A Pictorial Report by David Williams
November - December 2009
This is an edited version of a report originally posted in the North Wales Birding Forum. The post contains many more images and can be viewed here
2009 was a very good year for the independent traveller. When I saw that Qatar Airways were launching their new route to Goa and at the same time adding Manchester as a departure point, I just had to investigate. The price seemed so competitive I jumped and booked two returns at a cost of £718. Investigating accommodation I discovered that Monarch holidays were ditching their block booked hotel rooms at bargain basement prices as they were cutting back on the number of package tours and flights they were offering this winter season. I could have booked the same holiday dates, the same length of time, the same hotel as last year for £1,222 compared to the £1,660 I paid last year to travel with Thompson Holidays. Of course, it's not quite identical in that you have to change planes at Doha, Qatar instead of flying direct but on the other hand it gives you an opportunity to stretch your legs after a 7 hour flight, enjoy a superior flight with excellent entertainment, good food and complimentary drinks. (If you haven't been on a Thompsonfly flight you won't believe what they charge for a small can of beer and a miniature pack of Pringles).
The biggest advantage of DIY though is the flexibility to do your own thing, stay at different places and not pay for a package room when you go off on a trip to somewhere like Backwoods Camp, a famous Goan birding spot. A DIY trip for Claire and me is meeting each others expectations for our holiday. Claire doesn't share my enthusiasm for photography, especially when it involves hanging around for ages waiting for something to happen! I on the other hand find lying on a sun-bed at Gas Mark 8 pretty boring too, especially when the brilliance of the sun glares back from the page of my reading material. We were both agreed though that we wanted to see some new places this time around although we wanted to return to our final destination in the North for a third visit in as many years.
Our first choice was a hotel in a beach location, namely the Royal Orchid Galaxy at Utorda Beach. The southern half of Goa is known as being far less developed than the North in terms of tourism. We wanted to sample the relative quiet of the south compared to the bedlam I perceive the beaches of the tourist resorts in the North to be. The Galaxy was chosen purely on price. At under £40 per night it was the cheapest on offer and looked OK so I booked 10 nights there. We were pleasantly surprised to find the hotel had a very high standard of furnishing, our room had a walk-in wet room shower and large wall mounted flat screen TV. The pool area had top of the range furniture and the well tended gardens led straight on to the beach.
I had done some birding research before I left and to be honest, there isn't that much information available about the south. Nearly all bird tours are based in the north are as the bird guides so I wasn't expecting too much. Google earth gave me an indication that there were no rivers within easy walking distance and so I had decided that I'd be happy if I got the opportunity to photograph the odd garden bird and if I was lucky the odd passing gull on the beach. Might even be the odd Sand Plover. How wrong can you be!
The day we arrived the weather changed. Dabolim airport isn't known for it's customer care and we que'd in the rain from the apron to get into the terminal building and go through the usual immigration triple checks, paper stamping etc. This year they have introduced another form filling queue to get your swine flu declaration stamped and collected. Ah well, it was us Brits that left the bureaucratic legacy which they revel in today. Unusually, the monsoon season had continued for an extra month and a cyclone was due to hit the Indian coast line any minute.
Our first day was spent not doing too much, catching up on sleep etc and a short walk on the beach had us return to the hotel as the wind was whipping the sand up and our glasses were covered in salt spray in minutes.
I set up camera and tripod on our room balcony and was delighted with some of the visitors on the green plastic fence! I didn't mind the rain, it was warm at least and only very light drizzle. In all at least a dozen different species were presenting themselves, they would keep me amused I was sure.
The following day we walked back on to the beach this time continuing for an hour or so. I was pleased to find not too many people and a small flock of Sand Plovers that continually flew up and down that stretch depending on passing foot traffic, even more birds to keep me amused then!
