This report details a trip to Goa, India, in December 2006 (with notes on an earlier trip in November 2005). My travelling companions were all non-birders with whom I spent most of the day, either on the beach or wandering about enjoying Goan life, so I was far from focused on birding all the time, and I didn’t want to leave my friends for the two or three days needed to visit the famous Backwoods camp in the Western Ghats; consequently, if you are a serious birder desperate to see hundreds of species this report is probably not for you. However, I hope this will show that you can enjoy a great family holiday in Goa and still see some stunning birds, without ever really needing to leave the coastal strip and inland tourist sites.
Pretty much every tourist in Goa spends at least some of their time staying in either Baga or Calangute. Calangute is a ghastly nightmare of crowding, noise and pollution, but Baga is a bit more refined, and it was here that we stayed in the excellent Ocean Star hotel; quiet, clean and reasonably priced (800 rupees per night) with friendly staff. Birders seem drawn to the Beira Mar hotel; I’m not sure why as the hotel seems to be a bit of a dump, and a 50 rupee taxi-ride will get you there from anywhere in Calangute or Baga if you want to view Baga Marsh from the renowned poolside balcony.
What you will need
A visa from the Indian Embassy – you can’t get into India without one. Sterling American Express travellers cheques – Goa is incredibly cheap once you get there, but you can’t take rupees in or out of the country. Malaria pills, as the disease still crops up here from time to time. Jungle Formula (extra strength) for birding around dusk (plus a pair of ‘jungle trousers’ and a long-sleeved ‘jungle shirt’). Patience – Indian bureaucracy can be breathtaking.
For my first trip to Goa I relied on A Birdwatchers Guide to India by Kazmierczak & Singh for sites, but this seems to be a bit out of date now. Field-guide wise, Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Grimmett et al. is indispensable, though it is a bit weighty and is maybe not ideal for a first-timer to the region; the spin-off Birds of Southern India by Grimmett & Inskipp is probably a better bet as it strims away all the Himalayan and northern Indian species which can just confuse things. I also found A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India by Grewal et al. to be of great use on my first visit when a ‘second opinion’ was required.
Do not hire a car in India. You will definitely have a crash. Indian driving is based on a totally different system to here – anything goes, with liberal use of the horn, and while driving is supposed to be on the left this is generally considered optional. It’s not unusual to see two or even three vehicles overtaking each other at the same time, often on blind corners, while there are frequent animal obstacles in the form of dogs, chickens and cows. Things work well enough, though, because everyone has learnt to follow this different set of driving ‘rules’, and nobody ever seems to go above 20 mph, but westerners trying to adapt are asking for trouble. Luckily taxis are incredibly cheap. You can hire one for an entire morning to ferry you about for around 800 rupees (i.e. less than a tenner), but make sure you agree a price before heading anywhere.
Other trip reports will tell you that getting a decent guide in Goa is absolutely essential if you want to see some of the more difficult-to-find birds. Of course this is true, but personally I don’t like the idea of guided birding much, and prefer to find my own birds. My view is that if I need someone else to find a bird for me I don’t deserve to see it. Having said that, this policy can backfire (see Saligao Zor below, for example). Up to you I guess.
Goa is without doubt one of the best places in the world to watch birds. I saw 125 species on my first visit (with a mind-boggling 75 lifers) and 106 (32 lifers) this time, without dedicating more than the odd morning to birding; I can well believe reports of groups seeing 250 or 300 species here in a fortnight. The sheer diversity can be a bit bewildering the first time you go out with bins in hand, but you soon get used to it.
The number of species I saw on this second visit was not as high as it might have been as I didn’t waste time travelling to sites I had already visited or searching for birds I’d already seen (or indeed sorting out some of the commoner species, such as the egrets). The details below contain my observations on new birds for me, and other noteworthy sightings. Note that I haven’t listed every species for every place I visited; for example, there are a number of species, such as Little Green Bee-eater, White-throated Kingfisher and Black Kite, that you will see virtually everywhere.
