Harike, January 30–February 1 2010

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2010-02-07

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 waterfowl survey.

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.

Harike is an artificial wetland formed by the construction of a dam at the confluence of the Beas and Satluj rivers in the early 1950s. Like the much larger Pong dam reservoir some two hundred kilometres upstream on the Beas river, it offers a variety of habitats (shallow water filled with vegetation, huge reed-beds, marshes, light forests, sand banks) and attracts many thousands of waterfowl and other species every winter. Its location in the north-west passage corridor near Pakistan also makes it an excellent vagrant trap.

I had visited the Pong dam reservoir just two weeks earlier, and having a chance to see two such different aspects of the Beas river system was the highlight of my trip. One noticeable difference was that there were tens of thousands of Bar-headed Geese, and thousands of Brahminy Ducks and Greylag Geese at Pong, while Harike was the province of a few thousand Greylag Geese, a few dozen Brahminy Ducks, and no Bar-headed Geese at all.

Travel details: I took the 0720 Swarna Shatabdi on the 30th from NDLS to ASR (Amritsar), as did eleven other participants from Delhi. We were met at the station and driven some sixty kilometres to the forest rest house at Harike. I pitched my tent there, while the other participants went to a hotel nearby. We returned on the evening of the 1st by the 2125 Golden Temple Mail from ASR to NZM, reaching Delhi early the next morning.

The survey itself

On the first day, I was part of a four-person group assigned to the Riyasat area, an expanse of shallow, stagnant water between the Beas and the Satluj (and known to have a large number of Coots and geese, but not many other waterfowl). We set off in a motorboat from the "nose" (a dock near the dam) with four boatmen and a forest guard, and made our way to a small island at the edge of the marshland, where we split up and were each taken in a rowboat to survey a different section.

The coots were in two large flocks that we could count separately, and most of the geese were hidden in the tall reeds, so once I got used to the rocking of the boat, it was easy to keep up with counting the geese and ducks (including a flock of 37 Ferruginous Pochards) that flew past us. The soft, clear light that morning, and the interested but low-key and undemanding company of Lakhbir Singh (the forest guard, who was in my boat) and Amar Singh (the boatman) made it easy to enjoy the next couple of hours of relative solitude. On the way back, I discovered that rowing through a tangled bed of Water Hyacinth is really difficult.

The next morning, my group—Sarabjeet and Rima from Chandigarh, Vinay Das from Bangalore, Saurabh Sawant from Bombay, and myself, accompanied once again by Lakhbir Singh—were supposed to take the motorboat out into the main lake, where the largest numbers of waterfowl were, and split up to cover individual areas in rowboats. But the survey methodology we were told to follow was sabotaged by the fact that the birds—many thousands of coots and huge mixed flocks of ducks—were all concentrated into a single dense stripe in one third of our survey area.

We stayed with the motorboat, and because a total count was impossible in the circumstances (distance, rocking boat, lots of movement in the flocks), we sampled parts of the flock from various locations to arrive at an estimate of 18000 birds in total in our large section of the lake. Pity we couldn't just take an aerial photograph and analyse it later.

(Sadly, I noticed that many people who had volunteered to help with the survey treated the entire exercise as little more than a free vacation. I thought this was a gross abuse of the forest department's hospitality and the organisers' efforts, especially since generous arrangements had been made for non-survey birding the whole time. I hope this situation can be improved in future by better communication about the methodology of the survey. I noticed the same thing at Pong dam, so I guess this is a problem every volunteer-driven survey needs to address in some way.)

Update (2010-02-16): The above passage was creatively distorted by an unscrupulous and incompetent journalist to try and make the case that the survey was a waste of time. Read all about it!

