21 Dec 2013

21 Dec 13 - A Big Day for Indian Vagrants

After a pre-dawn flight from Calcutta, I arrived into Port Blair, the main town on the Andaman Islands to find it was already 26C at 08:00 & noticeably warmer & sunnier than Calcutta had been.

The Andaman Islands are a chain of about 325 islands that are part of India, but geographically are only about 100 miles off the coast of Burma. The Andamans are a restricted area of India, but it's not difficult to get permission to visit the main islands. To their South are the Nicobar Islands, but access to visit these islands is difficult for Indian nationals & not possible for Western tourists. There are 20 species that are endemic to the Andaman/Nicobar islands that can be seen on the main Andaman islands. Additionally, Narcondam Hornbill is restricted to the small Narcondam island, 240 kms North of Port Blair. While the Andamans visa allows you to visit Narcondam, I'm not aware of any birders who have ever tried to see this species. I guess travel logistics & costs will be significant. There are several more endemics which are restricted to the Nicobar islands.

After catching up on missed sleep from the night before at the hotel, there was time to explore Gandhi Park in Port Blair. I hoped this would give me the opportunity of photographing a few of the local birds & see the first of the Andaman endemics.
Red Turtle Dove: A widespread Asian species of degraded habitats
Gandhi Park had a medium sized lake surrounded with a selection of ornamental trees & secondary scrub. Despite a lot of locals wandering around, there were still a good selection of birds to see.
Moustached Parakeet: This large Parakeet was encountered on most days. The males have the bright scarlet bills
Smyrna Kingfisher: This proved to be a common species in coastal, freshwater, open country & woodland habitats
 Brown Shrike: This is the greyer lucionensis race known as 'Philippine Shrike' in the Birds of South Asia Ripley Guide by Rasmussen & Anderson
Brown Shrike
I was pleased to see my first endemic species, Andaman Coucal, for the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, but wasn't able to get a photo until later in the trip.

The highlight of the visit came when I saw a flock of Starlings in a tree in the late afternoon. Given their white heads, I assumed they were the endemic White-headed Starling, but having left the field guide in the room, I planned to check the identification after dark from the photos. Looking at the photos, they clearly weren't White-headed Starlings, but Daurian Starlings, described in the 2011 edition of the field guide as a vagrant to India, with only a handful of records including just 2 birds seen on the Nicobar islands, compared to my flock of over 115. As birders we are used to isolated islands being good for vagrants, so not too surprised to find a Thai/Malay peninsula overshoot on the Andamans.
 Daurian Starlings: Part of the 115+ flock
Daurian Starlings: Our bird guide the following day said there have been several sightings in the Andamans since 2010, so not as good a record as I had hoped
After all the coverage on the BBC following Mandela's death, I can remember somebody on News24 saying Mandela was the greatest man living in the 20th Century. Clearly in all the hype, he had forgotten that there was also another contender who was also born in South Africa.
The Gandhi Statue: A superb statue & vastly better than most modern British art
The Gandhi Statue: It still looks good after dark