I travel to Goa once a month.
The official reason is to maintain my ancestral property and, to offer a convenient option for my Goa-based patients for post-operative visits.
This arrangement is great because it also allows me to indulge in my hobby of bird and wildlife photography, apart, of course, from the opportunity to simply be in Goa!
Truth be told, official and incidental reasons are quite interchangeable!
My farmhouse in Goa is situated in an area that is known for bird watching so most of my birding needs are satisfied right here in my backyard.
There is this one tall evergreen tree at the far end of the yard that stands head and shoulders above all the others. Both in its stature as well as in its ability to attract birds.
I’m not quite sure of its origin. I think my Dad planted it somewhere in the late ‘90s when the farmhouse was being built. I remember it as a tiny runt of a plant then, a far cry from the imposing, shady tree it is now.
It’s commonly known as the Gunpowder tree and its botanical name is Trema orientalis.
It is also known as the Indian Charcoal tree or Pigeon Wood tree. (Credit for the identification of this tree goes to Dr. Neil Soares, M.D. and wildlife enthusiast. He’s my go-to person whenever I have difficulty with identification. And his knowledge on anything from plants to butterflies to birds and animals is incredible and never fails to amaze.)
The tree flowers intermittently from late monsoon to well into summer. The flowers give way to clumps of tiny green berries that grow profusely on its branches and birds can’t seem to get enough of the fruit.
This Sunday morning the tree is in its element! It’s packed with birds!!
I arrive at the farmhouse at about 7.45am, and, as is my usual practice, I leave my camera bag and other paraphernalia in the car. Taking only the camera, I do a quiet recce around to the back of the house.
This little exercise almost always throws up something exciting; a bunch of peacocks roosting on the roof, a Bhraminy kite perched atop a nearby palm, a snake coiled in the grill outside my back door.
Today was no exception. There must have been at least 10-15 golden orioles perched on the bare tree on the adjoining property!
By the time I got the camera ready most of the birds flew away. The two that stayed however, were more than willing to pose while I clicked away!
At present I have a Canon EOS 7D DSLR camera body and for birding I use a Sigma 150-500mm OS lens. I know of a few serious birders who turn their noses up at this lens. In its defense I must say it’s given me some pretty decent images especially when the light’s been optimal. (Having said that and having used the lens for almost two years now, I do feel the time is fast approaching to upgrade and move on. Suggestions are welcome!)
8.05am: Time to unlock (cautiously; remember the python in the grill?!) and unpack. Laptop, card reader, memory cards, spare battery, macro and wide angle lenses are all laid out on the dining table for instant use before I step outside.
By 8.20am I’m all set.
I’m seated just outside my house and directly facing the gunpowder tree where most of the action seems to be taking place. I’ve a cup of coffee at my side and the camera mounted on a tripod in front. (And, thanks to the coffee maker left behind by my Cousin on her last trip it’s genuine South Indian filter coffee I’m sipping!)
Sitting out here the sense of peace is indescribable.
It’s February and still chilly. A heady aroma from a mixture of wood smoke and garden flowers fills the air.
From this high vantage point looking over the garden shrubbery towards the bottom of the hillI I can see a few peafowl grazing in the paddy fields which are still covered in places with wisps of early morning mist. Looking past the fields are dense plantations of palm trees, interspersed with the occasional house, church or chapel. And finally beyond the trees is the ocean, a thin sliver of blue before it merges with the horizon.
The only sounds are those of the wind in the trees and the chirping of birds.
In a matter of minutes, the stresses of everyday life, suffering patients, trafficated roads, you name it, begin to fade away. Between sips of coffee and intermittent bursts of the camera in motor drive I’m one happy trooper!
And it’s on with the show! The stars of today are undoubtedly the Orioles. Normally they are only occasional visitors. Today they are here in hoards!
It’s funny how nature spaces out her gifts, never revealing all at one time. Each trip has something different. Some species will suddenly show up in numbers on a particular outing having presented only the odd sighting both before and on subsequent visits.
On my last trip here the gunpowder tree was chocker block with Pompadour green pigeons and Nilgiri wood pigeons! And for once they were not shy of me, allowing me to get quite close without flying away!
Gorging on the fruit of the gunpowder tree on this particular Sunday morning, are an amazing arrays of birds.
Bird species that I can identify include a number of bulbul species including Red whiskered bulbul, Red vented bulbul, White browed bulbul and, the near endangered, Grey headed bulbul.
Other species include Purple sunbird, Loten’s sunbird, Tickell’s blue flycatcher, Asian paradise flycatcher (female), Indian golden oriole, Black hooded oriole, White cheeked barbet, Black headed cuckoo shrike, Orange-breasted thrush, Black throated munia, Ashy pirnia, Indian Robin, Magpie Robin and Ashy Drongo.
As I sit quietly barely 30 yards away, the birds don’t seem to mind my presence.
At any given time there are, without exaggeration, over a hundred birds populating the tree. All totally driven by one aim, and one aim alone: getting in as many berries as possible!
Which leaves me with one major problem. That of trying to figure out which part of the tree to concentrate on so as not to miss a sighting or photo opportunity!
All of a sudden there is a flurry of wings. All the birds fly out of the tree in a panic. Something or someone has spooked them. Was it me reaching for my coffee I wonder? Seconds later a Shikra swoops out of the sky and alights onto a nearby cotton tree. I get a few shots off between branches before it flies away.
From a photography point of view, shooting into a shady tree has its drawbacks. I often find myself shifting to manual mode, from my preferred aperture priority mode to improve my ‘keepers’. Although I must say that some of the birds are quite accommodating.
Like this drongo above who posed in the open before diving into tree to feast. Or the Loten’s sunbird below.
Photo opportunities are also to be had when birds hop over to the birdbath I keep at the foot of the tree. (This present birdbath is a make shift arrangement as the original cement one was broken, probably tipped over by an over weight peacock!) This Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher below does not seem to mind.
A pair of Indian Robins decided to try the non-vegetarian fare and hopped down to the ground to feast on worms and insects!
Occasionally I’d take the camera off the tripod to shoot a raptor in the sky like this Bhraminy Kite I took on a previous trip…
…or an insect or butterfly would catch my fancy and I’d grab the macro lens to make the shot. The wasp below was dragging a large dead spider into a hole in the ground (its nest perhaps?).
And so the morning wears on and time flies! Before I know it I’ve run through two memory cards, changed my battery once, gone through two cups of coffee and done a few short trips down the driveway in an attempt to get the elusive fantails that I spotted when driving in. Thanks to which I have over a thousand images waiting to be edited on the laptop.
Like I said before…Heaven!
Sitting here in this serene and peaceful setting I feel close to God. Privileged to have been given a grandstand seat to watch these beautiful creatures interact. So much so I almost feel guilty for even the intrusion caused by the clicks of my camera!
And then, out of the blue, a reality check!
I hear the ominous rumble of buses on the road at the foot of the hill. Minutes later the silence is shattered by loudspeakers in an amplified, prayerful roar.
Shards of high-pitched reverent screams rip into the peace shredding it into a memory and I realise it’s my cue to pack up and move on.
And while doing so I can’t help but wonder which end of the decibel scale it is that truely gets one closer to God.