Astray in Goa, India

Published by Julian Bielewicz (osprey AT

Participants: Mike Witherick [Tour Leader], Leio de Souza [Local Guide], Simon Brown, Fay Bielewicz, Juian Bielewicz


Photos with this report (click to enlarge)

Baga Main STreet
Baga Main STreet


It is not always possible to pinpoint an exact date as the start of any particular idea and the further you are from its nascence, the more obscure and blurred become the defining lines. It could be argued that the outline originated back in 2008 when, after almost a decade, we ventured forth on our first birding foray involving an airflight. Yet that trip, our first flight since the end of 1999, had been instigated by the Australian Science Teachers Association. Admittedly we elected to stay in Launceston (Tasmania) beyond the four days of the Conference and went birding (with a little wine-tasting thrown in) during the rest of the week. Nevertheless, it could be argued that birding was not the primary inspiration behind the trip.

It could equally be argued that Goa had its origins in the UK trip of September 2010 but that had been primarily a family affair: Fay meeting and catching up with a long line of near and more distant relatives. Birding was subordinate to meeting Colcloughs, Downings, Eardleys and a host of other, more obscure, names on an expanding Family Tree spreadsheet.

Back in those early days, perhaps the end of 2010 or, more likely, sometime during the early part of 2011, we decided we would go overseas on a purely birding trip. That immediately ruled out the UK.

As is our wont, we tossed around a few suggestions. I came in with my usual Ecuador and/or Belize; Fay was a little more realistic in suggesting Vietnam or Thailand. We mulled them over. GOOGLE assisted with preliminary research, especially in gauging flights to and from various destinations and the relative cost of airfares.

Again, at this distance from the actual point, it is difficult to recall which of us first suggested India. We had less than memorable recollections of the country from our only previous experience there. That had been back in January 1976. The visit was totally unplanned. We were returning to Australia, having spent Christmas and the New Year in Rugeley (Staffordshire) with family and Mumbai (then Bombay) was supposed to be no more than a comparatively brief stopover to change to a Perth-bound flight.

The flight was cancelled.

It later transpired that the Perth flight had been rescheduled to take a group of Indian doctors to a medical conference in Malaysia (or it might have been The Philippines). Some 120 Australia-bound passengers were left stranded, albeit that for the next three days they put us up at the Centaur, a 5-star local hotel.

Pinpointing the choice of Goa is a little more straightforward to explain or account for. We considered three options in terms of how we would undertake this next overseas trip and our experiences of 1997, when we travelled the United States, the UK (primarily England and Scotland), Poland, Italy and Hong Kong, provided the ultimate testing ground. In that year we had sampled birding alone; birding with a friendly contact and birding under the auspices of a recognized bird touring company,

In the United States we covered small corners of Arizona and Pennsylvania. During our sojourn in the former, we secured, at least for a few days, the services of Mark Phillips. Knowing the area well, Mark was able to put us on to some top birds (e.g. Lucy’s Warbler Vermivora luciae, Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos, Bell’s Vireo Vireo bellii).

For the remainder of our time here we relied on field guides and advice from the knowledgeable folk at the Southwestern Research Station just outside Portal. It was never as satisfactory as when Mark accompanied us.

Our entire visit to Pennsylvania was more or less arranged by Mary-Jayne Siepel. A very energetic young lady, she arranged for us to accompany James Hill (of bluebird fame) on one of his guided bird outings and introduced us to Margaret Higbee, an amazing birder who later, in 2006, was presented with a prestigious State birdwatching award.

The UK was our home patch, presenting few difficulties. Yet our Scottish tally failed to reach the giddy heights it had under the tutelage of David Stemple back in June 1992.

In Italy, apart from one outing with Roberto Zassi (now married to my cousin’s daughter) we were entirely on our own and apart from a handful of common or garden species added only the Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitaries to our Life List.

After Hong Kong we vowed that never again would we travel to a country where the lingua franca was not English (or at least Italian) and where the local inhabitants appeared to know next to nothing about their local birds – except perhaps which species were best suited for bird’s nest soup. We muddled through, even managing a Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis on the far side of the security fence between Hong Kong and China.

By contrast, Poland was a birding Mecca. My Polish was rustier than a planking nail on the Mary Rose; my modicum of “thank you,” “please” and “toilet” supplemented only by the exceedingly pragmatic “pivo” [beer]. It mattered not. We had George Bennett as our tour leader and Marek Borkowski, as the experienced local bird guide whose command of English put my smattering of Polish to shame. Bogdan Kasporczyk, a fount of knowledge about the local beaver population, had less English than Marek but was nevertheless able to communicate.

We came away with a trip list of near 150 species; 45 Lifers.

The difference was simply Ornitholidays; any professional birding group would no doubt have provided similar services. During Poland we did not have to struggle with the language barrier or a lack of local birding knowledge; we’d paid for that to be provided – along with other minor logistical matters such as transport, accommodation and fodder to keep the inner birder sustained.

Clearly, where we had ventured forth alone we had fared poorly; where we had the use of guides we “ticked” far more birds and the more professional the guides the greater the final tally for our Lifelist.

