2007 SOUTH INDIA TOUR (4-29 January)
Owls are my favorite birds and South India is among the best places in Asia to see a good number of them. We started our tour with a search for the recently rediscovered Forest Owlet. After several hours of walking a road through their dry deciduous forest habitat, we spotted one midway up in a small tree. We watched it through the scope for a while and then moved closer for better scope views. It was exciting to again see this fellow which, until Pamela Rasmussen and I found it in 1997, was thought by many to be extinct. Subsequent research by Indian ornithologists has elucidated its habits and better defined its current distribution. We saw a total of 14 species of owls on this tour, a new record for us. Except for the Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl and Brown Fish-Owl, all were seen well. The additional 11 species were: Barn Owl; Andaman, Oriental and Indian Scops-Owls; Indian Eagle-Owl; Jungle Owlet; Brown, Black (Ninox obscura), and Andaman Boobooks; Spotted Owlet; and Brown Wood-Owl. We had superb daytime close-ups of Ceylon Frogmouth. Also seen were Jungle, Andaman and Jerdon’s Nightjars.
We were walking along a road through forest on South Andaman Island in late afternoon when a noise in the undergrowth caught my attention. It was a Brown Coucal prowling along on the ground through the leaves. Another noise among the leaves turned out to be an Emerald Dove. A bit farther on, I stopped to check out yet another quiet sound in the undergrowth. I scanned the ground in search of the cause of the scratching when my eyes fell upon a rich chestnut bird with a broadly barred black and white belly and a large pale green bill. “Andaman Crake!” I gasped. WOW! Just 7 or 8 meters away in plain sight was the most difficult of the Andaman endemic species to find and observe. I pointed the bird out to the tour members and eventually all saw it quite well. Fortunately it searched for food in a leisurely fashion at ranges of only 6-9 meters for nearly 10 minutes allowing us all superb views. The crake was voted bird of the trip, along with the Forest Owlet.
Overall, it was an excellent trip with a total of 344 species seen, our endemic total enhanced by the numerous splits in the new Rasmussen/Anderton field guide. Some of the more exciting birds were: Spot-billed Pelican, Red-naped Ibis, Andaman Teal, Black Baza, Andaman Serpent-Eagle, Himalayan Buzzard, Bonelli’s, Booted and Rufous-bellied Eagles, Red-necked Falcon, Red Spurfowl, Grey Junglefowl, Indian Peafowl, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Watercock, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Pintail Snipe, Indian Thick-knee, Nilgiri and Andaman Wood-Pigeons, Andaman Cuckoo-Dove, Grey-fronted and Andaman Green Pigeons, Malabar Parakeet, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Grey-bellied and Violet Cuckoos, Blue-faced Malkoha, Indian Swiftlet, White-rumped Needletail, Alpine Swift, Malabar Trogon, 7 kingfishers (including Black-backed), 3 bee-eaters, Malabar and Indian Grey Hornbills, Malabar Pied Hornbill, White-cheeked and Crimson-throated Barbets, Yellow-crowned, White-bellied, Andaman, White-naped and Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, Singing, Jerdon’s and Indian Bushlarks, Rufous-tailed, Malabar and Tawny Larks, Forest Wagtail, Tawny and Blyth’s Pipits, Andaman and Black-headed Cuckooshrikes, White-bellied Minivet, Malabar Woodshrike, Grey-headed, Andaman, Flame-throated, Yellow-throated, White-browed, Yellow-browed, and Sooty Bulbuls, Nilgiri and White-bellied Shortwings, Andaman Shama, Blue-capped Rockthrush, Malabar Whistlingthrush, Orange-headed Thrush, Indian Blackbird, Black-headed Thrush, Indian Scimitar-Babbler, Tawny-bellied, Dark-fronted, Rufous, and Yellow-billed Babblers, Wynaad, Grey-breasted and Black-chinned Laughingthrushes, Blyth’s and Indian Reed-Warblers, Jungle Prinia, Sulfur-bellied and Bright-green Warblers, Hume’s Whitethroat, Brown-breasted, Red-breasted, Red-throated, Ultramarine, Black-and-Rufous, Nilgiri and White-bellied Flycatchers, Spot-breasted Fantail, Indian Tit, Indian Nuthatch, Thick-billed, Pale-billed, Nilgiri and Andaman Flowerpeckers, Crimson-backed and Long-billed Sunbirds, Red Avadavat, Black-throated Munia, Malabar, White-headed and Rosy Starlings, Malabar Myna, Indian Golden Oriole, White-bellied and Andaman Drongos, White-bellied and Andaman Treepies, and Indian Crow.
