CHORÃO BIRD SANCTUARY
BY URVASHI BAHUGUNA
The Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, named for the late, great Indian ornithologist (1896-1987), is on the island of Chorão in the backwaters of the Mandovi River about ten kilometres away from Panjim. The sanctuary is the state’s best-known birding destination though it only houses a fraction of the state’s avian diversity. Still, it draws people like me, who traverse the area by boat under the guidance of the local birdman, Uday Mandrekar. His eye is second to none.
No movement, however slight, escapes him. Each time I sit in his blue canoe on the silent, estuarine backwaters,
I am brought back to an internal stillness.
His standard instruction is to call at a certain time. Based on the tide and the precipitation, he’ll let me know when to arrive.
There is a ferry to the island from Ribandar, and Uday meets me on the other side with his scooter. The rough but shorn path from the main road to the place where his boat is docked is a chance to spot the remarkable mudskippers (a type of amphibious fish that can be sitting half in and half out of small shore pools) and fiddler crabs. He’s always telling me I’ve just missed seeing an otter. I live in hope.
I’ve visited in monsoon and in winter, at dawn and late afternoon. There are always Indian Cormorants atop poles with their snake-like necks tucked in, Little Egrets with trailing breeding plumage flying overhead, and Brahminy Kites nesting high in trees whose regal appearance makes them particularly easy to spot and their biannual nesting
pattern makes them ubiquitous in these parts. White- Throated Kingfishers, and when we’re lucky (not so) Common Kingfishers, cross us in a flash of brilliant blue. Black-Headed Ibises, white from the collar, hunt in the marshy shallows.
The grumpy-looking Grey Heron perches on a low branch, and the speckled velvet of the Green Heron and the crimson-limbed Common Redshank are bent over in concentration foraging in the mud.
On the banks, mugger crocodiles can be spotted, which are unusual in their adaptation to living in saltwater. I took an American friend to experience the sanctuary and pointed out the crocodiles who I assured her were among the most sedate creatures I’d come across. But, unnerved by the boat drifting closer, the mugger, who Uday later explained feels safer in the water, dove in without warning. My friend was coated from head to waist in wet mud from the resulting spray.
The ocean is the water body most associated with Goa, but the backwaters, ponds, rivers and flooded paddy fields have a charm largely undisturbed by thronging tourists. While on Chorão, I sometimes drive through village roads lined with spectacular houses built in the Goan Indo-Portuguese style, and visit St. Bartholomew’s Church whose baroque façade was built back in 1596. The island has a quiet magic that keeps me coming back.
Illustration by Oriana Fernandez. You can follow her work on instagram.com/oriana_fernandez_/
Read more from The Peacock: Issue 8 (2019) here: