In Goa’s Chorao island, a small bird sanctuary nestles among lush mangroves, a perfect treat for nature lovers and bird enthusiasts.
The first glimpse the eager tourist gets, fresh off the ferry, is a red-mud trail leading away into mysterious green depths, surrounded by a tunnel of trees. A rather faded board with pictures of birds frames the entrance, inviting one in. ‘Goa Forest Department Welcomes You to Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary’ says the board pegged to the pale green reception centre. We’re here.
Located on the western edges of Goa’s Chorao island, Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is where nature lovers and birdwatching enthusiasts congregate to hear the call of the wild. Tourists in the North of Goa inevitably find themselves visiting the place at least once, drawn by the lore of getting to see a variety of birds and insects, a sight the urban resident is unfamiliar with.
The sanctuary is named after prominent ornithologist Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali. Known as the ‘birdman of India’, Salim Ali published ‘The Book of Indian Birds’ in the year 1941, which secured his rise to eminence in the field of ornithology. In 1988, the Forest Department of Goa gave the status of a national park to the sanctuary, attracting bird-watchers from around the country. To get to Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, you have to cross the Mandovi river via a ferry. The website describes it as ‘Goa’s smallest sanctuary’, as it has a nature trail just short of a kilometer: 933 meters of a winding stone path twisting among the mangroves. The path is framed by mangroves dipping their stems into the on either side. Overhead, the trees meet, creating a green tunnel that’s a sight for city-sore eyes. Sunlight filters through the gaps in the trees, and the sound of water lapping against the side of the path on both sides makes the tourist feel as if they are entering a strange, verdant realm of nature.
We saw an eel slipping through the water. So far, no sign of any birds, except for the birdcalls resounding elusively from somewhere in the air. After crossing a metal bridge, with a view of the Mandovi river, the path forked into two, one stone-lined and leading off to the left, and one a rickety bridge strung together from bamboo-sticks leading off into the heart of the sanctuary, to the right.
The left one, the official route, led all the way through the 933-meter trail. The deeper the nature lover or bird lover traverses through the trail, the louder the sound of the birds: but not even a glimpse of a plumage, or a flicker of a pair of wings. In an open spot, which had a green watchtower, we were fortunate to catch sight of the Indian Pond Heron, also known as the Paddybird. Commonly found in aquatic habitats, the bird’s visage was a dull brown that was a perfect camouflage for the green-and-brown surroundings. The heron alighted on a branch in the water, even as we held our breath. I managed to snap a photo before it flew away into the depths of the sanctuary.
In my quest to catch sight of a bird—any bird—I spotted a bright blue dragonfly, known as the Chalky Percher. Its wings shimmered in the sunlight. Apparently, these blue dragonflies breed in freshwater habitats like ponds and lakes, and are common in India.
Underfoot, small crabs with black-and-white designs and red claws crawled in and out of holes in the stone path. I found out later that these were Fiddler crabs. At one point, a large grown-up one crawled onto the side of the path.
The stone trail ended rather abruptly (the unaware tourist could plunge into the river if not careful!), with a breathtaking sight—a sheet of water surrounded by mangroves on all sides, which lent their emerald-green color to the ripples.
On the way back, we decided to try the rickety bamboo bridge. We found out that it branched off into a section of the sanctuary and then re-joined the original stone trail. At every step, the bamboo sticks groaned underfoot, and there were gaps where our feet plunged through—not for the faint-hearted. The water under the bridge rippled serenely, and the view was worth the scare—a green, green wonderland all around, with the reflection of the trees hardly distinguishable from the actual scenery. But there were still no birds. The ticket-collector at the gate said that the birds are there only in the very early morning, between 8 to 10 a.m. The noise of the ferry-boats scares them away.
Ultimately, the sanctuary turned out to be a peaceful place for a nature walk, but to catch the birds, one has to rise early. The early bird catches the worm, they say. In this situation, the early human will catch the bird. Next time, I’ll be sure to be that early bird.
Location: Chorao Island, Ribander, Goa
How to get there: Take the Bicholim road and then cross over via the Mandovi ferry. For those travelling from out-of-state, National Highway 48 is your guide.
Price: Rs. 10 (Indian Tourists), Rs. 100 (Foreign tourists), plus an additional Rs. 25 for a still camera/Rs. 150 for a video camera.
Best time to visit: Winter months of October to March
Timings: 6:00 a.m to 6.00 p.m, Monday to Saturday