This post is the continuation of a series documenting my short birding trip to Goa. We were based in the fabulous “Natures Nest” resort near Mollem deep in the forests of Goa. Our first morning out birding in the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuaryhad been very fruitful (Birding in the forests of Goa, Part 1 – The morning of the Blue faced Malkhoa) and we were eagerly looking forward to the afternoon birding activities.
We had finished our lunch and had a short afternoon siesta ( A very Goan thing to do!) in our comfortable cottages before returning to the lobby and restaurant area of the Natures Nest to wait for Ramesh, our birding guide for the trip. The staff were quick to ask us whether we would like to have any tea or coffee before leaving. So we enjoyed a cup of tea /black coffee till Ramesh and his huge smile arrived to tell us of the afternoon’s activity.
We were informed that we would be going to a birding hide that the resort had created outside the grounds itself. So we boarded our car and drove down to the place where the said hide was located. It turned out to be an abandoned spice garden which apparently once carried out spice plantation tours in this very campus. Now it was all decrepit and abandoned and nature had quickly taken over.
The only birding hide I had been to previously was the wonderful Christian Ashram birding hide in Sattal, Uttarakhand. (Sattal, Part 1 – First time birding in the forests of the Himalayas) Now I knew that Himalayan birding is at another level altogether and that this hide would have nowhere as near the number nor the variety of birds that we had seen at the one in Sattal. However the good thing about hides is that they are perfect for photography & I knew that whatever came to the hide, I would at least have decent photos of those birds.
We settled down in the hide which was made of a similar material as the one in Sattal and had small windows in the fabric to see and photograph the birds. It was still mid afternoon and the sun was shining bright in the sky. Ramesh started the water to fill the bird bath and put fruits out for the birds. As soon as he returned to the hide the birds descended down from the trees. It must have become a habit for them! Magpie Robins, Malabar starlings, Bulbuls all descended into the area in a mad feeding frenzy.
The very first bird I decided to go after decent photos of amidst all the activity was the humble Magpie Robin. These are very common noisy little birds, and they create a racket outside my Mumbai window every other morning. But the light shining off their pristine black and white feathers that day made them look spectacular and gave me the best photos of these birds that I have taken.
After I was satisfied with the Magpie Robin I turned my attention to the Malabar Starlings. I had seen these birds previously in our visit to Thattekad bird sanctuary in Kerala (A Morning spent amidst the birds Thattekad – Part 2) . But it had been very far away and in the poor light of dawn. To see these beautiful cousins of the myna up close and take photos scratched an itch that had stayed with me since that morning in Thattekad.
Then there were the bulbuls – red vented and red whiskered ones. These are birds that everyone who has visited any green part in this country must have seen at one time or the other. They are extremely noisy birds and have the energy of a small kid on steroids. We had just witnessed their Himalayan cousins serenade us each morning in the Sunnymead estate in Shimla a few months ago (The Sunnymead Estate , Part 2 – Armchair birding at its luxurious best). Now it was the turn of their cousins from the plains to entertain us with their antics in the bird bath.
Taking photos of birds enjoying a bird bath is always a challenge and it always gives me great satisfaction when I get a few of these turn out the way I want, with the bird and the splashing water drops in focus. I may have seen hundreds of bulbuls before but these photos made my day. ( As you may have noticed I am a very easy to satisfy birder!)
As the bulbuls dominated the bath a blackbird snuck into the perch with the fruits and enjoyed his lunch in peace. Blackbirds are also relatively common birds that are present in fields and grasslands and live on fruits and insects. I have photographed these birds with beaks lined with worms but this one had to be satisfied with a vegetarian lunch today.
As we were taking photos of the birds at the bath Ramesh gently nudged me and pointed at the branches above. Sitting there silently observing all the chaos was a little Brown Shrike. Shrikes are hunters who usually catch insects and small reptiles and impale then on branches before proceeding to consume them at leisure. This Brown Shrike though was just here for a short drink. But we did manage to get a good look at him before he left.
As the frenzy died down a bit my attention was drawn to the tall trees in the background. There were some Hanuman Langurs sitting languidly on the top branches enjoying the sun while having their meal. So I took a few photos of these cousins of ours before bringing my attention back to the birds in the foreground.
The feeding area was now dominated by the Malabar Starlings and they finished of the remaining fruit on the perches. The sun was starting to go down now and I took one last batch of photos of these noisy birds before they flew off.
At such hides even though you are just sitting at one place you have to be attentive as there always are the sneaky loners who zip in and out and hardly give you time to take photos of them.
The first of such loners was a Puff throated Babbler who sneaked in at one corner of the bird bath. Took a quick dip, had a sip or two and was off in no time. Luckily there were three of us who were patrolling each part of the hide and we got a photo or two that was worth putting up here.
