Backwaters by boat

On a morning when others across the Indian Ocean were lugging themselves and their equipment to plac es best suited to view the annular solar eclipse, we decided to drive from Kochi to Vaikom for a morning of boating through the storied backwaters of Kerala. The moon’s shadow had moved away from us by the time we got on to the boat, but the air remained cool for quite a while.

There was activity all around us, but people seemed to have time to stand and chat. Part of the charm of Kerala is this unhurried air, which allows you into interesting conversations. We watched these two boats loaded with cattle feed foraged from the waters. As the two oarsmen went by, they were chatting with each other.

Lives here revolve around the water and its rhythms. We’d started moving south along the broad watercourse at low tide, and would return north as the tide came in. We passed a bunch of people lifting nets full of mussels. The shellfish are separated into meat, to be sold, and shells to be processed. The meat is quickly moved to markets, but the shells are heaped up into pyramids which will be loaded into trucks to yield lime for the building industry.

The waterways of Kerala are places where a natural process has slowly been recovering land from the sea. The mangroves, which you can see all around you, are the central engine driving this generation of land. Around their edges are a variety of aquatic plants which aid in this process by fixing the mud and building it up. Lily pads are the most recognizable of these species, but the ones I couldn’t name are actually more widespread.

One useful plant was pointed out to us. It is called a water pineapple locally. One has to be careful of its uprights serrated leaves as you glide past stands of this inedible plant. The leaves are harvested to make mats. The roof of the covered boat we sat in was made from these leaves. These long covered boats are rare; we sat in one which had sixteen comfortably large cane chairs laid out in two rows. The cover protected us from the sun, and the cool breeze came through the poles which held it up.

These boats are now used only by tourists. These long boats are poled along by two boatmen, one at each end. We stuck to the edge of the broad watercourse we’d started from, until we came to a large island where the course bifurcated. There we were poled across to the other side, and then through narrower and narrower channels (see the featured photo, for example).

A cormorant glided in front of us, occasionally diving down to catch fish. Cormorants have adapted to humans here. They know that in the narrow channel a boat will drive fish ahead of it, giving them an enhanced chance of successful foraging. The boatman told us how in China cormorants are used for fishing. In Kerala everyone reads; everyone has some knowledge of the wider world.

After an hour wending our way through these narrow green channels, we were back in the main watercourse. The air had warmed up and I was very happy to have the mat overhead to protect us from the warmth of the sun. The humidity was intense, and I marveled at how the boatmen could keep pushing us forward at a steady pace for the next half hour.

We stopped once at a little village. In Kerala it is very hard to make out where one village ends and another begins; it is a densely populated, but not fully urbanized countryside. A lady demonstrated the weaving of mats, and the making of ropes. I wandered off to take photos of butterflies. I’d noticed many of the common ones while gliding along the water. I managed to get a photo of the grey pansy (Junonia atlites).

Garden plants abound; every cottage has a little patch of garden around it. To my city-bred eyes this looks totally unnecessary, since all of the backwaters looked like an immense garden to me. As I examined a familiar flower, I saw large red ants crawling over the blooms. I’m no expert at ants, and my identification of these as red fire ants of the species Solenopsis geminata may be entirely mistaken.

The warm and humid air pulled me into a deep nap. When I woke up we were about to pull into our jetty. Some powerlines stretched across the watercourse. As I scanned along it, I had a great sighting of a blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus). It flitted about, but in true bee-eater style, always returned to its perch. It was time to return to ours.

Bee-eating competition

The bridge over the Periyar river in Thattekad puts you at eye level with electricity cables running parallel to it. That makes it a great spot for bird-watchers, because so many birds like to sit on such wires. Bee eaters are probably the most colourful of these. The blue-tailed bee eater (Merops philippinus) sat there quietly, in the usual style of bee eaters, giving us ample time to click photos. I’ve seen these birds before. They are common over India, breeding in North India, and wintering in Southern India. I don’t know whether anyone in India has studied their migration in any detail or even counted their population.

As I looked at the individual whose photo you see above, the question in my mind was how it survives competition with the ubiquitous drongos of these forests, and the many mynas. I was almost sure that some ecologist would have studied this question, but I could not find an answer. These three kinds of birds eat more or less the same insects. Mynas and drongos are both aggressive feeders. They survive in the same forest although their prey base overlaps, because the overlap is rather small. Mynas eat many things which drongos don’t, and there’s also sauce for the drongo which is not saucy enough for mynas. But everything that a bee-eater eats is also prey for drongos. Moreover, bee eaters seem to spend little effort in hunting. They sit on these wires, or high up on trees, and make little sorties now and then, when an insect flies by. Theirs is a passive hunting strategy, no seeking out prey. Maybe that is the reason why they are much less common than drongos in these jungles.