2005 SOUTH INDIA TOUR (6-30 January)
FOREST OWLET PRETOUR (2-7 January)
Our first day at the rediscovery site of the Forest Owlet had been discouraging. Searching three known sites, both in morning and again in the afternoon, failed to reveal any owlets, suggesting that these three pairs were no longer present -- either moved or dead. It was getting rather late in the morning of the second day at a fourth, less accessible site, and already we'd spent over two hours searching with no success, when suddenly, a Forest Owlet started giving its distinctive call. We moved closer. When we were about 100 meters from the call, the bird stopped calling and did not call again. Our local guide and I asked the group to remain in place while we set out on different routes to try to locate the bird. The guide circled the calling site, while I made a more direct approach, both of us moving very slowly and as quietly as possible, with frequent long pauses to look and listen, as we moved through the open deciduous forest. After a half hour or so, I noticed a suspicious blob about 20 meters ahead in a young teak tree. I slowly raised my binoculars and was greatly relieved to see the Forest Owlet. Then I stepped back and motioned for the group to come ahead slowly and cautiously while I set up the scope. The owlet was unperturbed by our presence and we watched and photographed it for about 20 minutes before leaving it to its breakfast hunt. We were elated to find this rare and little known species which Pamela Rasmussen and I rediscovered in 1997 after a hiatus of 118 years with no records at all. Fortunately Indian researchers have found it at several other sites and its short-term future seems secure.
The Forest Owlet was one of an outstanding total of 13 owl species seen (no heard only owls) on this tour: Andaman, Oriental and Indian Scops-Owls, Indian and Spot-bellied Eagle-Owls, Brown Fish-Owl, Jungle Owlet, Brown and Andaman Boobooks, Spotted Owlet, and Mottled and Brown Wood-Owls. We also saw Jerdon's and Indian Nightjars and had superb daytime views of a pair of Ceylon Frogmouths. We had an excellent number of South Indian and Indian endemics, as well as a good selection of more broadly ranging species for a total list of 351 species seen (plus 2 heard only species), including: Indian Cormorant, Spot-billed Pelican, Yellow and Cinnamon Bitterns, Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Wooly-necked Stork, Black-headed and Red-naped Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Red-crested Pochard, Black Baza, Short-toed Eagle, Andaman Serpent-Eagle, White-eyed and Long-legged Buzzards, Black Eagle, Booted Eagle, Crested and Changeable Hawk-Eagles, Red-necked Falcon, Red and Painted Spurfowl, Grey Junglefowl, Indian Peafowl, a brief tantalizing view of a bird that could have been an Andaman Crake, Baillon's and Ruddy-breasted Crakes, Watercock, Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, Grey-headed and Yellow-wattled – Lapwings, Black-tailed Godwit, Pintail Snipe, Ruff, Great and Brown-headed Gulls, River Tern, Nilgiri and Andaman Wood-Pigeons, Andaman Cuckoo-Dove, Yellow-footed Pigeon, Malabar and Pink-cheeked‘ Parakeets, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Pied, Grey-bellied and Violet Cuckoos, Blue-faced Malkoha, Brown Coucal, Indian Swiftlet, Brown-backed and White-rumped Needletails, Malabar Trogon, Stork-billed and Blue-eared Kingfishers, Malabar Grey and Indian Grey Hornbills, Malabar Pied Hornbill, White-cheeked and Crimson-throated Barbets, 11 woodpeckers (including Fulvous-breasted, Yellow-crowned, Rufous, White-bellied, Andaman, White-naped and Heart-spotted), Indian Pitta, Indian and Jerdon's Bushlarks, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Rufous-tailed and Malabar Larks, Streak-throated Swallow, Forest and White-browed Wagtails, Tawny, Blyth's and Nilgiri Pipits, Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike, Grey-headed, Yellow-throated, White-browed and Yellow-browed Bulbuls, White-bellied Shortwing (both races), Bluethroat, Indian Blue Robin, Blue-capped Rockthrush, Malabar Whistlingthrush, Orange-headed Thrush, Eurasian Blackbird, Puff-throated Babbler, Indian Scimitar-Babbler, Tawny-bellied, Dark-fronted, Rufous, and Yellow-billed Babblers, Grey-breasted and Rufous-breasted Laughingthrushes, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Grasshopper Warbler, Blyth's Reed-Warbler, Booted Warbler, Jungle and Ashy Prinias, Tickell's and Hume's Leaf-Warblers, Bright Green Warbler, Tytler's Leaf-Warbler, Hume's Whitethroat, Rusty-tailed, Brown-breasted, Red-throated, Red-breasted, Ultramarine, Black-and-rufous, Nilgiri and White-bellied Flycatchers, Thick-billed and Pale-billed Flowerpeckers, Purple-rumped, Crimson-backed and Long-billed Sunbirds, White-throated Munia, White-headed and Rosy Starlings, Eurasian Golden Oriole, White-bellied and Andaman Drongos, and White-bellied and Andaman Treepies.