Beware the Rufous-vented Quicksand Warbler

One of the birds Harike is best known for is the Rufous-vented Prinia Prinia burnesii, an inhabitant of the Saccharum spontaneum (Sarkanda/Sarkhan) reed beds in the Indus valley and surrounding areas. It is a large, grey Prinia with a long, ragged tail, a rich rufous vent, and a loud, musical song; and it was, until recently, considered to be the same species as the slightly smaller and less warmly-coloured Swamp Prinia Prinia cinerascens of north-east India.

Saurabh (another person I had corresponded with, and was meeting for the first time) had a recording of the Swamp Prinia's song, which brought an instant response from more than one bird in the reeds by the Nose. Later that day, I saw one bird diving into a clump of elephant grass from the rowboat at Riyasat, but since that was during the count, I wasn't able to wait to see it again.

After the morning session, I found Saurabh sitting by the same patch of reeds, having just seen the Prinia at close range after playing back its song. I went down to a muddy little clearing where I could hear it still singing loudly, and waited for it to emerge. But despite my patience, I caught only a brief glimpse as the bird scurried across from one clump of reeds to the next, and then it was gone.

When I was sure it wouldn't come back, I turned around… and fell over. I hadn't noticed that I was slowly sinking into the bog as I waited. Oops.

Still crazy after all these ears

One of the forest guards had reported "an owl with long ears" on the bank of the Beas, a long way upstream. Somewhere along the way, that became a sighting of the Long-eared Owl Asio otus, and had everyone looking forward to seeing that extremely unusual species.

I heard that the bird was roosting in a burrow near some cliffs, and it could be seen easily from a boat. I was surprised by the habitat when we got there—it was a patch of broken hillocks and scrubby ravines, nothing like the tall grass or dense-leaved trees that the Short-eared Owl (the only other Asio owl I was familiar with) prefers. (Aside: I have since learned that both species hunt over open grasslands, but that the Long-eared is a bird of dense forests, while the Short-eared roosts and breeds on the ground. Either way, this habitat was very different.)

I discovered after reaching the site that the owls were not, in fact, visible from the boat. We had to go ashore and look for them, and after walking around without much hope for a while, I looked up to see a large owl in flight just ahead. I noticed that it was very orange below, which fit Long-eared, and that its underwing was curiously buzzard-like, with a dark trailing edge, pale primary patch, and rufous underwing coverts. Vinita, who found the bird on the ground, had managed slightly fuzzy flight photographs which confirmed my observations.

Someone flushed the owl again after it was lost to view, and we saw two owls flying away in different directions, trying to escape a growing mob of crows that were pecking at their head and wings. With Ramit Singal's recent report of a Short-eared Owl being killed by crows at Okhla fresh in my mind, I realised that we were leading the crows to the owls every time we found them, and forcing them to seek another refuge. A number of people still wanted to find and photograph the birds, but I was able to convince everyone to return to the boat—the fading light perhaps working in my favour. Four boat-loads of people in one day is probably quite enough for any owl, no matter how long its ears.

I didn't realise it then, but the owls were much too big to be anything but Eagle Owls. I had never seen either the Long-eared Owl or any Eagle Owl before, however, and the first boat-load of people had managed much better views of these birds than I had, so I went along with the general consensus of Long-eared Owl. But Devashish's excellent photo of the bird perched against the cliff-face made it obvious that it was a Rock Eagle Owl Bubo bengalensis. If any further confirmation were needed, the underwing pattern I saw also rules out Long-eared (but my field guide doesn't describe the wing pattern for either species, so I had to wait until I reached home before I could confirm this).

The irony is that, had the owls been correctly identified from the start, not nearly as many people would have been interested in them.

An interlude in the ravines

While I was walking around looking for the "Long-eared" owl, I was distracted by a small brown bird that flew across my path, perhaps five metres ahead of me, and disappeared behind an outcropping of rock. I thought it might be a wheatear, and I crept up to and around the rock, coming face-to-face with a Long-billed Pipit barely three metres away in a small gully. It was looking straight at me and crouched down, ready to take flight. I stood still, and a few seconds later, after a questioning chirp, it decided to ignore me and continue searching for food in the gravel.