In spite of David Williams’ vehement online objections to using birding tour companies Fay and I both agreed that this was our preferred modus operandi; the additional cost counter-balanced by an increased bird tally.

As an early part of our initial research we simply “googled” Ornitholidays and downloaded their 2012 brochure. And there it was – “Goa at Leisure: Birds, Beaches & Bhajees.”

Naturally we checked out other bird tour companies [e.g. Sunbird, Wings, Bird Quest etc., together with a couple of Indian-based concerns] and while there was admittedly little of major significance to separate them, in the end we decided to err on the side of caution – better the devil you know and we had nothing but pleasant memories of our 1997 trip with Ornitholidays.

The final decider came when we divided the cost of various tours by the available species on each proposed tour; Goa was a clear leader in terms of birds per dollar.

Early Preparations

Matters shifted up a gear from that point on. As in the case of the Poland trip, we required the “land only” cost. Back in 1997 we had a “Round the World” ticket and simply used its flexibility to join the others at Heathrow, flying out to Warsaw and returning to London with the group before we departed for Italy while the others returned to wherever it was they lived in Britain. On this occasion we would have to make our own way to Mumbai and join up with the group at the domestic terminal.

A number of online reports were less than encouraging. One traveller painted a grim picture of the horrors experienced in making the trip between the international and domestic terminals. Another writer suggested that it could take several hours to negotiate the short distance between the two: we were left wondering whether we had allowed for a viable margin in our flight times. Other reports spelt out similar difficulties. Would four hours be a sufficient margin?

Nevertheless, as early as February 2012, we paid our deposits and immediately started to scout around for suitable flights - we had the flight number and departure time of Ornitholidays’ Mumbai to Goa flight. All we needed was to ensure that we were booked aboard the same flight.

It was an opportunity to break the mould. We had in the past tended to adhere closely to set patterns – use a travel agent for all relevant matters. Even the introduction of e-tickets had us bamboozled. For as long as I could remember we had simply telephoned Dane Walsh of the Flight Centre group and left all details to him. Never once had he let us down and so, even when he moved to Escape Travel, based in Nambour, we followed suit.

Nevertheless, to demonstrate some independence, we contacted a number of Brisbane travel agents, explained our requirements, particular emphasizing the need to connect with the 1425 hours Jet Airways Flight 9W473 (Mumbai to Goa) on 25 November 2012. On the adage that we preferred to shop locally we even approached a Kingaroy agent.

We paused midway, flabbergasted at the disparity in prices being quoted by different agents but what really amazed, stunned us like the proverbial mullet, was the variation in proffered routes and stopover times. One agent had us staying overnight; a second left no more than 30 minutes to traverse from one terminal to another.

The only consistent element appeared to be that there was no direct Brisbane to Mumbai flight; they came with varying stopovers in Singapore and/or Mumbai.

The Kingaroy agent merely turned to face his desktop computer, pulled up “Google” and searched for cheap flights to India. He admitted that he was not connected to any agency network nor did any of the major airlines provide him with discounts. In the event that we proceeded through him, he would charge us a flat rate of $50! Fay and I smiled at each other. We might not be computer whizz kids but even we could manage to “Google” flights between Brisbane and India.

Dane Walsh of Escape Travel came up trumps. He suggested an appropriate schedule with Singapore Airlines which seemed to fit the bill, although it did involve an overnight stay in Mumbai on the return leg. Further, that month he had secured a deal with the airline which enabled him to offer us a substantial discount.

At this point we stepped outside the square, ventured beyond our customary comfort zone. Taking a leaf from the Kingaroy agent, we surfed our way around the Singapore Airlines website until we located their online flight details.

It didn’t take rocket science. After an hour or so Fay located a Singapore Airlines flight that avoided the Mumbai stopover and the timing between international and domestic flights seemed to dovetail better, providing us with more time to complete the transfer.

Fay wouldn’t believe it. How could she have found a flight that none of the professional travel agents had nailed? There had to be a catch, something we had badly misunderstood. I immediately contacted Dane who, after a moment to check our discovery, congratulated us on our fine work. I instructed him to book our seats from Brisbane to Mumbai, connecting with Jet Airways Flight 9W473 for the Mumbai to Goa leg – and of course the return journey.

And therein came our first potential hitch. We had committed ourselves to Goa but at that early point Ornitholidays was not necessarily obligated to proceed with the tour. It was by mere chance that I discovered this shattering fact. No one at Ornitholidays had mentioned it; nowhere in the brochure, or at least not in any of the parts Fay and I had read, was there any reference to minimum participants.

I came across the clue while browsing through their NEWS section and even then the reference wasn’t specifically related to Goa. There was brief note relevant to one of their other tours: “confirmed and guaranteed departure”, or words to that effect. We scoured the page for any reference to Goa. Nothing. I immediately posted an email to Nigel Jones seeking clarification. Nothing. A few days later I reposted the email. Nothing. A third email remained unanswered. I telephoned their UK office and spoke with Sandy Jones.

