Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Islands of paradise!

This trip was an epic journey filled with joy, and it was a childhood dream come true for many reasons. I never thought that I would be going to the Andamans this early in life. Honestly enough, the Andamans were unreachable fruit until a year ago. I used to gaze at the image of the Andaman Mormon from Isaac Kehimkar's book, and used to think "Ah, I wonder when I'll get to see this butterfly! Probably not for a couple of years for sure! Better just forget about it..."

But then I was surprised to find myself planning a trip to the Andamans this year, with my then fiancé Shreenidhi, who is now my husband. So I can rightfully say that the adventure with him, which began with the Loris watching at IISc continues into a lifetime story of wildlife tales!

We started our research for this trip many months before the trip happened. The dates chosen were April 22nd to May 6th. We booked our stays well ahead of time, and we were glad to have opted for air conditioned accommodation in all the places. The humidity at 98%, would have been too oppressive for us otherwise.

Our flight to Port Blair was from Chennai, and we traveled from Bangalore to Chennai by road. It was a pleasant 2 hour flight, and I still can't forget the moment we got down from the plane at Veer Sawarkar Airport. The weather was hot and humid, and was a drastic change from the conditions maintained inside the aircraft.

With ears blocked due to the flight, we started off to Wandoor. On the way, we saw a lot of ruined houses and backwaters. Our cab driver Mr. Ravi told us that the region was used for agriculture once upon a time. But due to the catastrophic tsunami of 2004, the ocean reclaimed it's territory.

In one of these lakes/ backwaters, we saw an endemic water bird called the Sunda Teal. It was our first endemic, and we were excited about a great start.

Sunda Teal
We reached ANET at around 8am. Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team (ANET) is an organisation based in Wandoor, about 40km from Port Blair, which conducts nature walks for tourists and is a base for many wildlife researchers. ANET is also associated with a diving group called Lacadives, which offers scuba diving courses of different levels.

We stayed at ANET for three nights. We saw many beautiful species of birds and butterflies right on campus. Some birds we saw were the Brown Shrike (ssp lucionensis), Orange Headed Thrush, Brown Coucal, Eastern Jungle Crow etc., Amidst the butterflies, the Painted Jezebel caught my attention on the very first day. We also saw Andaman Viscount, Andaman Clipper and Andaman Yamfly in our three days there. One one of the three days, we made a day trip to the nearby Chidiya Tapu. It was a beautiful place, and we got to see the very beautiful Collared Kingfisher here for the first time. Chidiya tapu has a lovely beach called the Munda Pahad beach, and further from this beach is the trek up to Munda Pahad, where a beautiful lighthouse is situated. But unfortunately, our trip seemed ill planned because we reached the beach at 5pm and the last bus back to Port Blair was at 6pm, which we were unaware of.

We saw only one squirrel throughout our trip, and this was at the Munda Pahad Beach. To our surprise, it was a Five Striped Palm Squirrel and not three!

Indian Painted Jezebel

Andaman Viscount
Andaman Yamfly

Andaman Yamfly

Andaman Viscount
There is a magnificent mangrove beach a stone's throw from ANET, and it was quite an experience walking in the mangroves when there was low tide. Fiddler Crabs, Mud Crabs, Mudskippers, Snails and Frogs were all over the place. The silt of these mangroves is just heavenly to step on!

Mud Crab

Mud Crab

Fiddler Crabs
The same day, we visited a beach on the other side of ANET, to find Sea Kraits. It was about 9pm when we spotted our first, the Yellow Lipped Sea Krait. Not long before we spotted the other species found in the same place, called the Blue Lipped Sea Krait. These snakes were so beautiful that we did not feel like leaving the beach and heading back to base.

Blue Lipped Sea Krait

The fin like tail of the beautiful Blue-lipped Sea Krait

Yellow Lipped Sea Krait
Though I didn't dive, Shreenidhi had a great time exploring the world underwater. I snorkeled on the surface while he went up to 6 metres deep. He describes his experience as "Something out of the world!"and that "It is an all new magical dimension full of surprises."Having snorkeled in the waters, I couldn't have agreed more. Fish in shapes I never thought existed, colours I never imagined on a living being, the graceful movements of those creatures...and the tranquility once your head is under the water: words don't suffice!