You also have to pay attention to the trees above, as there may be a species or two that may not be willing to descend down to the feeding area. Today these scaredy cats were the grey fronted green pigeons also called the Pompadour pigeons due to their striking head feather colours. These colourful forest cousins of the irritating city dwelling rack pigeon are always a joy to photograph as their striking colours always stand out in a photo.
As the sun started to go down Ramesh started telling us not to make any sudden movements as he had heard the call of a Malabar Whistling Thrush. These striking blue and black birds are an enigma. Sometimes they scoot off at the slightest movement & at other times they may land and strut their feathers right in front of you on an open road. I had met one of the latter variety in the Botanical gardens of Ooty & was eagerly hoping to see another one today.
As we waited & hoped that the Thrush would show up we were treated to a close up view of another striking bird. A Flame Throated Bulbul came and sat on a branch just above the hide in perfect light. The setting sunlight made its already golden yellow feathers look even more beautiful. These are the unexpected joys of birding, you never know what you may get.
As that unexpected visit came to an end the light was getting poorer and I jacked up my camera settings to compensate. I didn’t want to miss capturing the fleeting visit by a beautiful Malabar thrush because I failed to adjust my camera settings.
It was just in the nick of time, no sooner had I completed rejigging my settings and as if on cue, out popped a Malabar Whistling Thrush in all its shining blue and black glory. It pranced around the bird bath & posed gleefully for the cameras. The birding hide for a minute or two sounded like a machine gun nest with 3 SLRs going off rapidly.
Even in the fading light the Malabar Thrush had kept its appointment with us and capped off a great evening at the hide. As soon as it left the hide after having its drink we followed suit.
It had been a great afternoon of just sitting and watching the pretty feathered creatures go about their day to day stuff. We then walked back to where our car was parked. On the way we made a short detour across a meadow when we spotted a tree top full of plum headed parakeets. We took a few photos at every few metres till they decided that we had crossed their zone of comfort and flew off shrieking at the top of their tiny lungs.
Then we returned to the resort assuming that it was the end of the days birding. Thats when Ramesh informed us that we would leave again after dark to search for Nightjars. He said that there were 3 types of Nightjars known in the region – Jungle, Jerdon’s & Savannah. In all my years of birding I have had terrible luck with nightjars. These nocturnal birds have managed to elude my lens so far, even though I have seen fleeting glimpses of them before they have flown off in the night sky. I hoped that my luck would change that day and we would spot one & at least get one blurry shot off!
We set off at 7.30 pm and it was fully dark. We were all armed with a torch or a headlight and Ramesh had carried the essential spotlight. We drove to the spot where these nocturnal birds were known to roost. It was a totally new experience even for me walking into meadows in pitch darkness with a torch in hand searching for birds. Ramesh scanned the area with his spotlight for the telltale glow from the eyes of these birds.
Luckily for us he had spotted one. Now came the tricky part, we had to get as close to possible without making much noise and using a lot of light. So slowly but surely we got close to the unsuspecting nightjar without falling down ourselves. These birds are so sure of their camouflage that they don’t fly off unless disturbed by a lot of noise and light.
It was a jungle nightjar, sitting on a rock, looking like a rock! As Ramesh trained his spotlight on him the bird would close its eyes making himself look like a part of the scenery. I must have taken at least 50 photos hoping that at least one or two might be in focus. After all it was night & we were shooting in the light of a measly spotlight. But thankfully I got the photos that made me beam from ear to ear.
After we were satisfied we left the nightjar in peace and returned to our car as silently as we had approached. We weren’t done still, Ramesh was still hoping to show us at least another type of nightjar. So we drove all the way across to the meadow where we had taken photos of the parakeets. It was pitch dark and there was not a light in sight. We got off the car and did the same routine – scan with spotlight , walk further, scan again.
We couldn’t believe our luck when we spotted another Nightjar. This time it was a Jerdon’s Nightjar sitting on a tree looking like a part of it. We crept closer and closer slowly till we could get decent photos. Again the cameras went off at a rapid rate, again I got a few keepers! Till this evening I had Zero photos of any Nightjar, now I had maybe a 100 of 2 of these beautiful birds.
It was a brilliant end to a brilliant day of birding, we returned to the resort and enjoyed a delicious meal and a cool glass of beer to celebrate. Not in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would get to see as much as I did in that one day and we still had a day and a half more to go.
But that evening will be etched in my memory for a long time. There are some birds that just seem to elude you and in my years of birding the nightjar was one such bird. Well, not anymore! Thanks to Ramesh and his endless enthusiasm for birding.
We would see even more species the next day and visit the beautiful old Mahadev Temple at Tambdi Surla. But that is a story for another post, some other day, some other time.