As it moved around, I saw it closely from every angle. It was in fresh, adult plumage—so unlike the worn, dusty-looking birds I'm familiar with from Sultanpur. I was close enough to count the fine pin-stripes on its pink-flushed breast, and the faint streaking on its grey back. I saw the facial pattern, with fine dark lores and a plain brown cheek; and the long, heavy bill with pale-based lower mandible and dark upper mandible with a curved culmen. I followed it around quietly and saw how it moved, as it continued to pretend I wasn't there.

Eventually, the pipit flew away and I climbed out of the gully—only to see the owl in flight moments later. But I really wouldn't have minded spending five more minutes with the very accommodating pipit instead.

The natives are friendly!

The second morning of the survey was more foggy than the first, so we had a couple of hours to kill before we could go out onto the lake in boats. We drove to a likely patch of reeds, and I tried to imitate the clicking of a Moustached Warbler—and got an immediate response (but the bird chose to scurry away rather than come closer). At another patch of reeds a few minutes later, two lovely Paddyfield Warblers in fresh, rich brown plumage popped up in response to my hopeful call, and chattered pleasantly at us before diving back into the tangle of leaves.

Where have all the Mallards gone?

When the second morning's count was done, we took the motorboat back to the Nose, taking advantage of the light to watch some more waterfowl on the way. (Most of the birds we saw were the ones we had counted already, but we saw a Ferruginous Pochard, a Black-necked Grebe, and many Caspian Gulls on the way, while passing through areas assigned to other groups.)

I was puzzled when the boat slowed down halfway through our journey. But we were lucky to have Malkiyat Singh, the resident expert on Harike, as our pilot; and knew exactly what he was doing. He cut the engines to a soft purr, and we inched along for several minutes, rounded the corner of a reed-filled island, and… were right in front of a flock of about fifty Mallards.

They all took flight immediately, of course, but those green heads gleaming in the sun for a few moments made my day like nothing else could.

Stalking the Red-faced Pipit

Feeling very brave, Saurabh and I crawled under a wire fence to walk in a promising patch of plantation forest. It was mid-afternoon, and quite sleepy, but we saw a small flock of birds shooting up from the ground into the lower branches of the trees surrounding a clearing. One bird stayed on a convenient branch, and we both got a good look at it.

It looked like an Olive-backed Pipit—with the right proportions, streaks above and below, a white belly, and a white spot on the ear coverts—but its face and throat were quite distinctly pinkish. It flew away, with a rapid tseep tseep tseep call, just as we started thinking about a possible Red-throated Pipit. We both saw the white "teardrop", however, and I noted that the supercilium was white behind the eye. I think that combination is enough to rule out Red-throated. (The call also matched my experience with Olive-backed, though I had to wait until I returned home to learn that Red-throated has a more plaintive, slower call.)

I had seen some (not quite as) pink-faced individuals in a flock of Olive-backed Pipits last year in an agricultural field in UP, much further east, so I was happy to put this bird down as Olive-backed. Saurabh agreed that, apart from the face, the bird strongly suggested Olive-backed in appearance and behaviour, but he was more reluctant to rule out Red-throated. Unfortunately, we never did see that bird again, despite waiting for a while, and returning to the area later. (The flock did stay in the same general area, however, and I did get a look at some other birds a short while later. They were quite obviously Olive-backed, with no traces of pink. Someone else also saw one of the birds pumping its tail in typical Olive-backed fashion, though I can't find anything to confirm that Red-throated does not do the same thing.)

Since then, I have read that Red-throated Pipits were considered regular winter visitors to Harike not too long ago. I still think this bird was an Olive-backed Pipit (although perhaps a very embarrassed one), but I know I'll spend a lot more time looking at pipits on my next visit.

What do Penduline Tits eat?

