Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Down the Western Ghats

From Mumbai I took the road down the west coast of southern India, through a range of hills and mountains known as the Western Ghats. I was heading for the State of Goa, a popular tourist region some 500 km to the south of Mumbai. While staying at the hostel in Mumbai, practically everyone I met there had either just arrived from Goa or where on their way there. So I just had to see for myself what this place was about!

On the way south after leaving Mumbai.

Occasionally locals would be very keen for a chat.

Like in South Africa, traffic is left-sided in India so for the first time I was not cycling on the right side - it felt both strange and normal at the same time! Despite the intensity of the traffic in India, it felt surprisingly safe. Almost every vehicle coming up from behind would horn before passing, so there were few heart-stopping surprises. 

The birds rolled in by the dozen, and I fairly quickly ticked off the most common roadside species, such as Coppersmith Barbet, Jungle Myna, Red-Whiskered Bulbul, and Streak-throated Swallow around bridges over rivers. I was lucky to spot a Red-naped Ibis by chance during a random stop beside the road. Other typical road side species that where no longer new to me included White-throated Kingfisher, Purple Sunbird, Red-vented Bulbul, Indian Roller, Indian Pond Heron, Cattle Egret, and Indian Jungle Crow. 

Water Buffalo trotting down the road.

A Jungle Myna, the most common myna in the Western Ghats, India.

I could not resist taking this picture.

A truck getting a wash down in a river.

There was no shortage of new species, and I was seeing anything between five to ten new species a day. I would start each morning with some birding for a couple hours around my camp site, before tackling the day’s cycle. I must admit it was a little over-whelming the first few days, with so many new species appearing around every bush and tree. And I was still just seeing the typical species of the Indian countryside! Wooded areas held White-bellied Drongo, Common Iora, Small Minivet, Black-hooded Oriole, Indian Blackbird, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Common Woodshrike, White-cheeked Barbet, Brown-headed Barbet, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Grey-breasted Prinia, and Yellow-crowned Woodpecker. Birds that also occupied disturbed habitats and clearings included Spotted Dove, Southern Coucal, Indian Robin, and White-browed Wagtail.  My first Brahminy Kite caused a lot of excitement, and while they were a common sight thereafter, they were always great to see. I was also hugely surprised to see a pair of Malabar Pied Hornbills, a species with a limited distribution in south western India. 

White-bellied Drongo, a fairly common woodland species.

A White-spotted Fantail.

A splendid Brahminy Kite, with bright rufous tail and wings.

Closer to Goa more lifers awaited in the form of Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Jungle Babbler, Nilgiri Flowerpecker, Pied Bushchat, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Purple-rumped Sunbird, White-spotted Fantail, Golden-fronted and Gerdon's Leafbirds, and the very elegant River Tern. I reached Goa's border on the seventh day; it was all a bit rushed so I potentially missed out on some really good birding along the way. I headed for the city of Mapusa and then on to Calangute Beach, which I discovered was packed with foreigners. The last time I had seen so many foreigners in one location was at Dalyan in south western Turkey. To escape the crowds I headed a little north to Chapora where I camped for two nights in the forest away from tourist hot spots. It was here that I saw my first Orange-headed Thrush, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, and Crimson-backed Sunbird. A nearby marshland produced more lifers, including Asian Openbill, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Bronze-winged Jacana and the spectacular White-bellied Sea-eagle. The latter is a particularly impressive bird and perhaps one of the most attractive of the sea-eagles. Other species enjoying the marsh included Red-wattled Lapwing, Glossy Ibis, Yellow Wagtail, and Intermediate (Yellow-billed) Egret, among others.

A Chestnut-headed Bee-eater.

A male Golden-fronted Leafbird.

An appropriate sign beside the road; there were many with similar messages.

Boats near the beach at Calangute, Goa.

Ah, the beach life; dogs are pretty laid back in India.

Marshland near Chapora Beach, Goa, India.

The Little Cormorant, with diagnostic white throat, is a common waterbird in India.

A Rosy Staring feasting on nectar.

The first birding location I planned on visiting was Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary, a little inland from the coast. On the way there via Panjim and Ponda I picked up more lifers including Indian Golden Oriole, Bronzed Drongo, Long-tailed Shrike, Black-headed Ibis and two Lesser Adjutants, a species with a very restricted range in southern India. Arriving at Bondla in the late afternoon, I learnt that the sanctuary would be closed the following day. Not a problem as there was extensive pristine-looking woodland all about, so I figured the birding would be good anywhere. I had already seen Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and Flame-throated Bulbul minutes before arriving at the gate, so was confident that the birding would be good in the morning. I pitched my hammock in the vicinity and went to bed with a group of monkeys settling in for the night in the trees above me. 

Fresh coconut, marvelous stuff. Drink the water, then eat the soft flesh.

Some woodland near the entrance to Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary, India.

