Every year I, Anna and a close friend set out for a short trip to visit a lesser known wildlife sanctuary or national park in India. Last year we had spent a wonderful two days in the blackbuck filled grasslands of Velavadar National Park. ( Velavadar, Part 1 -The hidden magical grassland park of India) This year we had decided to go birding in the tropical forests of Southern India. The options before us were either the dense forests of Thattekad in Kerala which I had previously visited (Birding in the lush & serene forests of Thattekad – Part 1) , the forests in and around Dandeli in Karnataka or the often ignored forests around Mollem in Goa.
While researching about the options, I came across a hotel known as “The Natures Nest” in Goa which was located in Mollem, right in between the 2 Wildlife Sanctuaries in Goa. It seemed like a very low key place where every birding hotspot won’t be filled with photographers jostling for space with their huge lenses. – perfect for us ( I have nothing against photographers with huge lenses, I am one of them!). What clinched the deal in favour of the Goan forests was that we could travel by our own car from Mumbai and no flight bookings would be required. So I made the requisite bookings at the Natures Nest for a birding package of 3 nights after a quick series of emails exchanged with the hotel and we were good to go!
Since about 7 years I have been using the same camera gear for wildlife – My trusty Nikon 300mm AFS F4 lens that is almost a decade old now & a Nikon d7100 that is a few years younger. As most photographers will tell you there is always the itch to add gear. So instead of shelling out an arm and a leg to buy a new lens I decided to rent out the Nikon 200-500mm F5.6 AFS VR lens for this trip. To cut a long story short, I hardly used it since it is a lot heavier than my trusty 300mm to handhold for prolonged periods and the F 5.6 is only useful when you have bright sunlight (In my hands at least!). All photos in this series are with my old gear and my itch for new gear has been scratched for now!
We set out from Mumbai at around 6 am and took around 11.5 hours to cover the 600 km to Nature’s nest ( We went via Pune – Kolhapur – Belgaum – Anmod Ghat). While the road itself was excellent most of the way, where we lost time was at the many infernal toll booths that wasted almost 1.5 hours of our time. We reached Natures Nest after the tiring journey and completed the check in formalities. They had very kindly arranged two connecting cottages for the 4 of us. This was a very big convenience as there was absolutely no mobile connectivity in the region. If we had cottages that were at the two ends of the relatively large campus then a lot of time and energy would be spent trying to coordinate all activity timings in between the occupants of the two cottages.
The cottages themselves were basic but functional & clean. They had a comfortable bed, clean linen, a huge bathroom with running water & electricity to charge all your gear. When your focus is birding that’s all that you need.
What came as a bonus was the absolutely finger licking delicious goan food! I gorged myself on generous quantities of chicken xacuti and rice bhakri while the vegetarians had a good range of veggies cooked in the local style, tasty dal, parboiled rice( which goes perfectly with goan curries) and Solkadi. Our guide for the trip, an effervescent local called Ramesh met us after dinner and told us in short the plan for the next two days & that we had to be ready at 6.15 am the next day.
With tummy full to the brim and an early morning coming up , we slept off peacefully. Thankfully there were no mosquitoes to disturb us and we woke up fresh at 5 am! The first snag to hit us was that there appeared to be no hot water. Luckily the weather wasn’t that cold and we weren’t that fussy. So for the time being we took a cold shower and got ready. (The hotel would take care of the problem that day)
We were there right on time & Ramesh was ready at the reception. We had some hot tea / black coffee with toast to perk us up. Ramesh had already packed a more substantial breakfast to be had in between the birding session.
We took our car with Ramesh riding shotgun telling our driver the directions towards Bondla WLS. It was still not bright when along the way we saw a Malabar Pied hornbill on top of one of the trees. We stopped and got down but were hardly prepared to take photos before the bird flew off in an elegant swoop. This majestic bird would evade our cameras this trip. (Well, something for next time!)
As I have learnt from my trip to Thattekad, most birding in these types of forests is done outside the actual sanctuary itself. Here it was no different, we stopped on a nondescript road just before the sanctuary itself where there was a small temple ( Ganjeshwari) to see what we could find.
At a concrete slab just on the road side someone had kept few pieces of Goan Pao and there were red whiskered bulbuls, jungle babblers and chestnut shouldered petronias feeding on it. It was not still bright enough so we decided to wait it out before training our lenses on these birds.
Just to check the light I trained the lens on a Southern Coucal far away in the trees. This is a bird I see almost every other day back in Mumbai. So it was just a record shot and a light test since the light wasn’t really right for anything better.
Soon the sun came up & like magic the bird noises increased out of nowhere and with it so did the frequency of our shutters going off like a gatling gun. Right on top of our heads on an overhead wire sat 2 beautiful otherwise hyperactive red rumped swallows who became our first real subjects. With the beautiful morning light it was a pleasure taking photos with the catchlight in the eyes of these pretty little birds.
Then we turned our attention to the concrete slab with the rapidly disappearing pieces of pao. First to get my attention were the chestnut shouldered Petronias. These pretty little cousins of the sparrow were what got the great Dr Salim Ali interested in birds in the first place.
