Goa is an exceptionally easy place for the independent birder to visit due to the ready supply of inexpensive hotels and restaurants and of unique birdwatching taxi guides, all of which are at very reasonable rates. For our taxi-guide we used Santosh Redkar, as discussed later.
Having been back-packing in India over the course of many years, this time we had the luxury of 2 weeks solid birding in a sunny and hot environment away from the UK.
Why North rather than South Goa when there seems to be a much wider choice of 4 and 5 star hotels in the South? Simply that North Goa has been much more widely birded than South Goa with lots of very helpful trip reports and this is where the birdwatching taxi guides are based. However there’s little doubt that the same birds are present in South Goa.
Tourism was particularly down in Goa this year and there are several possible reasons for this. From the British perspective, it is both protracted and expensive to obtain an Indian visa at present and there is a lack of daily direct flights from the UK. We only found direct flights with Monarch and the Tui/Thomson/FirstChoice Group on a weekly basis from London and Manchester. A cheaper way involves a flight change in Mumbai with the associated waste of time and additional jet-lag. Also, significantly, there is a massive reduction in Russian tourists due to the recent devaluation of the Rouble.
The daily birding routine quickly became: out between 5.30 and 6 AM to allow 5 hours early morning birding. Birding becomes very difficult after 11 AM as it is too hot and the birds hunker down out of the heat and are extremely difficult to see. So back to the hotel for a siesta at the pool-side from 11.30 to 3.30 PM and then out for a further birding session in the afternoon until dark around 6 ish, with an odd extension into the evening.
At the time of our trip the rate was GBP 1 = INR 94 and being a tourist destination, there are loads of places to change currency.
We used Thomson Airways direct Gatwick to Dabolim International Airport booking with ‘little’ Charlotte in their Reading office by phone even though it cost £12 each more.
We paid for ‘Premium’ seats for extra space, increased baggage allowance etc. etc. on the ‘Dreamliner’ and very importantly made it a condition of booking our flights that we would be seated together, as even paying the premium seat surcharge does not guarantee seats together (centre aisle has 3 seats! so what happens to the ‘other’ couple?). We noticed quite a bit of friction when couples were split up after paying for premium seats and to our mind this is quite understandable. We also felt that this added to the usual pre take-off tension to create a difficult atmosphere. By making this condition of our booking prior to payment, Charlotte agreed definite seat allocation with Thomson Flights before we paid any money. Well worth £12 each extra. Contact: 0118 975 3600.
Taxi from the airport to hotel: After checking through passport control etc. at Dabolim there are several swift and efficient official taxi providers on a fixed price basis to wherever ones hotel is situated. We paid INR 1200 (approx. £13) for the two of us including baggage to Arpora. No haggling necessary!
Goa is a popular long-weekend resort for Indians living in Delhi and Mumbai and so there is a great choice of places to stay and eat.
It would seem that most birders and bird tour companies opt for either the very reasonably priced Beira Mar Hotel or the Marina Dourada Hotel, both of which are very conveniently situated in the Baga / Arpora area, and both are 2 / 3 star.
Hunting through a number of hotel options and to our great surprise, we found an excellent bargain on a DBB basis at the 4 star Double Tree by Hilton Hotel in Arpora, North Goa which has recently come under new management. As things panned out, this worked extremely well with a huge packed breakfast available every day with sufficient to cover lunch as well. Food, accommodation and cleanliness were of exceptionally high standard and the staff were pleasant and helpful at all times. No bugs all holiday!!!
We took Dave Gosney’s advice and Skype phoned the Birdwatcher/taxi guide Santosh Redkar from the UK as soon as we had booked the flights. This was absolutely the right thing to do as he can get booked up helping birders and birding firms. As Dave Gosney says, Santosh has a phenomenal ability to find stuff and is very pleasant and reliable company. He is a great birder and with a taxi – brilliant!! Contact: + 91 988 118 0424 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A list of the species we saw during our trip by site can be found in the appended spreadsheet together with the number of individuals seen, and a brief description of sites visited follows.