Shreenidhi with his diving gear, just into the sea!
After our three nights at ANET, we set off to Havelock Island on the Coastal Cruise from Phoenix Bay Jetty, Port Blair. Havelock Island is said to be the tourist hotspot of the Andamans, and is about 2 hours' sea ride from Port Blair. We stayed at a resort called Symphony Palms Beach Resort.

Havelock is surprisingly small considering it is the tourist hotspot. There are just two beaches: Kaala Pattar and Radhanagar. Here, we rented a two wheeler, the Bajaj Avenger. Havelock is known to be the 'Goa' of the Andamans, and wildlife enthusiasts like me probably don't expect a lot of birds and butterflies. But to our pleasant surprise, the forests here are just as filled with life as the ones in Wandoor. It was here, that we saw one of the most important butterflies on our wish list: The Bengal Leopard Lacewing, for the first time. It is a beach loving butterfly, active majorly between the late morning and early afternoon. It fluttered past us at a height of about 10 metres from the ground, and enchanted us with it's lovely graceful sailing.

At Radhanagar, the forest cover is not very dense, but the trees are very tall and they rise from right next to the beach, which makes them uniquely beautiful. We saw a Water Monitor Lizard here. It was large and monstrous, and seemed quite obliged to strike poses for us. We walked along the forest tracks near the beach to find the Andaman Saronis Sunbeam and Southern Birdwing butterflies. We also saw a lot of Yamflys, and we came across a single Andaman Centaur Oakblue butterfly. We said to ourselves, "Let's come here again tomorrow!"

Water Monitor Lizard
Andaman Centaur Oakblue
But then,we changed plans and headed to Kaala Pattar instead, and we didn't regret the choice at all.We were so glad we didn't spend another day at Radhanagar because this beach was so much richer. Andaman Lesser Gull was a new butterfly for us at Kaala. We saw Olive Backed Sunbird, Small Minivet, Red Breasted Parakeet, Long Tailed Parakeet, and the most delightful Asian Fairy Bluebird. We also saw the Vernal Hanging Parrot. We heard a metallic mimicking call which sounded like that of a Bulbul. As we looked around and traced the call, we found the very talented Andaman Drongo! There were Tiny Grass Blue butterflies everywhere. On our way back from Kaala, we stopped by at a tree where we found the endemic Andaman Green Bronzeback Treesnake! It was a feast to the eyes!

Andaman Green Bronzeback Treesnake

Andaman Green Bronzeback Treesnake

Andaman Green Bronzeback Treesnake

Though we wanted to explore Neil Island, we couldn't as the Coastal Cruise does only one to-and-fro trip per day. The return to Havelock was early in the afternoon, so Neil is not a possible day trip from Havelock.

We were told by many that 'Full Moon Cafe' is the best in Havelock, but we begged to differ. Full Moon Cafe served us bland food, and I can never forget the soggy Masala Pappad. Instead, a little further is Anju Coco Cafe, which served us the tastiest food on our entire trip. Indian, Chinese or Continental, this restaurant made sure we left with our hearts and tummies both full.

Banana Nutella Pancake at Anju Coco Cafe - Stuff to die for!
After our four nights at Havelock, we took the took the seaplane to Port Blair from the jetty. This was the experience which blew our minds to no ends. The beauty of the coastlines cannot be better experienced than from a seaplane. The ride on the Cesna aircraft costed us about four thousand per head. We found so much excitement in it that we couldn't have asked for better.

Upon reaching Port Blair, we took the Andaman Trunk Road to North Andaman. This was a bumpy cab ride, but it was very memorable. There are steamers connecting the small islands to one another, and these steamers carry about 2 buses and a small number of cars at one time. One steamer crossing is at Middle Strait, and the other one at Mayabunder, just before the convoy into the Jarawa Reserve Area.

The Jarawa Reserve Area is a protected area reserved especially for the Jarawa Tribe, who are one of the five kinds of tribes across Andamans. They have been known to be hostile, and reluctant to be contacted by the rest of the world. Hence, measures have been taken to respect their privacy. Any vehicle that has to pass through this reserve has to enter the convoy at one of the three particular times: 9:30am, 12:30pm and 2:30pm. No overtaking,no stopping and no photography is allowed inside the reserve. A police officer always leads the convoy.
Instructions on the sign-in sheet before the convoy.
The journey through the reserve is about 40km, and due to the speed restriction, it takes about 2 hours to get through. These jungles are absolutely undisturbed by tourism and untouched by civilization, and hence are so pristine that you tend to agree with the Jarawas. Why would anyone wish to be contacted by the rest of the world when you are home in a place as beautiful as this? It was on this road that we got to see yet another very important butterfly on our wish list, the Andaman Tree Nymph. It was unfortunate that we couldn't stop to take a look at it, but we felt fortunate to have seen it at least. We reached Diglipur after a total of 9 hours of travelling. We checked into Pristine Beach Resort at 8pm.

