Pong Dam waterfowl census, January 15–17 2010

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

2010-01-19

I have wanted to visit the Pong Dam 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.

Geography

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 southern edge.

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.

Friday, 15th January

The foggy weather imposed a late start to our survey, but we reached a dry river bed near Dada Siba shortly after 1000, and walked down to the edge of the lake to begin our survey. There were seven of us: Ramesh and another forest guard, plus four other participants and myself. The river bed provided slender pickings, but as we got closer to the water, birds began to be seen and heard more often.

I was distracted from watching dozens of Barn Swallows flitting over the sandy shore by a wheezy chut-chup call followed by a little song that was unfamiliar in its details, but which I recognised immediately as a lark of some kind. A few moments later, I had a Sand Lark in view. I have seen the species at Khadar in Delhi, but never heard it singing before, so this was a real treat (especially because most of the other Calandrella larks that occur in this region are not likely to sing in winter).

According to the plan, we were not supposed to use a boat until the next day, but seeing the number and diversity of birds on islands out on the lake, we decided to split up and have four people take a boat on a short trip (thanks to a fisherman nearby who was willing to row us out to the island and back) and meet the others further down the shore. We spent an hour or so on this exercise, which resulted in a few thousand Bar-Headed Geese, nearly a thousand Ruddy Shelducks, and an assortment of other waterfowl. Nothing we hadn't seen from the shore (except some Curlews and Greylag Geese that were hidden behind the other ducks), but we were in a better position to estimate their numbers.

I saw a few Caspian, Pallas's, Black-Headed, and Brown-Headed Gulls, and suspected that some birds seen in flight were Slender-Billed Gulls based on their similarity to Black-Headed and the shape of their head, but I couldn't confirm that to my satisfaction. Terns were represented by many River Terns, some Black-bellied, one or two Whiskered, and one bird that Ramesh identified as a Little Tern. Most of these birds were seen in flight, but some were on islands and sand banks out into the lake.

We continued along the shore after returning from the boat journey. The water in the lake became shallower as we moved on, eventually reducing to a channel, and then a mere trickle. Increasingly wider expanses of mud were separated by a strip of grey sand dotted with small boulders from agricultural fields. As we neared the end of our walk, my focus shifted towards the fields, and I saw many larks on the ground (mostly Sand Larks) and in song flight (both Sand Larks and Oriental Skylarks). My first Eurasian Skylark did not keep me waiting too long, and because Ramesh wanted to know how to identify them, I was given a chance to hold forth on one of my favourite subjects. I was surprised by how obviously bigger they were than Oriental Skylarks, and that some of these bigger birds were flying and calling out a random jumble of notes (but not the classic Skylark song, which I wasn't expecting in winter anyway).

Other notable sightings included some large flocks of Temminck's Stints; a couple of probable Water Pipits; two Ringed Plovers that looked bigger than Little Ringed (of which there were many) both in flight and on the ground; a pair of Spot-Billed Ducks; an intrepid Long-Tailed Shrike that allowed us to approach within two metres of it before grudgingly moving to the next fence post; a Siberian Chiffchaff; an Osprey; and some Large Egrets standing by isolated little pools out on the mud flats.

Unfortunately, I felt quite ill towards the second half of the day, and I was unable to complete the full walk through the Jumbal khad (and had to take an earlier exit and wait for the others to finish). Towards the end, I could no longer keep up with the birds I saw, but the incessant calls of Sand Larks and Oriental Skylarks all around me kept me going until—with frequent rest stops along the way—I managed to stumble to the closest practical extraction point. I went to sleep as soon as I was back in Dehra, and to everyone's relief, recovered completely by the next morning.

Saturday, 16th January

On Saturday, we covered the same area backwards—starting where we had ended, and walking back to the beginning of our walk the day before. I was to walk along the shore while Ramesh and the rest of the group took a rowboat out onto the lake and to the island to count the birds there. I had no trouble on the walk this time, and saw many birds I was unable to observe at length while I was ill.

