I recently went on a family holiday to Goa, in India, the family being my parents, wife and two small sons (3 years and 18 months respectively). For those not in the know, Goa has become a popular birding destination with European package tourists. It's a relatively cheap way to get to India, you can stay in reasonable accommodation, there's plenty of things for non-birding family members to do, and a good variety of habitats to bird in. Probably for this reason, I saw more birders than at any other location in India -- even than on my visits to Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur.
And with so many birders visiting, it's not surprising that there is a lot of information about suitable habitats, stake-outs of "good" birds etc.. I confess that because I only had limited time, I took the lazy approach to birding, visiting some well known sites, and got lucky with some of the stake-out birds, including the much-desired INDIAN PITTA that winters each year in the Fort Aguada area. For me, it was a chance to see some birds whose ranges don't come up to the Northern plains, or others which are uncommon in the dry habitats near Delhi. Below is an account of what I got up to, as well as a full list of birds seen on the trip. Life birds are marked with an asterisk (*).
We pitched up in Goa on the morning of Saturday, November 14, and headed straight to our base at the Cidade de Goa in Dona Paula. Always with an eye on the sky, even when relaxing round the swimming pool, I spotted both immature and adult WHITE-BELLIED SEA EAGLES, and a light-phase BOOTED EAGLE* being harassed by HOUSE CROWS. Around midday I took a stroll down to the far end of the hotel gardens, where the brushy hillside comes down to meet the sea. Despite the time of day, there were some good birds around, including ASHY DRONGO, THICK-BILLED FLOWERPECKER* and PURPLE-RUMPED SUNBIRD. Most surprising, though, was a pair of BLUE-FACED MALKOHAS* that popped up from the scrub onto a tree branch right over my head. I seem to have hit a lucky patch with these secretive ground-cuckoos, having seen a Sirkeer Malkoha in Delhi not long back.
Early mornings is usually a good time to get some quality birding in, at a time when the rest of the family isn't bothered by your absence. This isn't necessarily the case with small children, as all parents will know. The second day we were there, Alex, our youngest, woke up at 6:00 AM, just as it was getting light. My wife decided that the best thing would be for me to put him in the push chair, take snacks and drink and go for a walk. As it turned out, this was a great idea, and Alex proved to be something of a luck charm as far as finding birds was concerned. I rattled up two lifers, WHITE-CHEEKED BARBET* and CHESTNUT-TAILED STARLING*, almost straight away. I also had great views of a life race, GREEN WARBLER. This bird is currently lumped with GREENISH WARBLER, and they are quite similar. However, in good light the Green Warblers (at least the ones I saw in Goa) had a distinct sulphurous wash on their face, throat and upper breast, and did seem to be brighter green above. They also tended to give a 3-syllable call, which was subtly different from the 2-syllable call of the Greenish Warblers that pass through the Delhi area on migration. This isn't a certain rule, and in Goa I had one Green Warbler give a sequence of 2 and then 3 syllable calls.
Having done the hotel grounds, Alex and I proceeded up the hill, along the road and cut along a path across one of the barren areas on the Dona Paula hotel. The habitat here is open rock, dry soil, some grass and a few bushes. It's a good area for birds that like this habitat, although you do have to remember that many of the local villagers use this area as a giant open-air latrine, for lack of alternatives (in fact, you have to remember this from many areas near habitation in India). Alex worked his magic once again, producing for me flocks of ASHY-CROWNED FINCH-LARK*, ORIENTAL SKYLARK*, the endemic MALABAR LARK*, WHITE-BROWED BULBUL*, and close up views of YELLOW-WATTLED LAPWINGS. They were so close that Alex saw them. No, I'm not so fanatical that I keep lists of birds that I know my sons have seen. However, I'll tell him he's perfectly entitled to put it on his life list (this is also the case for William, our oldest, who can legitimately claim the first-winter Iceland Gull he saw from the Cape May-Lewes ferry when he was 18 months old)! I enjoyed the flocks of ROSY STARLINGS* and JUNGLE MYNAS*, although only a few of the former had decent color on them. A dark-phase BOOTED EAGLE flew overhead, again being pursued by HOUSE CROWS.