Fay and I called a brief damage control conference. If the worst came to the worse we remained committed to Goa; with or without Ornitholidays, come what may, we were going. The taxi driver Raymond sprang to mind as did the fact that Ornitholidays would have had a local guide at least pencilled in. Could we contact him?

Nigel responded, apologising for the delay but it seems our emails had been delivered to his “spam” box and remained unread. He confirmed that four was the minimum number required before the tour was guaranteed but as there were already three of us, and two recent inquiries seemed promising, he had few doubts the target would be reached.

Meanwhile we needed to apply for Indian visas. No problems, neither of us had Pakistani parents, grandparents or any other relative from that corner of the sphere and while there was no provision for “atheist”, “agnostic” or indeed even “Christian” we would make do with the broader “other” category. The important thing seemed to be the lack of “Muslim” on the application and the aforementioned absence of a Pakistani connection.

On the other hand, Indian visas were valid for only six months so we had to forestall our desire to complete this formality.

We acquired two appropriate field guides: Kazmierczak’s A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent and Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskip. The Indian Birds app was useful but lacked calls. We acquired Paul Doherty’s Birdwatching in Goa (based on an earlier Sunbirds trip here) and again, while very good, it covered only a fraction of the species available in this part of the world. Fay found the Bird Sounds of Goa & South India but it features a mere 99 species. You-tube provided further, if once more, limited, footage of Goan birds. Finally, to provide us with a hint of the history -and cultural essence- of the country, we bought Michael Wood’s BBC production of The Story of India.

As important of course, there were checklists to prepare, Fay can live without them but I remain the inveterate lister, right down to subspecies. The new Indian Lifers were no problem; they would simply slot into the broader Excel file. It was those species that were already on file that I needed to prepare for.

Take for example the humble Black Kite Milvus migrans. Black Kites frequent the Baga beaches. It is a relatively common Australian species; Fay and I had recorded our first one back in September 1989, on the outskirts of Hay, a small country town in the drier regions of New South Wales. Clements (6th edition, 2007) lists seven races, with M. m. affinis as the Australian race and M. m. govinda as the most likely in Goa. Reading Phobe Snetsinger (Birding on Borrowed Time) had convinced me of the prudence of recording races. Splits are a continuous taxonomic possibility for the wary recorder of minutia: “armchair ticks” for the conscientious!

Word eventually arrived from Ornitholidays that our Goa trip was confirmed; departure was guaranteed.
Departure Day

And so 24 November arrived. All our baggage was packed. Binoculars, the telescope and cameras were stowed in the small rucksack, along with lens cloths, a spare battery and memory chip for the digital camera and the obligatory field notebook and pencil.

We could have arranged matters better. Our flight to Singapore was late in the evening, indeed, a mere tick-tock away from Sunday 25 but eager beavers will come out to play while there is still ice on the water’s surface. As neither of us relished the idea of hanging around until late afternoon or early evening before setting off on the three-hour drive to Brisbane we left in the morning to visit our good friends, Ann and Tom Rogers at Scarborough (on the Redcliffe Peninsula). They had actually invited us to lunch and that usually implied that Ann had located a new café/restaurant somewhere in Brisbane. It is her forté and we have savoured countless enjoyable meals as a result of her epicurean endeavours. She did not disappoint on this occasion.

Where Ann thrives in locating new cafés; Tom is a devotee of photography. In his younger, halcyon days, he was considered to be among the top New Zealand shutter snappers of his day. Now, nearing the twilight, if not the actual dotage, of his time on this mortal coil, he has successfully turned an amateur passion into a profession. He keeps abreast of current camera technologies and is happy to share his wealth of knowledge with me. (Addendum: sadly Tom died in July 2015. He remains sorely missed).

On this occasion it was the new SONY Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, a 20 mega-pixel pocket-sized gem. He showed me the Rainbow Lorikeet he had snapped at his backyard feeder. Even blown up to its maximum, the bird was as sharp as a needle. I was convinced I needed one!

The visit to Scarborough together with the ensuing lunch in Brisbane took us to 1500 hours – 3 o’clock in the afternoon and with almost nine hours left to burn. We had no desires to impose on Ann and Tom’s generosity any longer, nor did we feel we would have gained much dwindling away the hours in their house; we could just have readily remained in Nanango to while away the time there. It was the moment to leave for the airport and pass away the hours as best we could there.

Given the heightened anticipation of imminent exodus to some distant destination, airports can be among the most exciting of places. The departure lounge heralds the start of the journey; offers a foretaste of other exhilarations ahead; is the gateway to the fulfilment of current wanderlusts.

That was just what we did, acquired sore posteriors from seemingly endless hours of sitting still in the departure lounge. There are only so many crosswords you can continuously decipher, especially with major eye surgery completed a month earlier and the new prescription glasses having failed to materialize in time for departure. Even Fay, an avid reader with a reading speed in excess of 1000 words per minute – she doesn’t read a paragraph, she devours it- found that five or more hours of continuous reading exacted its toll.

