The Advisory Boar
Late in December 2009, as a birthday present to myself, I went on a
solo trek to Dayara Bugyal, a high-altitude alpine meadow in Garhwal.
I meant to write about the week I spent in the mountains, but upon my
return, I found the experience too overwhelming to try to describe all
Some six months after the trek, I posted a
a photograph from my first campsite.
Nearly a year later, I wrote about my decision to
forego a field guide
on the trek; that's where the paragraph quoted above comes from. It's
been nearly five years since then, and I've typed that first sentence a
dozen more times, but I never got much further.
One of my most enduring memories of the trip is of a small grey bird
crawling up the face of a rock cliff just below Barsu village. I was
driving back to Uttarkashi in the late afternoon after the trek, and I
caught a flicker of movement on the cliff from the corner of my eye. I
knew instantly what it was—a Wallcreeper, a bird I had been hoping to
find for the past five years. I had barely a minute to admire it, but
I'll never forget the sudden flash of scarlet when it flew away.
It's almost Wallcreeper season where I live now. They're a familiar
sight in passage to lower altitudes in early winter, but that first
sighting will always be the most precious.
I've had a hectic start to the new year as far as bird-watching and
travel are concerned. I went on a solo trek to Dayara bugyal in
Uttarakhand in late December, participated in the annual waterfowl
census at the
Pong dam reservoir in
Himachal Pradesh in mid-January, did a lightning weekend trip to the
Chambal river in UP a week
later, and went to Harike in Punjab at the end of the month for another
I've had a great time, of course, and it's been wonderful birding in new
places, but it's also been demanding and tiring. My memories of the time
I spent at Harike are already fragmented, and I don't feel up to writing
another exhaustive report. Instead, here's a selection of the more vivid
moments that I will remember the trip by—not in any particular order,
and with no attempt to fill in the fuzzy grey areas in between.
What happened at Harike?
The survey was organised by the Avian Habitat and Wetland Society in
Chandigarh, with the support of the Punjab Wildlife Department. Nearly
fifty volunteers from different parts of the country had arrived at
Harike by the evening of the 30th. The next two days saw teams going out
to different parts of the sanctuary on foot and in boats to record the
species they saw, and count the waterfowl. Outside the two hour survey
sessions in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon, participants were free to
explore the area on their own.
I packed a bag and pulled on my boots at a few hours' notice this last
weekend for a trip to the Chambal river with Mr. and Mrs. D. S. Pandit
and Devashish Deb of Delhibird.
We reached Agra at 2200 on Friday after a stressful drive through dense
fog, and stayed the night in a forest rest house. The next morning, we
heard both Hume's Phylloscopus humei and Brooks's P.
subviridis Leaf Warblers calling outside our window; but it was
still foggy, and Devashish's attempts to locate the latter species in
the scrub resulted only in grainy photographs of a Lesser Whitethroat.
We left after 0900, took the road towards Etawah, and drove some 70km to
a village named Bah (no, really!), where Mr. Pandit had booked rooms at
the forest rest house. We learned that we needed to hire a boat from the
Chambal Safari Lodge (at Jarar, a few kilometres before Bah), so we went
back to the lodge around midday to meet the proprietor, Mr. R. P. Singh.
It turned out that a boat was only available from 1400 that afternoon,
and not at all the next day.
Birding at the lodge
The lodge stands on lightly forested land adjoining agricultural fields,
and we spent the next couple of hours walking around while waiting for a
boat to become free for us. The lodge building has a thick Bougainvillea
creeper clinging to the edge of the tiled roof, and I spotted a Greenish
Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides almost as soon as we walked
in. It hopped in and out of the tangled mass of foliage for a good while
in the bright sunlight, giving me an unusual opportunity to study it at
some length (and giving Devashish an excellent photograph).
I have wanted to visit the
reservoir in Himachal Pradesh for a long time, having read about it
in Jan Willem den Besten's book Birds of Kangra, and in many
other birders' trip reports over the years. Apart from being an area of
remarkable avian diversity, it held a special attraction for me as one
of the few reliable wintering sites for Skylarks Alauda arvensis,
a species I have yearned to see for as long as I can remember.
I knew about the census conducted by the Forest Department every winter,
but I never quite got the timing right to participate in previous years.
I'd forgotten about it this year, and was planning a trip to Tal Chhapar
Sanctuary in Rajasthan on the weekend of 15–16th January; but a friend
forwarded the census announcement to me, and I changed my plans at the
last minute to pay a long overdue first visit to Pong Dam.
The Pong Dam lies over the Beas river in the southern end of the Kangra
district. The reservoir is a Ramsar wetland, and it is much bigger than
I had ever imagined, covering an area of some 250km² even at times
when the water level is low. It is roughly triangular, with the dam at
its south-western corner. The Beas flows in from the south-east corner,
past the town of Dehra Gopipur, and some small tributaries join in along
the northern edge. Nagrota Surian, the best-known point of access to the
lake, is close to the north-western corner (30km from Dehra); Haripur is
halfway along the northern edge, and Dada Siba is halfway along the
The entire area is towards the tail-end of the Shivaliks. The reservoir
itself is in a bowl whose altitude is a little more than 400m above sea
level, set amidst low rolling hills that are at most a couple of hundred
metres higher. Further to the North—enclosed in mist but forever in the
background—is the Dhauladhar range, rising like a snow-capped wall above
the edge of the plains. The range of habitats available for birding is
extraordinary: deep open water, shallow water, mud and sand flats, wet
and dry river beds, marshes, agricultural fields, and light forest.
Three days on the reservoir
I contacted the organisers by email to express my interest, and received
instructions to arrive at Dehra Gopipur, where I would be met by someone
from the Forest Department. When I arrived, I was driven to the PWD rest
house by Mr. Ramesh Kumar (the forest guard assigned to be with my group
during the survey), who introduced me to the other members of the group
(who were staying in the adjoining rooms) and told us we would leave for
the Dada Siba area after breakfast at 0900.
My group would, along with more than twenty other groups in different
locations around the reservoir, spend the next two days covering our
assigned area first on foot and later by rowboat, counting species and
individuals, and submitting our results at the end of each day on the
standard AWC census form. These results would be collated, and a total
number announced at the end of this exercise.
This report is about a very productive bird-watching trip to Munsiari
(near the Nepal border, in Uttarakhand) in the summer of 2009. I hiked
to the summit of Khalia Danda (a 3747m peak-let over Munsiari) with a
group of NOLS students who were learning about the alpine habitat.
Here are the highlights of the trip, arranged by habitat.
I must apologise to Narbir and Navjit for sending this report nearly two
months late, after having such an excellent time at the survey organised
by AHWS Chandigarh at the end of January this year.
A brief summary: the Avian Habitat and Wetlands Society (AHWS) organised
two day-long surveys in Morni and the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary outside
Chandigarh. The purpose of this exercise was to review the checklist of
these areas. Several teams participated in this event, which concluded
with a presentation in Chandigarh on the 2nd of February. I was able to
participate in both surveys, but had to return to Delhi on the evening
of the 1st.
This is not an official report. It is my own account of what turned out
to be two wonderful days of birding for me, and it touches on the other
teams only insofar as I encountered them en route.