The Ocean Star is in one of the quieter parts of Baga, and is next to a small copse – the first birds of the holiday (bar the ubiquitous House Crows) were a pair of Common Tailorbirds foraging in the palms. The balcony would finish with a pretty impressive list – Rufous Treepie, White-bellied and Black Drongos, Red-whiskered and Red-vented Bulbuls, Brahminy and Black Kites, Black-lored Tit, Ring-necked Parakeet and Purple-rumped Sunbirds were all seen from there.
4th December – Beira Mar and Arpora Forest
My first morning in Goa. Couldn’t sleep so I got up before dawn and walked down to the Beira Mar to watch the sun rise over the marsh from the swimming pool balcony. I had been here several times in 2005 in the evenings in the hope of Painted Snipe or Cinnamon Bittern (failed). It really is a superb spot and a great place to get your eye in with some of the commoner species. The Beira Mar is on the main road through Baga, at the ‘far end’ of the town (i.e. in the opposite direction to Calangute). Dawn here is a wonderful sight, watching the marsh wake up, with large numbers of first egrets and then mynas drifting in from their roosts. Species seen included White-breasted Waterhen, Indian Pond Heron, Western Marsh Harrier, Black Kite, Long-tailed Shrike, Purple Heron, and Little Green and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. Several pairs of Wood Sandpiper were engaged in noisy, aerial and spectacular territorial disputes, while a handful of Marsh Sandpipers made more stately progress through the marsh. The power lines running over the marsh serve as perches for many passerines (though on this occasion I left before most of these were about), as well as kingfishers – White-throated are very common here, and it was the only place I saw Black-capped in 2005. Common Kingfisher is also common anywhere there is water. In England these are of course often visible as nothing more than a flash of blue, but in Goa their behaviour is totally different – far bolder, they will tolerate people at very close quarters.
Leaving the Beira Mar at about 7.30, I decided to head to one of the sites just outside Baga that I had learnt about from other trip reports – Arpora Forest, supposedly a haunt of Indian Pitta. To get there, get a taxi to take you to the Club Cabana in Arpora. This wonderful place would provide some of the most memorable birding I’ve ever enjoyed. Power lines and trees around the gates to the club gave a taster of what was to come – Rufous Treepie, Magpie-robin, Coppersmith Barbet, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Golden Oriole and Spotted Doves, plus a Great Tit – the local race looks very different to the birds we see in European parks and gardens. From the club entrance, you walk down the track to view across the wooded valley. No sign of the pitta at the ‘trench’ just past the club. The best spot for viewing the birds of the forest was a little further on along the main track, past a ‘quarry’ and above an area where the trees have been thinned out a little. Twenty minutes of watching across the treetops gave spectacular views of Loten’s, Purple and Purple-rumped Sunbirds and Greenish Warbler, a pair of Blue-winged Leafbirds and a party of five brightly coloured Small Minivets, while birds closer to the ground included babblers and Indian Robins
5th December – Baga Hill
Lots of trip reports seem to say that Baga Hill, the forested hillside overlooking the beach, is a waste of time. I disagree – a walk up this hill is absolutely essential. While it holds fewer species than Arpora, the views from the top over the forest and agricultural land below are absolutely stunning. A chat with a few locals revealed that plans to build a hotel on the hill have been shelved so it should remain forested for a good while to come. There is only one reliable route to the top. First, get a taxi to the spectacularly ugly covered bridge over the River Baga (which, incidentally, is being dismantled and replaced with a new and presumably more aesthetic version). Turn left and continue until you see a sign for ‘Hilda’s Beauty Parlour’. Follow the path opposite up the hill. It’s not that demanding a climb. When you reach a little white shrine you are near the top. The summit is the haunt of Indian Peafowl – the sight of a male snaking through the grass was a real joy, while the shrub is rich with bulbuls and a Pale Flowerpecker was also sighted. Turn left and walk through to a clearing, then turn right for great views over the forest. Birds seen here included the first Red-vented Bulbuls of the trip, Common Ioras with their weird ‘electric buzz’ call, Plum-headed Parakeets, and huge numbers of aerial insectivores, including Red-rumped, Wire-tailed and Barn Swallows plus Little Swifts. From the summit you can walk through an expanse of grassland to another white shrine, scattering pipits as you go. The shrine is a good place for a rest while watching the bay below; I saw a dark-morph Western Reef Egret as well as a few Common Sandpipers here, and this may also be a good sea-watching spot with many gulls just offshore. From here you can then either head back the way you came or continue along the coastal path, back toward the ugly bridge.