SUMMARY OF SITES VISITED IN NORTH GOA
Morjim Beach – now suffering from human disturbance but still an excellent site for Greater and Lesser Sandplover particularly at the northern bank of the estuary. A brief view of a Barred Buttonquail in the dunes near the road added to the day.
Gulls no longer roost at the tip but now roost on the sandbanks in the river. We had excellent views of gulls and terns, including Pallas’s Gulls and Greater and Lesser Crested Terns by taking a boat to one of the sandbanks with Santosh just as the tide was falling. Waders, including Terek’s Sandpiper, came in to feed whilst we were there and looking upstream there was a roost of Black Kites which included two Black-eared Kites although great care has to be taken to avoid mistaking them for juvenile Black Kites.
Siolim Paddyfields – an excellent site near to Morjim beach. Good for waders, egrets and River Tern
Anjuna – we saw Yellow-wattled Lapwing in the fields outside the village en-route to Morjim Beach but they are fairly mobile and well camouflaged.
Carambolim – the lake was dredged two or three years ago with devastating consequences for wildlife. With the exception of the corner nearest the railway crossing where there is still plenty of vegetation, there are very few birds. This corner was still good for Grey-headed Swamphen and Lesser Whistling Duck, seen at close hand.
In contrast, we found Carambolim fields and wood to be exceptional for the diversity and number of birds seen including Banded Bay and Grey Cuckoos, White-cheeked Barbet, prinias, herons, egrets and storks, hirundines and raptors including White-bellied Sea-eagle. We also found four Spotted Owlets.
Mayem Lake – arriving shortly after dawn enabled close views of birds as they foraged for food. Highlights here were Vernal Hanging Parrot, Little Spider Hunter, Rufous Woodpecker, and Grey Nightjar, but the woods were also full of flycatchers, flowerpeckers, sunbirds and drongos. A pair of Malabar Grey Hornbill and a pair of Great Hornbill at Mayem Lake were followed by a pair of Malabar Pied Hornbill seen on the way back at Calvin Bridge giving us all three Goan species of hornbills in the same day.
Lady of Good Hope, Callangute– a small pool and associated reed beds a few yards from the church is a good site for Greater Painted Snipe but they are difficult to see as they are so well camouflaged. We also saw Stork-billed Kingfisher here.
Pilerne Woods - an excellent site for an evening raptor watch (there is a rubbish dump on the other side of the hill) followed by a spring further on where flycatchers and thrushes come to drink and bathe at dusk. Highlights were Back-eared Kite at the raptor watch, and Malabar Whistling Thrush, Orange-headed Thrush, Paradise and Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers, Blue-naped Monarch and Brown Cheeked Fulvetta at the spring plus Nilgiri Woodpigeon, Brown Fish Owl and Indian Pitta.
Arpora Woods – only 10 mins from our hotel. We arrived before dawn and heard three Jerdon’s Nightjar calling. As the dawn broke there was a succession of woodland birds including all five species of Goan sunbirds. Nilgiri and Pale-billed Flowerpeckers, Jerdon’s and Golden-fronted Leafbird, not to mention flycatchers, drongos, bulbuls, orioles…….
Saligao Zor – a site for Brown Wood Owl which we were unable to locate although we found recent evidence. Unfortunately there is now much disturbance from locals picnicking in the woods. However, we did see our second Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher near the stream.
Batim Lake – this lake is almost totally overgrown and is how Carambolim used to be. Since Carambolim was dredged, bird numbers at lakes such as Batim have increased and on a conservative estimate there were 1500 Lesser Whistling Ducks, 300 Garganey and 200 Teal with fewer numbers of Shoveller and Pintail. This was the only site where we saw both Bronzed and Pheasant-tailed Jacana together.
Curtorlim Tank and Paddyfields – an excellent site, viewed from the road with egrets, herons, Painted and Woolly-necked Stork, Brahminy and Black Kites fishing and White-bellied Sea Eagle at close range.
Diwa / Divar Island – an evening site. Ferries regularly ply to and from the island and the island itself is a mosaic of mangroves and dryer areas where historically, rice was cultivated. Highlights here were the flocks of Greater Short-toed Lark, Oriental Skylark and Montagues’ and Pallid Harriers. Time permitting, the Portuguese colonial houses in the village would be worth visiting.
