Paradise for Bird watchers

The Andaman and Nicobar islands are the proverbial paradise for birdwatchers.

IN his book Song of the Dodo, biologist David Quammen talks about how geographical isolation triggers speciation. The dodo of Mauritius is the best example of this development. With no predator to worry about, the dodo flourished for millennia in the Indian Ocean island till man landed there in the 18th Century. However Quammen points out that geographical isolation does not always result in appearance of a new species. But when new species evolve, they do so only in isolation. Of all the life forms it is the bird species that reflect this feature. It was the finches of Galapagos Island that led Darwin to his theory of evolution. This was brought home to us dramatically when we spent a few hours in the Andaman-Nicobar archipelago recently.

Primeval splendour Havelock Island is about two hours by boat from Port Blair. Surrounded by emerald lagoons, much of the mountainous island is covered with tropical evergreen forests. In some stretches, mangrove swamps line the shores. It was a landscape of primeval splendour. On the first day, wading in the lagoon, I saw two birds on a mangrove tree. One look and I knew it was a "lifer" for me — a bird species you see for the first time in your life. They were white-headed mynas. Within minutes, a woodpecker with a white-barred black mantle and red crown landed on the same tree. Another "lifer" — the fulvous-breasted woodpecker. Both birds are exclusive to the Andamans

The 324 islands of the Andaman-Nicobar archipelago are the tops of the submerged mountain chain, a continuation of the Arakan Yomas of Myanmar. But they have been separated long enough from the mainland to develop avifauna of their own. The islands are home to about 242 birds of which 39 are unique to the islands. Ornithologists describe them as endemic, birds that have evolved into distinctive species because of the insularity of their habitats. Soon we saw more endemic species like the olive-backed sunbird and Andaman swallow. These islands are a birdwatcher's paradise.

After the 1857 rising, the British government turned its attention to Andaman Islands to explore the possibility of setting up a penal colony. Soon a few amateur ornithologists from the civil services visited the islands and collected specimens.

One such was A.O. Hume, the founder of the Indian National Congress. Based on his collections, he wrote a series of articles between 1874 and 1876 in Stray Feathers, a journal of natural history. At least one bird in the islands is named after Hume — the white collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris humii), easily spotted in the jetty area of Port Blair. Hume was also the first to get a specimen of the Narcondam hornbill, another endemic bird. The entire population of 300 hornbills is confined to a single forested island, Narcondam. Another endemic bird easily spotted in Port Blair is the Andaman crow pheasant.

After taxonomist Humayun Abdulali of the Bombay Natural History Society carried out a series of surverys in the 1980s and published his observations, ornithologists realised the unrivalled nature of the birds in the islands. The megapode, which has come to symbolise the endemic birds of Andamans, inhabits the Nicobar Islands. Another distinct bird is the Nicobar pigeon with its metallic green hackles and sheen on its plumage.

Sighting the shama For the last three days of our holiday, we stayed in the cottages of the Andaman Nicobar Ecology Team (ANET) in a forest in Wandoor. Every morning at daybreak we would hear hauntingly long-drawn fluid birdcalls. Peeping out, we could see the shama singing and pirouetting in a bamboo clump. The plumage was a little different from the shama in the mainland.

A quick look at the book revealed that this was indeed a sub-species exclusive to the Andamans — the white-rumped shama (cpyschus malabricus albiventris). Arguably the best songbird, the shama is a forest dweller and difficult to spot. For a birder, the sight of this bird announcing the arrival of a new day is a consummation devoutly to be wished for.