Taking advantage of the long Republic Day weekend, Vanessa and I decided to visit Goa. Anxious to do a bit of birding, I made a few enquiries and one of the names that came up was that of Leio D’Souza.
Leio is the resident birder at the Backwoods Camp resort located in the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park. This is a 240 square kilometres sanctuary located in Goa in the Western Ghats along its eastern border adjoining Karnataka.
Backwoods Camp is a two-hour journey from Calangute where we were based, and the plan was to leave Calangute early in the morning (in time to catch the mornings birding), spend the night at the resort and after a short session of birding the following morning, return after breakfast.
We did leave on time, but half an hour into the journey I realized I forgot my wallet and had to turn back. Needless to say by the time we arrived Leio had already left with the birding group for the morning session!
Thanks to Google maps we were directed unerringly to within a kilometer of the area till the maps ‘lady’ announced that we had arrived at our destination. Duh?! Looking around there was only jungle.
Those of you travelling on your own be warned. The camp itself is well off the main road and there are absolutely no signs directing you there.
A kilometer or so off the main road, and thanks to directions from ever-helpful local residents, we reached the camp. The only confirmation that you have arrived is a gate with a board that says ‘Backwood Camp’. Apart from the gate there is no sign of habitation…only dense jungle.
One has to walk along a cobbled stone path for about 100 metres, (again, through dense jungle,) to reach the main house were we were eventually given our room. The room itself was clean but basic with attached bath. There is no running hot water (but is provided in a bucked on request). We were told that there were cottages but we did not see them. The food is local but simple.
Backwoods camp is strictly for birders! There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING else to do here! Vanessa who is definitely not a birder, will vouch for this. In spades! But… if you happen to be into birding… then this place is the closest to heaven that you are ever likely to get while here on earth!
Sandeep, one of Leio’s assistants, met us at the gate.
As we were preparing to unload and carry our bags to the house Sandeep suddenly stopped, cocked his ears towards the jungle and then asked me if I wanted to see a Malabar Trogon. I guess he took the way my eyes lit up for a ‘yes’ for without waiting for a reply set off towards the direction from which he heard the bird call.
Earlier, the morning birding party (whose session we had missed) had attempted, unsuccessfully, to sight the Trogon.
We kept our bags in the car, hurriedly assembled the camera and quietly followed him.
Moments later Sandeep froze and then excitedly pointed out to a branch in the jungle. It took me a few minutes before I got my very first sighting of a male Malabar Trogon! A little later I got a snap shot of a female as well.
From then on there was no looking back!
We decide to leave our stuff in the car and drove back to catch the tail end of the morning birding session with Leio and the rest of the birders. Just in time to get a nice sighting of a Malabar Pied hornbill.
Back to the house we dumped our bags in the hall cum dining room as our allotted room would only be vacated by noon. Four large windows gave one a great view of the surrounding forest and a couple of birdbaths outside ensured a constant view of a number of birds including flame-throated bulbuls, yellow-browed bulbuls and dark-fronted babblers to name a few.
The walls of the house were adorned with beautifully framed images of a variety of birds taken in and around the property. Just outside the house a Malabar giant squirrel presented a great photo opportunity. Unfortunately the 500mm + 1.4 TC prevented me from fully framing the beautiful creature!
By now it was early afternoon and a great time for a beer.
I had time for one large, satisfying swig of the chilled brew when we received news that an Indian Pitta was spotted feeding in the backyard of a neighboring house.
Major decision to be made: enjoy the beer and ignore the Pitta or dump the beer and rush…
No contest! We grabbed our cameras and binoculars and rushed to the spot. Carefully making our way through the gate and past the side of the house to the backyard. No luck. The bird had disappeared. After a search of the surrounding jungle we turned back. The now lukewarm beer offering little consolation for the dud run!
That afternoon Sandeep offered to take me to try and spot a couple resident Sri Lanka Frogmouths. These birds feed at night and rest during the day. Picking up the camera I followed him first along the path and then into the thick jungle. Shortly thereafter he stopped suddenly and pointed out to a bush. I swear this guy has the eyes of a hawk! It took me several minutes to spot the birds. They were quite close. A pair of them. Deep in the bushes, well camouflaged by leaves with only a part of one bird’s head visible. I took a few shots but was determined to come back the next day in the hope of a better sighting.
One of the main reasons for this trip was to spot and, if possible, get a nice shot of a blue-eared kingfisher.