6th December – Arpora Forest
Back to Arpora this morning in search of the elusive pitta. With no sign of the bird near ‘the trench’, I decided to leave the main path and headed for the valley floor. It was a bit later in the day than before and hot, so I picked a large tree at the edge of a clearing, sat down and watched. I was soon rewarded with Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike, parties of White-rumped Munias and Jungle Babblers, and a glimpse of a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, while a pair of White-bellied Sea Eagles soared overhead, soon to be joined by a pair of Oriental Honey-buzzards.
7th December – Saligao and the Marinha Dourada Salt Pans
One of the problems with taxi drivers in Goa is that they will always say they know where somewhere is, even if they don’t. I wanted to go to Saligao Zor, a well-known site for Brown Wood Owl. ‘Zor’ means spring; unfortunately, it also means ‘pharmacy’ in the local lingo. So a tip – ask for ‘Saligao Spring’ if you want to see owls. Anyway I found myself stuck at the top of the hill above Saligao village. The cabbie had finally admitted that he hadn’t a clue where the Zor was, so I thought I might as well get out and have a look around. The forest understory here had been burnt recently, and to be honest there wasn’t much to see, though I did manage a pair of Little Spiderhunters, Golden Oriole, Ashy Prinia and White-bellied Drongo.
I soon decided to cut my losses and headed for another site – the salt pans close to the Marinha Dourada hotel. These are best accessed from the road that links the Club Cabana and Baga, or you can just get a taxi to the hotel – cross the road and you are there. It was quite late in the morning so I didn’t see as much as I might have done, but there was still an impressive cast-list, starting with an Osprey and a Black-headed Ibis I accidentally flushed from one of the pans, while the usual Common and White-throated Kingfishers were joined here by the stunning Pied version. There were some interesting waders here too, including Greenshanks, Redshanks, and Kentish Plovers, plus Little Cormorants and dozens of egrets, while the grassland around the pans held Richard’s Pipits.
8th December – Baga dry fields
Only time for a short stroll today, so I wandered around the dry fields near the ugly bridge. A road is being constructed through this area, connecting the bridge to Baga, and the disturbance has probably driven off most of the bird life (this used to be a site for Yellow-wattled Lapwing, for example, and Malabar Lark). There are still some good things to see in the grassland and scrub, though, starting with Indian Roller and Chestnut-tailed Starling, along with Siberian Stonechat, Plain Prinia, Pied Bushchat, Jungle Myna and a variety of pipits. Further back from the new road I found a group of 12 Baya Weavers in the scrub, with some of the males still in their striking breeding plumage.
9th December – Tropical Spice Plantation
I’ve been to a couple of spice plantations – essential stops on the tourist trail – and this one is pretty amazing for birds, despite the fact that I wasn’t really birding at all when we visited. To get to the place you have to cross a large lake by a rickety wooden bridge. There was an Oriental Darter fishing in the lake, while a female Watercock was striding along the opposite bank from the dining area. During our tour of the spice trees and shrubs I caught glimpses of minivets, had a frustratingly swift view of a male Orange-headed Thrush, and a better (though still brief) look at a Malabar Whistling Thrush. I am sure that people with time to look at the avifauna properly will find this place extremely rewarding.
