In an unfolding avian-flu crisis, a substantial number of this high-altitude bird which descends on this wetland every winter and adds to its charm have perished along with other bird species
Gagan Bedi wishes that a particular detail of his first trip to Pong Dam Lake could be undone.
For long, this wetland in Himachal Pradesh was flapping high on Gagan’s must-visit list. An eBirder from Faridkot, Punjab, Gagan felt pulled towards Pong Dam Lake primarily for a surefire winter show by the high-flying Bar Headed Goose.
Soaring over the Himalayan range on its way to its winter haunts in parts of India, including sections of the South, this species would comfortably make it to the top-five avians for high-altitude flying. It has the perfect adaptation to thrive in low-oxygen conditions at higher altitudes.
“Bar Headed Geese breed in high-altitude wetlands that are up at 4,000 to 5,000 metres,” says Pankaj Chandan, who leads WWF-India’s work in the Western Himalayas, including its flagship high-altitude wetlands conservation programme.
Pankaj adds, “One of the highest flying birds of the world, the Bar Headed Goose has been sighted flying above Mount Everest. They are high-altitude birds breeding in the high places, but during winter, they come down.”
Pankaj draws attention to how a Bar Headed Goose that was fitted out with a collar by the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) at Nagrota Surian in Pong Dam Lake area, showed up at Jammu and later in Ladakh.
“We found the collared bird at Jammu, when we were conducting a bird survey with the forest department there; and then the same bird was tracked to Tsokar in Ladakh, during a bird survey conducted along with its forest department. Both sightings happened in the same year, January and May 2013, respectively. The Bar Headed Geese breed in the high-altitude wetlands of Tsokar in Ladakh, and winter in Jammu and also at Pong Dam Lake,” explains Pankaj.
The bird seems to have established Pong Dam Lake as the ‘capital’ of its winter kingdom, year after year, as sights of crowded flocks of Bar Headed Geese, squatting beak-to-tail, are not uncommon. The wetland is said to hold the record for hosting the largest congregation of Bar-headed Geese.
A Bar Headed Goose floating dead in the waters at Pong Dam Lake on December 31, 2020. Photo: Gagan Bedi
Now, On New Year’s eve, Gagan was at Dalhousie with his family, and he successfully cajoled them into letting him stretch the vacation by 130 kilometres. Having come so close to Pong Dam Lake, it would be a shame not to put in those extra four hours of drive, and cross paths with Bar-headed Geese and other migratory birds.
The first visit left him sad. On hindsight, the tragedy is far worse than it first seemed. It was December 31 when he visited the lake, and the bird-flu outbreak had not been confirmed yet. In the days that followed, a few dead specimens of the Bar Headed Goose would reach the National Institute of High Security Animal Disease (NIHSAD) — which comes under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research — found positive for H5N1. Following this, Pong Dam Lake would be made out of bounds for all, except for those authorised by the government for bird-flu containment work.
So, that afternoon, when 2020 was in its dying embers, Gagan managed to have a toe-hold in the wetland, and in the short peek that followed, snapped a few quick photos. There were a few dead birds in the waters and outside, recalls Gagan.
He posted a checklist of the living birds he counted, on eBird, the last to have emerged from Pong Dam Lake before the bird-flu was confirmed.
The cache of other images that sit in the memory card, include one of a Bar Headed Goose hopelessly grounded, its bill seemingly pegged into the muddy earth, probably while in the throes of death. Another image shows a Bar Headed Goose floating dead in the waters.
“These sights were extremely painful,” notes Gagan. Over the week, the death toll of birds at the wetland has been rising, with the Bar Headed Goose accounting for a substantial number of it. In the early part of the disaster, videos of dying Bar Headed Geese from the wetland emerged, leading the birding community across the country to tut-tut pitiably over what they saw.
A vibrant presence
Bar Headed Goose is a vibrant species, capable of electrifying the waterbodies they are found in. With the black bars on their head, and the pattern on their neck, the bird is quite a sight to behold, charming not only birders but also the rural populace in their wintering grounds.
“Some of the Bar Headed Geese breeding in Tibet and in far-off places in Central Asia move right up to Karnataka and Odisha during winter,” says Pankaj.
M.S. Darshan is a birder from Mysuru who works at Chennai’s IT Corridor, and when he is back home for a break during winter, he is assured of a birding attraction around 18 kilometres away at a lake in the village Hadinaru, which translates to “16” in Kannada.
A flock of Bar Headed Geese at Hadinaru Kere, near Mysuru. Photo: M.S. Darshan
“Hadinaru Kere, as the lake is called, is well-preserved. Though villagers catch fish in the lake, they are aware that the Bar Headed Geese come from far away and these villagers cause them no harm,” says Darshan.
“From mid-December, the Bar Headed Geese come in, flock-by-flock. In February, their numbers could reach 350-400. Among these birds many collared birds, particularly those with green-coloured collars, are also documented. The Bar Headed Geese usually start their return journey by February-end or the beginning of March. A few birds start their journey bit late,” Darshan elaborates.
Rakesh Ahlawat, field assistant at Nature Conservation Foundation and a birdwatcher from Dighal, points out that at this village in Jhajjar district of Haryana, every winter, many ponds would resonate with the grunts of Bar Headed Geese.
“In Dighal, Bar Headed Geese start flying in from late October, and stay on till late February, and most of them would be in by November-end,” says Rakesh. “Villagers may make use of any of these ponds to provide water to their cattle, but they make sure these birds are not disturbed.”
Dighal draws birdwaters from near and far, as the village is known to throw up avian surprises. To illustrate, Rakesh recalls his sighting of a Horned Grebe there in 2017. The sighting has been documented.
Says Rakesh, “Birders visiting Dighal create awareness about migratory birds, particularly the Bar Headed Geese. Just before I got into birding, which was around 2010, there were a few cases of Bar Headed Geese being hunted. I had taken it up with the villagers, and birders would also talk about protecting these birds, and understanding dawned. These birds are now absolutely safe in Dighal, and they are quite bold around humans, staying within a distance of 50 feet from them.”