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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: Goa

2017 Narrative

We advertise our Goa tour as a relatively relaxed, comfortable introduction to India…and it can be exactly that. With a remarkable 11 consecutive nights in the same hotel, it’s pretty stress free. (I’ve often wondered how many bird tours stay in the same hotel for this length of time – surely very, very few?) With the comfortable, well-appointed rooms, the immaculately clean swimming pool, the great food, and superbly friendly, attentive service it was even more remarkable that we did as much birding as we did! Combining these comforts with Goa’s gorgeous weather, delicious food, some exciting shopping opportunities and birds galore once again made for a fabulously successful tour.

The tour started well with various on-time flights to the balmy haven of Goa on India’s west coast. We met our drivers (Raymon, Diego, Maurice, and Santosh) on our first morning and these four gents would escort us around their home state for the duration of the tour. They were superb and had clearly mastered the (considerable) hazards of Indian roads and were as entertaining and enthusiastic as ever. Not content with just chauffeuring us from ‘a’ to ‘b’ they also excelled at pointing out quality birds! How many of us would have found the day-time roosting Brown Hawk Owl near Carambolim or the Indian Jungle Nightjar at Mayem without their help? I certainly wouldn’t have!

Our first of our many optional excursions was to a small wetland not far from our comfortable hotel in Calangute. This short jaunt produced, among others, our first Striated Heron and Indian Peafowl, while Raymon, our lead driver had pointed out a pair of Spotted Owlets well before his vehicle had come to a complete stop! Breakfast was followed by lunch back at our hotel and then we made the first of our two visits north to the Chapora River at Morjim. There were no Goan rarities at Morjim on either trip (and we only managed a single write-in on our checklist – and that, Goa’s first Long-billed Dowitcher, was on the afternoon of our final day!). More importantly however Morjim provided a great introduction to what coastal Goan birding is all about – lots of birds amidst some gorgeous scenery. Morjim was just one of the many magnificently photogenic sites that we’d visit in this tiny state. The fabulous sandy beach was, as it almost invariably is, thronged with a wide variety of gulls and terns and today it yielded our first looks at Small Pratincoles, Brown-headed and Slender-billed Gulls, an unexpected pair of Malabar Pied Hornbills and this years’ only encounter with a European Roller. On our way back to Calangute we stopped off at Arpora ridge where we saw our first, and ever-elusive, Blue-faced Malkoha, and our one-and-only Indian Pitta. The pitta performed brilliantly – eventually sitting right out in a leafless tree for several minutes! He was so spectacular and so co-operative that, even though this was only the first day of the tour, he single-handedly made Indian Pitta our Bird of the Trip in the end of tour poll.

We were busier the following day with the morning excursion taking us to a grassland site near Carambolim before a late afternoon excursion around Santa Cruz. Both trips were hugely successful with the Carambolim area producing our first encounters with Brown Hawk-owl, Jungle Owlet, Chestnut Bittern, Greater Spotted Eagle, Woolly-necked Stork, Lesser Adjutant and both Glossy and Black-headed Ibises.

And there we have the essential pattern of our Goan excursions. Flexibility was the key, some people joined all the trips, some didn’t. On a good number of days, we’d start quite early, have a midday break back at the hotel before venturing back out; on other days we’d return to the hotel mid-afternoon and have the rest of the time off. On still other days we’d venture further afield, staying out all day – and the latter’s just what we did when we combined birding on a morning Crocodile or Back Waters trip with an Old Goa sightseeing excursion. It all went smoothly – as smooth as apple pie and chocolate or vanilla ice cream!

We visited Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary, a small forest reserve at the base of the Western Ghats, early on day three. Bondla holds many species that we never see in the coastal strip and highlights for us there this year included a well seen Sri Lankan Frogmouth - its pre-dawn, demonic laughing calls were the first vocalisations of any species that we heard there. Other Bondla specialities included Flame-throated Bulbuls, a superb pair of Rufous Woodpeckers and a female of White-bellied Blue Flycatcher. We also saw and perhaps in this case more importantly, heard, several hypnotic Malabar Whistling Thrushes. That said it took a while before everyone was convinced that what we were hearing was actually a bird and not some poorly synthesized man-made tune. It was this enchanting, laid-back, comical, ‘Idle Schoolboy’ song that saw Malabar Whistling Thrush rank high in the end of tour ‘Bird of the Trip’ poll. But it was far from all plain sailing at Bondla - we struggled with the park’s Brown Wood-owls (a superb encounter elsewhere more than compensated), the Indian Blue Robins remained typically elusive and totally hidden, as did the park’s Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher and the usually cooperative Malabar Trogons were, unfortunately, nowhere to be seen! A diminutive Speckled Piculet, two Large-billed Leaf Warblers and a gorgeous Heart-spotted Woodpecker were among the highlights of our second visit to Bondla a few days later.

