When I say ‘Goa’ what comes to your mind? Be honest now. Holidays? Beaches? Shacks? Fried fish? Inexpensive alcohol?
If you didn’t say ‘birds’, boy, do I have a surprise for you!
Tiny Goa’s bountiful and diverse ecosystem is home to a variety of avian life, over 450 species of birds, some of whom visit us once a year. As I have said earlier, I live in Goa. But I am embarrassed to admit that until I picked up a camera, for the most part, birds were just part of the beautiful Goa landscape.
When I started learning the basics of photography, my interests were skewed toward candid and nature shots. Sunsets. Scapes. I joined photography groups on Facebook to explore wildlife photography and to meet its gurus and champions. Wildlife photography to me meant shooting animals and birds at a sanctuary or a national park. It had never dawned on me that there were birders who came to my home state from all parts of the globe to sight and photograph its many birds. That the birds of my every day were wildlife!
Virtually all of Goa has always been a haven for birds. It is home to a number of birding locations and the most prominent among them are the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Karmali Lake, Nature’s Nest, Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary and the Zuari river.
Unfortunately, with rapid wanton development, this is all changing. Whole ecosystems are being destroyed to make way for residential complexes and industry. While I am not a birder, amateur or otherwise, I have come to know the avian population of Goa intimately, to be thrilled and fascinated by them. I would be remiss if I didn’t do my bit to document their existence if only in the vain hope that adding my voice will play its part to encourage the powers that be to protect their habitat.
The first bird I photographed was the Black Kite, a common fixture around garbage dumps, followed soon by the Brahminy Kite, an inhabitant of Goa’s marshlands and mangroves. Accomplished photographers wouldn’t much care for them, but these were my initial subjects primarily because I didn’t have to make much of an effort to locate them.
My comfort zone while photographing birds has always been the backwaters of the Zuari river. Crouched in a small boat sailing silently along mangrove-lined banks you’re transported to the Goa of old – uncomplicated, serene, beautiful. Lush greenery, sometimes a large crocodile lying still on the river bank, a barge gliding past. Wooden posts erected by fisherfolk to stay their nets make ideal perches for the birds of the Zuari River. Greater Crested terns, White-bellied Sea Eagles, Ospreys, Storks, Egrets and at least five different varieties of the Kingfisher (no, not the Vijay Mallya variety) are a common sight. Taking pictures from a moving boat is tedious and difficult, but the outcome is always extremely rewarding.
I had the privilege of being introduced to the avian population of the Zuari river by the late Mr Kamat, fondly known as Kamatbab, an avid birder highly regarded among the wildlife photographer fraternity in India. He and I built a fast friendship over numerous trips down the Zuari river. I would listen rapt as he shared his wealth of knowledge of all the birds indigenous to Goa. Every time I sail down the Zuari, or photograph a bird, I think of him. This post, Kamatbab, is dedicated to you.
One of my favourite photographs is this one of the Greater Crested Tern. This bird feeds mostly at sea by plunge-diving, or by dipping from the surface, and food is usually swallowed in mid-air. It follows trawlers, even during the night, and fishing boat discards can constitute 70 percent of its diet.
Ospreys, also known as Fish Eagles, are one of the most widely found birds of prey on the planet. Often mistaken for bald eagles, they are excellent fishers.
Like any true-blue Goenkar, more than 90 percent of their diet is fish, which is why you will always find them near a water body, On the Zuari they often perch midstream on fishing posts, scouting for their next prey. Ospreys have a deadly gaze that can send shivers down your spine.
Ospreys are naturally wary birds and will often take off with their prey to safeguard it when a boat gets close.
All kingfishers are beautiful and this Black-capped Kingfisher is a treat to watch as it keeps shifting perch in the dense mangroves along the banks of the Zuari. The Black Capped Kingfisher primarily lives in tropical Asia, spanning India, China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. They’re usually spotted in coastal waters and mangroves, but in at least one instance a famous Kingfisher has been known to fly off to the UK.
Common Kingfishers are often found in scrubs and bushes with overhanging branches close to shallow open water in which they hunt. They are widespread in England, explaining the sole Kingfisher flight I spoke about earlier. They feed on aquatic insects and small fish and are known to be extremely territorial, especially around their tax papers. (Okay, that was the last joke. Promise.)
Collared Kingfishers occupy a range of coastal habitats, from tidal areas, mudflats and mangroves to sand beaches and harbours. They generally feed on yes, fish, and crustaceans but are also known to eat other smaller birds. They can live for as long as 11 years. Franky, the boatman, always does a fantastic job of spotting birds from a distance and calling them out, giving me enough time to adjust my position according to the available light. What else can a photographer ask for?