Zuari River Boat Trip – the boat trip on the Zuari River run by Mr Kamat, (INR1500 ea.) was a highlight and is not to be missed. The trip starts by heading downstream for terns and raptors then upstream into the mangrove creeks for kingfishers and rails. It is hard to know where to start, but personal highlights were Black-capped and White-collared Kingfishers and Slaty-breasted Rail. Contact + 91 982 212 7936
We chose the 4 days / 3 nights option and were there along with another private group of six Finnish birders all of whom were very pleasant company. Backwoods camp, which has three partners, Leio, Loven and Pramod, is situated in the hills of the lower ‘Western Ghats’ on the Eastern border of Goa. We made all arrangements very easily by email with Loven who responded very promptly at all times.
Accommodation is in individual forest cabins. Essentially this was a very enjoyable experience with some great birds. Missing out Backwoods on a Goan birding trip would be a great pity, but it has to be said that we missed some important species despite having day trips with all three partners at the Camp.
Who knows why this should be, but one idea floating around was that the camp has been in operation for many years and the continual passage of visiting birders and others has eventually taken its toll on the most regularly visited sites. But birding is birding and Dave Gosney’s book covers most aspects of Backwoods Camp and the surrounding area. Contact: www.backwoodsgoa.com
Sites visited included Tambdi Surla, Bondla, the Bunting Field, Hawk watch and Barabhumi School.
Personal highlights were Yellow-throated Sparrows and Grey-headed Bunting at Dharge bunting field, the pair of Sri-Lankan Frogmouth at the camp, Oriental Kingfisher at Bondla and a Blue-eared Kingfisher at Tambdi Surla, which proved very elusive.
As we had never seen Demoiselle Crane, Christine found a reference to a flock being sited at a reservoir in Karnataka. Karnataka is the adjacent state to the east of Goa across the Western Ghats and so we planned a separate expedition. After a great deal of discussion with various individuals whilst in Goa, no-one we spoke to had any prior knowledge of the cranes and were therefore unable to help. The author of the article on being emailed for the precise location where they had been reported failed to provide this information but suggested that he ‘guide’ us. This was not acceptable.
Therefore, on chatting with various people, we came to a plan that he, Loven, provide the vehicle and we provide the fuel and research data for an overnight expedition.
When Loven arrived he was accompanied by his brother, Reuben, another very good birder and so the four of us went directly from the Backwoods Camp over the Western Ghats, stopping overnight at Belgaum, a principal city of the state of Karnataka. Belgaum is not a tourist resort and therefore prices are lower than elsewhere. We found a top international quality hotel in Belgaum at an exceptionally good price with a premium room for two at approx £35. Great to chill-out after Backwoods.
Next morning up at 4 AM for 5 AM departure to the reservoir in search of the Demoiselle Cranes. Seven hours later after we had all but given up hope of ever finding them and rather forlornly driving back to the Goan coast, Christine shouted out that she had seen what resembled an amount of large grey stones in a distant field through a gap in the wooded roadside bushes as they flashed past the car window.
On backing the vehicle and to everyone’s amazement looking through the bins, there were what turned out to be 250 Demoiselle Cranes in the far distance grazing on agricultural land and associating with a substantial flock of Bar-headed Geese. Fantastic to find this site which is probably new to international birders. This promises to be an excellent area for an exciting range of birds.
BOOKS / PUBLICATIONS / MAPS
Birds of Southern India. Richard Grimmett and Tim Inskipp 2015; Pub.: Christopher Helm / A & C Black – London 2005, reprinted 2013
Finding Birds in North Goa. Dave Gosney. Pub.: Easybirder 2010 We found this an invaluable guide with details of the excellent local resource of taxi driver cum birding guides. His introduction says it all. There are several of these driver guides keen to help find birds at very reasonable rates.
Goa The Independent Birders’ Guide. Peter Harris c1995
Goa State Map. Eicher Goodearth. 2009 General map of the state and not expensive
Thanks are due to the following for their trip reports published online: Dave Ferguson, Mike Collard and Jim Rose; Tom Tams; Loven Pereira and Bill Blake; Roger Lawrence; Dave Fell; Hannu Jannes.