We visited Mayem Lake early the following morning and were rewarded by superb looks at two species of hornbill, a roosting Indian Jungle Nightjar and encounters with a fantastically close Stork-billed Kingfisher and an equally obliging Malabar Whistling Thrush. Frustratingly only two of us managed to see that site’s semi-resident Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher but an extremely confiding juvenile Amur Falcon on our drive back to the coast and a delicious breakfast at Lila’s café offered some compensation. We made our first of two visits to a bird rich Baga Ridge that same afternoon and revelled in the close-range studies of a Grey-headed Bulbul.

And a lucky few were even treated to flight views of a Nilgiri Woodpigeon but even that was eclipsed on our second visit when a confiding pair of Barred Buttonquail stole the show.

A return visit to the Carambolim and Santa Cruz areas the following morning produced our only encounter with an (elusive) Watercock and our first Greater Painted-snipe. We took a commercial ferry over to Divar Island that same afternoon and revelled in the superb looks at several Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers.

Our second inland excursion took us to the Western Ghat forest at Mollem where a whole new avifauna awaited. Additions to our already burgeoning list included a fine Jerdon’s Nightjar; five Mountain Imperial Pigeon; two, possibly three, Black Eagles; Malabar Parakeets; Malabar Barbet; an Indian Pygmy Woodpecker and both Taiga and Red-breasted Flycatchers. We also had truly superb looks at both Grey-fronted Green Pigeons and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters.

Back close to the coast we visited Pilerne forest that same afternoon and were rewarded with great looks at Black-headed Cuckooshrike, Jerdon’s Leafbird and White-bellied Drongo but most of us will better remember that site for our second visit and the pair of Brown Wood Owls that stole the show.

Somehow, we also found time to visit the ancient Hindu temple at Tambdi Surla and the former Portuguese capital at Old Goa. Towards the end of the tour we also had an exciting backwaters boat trip in search of still more kingfishers (we finally tallied six species of these true avid gems). Good though the boat trip’s Collared Kingfishers were, Black-capped, a species that had eluded us until then, out ranked it in the end of holiday ‘Bird of the Trip’ poll. Other goodies on the boat trip included some of the largest Marsh Mugger crocodiles Paul had ever seen.

By the end of the tour we’d explored most of the state’s premier birding sites, several of them such as Morjim, the Carambolim Grasslands and Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary on a couple of occasions. We all had our favourites – favourite sites and favourite birds – and Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary was again my personal favourite site. Several other people’s favourite was Mollem WS – and more specifically the forest clearing at Tambdi Surla. We had a fabulous morning here – great weather, stunning forest and Western Ghat scenery and some memorable birds such as Asian Fairy Bluebirds and more Malabar Barbets that you could shake a stick at.

Other long-term memories are sure to include a very responsive Jungle Owlet near Carambolim, no-less-than 10 Jerdon’s Nightjars on ‘Raymond’s ridge’ and Goa’s first (and perhaps only India’s fifth) Long-billed Dowitcher at Carambolim. The list goes on and on…

At the end of our previous tour to Goa I wrote ‘despite an economy that’s among the planet’s fastest growing, India remains one of Asia’s poorest countries and, while there clearly is considerable private wealth, there remains considerable desperate poverty. Fortunately, however Goa has been largely spared the squalor and impoverishment that is the fate of the nation’s larger cities such as Bombay and Calcutta.’ These sentiments, the good and the bad, remain so, so true and undoubtedly will for many more years to come.

Oh, and I mustn’t forget the prawn curries and rice – well there’s an entire book in there somewhere.

- Paul Holt

Created: 27 November 2017