Stork-billed Kingfishers are pretty large birds for their species. They make their homes in well-wooded habitats near coastal areas and rivers. The backwaters of the Zuari are an ideal habitat for these avid hunters who make their nests in decaying trees and in river banks. They perch silently while hunting, inconspicuous despite their size. They hunt fish, frogs, crabs, rodents and even young birds. They are quite territorial and are known to chase away birds of prey like eagles and other predators.
Often spotted in Goa, the Lesser Adjutant Stork is a large migratory bird is known for its upright posture and for how eerily similar it looks to an old, bald man. Often spotted perched high up on a tree along the banks of the Zuari river, this bird has seen a very significant decline in numbers recently. Loners, these birds form groups only during the breeding season (duh), and their courtship lasts as long as three months. Interestingly, both parents tend to the eggs and bring food – frogs, fish and small reptiles – to their hatchlings.
The Egret reminds me of Snow White. Very common around the Goan landscape, they are found along streams, ponds, inland lakes, marshes and paddy fields. They are the most patient of hunters. They have long necks and blade-like bills and wait for incredibly long periods for their prey to come within range. I saw this one perched in the mangroves by the banks of the Zuari river and photographed it because the early morning light and matrix metering made for a fascinating ‘black and white’ style picture.
The Striated Heron, also known as Mangrove Heron or the Green-backed Heron, is often found among the mangroves of the Zuari river. Easier to spot than many small heron species, these birds stand still at the water’s edge waiting to ambush their prey. They eat small fish, frogs and aquatic insects. They are clever little birds and are known to use bait, picking the fish that come to investigate a feather or leaf dropped carefully on the surface of the water.
This gorgeous White-bellied Sea Eagle was perched on one of the fishing posts on the Zuari river. It took off with its prey tightly clutched in its claw as our boat approached. White-bellied Sea Eagles are indigenous to India, Sri Lanka, South East Asia and Australia. These majestic birds are revered by the indigenous people of Australia and feature extensively in local folklore. They breed and hunt near water, and fish are a major portion of their diet, with carrion and small animals contributing the rest. Soar Eagle, soar!
I saw this gorgeous Purple Sunbird on a visit to Nature’s Nest, an eco-resort at Tamdi Surla run by the inimitable Pankaj Lad, an avid birder himself. The Purple Sunbird is a small sunbird species that lives on a diet of flower nectar but raises its children on an insect diet. A very vocal and loud species, the Purple Sunbird uses the power of song to defend its territory.
Driving my car around Goa to photograph birds is my favourite Sunday morning ritual. As I drove to the hill at Velsao in Goa which has the ‘Three King’s Church’ located on the hilltop, I spotted this Crested Serpent Eagle perched in a tree. Found in forested areas across Asia, the Crested Serpent Eagle lives mainly on a diet of reptiles, including snakes and lizards. They usually nest in treetops near fresh water and are a residential species that don’t migrate much.
The Bushchat is a small passerine bird often spotted near paddy fields. They can be found perched at the top of short thorn trees or other shrubs, looking out for insect prey. Disappointingly they are not known to chat with bushes.
Purple Swamphens are generally found in small groups, their population skewed more towards males than females. They are mostly found in freshwater swamps, streams and marshes and paddy fields. Often, more than one male will mate with a single female and all family members will share in incubation and care of the young. These birds are also famous egg stealers and will also eat ducklings if they can catch them.
Although widespread and common, the Pond Heron is often easily overlooked. Omnivorous solitary foragers, their diet consists of fish, insects, frogs and crustaceans. They nest in small colonies, often with other wading birds, usually on platforms of sticks in trees or shrubs. Because of their excellent camouflage, they tend to stand still till the last second, taking flight when approached, leading to a widespread belief that they are short-sighted.
I hope this post encourages you to trade the beach for a conversation with the birds of Goa. And if you do decide to indulge in a bit of bird watching, but aren’t sure how to go about it, here are a few options:
- The Goa Tourism Development Corporation offers a 4-day package that covers 3 -4 birding locations in Goa.
- Connect with Pankaj Lad who runs Nature’s Nest, an eco-resort at Tamdi Surla.
- Talk to Leio D’Souza at India Nature Tours who is also a good friend of mine.
- Reach out to Rahul Alvares who takes small groups of birders on excursions around Goa.
And oh, one last thing. Things may not always be what they seem.