2003 FOREST OWLET PRETOUR (28 December 2002-3 January 2003)
We set up our scopes looking across a valley at a tree hole about 300 meters distant. We searched the hole and the tree around it, but could not see any birds. The hole was an active Forest Owlet's nest and we were hoping to see the occupants. After a while, a nearly fledged Forest Owlet appeared in the hole and surveyed his surroundings. He called a few times and one of his parents answered from a nearby tree. Soon we were viewing the adult in the scope. Then movement at the nest hole distracted us. One of the youngsters had made a short flight to a nearby branch where it was awkwardly trying to balance itself. We watched as the now fledged bird made several short flights in the nest area and eventually with a combination of tentative flights and clumsy walking returned to the nest hole, watched all the time by his nest-mate and parent. It was a great thrill to have such an intimate encounter with an endangered species that only six years ago was thought by many to be extinct.
The previous day we had watched another Forest Owlet nest at about 80 meters distance and seen one of the adults near the nest in the morning. In the afternoon, we came across another adult Forest Owlet while walking in the deciduous forest. When the bird was spotted, it was quite close and allowed the photographers among us an opportunity to get some frame-filling shots. It was quite gratifying to see the owls doing well after their rediscovery in November 1997.
We also saw Jungle Owlet, Spotted Owlet and Mottled Wood-Owl to bring our owl tally for the short trip to 4 species. Other interesting birds seen were: Red-naped Ibis, Long-billed Vulture, Crested Hawk-Eagle, Painted Francolin, Yellow-footed Pigeon, Plum-headed Parakeet, Alpine Swift, Crested Treeswift, White-cheeked Barbet, Brown-capped, Yellow-crowned and White-naped Woodpeckers, Rufous-tailed Lark, Eurasian and Dusky Crag-Martins, Tawny Pipit, Bluethroat, Booted Warbler, Sulphur bellied Warbler, Hume's Whitethroat, Red-breasted and Red-throated Flycatchers, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, White-browed Fantail, Black-lored Tit, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Crested, Grey-hooded and Black-headed Buntings, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, Rosy Starling, and White-bellied Drongo.
2003 SOUTH INDIA TOUR (3-25 January)
We were again waiting in the forest, our scopes focused on and our eyes intently watching for movement in a large hole in the fork of a huge forest giant, where a Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl was known to be incubating eggs. We were about 200 meters from the tree and the gathering darkness was making it difficult to see the hole. We'd been here in the morning and the owl decided not to show herself then and it looked like that non-performance was about to repeat itself this evening. Then suddenly, from near the nest, a large owl flew directly over us, at only 10-15 meters, eliciting a gasp from all of us. Wow! It was the male Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl, a rarely observed species. The following morning we returned and had fine scope views of the male near the nest from our distant vantage point.
We saw a spectacular 10 species of owls on this trip, mostly by day and all seen well: Andaman, Oriental and Indian Scops-Owls, Indian Eagle-Owl, Brown Fish-Owl, Jungle Owlet, Brown and Andaman Boobooks, and Brown Wood-Owl. An additional 3 species were seen on the Forest Owlet Pretour, for a total of 13. Add the Ceylon Frogmouth (a pair by day at 5 meters on their roost) and Grey and Jerdon's Nightjars and the night birds were well represented indeed.