I made another early morning trip to the Dona Paula plateau, a couple of days later. This time I didn't get any lifers (perhaps because Alex wasn't with me) but did get closer to the birds, including some very tame and approachable MALABAR LARKS, and two birds new for the trip, a PEREGRINE, flying overhead, and a PIED CRESTED CUCKOO.
Relieved of responsibilities on the morning of Monday Nov. 16, I jumped into a taxi and headed off to Carambolim Lake. My driver took me to the south side of the lake, along what was the busiest road, and I'd recommend going on the eastern side and walking up (and along) the paths. A good site for waterbirds, although since I'd been to Bharatpur not so long back, there was little new for me there. One treat was a LAGGAR FALCON making attempts at catching a LITTLE CORMORANT, which escaped in the end by diving into the lake. The village, south of the lake, has a stake-out for an unusual Saxicola species that is thought to be a STOLICZKA'S BUSH-CHAT. It didn't take long to find this bird, and I got reasonable views of it in the scope. There was a COMMON STONECHAT hanging around for comparison. MALABAR LARKS and CHESTNUT-SHOULDERED PETRONIAS offered close up views as they came into feed on the road. There were nearly ten Aquila eagles in view in the fields on either side of the road, but nearly all were perched on the ground or on posts, some way distant. I identified one that was close in as a GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE. One further away had a very long gape, suggesting Steppe, but the head and bill seemed relatively small so I wasn't sure. I am still finding this genus rather hard, mainly because of lack of practice.
Still with a couple of hours left, we headed back to the eastern side of the lake, and I spent a little while walking along the tracks down to the lakeshore. The mixed scrub and tree habitat was actually quite productive, and I'd wished I'd come here first instead of viewing the lake from the busier road. New birds for me here were BLUE-TAILED BEE-EATER*, PALE-BILLED FLOWERPECKER*, and PLUM-HEADED PARAKEET, a gorgeous pair of the last giving good views in the scope. There were plenty of birds which weren't lifers, but which nonetheless were delights, including COPPERSMITH BARBET, GREATER COUCAL and a fly-over adult BONELLI'S EAGLE. Birders visiting Carambolim tend to move on to the Ciba-Geigy factory, where there are several ponds frequented by the scarce LESSER ADJUTANT*. I found a total of 8 of these storks, along with a higher number of ASIAN OPENBILLS and commoner waterbirds.
The following day we went on a family trip to Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary, a little over an hour and a half from where we were staying, although with a 3 year-old on my lap the whole way, it felt like a lot longer. The time of our arrival, and having the family with me, did not bode well for the forest birding that Bondla offers. I had mentally prepared for this and did not expect to see a great deal. As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised. Birding was slow for most of the time, but I came across three different feeding flocks and picked up a total of 14 lifers. Not bad for a family outing. Nor did we cover much ground. We were in the zoo area most of the time, but part of that was off limits because a couple of the elephants had broken their chains and were roaming around (I think they did eventually round them up). In the first group I found birds that were mostly near or on the ground -- including ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH* (cyanotus), YELLOW-BROWED BULBUL* and TAWNY-BELLIED BABBLER*. A handsome TICKELL'S BLUE-FLYCATCHER* was singing near by, and a female CRIMSON-RUMPED SUNBIRD was feeding near by. The next feeding flock, distinctly more arboreal, came seemingly out of nowhere, as we headed back down the hill to have our lunch. They passed by pretty quick too but I got nice looks at a pair of VELVET-FRONTED NUTHATCH* (with that coral-red bill, a beautiful bird), ASIAN PARADISE-FLYCATCHER, BROWN-CHEEKED FULVETTA, ASHY DRONGO, and a BLACK-HEADED ORIOLE, high in a tree, which may or may not have been keeping the other birds company. Just as we were about to leave, a final flock appeared, this one containing ORIENTAL MAGPIE-ROBIN, WHITE-RUMPED SHAMA*, DARK-FRONTED BABBLER*, COMMON IORA*, more BROWN-CHEEKED FULVETTAS, and a GREENISH WARBLER. The lunch stop gave me a singing LOTEN'S SUNBIRD*, and on the way back over the stream, very close views of a MALABAR WHISTLING-THRUSH* bathing in the water. A longer stay would produce a much more extensive list, but, knowing how hard forest birding can be in Asia, I saw a lot more than expected.