For the most part, the species I saw on the second day were the same as the species I had seen the day before, but their number varied slightly. Some notable sightings included two Great Crested Grebes revealed when a huge flock of Bar-Headed Geese took flight; a couple of Water Pipits not far from the larger flocks of Rosy Pipits; Citrine and White (but almost no Yellow) Wagtails on every patch of mud; some three hundred Sand Larks in and around the strip of sand between the boulders and the fields; and to my delight, another opportunity to compare the Eurasian and Oriental Skylarks at close range.

Waders, as on the previous day, were less numerous than I had expected. The flocks of Temminck's Stints and the dozens of Common Sandpipers were the most numerous, and Greenshanks, Redshanks and other Sandpipers were represented only by isolated stragglers on the mud flats. Little Ringed Plovers were common, and though I again saw some slightly larger-looking individuals, they were clearly not Long-Billed Plovers, and probably not even Common Ringed Plovers. Raptors too were scarce, with the majority being Black Kites.

The highlight of my morning was two sightings of Great Stone-curlews (or Great Thick-knees). We—this was before the rest of the team left on the boat—saw five individuals some distance away on the mud flats, and were able to observe them for several minutes, see them flying, and even hear an apparently truncated version of their call. Later, I encountered two more birds standing only a couple of metres away amongst the boulders. I realised that their strategy at that range was to stand motionless and hope they weren't noticed, which their brilliant camouflage made quite possible. Their colour and shape matched the boulders perfectly, and even their big eyes didn't look out of place.

When the day's survey work was done, we hopped on a motorboat to Nagrota Surian to attend a small evening gathering at the Forest Rest House. We stopped for a while en route at Rancer island to meet some of the other teams, but I decided to rest and sat down above some cliffs and watched the terns and gulls flying past. At the lake's edge closest to Nagrota Surian, we were met by a number of vehicles which ferried the arriving teams to the forest "thana", where hot tea and a lovely-smelling shisham-wood bonfire were waiting.

I was pleased to meet Pratap Singh (of WII, Dehradun), with whom I had corresponded in the past; and it was also nice to meet some of the other participants and compare notes—for example, I thought I had seen a pair of the decidedly uncommon Common Shelducks in flight from the motorboat, and it was good to receive confirmation that over a dozen had been seen elsewhere that day. It was also an opportunity to meet the organisers for the first time, and discuss the survey and potential future surveys in other areas.

Before dinner, a number of people displayed their photographs and videos taken that day using an LCD projector, notably a group that had seen a flock of many tens of thousands of Common Pochards in flight and on the water. We returned to Dehra soon after dinner, the 30km drive taking about an hour.

Sunday, 17th January

The third day wasn't really part of the census. It was reserved for a chance to follow up interesting records (such as the Common Shelducks). Most of the participants had left the night before, or early on Sunday morning (as the rest of my own group did). By popular consent the night before, it was decided to take rowboats out to the huge flock of Common Pochards in the morning, and take a motorboat to Rancer island and the dam in the afternoon.

Ramesh and I were supposed to leave early from Dehra the next morning, join the others for breakfast at Nagrota Surian, and travel with them to count the flock of Pochards. But we couldn't find a bus early enough, so Ramesh was kind enough to take me on his motorcycle to Haripur (halfway along the road between Dehra and Nagrota), and we met the others at the edge of the lake. We rode through a broad, rolling expanse of fields on the way, and I saw (at least three different species of) larks rising from the ground and fluttering away as we passed. But the boats were waiting, and I had no time to stop and listen to their song.

The boatmen knew where the flock was, out on the open water, and we took four rowboats (two boatmen, three passengers) out to see them. There was a documentary film crew with us, and I ended up sharing a boat with one of the smaller cameras and two of its attendants. It took almost an hour to row out through the mist to the ducks, stretched in a kilometre-long stripe across the water. The sun was behind them, however, and they were too shy to approach closely. Even with the boats half a kilometre away, sections of the flock would take flight (the whole flock being much too large to panic all at the same time), circling around us and landing a minute or two later a little further down the line. We could only see dark shapes for the most part, but I saw some Tufted Ducks and some Ferruginous Pochards mixed in with the majority of Common Pochards. I estimated the total number at about forty thousand birds.

