you and me. For a couple of hundred meters, the road is lined on both sides by shops. The owners walk here from nearby villages early in the morning and leave late at night. The shops were just opening as we came by at 7 in the morning. We had passed a kill some distance down the road. The shop-keepers told us that the cow was prey to a leopard which had been seen in the area several times that week. In the animated conversation we were told the puzzling story that leopards drink blood. Could this be a misinterpretation of the reason the leopard hangs on to the neck of its prey? A leopard kills by holding the prey by its neck until it chokes to death.
We found three eateries next to each other and checked out possibilities. If you read Hindi you can see in the photo above that the menu is limited. Breakfast is the most varied: pakodas, puri-chhole or alu parathas with tea or coffee. For lunch you can get rice with vegetables and kadhi or with rajma beans. Dinner is just roti and vegetables with yoghurt. This man was just starting up. He had tea on the boil, but the dough was still being kneaded by the old gentleman at the back. Another helper had finished peeling potatoes and was rapidly chopping up a kilo of onions. Large bowls of yogurt had set overnight, but the huge containers were still to be filled with the day’s vegetable curry.
The process had reached further next door. The table by the road was already taken, but the inside room was empty. We sat down next to a Pepsi cooler full of an eclectic collection of things which need to be cooled. Those large clay bowls you can see next to the window are used to set yogurt. We opened out the window so that we could look out to the trees next to the river. We saw a lesser yellow-naped woodpecker just sitting here: a lifer for all of us.
Meanwhile our patron was busy making fresh parathas with thick layers of potatoes inside. The yogurt was thick and fresh, and the mixed sabji which came with the parathas was hot and spicy. If we had breakfast like that every day at home we would be spherical in no time. We’d asked for tea, and we found that our three cups were bottomless. It was a lovely roadside breakfast, and one that lasted longer than the time we had allotted. The morning’s birding here was the best we had that day.
We went on to Kausani, where we saw no birds. There was a cloud cover so we never saw Nanda Devi or any of the other peaks either. On the way back we stopped again at the same shops in Kosi Bazar and had our afternoon tea. The birds were still there.