The following day we chose to walk northwards, as it turned out about 3.5km's, and as far as it's possible to go before the sandy beach turns into rocky headland. To my amazement and delight there were birds, lots of birds, lots of different birds all using that stretch of beach as a roost. We also discovered that there was hardly a person to be seen. Other than one hotel a short distance from ours the only other folk were either the lifeguards and the locals from the fishing village tending their boats and nets. A top sighting was a small flock of pratincole, using the higher reaches of sand and grass for protection from the wind. I hadn't got my camera with me. Damn!!!! That night the cyclone struck the coast. Fortunately for us it largely passed us by. The rain was torrential but by the following morning had cleared and the sun returned in between cloud cover. The sea was a cauldron. The previous night 67 Goan fishermen were lost at sea, caught out by the ferocity of the storm. About 30 were rescued over the next 24 hours, the rest not so lucky and it made you realise the real cost of your fish supper as you sat in the comfort of a beach restaurant. From a selfish point of view the weather conditions suggested to me that there would be even more birds using the beach to shelter but this turned out to a wrong assumption. The pratincoles had vanished, their previous roost area washed out to a now flat formless piece of beach. In the distance though I could see large movements of what turned out to be Brown Headed Gulls which were constantly on the move as the odd lifeguard, or in this case tourist, passed them by.
Right at the far end of the beach the wooded headland is dominated by a large fertiliser factory. This has the benefit of limiting tourist development down this end. The beach stretched about 100 miles to the south I'm told so no need to come anywhere near here. By sheer luck I had discovered a previously undocumented birding haven. The 3.5 km stretch was to be well trodden over the next week or so. I became something of an oddity to the fishermen and local lifeguards stationed every kilometre or so. They had no one else to look at, tourists could be counted on one hand. There were certainly no other birders and definitely no one daft enough to walk 7-8 kilometres everyday with a tripod and 500mm lens over his shoulder ! The best discovery of the lot was the one and only beach bar which was near the far end. I was usually his only customer and chatting I discovered that there were usually far more birds around. The weather had limited numbers. Things could only get better then. On that first day however I had got lucky and decided the weather was probably the reason I saw this Brown Noddy, normally a maritime bird.
Over the next week or so, and in no chronological order, these were some of the various seabirds and waders I had close encounters with (Sandwich Tern/Slender-billed Gull/Lesser Crested Tern):
What pleased me most was being able to spot one or two different species amongst the predominant Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers. Not only did I find them once, but on several occasions I set out to find a particular bird and was really pleased with myself for achieving it. My favourite was the Terek Sandpiper and of all the '000's of birds on the beach I am certain there was only this single one!
The identities on some where obvious to me Greenshank are often seen at home. Birds like the Pacific Golden Plover are immediately obvious too and this curved bill shouted Curlew Sandpiper even though I have only seen one twice and at distance. The same could be said of Sanderling but I was pretty convinced I had that nailed and likewise the size of the Kentish Plover seemed to tie in nicely.
A bird that I had only seen at distance and overhead was definitely a firm favourite, and they turned up in greater numbers as the week passed on. I even got some close up flight shots.
One or two I knew I didn't recognise, this Wheatear I was later told is Isabelline but even after looking in the book I find it hard to see why! I also made wrong assumptions too and ignored some birds I thought to be Dunlin and they ( I only realised when I got home) were Broad Billed Sandpipers,
Other airborne certainties were the huge White Bellied Sea Eagle and Whimbrel.
The juvenile Brahminy Kite looks quite different to the adult to the extent that I thought I'd found something different at first. The adult being so obvious. The extremely common Black Kite stopped getting any attention very quickly, but the opportunity to catch a common bird doing something unusual is better than an unusual bird doing something common IMO.
Black Kite picking up nesting material
My first 10 days had been a revelation. Not only finding my own birds but a new birding location too. When I got to the north I told a couple of the guides but despite my assurances I felt they met my claims with a certain skepticism!!!!! The beauty of beach birding is that you are not ruled by time of day but by the tide of the day. I didn't have to get up early to see this lot, many were available all day but the greatest numbers were at low tide. The beach bar owner was right too, as the end of my stay approached the birds grew in numbers and this final shot should convince anyone of the merits of checking this beach out !!!! The flocks of various species must have covered at least 1km of beach. If this was to be the least likely birding spot what would my other two destinations be like?
