Friday, 12, May, 2023.
7.30am. A short while ago I had brewed my coffee, unlocked the door leading to the backyard, placed the binoculars and coffee mug on the garden table, set the camera and tripod besides me and, after checking the exposure settings, lowered myself into one the chairs that gave me the best view of the Malabar silk cotton trees, the fruiting wild fig tree and the bird baths at the far end of the lawn.
I’m not sure Joe Seth, my English school teacher, would have approved of that lengthy opening sentence but that’s exactly the way it happened!
It is a sequence that has remained unaltered for 15 years. What has changed considerably though, is the overall experience.
For one, the old Canon 7D and 150-500mm Sigma lens have long since been put to pasture. The backyard too has been relatively spruced and the scorpions, tarantula spiders, and swarms of angry red ants that had a special affinity for my feet have disappeared.
More pertinent to this piece are the excitement levels during these sessions. What began as thunderstorms of released adrenaline, (the impending monsoons may have played a part in my choice of analogy), have now petered into a pleasant but mild drizzle.
Don’t get me wrong. During the entire week I’ve been here there has been no dearth of backyard ‘action’ and I got quite an impressive number of bird sightings.
Some are common and I will see them almost on every trip. Like the Indian golden orioles, black-hooded orioles, orange-headed thrush, red-whiskered bulbuls, white-browed bulbuls, red-vented bulbuls, black drongos, puff-throated babblers, jungle babblers, Jerdon’s and golden-fronted leafbirds, bhrahminy kites, black kites, shikra, purple and purple-rumped sunbirds, white-cheeked and coppersmith barbets, Asian koels, white-rumped munias, common tailor birds, grey-breasted prinias, small minivets, southern coucal, rufous treepie, peacocks, baya weaverbirds, common crows, jungle crows, spotted doves, great egret, little egret, cattle egret, Tickell’s flycatcher, spot-breasted fantail, white-breasted kingfisher, oriental magpie robin, Indian robin and red-rumped swallows.
Others, like the Lesser goldenback woodpecker, racket-tailed drongos, tawny-bellied babblers, plum-headed parakeets, nilgiri flowerpeckers, black-headed cuckooshrike, blue-faced malkoha and jungle mynas are not regular visitors but I have see them fairly often on my previous trips as well and have loads of images to show for it.
And so, more often than not, I found myself casually reaching for my binoculars as opposed to rushing to the camera to get a shot.
Of course there are some birds that I just love to photograph no matter how many images I have of the species, like the white-spotted fantail flycatcher below. These are hyperactive little birds and getting an image of them with the tail fanned, the wings open and everything from the eyes to the tail in focus can be pretty challenging!
A couple of years ago I’d average 2 to 3 thousand images per weekend visit to Goa. On this week-long trip I barely crept over 400.
Having recently retired, a huge part of me craves to spend more time in Goa. The one niggling apprehension – to continue the analogy – is a drought. And as I settled in my chair that Friday morning I prayed for a sign to help me decide.
Over the course of the day I was to get, not one, but several signs, although the jury is still out as to whether they would culminate into a universally acceptable decision. Sounds cryptic, yes? Bear with me and you be the judge…
The pioneer butterfly below was the first of those signs. The last time I saw one at the farmhouse was close to 10 years ago!
There were plenty of birds around but a large bird that flew into the bushes adjoining the fruiting fig tree caught my eye. There was something very different about this one… different enough for me to ignore the binoculars and quietly move to the camera. I could see it moving in the bushes but only managed to identify it when it flew onto a branch of the silk cotton tree. An Indian Grey hornbill!
This was my first ever sighting of a grey hornbill at my property! This one had a casque (the extension on top of the beak) suggesting that it was an Indian grey hornbill instead of the endemic Malabar grey hornbill that does not have a casque.
By mid-morning the May heat began to make its presence felt and the bird sightings became few and far between. The steady stream of mongrel dogs looking to quench their thirst at the birdbaths was my cue to wind up this session and go indoors.
I was watching a movie on my laptop to kill time before lunch when Vanessa shook my arm and whispered in alarm: “Someone is trying to break into the house!”
Taking my headphones off I could heard it too… someone was rattling away at one of the windows. Grabbing my koita (a Goan machete) we nervously tiptoed to the hall fearful of what we would see.
A jungle babbler was pecking away furiously at its reflection in one of the window panes!
Lunch was at a popular Goan restaurant. Rawa masala chonak (batter fried fillets of barramundi), goa prawn curry, batter fried xinanio (mussels) washed down with a couple of stiff margaritas. (Bartenders in Goa tend to be delightfully heavy-handed when it comes to pouring alcohol.) For desert we shared a gadbad (I have done a blog on this refreshing South Indian dessert). The food was another factor that needs consideration when deciding on how much time to spend in Goa. In Mumbai we are very particular on what we have for our meals. Alcohol too is restricted to weekends and social events. In Goa these rules get pitched over the balcao!
Returning back from lunch our resident juvenile monitor lizard was sunning himself outside the front door. This guy has no fear of people. His favourite basking spot is on the edge of the roof just over the front door. It was a bit creepy at first but over the course of the week we’ve kind of got used to him.
