Sunday, 16 February 2014


In a taxi, overtaking a lorry, with a scooter overtaking us and a bus heading straight for all of us.  It can only be India; a great destination for a birding trip. However, the times they are a-changin, as someone once said. On this, my fourth visit to Goa over 20 or more years, I stayed up near Morjim beach. When we were first here the ferry across the Chapora river took five cars every 15 minutes, now the new bridge takes 50 cars a minute.

Morjim beach now has few or no birds due to disturbance. The sand banks that once teemed with sand plovers now have drunken Indians and topless Russians. The Russians come to Goa in increasing numbers and they seem highly unpopular with the locals, who complain about their prostitutes, money and drugs. The Olive Ridley turtle nesting site has just two nests this year, underneath the makeshift football pitch.

To the south, Baga paddyfields get smaller and smaller, a new road leads to a festival site built on one end. The Pintail Snipe now both drum and bass. The greying taxi driver/bird guide once proudly ushering birders to his shiny new van dashes over as he recognises me from six years back, as the plush, tinted windowed, a/c Toyota motors by. The new money has passed him by. And the first one now will later be last.

However, just up river from Morjim beach there are still birdy places to be found if you search them out. Sandbanks with large flocks of Pallas's, Slender-billed and Heuglin's Gulls, Lesser Crested, Great Crested and Caspian Terns, riverside paddies with ibis, jacana, storks and waders.

I ventured out on a few of the usual trips. A trip up the Zuari river with point blank kingfishers, marsh muggers and waders. We took a trip with our taxi man in his now battered old van around Chorao island and the Salim Ali reserve. On the way he is desperate to show us the Indian Pitta in the scrub next to his house. He checks it out every day but with no-one to show. The island produces Lesser Adjutants, Woolly-necked Storks, harriers, waders galore, pipits and chats. Back at the hotel, the scrub next to, and overhanging, the pool provides daily practice on Taiga Flycatcher, Green Warbler and Blyth's Reed Warbler, with Crested Treeswifts adding glamour overhead and Syke's Warblers on the nearby scrubby hill.

British birders seem to be few and far between in Goa today. The young turks of birding have long since moved on to new frontiers. However, this is still a good place to cut one's Indian birding teeth. Although some of the old haunts are not what they used to be, there are still plenty of birds to be found if you get off the beaten track.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Storm surge

A tour of many of the sites affected by this winters stormy weather continued this week with a trip up to Mersehead on the Solway coast. Arriving on site just after dawn, several hundred Barnacle Geese were on the fields along the entrance track, 150 Pinkies flew over and 50+ Pintail fed on the shallow floods.  The task was to look at the impact of the surge tides in early January; this was abundantly clear from the 10 m of dune system washed away, the four breaches in the seawall and the piles of rubbish dumped across the fields by the receding tides. The pools of water across the fields were strangely variously saline or fresh, but the Natterjack Toad pools were unfortunately strongly saline.

The surge tide that hit eastern England in early December led to some dramatic headlines and has certainly had some profound effects on coastal habitats.  There was extensive flooding of more than 40 conservation sites behind seawalls and shingle/dune ridges from the Tees estuary south to Essex. These were mainly coastal grazing marshes and reedbed habitats but included some of our best-known east coast nature reserves.  Seawalls protecting at least seven conservation sites have been breached in East Anglia.  In some locations, mainly Norfolk, there are multiple breaches to seawalls.  The damage to infrastructure on some sites (birdwatching hides, footpaths, fencing etc.) has been extensive.  At Snettisham for example, as well as extensive ‘re-shaping’ of the wader roost banks, almost all of the reserve infrastructure has been destroyed.

Almost inevitably, the words ‘ecological disaster’ have been used in various accounts, but was it really such a disaster?   The impression after looking at these sites is one of both winners and losers. Although some wildlife sites at or close to the coast are sensitive to flooding by saltwater, many are remarkably resilient. It is their ability to recover and the frequency of significant flood events that matters.  Furthermore, many coastal sites are evolving in response to coastal processes; this changes the mosaic of habitats and species, but not necessarily the value of the sites. These processes can also result in the natural ‘repair’ of coastal features such as breached barrier beaches. The storms have created some exciting new habitat in many cases and it will be interesting to see what develops this coming summer.  Some coastal grasslands, designated sites but with dull and unimaginative management and trapped behind artificial sea walls, have been opened up to coastal dynamics. How will the Red Hemp Nettle and Ringed Plovers fare at Snettisham now that acres of their favoured bare shingle habitat have now been opened up.

There are extensive repairs that need to be done but they should be in the form of adaptive management. For example, at Havergate island the breached sea walls will be rebuilt but with reprofiled spillways so that floodwaters can more easily enter the site without damage but then quickly be let out through sluices. These events will happen again and we need to be prepared.

Photos: from top - Barnacles at Mersehead, Natterjack, surge re-shaping at Snettisham, Red Hemp Nettle.