Birding in South Andaman

Birding map around Port Blair We did birding in four spots around Port Blair, marked by the green patches in the map here. Chidiyatapu was a mix of forest and shoreline. Since the Andaman Trunk Road passes through the forest, and disturbs the birds, our best viewing here was early in the morning. Sippighat and Ograbranj are wetlands, and yielded very good sightings. Mt. Harriet in Bambooflats is another place where a day can yield good sightings. We visited Sippighat in the afternoon of December 22, Chidiyatapu the same night and again in the morning of December 23. We did birding in Ograbranj in the afternoon of December 23, and went up to Mt. Harriet on December 25.

Red collared dove

The Andaman group of Islands is full of endemics (marked with a star in the list below), and also has winter visitors. Even though I had done my reading, I was startled by the variety of visitors. I’d never expected to see Daurian’s starlings here. Andaman is so far from our normal birding grounds that our bird list is full of lifers (marked in bold):

  1. Alexandrine parakeet: Chidiyatapu
  2. * Andaman drongo: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  3. * Andaman bulbul: Chidiyatapu
  4. * Andaman collared kingfisher: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj, Neil Island
  5. * Andaman (brown) coucal: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  6. Andaman Green Pigeon

  7. * Andaman cuckoo-dove: Chidiyatapu
  8. * Andaman flowerpecker: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  9. * Andaman green pigeon: Mt. Harriet
  10. * Andaman shama: Chidiyatapu
  11. * Andaman treepie: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  12. Asian brown flycatcher: Mt. Harriet
  13. Asian fairy bluebird: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  14. Barn swallow: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  15. Black bittern: Ograbranj
  16. Black drongo: Ograbranj
  17. Blue Tailed Bee Eater

  18. Black-naped oriole: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  19. Blue-tailed bee-eater: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  20. Brahminy kite: Chidiyatapu
  21. Broad-billed sandpiper: Sippighat
  22. Brown hawk owl: Chidiyatapu
  23. Brown shrike: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  24. Brown shrike (Philippine): Mt. Harriet
  25. Brown-backed needletail: Mt. Harriet
  26. Chinese Pond Heron

  27. Cattle egret: Sippighat
  28. Chestnut headed bittern: Ograbranj
  29. Chinese pond heron: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  30. Common coot: Sippighat
  31. Common crow: Sippighat
  32. Common kingfisher: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  33. Common moorhen: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  34. Common myna: Sippighat
  35. Common redshank: Sippighat
  36. Common sandpiper: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat
  37. Common sparrow: Port Blair
  38. Cotton teal: Sippighat
  39. Curlew sandpiper: Sippighat
  40. Daurian starling: Sippighat
  41. Eastern jungle crow: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
  42. Eurasian Whimbrel

  43. * Edible-nest swiftlet: Ograbranj
  44. Eurasian curlew: Sippighat
  45. Eurasian Whimbrel: Sippighat
  46. * Glossy swiftlet: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
  47. Gray heron: Ograbranj
  48. Green imperial-pigeon: Chidiyatapu
  49. Indian cuckoo: Chidiyatapu
  50. Indian pond heron: Ograbranj
  51. Intermediate egret: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  52. Large egret: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  53. Lesser sand plover: Sippighat
  54. Lesser whistling teal: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  55. Little green heron: Sippighat
  56. Little-ringed plover: Sippighat
  57. Long-toed stint: Sippighat
  58. Oriental magpie-robin: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat
  59. Pacific Golden Plover

  60. Pacific golden plover: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
  61. Pacific reef-egret: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Neil Island
  62. Pacific swallow: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat
  63. Pintailed snipe: Sippighat
  64. Purple swamp hen: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  65. Racquet-tailed drongo: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Neil Island
  66. Red-breasted parakeet: Chidiyatapu, Ograbranj
  67. Red-cheeked parakeet: Chidiyatapu
  68. Red-collared dove: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  69. Red-necked stint: Sippighat
  70. Red-throated pippit: Sippighat
  71. Red-whiskered bulbul: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
  72. Scarlet minivet: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  73. Small egret: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  74. Small minivet: Chidiyatapu
  75. Stork-billed Kingfisher

  76. * Spot-breasted woodpecker: Chidiyatapu
  77. * Stork-billed kingfisher: Ograbranj
  78. * Striated heron (Andaman): Mt. Harriet
  79. * Sunda teal: Ograbranj
  80. Vernal hanging parrot: Chidiyatapu
  81. Violet cuckoo: Ograbranj
  82. White-bellied sea-eagle: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Ograbranj, Neil Island
  83. White-breasted waterhen: Ograbranj
  84. White-headed starling: Chidiyatapu
  85. White-rumped munia: Chidiyatapu, Ograbranj
  86. White-throated kingfisher: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  87. Wood sandpiper: Sippighat
  88. Yellow bittern: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  89. Yellow wagtail: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat

White-rumped MuniaWe are amateur birders, and I hardly have a spotter’s eye. The Family spends more time on it. We did our birding in Andaman with Shaktivel, Gokul and Senthil. Shakti guides tours in the Andamans, and his next project is to take a group to Great Nicobar. Gokul is a zoologist, collecting data for a checklist of birds in the Andamans. This will be the core of his Doctoral thesis. During our three days of birding, we met up with Mark Smiles, who is an excellent birder, and guides bird tours in Dubai.