Waiting in the wings

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Socorro plateau is deservedly among the many avian-rich hotspots in Goa. During the months of May through October, even an hour spent here can be fruitful for both – a casual birdwatcher and a professional birder.

The rising sun lights up the sky in a silken pastel glow. We are at Socorro plateau, a nearly ten-minute drive from Porvorim in North Goa, and all we can hear is a crackle as we tread on a carpet of dry leaves. In the background, the unmistakable dawn chorus of a hundred different birds. But we cannot quite seem to spot any just yet.

A little past 7.00 a.m., the sun inches higher over the horizon, which, in this case, is the dense foliage that contours the plateau’s edge. The air is cool, and scattered sunlight gradually brings everything into focus. Rahul Alvares, a reputed herpetologist, wildlife photographer and author, is my guide on this trip. He walks around, homing in on thick bushes and training his sight on specific trees.

As if to recognise his efforts, a male purple sunbird flies by, the sun lighting up its iridescent plumage in flashes. It’s our first sighting and although a common one, it’s thrilling to observe the tiny bird with its distinctly slender down-curved beak hovering near an acacia tree. A male oriental magpie-robin, another common species, swoops down before our eyes, giving us ample time to train our binoculars on the black bird for a good glimpse of the distinct flash of white on its wings. He swiftly points to a female oriental magpie-robin on a dry stalk. Its brown plumage is unlike its male counterpart. “It will be there all morning,” says Alvares, who relies on years of experience to literally think like a bird.

Socorro Plateau is productive for birdwatching; the vast scrub grassland is dotted with dry trees and semi-deciduous forest cover along its slopes. On a good day, you can expect to see at least 50 (if not more) avian species within the hour. Not far, along the Mandovi river towards the east, is Chorão Island, home to the Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, which, I’m told, teems with species endemic to the estuarine mangrove habitat.

As the golden hour hits its peak, we spot a noisy flock of jungle babblers sitting low in a thick scrub. These brownish-grey birds with yellow bills live in social groups and are called ‘seven sisters’ in the local language. “Can you see the two dry trees over there?” asks Alvares, no longer speaking in hushed tones. “There’s a black-hooded oriole in the bush just below.” The male is a treat to see, its plumage predominantly yellow with black markings on its head and wings. Perched on a dead tree up ahead, a congregation of overly gregarious male plum-headed parakeets with purple crowns create quite the racket.

He points to another bird in flight. “That’s a male orange-breasted green pigeon. It’s exquisite and rare to spot here.” We get a good look at the bird with its yellowish-green crown and greyish-purple nape with a splotch of orange, as Alvares informs us that they are often found in pairs. Right enough, the female, distinguished by a yellow breast band, flies by. We are soon alerted to the metallic call of the rufous treepie and we spot it roosting on an outcrop in the distance. Conspicuous in its presence, it has a long tail, black head and cinnamon-coloured body. We will see many more of its kind this morning, but most thrilling is when you start to recognise every one of its versatile calls, ranging from throaty to guttural. Our first bird of prey, a handsome Eurasian marsh-harrier soars overhead as we soak in the melodious singsong of a puff-throated babbler. Another predatory bird, this time the brahminy kite, circles above us. Its not very difficult to keep track of this bird with its brilliant white head and breast contrasted by a brick-red body.

Amid all the movement all around us, my eyes fall upon a vibrant green feathered friend — a leafbird — in flight. A few metres away, a yellow-throated sparrow kicks up a dust in the loose mud, while a stubby yellow-vented bulbul flits from tree to tree. Like most experts and avid birdwatchers, Alvares mimics birdcalls to a tee. He alerts me to the high-pitched ‘tik-tik’ trill of the Nilgiri flowerpecker amid the avian cacophony. “You hear that rising crescendo — ‘ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-kik-ki’? That’s the crested hawk-eagle, a medium-large raptor found in forests,” he goes on.

As we walk away from the plateau down a gravel path lined with a handful of local homes, Alvares explains that in this ‘edge habitat’ — where two habitats meet — one is likely to see the maximum number of birds. He’s right. Just when I was wondering how many birds we might have seen, and heard, so far, I get distracted by a new medley of forest birds. A pair of red-vented bulbuls launches into a mellifluous duet atop a tree, while a red-whiskered bulbul, differentiated by a taller crest, wider face and red cheek patch, looks on. “Look there, it’s a black-headed cuckooshrike hopping around on this acacia tree.” We revel in the rare beauty of this slender slate-grey bird.

“That’s a bronzed drongo over there! It has a metallic gloss and a slender, forked tail,” he says, before he points to a female Asian paradise flycatcher flying from one tree to the next. The male, I’m told, is a sight to behold. It comes with elongated tail feathers and a glossy bluish-black crest. While shorter-tailed with cinnamon upperparts and a grey throat, the female we’re observing is no less stunning. “This situation right here, when a bunch of different birds move together while foraging, is called a hunting party or a mixed-species foraging flock,” remarks Alvares. Further down the winding path, a white-bellied drongo is perched on a small branch. “White-naped woodpecker climbing up the trunk! Can you see the red crest and yellow plumage with black markings?” It’s rare to get a good, long look at this bird, he says, as we marvel at its crimson crown and crest.

A pair of peahens boldly struts across the path. The shy birds become aware of our presence and swiftly disappear into the thicket. Alvares announces that he’s spotted a white-cheeked barbet. “Look at that branch sticking out, but look at the tree behind it.” I cannot seem to spot the bird for a good ten minutes, so he goes on to shoot a photo of it. It’s a beautiful, small green bird, and I long to catch an actual glimpse of it. “The reason he’s sitting there is because his nest is probably in a nearby trunk. It’s a tricky bird that your eye refuses to see,” he assures me, “but once you see it, you cannot miss it!” A few minutes pass, and I finally catch a momentary glimpse of the barbet disappearing into its nest in the hole of a tree trunk right above our heads. When it emerges, the plumy bird with a distinct white cheek stripe is now well within my sight. As Alvares puts it, it’s a sighting that’s always worth the time and effort.

For a passionate, although relatively new, birdwatcher like me, there’s nothing quite like seeing nature unfold before your eyes. Spotting this elusive bird made for a fitting end to the trip. At a time when much of the world’s forest are being threatened, a birdwatching jaunt such as this might serve as a potent reminder to look up and pay heed.  

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