The monotony was broken with, for want of a better descriptor, dinner at one of the airport food outlets; with almost endless cups of tea or coffee and the compulsory toilet calls to compensate for the litres of liquid forced through the system. We took turns in prowling through the newsagency; in walking over to the display board to yet again check if our flight number had put in an appearance on the bottom line of schedules departures.

It was midway through our ordeal when I suddenly decided to visit the photographic shop; we had unintentionally ensconced ourselves close to its entrance. Yes, they had the new SONY and at a tax-free discount. I walked out with a new camera and by then our flight number was on public display.

The Flight

What is there to say about the flight across to Mumbai via Singapore? One long haul is as tedious and boring as the next; hours cramped up in a space designed for the vertically-challenged or at least the very short-legged. Emirates, in 2010, was a relaxing, knee-comforting exception.

There are a few moments of light relief, especially if you have a replacement knee that sets off the electronic metal detector every time you step through the rectangular arch. Security staff reactions can be enlightening. My first experience was back in 2008 shortly after the operation itself. The officer on duty at the Brisbane domestic terminal that day must have had a serious knockback from his wife before coming to work; he was sullen and seemed to take an inordinate delight in hand-scanning every inch of my body, even though I attempted to show him the specialist’s card confirming the artificial knee.

His girlfriend across the aisle insisted on checking the innermost depths of my rucksack for possible explosives. There were no courtesies extended, no smile. Perhaps she was the wife who had refused to proffer her favours on the officer at the metal detector.

Economy class facilities have undoubtedly improved since the 1990s but there is little to stir the grey matter once on board and I no longer dull the agony by imbibing copious amounts of alcohol. The entertainment console has little to offer me. Fay can lose herself in a documentary or film but this is too passive to satisfy a raging mind, always expecting to hear an ominous squeak in the engine tones.

I appeased my concerns with the data screen. As long as the aeroplane continued to cruise at 549m.p.h and maintained an altitude of 41002 feet all was well – it was moving and therefore not falling from the sky!

Singapore came. Another coffee, another wait and we were called to board the Mumbai flight. The security staff seemed uninterested in my knee; clearly they come across thousands in the passage of a week and it took only a cursory body scan before they moved me on to join Fay.

A new aeroplane often signals new neighbours seated alongside you; some welcome, some less so, while a minority can become a serious impediment to the effective working of the bowels. A pain in the arse! I was landed with the latter category, a young Singaporean man who sniffed, snorted and snotted all the way to Mumbai. Give me the portly Italian woman who, during a rough spell against head winds (back in 1992), grabbed my arm and fervently prattled off mio dio in anticipation of meeting her Maker.

Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport was a welcome sight for sore eyes- and bodily regions further south. We braced ourselves for the expected turmoil in transferring to the domestic terminal. We were aboard the shuttle service within forty minutes of landing – and that included clearing immigration and customs! Piece of cake.

Mind you, as a forward flash to the return journey, the process of through the International Terminal to finally boarding the homeward flight was a nightmare. Queue after queue after queue; a seemingly endless line of humans inching their way towards one of the checkout points. We had allowed ourselves four hours to complete the required customs, quarantine, security scans, etc. We had barely forty-five minutes to spare when we eventually cleared all the afore-mentioned pre-requisites to boarding the flight.

To add a little cream to the cake, while we awaited the arrival of other shuttle passengers, we “ticked” our first Indian (as distinct from global) bird; the predicted House Crow Corvus splendens. It wasn’t the first Trip List bird; that honour belonged to the more humble Rock Dove Columba livia.

Forecasting the first species to be seen on each new overseas trip bird has become something of a tradition between us, a minor competition which Fay currently leads although on this occasion we had both guessed the crow.

The euphoria was briefly interrupted. Of all places, the next irritation came as I stepped through the metal detector at the entrance to the domestic departure lounge. My right knee activated the alarm. That in itself was of little concern; since July 2008 I had become well-seasoned to the ensuing small drama, having rehearsed it a dozen times across five nations. But the security guard at this small Indian outpost was clearly out of his depth. He scanned my entire body clearly baffled each time he hovered over the artificial knee. I pointed out that it was metal and always activated metal detectors. It was beyond his ken of English. He scanned my body a second time and again looked askance when the device went into paroxysms as it passed over the offending limb. The officer’s face contorted, turned a darker shade of purple as he struggled to understand the significance of the situation.

In desperation I rolled up my trouser leg to point out the still visible scar. He hesitated and perhaps in that moment he may have recalled hearing some vague tale of Westerners with artificial knees. He sighed and motioned me through.

For our part we had arrived but where was the British contingent?

The departure lounge was small enough for us to skim it from end to end but we couldn’t spot another European face amongst the gathering crowd. I walked around the room. Nothing. Fay walked around the room. Nothing. Time marched on; our flight number to Goa was on the departure display board.

I stood on the lounge side of the metal detectors gazing at passengers being scanned before being ushered through to join us. Nothing.