It was quite a good trip for diurnal birds as well, and the more interesting ones were: Indian Cormorant, Spot-billed Pelican, Western and Pacific Reef-Egrets, Yellow and Cinnamon Bitterns, Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Wooly-necked Stork, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo, Black Baza, Oriental Honey-Kite, Short-toed Eagle, Andaman Serpent-Eagle, Western and Eastern Marsh-Harriers, Chinese Goshawk, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, White-eyed Buzzard, Booted Eagle, Changeable, Crested and Mountain Hawk-Eagles, Red Spurfowl, Grey Junglefowl, Indian Peafowl, Slaty breasted Rail, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Watercock, Purple Swamphen, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Pintail Snipe, Little and Temminck's Stints, Ruff, Great and Brown-headed Gulls, Andaman Cuckoo-Dove, Malabar and Pink-cheeked Parakeets, Pied Cuckoo, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, Blue faced Malkoha, Brown Coucal, Indian Swiftlet, Brown-backed and White-rumped Needletails, Alpine Swift, Crested Treeswift, Malabar Trogon, Stork-billed and Blue-eared Kingfishers, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Great Hornbill, Brown-headed, White-cheeked and Crimson-throated Barbets, Brown-capped, Fulvous-breasted, Yellow-crowned, Andaman, and Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, Indian Pitta, Jerdon's and Indian Bushlarks, Malabar Lark, Eurasian Crag-Martin, Forest and White-browed Wagtails, Richard's and Tawny Pipits, Black-headed Cuckooshrike, Grey-headed, Yellow-throated, White browed and Yellow-browed Bulbuls, White-bellied Shortwing, Indian Blue Robin, Indian Robin, Blue capped Rockthrush, Malabar Whistlingthrush, Orange-headed Thrush, Nilgiri Blackbird, Indian Scimitar Babbler, Tawny-bellied and Dark-fronted Babblers, Rufous and Yellow-billed Babblers, Wynaad, Grey breasted and Rufous-breasted Laughingthrushes, Blyth's Reed-Warbler, Thick-billed and Booted Warblers, Jungle Prinia, Bright-green Warbler, Hume's Whitethroat, Rusty-tailed, Brown-breasted, Black and-rufous, Nilgiri, White-bellied, and Blue-throated Flycatchers, Spot-breasted Fantail, Thick-billed and Pale-billed Flowerpeckers, Purple-rumped, Crimson-backed, and Long-billed Sunbirds, Grey-hooded Bunting, Common Rosefinch, Black-throated Munia, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, White-headed and Rosy Starlings, Eurasian Golden Oriole, White-bellied and Andaman Drongos, and White-bellied and Andaman Treepies.
(1991 KingBird South India Tour)
Francis B. Randall
India may be on the other side of the globe, and it is certainly the most romantic land on earth (heat! poverty! maharajahs! jewels! elephants! tigers! holy men! gods!)--but it is not an unknown country to educated Americans. We have been castigating ourselves for our national ignorance of India (and China, and Japan) at least since Edmund Taylor's Richer by Asia was published in 1943. But in fact India's ancient religions and cultures, its modern political and economic problems, are staples of American college curricula and even television programs. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been to India. We all still have very much to learn, but "we"--educated Americans--known India far better than we know, for instance, Canada. For me to attempt to "introduce" you to India, in pages such as these, would be ridiculous and insufferable.
More than 25 years ago, in 1965, I had the infinite privilege of going to the Republic of India for a long, hot summer on a Fulbright Fellowship. Twenty-four of us professors studied, traveled, lived and in minor ways suffered in many parts of India. On that well-planned program, we saw a surprising number of different regions, great cities, famous monuments and kinds of life in India. It was a sad year to be in India, for the Monsoon failed until it was too late; we and even more the Indians knew that the starvation we saw was nothing compared to what would come in the next 12 months. It was as memorable and moving a journey as any I have ever gone on--or could go on. Naturally I have wanted to go back to India ever since. At last, this January and February, 1991, I had the good fortune to return.
It was a very different kind of journey. I went with the noted ornithologist Ben King on one--or actually two successive--KingBird Tours to see the fantastically rich bird life, and other wildlife, of the Subcontinent. On this well-planned program, we saw little or nothing of the great cities and very few of the famous monuments. We went to little visited and often remote parts of ten Indian states. We certainly saw the birds (about 520 species!) and the other wildlife. We also saw, in the shadow of the Gulf War, an enormous amount of backcountry India.
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KERALA, on India's southwest coast, the spice coast of Vasco de Gama, is in many ways India's most unusual state. Cramped into a narrow strip between the Indian Ocean and a mountain range Western schoolboys used to have no difficulty remembering the name of, the Western Ghats, Kerala draws down the Monsoon rains in dense sheets, supporting a tropical rain forest terrain, 8° to 12° north of the Equator, separated by many hundreds of miles of much dryer Peninsular India from the nearest similar rain forests in Bengal and Assam. Kerala's trees, animals and birds are the same or similar to those of the northeast of India, but they have often evolved into somewhat different endemic species--brought to you exclusively by KingBird Tours.