Another bird I had assumed to be the single Greater Crested Tern I had spotted on the beach turned out to be a Caspian Tern, again only discovered when I got home. Without the photographs I tend to be lost!!
That day I had gone in search of the Terek Sandpiper and was dead chuffed that I'd managed to locate it amongst the many birds around. Better still as the tide retreated I had positioned myself on a bit of a sandbank so there was water in front of me and the sun behind. (The gulls and terns don't like you being between them and the sea, the waders are not bothered) as the major photographic obstacle was the sun being out at sea from mid morning onwards. The Terek duly wandered my way and was getting very close so I was delighted, as it wandered away again I was considering moving when this definitely bigger than the rest Sand Plover walked in front of me almost demanding attention. It's not always easy recognising the difference between Greater and Lesser but this one was obviously a Greater (later identified as a Caspian Plover) as it was markedly bigger. I decided it was a good opportunity to bag a certainty and fortunately took a few shots!
Having spent a wonderful 10 days at Utorda beach we were ready to move on to our next destination. This was my choice, and one I was eagerly anticipating. I would love to visit Backwoods Camp, a birders favourite but it is out of the question as things stand at the moment because I know Claire would not enjoy it. From what I can gather the accommodation is basic but clean. The staff are by and large excellent and there is a full birding programme offered everyday. If you are not into birding there is little else, no swimming pool etc.
I thought I had found the perfect compromise, the Wildernest. The web site looks good, all the reports I read looked good. It sounded like a paradise. At Rs. 7,000 per night for a Valley view cabin (approx £90) it's not cheap. Your meals, activities and pick up from the airport or resort are included. (Backwoods is Rs. 5,500 for 3 nights plus meals and pick up and activities). When we arrived late morning the heavens opened and the first afternoon was a total washout. Worse still the ceiling of our room leaked all over the place, even the side of the bed got wet. We had lunch and evening meals to while away the time, and apre dinorial film show was our entertainment (It included one of the most gruesome kill scenes I have ever witnessed, a King Cobra killing then swallowing whole a large Rat Snake). More entertainment was watching the bats picking up insects from the windows of the restaurant. The food was extremely ethnic, I have described it to some as a once in a life time opportunity to try some of the things on offer. In my case once was enough. I'm sure many people would enjoy the food but for me, even though I enjoy a reasonably hot and spicy curry, it was pretty unpalatable. I was glad to have a fried egg sandwich at breakfast but not before I had gone on the early morning bird walk as the weather had now returned to dry but cloudy. We saw very little and the only one I managed to photograph was this Black Crested Bulbul.
Black-crested Bulbul (gularis ssp.)
My guide knew as little as I did so between us (we had been the only two) we worked out what we had seen when we returned to base and got the book out. Fortunately we only had 3 species to remember.
Of the other walks on offer, again I was the only one to volunteer to go on the "Waterfall Walk". Claire was put off when she heard there was a strong likely hood of being "leached", especially down by the river so she ducked out. My guide this time indicated that my sandals would be suitable wear, he was wearing plastic flip flops, and armed with a pocket full of salt to pour on any leaches that decided to attach themselves to us off we went. It was about 3 km through the woods along a fairly tricky trail which involved some descent down to river level a few hundred feet below. I had taken my camera and a smaller 300mm lens in the hope of seeing some wildlife. No chance. My guide was descended from a line of mountain goats and despite his foot wear took off like a rabbit. When we got to the river and I was faced with climbing over slimy boulders to get to the base of the waterfall I declared I had seen enough. My guide pleaded with me to continue as it would be a shame not to see the magnificent sight just ahead. I handed over my camera for him to carry, I needed two spare hands without a doubt. Once again plastic flip flops seemed no hindrance whatsoever, and the speed he moved at made me nervous. I wondered if I had made a wise move, did he know he had about £5k's worth of camera gear in one hand !!! We duly witnessed the waterfall, which in truth was not that impressive (Aber falls is better) then returned to base at an equally high speed. What birds we heard were not seen in the dense undergrowth. On returning to camp, I had a wander around to see what was about. In truth very little. From our balcony I did however get two of the closest views of any birds I saw on the whole of my trip.