The next morning we were greeted with the lovely sight of the Bengal Leopard Lacewing very close to us. It also sat on our feet and we enjoyed the butterfly's company for quite a long time. There were quite a good number of Andaman Clipper butterflies in the vicinity of our room. Our accommodation was a fair distance from the town of Diglipur, and the areas in and around the property of the resort were amazing for birds and butterflies. We saw endemics like the Andaman Spotted Woodpecker, Andaman Woodpecker, Andaman Flowerpecker etc.,

Bengal Leopard Lacewing

Bengal Leopard Lacewing

Bengal Leopard Lacewing
Kalipur beach, a 5 minute walk from the resort, is a nesting site for two species of turtles: The Green Sea Turtle and the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle. Though we were too late for the laying as well as the hatching season, we were lucky to see a newborn Green Sea Turtle on one of the nights of our stay.

Hatchling of Green Sea Turtle
Ramnagar, a settlement about 40km from the resort, is home to one of the most beautiful cave systems in the Andamans, the Alfred Caves. It is a very difficult trek from Ramnagar, and I had almost given up halfway through. Peak of summer was a tough time for a hard trek. But what was at the end of the journey made us forget all the sweat and pain it took to get there. The smell of bat guano, the sight of thousands of bats and nests of Indian Edible Nest Swiftlets. These caves, though open to tourists, are highly protected and guarded by forest officials who take their job very seriously.

Indian Edible Nest Swiftlets in their nests

Perhaps, a mother and father on a nest

There were two kinds of beautiful bats in the cave we got down into: Anderson's Leaf Nosed Bat and Dobson's Horshoe Bat.

Dobson's Horseshoe Bat

Anderson's Leaf Nosed Bats

Anderson's Leaf Nosed Bats
Anderson's Leaf Nosed Bat
Swiftlet nests on the side walls of the cave

Thousands of bats in the depths of the cave!

The trek to the caves and back was very fruitful too! We crossed a trench created by a seasonal stream, and the number of butterfly species we recorded here was unbelievable. Seargents, Sailers, Pierrots, Ceruleans - of unknown kinds. It was paradise for a butterfly enthusiast.

Andaman Common Lascar on Shreenidhi's shoe

Sullied Sailer (Identity doubtful, hence not included in the species list below)

Indo-Chinese Elbowed Pierrot

Neptis species
Andaman Saronis Sunbeam

Andaman Common Tit

Andaman Lesser Gull

Andaman Clipper

Andaman Yellow Orange Tip
While walking through this dried stream,
Alive came my big dream.
The Andaman Mormon flew past me gracefully as my heart pounded with joy!
I turned as he disappeared, only to see an Andaman Treepie!

Andaman Treepie
I was out of words for quite a while. I didn't have to try too hard to convince myself that I wasn't dreaming, because the sun's heat seemed too excruciatingly real. We were famished by the time we returned, and were paralyzed with sore limbs for the last two days of our stay at Diglipur.

Ross and Smith Islands are a treat to the eyes, jellyfish swimming everywhere close to us while in the water. We also visited Craegy Island, where we saw a pair of Beach Thick Knees.

Beach Thick Knee (Beach Stone Curlew)
When we returned to the resort, we were delighted by the sight of the endemic Emerald Gecko, which we saw inside the roof of the restaurant.

North Andamans added a lot of species to our list, and we had seen everything on our wishlist by the time we were done at Diglipur. We headed back to Port Blair in the same cab which got us to Diglipur.

The marine aquarium is a must visit for sea life enthusiasts.

Our flight from Port Blair was supposed to leave at 7am, but due to bad weather, it was pushed to 12:30pm. This was disappointing, but apparently it is a very common phenomenon in the islands. Weather always remains unpredictable no matter how much is forecast.