Back in 1997 we had of course met up with the others at their Heathrow point of departure, each having arrived from different quarters of the United Kingdom. Here, we were three-fifths of the way to our ultimate destination. We had traversed the easy segments; we had simply followed Singapore Airline schedules and boarded a shuttle service bus.

It was not rocket science but where to from here? Obviously Goa itself but we had no idea of how Ornitholidays planned to get us from Panjim to Baga.

We called our second damage-control conference to appraise the situation. The cold facts remained that we had no notion of exactly where or how far Baga lay in relation to Panjim. We had no idea of how Ornitholidays planned to travel between the two. Coach? Taxi? A private touring vehicle? Nor did we possess any Indian currency.

It looked less than ideal but we remained steadfast to our determination to see it through alone if the worst case scenario eventuated. There would surely be someone waiting for the Ornitholidays party at Panjim. We could perhaps have the local guide/s paged by airport personnel. At the very least we would seek advice on how to proceed to the Ronil Beach Hotel in Baga. We had the hotel’s telephone number which opened another avenue of potential help. While it was now more than a decade since our previous [and serious] overseas birding venture, we were not complete novices and had handled Hong Kong with reasonable aplomb.

It was at that point that Fay spotted a European whose garb almost screamed out “Birdwatcher!” As I approached him, he commented that I seemed to be looking for someone. I was, someone from Ornitholidays. He introduced himself as Mike Witherick of Ornitholidays; Simon Brown stood alongside him.

Our group was complete. All’s well that ends well.

A Small Enigma

We did ponder awhile. Nigel Jones had written that four was the minimum required to confirm the Goan tour and at the time of writing there were three with another two showing some interest. One assumes that even then Mike [who was anyway a replacement leader; Simon Boyes having pulled out] was already included in the party. Four plus the leader made a minimum of five. If the leader had always been considered part of the complement, why hadn’t Nigel confirmed the tour in that email? What had changed between the three-plus-one of then and the number at Mumbai now?

We later learnt that the previous November’s Goa trip had also consisted of only three clients and the leader (four people).


We arrived, safely. Leio de Souza, (the co-director, along with his Essex wife, Jennifer), met us at Panjim, bundled us into his car and off we went, Baga-bound. Long since faded memories of Indian driving etiquette immediately impressed themselves. Driving by horn, with good brakes and more than a morsel of good luck!

Initial Observations

In a word, contrast.

Baga is a seaside township nestled on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Shacks, with wide, shady terraces serving alcohol, dot a large part of the beachfront. Given a modicum of photographic savvy, with perhaps a little judicious “gardening,” they would look sensational on tourist brochures aimed at attracting punters.

On our only visit to the beach here we found as much litter as sand visible. There were few swimmers but there were obvious signs that at least some of the local inhabitants waded out a few metres to defecate in the saltwater.

Its roads are narrow and unkempt, with minimal kerbing and bordered by small, often open-fronted shops along the main stretches; small houses in obvious need of renovation along the back streets. The further out from the town center one travels, the more dilapidated the buildings appear to become. We noted a few clearly abandoned homes.

Yet there are grand houses on view, sprinkled about in the leafier suburbs; the area within their property fence lines and immediately around the outside are more or less litter-free; they can afford to employ servants to maintain a small measure of sartorial elegance.

Similarly, hotels catering to the tourist trade tend to be sumptuous, resplendent in fresh paint and seated amidst well-manicured gardens. Here one finds no litter, only a plethora of peasants picking up and clearing away every unwanted scrap. Back in 1976, during our “enforced” stay at the Centaur Hotel, we had noted, while out early birding the enclosed grounds, long “emu lines” of women on their hands and knees meticulously pricking out small weeds and the luscious lawns. They were paid less than a dollar a day for this back-breaking, tiresome task.

There appears to be no sanitation works, no lavatory cubicles, for the general populace outside the town confines. On a number of occasions we came across areas, denoted by the presence of water bottles (in lieu of toilet paper) and strewn with human waste products: nor does there appear to be any garbage disposal facilities. The streets are lined with litter; discarded plastic shopping bags prevail.

There is obvious poverty, although in our week in Baga we came across only one beggar, a wizened old woman who stepped out from off the veranda of one of the town’s numerous bars, rattling a begging bowl before us. Back in 1976 I would have had no hesitation in immediately dropping a few coins into her bowl but we had been warned that most Goan beggars were not destitute misfortunates but rather professional mendicants, often combined in organized networks.

The last warning we had received was from one of the official money-exchange agents who operated not from a bank but from off the veranda of their backstreet house – the lack of litter indicating a residence of some social standing. Mike and Simon had no difficulties in exchanging pound sterling to rupees; the Australian dollar forced the woman to make a telephone call to determine the current exchange rate; the man looked at the figure she had scribbled down and rapidly calculated the profit margin required to line their own back pockets.

