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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: Goa

2018 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 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 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, Maurice and Santosh) on our first morning and these three 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!

The first of our many optional excursions was to a small wetland not far from our comfortable hotel in Calangute. This short jaunt produced our first Lesser Whistling Ducks, our first Indian Peafowl, and our first Bronze-winged Jacanas. Breakfast was followed by lunch(!) back at our hotel and then we made the first of our two visits to the northern bank of the Chapora River at Morjim. There were no Goan rarities at Morjim on either trip but the site did provide 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 river mouth was, as it almost invariably is, thronged with a wide variety of gulls and terns and today it yielded stunning looks at a Small Pratincole, huge numbers of Brown-headed and quite a few Slender-billed Gulls, a whole host of terns, and our first majestic White-bellied Sea Eagle.

We were busier the following day with the morning excursion taking us to a grassland site near Carambolim before a late morning excursion around Santa Cruz and an afternoon trip to the Carambolim Lake area. All three sites proved hugely successful with the Carambolim Grassland area producing our first encounters with Brown Hawk-owl, Jungle Owlet, an exceptionally cooperative pair of tree-climbing Red Spurfowl, two Amur Falcons, Woolly-necked Stork, Lesser Adjutant, and both Glossy and Black-headed Ibises. Santa Cruz was just as exciting and yielded no less than four Greater Painted-snipe, both Greater Spotted and Steppe Eagles, and a Goan rarity in the form of a European Roller. An Indian Spotted Eagle and the first of the tour’s two checklist write-ins, an obliging Isabelline Shrike, were seen at Carambolim in the afternoon.

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 chocolate ice cream in fact!

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 our one-and-only seen Indian Pitta. It performed brilliantly, sitting right out for several minutes! He was so spectacular and so cooperative that, even though this was only the third day of the tour, he single-handedly made Indian Pitta our Bird of the Trip in the end-of-tour poll. We also heard several singing Malabar Whistling Thrushes. His enchanting, laid-back, comical song, reminiscent of some poorly synthesized man-made tune or an ‘Idle Schoolboy’, was so unusual and so hypnotic that it ensured that Malabar Whistling Thrush also ranked highly in our ‘Bird of the Trip’ poll. Other goodies on our first visit to Bondla included a pair of very cooperative Malabar Trogons, two Blue-bearded Bee-eaters, two Forest Wagtails, and our first Yellow-browed Bulbuls. But it was far from plain sailing however - we struggled with the park’s Brown Wood-owls and Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher; the Ruby-throated Bulbuls and Indian Blue Robins had to wait for our second visit and even then the diminutive Speckled Piculet we heard just wouldn’t come out and play!

Returning to the coast we didn’t progress very far on Baga Ridge that afternoon – just far enough to have stunning, close-range looks at a Nilgiri Woodpigeon and seven Tawny-bellied Babblers.

We visited Mayem Lake early the following morning and we rewarded by superb looks at two Malabar Pied Hornbills, a roosting Indian Jungle Nightjar, a pair of Brown Fish Owls, and a small party of Painted Storks on our drive back to the coast. We took a commercial ferry over to Divar Island that same afternoon and revelled in superb looks at our first Black-winged Kite, more Black-headed Buntings, several Montagu’s and a juvenile Pallid Harrier.

A return visit to the Carambolim and Santa Cruz areas the following morning produced a distant Stork-billed Kingfisher, great looks at a Blue-faced Malkoha (a species that’s typically very elusive), an all-too-brief Eurasian Wryneck, and a fly-over Richard’s Pipit. The superb views we all had of the Yellow-wattled Lapwings en route to Lila’s Café more than compensated for any shortcomings that the early morning excursion might have had. We scrambled into some mangrove swamps at Tikanem the very next morning and some of us were rewarded by good looks at a couple of Slaty-breasted Rails and tantalisingly brief views of a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler.

Our second Bondla visit was just as much fun and just as productive as the first. It yielded our only Indian Scops Owl even before we’d arrived while our only Brown-headed Barbet and our only Dusky Crag Martins were also seen well before breakfast! A pale-morph Booted Eagle, a Crested Hawk-eagle, excellent looks at three stunning, Malabar Trogons, another Eurasian Wryneck, and half-a-dozen Dark-fronted Babblers all featured highly in the popularity stakes. We explored more of Baga Ridge that same afternoon and a couple of us were rewarded with views of two Barred Buttonquail.

We all had stunning looks at a Mongolian Short-toed Lark, another Sykes’s Warbler and our only Grey-necked Bunting on the Dona Paula ridge early the following day. Those delights were followed by an equally cooperative Indian Reed Warbler and two Stork-billed Kingfishers at Neura later that same morning and some superb Painted Storks near Carambolim that afternoon. Four Greater Painted-snipe were still near Santa Cruz on the morning of the 27th but that day will be mostly remembered for our backwaters ‘Crocodile boat trip’. The boat trip yielded seventy species with a fine adult Peregrine being new for the trip and one of the very first birds we saw from the boat. Our two primary targets, Collared and Black-capped Kingfisher, took a bit more effort but eventually gave superb views as did the two Mugger Crocodiles that we also all saw. Other goodies included a gorgeous White-bellied Sea Eagle and several close-range Western Ospreys. After the river trip we visited Verna Lake – it held thousands of ducks. Batim Lake held fewer but did deliver our only Pheasant-tailed Jacanas of the entire tour.

It took us a while to see the Great Pied Hornbill at Mayem on our last morning in the field but boy, didn’t we then see it well!  The two Brown Fish Owls were still present and we added another ‘write-in’, a female White-naped Woodpecker, to our burgeoning checklists on the way to the Pomburpa car ferry en route back to our hotel.

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 avian gems). Good though the boat trip’s Collared Kingfishers were, the Pilerne forest Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher still outranked it in the end-of-holiday ‘Bird of the Trip’ poll.

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 with great weather, stunning forest and Western Ghat scenery and some memorable birds such as Asian Fairy Bluebirds and a pair of Heart-spotted Woodpeckers.

Other long-term memories are sure to include a responsive Jungle Owlet near Carambolim, umpteen Indian Paradise Flycatchers, White-rumped Shamas, and Flame-throated Bulbuls. 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: 19 December 2018