Birding along the Zuari, Goa
I have been away for a long, long time from blogosphere now. Maybe the longest time ever since I started my blog. For the first time I have not been able to balance my work life, home and blogging, all thanks to someone’s terrible planning at office. Before I turn this into a rant-post, I should also tell you that despite all the unearthly hours of office work that I am putting in, I have been travelling a lot and gone birding to my heart’s content. I have been using every spare minute to recharge myself with things that I love, or the stress would have busted me for sure.
And so, even though my work schedule is still pretty tight, I am taking a breather and refreshing my memories about my second back-to-back Goa visit – this time for Christmas. (The earlier one was in Diwali.)
The last time we were in Goa, we did not have a proper notion about the region’s rich birdlife – where to go, what to expect, et al. This time, we were a bit prepared, though the visit was not strictly for birding alone. The beaches had to be weaved in, too, with our birding schedule. And you thought it had to be the other around – heh!
While doing our bit of research on Goa’s birds, I realized that one story cropped up unfailingly in all the reports that I read – that of Mr.Kamat’s Zuari river boat-ride. Or the kingfisher-ride, as someone had aptly put in. ‘Not to be missed’ is what everyone said and so we decided not to miss it either. The husband promptly called him up and booked our seats on his boat for 26th December. “We will start sharp at 8.00 am,” Mr.Kamat said. “Just pray that the tide is low.”
A bunch of Ashy Woodswallows huddled together on a cold Goa morning
We reached Goa on the 25th and the next morning we drove groggily through the darkness at 6.00 am towards Cortalim jetty. Goa was still asleep and dreaming of Christmas revelries. By the time we reached the jetty, faint rays of sun were visible on the horizon. Soon, dawn broke over us and the bridge over the Zuari river glittered in the warm golden light. Brahminy kites whirled overhead, swooping down every now and then for their morning catch.
Bridge over the river Zuari
Mr.Kamat arrived punctually at 7.30 am and we had to wait a while for the rest of the people to show up. In the meantime, we gobbled down a few pav breads that we had bought the previous evening, for our breakfast. I would advise you to have your breakfast beforehand, too, or carry some snacks since the boat ride takes around 3 hours.
Soon, the other birders trooped in and for a moment I was taken aback. The husband and I have been birding around solitarily and had never gone in a group. And now suddenly there were these guys in camouflage gears, hoisting tripods and lugging cameras with huge lenses. It was pretty intimidating, I tell you, especially since I had a teeny tiny point-and-shoot in my hand. (Thank God for the husband’s camera.) I slunk away to the rear of the boat and tried to keep my presence imperceptible.
The boat started and we made our way towards the sea, a routine that was usually followed to view the sea birds, if any. Also, to check if the star of the bridge, the resident celebrity – the peregrine falcon, was perched on the side of the bridge. As we cruised underneath the bridge, we craned our necks with hopes of seeing the fastest bird on the planet. But the falcon was not there. Knocking back our collective disappointments we made our way back towards the river, crestfallen.
Suddenly, the boatman-cum-guide (Mr.Kamat could not accompany us) shouted out a loud ‘Falcon! Falcon!’ We turned around to see the bird flying towards the bridge with something in its talons. The fierce raptor had caught his breakfast – a hapless swallow. He perched himself at his favourite spot, on a bolt, and started tearing apart the catch. Our boatman steered the boat rapidly towards the bridge again so that we could capture the scene. At that moment I totally forgot about my resolution to remain ‘invisible’ and jostled for space among the heavyweights to get my own picture of the falcon, however grainy it may be.
Peregrine Falcon with a swallow kill
Finally, we left the raptor to enjoy his breakfast in peace and motored on towards the backwaters. I could have just gone back home a very happy woman then – it had been a dream come true for me to have seen the peregrine falcon.
But there was more to follow. As we entered the realm of mangroves, a number of species showed up. In a short span of time we came across lifers such as gull-billed terns and whimbrels as well as familiar ones like western reef egrets, common greenshanks and common redshanks. The birds were in a feeding frenzy and hardly paid any attention to the monstrous lenses aimed at them. One particular striated heron was so tuned into catching its prey, taking the support of a plastic cover (surprise, surprise), that it did not move even when we were literally at an arm’s length.
Western Reef Egret
There were ospreys and brahminy kites a-galore, competing and squabbling with each other over their catch. Hushed silence prevailed over the boat when an osprey settled down on a pole. Everyone seemed to want to click the ‘about to fly’ position of the bird – I could hear muffled “come on, take off!” from the birders as they trained their bazookas on the osprey. After a while, the osprey moved, leading everyone to suck in their breath – but only to let out its excrement. A peal of laughter broke out among the photographers and the bird took off, startled.