Our plane landed at dawn in Cochin, an historic city on the Coconut strand, with the oldest churches and the still older oldest synagogues in India--also its chief naval base on the Arabian Sea, with a sizeable aircraft carrier towering over the Palms. A bus--full of gasoline for once, thank the gods and goddesses--then hauled us up one of the great climbs from a hot, humid tropical coast (65° to 95° in the course of a February day) to an exhilarating, cool tropical highland. The narrow coastal shelf was unbroken, intensive tropical agriculture: Rice paddies into which the emerald green seedlings were being transplanted in shallow sheets of water, which reflected the nearby Banana groves and Palm plantations--another Java or Bali. But central Kerala is largely Christian (Catholic, Church of England, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Jacobite), so each village sported a neat school with neatly uniformed children under its cross (Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India) and one or more churches, decorated with garish, painted Christs and Marys molded by people used to producing garish, painted Shivas and Kalis. The Congress Party attracted the Christians, by its tolerance, from way back in Gandhi's day, so that the caste Hindus, headed by the famous matriarchal Nairs, who center in southern Kerala (the Muslim Keralans are in the north), drifted to and took over the Communist Party of Kerala. In 1957, Kerala became the first Indian state to vote in a Communist government. No revolution followed, but rather periodic takeovers by the central government. A Communist-Socialist coalition still runs the state government, but we were told it may be thrown out next year for corruption. At any rate, as we climbed the mountains of Kerala, we saw a propaganda battle between the establishment churches of the villages and the omnipresent hammers and sickles painted on the cliffs--not one's original cliché idea of India.
And we did climb the mountains: gorges, shelves, gorges, shelves, gorges. The Rice paddies gave way to a Cassava belt (courtesy of the Portuguese, from Brazil) and to a Rubber tree belt (also from Brazil, courtesy of the British, who brought it there before taking it on to Malaya) and to mixed belts of tropical fruit trees and spices, themselves all mixed with rain forest full of Ben's birds. The Malabar or Blue-winged Parakeet is gorgeously bluer than the gorgeous green and red parrots we had seen in the north. The Vernal Hanging Parrot = the Indian Lorikeet is a small glow of colors which does hang upside down, like the goofy birds in Klee's paintings, as it goes at flowers and fruits. Ben says it sleeps upside down too; it must take Klee too seriously. Ben's virtuoso performance as we approached the high country was to stop at every sidestream gorge to search the rocks for an endemic Malabar Whistlingthrush. In the fifth or sixth gorge he spotted one flickering off. He climbed down into the tangled brush of the gorge to press it back in our direction. Like most birds, it resisted such programming, but at last we could see it clearly on some stream rocks, electric blue on profound black.
Above 4,000 feet we were in the highlands and into the Tea belt, great estates, again mostly owned by the Tata conglomerate, whose clipped, emerald-green bushes carpeted the gentle and steep slopes from there up to 6,000 feet, a stirringly beautiful sight, not very good for birds. Beyond were the haystack humps of the grassy, rocky, highest Ghats, up to 8,600 feet. Our goal and base was the Tata company town of Munnar, surely as clean and prosperous as any peasant town in India, where the company built its workers every educational, health and religious facility, including a Communist trade union hall.
Birding from Munnar was interrupted the next day by a bandh, a secularized Gandhist technique, a one-day protest strike against some government policy. This time, the protest was not about Kerala, but against the central government's recent dismissal of the state government of neighboring Tamil Nadu, for connivance at Tamil terror in Sri Lanka. Keralans look down on Tamils for being black (They are, on the average, darker-skinned whites than Keralans). But dissidents should hang together.--One is of two minds about bandhs. On the one hand, they are proclaimed by manipulative politicians for doubtful political ends, encouraging any laziness in the population, preventing any active person with worthwhile work to do (such as Ben King) from doing it, enforced by stoning and other violence up to murder by roving gangs of thugs. On the other hand, they are a now venerable Gandhist activity, reinforcing the community and solidarity of the poor in a country that has very poor people indeed, by a joint, religious/moral action/non-action, seen, at least, as being for a popular end beyond the interest of any mere individual or family.
When we were mobile again, Ben found us a splendid remnant patch of rain forest at 5,500 feet, covered, like the hills of Assam, with lavender Ageratum, and boasting one prematurely blooming tree of bright red Rhododendron, like the millions that would, in two months, light up the sky in the Eastern Himalayas and in the southwest Chinese mountains beyond them. There were elephant droppings; where in this tiny patch of isolated forest, were the elephants waiting for us? And in 5 minutes, Ben found us an endemic White-bellied Shortwing--a little ruefully, since he had led a successful 4-hour search for that bird the day before.
