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.