This acted as an ice-breaker and conversation started to flow among the birders. (Though I remained the introvert me.) The person seated beside me turned out to be Pankaj Lad, whose name I had come across several times in INW. He was part of Nature’s Nest (Canopy Goa) that provides birding tours in Goa and was a well-known name in birding circuits. As a matter of fact, we had attempted a last minute inclusion to his guided tours over the phone but they were fully booked. Small world, you say, and I agree. In the absence of Mr.Kamat, Pankaj took up the job of identifying the birds out to us.
Moving ahead, there were lesser adjutants, blue-tailed bee-eaters, common sandpipers and a rather eccentric purple swamphen that was perched high above a tree.
Lesser Adjutant Stork
Common Greenshank & Common Redshank
“This is the first time that I have ever come across such behavior of a purple swamphen,” declared Pankaj. Perhaps the swamphen had mood issues.
We were looking at with wonder when Pankaj gently brought our attention to something below. A huge marsh crocodile lay hidden in the undergrowth. The mystery cleared. (Did it, really? Guess we will never know.) Oh by the way, Mr.Kamat actually runs this boat ride in the name of Crocodile Station!
Now, I had read that the boat trip generally yields sightings of at least 4-5 species of kingfishers – common, white-breasted, collared, black-capped and stork-billed. In the first hour, we had come across only the commoner ones – the white-breasted and common kingfishers. But we could hear the others’ cries as they flew about inside the mangrove thickets. We fleetingly saw a black-capped kingfisher skim the water surface and disappear among the mangroves, not willing to pose for us.
A stork-billed kingfisher came into view but it didn’t rouse me much. Suddenly, one of the guys pointed excitedly towards a hedge. “Collared, collared!” he exclaimed.
And so it was. A finicky customer, though. It kept us on tenterhooks and flew about, enticing us with its momentary glimpses. There were continuous chants of “There it is!”, “Here, here!” “It has gone inside, but still there!” among the birders and I wondered if any of us would actually be able to see it properly. Finally, it settled down in the midst of the mangroves and it took a lot of maneuvers on the part of the photographers to get a record shot.
A beautiful bird on my ‘birds seen’ list.
Just as I thought that there were no more birds that could surprise me, I was proved wrong. We were moving along a very narrow stretch of backwater when Pankaj suddenly motioned the boatman to stop. “Slaty-breasted rail!” he whispered. We almost capsized the boat with all of us rushing towards that side of the boat to catch a sight of the bird that had moved inside a thick bunch of mangroves. The boatman cut down the motor, hoping to bring out the skulking rail out of the bush. We waited for quite some time but the bird’s patience was more than ours and it refused to budge from its hiding place. Finally, with a sigh, we let it win and gave up our wait.
The sun was shining well and proper and the sightings began to dwindle a bit. Or rather, sightings of new birds, since the previously seen ones were still there. Just then, an osprey decided to liven up our group by scooping up a big tilapia fish in its talons and perching itself on a pole to enjoy the meal. The photographers again went ‘click, click, click’ at it happily. As if on cue, a white-bellied sea eagle appeared on the scene and scooped up something, too. The focus immediately shifted to the new guy. Debates ensued on what that catch may have been as it looked like a snake from one angle and a chicken from another! (According to the boatman, fisherman often kept chicken intestines to bait crabs.)
Osprey with catch
White-bellied Sea Eagle with catch
Meanwhile, a marsh harrier decided to show itself while unnoticed by most of us, a woolly-necked stork flew by, fortunately re-appearing again after some time. By that time, the boat trip was on its last leg and we were dropped off at a jetty to catch a ferry back to our starting point.
We had just enough time to have a sip of tea before the ferry arrived. Aboard, we discussed our day with others, with some proudly displaying their clicks on the camera’s monitor.
“A peregrine falcon with catch, an osprey with catch, a sea eagle with catch and a striated heron with catch!” beamed a young photographer happily. “What more could I have asked for!”
We looked out towards Zuari and its backwaters, its landscape dotted with white egrets, and marveled at how well it had hidden its real treasure – its birdlife. I hope the birdlife there continues to grow and thrive and gives us another opportunity to visit them.
List of birds sighted (some of them forgotten):
Peregrine Falcon, Brahminy Kite, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Whimbrel, Cattle Egret, Intermediate Egret, Great Egret, Gull-billed Tern, White-breasted Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher, Black-capped Kingfisher, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Little Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Western Reef Egret, Black Kite, Woolly-necked Stork, Osprey, Lesser Adjutant, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Black-headed Ibis, Black Drongo, Ashy Drongo, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Grey Heron, Indian Pond Heron, Purple Heron, Striated Heron, Slaty-breasted Rail, Purple Swamphen, White-breasted Waterhen, Western Marsh Harrier