Saturday, September 6, 2014

Birding in Goa - A boat-ride on the Zuari river

It was December 2012 and I was in the process of finalizing my travel arrangements to Goa, to attend the marriage of a good friend. I’ve always had a fascination with Goa, which persisted in spite of having visited Goa on numerous occasions. My attraction for Goa lay in it’s beautiful beaches, the laid-back attitude towards life, the tourist-friendly atmosphere … I could go on and on.
Goa's main attraction - Beaches

However, this time around, I wanted to experience something different…  something that I’d not experienced during my previous trips to Goa.  I’d been bitten by the wildlife bug after my visit to Ranthambore Tiger reserve in October 2011. Therefore, I was eager to fit in a wildlife trip during my stay in Goa.
A Flock in Flight
As I learnt by researching online, Goa has it’s share of wildlife sanctuaries, mostly along the border with Karnataka, viz. Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary And Mollem National Park, Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, Cotigao Wildlife sanctuary, Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary etc. During this trip I did not have enough days on hand to experience the goan forests at leisure. Therefore safari trips to the wildlife sanctuaries were ruled out.

After much deliberation I finally shortlisted a birding trip on the Cumbharzua canal (Zuari river) and a dolphin-spotting cruise in the goan seas. On reaching Goa, I contacted the respective tour operators for the birding and dolphin-spotting trips and finalized the arrangements. I was eager and excited about the planned trips!

My friend’s marriage and reception was on day 2 of the trip. Therefore, the birding trip was planned for early morning on Day 3. The birding trips are conducted by Mr. Kamath, who runs a setup called ‘Crocodile Station’. The starting point for the trip is at Cortalim ferry wharf, located under the Zuari bridge. The early morning trips during winters begin at 8 am and last approx. 3 hours.

It was a cool morning on Day 3 with a light fog. I reached the starting point at 7:00 am and met Mr. Kamath. He is a knowledgeable and experienced birder and photographer.  In the next half an hour the entire group assembled and boarded the boat. The group also consisted of birders from UK and Germany. Mr. Kamath had 2 aides to assist him in spotting the birds. Finally the fog grew thinner and around 7.45 we started off!
Zuari bridge on a misty winter morning
The boat arrives and the eager anticipation reaches it's peak
The view from under the bridge was a scenic and beautiful one. First, we set off in a seaward direction where we came across Greater Crested Terns and Egrets from close quarters. These birds were perched on wooden stumps and posed well for the photographs. After we had our fill of the terns and egrets we turned around and started moving inwards.

Zuari bridge

Zuari Road and Rail bridges

An Egret keeps watch

Greater Crested Tern

Greater Crested Tern
As the boat moved inwards past the Zuari bridge, the crew pointed out a Peregrine falcon sitting on a bolt under the bridge. How they spotted the bird, I do not have an idea!!! But it was impressive. Because, inspite of the crew pointing out the bird we had to strain our eyes for a few moments before we could spot it! After photographing the falcon, we came across a Brahminy kite, a pair of bulbuls and an Asian Koel (female) at a distance. Then all of a sudden, we noticed a group of tiny little fishes jumping out of the water, next to the moving boat. These tiny fishes were a delight to watch but very difficult to capture on camera.

Peregrine Falcon

Brahminy Kite

Tiny jumping fishes!

Next, we saw some Barn swallows, adults and juveniles, sitting on wooden sticks in the water as well as flying about. This was followed by the sighting of a lot of egrets and a lone Brahminy Kite. The view of the canal with lush greenery on both sides was a very pleasant sight indeed. The reflections of the trees and branches on the water were simply beautiful to see and photograph.

Barn Swallow
Barn Swallow
Egrets on stilts
Serene and beautiful waters
A time to reflect

As the boat was manoeuvred into some small rivulets, the width of the waterway narrowed and as a result we could sight the birds on either side from closer quarters. We spotted a Common Sandpiper and then a Grey Heron perched high on the branches. Then we came across a lovely sight of an Egret and an Osprey sitting on the opposite branches of a forked tree! They appeared to indicate the fact that they belonged to different branches on the Bird family tree.