The takeoff from Port Blair was almost depressing, but the beautiful aerial view of the islands distracted me from the sad fact that we were leaving the Andamans. As I enjoyed my last glimpse of the islands, a drop of tear prepared to jump off each of my eyes. Just before they fell, the crack in my ear diverted my attention,and I frantically looked for chewing gum in my pockets. The next view through my window, and we were above the clouds.I closed my eyes, leaned my back on the reclining seat, and visualized all the beautiful birds and butterflies we saw on this amazing trip. Then, I opened my eyes and smiled to myself - "Wow, I'm on top of the clouds in every sense of the phrase!"

List of endemic species seen throughout the trip:

1. Sunda Teal (Anas gibberifrons)
This bird is strikingly different from other teals due to it's white eye-patch. We found them in a group of around 20 individuals, in one of the small backwaters of Sippighat, on the way from Port Blair to Wandoor. They were accompanied by Lesser Whistling Ducks, Common Moorhen, Purple Moorhen and Little Grebe.

2. Black Naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis)
We spotted this beauty at ANET, at around 9am. This Oriole is a resident of the Andamans and winter visitor to Bangladesh and certain parts of India. Cannot be fully classified as endemic.

3. Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus lucionensis)
This bird is probably the most common bird inthe Andamans.

4. Asian Glossy Starling (Aplonis panayensis tyleri)
A beautiful black bird with a green sheen. Very common in South Andaman, but slightly less common in the north. Resident species of Andamans which visits northeast India.

5. White Headed Starling (Sturnia erythropygia)
Another common bird, slightly more common in the South.

6. Greater Racket Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus ceylonicus)
Looks very much like the Lesser Racket Tailed Drongo, but is a subspecies of the Greater.

7. Andaman Drongo (Dicrurus andamanensis)
Larger and longer than Black Drongo, tail is broader.

8. Eastern Jungle Crow (Corvus levaillantii)

9. Pacific Swallow (Hirundo tahitica)
Large number of them seen in the jetty at Havelock.

10. Pacific Reef Egret (Egretta sacra)
Seen on rocky side of Kalipur beach.

11. Brown Coucal (Centropus andamanensis)
The only coucal in the Andamans. Common throughout.

12. Andaman Serpent Eagle (Spilornis elgini)
Smaller than Crested Serpent Eagle and looks much darker in flight.
Andaman Serpent Eagle
13. Andaman Treepie (Dendrocitta bayleii)
Sounds very much like an Oriole and confuses the listener. We saw this beauty at Ramnagar, on the way to Alfred Caves.

14. Andaman Woodpecker (Dryocopus hodgei)
Looks similar to Great Black Woodpecker, but is much smaller without a white belly.

15. Spot Breasted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos analis)
We saw them in the north as well as south, almost always in pairs. The most beautiful woodpecker of the Andamans!

16. Andaman Green Pigeon (Treron chloropterus)
The only green pigeon in the Andamans.

17. Olive Backed Sunbird (Cinnyris jugularis)
Found commonly throughout, females more common than males.
Olive Backed Sunbird female

18. Beach Thick Knee (Esacus neglectus)
A very large sized Thick Knee/ Stone Curlew. Craegy Island is where we saw a pair of these.

19. Glossy Swiftlet (Collocalia esculenta)
Tail is squarish in shape and has a distinct white belly. Swoops close to the ground while flying.

20. Andaman Bulbul (Pyconotus fuscoflavescens)
We saw this lovely bulbul a few times in South Andamans, more so in Wandoor. But none in the North.

21. Edible Nest Swiftlet (Collocalia fuciphaga)
Nests in Alfred Caves, Ramnagar. Beautiful cup shaped nests are made of their own saliva.

22. White Breasted Woodswallow (Artamus leucoryncbus)
The only woodswallow of Andamans. We saw this on the way from Diglipur to Ramnagar.

1. Andaman Saronis Sunbeam (Curetis saronis saronis)
At Havelock and also at Ramnagar.

2. Indo-Chinese Elbowed Pierrot (Caleta elna noliteia)

3. Andaman Centaur Oakblue (Arhopala centaurus coruscans)
Havelock, Ramnagarand Diglipur

4. Andaman Yamfly (Loxura atymnus prabha)
Found throughout the Andamans. Very common.

5. Andaman Dark Wanderer (Pareronia ceylanica naraka)
Seen in plenty at Ramnagar, but also seen at Radhanagar beach, Havelock.

6. Oriental Great Orange Tip (Hebomoia glaucippe glaucippe)
Also found in Northeastern India. We saw these in abundance mostly within the Jarawa reserve.

