On the western end of the sleepy island of Chorao in Goa, co-existing with the friendly fisherfolk of the village, is one of India’s smallest bird sanctuaries. But it’s named after the biggest name in Indian ornithology, Dr Salim Ali. Chorao is one of the islands formed on the estuary of Mandovi River just before it meets the Arabian Sea.
Come November, and flocks of migratory birds start coming in thousands, some all the way from Siberia, as if to pay their tribute to the original Birdman of India. It’s home to Pin-tailed Ducks, Ruddy Shelducks, Plovers, Green Herons, Sea Eagles, Sandpipers, Wagtails, and others. They dot the green landscape that has blue veins crisscrossing all over its body. Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is one of India’s richest mangrove sanctuaries; the other one being the faraway Sunderbans in West Bengal.
It was in Panjim (Panaji) where we first heard about the two nearby bird sanctuaries: Carambolim and Chorao. We decided to visit Carambolim Lake, which was 12 kms away, and then return to Chorao, which was 3 kms from Panjim. At Carambolim, we spotted the vast lake sliced into two by a railway track, with the precision of a surgeon’s knife. But fortunately, both halves survived the surgery, and the entire lake was brimming with large colonies of the exotic Purple Moorhen.
A gang of guides
A bunch of village boys approached us, and each offered to play guide; we surprised all of them when, instead of choosing one, we chose the entire bunch. Happily, they trooped along: some leading, and others following us! But one must admit that their collective guidance was of great use — they showed us the precise places where one shouldn’t set foot on, as the marshes on the water’s edge were as treacherous as quicksand.
After feasting our eyes on these winged wonders, we set off for Ribander from where hopped on to a ferry across to the village of Chorao. It was a typical Goan ferry: it took scooters, mopeds, cars, tempos, fishermen, traders, school children, and birdwatchers. Here, vehicles have to be paid for while people can travel free.
When we landed on the shore, we booked ourselves a canoe from the forest department, as only canoes were allowed during low tide. As the boatman was to come an hour later, we decided to explore part of the sanctuary by foot. There was a beautiful pathway paved with stones that ran along the periphery of the mangroves. To the left of the pathway were a few mangrove trees that looked as if they were walking towards the Arabian Sea, and to the right were dense mangrove vegetation with as many as 14 different species.
The most amazing of them was Avicennia with its breathing roots that jutted out like snorkels and enabled the plant to breathe when submerged in water during high tide. Watching them, one remembered the description of mangroves by a leading ecology expert. He called these floating forests the umbilical cord that connects the sea with the terrestrial forests.
The reward at the end of the walk was a birds’ eye view of the sanctuary from the watchtower, as one of the birds fed on the banks of the Mandovi River. The boat ride in the unstable canoe had its own charm. As the boat wove its way through the network of canals inside the sanctuary, countless layers of this spectacular eco-system revealed itself. Our guide Amar shared that these mangroves are the nurseries of many fishes, prawns, shrimps and crabs. Once they reach adulthood in the shallow waters here, they start their eventual journey into the deep, mysterious sea.
As we walked back to the Chorao jetty along the periphery of the mangroves, we witnessed a dual truth. On the left of the pathway, along the backwaters, was a long stretch of plastic garbage that is man’s gift to nature. On the right were pristine mangroves that are god’s gift to mankind. The sight on the left would have saddened Dr Salim Ali; a conservationist who believed that we haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, but have merely borrowed it from our children.
How to get there
Both Carambolim and Chorao could be covered in a single day, with Panjim as your base. Do Carambolim in the morning and Chorao in the evening. For booking the boat-ride, contact Regional Forest Officer on 0832-2228772 or Amar on 09423316280.
Where to stay
January-February is peak season for migratory birds