It didn’t take long to discover that there was no obvious bank in Baga. A few days later, when we asked the hotel reception staff for directions to the nearest bank, we found ourselves in bathroom-sized room adorned with three ATMs with the perennial guard seated on a chair outside the entrance. Nor did it take us long to work out why he was there – after three failed attempts to extract money from one of the machines, he stepped in, took the card, inserted it into the appropriate slot, pressed a few buttons and indicated that we should enter the amount we required. Having no desire to repeat this daunting exercise we plumbed for 5000 rupees- a veritable fortune and one that cost us some discomfort later when we embarked on the homeward journey.

And yet, for all the obvious poverty, there are signs of economic development: new constructions, albeit most appeared to be new, embryo hotels; we also noted extensive renovations on a number of the larger houses. The Ronil Beach Resort hotel was under renovators as the management were aiming to gain a 5-star rating. Above all, the main street was undergoing a major upgrade- kerbing!

Unlike Western practices where one expects to see bulldozers, backhoes, “dumpers,” or at least wheelbarrows used to clear away the accumulating rubble, here in Baga, men used simple shovels to transfer the waste to largish baskets which were then carried away by women- balancing the baskets on their heads.

Above all, one could never escape the traffic. We retain disturbing memories of Mumbai traffic back in 1976 and while the volume was considerably less in Baga or anywhere else we travelled in Goa, it appears that the same basic principle apply. There are no traffic lights, no stop or give way signs. In a word, no road rules and only the very occasional official on traffic control duty.

One cannot be but amazed at the number of motor scooters on the roads, often carrying three people, on a few occasions we counted four. There are a lesser number of motorbikes, interspersed with small cars. All seem to operate on two speeds, fast and faster- with the gear change centred on the horn!
The Hotel

The Ronil Beach Resort gives the immediate impression of sartorial elegance, even though, in European terms, it is remarkably cheap. One instantly entertains the impression of having stepped back in history, to the time of a colonial, Singaporean Raffles.

Our initial room, small but adequately comfortable, had a narrow balcony which overlooked the main swimming pool area (there was a second, smaller pool on the other side). Its most endearing feature, apart from the welcomed air-conditioning, was the small safe, operated by a combination lock, the security number being set by the guests themselves.

We had scarcely unpacked when the first of the Goan birds appeared – our old friends the House Crow and the Rock Dove.

The only other hotel we experienced in any depth was the nearby Beira Mar Hotel, famed for its wide garden terrace from which keen birders can hope to add a number of interesting “ticks” to their list – at a price! The house rule remains simple, if you’re not a guest you are nevertheless expected to contribute to the hotel’s economy by buying at least one beer – usually a bottle of Kingfisher (we never came across draught beer).

Naturally, the Beira Mar Hotel is also a place at which one can encounter other keen birders. On our first evening there we met, chatted, shared a beer and some birding experiences with Gary Rowland of Dudley in the West Midlands. Before going our separate way we exchanged email addresses and while I did drop him a line on our return to Nanango he has never reciprocated. Such is life.

The original itinerary had scheduled only the two nights at the famed Backwoods Camp (owned and operated by Leio himself) but it had been extended to three nights for this tour. Wonderful spot! The accommodation was basic timber chalet-type huts set amid the forest; the cuisine, cooked by two local girls, was basic Indian fodder but very tasty. The lack of hot water in the shower seemed a small price to pay for being set in the middle of an avian paradise. The less hardy could, anyway, arrange with staff to have a bucket of hot water brought to their hut.

The Birds

When you stray into a new corner of the world for the first time all birds noted are novel and exciting, from the humble House Crow (our first Indian Lifer) to the more elusive Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus (the last Lifer we recorded in Goa – on our last evening in the country). If you belong to the small compulsive obsessive fraternity, recorders of painstaking minutia, those that delve beyond the basic unit into subspecies, then even birds already immortalized on your LIFELIST become feathered gems to marvel over. The unassuming Rock Dove, the “Dodgy Dove” as Mike Wetherick often referred to them, opens up another broad vista of potential additions to your inventory. It is now of course virtually impossible to pinpoint the exact source of the species in Australia. No doubt the Old Dart, Mother England, may have played a part with the First Fleet of 1788; in which case perhaps the nominate Columba livia livia reigns supreme. The Rock Doves we spotted at Mumbai airport (our first sighting for the Trip List) were almost undoubtedly Columba livia intermedia (breeding range Peninsular India and Sri Lanka). Not a new “tick” but an addition to the growing taxa list.

The modest House Sparrow Passer domesticus falls within the same framework. As with the Rock Dove, its Australian antecedents may now be speculative but almost certainly originate with Passer domesticus domesticus whereas its Indian counterpart is Passer domesticus indicus (breeding range, s Israel and s Palestine through Arabia and east to India and c Southeast Asia). Tick!

Our Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio was even more exciting. We had officially recorded the Australian subspecies, Porphyrio porphyrio melanotus on more than 180 separate occasions over the past few years. To add a little zest to the birder’s eternal quest for “ticks”, that African race of September 1999, Porphyrio porphyrio madagascariensis, has now been elevated to full species status by the IOC World Bird List (3.3). It was immediately obvious that the Indian bird was significantly different to that seen in Australia and even a cursory browse through the major authorities (e.g. Clements, 6th Edition, 2007; the online IOC checklist. 3.3; etc.) came up with Porphyrio porphyrio poliocephalus. Tick!