And he took us over a 6,200 foot pass--at the top of the world of mountains and mists--where he knew (of course) there would be a cliff where he could find us the endemic Nilgiri Pipit. From there we went south along a lower range of Ghats, the Cardamom Hills, covered indeed with Cardamom plantations. The Cardamom bush/treelet shoots up in successive levels of long, starburst leaves. It requires the shade of its native Keralan rain forest, so, fortunately, many noble forest giants are left in place to shelter it. I could have bought 10 kilogram bags of its light green seeds for a bargain; I contented myself with a rather smaller quantity for my wife.
Periyar National Park is India's southernmost national park and Tiger Reserve, not 100 miles from its southern tip. It comprises 300 square miles of rain forest and Ghats rising from around a multi-fingered lake, at 2,900 feet, created by a dam built by a Maharajah of Travancore in 1895. It is, to put it mildly, rich in birds. We had hardly stepped out of the hotel after checking in when Ben found us Gray Junglefowl, a South Indian endemic, not the ancestor of our chickens. A few hundred feet on in great trees by the lake, he found us numbers of a supposedly rare endemic, the brightly colored and loudly squawking White-bellied Treepie. It took longer hikes through the rain forest in the coming days to find pairs of endemic Malabar trogons, glorious but reclusive birds like all trogons, in this case black-headed above their bright red. An hour, one morning, was sufficient to lure out a pair of Red Spurfowl from their forest underbrush, but almost two hours were required, one afternoon, for Ben's classic virtuoso performance, the singing out of a sneaky pitta from its dense forest thickets. I had the pleasure and privilege, in Malaysia, of seeing Ben elicit 7 species of pitta from the bushes. There was only one kind in South India, the Indian Pitta, and Ben sang it back and forth for flickering views under the dark bushes, and at last persuaded it to hop out on the path to look at us for a very long few seconds. Pittas are quite primitive birds, though they don't look it. This one is "one of the most beautiful birds in India," blue and green on top, orange and red below with black, white and orange bands across its head. Several even longer searches were necessary to locate the endemic Wynaad Laughingthrush. In contrast, the spectacular Great Pied Hornbill, over 4 feet long, black and white with a big yellow bill and casque, would flap "whoosh Whoosh" over the trees over our heads, or over distant forests, but never settled near for a fully satisfying view.
Ben found Periyar a good place for owling. When it was good and dark, we went out along a forest road. The stars are particularly dazzling seen through a network of forest branches. Even birders' binoculars are sufficient to see the 4 great moons of Jupiter (then in a delightful line) at that low latitude. Ben at last located a very satisfying pair of Oriental Scops-Owls, relatively small and nicely unfleeing.
Periyar N.P. is better known to the philistine public at large for its mammals than for its birds. Herds of Sambar Deer, a pair of smaller Barking Deer on a forest path, a minute Mouse Deer scuttling away through the brush, sounders of Wild Boar, troops of dark, endemic Nilgiri Langur Monkeys who made it plain that they thought Americans should go home. But Periyar is above all famous for its elephants!
(Back in July, 1965, the Fulbright Commission gave us one day to see India's wildlife, in Bandipur Game Reserve [now National Park], in the Nilgiri Hills section of the Western Ghats, 120 miles north of Periyar. Two huge female elephants took us off from a house smaller than they were into the beautiful open forest of the east side of the Ghats, less dense than at Periyar, but just as green. Pre-Monsoon showers slowly soaked us. That was when I first saw herds of noble Sambar Deer and piercingly beautiful Chital Spotted Deer. There were not enough sandwiches, later, for all of us for lunch, especially as the child of one of us, who shouldn't have been there, ate half of them like Dennis the Menace. Still later, more disastrously, there were not enough jeeps for the second game ride. (This wouldn't happen on a KingBird Tour!) In those days I was young and vicious, so I made sure I got the front seat on the front jeep. Off for further rain-soaking in the forest before sunset. There and there alone I saw some Guar, a huge and impressive beast, the largest of all living cattle, great powerful black animals with ominous humps on their backs, but with thin, almost delicate, white-stockinged legs. They are bigger and heavier than American Bison, but live in much smaller groups, and are sensibly shy and amazingly able to conceal their bulks even on open grassy mountain slopes. They still occur widely in Indian parks, but are regularly seen only in Bandipur.
But our real quarry was wild elephant, and, thoroughly wet, we at last located the nearest herd, 20 or so, by and in a rocky stream in that green forest, oddly lit by the setting sun through clouds. A bull planted himself 100 feet away and warned us to stop. We did. Then he, and the mothers, and their calves, resumed bathing, and squirting water on their backs from their trunks, and squirting mud on their backs, and munching streamside reeds and bushes. This was where Robert Flaherty had photographed the capture of wild elephants in Elephant Boy 30 years before. At last darkness and sheets of rain forced us to leave the herd to its stream and native forest, unaware that it was playing such a classic role in such a classic South Indian location, or that it would be such an intense and ineradicable memory for the rest of at least one viewer's life.)