Next were the noisy group of Jungle Babblers. These noisy critters were the bane of my friends morning sleep during our residency in Lucknow, as they used to create an amazing ruckus in our hostel balcony early in the morning. Every time I see them now I am taken back to our times in the Residents Hostel at KGMC, Lucknow.
Last but not the least in this feeding frenzy at the block were groups of Red Whiskered Bulbuls. Although extremely common birds I have always found them to be extremely photogenic and willing to pose for the camera at extremely close quarters. Today too I got one of the flock to oblige and pose regally on a nearby tree.
Ramesh then pointed to a little sunbird in a tree at some distance. At the natures nest itself there were flower bearing trees that had 20-30 sunbirds prancing around from one blossom to the other, so I didn’t know what the fuss was about. I realised when I trained my lens on it that it was a female Loten’s sunbird that is relatively less common that the purple, purple dumped and crimson backed varieties that were seen in our hotel.
As we were looking at the sunbird a flock of fast moving red dots descended into the bush behind us. We walked around with as much stealth as possible to find a group of scaly breasted munias. These striking looking birds were in perfect light thanks to our efforts of moving around and we got a few decent shots.
As we were seeing if our munia photos were acceptable Ramesh was excitedly gesturing at us and we moved to where he was pointing. It was a juvenile black headed cuckoo shrike. A very shy bird by behaviour and it tried its best to evade us completely but we managed to get a photo or two before it disappeared into the dense bushes.
Another bird that Ramesh was excited about was the Blue faced Malkhoa, a beautiful cousin of the common Indian Koel. We had spotted one sitting in the far trees and taken a record shot (or ten!). But the Malkhoa decided that he wanted to give us a better look at his beautiful plumage and it flew into the trees just off the road. There for the first time we knew how this trip was going to be. Ramesh asking us to walk off the road into the trees and trailing a bird some times well into the forest till we some how got close enough for a good photo.
Here after our off roading on foot we found a pair of Malkhoas sitting in the trees above. This made my morning, the Blue faced Malkhoa sighting and the photos that I got would be the highlight of the morning for me. As I have often said if I get one or two good photos of new birds a day & I am more than satisfied. And even though Ramesh would show us a lot more species that day it would not have mattered to me if I didn’t see any after the Malkhoa.
After the Malkhoa had enough of us and flew off we went back to our car and polished off the packed breakfast. Cheese sandwiches, apples, bananas and juice were finished in no time as we finally moved into the Bondla WLS. Before moving on I took photos of the abundant flowers in bloom near the road and the reason for the plentiful birdlife.
We paid the Sanctuary entry fees and started slowly inside the park. Bondla WLS is a small park of which a part has been converted into a zoo. We didn’t go even close to the zoo, but the idea to have a zoo inside a Wildlife sanctuary is as absurd as it gets. In the sanctuary part of it there is dense forest and most of the birding is done along the road or as I mentioned earlier, following Ramesh headlong into the forest through the gaps in the bushes.
In the trees above were the huge Malabar giant squirrels. These high canopy dwellers are seldom seen at ground level and the only photos we got were blurry ones as they zipped and jumped from one tree to the other above us with effortless ease.
We used to get in our car and drive to a point where Ramesh would ask our driver to park and then we would walk on ahead in search of our feathered friends and the cycle would continue. It stopped abruptly when Ramesh spotted a raptor sitting in the low branches of the tree at eye level. It was a Shikra, the bird killer was sitting peacefully and comfortable enough to allow us to get close enough and take photos.
What Ramesh was searching for desperately & what Bondla is known for is the beautiful Malabar Trogon. We tried in vain to search for this regal bird that day. What we found instead was a White rumped Shama. The brightly orange coloured breast of this bird seemed to shine in the sunlight and it posed generously too. This made the disappointment of not spotting a trogon a bit less.
Ramesh then took us to a spot where an oriental dwarf kingfisher is known to have its perch. Unluckily for us the little one was in no mood to come out and was sitting pretty in its dark perch amidst the bushes. We waited for a while and just saw the beautiful bird through a birding scope that another guise who was at that spot had trained on the bird. As always the bird had more patience than the humans, and we moved on after a while.
The state bird of Goa is the Flame throated bulbul, a brightly coloured cousin of the others. As we walked back to our car in quick succession we got our first sighting and decent photographic opportunity at this bird & its other brightly coloured cousin the yellow browed bulbul. It was the perfect end to a great first morning of birding in Goa & we started on our way back to the hotel.
I had come to Bondla zoo as a small kid 3 decades ago with Anna. To come back after 3 decades and discover that the real beauty was not in the caged animals but the plentiful birdlife around the region was a pleasant surprise. In the last decade since I started birding in earnest I had travelled all over the country in search of birds but somehow missed the treasure trove right in the next state. Well, better late than never!
We would continue our birding in the late afternoon after a delicious lunch back at Natures Nest. But that is topic for another post, some other time, some other day as in my excitement of describing my love for birds and birding I have rambled on far too long.