7. Andaman Lesser Gull (Cepora nadina andamana)
We saw them in larger numbers at Kaala Pattar, Havelock. We also saw them at Ramnagar.
Andaman Lesser Gull
8. Andaman Common Gull (Cepora nerissa lichenosa)
Only one seen, at Alfred Caves.
Andaman Common Gull
9. Indian Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete indica)
We saw them only in South Andaman. This species is also seen in Northeastern India.

10. Andaman Yellow Orange Tip (Ixias pyrene andamana)
Seen more often from Middle Andaman towards North. Photographed one at Ramnagar.

11. Andaman Mormon (Papilio mayo)
Beautiful and slow flight just as the Blue Mormon. Saw this species thrice at Ramnagar.

12. Andaman Palmfly (Elymnias cottonis)
Common throughout the Andamans.

13. Andaman Clipper (Parthenos sylvia roepstorfii)
Abundant in the north, relatively less common in the south.

14. Andaman Baron (Euthalia acontius)
Photographed once at Diglipur.
Andaman Baron
15. Andaman Viscount (Tanaecia cibaritis)
Seen at Wandoor as well as Ramnagar.

16. Bengal Leopard Lacewing (Cethosia cyane cyane)
We saw the species three times while in the North Andaman, and only once (at Havelock) while in the South.

17. Andaman Common Pierrot (Castalius rosimon alarbus)
Seen at Havelock as well as Diglipur.
Andaman Common Pierrot
18. Andaman Tree Nymph (Idea agamarschana cadelli )
We saw four individuals in all while travelling through the Jarawa reserve area.
Subspecies cadelli is that of the species Myanmar Tree Nymph.

19. Andaman Common Tit (Hypolycaena erylus andamana)
We saw only one, at the forest guard camp just before Alfred Caves.

20. Andaman Silver Forget-me-not (Catochrysops panormus andamanica)
We saw one individual in Diglipur, and captured a record shot.
Andaman Silver Forget Me Not
21. Andaman Common Lascar (Pantoporia hordonia cnacalis)
Very different from the mainland subspecies due to the absence of the third horizontal yellow band. We saw two individuals of this species at Ramnagar.

22. Khasi Golden Birdwing (Triodes aeacus aeacus)
A species also found in Northeastern India. We also saw the Southern Birdwing (Triodes minos) in the same places. Wandoor, Havelock and Diglipur. The two species fly indistinctly different patterns. Also, the Golden seemed more manouverable and fast when compared to the slowness of the Southern. Shapewise, when in flight,the Golden forms a more acute trapezium when the four wingtips are joined by imaginary straight lines.

23. South Andaman Crow (Euploea andamanensis andamanensis)
We saw this only in Wandoor and Havelock, in decent numbers. A fairly common butterfly locally.
South Andaman Crow

South Andaman Crow

List of underwater species identified:

1. Clam
2. Greenish sea cucumber
3. Graeffe's sea cucumber
4. Black diadem sea urchin
5. Blue sea star
6. Masked Puffer fish
7. Trigger fish
8. Squirrel fish
9. Moorish Idol
10. Lined surgeonfish
11. Tomato anemonefish
12. Clark's anemonefish
13. Marley's butterflyfish
14. Yellowback fusilier
15. Neon fusilier
16. Lizardfish

To all those who made this possible...

Shreenidhi, your companionship and care is beyond any kind of thanking, so I shall proceed to showing my gratitude to those others that were a part of this experience actively as well as passively.

My special thanks to these people who helped plan our trip: Rohit Chakravarty, Sowdamini S. Prasad and Kesava Murthy. Rohit Chakravarty for the identities of the bats found at Alfred Caves. Thanks to the Lacadives team for introducing us to the world of open waters: Nigel, Leone, Arnav, Shyam. Thanks to Joeclyn, Smitha, Cammy and Aditi of the ANET team. Also, thanks to Mr. Anand, owner of Pristine Beach Resorts, for organising our plans in the North Andamans. Our cab drivers, Mr. Ravi and Mr. Javed for their patience while we made them stop every time we saw a bird or a butterfly. The tour guides at Alfred Caves who helped me overcome my fears of getting into difficult caves! A huge thank you to my mother-in-law Mrs Manjula, for all her support and contribution for this trip. Last but not the least, I am enormously grateful to Kaustubh Thomare for lending his laptop to me, without which I would not be able to process the pictures or upload this blogpost!