That evening both Claire and I were the only two to make the Sunset Walk, a short walk to a spot in their 45 acre grounds where it's possible to be on the border of 3 Indian states at once. Having sampled our second lunch and evening meals there, and discovered that some of the anticipated activities would not happen because of the weather we decided to check out early. Without a doubt our stay had been marred by the weather but the eco friendly resort wasn't all it promised. The staff although lovely were not really in tune with their environment at all. I had hoped for plenty of trails, hides and viewing places but there was nowhere other than the room balcony and as a bird watching place it was poor.
Disappointed we checked out 2 days early and headed off to our next destination, the venue we had stayed at last year. Our drive from the Wildernest to Arpora and the Marinha Dourada hotel took a couple of hair raising hours. Anyone who has taken a car journey in India will be familiar with their own version of the highway code. I haven't been able to understand until recently as to who had priority and where. Lloyd Fernandes summed it up nicely " Might is right ". The bigger you are the less anyone argues, but in fairness to the vast majority, everyone tries to help you pass whatever is holding you up. Consequently the honking of horns is incessant, you pre-warn whatever is in front of you and go for it. I have learnt from experience that what appears to be a suicidal overtaking manoeuvre is not quite as bad as it seems as the vehicle coming the opposite way slows down and moves over to their left to allow you to squeeze through the gap. This of course can be bad news for the meek.... pedestrians, push bikes and the like are bottom of the pecking order and it's every man for himself !! The journey too highlighted that I was feeling dehydrated I thought perhaps it was sitting in an hot car but alas no, worse was to come.
On arrival at the hotel I was quoted Rs. 4,500 per night for the extra two nights. I countered with an offer of Rs. 3,500 which was accepted but I'm sure a better deal could be struck. Rs. 3,500 is in the region of £45 per night, considerably more than the £24 I had paid pre booking through Monarch but I was happy enough, it was good to be back on familiar territory and it was half the price I would have paid at the Wildernest !
A walk around locally soon had me realising all was not as it had been last year. The shrimp ponds opposite the hotel were totally waterlogged. What had held a rich variety of waders previously now housed very little. A few Egrets, Cormorants and, never seen there by myself before, a dozen Whistling Duck and a single Pygmy Cotton Goose. We had had those monsoonal rains the previous week but alas the pools were flooded for a different reason. The banks of the ponds had been deliberately breached in several places allowing the river to flow in, and as it's tidal, the mud banks are not likely to reappear. The birding changed dramatically. The many large fish, previously captive, had also made a dash for freedom and last years resident Osprey moved on to another spot further down river. What a disappointment.
The next couple of days I was feeling quite poorly, the Widernest might have been in the past but it was still very much behind me! The only birding I could raise the enthusiasm for was keeping a pre arranged meeting at the Beira Mer with my friend Alan who I met on last years trip. Even the Beira Mer had lost it's touch. I had been looking forward to another close encounter with the resident Marsh Harriers but even they were down to a single pair who kept their distance. The newly built extension to the next door hotel, the Nazri has taken it's effect. I must admit, for anyone who still wants to stay in this location, although personally I wouldn't, the Nazri looks to be a far superior choice than the old traditional birders favourite.
The Marinha Dourada on the other hand, despite being only half full had more birders staying than ever before and it was nice to engage them in conversation and find out what's about. Well that was the majority. There was an organised group that were on tour together and it's funny how organised groups inter react with fellow guests. Basically they don't! I guess they have enough people to pass the time of day with but I still find it odd how they rebuff attempts to engage them in conversation, perhaps they feel that as they have paid for the privilege of their guide they don't want to share any of their findings. Still it was their loss, the devil in me says I hope they read my report on Utorda and realise what they might have seen!!!! Birding around Marinha Dourada was described in my report last year and anyone who is interested can follow this link.