This is an uncommon species of kingfisher and one had been regularly spotted feeding in a creek near the entrance to the Tambdi Surla Temple (a kilometer away from camp) and could be viewed from an overhead bridge. That afternoon we decided to go there and try and spot the bird. Unfortunately, news of the bird’s existence had spread and, a number of birders were already on the scene, some had even positioned themselves at the foot of the bridge very near the spot that the bird usually perched hoping to get a closer look or shot. Which was counter-productive as the bird just did not show up.
In its place there was a basking checkered keelback snake. Here too the 500mm with 1.4TC prevented me from fully framing the entire reptile.
So… no Indian pitta or blue-eared kingfisher today…Ah well that’s life!
I did get some great shots of Malabar grey hornbill, velvet-fronted nuthatch, heart-spotted woodpecker and green bee-eater though.
Returning home we got news that the pitta had returned and was feeding in the backyard! By now we were wondering if this was a ‘cry wolf’ scenario but decided to check it out anyway.
It was dusk. Making our way carefully through the now familiar front yard and past the side of the house we reached the backyard.
The woman of the house had sprinkled some cooked rice to entice the bird. This time it was there, barely visible in the fading light, hopping behind the bushes, pecking at the rice grains, slowly making its way towards us. A few plastic chairs and we got ourselves a grandstand setting to view the elusive specimen! I eventually managed to get off a few shots in the near darkness. The new Canon 7D MkII proving its worth at an ISO setting of 10000…handheld!!
A simple, and early, dinner and it was off to bed and up before dawn. Coffee and biscuits at 6.30am and on the road at 6.45am.
While having my coffee Sandeep came up to me and informed me that there was a whistling thrush near the kitchen. It was near pitch dark and all that could be seen was a silloutte of the bird (forget about photographing it!), but the sheer enthusiasm of the staff including that of Leio himself when it came to birding was refreshing!
We decided to try for the Blue eared kingfisher first. It was early in the morning and the place should be deserted.
Right enough, there it was sitting on a rock by the water! I managed to get off a whole bunch of shots but the low light and the fact that I was shooting handheld meant that most of the images were not sharp. I’m still kicking myself for not carrying the tripod!
A whistling thrush flew in noisily and temporarily spooked the kingfisher and I got my images of that bird as well!
On the way back we did see a variety of birds including a shikra, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Flame-throated bulbuls, Spangled drongo, Ashy drongo, Racquet tailed drongo, Brown headed barbet and Malabar barbet.
Back at camp and just before breakfast I requested Sandeep to take me to see if we could spot the Frogmouths. Back through the forest we went and this time around I got some great images of the two ‘lovebirds’!
An added bonus was this Malabar trogon that posed for me on the way back!
On our return journey Leio decided to ride back with us. On the way he wondered if I would be interested in taking a slight detour to try and sight an oriental dwarf kingfisher that was occasionally spotted in one of the ravines.
Would I be interested? Hell, YES!!!
We took the detour and on a hilly road he asked me to park on a slope off the road. The dense jungle rose steeply to our left and fell away into a wooded ravine on the right.
By now Vanessa had had her fill of birding and decided to sit it out in the car.
Leio walked slowly along the edge of the road down the slope scanning the wooded ravine. The jungle was dense and visibility was very limited and I was skeptical that we would spot anything at all.
Irrespective of whether or not we got a sighting, this had been one hell of a weekend. I had a number of firsts and some really great images to show for it.
I was determined to return. There was so much more to see and I also needed to replace my soft images of the blue-eared kingfisher with sharper ones!
Leio decided to make one more recce up and down the slope. By now I had reconciled myself to the fact that my first sighting of the elusive ODKF was not going to be in the immediate future and I busied myself shooting a bunch of Flame throated bulbuls and Yellow browed bulbuls on a nearby tree.
And then Leio hissed in excitement gesturing frantically for me to come over!
How he managed to spot this tiny bird in the middle of the forest vegetation is still beyond me.
Despite his agitated directions it took me minutes to locate it.
Perched on a vine in a beam of sunlight and looking more like a small, bright red flower was one of the most beautiful birds I have every seen.
I have seen a number of images of this bird but none of them have ever done justice to what I was looking at. So many vibrant colours in such a tiny creature can only be seen in real life to be truly apreciated! And in such a beautiful setting! Pure magic!!
Leio rushed to call Vanessa to view it through her binoculars while I clicked away. Again most of my shots were handheld as the tripod and Gimbal were packed away! Drat!!
And that, in a nutshell, was one of the most awesome birding weekends I have ever done!
Back home in Calangute, as if not to be outdone I got a few nice shots in my own backyard including this early morning one of a white male asian paradise-flycatcher before catching the evening flight back to Mumbai.
Without a doubt: I will be back!