The Pong Dam Lake – A Birding Paradise
Way back in 1984, I was delighted to be posted as the Divisional Forest Officer at Dehra Gopipur, a well-known birding destination located near the Pong Lake Bird Sanctuary. The forest rest house at Dehra Gopipur lies on the left bank of the Beas river, which had beenimpounded for hydroelectric and irrigation projects n 1975 by the creation of the Pong dam, the highest earthfill dam in India, in Kangra district on the border of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab.
Photograph by Sanjeeva Pandey.
At its maximum level, the Pong lake stretches cross 314 sq. km., and its northern tip touches the supporting walls of the forest rest house; an alarming change in water levels that nonetheless makes the region a strategic birding site. Over the last three decades, the reports of over a hundred thousand avian guests at this wetland, belonging to over 85 species including Bar-headed Geese, Common Pochards, Common Coots, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovellers, Common Teals, cormorants, shelducks, gulls and many, many more have drawn birders to the shores of Pong lake.
Back in the 1980s, when I visited, the open landscape visible from the forest rest house provided a splendid view of the Dhauladhar mountains, which, along with the vast Pong lake, intercepted wintering waterfowl on their trans-Himalayan migration to north and central India. I vividly recall the unfolding avian drama, beginning with the cackling sounds of Bar-headed Geese arriving in V-shaped formations, immediately after Dussehra in October. My birding records suggest that the partial waterfowl count in the late 1980s was about 20,000 birds a day – a number that increased seven times by the late 1990s onwards, according to the total bird counts undertaken by the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department.
Declared a bird sanctuary in 1983 and one of India’s 25 international Ramsar sites in 2002, the reservoir is additionally one of the leading fish habitats in the Himalayan states, and provides vital habitat to a host of mammals including leopards, sambar, wild pigs, barking deer and oriental small-clawed otters.
A special place
As the lake was harnessed for irrigation and electricity generation, five main types of avian habitats appeared in the draw-down area: mudflats and mudspits long the receding shore-line (for lapwings, egrets, Grey Herons, Purple Herons); open deep water (mainly for grebes and cormorants); dry sand banks with little or no vegetation (for stone curlews and pratincoles); waterside vegetation and swamps below the out-fall from the dam (warblers, babblers, munias, kingfishers, moorhens, herons and predators); and shallow water at the reservoir margin for dabbling ducks such as pintails, shovellers, gadwalls and wigeons). These were non-existent prior to the creation of Pong lake, which increased the concentration of organic matter, worms, insects, and molluscs in the mudflats, shallow and open water. I found it interesting to compare changes in bird diversity and abundance before and after the creation of the lake, which, in 1926, was presented as the Punjab Plain Zone in the Bird List of Kangra district by famous English ornithologist, Hugh Whistler. Whistler reported some 39 bird species from the area in the list, which was published in the journal Ibis in 1926. The Pong lake supports several species of waterfowl. In his book Birds of Kangra, Jan Van Besten suggests that over 400 species can be found in and around Pong. 1,44,000 migratory birds were recorded at Pong in 2010 at the annual bird count.
Pong lake memories
The receding shoreline of the lake near the villages of Jawali, Dhameta, Dada-Siba, Nagrota-Surian, Haripur, Guglara, Harsar, and Nandpur provide ample opportunities to a birdwatcher. The sanctuary administration has taken the initiative to invite not only birding groups from Chandigarh, Delhi, Mumbai and other cities to the region, but encourages school children o visit as well.
Some of my most cherished sightings at the lake include that of a Red-necked Grebe in deep waters, recorded for the first time in India as published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS), along with the experience of a boatman taking me to the exact location where I would find a Ruddy Shelduck; an Osprey catching fish; small birds and coots becoming alarmed as a Marsh Harrier circled over the reeds; and the presence of about 12 to 1,500 mallards at the same place on the lake’s margin over several years. My all-time favourite birds to see at the lake are the Black-headed, Pallas's and Caspian Gulls, species which are fairly uncommon in India, except along the coast. Last year, he count for migrants such as Bar-headed Geese was 40,000. It was exhilarating for me to be present at the northern part of the lake to witness the annual swarm of more than 30,000 pochards when the award-winning filmmaker, Mike Pandey was shooting a documentary on the Pong Lake Bird Sanctuary.
At the Pong Dam Bird Sanctuary, migratory birds are affected by the use of the drawdown area for cultivation and the reservoir for fishing. Although poaching was mostly eliminated in the region by the operation of over 40 forest development communities and nine checkposts, continuous patrolling by sanctuary staff and dialogue with the farmers and local communities are vital to the protection of the region. Before the creation of the Pong lake, most of the area of Whistler's PunjabPlain Zone was cultivated, and inhabited by 94 villages, with little forest cover or other natural habitats, making this one of the few examples wherein a dam site proved beneficial to wildlife. In most cases, flooding destroys unique lowland/riverine forest or grassland habitats and terrestrial fauna. The Pong lake is nothing short of a miracle, though the artificial habitat requires constant monitoring of not only man-made activities like tourism, fishing and encroachment, but natural processes like siltation of the reservoir, plantation on the boundaries of the lake and more. Even as we continue to enjoy the natural bounty that Pong represents, we must help strengthen its protection.
The author is the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Participatory Forest Management and FDA), Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.
For more news about the Pong Lake Bird Sanctuary, see: https://www.sanctuaryasia.com/conservation/news/9197-whooper-swan-visits-pong-after-113-years
Text and photographs by Sanjeeva Pandey, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, February 2013.