Another scarce winter visitor that is a regular at Harike is the White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus. Up to twenty birds had been sighted in the same patch of forest in the days leading up to the survey, and I was looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the species, after seeing a small flock that had strayed unusually far east to Okhla a few years ago.

I was watching a Graceful Prinia play hide-and-seek amongst some reeds when I heard an unfamiliar plaintive, high-pitched seeeeuu call. I had never heard penduline tits calling before, but I'd glanced at the descriptions in my field guide, and something about this sound caught my attention. I looked up and saw five small birds in a dry, leafless tree nearby—obviously the ones Saurabh and I had been hoping to find. Once I got over being pleased with myself, I noticed that the tits had bright chestnut backs, something I'd missed entirely at Okhla because I was almost directly underneath them.

The flock, by then slightly larger, was not at all shy, and I watched them moving about and feeding in the brush-like tree for a long while. I noticed them pecking at nodes on the branches, and wondered if they were feeding on insects or on plant matter. Later, I saw them pecking at—and in between—the broad, round leaves of another tree. We couldn't identify the trees involved, but Rima and I found that neither tree had any green buds or sap to speak of, but they did have spider webs and tiny insects—in fact, I found a nutritious-looking caterpillar hiding between two leaves stuck together (whether by itself or by its parents, we could not tell).

Of course, the very sharp, pointed beak is further evidence that the penduline tit is not a seed-eater.

Sand Larks and spot lighting

The Tamarisk scrub in the sandy area downstream of the Satluj dam is a known roosting site for Sykes's Nightjar. I'd never been out hunting for Nightjars, so I was happy to join a group of people who wanted to borrow the spotlight after dinner and look for reflecting eyes in the dark. We drove around for a while before walking along the river-bed, sweeping the light back and forth every now and then, and seeing nothing but bushes.

After trudging through the fine grey sand for an hour or so, we turned back in consideration of the 2230 curfew at the GK hotel where a number of people were staying. I continued to sweep the searchlight around the base of bushes as we passed, and suddenly I saw a small bird fly up and float to the ground a few metres away. I juggled my binoculars and the light for a while, and found that we had woken up a very confused Sand Lark. The photographers, full of pent-up energy, leaped into action and spent several minutes crawling up to and photographing the bird, which sat motionless, relying on its superb camouflage. I've rarely seen such good photographs of a Sand Lark taken during the day.

I heard a soft chuk chuk call as we walked past a wheat field on our way back to the jeep. It matched my field guide's description of the flushing call of a Sykes's Nightjar, but it was—of course—not repeated, and I saw nothing at all. (Does Sykes's Nightjar clatter its wings when flushed, like the Eurasian Nightjar? Or is that a display behaviour?) In retrospect, searching for a nocturnal bird roosting on the ground at night may not have been the best idea—but that didn't stop us from trying again earlier in the evening the next day. Once again, we saw only a few Sand Larks in the spotlight.

An aside: the spotlight had a little LCD screen that said "Sat Sri Akal" when it was switched on… excuse me, activated. It was much too sophisticated to have an on/off switch, and instead featured a variety of programmable modes and a button to cycle through them. But the fact most relevant to this story is that the thing was bloody heavy. Guess who volunteered to carry it around?

Species list

Here's a complete list of the species I saw at Harike.

