Forest birds of the coastal belt of Goa

The coastal belt of Goa lies between the Kali river in the south, Teracol river in the north, the Arabian Sea in the west and the mountain ridge of the Western Ghats in the east. It is 120km. between the two rivers and about 40km. from the sea to the foot of the Ghats. The mountains send an arm towards the Arabian Sea in South Goa and hill birds can be found here as far as the coast at Capo de Rama.

Geographically, the area is flatland, with wide estuarine rivers and table-shaped hills and small ridges below 100m. in height. Some of the hills form ridges but these are not always connected to each other or to the Western Ghats. The hills are laterite, an iron-rich weathering product of basalt. This red stone is rich in iron oxides and a large area of Goa’s hills are mined to extract iron ore, which is delivered by boats on the Zoari and Mandovi rivers to the port of Vasco de-Gama, from where it is shipped, mainly to China and Japan. Mining iron ore is the biggest source of income of Goa, more even than tourism, and has many environmental problems associated with it. Much smaller is the laterite stone quarry industry; until recently all the houses in Goa were built out of laterite and old quarries form excellent habitats for birds.

The plateau on the top of these hills does not usually support many trees. Mostly it is open grassland but trees do manage to grow where ever they find place to root. The sides of the hills and the small stream beds coming down them are usually well wooded. The original forest had long since given way to cashew plantations (the famous cashew nut is growing out of the fruit), which are used to produce the local alcohol “feni”. Probably at the peak of the Portuguese era the area was completely covered with cashew. With the years the old form of agriculture died out and many people moved to the city. Natural forest slowly came back and mixed with the cashew trees. The fruit is still harvested In February-March with the cashew collectors first opening paths in the forest to get to the trees. These paths are used by birders, without them, the forest would be inaccessible. To produce the feni, usually on the spot in local square pits dug in the laterite stone for this purpose, collectors need to cut firewood, which has some impact on the forest, in most cases without long term harm. These pits can be seen when wandering around in the forest. The cashew people are tribal and work for local land owners who usually pay them with feni. The natural trees include teak, acacia, karaya, Indian laburnum, Red Coral tree, Flame of the Forest and Fishtail palm. There is plenty of bamboo, but it is probably planted. Fifteen years ago, the forest department undertook a large scale monoculture plantation of Australian acacia. This tree is now dominating once-barren hills and it seeds and spreads into all the forests of south India.

This type of mixed forest, with some heavily-wooded areas and some open patches with grass, is an ideal habitat for birds. Many of these forests border villages, giving birds access to fruiting trees and flowers and most importantly, water. Some of these forests have perennial water streams, but mostly the streams dry up by December. Generally most of the trees lose their leaves by January and by March they start to flower. Some trees, like the Red Silk Cotton, shoot out huge red flowers and from the end of February for about a month they are a feast for drongos, orioles and Chestnut-tailed starlings. Others flower for a very short time just before the monsoon rain. After flowering, the trees fruit and, unless there is some rain during the hot season of April-May, the trees will not leaf before monsoon. Since there are many kinds of trees, fruits are available year round, with some trees giving fruits more than once a year. When the monsoon arrives at the beginning of June, trees shoot out leaves very fast and within a few days of the first serious rain, new grass start to emerge. Soon after that the access roads cleared by the cashew people get overgrown and access to the forest become very limited.

The majority of the forest birds of the coastal belt of Goa are residents. Some, like Black kite, Black drongo and Green bee-eater make short migration during monsoon and only return at the end of August. Others, like the Greenish warbler and Nilgiri Wood and Pompadour Green pigeons, are winter visitors. Summer is noted specially for cuckoos, with Grey-bellied, Banded Bay and Drongo cuckoo arriving in April and Pied when monsoon starts. Places with perennial streams, like the forest that climbs up from the lake at Arambol beach, can attract Malabar Whistling thrush, Brown Wood owl and Oriental Dwarf kingfisher.

September, as far as the weather is concerned, is the best month in Goa. The temperature is ideal and there is less rain. The air is clean and everything is green and beautiful. This is the time for vagrants, but birding is best in wetlands and on the coast. October is similar, but the temperatures rise significantly. November is hot, but by then the rain has stopped completely and the weather normally stays dry until June. December to February is considered to be the best time to bird in Goa generally. By then most of the streams are dry and most trees have lost their leaves, making sighting of birds easier. Birding is not restricted only to the early hours of the day and it is good to spend time in the hot hours near pools that still hold water in the streams. March is blooming time for many trees, with great opportunities for photographers. In Goa birds are not hunted for the pot and with patience you can come relatively close to a flowering tree for stunning photos. From April to early June, the hot season, temperatures do not rise much but humidity is very high, visibility is short and any place without breeze is unpleasant. However, this the best time for birding in the forests of the coastal belt of Goa as the humidity causes the trees to flower and bear fruit. Leaves do not grow unless there is an occasional early ‘mango’ rain, so visibility into the forest is still very good. Although some birds nest year round, most nesting activity take place at this time. Some birds which are very hard to spot during the rest of the year, like the Indian pitta, become suddenly very common and are seen calling everywhere. Water is very scarce, so perennial streams are very active, with good chances for Oriental Dwarf kingfisher. Birding at this time is generally restricted to early morning and late afternoon, but by water activity takes place all day. Gardens bordering forests are particularly good if they have bird baths, with birds bathing in early morning, the middle of the day and about an hour before dark

The most popular forests of the coastal belt of Goa among birdwatchers are Baga hill, Arpora woods, Saligao spring and Arambol. Except for Arambol, these others have become increasingly degraded and have lost most of their special birds due to recent development and (to some extent) over-birding. Yet Goa still has many patches of forests larger and better then these sites but local guides prefer to keep them as a secret. If you have time, drive around and try any patch of forest that looks suitable. You may find a nest of a Changeable Hawk eagle or even a new site for the White-naped woodpecker.

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