I love Goa.
Having said that, the one time of the year that I am least inclined to visit is – surprisingly – during Christmas.
Packed with tourists, with traffic snarls that make Mumbai look like a sleepy village, it’s definitely not the season for a person looking for peace and quiet.
The real clincher here are the air ticket prices that tend to go through the roof in the holiday season.
Earlier in the year, I was booking my flights for a college reunion when, purely out of curiosity, I looked up the prices of Goa flights for the weekend leading up to Christmas. They happened to be unusually cheap and so, despite my reservations, I booked tickets from the 20th to the 23rd of December.
The little matter of achieving ‘peace and quiet’ was taken care of when Leio D’Souza, a birding guide, suggested an over night trip to Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary.
Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary
Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the South East of Goa. It covers 211 sq. Km and named after the Netravali or Neturli River, an important tributary of the Zuari River, that takes its origin from within the sanctuary.
It is contigous with the Bhagwan Mahaveer & Mollem National Park and the Madei Wildlife sanctuary to the North, the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary to the South and the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve in Karnataka to the East.
Together they form part of the awe-inspiring ‘Western Corridor’ that runs along most of the south-west coast of India and has long been recognised as one of the most biologically diverse locations on the planet!
Netravali is a good 3 hour drive from Calangute and we left early on the 21st morning. A quick roadside breakfast at the Sanctuary Gates and it was on with the birding!
The dense forest restricts visibility. It was only when we parked and walked through the jungle on a narrow path that led to the edge of the forest that we were actually able to appreciate the elevation of our location and the mountainous terrain. (The panorama taken on my iPhone below was taken from that point).
One of our target species was the Indian Scimitar Babbler.
We followed the bird’s calls in the vegetation by the side of the road and for about an hour or so enjoyed fleeting sightings of a pair of these birds as they moved from branch to branch within the bushes and trees.
At times like these the presence of an experienced guide makes all the difference in determining the number of species sighted.
Like I said, the jungle here is dense. Described by Wikipedia as ‘moist deciduous vegetation interspersed with evergreen and semi-evergreen habitat’, from a photographer’s perspective it can be quite frustrating to get a clear image without having intervening branches or leaves screw it up!
Aangan Village Stay
We were to stay in the Verlem village homestay that was organised by the Verlem Eco-tourism Co-operative Society.
Earlier in the year I was in Nagaland where we were also put up in ‘homestays’. It’s a great concept that seems to be catching on in a number of sanctuaries around India where villagers will let out rooms in their homes to tourists. It’s really a win-win situation all round.
Guests get to stay in traditional villages located within the sanctuaries. Not only are they superbly located in the middle of the ‘action’, they also get a unique first hand taste of local culture and cuisine that is often relatively unchanged over several generations.
For the local population it is an additional source of income and it also makes it worth their while to respect the ecology of the region. In Nagaland for instance, hunting was, for decades, a way of life. Now that they depend on wildlife tourists and birders for part of their income they go out of their way to protect rather than kill. Being hunters they have an excellent knowledge of the jungle and so are naturals as guides and spotters.
Verlem is a small Goan village inside the park boundaries about a 15 minute drive from the main gates. The houses, built on the slope of a hill, and are barely visible from the road thanks to the dense vegetation that surround them.
Each structure has typical mud plastered walls with tiled roofs. The room in the home allocated to me (shown below) had mud floors as well bringing back memories of some of the older rooms of my own ancestral home in Calangute when I was a boy.
Toilets were outside the house and complete with running water, english-style commode and flush. Despite being rustic, all the facilities were spotlessly clean.
Meals were pure vegetarian and well prepared with unusual items like raw jackfruit curry, crumb fried bananas and chapattis made of rice flour.
Post lunch, after an hour’s snooze we took off for the evening session of birding. We saw quite a few of species. A number of warblers (greenish, Syke’s, Blyth’s reed and western crowned), little spider hunter, little sunbird, Malabar trogon, black eagle and scimitar babbler to name a few off the top of my head.
The other species we were hoping to see – and hopefully photograph – was the rufous babbler. This bird is endemic to the region. Like other babblers they tend to run in flocks and were known to frequent some bushes along the road.
We had tried unsuccessfully during the morning session to spot them and went back to the area just before sun down to try our luck again.
This time we hit the jackpot!
We counted about eight birds that moved between the bushes on either side of the road. It was wonderful sighting them but from a photography point of view it was one of the more frustrating sessions of birding! They just did not stay still and rarely came out into the open. When they did come out it was for a few seconds only before diving back into the bushes!
Despite the fact that they were all around us and reasonably close, the image below is all I have to show for 45 minutes of effort!
The birding was done by car to cover more ground.
We’d either stop and scout an area that was known to have a high bird density or drive slowly till we spot some activity or hear an interesting bird call.
Back ‘home’ it was time for a quick shower and battery charge before heading for diner. It was here that I found an unusual use for the camera (image below)…!
Once I got the battery charging it was time to freshen up for diner. The bathroom was unique.
It was a standalone enclosure behind the house, about 20 x 15 ft., with walls made of sticks and covered by a tiled roof. Hot water was provided by a large copper urn that dominated the centre of the room and heated by a wood fire fed by logs that were neatly stacked along the entire length of the wall on the right. A 4 x 4 ft. mori, or concrete bathing platform at the far end of the room with a cold water tap and a bucket was where one bathed.
We got our early the next morning before sunrise hoping to catch some of the ‘night life’ including nightjars and owls.
A grey nightjar in the middle of the road brought us to a screeching halt. The bird flew up onto one of the electricity wires and we got out hoping to get a better sighting.
It was still pitch dark and, using a torch, Leio scanned the surrounding jungle. The nightjar had disappeared but the calls of a pair of frogmouths from either side of the road and, from deeper in the jungle, a Malabar flying squirrel kept us interested.
A strange sound at ground level made him dip the beam downwards.
Barely 10 feet away a porcupine stared back at the beam for a few seconds before turning around and trotting away down the road, its quills splayed out in alarm.
Who was more startled – us or the porcupine – is still a matter for debate. What was certain, however, was the effect the incident had on our adrenaline levels for the rest of the morning!
We first drove towards the park gates and on the way got the image of the female blue capped rock thrush below.
At the park gates we halted for a while where we chatted with the RFO who was just back from his morning walk. He pointed us to a pair or Malabar pied hornbills one of which is seen below.
I have already started on my second volume of ‘Chronicles of a Goan Birder’. The first included close to 200 species of birds. Goa boasts of almost 450 species so I had my work cut out to even come close to that figure!
The fact that I have tried to restrict the books to ‘nice’ images taken on my trips in and around Goa makes it all the more difficult.
There are some ‘common’ birds missing from the list. One of them is the small sunbird or crimson-backed sunbird. I’m happy to say that not only did I get a nice image of the bird, I also got an image of its nest with a chick. (I did try to get the parent on the nest but it was not to be. Ah, well…that’s life.)
Another ‘common’ bird that got ticked off the list was the little spiderhunter.
Apart from the birding, which was great and included a number of lifers, the butterflies in this area are awesome! I have never seen so many Southern birdwings in my live. There was this one instance that we counted 4 of them in the same stretch of jungle!
It was a great trip and we got plenty of sightings and images including several ‘lifers’. The unique experience of staying with the friendly people of Verlem was an unexpected bonus, and for me, it was their natural and unpretentious hospitality that made the trip truly memorable.
Now if only their ‘big city’ counterparts could be coaxed into taking a leaf from their book and bring traditional Indian hospitality and culture back into urban India.