At Periyar, the way to see the elephants is by boat. There is a chaotic and undignified scramble to get tickets at the last minute for the boat rides, somewhat suppressed by an exasperated policeman, and a more chaotic and undignified scramble to get on the great variety of jitney boats. (Alas, one of my companions had his camera and some lenses stolen there by someone less interested in elephants.)
The boats chug for an hour down the channels of the super-spider-armed lake to the sizeable dam--the world's largest when it was built in 1895, and an hour back. My first morning ride and first afternoon ride passed many Sambar Deer and Wild Boar on the shores, and many, many waterbirds, perching on the still unrotted trunks of the original trees drowned by the dam almost a century ago. But no elephants. The third ride paid off. Three elephants appeared across the channel from the dock while I was chaotically and undignifiedly scrambling for tickets for me and my companions. But a few miles down the channels, we found a herd of 8 elephants, including two calves, posed just right on the grassy slope by the water, at just the right angle in the tropical sun of Periyar. Yes, smaller ears but bigger forehead domes than African Elephants. Eight of the last 20,000 wild Indian Elephants left alive, wholly unaware that their heavy tread is the march of their doom. When the boat chugged back, the two biggest were still on the same slope, right at the water's edge. The largest beast, the favorite beast of childhood, the most impressive beast still, to supposed adults, the beast of beasts! I suppose they, and the similar herds I saw enjoying the lakes and ponds in Kaziranga N.P., are the last wild elephants I shall ever see.
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Interlude: GINGEE FORT. Ben took us to the state of Tamil Nadu essentially to see two birds. One, the Yellow-billed Babbler, was squawking in quantity in the trees by the gate of our hotel in Madras, as we were unloading the luggage. A (relatively) rare bird should be harder to get than that. For the other, Ben woke us up at 2:30 A.M. to go off on a 3-hour bus ride 80 miles southwest to a site called Gingee Fort. Here, about dawn, Ben found the other bird, the Yellow-throated Bulbul, in some Acacia trees, in quantity, in 5 minutes. The trouble with this easy success was that instead of appreciating Ben's dispositions, we were tempted to wonder why the hell we had to get up at 2:30 if it was so easy....
This left us time to investigate Gingee Fort, one of the greatest unvisited monuments of South India. Three rockpile hills, the highest 800 feet above the dryish plain, have been fortified off and on from 1200 to 1800, and a 3-mile triangle of walls connects the 3 hills. Palaces, temples, a city once, were built inside. In every style: South Indian Hindu, Deccani Muslim and Portuguese. Ben spotted a likely nest of the Shahin Falcon high on the cliffs of the highest castle, so some of us hiked up the long flights of rock cut steps--past the palace, past the royal stables, past the elephant tank, through the first gate, and the second gate, and the third gate. We must have gotten 500 feet up when the falcon flew, back and forth, displaying himself perfectly. We cooled off in the breeze blowing through the third gate. Only my indefatigable roommate went all the way to the top. A better man than I am, Gunga Din!
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THE ANDAMAN ISLANDS have entered world literature chiefly through the greatest of the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Sign of the Four. They are the tropical hellhole to which the murderers and treasure-stealers, Jonathan Small, Mohamet Singh, Abdullah Khan and Dost Akbar are sent after their conviction, to the penal colony--Great Britain's Devil's Island--to build the breakwater at Port Blair. They are the home of the monstrous little cannibals, one of whom, little Tonga, helps Jonathan Small escape from the Andamans, and a return to England to track down his betrayer, Major Sholto. Little Tonga pfffts his poison dart into the dead Major's son, Bartholomew Sholto; Small steals back the Great Agra Treasure of baleful jewels, but Sherlock Holmes discovers all, and justice and love triumph at the end.
Holmes' gazetteer describes them: "The aborigines of the Andaman Islands may perhaps claim the distinction of being the smallest race upon this earth....The average height is rather below four feet....They are fierce, morose and intractable people....They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small fierce eyes and distorted features....So intractable and fierce are they, that all the efforts of the British officials have failed to win them over in any degree. They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining the survivors with their stone-headed clubs or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast." Holmes adds, "Nice, amiable people, Watson!"