It was several days before good health and my enthusiasm for birding returned, but by then I had already decided on a different approach. No longer would I get up at dawn, instead I would get up at a more civilised hour, have a leisurely breakfast with Claire and then have an hour or two before the last of the birds had retreated into cover from the midday sun. In the space of the next fortnight or so I even managed to read an whole paperback, something I had failed to accomplish on my previous three holidays, before venturing out for an afternoon photo session! Basically I was happy if I could get a few half decent shots rather than a lot of very "iffy" record shots, I wasn't going to chase after anything particularly but just enjoy what came my way locally. Arpora woods received only one visit, building work nearby has effected bird numbers by all accounts. Baga woods too has seen more development but there were still opportunities to be had. The shrimp ponds had been breached and it was no longer possible to make a circular walk around any of them but there were other possibilities too. A walk along Baga river bank ( the path leads from the road at Mojo's) and the hotel grounds themselves proving to be most rewarding.
Amongst other things, I had hoped to get some decent action shots during my trip. My new D300s has better auto focus than the D200 I had used previously but it's as much the skill of the photographer as it is the gear you use. In my case I was found sadly lacking! I have seen some superb Kingfisher action shots taken in this country but the opportunities in India must be 100 fold better. Kingfishers are as common as Blue Tits are here. Catching them in action is an all together more difficult task.
I guess if I had put more time in I might have succeeded but with so much to go for and time being limited I didn't! The missed opportunity of the holiday came when this little fellow, totally ignoring my presence a few feet away, flew up and hovered right in front of me. All I could see was a blue fuzz, he was too close to focus on. What a shame, the pictures might have been stunning!!!! Slower birds like this Black Crowned Night Heron were easier targets, and in this case lucky one for me too as they don't usually fly in daylight. A whole roost of them had been disturbed further up river and they flew past one at a time for some minutes. I missed the first few but eventually got luckier.
I hadn't got the new camera body until all the hirundines had left the UK so I was eager to try it out on them too. Again, easier said than done. The warm air in India has the birds flying much higher than over here as the thermals take the insects with them. I had to settle for grounded shots.
With time on my side this trip my attitude to birding wasn't quite as manic as possibly it has been on previous trips. Yes I did keep a list of sorts, but numbers were not that important, just getting some decent photo opportunities. When it came to guided trips, I had decided prior to going that the two I most wanted to go on were to Morjim Beach, well known, (not surprisingly!) for the Gull and Tern roost and to Charoa Island to try for some Harrier shots. I had been to both before but having recently experienced Utorda, Morjim didn't have too much appeal any more.
At my second visit to the Beira Mer hotel for some evening birding I met up again with Alan and he in turn introduced me to an old friend of his, local guide Lloyd Fernandes. A Zuari river boat trip was suggested by Alan and on hearing they were short of numbers I jumped in and volunteered to make them up ! The Zuari trip can be repeated time and time again. It's just a wonderful, almost soporific experience ( actually two of our number did nod off for a brief moment). The birding is reasonably predictable but it's just so nice sitting on that boat as the morning sun rises. You can get a feel for it on my little video! We ended up as 5 birders, two guides and 2 boatmen. The boat can hold twice that number so there was plenty of space. Our fellow passengers had a good sense of fun so it made the trip all the more enjoyable and in fairness there was a good deal of experience on board to help spot what was about. I'd met, by sheer coincidence, Simon, Dave and his wife the night before whilst wandering the local woods. Dave, like me was a keen photographer and had been a little apprehensive as to who the other two passengers on the boat might be. He was fearful of upsetting anyone by taking a big lens and tripod. I have never heard of any birders being upset by photographers but what do I know ! I was glad Dave was there because the trip always starts by sailing over to the wooden posts the Greater Crested Terns roost on. Despite my experience the previous year I still blew my shots by over exposing the whites. Thanks to Dave I made the necessary adjustments from then on!
Last year I had missed the Osprey in flight as the boat got too close. This time I took two bodies and two lenses. I was ready, getting first a reasonable perched shot.