Half-way through our stay we shifted hotels, and moved to the Fort Aguada area. On our first morning, Alex and I both woke up early and headed off together again to see what we could tick. I headed down the road from the Taj Village towards the fort. This is a relatively quiet road traffic-wise; there are quite a few dogs which seem to be aggressive in the morning, although they do give you a wide berth if you show them you're carrying a stone in your hand. I saw the only BROWN SHRIKE of the trip, and got unsatisfactory, but sufficient for ID, views of a STORK-BILLED KINGFISHER*. There were quite few commoner birds around on the road, and after reaching a point where I could scan the river (very little there), I turned round and headed back down the road towards the hotel. There is a path running parallel to this road which contains a spot well known as a stakeout for INDIAN PITTA. It is far from a sure thing as this ground-dwelling bird is quite secretive. I decided to go down the path, more to see what the area was like than in expectation of seeing the pitta.
Alex hadn't delivered much so far this morning, but I soon found out he was saving his best for last. As I was pushing him quietly I came round a corner to see a lone birder peering into a bush with his binoculars. He looked up and, pointing to the bush, said "psst - Indian Pitta". I parked Alex and standing next to him got point blank views ("crippling", in twitcher's parlance) of the INDIAN PITTA*, as it fed on a bank. It stayed there for a few minutes, accompanied by an ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH. Quite a few have tried for this bird without success, and it may be galling for them to hear that someone pushing a toddler strolled right up to it and got an instant sighting. Well, all I can say is that the luck will be with you next time.
Later that day I went for a walk with the family up to the Fort. We were told it was 1 km, obviously by someone who had never done the trip. After an hour's hard slog we got there. Nice scenery and a good chance to compare a dark-phase BOOTED EAGLE soaring with the BLACK KITES. Really very similar in plumage, but the eagle had much more bunched and deeper cut fingers, and heavier body.
The last birding I did was on the morning of the day we were to fly back to Delhi. I headed up to Baga and went up the hill. If you don't have time to head inland, or don't fancy the drive, then this is a decent alternative to places like Bondla, although it doesn't have the number of birds. I did see some of the same birds I'd picked up at Bondla. In addition, there were quite a few WHITE-THROATED FANTAILS*. These seemed to be of the white-spotted form although they had much darker underparts than depicted in the Pictorial Guide. I'm used to this not being accurate, however. A CHANGEABLE HAWK-EAGLE* perched on top of a tree was a real treat, but in some ways I was more pleased to find a male ORPHEAN WARBLER* in the scrub near the river. I've searched for this species near Delhi but have never found it in amongst the thousands of Lesser Whitethroats that winter here.
This follows that given in A Birdwatcher's Guide to India, Kazmierczak and Singh, which in turn is based upon the Inskipp et al "Annotated Checklist of the Birds of the Oriental Region. The common names thus differ frequently from those given in Ali's Pictorial Guide, Handbook of Indian Birds etc..
(L) = life bird
(I) = bird new to my Indian list
Locations which may not be self-explanatory:
Cidade de Goa = grounds of this hotel in Dona Paula.
Dona Paula = barren areas near Cidade de Goa.
Fort Aguada = trees bushes etc. along road from the resort complex to the Fort.
Fort at Aguada = at the Fort itself.
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