Anti-imperialists, however, maintain, "The Andamanese have neither the malignant qualities, nor the heads like mops, nor the customs with which they are credited by Sherlock. In fact, they shave their heads, have an average height of four foot ten and a half inches, do not use blowguns or poisoned arrows, and show no traces of cannibalism." "They are rather attractive little people, whose treatment at the hands of the Government of India is nothing less than tragic."
You can see why I was anxious to meet the Andaman Islanders.
Foreigners can fly from Madras out across the Bay of Bengal for two hours to the Andaman capital, Port Blair, and get permission to visit the southernmost portion of its island, South Andaman, when they land. From the air the look like a chain of islands in unbroken tropical rain forest. (The chain is 220 miles long.) In fact, the Andamans are the site of the biggest sawmill in India, and thousands of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka have been sent there to destroy more forest and hack out new farms. Port Blair is a crummy, trashy city around a beautiful blue tropical bay. Its only sight is the Cellular Prison, built after Jonathan Small's day, a shrine because the British jailed many nationalists there during the Gandhi campaigns.
At the airport, we were handed a folder on the Andamans, which made it clear that we were not going to meet any of the aborigines.
"Tribal Life in the Islands
ANDAMANESE--They belong to a negrito group and presently their population is 28. They are settled on Strait Island.
ONGES--The negrito Onges number 98 and are found in Dugong Creek, Little Andaman.
JARAWAS--These negritos live on the Western Coast of South Andaman. They are estimated to be about 250 in number. They are still hostile, though one section of the Jarawa has recently been befriended.
SENTINALESE--This negrito group lives in North Sentinal Island and follows primitive ways of life. This tribe is hostile though there are some signs of their becoming friends. Estimated number is 100."
Birders go to the Andamans to try to find the 11 endemic species (the Andaman Drongo, the White-headed Starling, the Andaman Woodpecker, the Brown Coucal, the Rufescent Cuckoo-Dove, the Andaman Wood-Pigeon, the Andaman Crake, the Andaman Serpent-Eagle, the Andaman Treepie, the Andaman Scops-Owl and the Andaman Hawk-Owl). We found 7 of the 9 daytime birds, and the other, British group of birders there found a tree full of the eighth, the damn treepie, where Ben had looked several times, but at a different hour. (The Andaman Serpent-Eagle is a magnificent creature!) Ben had us look all over the south end of South Andaman Island--rain forests and South Sea Island coconut strands. He also secured special police permission to look on the road north of Port Blair, which runs right through the territory of the "hostile" Jarawa, who "live on the Western Coast of South Andaman."
We drove up to the police barrier. "Now it begins," I thought. Or did it?--Our pleasant driver was terrified into quivering jelly by fear of the Jarawa and their poisoned arrows. Didn't we know they had killed a man on this road with poison arrows on December 18th? Ben had to threaten him mildly, to get him to go on. The police told us not to stop (great advice for birders) and certainly not to walk into the woods, for then the Jarawa would think we were hunting their animals, which would provoke their attack. We passed a road work crew with 4 armed guards, and a logging camp with more armed guards. "Now it continues." We stopped, and started birding along the road. A police car screeched to a halt by us, and a police official who knew Ben got out to say hello and to warn us not to go off the road--A man killed by 3 poison arrows while hunting right here on December 18th--Very dangerous! This was really getting interesting.
I remembered, "They are too primitive to know how to make poison for any arrows. The many wild tales told of them are all greatly exaggerated." I remembered, "You only see them once, when they come up to you to retrieve their poison darts from your body, as a horrible rictus of death spreads across your face." It was fun, that morning, to walk along that road through the noble rain forest, seeing many beautiful birds (though not the damn treepie or the damn wood-pigeon we were then looking for), and always searching with one eye in the dark spaces between the great trees for little men looking back at me with little eyes, while raising blowguns with their little hands to their little lips, and going, pffft!....
No one went pffft! We all came back alive when it got really hot late that morning. I honestly don't know whether the Andamanese have poisoned weapons or not. (I have presented all the evidence, pro and con, that I read or heard.) Poison or no, these tiny relict Andaman tribes are as doomed in the homeland they have lost as the Great Indian Rhinoceros or the Siberian Crane.--Ben King has gone to a remote Andaman, Narcondam Island, to look for an endemic Hornbill. The rest of us returned to the West and the Gulf War. I don't think I shall ever get to India again.
[Editor's note: Prof. Francis B. Randall is a history professor at Sarah Lawrence College. He has recently published his memoirs as an E-book, "History Papers: A Teaching Life" on pocketpcpress.com. It is available for downloading on Amazon.com.]