We were well into our afternoon siesta, (the next logical step after a Goan meal), when the peace was shattered by a god-awful noise that appeared to be coming from the roof at the back of the house. My initial impression was it was caused by peacocks who play havoc into our tiles. I ran out with the camera expecting to get a few image of our National bird. Instead this Malabar pied hornbill came streaking out from behind the house and perched on the flame of the forest tree in the backyard! He was followed by the female a few moments later.
A pair of them have been visiting our place over the past few days. I have never seen Malabar pied hornbills on the property prior to this trip and was thrilled to see them. I suspect they either had a nest in the vicinity or were looking for a place to build one.
With all that released adrenaline yet to stabilize, continuing my siesta was out of the question and I pulled out the memory cards from the two cameras to download the images to my computer.
While fetching the cables and card readers from a table near the window I spotted a large snake outside between the car and the garage. Unfortunately none of the cameras has memory cards and by the time I inserted one the reptile was no longer visible from the window.
I quietly made my way to the front of the house and just about managed to catch a glimpse of the snake slithering into the shrubbery beyond the back of the house.
I was curious to know where the snake came from and went through the footage from the CCTV camera covering the front door. The snake had fallen from the roof and spent a few moments apparently dazed on the driveway before it spotted me and disappeared into the forest.
Could it be that the hornbills had earlier attacked the snake initiating the sequence of events? We’ll never know for sure!
Once I downloaded all my images it was a little past 4pm. I glanced out at the backyard with every intention catching up on my interrupted siesta. The siesta never happened.
The birds were out in numbers at the water bowls. Red-whiskered, red-rumped and white-browed bulbuls. Puff-throated and tawny-bellied babblers. Jungle babblers. Jerdon’s and golden-fronted leafbirds. Greater coucals and rufous treepies. White-rumped munias and spotted doves. Tickell’s flycatchers and white-rumped munias.
Apart from these common ones there was one that made my hair stand on end and I needed the binoculars to confirm my suspicions – my very first sighting of an Indian scimitar babbler at the farmhouse! How cool was that! For me personally this had to be the sighting of the year!!
That evening the gardener saw the snake again. It was on the roof again and climbed onto a nearby cashew tree before making a getaway into the forest. On returning from dinner later that night our headlights caught a field mouse running up the farmhouse walls into the roof. These rodents often raise their babies under the tiles or in cracks in the laterite stone walls. It could explain why the snake was here.
Our farmhouse walls and roof seemed to have its own private little eco-system that by all account was vibrant and flourishing!
My prayers for a sign were answered. Any doubts on the ability of the farmhouse to provide sustained levels of excitement were completely blown away. The big questions was would these signs convince me to keep coming here more often?
I am absolutely certain on my answer to that.
I do wonder if it will be the same as yours!
Lalit Manaktala says
Snakes and lizards and unusual babblers, what a fascinating write up! Joe Sheth would be so proud…
Thanks Lalit! When I write I often picture Joe Seth in his inimitable, highly animated way yelling: “Keep it brief! Keep it simple!!”
Gia Maria says
Very cool Dr Saab!!
Anil Gadre says
Nice! Glad to see that the wildlife there is alive and well and not harmed.
Thanks Anil. On a lighter note… in Goa, the term wildlife is used quite loosely and can often include some two legged species as well.
Vinay Pande says
A fascinating account Dr Saheb! Please keep going to Goa and keep up your journal. The next time I go to Goa I will make sure you are there.
Thanks Vinay… Look forward to that!
Shridhar Bharatan says
This is one of your best yet. Always look forward to your next adventure!
An absolute treat to read ,savour and vividly imagine. Blissful verdant Goa in your backyard, what more could one ask for Senhor. Your keen eye & prose akin to the Indian babbler makes music to one’s ears.
Viva Goa . Next time round, swirl the Urak , sio the Feni, savour the fish enjoy the ssun, surf & sand & have fun. Cheers mate🥃 You have lively, charming Venessa by your side to check & balance.
Thanks Trevor… well said!
Goa definitely Ian
Ha ha, Cedric… wouldn’t dream of any other option!
Great pictures. Lucid write up. You may have made many contemplate retirement!
Ha ha, thanks Avinash! I’m enjoying every minute… so far!!
Luis deSouza says
Oh! What a wonderful read. Thank you!
This brought back memories of my youth surrounded by such a wealth of wildlife. Now in the U.K. I just look at photos in Salim Ali’s books.
I have tried to rewild our setup here planting trees and putting up nest boxes.
Now we have a resident muntjac.
Thanks Luis! So glad you liked it. Wow, a resident muntjac speaks volumes for the respect you have shown to your surroundings. Good luck to you!
Glenn Saldanha says
Go with the flow Mate – when the mood takes you go or come whichever way one is – you have certainly earned it and those of us who haven’t reached there will have one more reason to be happy if not also envious of you enjoying your many passions – thank you for taking us along the ride
Thanks Glenn! Ha Ha… you have hit one of my two retirement mantras… “Go with the flow” and “It is what it is”! 😀
Santosh Kolwankar says
Wonderful read Dr Ian . Thanks for sharing 🙏
Dr Seeru Garg says
Sir, your backyard is akin to Discovery channel!
Absolutely amazing nature photography and write up of course! Love reading your posts.
Ha Ha, thanks Seeru! So glad that you liked it, but let me tell you… every backyard in rural India will have similar stories to tell… all that is required from our side is the willingness and time to read them!