Birding in the forests of Goa, Part 4 – The afternoon of the Little Spiderhunter

This post is a continuation of a series documenting my short trip to the forests of Goa in January 2020. We had 3 great sessions of birding and a wonderful night birding session prior to this & it had exceeded my expectations in every way. We had seen species that we had never seen before (Birding in the forests of Goa, Part 1 – The morning of the Blue faced Malkhoa), had gone birding in pitch darkness and seen nightjars in their element (Birding in the forests of Goa, Part 2 – The evening of the Nightjars) & had a wonderful experience successfully tracking and photographing the beautiful Malabar Trogon. (Birding in the Forests of Goa, Part 3 – The morning of the Malabar Trogon)

I have mentioned in my earlier posts that the Natures Nest campus was filled with flowering trees that attracted scores of beautiful little sunbirds. But since we had spent most of our time in the forests outside the hotel we hadn’t really gotten the opportunity to really go after the sunbirds from a photographer’s point of view. So we had decided to give up our afternoon siesta and really give the sunbirds our full attention. Our guide Ramesh had also told us that the bird baths placed near the restaurant area of the hotel was frequented in the afternoons by the Little Spiderhunter. That cemented our resolve and we got our gear ready and hoped that we would get at least some decent photos of these pretty little birds.

As luck would have it the resort had almost emptied out that day and so there was almost no one in the restaurant area creating a ruckus & driving the birds away. In addition to that we had the added advantage that the sunbirds are usually active throughout the day and keep feeding even when most other birds were relaxing the shade of the trees.

As we knew that at least some sunbirds would eventually come to each and every flowering tree in the campus, we staked out in the restaurant area near the bird baths. This was the same tree that we had photographed the Vernal Hanging parrots in the morning & was at the perfect height for photos. In addition we also hoped that the birds would come down to the baths for a quick drink in the heat of the afternoon. For some time there was no activity and we were thinking whether we were wasting our time. That all changed in a matter of minutes as it usually does in any form of wildlife photography. It went from a dull & silent afternoon to an afternoon where the bird chirps was matched in intensity and speed by the shutters of our SLRs.

First on the scene was a female crimson backed Sunbird at the bird baths. It provided the perfect start to a sunbird filled afternoon as it posed nicely for the cameras.

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A female crimson backed Sunbird at the bird baths

That opened the floodgates and soon the flowering tree was abuzz with activity. As anyone who has seen sunbirds will testify they are a fidgety lot. Constantly moving from blossom to blossom, never sitting still and are thus  hardly the ideal photography subjects. But that is what makes photographing these birds challenging and fun at the same time. ( For me! With lesser patience it might leave you exasperated.)

The next half an hour was a blur as we tried to get photos in focus. Female and male Purple sunbirds and crimson backed sunbirds were the ones that I went after as the purple rumped variety give me enough practice from my bedroom window in Mumbai.

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Sucking the nectar out of a flower
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Hanging desperately on while sucking nectar simultaneously
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Posing nicely without its head in a flower for a change
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The iridescent colours of a purple sunbird 
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The sun shines off the feathers of a beautiful purple sunbird
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The crimson backed sunbird shows why its named that way

We were still going hammer and tongs at the sunbirds when another pretty little bird arrived at the bird baths. This was the one we had been waiting for – The little spiderhunter. To the birding uninitiated it might look like just another sunbird, but I have been on enough birding trips and leafed through the birding field guide numerous times to know a spiderhunter when I finally see one.

The long beak of the spiderhunters sets it apart from all other sunbirds. There are only 2 types seen in India and for the other one (streaked spiderhunter) you have to stake out in the dense jungles of Arunachal Pradesh. Since that is not happening in the near future the little spiderhunter was as good as it gets for me for this family of birds!

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A little Spiderhunter uses its long beak to have a drink

We thought that the spiderhunter would come have a sip and disappear. But to our great pleasure it stuck around for much longer. It seemed to recognise that it had a loving audience watching and gave us all the poses possible. It even got into the bird bath and had a nice and long bath.  With such a willing model we didn’t need any invitation to click a gazillion photos! I don’t think I am ever going to get these many photos of another spiderhunter ever again.

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My favourite photo of the Little Spiderhunter

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Displaying its long beak
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The various poses of the little spiderhunter

All good things have to come to an end and the spiderhunter finally flew off leaving a big smile on our faces. We picked up our gear went to our cottage and freshened up a bit before leaving for our scheduled evening birding session near the Tambdi Surla temple.

The sunbirds were still going strong when we left for the temple and it was impossible to resist a few more photos of duelling crimson sunbirds on a tree near the resort gate. It is difficult to get one sunbird in focus in a photo so imagine trying to get two!

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Two crimson backed sunbirds fighting over who gets first rights to a flower!

After some time we reluctantly said goodbye to the sunbirds and set off for the Tambdi Surla temple. The 12th century Shiva temple is the only Basalt stone temple of the times to survive the Muslim and then Portuguese rule over Goa.

As we reached the gates of the temple we saw a group of Bonnet Macaques doing what they do best – harrying unsuspecting tourists sitting at a makeshift restaurant outside the gates. I took a photo of one of the gang before moving on lest I become one of their next targets.