The next morning at Bondla was phenomenal despite a slow start. The number of species showing themselves picked up eventually, and I had good views of Malabar Grey hornbill, Greater Goldenback, Dark-fronted Babbler, Little Spiderhunter, Orange Minivet, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Plum-headed Parakeet and Vernal hanging Parakeet. Two awesome species which had me mesmerised were the White-rumped Shama, a robin-like species sporting a long tail, and Malabar Whistling Thrush with its iridescent blue forehead and shoulders – they are just something else! 

The exquisite Malabar Whistling Thrush; worth seeing every time!

A Little Spiderhunder at Bondla.

An Asian Paradise-flycatcher with prey.

Having heard about a quiet beach in southern Goa, I was keen to experience some beach bliss, something I have never made the time for. So I headed south to a tranquil beach known as Agonda, reputed to be one of India’s best. During the two-day trek I slept under a cashew nut tree for one night and also took on the steepest and most exhausting midday climb I ever encountered in India, between Betul and Agonda. I also passed the floodplains of the Zuari River, which was teeming with hundreds of Lesser Whistling-ducks but only handfuls of Indian and Little Cormorants. The drier parts of the floodplain held scores of Purple Swamphens; I counted about 50 in a relatively small area.

Purple Swamphens almost everywhere, together with Red-wattled Lapwings.

Cashew nuts being harvested from the tree I slept under.

Fishing boats on a river near Agonda.

Upon arriving in Agonda I took the first room that was available, on the second floor of a house owned by a local fisherman and his family. I shared the floor with Willem from the Netherlands, a talented solo musician and veteran visitor to Agonda. After my first late afternoon walk along the entire stretch of beach, I felt that I might just succumb to the beach life! I ended up staying four nights, and the only birding I did was along the beach; Kentish Plover and Lesser Sand Plover foraged along the shore while the occasional Brahminy Kite and White-bellied Sea-eagle flew overhead. 

While having breakfast at one of the beach restaurants, something rather remarkable happened. I was staring out at the ocean watching the small fishing boats rise and fall with each passing wave, when I experienced something that could only have been a genuine ‘living in the moment’ moment. There were no distracting thoughts, yet I was filled with a deep sense of gratitude. It was an incredible feeling, yet hard to describe. Living in the moment is a habit that can be cultivated, so guess what I am working on now... 

A boat on the beach at Agonda, and a typical beach restaurant.

A fisherman servicing a net.

Sunset over Agonda beach. That's about as crowded as it gets.

Who says a cow can't enjoy a stroll on the beach.

Indian Flying Foxes at Agonda; the restaurant below the tree is named after them.

An Indian Flying Fox in flight.

A White-browed Wagtail with an old coconut at Agonda.

After dragging myself away from Agonda I was back on the road again. Not far from the next city, Karvar, I met Saiprakash while taking a second look at a White-throated Kingfisher beside the road. Sai was keen to host me for the night, and this being my first invite in India, I was happy to follow him home. I was warmly welcomed by his family during a brief stop-over at his sister’s home; simply wonderful folk. It was also here that I was introduced to the egg puff, a pastry containing half a boiled egg in a mild curry and onion relish. I subsequently had these very regularly during the remainder of my time in the country. Sai was a great host, and back at his home his mother prepared fried fish and rice with a delicious curry while Sai poured the whiskeys! For breakfast water dosa and coconut chutney was on the menu, and tasted truly marvelous. 

Saiprakash in front of his home near Karwar.

After leaving Sai’s place I was headed for Sirsi, where Sai had organised that his nephew Sindhoor show me the famous Marikamba Temple. I figured this would be a great opportunity to experience some more Indian culture, as my arrival coincided with the biennial Sirsi Marikamba Jatra, one of the biggest temple fairs in the Karnataka state. During the fair the wooden statue of the Goddess Shri Marikamba is temporarily kept in the city centre where devotees can pray and offer their vows and gifts. The streets were crowded and hundreds of people were queuing up to go before the deity and present their gifts. Sindhoor and I joined the queue, before heading back to the temple to take a look inside and marvel at the artwork.   

Laundry day.

Outside the Marikamba Temple in Sirsi.

Relaxing inside the Marikamba Temple.

Devotees before the Goddess Shri Marikamba in Sirsi.

Merchandise for sale everywhere.

Powders sold for ceremonial purposes.

It was the perfect way to spend the afternoon, leaving enough time for me to make some progress on the road before sunset. I found a Eucalyptus plantation in which to camp for the night; and I was again surprised at how relatively easy it was to wild camp in India, or at least along the stretch that I had cycled from Mumbai. I had now reached the eastern limit of the Western Ghats, and was about to embark on a new stretch of road towards the highlands of the Nilgiri Hills, a hotspot for endemic bird species.  

A small temple beside the road, a common sight in India.