It is however the potential raptorial splits looming tantalizingly closer to the horizon that most impress. Throughout our ten days in Goa, Leio, and to a lesser extent, Mike, continually referred to the Black Kite and the Black-eared Kite Milvus lineatus as two separate species. I can find no consulted authority (e.g. Clements, 6th Edition, 2007; the IOC online checklist, Version 3.3; etc.) that currently recognize the split. Happy days ahead?

The Common Buzzard Buteo buteo is another point in hand. Leio de Souza presented it as the Steppe Buzzard and certainly Clements (online version 6.7) acknowledges a narrow racial group which comes under the “Steppe” banner, with Buteo buteo vulpinus (N Palearctic; winters to s Asia and Africa south of the Sahara) as the Goan candidate. It is not delineated by any such demarcation in the IOC lists (Version 3.3) or by the Internet Bird Collection/Lynx Edicions (

Then of course there is the question of conscience; or rather, does one religiously follow a predetermined source or is it permissible to switch allegiances between various avian authorities to best suit the acquisition of additional “Ticks” for your Lifelist? In compiling our Goa checklist, Fay and I predominantly used either Clements (both the 6th Edition, 2007 and the 6.7 online resource) or the IOC online lists (2 at the time of preparations, 3.3 at the time of writing this report).

The Cattle Egret probably best illustrates the dilemma for the humble journeyman birder. According to the IOC the egret in India is now the Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), a split from the Eastern Cattle Egret (Bubulcus coromandus). Clements does not recognize this split: of the three[3] races attributed to Bubulcus ibis, Clements has B. i. coromandus extant in “s. & e. Asia through to the Indian sub-continent” and also in Australia and New Zealand.

To follow Clements is to acquire a relatively minor ”tick” among the trinomials; to opt for the IOC is to gain an entirely new species for one’s Life List. If one has been faithful to the IOC throughout the trip there can be few quibbles. We had, so we did. Tick!

Occasionally, when both Clements and the IOC agree, my software at home (Bluebird Technology’s Bird Journal) refuses to recognize the name. The Black Eagle Ictinaetus malayensis is [fortunately] a rare example of this. Clements and the IOC have split the African and Indian races; the former is now Verreaux's Eagle Aquila verreauxii while the Indian retains the name Black Eagle. I can only record this on my original Microsoft Excel spreadsheet; Bird Journal does not acknowledge the split.

Finally there are often those birds one has set down as specific targets, birds on a wishlist. Mine was the Coppersmith Barbet Megalaima haemacephala (Indian race M. g. indica); Fay was focussed on the more exotic Malabar Trogon Harpactes fasciatus (Indian race H. f. malabaricus). The barbet appeared on our second day in Goa; the trogon remained aloof until 2 December, only a matter of days before our departure.

A full trip list appears elsewhere.


For me, personally, Goan birding was agonizingly frustrating. Having endured the discomfort of not one but two eye operations, my new prescription glasses, to match my cataract-less eyes had not been ready by our departure on 24 November. I could only use my naked eyes with both binoculars and telescope and neither was quite sufficient. The dilemma was alleviated to some extent once Mike and Leio became aware of my sight difficulties; they ensured that I was first at Leio’s telescope (he was almost invariably the first to spot and train his scope on any new species). Nevertheless the inability to focus accurately on a number of birds cost me several “ticks.” The Indian Blue Robin Larvivora brunnea (2 December 2012) lingers as the most painful memory of a missed opportunity; I remain the only one of the party not to have seen this particular bird.

For all that, Fay (who proved to be one of the, if not indeed, in my humble opinion, the best, of the birders amongst our small party) and I recorded 229 species, a little fewer than perhaps anticipated but then we did miss the last morning’s birding because of Fay’s “Delhi belly.”

Would we go again? To Goa? Probably not. This is no negative reflection on the region, more a function of our birds-per-dollar mentality when choosing a potential destination. To other parts of India? Most definitely, yes. The northern regions beckon. With Ornitholiday? Again, almost undoubtedly- although it would be tempting to experiment with making one’s own arrangements.