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A bonnet macaque outside Tambdi Surla

We then waited at a stream where Ramesh said that a blue collared kingfisher is sometimes seen. After waiting for some time without luck we moved on to the temple itself. We did spot a pair of Asian Fairy blue birds high up in the trees but they were too far out of range to get any photos that I can be satisfied with.

The temple itself is small but beautifully set. It gave me opportunity to bring out my trusty Tokina 11-20mm that was feeling ignored on this trip. As my father and friend paid their respects to Lord Shiva I walked around the clearing and took photos of this little black temple set in a clearing deep in the forests of Goa with the Western Ghats as background. It was very easy to see how it survived the destructions of Mughal and Portuguese rule – they just couldn’t find it!

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The small Tambdi Surla Shiva Temple
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Well maintained modern lawns around the ancient temple
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Picture perfect location of the Tambdi Surla temple

After spending some time in the temple area we then followed Ramesh via a small path in the forest to see if we could finally spot the elusive blue collared Kingfisher. As we approached the continuation of the same stream that we had crossed on our way to the temple we saw a blur of blue dash into the bushes just beyond the stream.

We cursed our luck, it was the blue collared kingfisher indeed! We tried to get a clear shot in between the leaves, but with no great luck. I do have a few photos of a part of the kingfisher hiding in between the leaves but nothing that I consider even par. We staked out and found ourselves rocks to sit on as we waited and hoped that the kingfisher would give us an audience.

We were all sitting and waiting for some time when from the corner of my eye I saw my father trying to draw my attention without making too much sudden movement. I turned to see what he was trying to draw my attention to – and lo and behold sitting right in the middle of the stream on a rock was a beautiful Malabar whistling Thrush!

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A Malabar Whistling thrush gives an unexpected visit

It was just sitting there staring at us, as if wondering what these idiots were doing uncomfortably sitting on rocks! Such are the unexpected bonuses of birding. you sit and stake out a location for one pretty bird and sometimes you get another equally pretty one out of nowhere! It jumped from rock to rock in the middle of the stream, all the while attentive to our movements. We made none , we took photos as long as we could before the thrush got tired of us and flew off into the forest.

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The Malabar Whistling Thrush on the banks of the stream before flying out

The light was fading now and it was time to leave our uncomfortable seats. The blue collared kingfisher had eluded our cameras. These are the types of sightings that a birder counts but a bird photographer hates! As we returned to our car we took one last look across the stream. There was no blue collared kingfisher but there was a brown flycatcher sitting pretty on a perch. The light wasn’t very good but we did the best that we could.

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A brown flycatcher sits on a perch at the stream near Tambdi Surla

As we returned from the temple towards our hotel Ramesh decided to take one last stab at sighting the Srilankan Frogmouth in the daytime. I had seen a fair number of these awkward looking birds in Thattekad, where our guide Girish seemed to know exactly where they would be resting. (A Morning spent amidst the birds Thattekad – Part 2) But my friend hadn’t seen any ever, so we made the detour and searched unsuccessfully for the frogmouths. What I got out of this is an excellent example of how good my 300mm is for normal portraits as I trained it on my friend standing amidst a herd of cattle passing through.

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The excellent portrait potential of my 300mm

We returned back to our hotel but the indefatigable Ramesh was still not done. He said we would go out again at night and try and see a Frogmouth when it is most active. It seemed like a lost cause to me as its easier to photograph these birds when they are resting at one place in the day rather than when they are flying around at night. But Ramesh’s enthusiasm won over the eternal pessimist in me.

After a by now expected delicious dinner we set off again with our torches and spotlights. As we reached the same spot where we had spotted the Jerdon’s Nightjar the previous night and Ramesh scanned the trees with his spotlight we saw something fly across the road.

We came to an immediate stop, switched off the car and all lights and waited for some time. in no time the silence of the night was broken by the call of the Srilankan Frogmouth. We set off into the forest in the direction of the calls with fingers and toes crossed. Ramesh’s enthusiasm and optimism had paid off. Sitting on a branch with no obstruction was a Srilankan frogmouth.

We had changed our camera settings and set our sights on the frogmouth as Ramesh put the spotlight intermittently on the frogmouth. Night photos are never the best but we got a number of what I like to call decent photos of the funny looking Srilankan Frogmouth.

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The Srilankan Frogmouth at night

After watching the drowsy and sleeping frogmouths in the day in Thattekad well camouflaged in the foliage it was a pleasant surprise to see one active and actually looking alive! We left it in peace after a while and returned to our waiting car.

Ramesh still wasn’t done and said we should try and spot some owls at a spot where he had seen them frequently. Who were we to argue! So we drove there and tried our luck along a stretch of forest filled with palm trees. There were no owls to be spotted that day.

But as I have said there was an unexpected bonus. A palm civet sitting high up in a palm tree looking all cuddly and cute as a soft toy. We took some photos of this tree dwelling mammal as Ramesh trained his spotlight on it.

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A palm civet provides the 2nd unexpected bonus of the day

With that second unexpected bonus we ended an eventful day of birding. We would be leaving Natures Nest the next morning but that would not be the end of our Goan Birding trip. We still had a boat ride in the mangroves of the Zuari coming up in the morning where we hoped to see and photograph a few types of kingfishers.

It would again exceed my expectations like all of this trip had and give me the photo that I would remember this trip by. But that is a story for another post, some other time, some other day.

Till then,

Bye

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