SUBJECT :Winter migratory water birds using the central Asian flyway have started making a beeline to Punjab’s Harike wetland, offering a delight for bird lovers. 

A group of Common Pochard at Punjab’s Harike wetland

By: Vikas Vasudeva

Dwindling number of a few important species a matter of concern, say experts

Chandigarh, January 16, 2021: Winter migratory water birds using the central Asian flyway have started making a beeline to Punjab’s Harike wetland, offering a delight for bird lovers.

Over the years, the number of certain species has been falling. Some bird enthusiasts and experts are of the view that the trend is not just limited to the Harike wetland, but could be witnessed across the county and even beyond. The key reasons they attribute for the drop is increased human interference in their breeding regions, climate change and rising air and water pollution.

Central Asian flyway

Every winter, the birds make their way to India through the central Asian flyway, which covers a large continental area of Europe-Asia between the Arctic and Indian Oceans. The Harike wetland, one of the largest in northern India, is situated in Tarn Taran district and stands on the confluence of the the Beas and the Sutlej. It is home to birds visiting from as far as the Arctic and Siberia.

Birds such as the Eurasian coot, Greylag goose, Bar-headed goose, Gadwall and the northern shoveler are the prominent ones that could be sighted at Harike. Among others species, Common Pochard, Spot-billed duck, Little Cormorant, Pied Avocet, Great Cormorant, Ferruginous Pochard, Common Teal, Black-tailed Godwit, Steppe Gull and Brown-headed Gull have been spotted in good numbers this year.

“On an average, the number has been anywhere between 92,000 and 94,000 over the years. The average number has been stable,” Geetanjali Kanwar, Coordinator - Rivers, Wetlands and Water Policy, WWF-India, told The Hindu. “There has been no drastic fall in the number, be it of resident or migratory birds. There are several factors that influence the movement of these birds. At times, in neighbouring regions including Himachal Pradesh and Jammu-Kashmir, when the temperature falls drastically, the flow of birds rises here.

“Till December last year, around 55,000 migratory water-dependent birds from 87 species have been recorded at Harike, according to a preliminary count conducted jointly by the Wildlife wing and World Wildlife Fund-India. January is the peak season of arriving birds and we are expecting the number to be good, close to the average. The final figures will be available by the end of January,” she said.

“These birds come here to escape harsh climate and for food. A few are dependent on vegetation. So wherever they get good food and comfortable habitat, they move to that part.”

In 2020, the count at Harike was recorded at 91,025 — a drop of around 32,000 birds compared to 2019, when 1,23,128 birds visited it. In 2018, 94,771 birds were sighted against 93,488 in 2017.

While the average number is stable, the matter of concern, however, is the dwindling number of a few important species. “The number of species such as Northern Lapwing, Pacific Golden Plover, Black-bellied Tern and Cotton Pygmy Goose species has been reducing over the years. But it’s not just in Harike. The trend is across the country and worldwide,” Ms. Kanwar said.

Damaged settlements, breeding failures

Navjit Singh, secretary of the Avian Habitat and Wetland Society, said a lot of these birds had their breeding grounds in Russia and neighbouring countries. “And in many of those countries oil exploration has been extensively taking place, which has damaged their settlements, resulting in breeding failures and eventually in drop of migration as well. As far as local reasons are concerned, wetlands have shrunk over the years. Encroachments in Harike could be another local reason behind the drop. Though the Forest department has been fighting against the menace, once encroachment takes place it take years to get them evicted,” said Mr. Singh.

Dr. Neelima Jerath, Director General of the Kapurthala-based Pushpa Gujral Science City, who had extensively worked on wetland issues, said human interference, besides air and water pollution, could be key reasons behind the drop. “The Satluj river has become polluted over the years. The government though has been making efforts to reduce the pollution. Pesticide use in farms has increased in Punjab over the years, a lot of chemicals enter the water bodies. Climate change could be another reason,” she said.

R.K. Mishra, APCCF (Chief Wildlife Warden) of Punjab, said the movement of migratory birds depends on food and habitat, which keeps changing.