Species Lists

Red Spurfowl Galloperdix spadicea
Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatus
Lesser Whistling Duck Dendrocygna javanica
Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
Cotton Pygmy Goose Nettapus coromandelianus
Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope
Indian Spot-billed Duck Anas poecilorhyncha
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Garganey Anas querquedula
Eurasian Teal Anas crecca
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Asian Openbill Anastomus oscitans
Woolly-necked Stork Ciconia episcopus
Lesser Adjutant Leptoptilos javanicus
Black-headed Ibis Threskiornis melanocephalus
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Striated Heron Butorides striata
Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron Ardea purpurea
Great Egret Ardea alba
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Western Reef Heron Egretta gularis
Little Cormorant Microcarbo niger
Indian Cormorant Phalacrocorax fuscicollis
Oriental Darter Anhinga melanogaster
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus
Black Kite Milvus migrans
Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus
White-bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster
Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela
Western Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus
Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus
Shikra Accipiter badius
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo
Black Eagle Ictinaetus malayensis
Indian Spotted Eagle Aquila hastata
Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga
Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus
Changeable Hawk-Eagle Nisaetus cirrhatus
Mountain Hawk-Eagle Nisaetus nipalensis
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus
Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Yellow-legged Buttonquail Turnix tanki
Barred Buttonquail Turnix suscitator
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Yellow-wattled Lapwing Vanellus malabaricus
Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus
Greater Sand Plover Charadrius leschenaultii
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis
Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus
Bronze-winged Jacana Metopidius indicus
Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minimus
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus
Common Redshank Tringa totanus
Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Sanderling Calidris alba
Little Stint Calidris minuta
Dunlin Calidris alpina
Slender-billed Gull Chroicocephalus genei
Brown-headed Gull Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia
Greater Crested Tern Thalasseus bergii
Lesser Crested Tern Thalasseus bengalensis
Little Tern Sternula albifrons
Rock Dove Columba livia
Nilgiri Wood Pigeon Columba elphinstonii
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis
Common Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica
Grey-fronted Green Pigeon Treron affinis
Mountain Imperial Pigeon Ducula badia
Vernal Hanging Parrot Loriculus vernalis
Alexandrine Parakeet Psittacula eupatria
Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri
Plum-headed Parakeet Psittacula cyanocephala
Blue-winged Parakeet Psittacula columboides
Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis
Blue-faced Malkoha Phaenicophaeus viridirostris
Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus
Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus lugubris
Common Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx varius
Spotted Owlet Athene brama
Brown Hawk-Owl Ninox scutulata
Sri Lanka Frogmouth Batrachostomus moniliger
Jerdon's Nightjar Caprimulgus atripennis
Crested Treeswift Hemiprocne coronata
Alpine Swift Tachymarptis melba
Little Swift Apus affinis
Malabar Trogon Harpactes fasciatus
Indian Roller Coracias benghalensis
Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis
White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis
Black-capped Kingfisher Halcyon pileata
Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris
Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis
Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater Merops leschenaulti
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops
Malabar Grey Hornbill Ocyceros griseus
Malabar Pied Hornbill Anthracoceros coronatus
Brown-headed Barbet Megalaima zeylanica
White-cheeked Barbet Megalaima viridis
Malabar Barbet Megalaima malabarica
Coppersmith Barbet Megalaima haemacephala
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla
Heart-spotted Woodpecker Hemicircus canente
White-bellied Woodpecker Dryocopus javensis
Black-rumped Flameback Dinopium benghalense
Buff-spotted Flameback Chrysocolaptes lucidus
Rufous Woodpecker Micropternus brachyurus
Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike Hemipus picatus
Malabar Woodshrike Tephrodornis sylvicola
Common Woodshrike Tephrodornis pondicerianus
Ashy Woodswallow Artamus fuscus
Common Iora Aegithina tiphia
Black-headed Cuckooshrike Coracina melanoptera
Small Minivet Pericrocotus cinnamomeus
Scarlet Minivet Pericrocotus speciosus
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
Bay-backed Shrike Lanius vittatus
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach
Indian Golden Oriole Oriolus kundoo8ij
Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis
Black-hooded Oriole Oriolus xanthornus
Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus
Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus
White-bellied Drongo Dicrurus caerulescens
Bronzed Drongo Dicrurus aeneus
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo Dicrurus paradiseus
White-spotted Fantail Rhipidura albogularis
Black-naped Monarch Hypothymis azurea
Asian Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone paradisi
Rufous Treepie Dendrocitta vagabunda
House Crow Corvus splendens
Indian Jungle Crow Corvus culminatus
Indian Black-lored Tit Parus aplonotus
Malabar Lark Galerida malabarica
Grey-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus priocephalus
Flame-throated Bulbul Pycnonotus gularis
Red-whiskered Bulbul Pycnonotus jocosus
Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer
White-browed Bulbul Pycnonotus luteolus
Yellow-browed Bulbul Acritillas indica
Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Wire-tailed Swallow Hirundo smithii
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica
Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides
Western Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus occipitalis
Clamorous Reed Warbler Acrocephalus stentoreus
Blyth's Reed Warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum
Grey-breasted Prinia Prinia hodgsonii
Ashy Prinia Prinia socialis
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius
Dark-fronted Babbler Rhopocichla atriceps
Brown-cheeked Fulvetta Alcippe poioicephala
Puff-throated Babbler Pellorneum ruficeps
Jungle Babbler Turdoides striata
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch Sitta frontalis
Jungle Myna Acridotheres fuscus
Chestnut-tailed Starling Sturnia malabarica
White-headed Starling Sturnia erythropygia
Rosy Starling Pastor roseus
Malabar Whistling Thrush Myophonus horsfieldii
Orange-headed Thrush Geokichla citrina
Indian Blackbird Turdus simillimus
Indian Blue Robin Luscinia brunnea
Oriental Magpie-Robin Copsychus saularis