Without a doubt though, the highlight of the trip was Dave seeing his first ever Terek Sandpiper, in fact there were 3 sat on a branch. A long ambition finally met, his enthusiasm and delight were a joy to share. I think the other three were a little envious of our choice of guide too. Ironically, had they known, they could have travelled with us on Lloyd Fernandes mini coach. Alan had been suffering with a painful knee complaint and to make sure he had plenty of space Lloyd generously provided his 16 or so seater coach which must guzzle fuel with just two passengers to benefit from. Not only is Lloyd generous in gesture, he's also very knowledgeable and his conversation has greater depth than just birds. He's good company and he is always cheerful. I was so impressed I asked him to count me in for another trip. Oh, and Lloyd has another major benefit. He markets his trips as "Birds and Breakfast" and it's amazing how much the picnic breakfast is appreciated. The one thing I always miss when I do go off early is missing the hotel breakfast, with Lloyd you don't!!!!
The next trip was another 6.30a.m start. This time we went it was Charoa Island which in fact it turned out I hadn't been to before. We spent a few hours there, eventually getting some reasonable good photographic views of Pallid, Hen and Marsh Harriers.
From there we travelled on to Carambolim lake, again somewhere I had been previously where there were some superb photographic opportunities even if the number of species might be lower than it had been in the past.
Bronze-winged Jacana - immature
After a refreshing beer at the local bar we returned to get the ferry over to Diva Island ( where it turned out, I had been before) for the evening roost of the harrier population. The Marsh Harrier showed quite well but we weren't so lucky with the others and totally ducked on Montagu's this time. We did get a Black Shouldered Kite though. As the sun went down we returned home. A cracking day out with Alan and Lloyd ended at 7.30pm. 13 hours in all and at a cost so reasonable I will leave you to find out how much by choosing Lloyd as your guide should you ever visit. You will not be disappointed, his breakfast alone is worth the price !!!!
When we last visited Goa in November 2008 I didn't think I would return as soon as I have done. I guess it was a spur of the moment decision when I saw the bargain prices that were available last July. Although I have decided I shouldn't go back for at least 2 years, I'm not ruling out the possibility. To be honest Goa ticks too many boxes to rule it out. Guaranteed sun ( even when the monsoon rains are late) and warmth. Longer daylight hours than here at home during the winter. Sun up is about 6.30am, sun set 6.30pm. Fabulously warm swimming pools ! Incredible multi national cuisine to suit all budgets. A meal for two can cost less than £5 including drinks but even top of the range places are very reasonable when comparing like for like in the UK. A superb 3 course meal with a bottle of wine (that's the most expensive bit at around £12-15 per bottle) plus coffee and brandy will set you back less than £35. Accommodation can be found to cover any budget. Once you get there the UK £ still goes a long way. Shopping can be fun too, it's a good place to by spectacles, tailor made clothes and jewelry. Many people go to visit a dentist at a fraction of UK prices.
Some things about India are a little off putting. There isn't a rubbish collection service as we have. Most households burn their rubbish but fly tipping is common place. The traffic is something else too, the sound of honking horns never far away. The other noise that seems ever present is the sound of building works, most of my video clips I took in the north have this as background noise ! One thing that certainly strikes you is the lack of the Health and Safety culture we now live in. It's frightening to see the lack of protective gear, especially on building sites. Most jobs are still very labour intensive too. It keeps people in employment which is obviously a good thing too.
However, to see some jobs like hand plucking the grass on an hotel lawn instead of a lawnmower is odd to say the least. Many people still live without the modern facilities we have become used to and take for granted. Fetching the water for example.
Goa is a very liberal state compared to the rest of India (of which I have very little experience), drink laws in particular are very relaxed and Kingfisher beers have cornered the market in advertising. There are hundreds of bars that get the branding treatment, again, done by hand.
In fact the more I think about it the more I'm missing India and I have only been back three weeks. Boy am I glad I booked the air tickets when I did ! Thanks to Gordon Brown they have gone up £80 each in taxes alone and are currently approaching twice the price we paid. Still at the time they were so good I just had to book some more so I'll soon be posting a report on our next destination but before then I'll hopefully catch up with some of you around and about.
Re-edited by: Sumit K Sen on 27/09/2017 (Ed comments in BLUE)