The cinematographers were disappointed, of course, but I hadn't expected to get much closer. Besides, there were many other birds on the water to engage my attention. On the long ride back to the shore, I enjoyed an opportunity to study the many River Terns and a few Black-Bellied Terns circling around, diving to catch a fish of their own, or more often to steal one from the cormorants (which were also being robbed by Pallas's Gulls). Many more Great Crested Grebes were feeding in this part of the lake, and launched into their long take-off run as the boat drew closer. We passed a few isolated flock-lets of (mostly Tufted) ducks, and some small islands with many roosting terns and Caspian Gulls. On the shore were hundreds of noisy Bar-Headed Geese.

After lunch, I passed up the motorboat ride in favour of a quick visit to Sansarpur terrace (an area downstream of the dam) on my way down to the plains to catch a bus home. The marshy fields and reed beds looked very promising—excellent habitat for snipe, pipits, and reed warblers; but I couldn't spend as much time there as I would have liked. Much to my annoyance, my departure from Nagrota Surian had been unavoidably delayed, and the fog that was settling down by the time I reached Sansarpur made it difficult to see and unwise to linger.

Logistics and organisation

Perhaps the Forest Department has the organisation of the event down to an art after having conducted a census every winter for many years, but I was very impressed with the way everything was organised. Running an event involving nearly a hundred people in over twenty teams travelling from different locations around the lake to survey their assigned areas on foot and by boat over three days, arranging food, accommodation, and transport for all the people involved, collating the results quickly, and making sure the participants all had a good idea of what was going on was a massive task. That it was managed without a single serious problem is nothing short of marvellous.

I was very happy to meet and spend some time with several people from the Forest Department over the weekend. Everyone was extremely helpful and knowledgeable: Mr. Ramesh Kumar, the forest guard who was assigned to be with my group, whose sincere interest and knowledge of the local birds made my experience much more enjoyable (not to mention his help when I was unwell); Mr. D. S. Dhadwal, the Range Officer at Pong Dam, one of the main organisers of the event, who has been hard at work to photograph the area's birds and plants; and Mr. Sanjeeva Pandey, Chief Conservator of Forests, who has studied the area for decades, and who was in charge of the event. (I met some other people at Nagrota Surian, including an expert botanist who was kind enough to answer some of my beginner's questions very patiently, but I am ashamed to admit I did not catch their names.)

My sincere thanks to the Forest Department, and everyone involved in making my trip such a memorable one; and thanks also to Hassath, for the encouragement and support that made it possible for me to be at the census at all this year.

Travel

A brief note about my travel arrangements. The trains to Pathankot were all full, so I booked a seat on the Volvo bus to Dharamsala at the HRTC counter behind Himachal Bhawan, off Mandi House. The ticket cost INR825, and the bus left at 2000 on the 14th evening from the ISBT (at Kashmere Gate). I reached Dehra Gopipur (some 460km from Delhi) just before 0500 the next morning, which I'm told is an hour early. There's no real bus stop in Dehra—the bus just passes through the outskirts of town on the way to Jwalamukhi, so it's advisable to let the conductor know in advance that you'll be getting off there.

My transport around the reservoir was handled very efficiently by the Forest Department, mostly by means of Sumo Taxis that shuttled us from the PWD guest house in Dehra to our survey area near Dada Siba and to Nagrota Surian. On the last day, Ramesh was kind enough to take me to Haripur on his motorcycle when we were unable to get a bus or taxi.

Unfortunately, I could not book my return ticket in advance, so I had to make arrangements at the last minute. A Forest Department jeep dropped me to Talwara in Punjab (about 90km from Nagrota Surian), whence I took an extremely crowded bus to Chandigarh, arriving well past midnight and reaching the ISBT in sector 17 with minutes to spare before the last bus to Delhi departed. I reached Delhi at about 0630 in the morning after a terrifying drive through dense fog. (It might have been a better idea to make my way to Kangra and take a bus from there.)