  1. Grey Francolin Francolinus pondicerianus
  2. Greylag Goose Anser anser
  3. Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
  4. Gadwall Anas strepera
  5. Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope
  6. Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
  7. Spot-billed Duck Anas poecilorhyncha
  8. Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
  9. Northern Pintail Anas acuta
  10. Common Teal Anas crecca
  11. Red-crested Pochard Rhodonessa rufina
  12. Common Pochard Aythya ferina
  13. Ferruginous Pochard Aythya nyroca
  14. Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
  15. Black-rumped Flameback Dinopium benghalense
  16. Indian Roller Coracias benghalensis
  17. White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis
  18. Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis
  19. Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis
  20. Alexandrine Parakeet Psittacula eupatria
  21. Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri
  22. Rock Eagle Owl Bubo bengalensis
  23. Spotted Owlet Athene brama
  24. Rock Pigeon Columba livia
  25. Laughing Dove Streptopelia senegalensis
  26. Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
  27. White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus
  28. Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio
  29. Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
  30. Common Coot Fulica atra
  31. Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
  32. Common Redshank Tringa totanus
  33. Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis
  34. Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia
  35. Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus
  36. Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
  37. Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
  38. Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
  39. Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
  40. Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus
  41. White-tailed Lapwing Vanellus leucurus
  42. Yellow-legged Gull Larus cachinnans
  43. Pallas's Gull Larus ichthyaetus
  44. Brown-headed Gull Larus brunnicephalus
  45. Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus
  46. Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
  47. River Tern Sterna aurantia
  48. Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybridus
  49. Black-shouldered Kite Elanus caeruleus
  50. Black Kite Milvus migrans
  51. Eurasian Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus
  52. Shikra Accipiter badius
  53. Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
  54. Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis
  55. Darter Anhinga melanogaster
  56. Little Cormorant Phalacrocorax niger
  57. Indian Cormorant Phalacrocorax fuscicollis
  58. Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
  59. Little Egret Egretta garzetta
  60. Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
  61. Purple Heron Ardea purpurea
  62. Great Egret Casmerodius albus
  63. Intermediate Egret Mesophoyx intermedia
  64. Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
  65. Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii
  66. Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
  67. Black-headed Ibis Threskiornis melanocephalus
  68. Painted Stork Mycteria leucocephala
  69. Asian Openbill Anastomus oscitans
  70. Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach
  71. Rufous Treepie Dendrocitta vagabunda
  72. House Crow Corvus splendens
  73. Long-tailed Minivet Pericrocotus ethologus
  74. Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus
  75. Red-throated Flycatcher Ficedula albicilla
  76. Indian Robin Saxicoloides fulicata
  77. Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
  78. Siberian Stonechat Saxicola torquata
  79. White-tailed Stonechat Saxicola leucura
  80. Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
  81. Asian Pied Starling Sturnus contra
  82. Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
  83. Bank Myna Acridotheres ginginianus
  84. White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus
  85. Plain Martin Riparia paludicola
  86. White-eared Bulbul Pycnonotus leucotis
  87. Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer
  88. Rufous-vented Prinia Prinia burnesii
  89. Graceful Prinia Prinia gracilis
  90. Yellow-bellied Prinia Prinia flaviventris
  91. Ashy Prinia Prinia socialis
  92. Moustached Warbler Acrocephalus melanopogon
  93. Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola
  94. Booted Warbler Hippolais caligata
  95. Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius
  96. Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
  97. Hume's Warbler Phylloscopus humei
  98. Striated Grassbird Megalurus palustris
  99. Common Babbler Turdoides caudatus
  100. Striated Babbler Turdoides earlei
  101. Jungle Babbler Turdoides striatus
  102. Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca
  103. Sand Lark Calandrella raytal
  104. House Sparrow Passer domesticus
  105. White Wagtail Motacilla alba
  106. Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola
  107. Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava
  108. Long-billed Pipit Anthus similis
  109. Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni
  110. Baya Weaver Ploceus philippinus

By some strange coincidence, this is the same number of species that I saw at Pong dam two weeks earlier. In both lists, I recorded mostly whatever birds I saw during the survey, and didn't spend much time looking in other habitats for different species. In all, however, over 150 species were recorded during the survey.

How many species have you seen so far? someone at Harike asked me. I didn't know. I've never been diligent about maintaining my life list—though I did create one at some point—and this trip made me realise that I'm not very interested in the tally. On the other hand, I try to be careful about keeping lists for each site of the species I've seen there. Perhaps I'll aim not to see as many species as I can, but to see more than a hundred species at as many places as I can. :-)

Harike is, of course, not the sort of place one can see enough of in two days. I look forward to visiting again, and I hope I won't have to wait too long for another opportunity.