11th December – Saligao Zor
Up at dawn with another attempt to find the Zor, which this time was successful. You park next to the spring, in which the locals wash and clean clothes, and splash through the spring to the path behind. You can either go right up the path of the stream (which is almost dry this time of year) or left into the jungle. I headed right first, climbing up the rocks until I found a comfy spot to sit and watch events unfold in the narrow valley below. I didn’t see any wood owls but one of the first birds I did see was a spectacular Brown Fish Owl, which eyeballed me from high in a tree above. Next, one of the best moments of the entire trip –a displaying Malabar Whistling Thrush at the base of the stream, strutting, cocking its tail and calling away – its extraordinary call sounds like a bicycle wheel in need of a good oiling. The guidebooks really don’t do this beautiful bird justice. While I was watching the thrush, an Emerald Dove landed in a nearby tree. Further up the stream the trees close in and there’s not much to see, so I went back down the valley and headed past the spring into the forest. This is a great place for woodland birds; I saw most of the species found at Arpora, with the addition of Asian Koel, Plum-headed Parakeet, and a small blue bird that I was certain was a flycatcher. Unable to find it in the guidebook, I was flummoxed until I turned back a page and realised I was actually looking at a male Black-naped Monarch.
12-14th December – Madrem
We headed north to the quieter beaches of Madrem and Ashvem for a few days, staying at the amazing Villa River Cat (www.villarivercat.com) – a wonderfully designed circular villa between the sea and a large, meandering river. I had stupidly turned my ankle over at Saligao Zor, which slowed me down a bit. Birding was limited due to this injury, though I did manage a stagger along the ‘fleet’ that runs behind the beach, where I saw good numbers of Kentish and Lesser Sand Plovers, plus a single Greater Sand Plover (no Crab-plover though!), plus Pied Kingfisher and White-browed Wagtails. The River Cat is a good place for the nocturnal naturalist – it is a bat hotspot so if you have a bat detector bring it along. There’s also much owl activity, and nightjars too.
15th December – Vagator and Fort Chapora
A trip to Little Vagator beach today to the north of Baga. The wooded hillside next to the beach has a pair of magnificent White-bellied Sea Eagles. Not much scope for birding here, but I set off for a lunchtime visit to the imposing Fort Chapora. This is a ten-minute taxi ride away, but well worth the effort of the journey to the base of the hill and the scramble up. From the top, you can look down at the estuary of the Chapora River. It seems that virtually all of Goa’s gulls reside on the sandbanks here – the thousands of white dots far below against the deep blue sea is an astonishing sight. The fort is good for raptors (and I expect its much better near the end of the day) with all the usual species soaring away (plus a Common Kestrel), while the scrub within the fort’s walls held several Tawny Pipits.
16th December – Morjim and Pernem
I had to see more of those gulls so a dawn trip to the gull-watching mecca of Morjim was in order. This is around a half-hour cab ride from Baga. You need to aim for the ‘bottom’ of Morjim beach, as close to the estuary as you can get. On arrival, I noticed that the beach was carpeted with waders – mostly Lesser Sand Plovers plus the odd Kentish, with a flock of 20 or so Small Pratincole dotted among them. The gulls were just offshore on a sandbar – mostly Brown-headed, with a number of Black-headed for company. Sadly there were no Pallas’s Gulls, but there were Yellow-legged and Heuglin’s Gulls on display. As well as the gulls there were many terns – a handful of Gull-billed, larger numbers of Lesser Crested and a single Great Crested. Superb.
After the success of Morjim I wanted to head on north to see where I ended up. So we got in the taxi and just drove. Eventually (after an hour or so) we found a good spot just outside the town of Pernem. We followed the main road from the coast; just a few hundred yards before reaching the outskirts of the town, a wide river runs beside the road before heading north, with a dry grassland to the side. This was a wonderful place – so peaceful and with birds all around, despite it being past midday. A walk up the riverbank was magical, with the scrubby forest holding Puff-throated Babblers, Bronzed Drongo and Grey-breasted Prinia (sounds dull but actually a rather beautiful bird). The grassland had Paddyfield Pipits, while to the north the meadow petered out into a wet area of reeds and pools with a family of Bronze-winged Jacanas among the Cattle Egrets. I only had an hour at a bad time of day to have a look around here but I am sure this area would be fantastically productive at dawn – this part of Goa definitely needs further exploration!
17th December – Arpora Forest
Where is that pitta? One last attempt in the late afternoon. Again no joy, but there were compensations. I walked past the ‘viewing area’ deeper into the forest, and picked a good tree to watch. There were amazing birds everywhere that included White-cheeked Barbet, Greater Coucal, Black-headed Oriole and Crimson-backed Sunbird.