Species list

  1. Grey Francolin Francolinus pondicerianus
  2. Greylag Goose Anser anser
  3. Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus
  4. Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
  5. Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
  6. Gadwall Anas strepera
  7. Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope
  8. Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
  9. Spot-billed Duck Anas poecilorhyncha
  10. Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
  11. Northern Pintail Anas acuta
  12. Common Teal Anas crecca
  13. Red-crested Pochard Rhodonessa rufina
  14. Common Pochard Aythya ferina
  15. Ferruginous Pochard Aythya nyroca
  16. Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
  17. Common Merganser Mergus merganser
  18. Brown-headed Barbet Megalaima zeylanica
  19. Indian Grey Hornbill Ocyceros birostris
  20. Common Hoopoe Upupa epops
  21. White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis
  22. Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis
  23. Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri
  24. House Swift Apus affinis
  25. (?)Jungle Owlet Glaucidium radiatum
  26. Laughing Dove Streptopelia senegalensis
  27. Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
  28. Common Coot Fulica atra
  29. Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
  30. Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
  31. Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus
  32. Common Redshank Tringa totanus
  33. Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia
  34. Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus
  35. Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
  36. Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
  37. Little Stint Calidris minuta
  38. Temminck's Stint Calidris temminckii
  39. Great Thick-knee Esacus recurvirostris
  40. Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
  41. Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata
  42. (?)Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
  43. Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
  44. Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
  45. River Lapwing Vanellus duvaucelii
  46. Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus
  47. Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans
  48. Pallas's Gull Larus ichthyaetus
  49. Brown-headed Gull Larus brunnicephalus
  50. Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus
  51. (?)Slender-billed Gull Larus genei
  52. River Tern Sterna aurantia
  53. (?)Little Tern Sterna albifrons
  54. Black-bellied Tern Sterna acuticauda
  55. Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybridus
  56. Osprey Pandion haliaetus
  57. Black Kite Milvus migrans
  58. Eurasian Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus
  59. Shikra Accipiter badius
  60. Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
  61. Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga
  62. Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
  63. Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
  64. Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
  65. Little Cormorant Phalacrocorax niger
  66. Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
  67. Little Egret Egretta garzetta
  68. Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
  69. Purple Heron Ardea purpurea
  70. Great Egret Casmerodius albus
  71. Intermediate Egret Mesophoyx intermedia
  72. Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
  73. Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii
  74. Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach
  75. Rufous Treepie Dendrocitta vagabunda
  76. House Crow Corvus splendens
  77. Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
  78. White-throated Fantail Rhipidura albicollis
  79. Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus
  80. Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis
  81. Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
  82. Siberian Stonechat Saxicola torquata
  83. Pied Bushchat Saxicola caprata
  84. Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
  85. Bank Myna Acridotheres ginginianus
  86. Great Tit Parus major
  87. Plain Martin Riparia paludicola
  88. Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
  89. Himalayan Bulbul Pycnonotus leucogenys
  90. Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer
  91. Ashy Prinia Prinia socialis
  92. Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
  93. Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius
  94. Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
  95. Hume's Warbler Phylloscopus humei
  96. Common Babbler Turdoides caudatus
  97. Jungle Babbler Turdoides striatus
  98. Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca
  99. Sand Lark Calandrella raytal
  100. Crested Lark Galerida cristata
  101. Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis
  102. Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula
  103. House Sparrow Passer domesticus
  104. White-Browed Wagtail Motacilla maderaspatensis
  105. White Wagtail Motacilla alba
  106. Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola citreola
  107. Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava
  108. Paddyfield Pipit Anthus rufulus
  109. Rosy Pipit Anthus roseatus
  110. Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta

(This list reflects two days of birding focused on birds on and very close to the lake, with other species included only when I stumbled across them by chance. Exploring the forests and marshes a little further away would no doubt have added many more species.)

I can see many more visits to the Pong Dam reservoir in my future.