Common Sandpiper
Grey Heron atop a tree
Branches of the Bird Family Tree - Egret and Osprey
As we continued along, we saw a Black-crowned Night Heron. Since it was my first sighting of the bird, I thought the bird looked strange. It did not appear to have a neck. But the red eyes and the darker head and back grab your attention. Next in line was not a bird but a reptile. Hiding in the bushes was a crocodile, basking in the sun. Crocodile sightings never fail to send a chill down my spine. And this sighting also made me aware that I wasn’t wearing a life-jacket, in case I were to end up in the water. But I put my fears aside and managed to take some photos of the crocodile.

Black-crowned Night Heron
Sun-bathing in camouflage - Crocodile

The next sighting was of my Star of the day, a Black-capped Kingfisher. This was my first sighting of the colourful bird. The blue back, black head & shoulders, rufous underparts and the red bill & legs were a lovely sight to behold. And as an added bonus, the bird was not averse to being photographed! It hung around for a while and provided us with different poses and angles. A natural in front of the camera, it was!

Black-capped Kingfisher
Black-capped Kingfisher
Black-capped Kingfisher

Next we saw an Oriental Magpie Robin and Brahminy Kite at close quarters followed by a White Ibis atop a tree. Then we spotted a Pond Heron, Little Cormorant and some Egrets fishing by the banks. After which we saw the White-collared Kingfisher, which was a first for me again. Though, not as strikingly colourful as the Black-capped Kingfisher, it was a thrill to spot this species for the first time. There was a pair of these birds and they remained within sight for quite some length of time. Immediately after, we saw a White-throated Kingfisher sitting on a wire. Spotting three kingfisher species in just over an hour was not a bad deal at all.

Little Cormorant

Brahminy Kite
Oriental Magpie Robin
Oriental Magpie Robin
Serene Reflections 
White-collared Kingfisher
White-collared Kingfisher
White Ibis
Pond Heron
Little Cormorant
Egret fishing by the bank

Soon after, we came across a lot of flying foxes (fruit bats) hanging from a tree. They just hung from the branches and were completely inactive. These bats are nocturnal and must therefore be active during the nights. Even the presence of a Brahminy Kite nearby did not bother them much. A close up of their faces reveals how they got their ‘flying foxes’ name. Their faces indeed resembled the face of a fox.

A Brahminy Kite in the company of Flying Foxes

Indian Flying Foxes (Indian Fruit Bats)
'I see a boat down the river'

We saw more Egrets, Pond Herons and a pair of Common Redshanks. Then on one of the banks we saw a huge crocodile. It lay basking in the sun, absorbing the warmth of the sun rays. It lay still for a couple of moments and then hurried away. No doubt annoyed by our presence. As I looked at my watch I realized that 2.5 hours had passed in a flash. As we made our way back to the ferry wharf, we saw an Osprey perched on a wooden stump. It looked majestic as it surveyed the waters for fish. We took several photographs of the beautiful bird.

Indian Pond Heron
Common Redshanks
Stilts in the water

Sun-bathing - Crocodile
A beautiful Osprey

As we neared the bridge, we saw a Eurasian Curlew, Common Greenshanks, Common Redshanks and a Black-headed Ibis in the shallow waters. We also spotted a Blue-tailed bee-eater and a White-bellied Sea eagle on a tree some distance away. And finally how can a birding trip be complete without spotting this bird. The Common Kingfisher!!! And sure enough there it was, on it’s perch. Sighting four species of the Kingfisher family was a treat indeed!

Eurasian Curlew
A Black-headed Ibis
Common Redshank
Common Kingfisher
Blue-tailed Bee-eater
White-bellied Sea Eagle
As we neared the ferry wharf, I reflected on the experience of the past few hours. The bird and crocodile sightings were a delight and would remain in my memories for a long time. And more importantly the boat ride on the serene and picturesque canal was like a soothing massage for the mind and soul. It was a trip to cherish and a trip worth undertaking again and again in the future.

A Final look back
The final stretch
As I bid farewell to Goa, I knew that I’d return to Goa to enjoy it’s wildlife and forests just as I had enjoyed it’s beaches in the past!

A good bye to Goa - Sunset at Bagha
Tobin David