The binoculars were hung up shortly afterwards. What a great place though. Loads of exotic birds, endless sun, great beaches, big bottles of beer for about 50p a go and fierce curries – it doesn’t get much better than that. Sadly, an astonishing 26-hour delay and a nightmare flight back to gloomy, fog-bound London and reality would soon follow, though. I never did see that pitta ... never mind, I shall just have to go back to try again next year.
Places visited in 2005
There are quite a few places in the Baga area that I visited in 2005 but didn’t get a chance to explore again this time round, but I’ll mention them here so future travellers know roughly where to go and what they might expect to see.
1) Baga Beach shrub
By the looks of it, Baga once had a pretty extensive dune system. This has now entirely gone, but between the hotels and other buildings of Baga and the beach shacks is an area of sand with some large bushes. Head down ‘CSM’ road and keep going toward the sea; as soon as you hit sand, turn right (this precise spot holds regular Spotted Owlets if you are there at dusk). In 2005 this area was great for starlings, with Chestnut-tailed and dozens of Rosy Starling, plus munias, prinias and bulbuls a-plenty.
2) Baga Marsh.
A dawn visit to the marsh is essential at some stage of your visit. To get onto the marsh, head towards the Beira Mar from Baga but take the right turn just before you reach the hotel. Follow this road for 100 yards or so. You will pass a turning on your left that you should ignore (though I did see a probable Baillon’s Crake skulking around a pool just by this road at dawn in 2005). Keep going and there is a raised path through some trees on your left just before the next building. This will lead you through the marsh toward a series of salt pans. Highlights of my stroll through the wet marsh included a dozen Common Snipe, Green and Wood Sandpiper, Red-wattled Lapwing, Greenshank, and White-browed Wagtails, four species of egret, Jungle and Common Myna, and White-rumped Munia (plus a handful of Scaly-breasted).
This large lake is about 45 minutes away from Baga in a taxi. Its probably best to be taken into the village of Carambolim, and jump out where the road hits the corner of the lake before swinging right toward the railway crossing. This will give you a good view and you will be able to see exactly where you want to go. The lake itself is truly spectacular, with many Purple Swamphen, Lesser Whistling Ducks and Bronze-winged Jacanas, and smaller numbers of Cotton Pygmy-goose. (and also the odd crocodile, apparently) Other species of interest seen on the lake itself included Purple Heron, Little and Indian Cormorant, Little Grebe, Pied Kingfisher and Gull-billed Tern, while a vast hirundine flock above the lake included Red-rumped Swallows. Three of the sides of the lake are wooded; the side with the railway line is supposed to be very good, but I only had time to bird the forest on the opposite bank, finding species such as Golden and Black-headed Orioles, Oriental Magpie-robin, Red-winged and White-browed Bulbuls, Ashy Prinia, Coppersmith Barbet, Rufous Woodpecker, and, fortuitously and most excellently, a pair of Jungle Owlets. The paddy fields on the other side of the road are worth checking out too; as well as viewing from the road, continue into the heart of the village and turn right as soon as you get a chance to get out onto the drier areas. Birds I saw here included Tawny Pipit, Bluethroat, Short-toed Lark, Black-winged Stilt, Yellow Wagtails (of race beema), Wood Sandpiper and Asian Openbill Stork.
4) Fort Aguada.
I didn’t manage to get to the fort itself, while the causeway through the bay mentioned in A Birdwatchers Guide to India (accessed from below a white shrine) on the road from the village to the fort is overgrown and is now impassable. I remember being pretty disappointed with the place, but looking back at my notes I did see some great birds here walking along that road, which is raised up above the marsh and so provides a pretty good vantage point. Species in or around the marsh included Coppersmith Barbet, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Black-headed Munia, and one of the sights of the trip – a pair of Indian Grey Hornbill foraging in trees along the road (not supposed to be present in Goa according to Grimmett et al. but I can assure you they are there). Also seen were Stork-billed Kingfisher (on power lines over the bay) and Whimbrel (in the bay itself), while walking back through the village Black-lored Tits and around half a dozen of the local race of Blackbird were seen.
Drop me a line at jmartin at acblack.com