As a group of nature enthusiasts stood at the rowing canal of Sukhna Lake on December 5, a flock of fast-wheeling birds caught their eye. Sharply contrasted against the azure winter skies, these 14 birds bore a handsome contrast of black, red and white colours.These were unmistakably Red-crested Pochards, which breed in the lakes of the Central Asian steppes and spend winter in the plains of the sub-continent. The flock settled down after assuring themselves of a safe environment among an assembly of Barheaded geese, Ruddy Shelducks (Brahminy ducks), Common teal, Northern Shovelors, Pintails, Mallards, Gadwalls, Common pochards, Tufted ducks and Eurasian Wigeons.
(Left) Mallard (green necks), Northern shovelors and Ruddy shelducks; A snakebird or darter Rajive Das
Bird-watchers were thrilled at the spectacle. But at that very same moment, UT forest and wildlife department official Kulbir Gill was expending his lung power at a flotilla of competition rowers who were sleekly penetrating the birds causing them to panic and take wing."We have written to the Lake Club rowers not to disturb the birds as they are here for a few weeks. The rest of the lake could be used for their training. We have succeeded to some extent in keeping rowers away and this has helped migratory birds collect in greater numbers," Gill said.
Whatever be the department’s efforts, Red-crested pochards have not been seen again, though Gill has observed a couple of migratory Great Crested Grebes.
The department has installed a spotting scope and kept binoculars and bird guide handy for bird-watchers. But due to human disturbances and the desilting exercise, which has robbed the lake of its wetland character at the regulator-end, migration has been on the lower side since the winter of 2010-11. Not more than 800 birds at a rough estimate have been spotted at the Sukhna this season. What is positive is the small natural wetland behind the rowing canal, which affords birds’ food, cover, habitat and no disturbance. Herds of Sambar deer wade in this wetland giving it a look reminiscent of the celebrated images clicked at Ranthambore National Park. ( Photo: Sambhar deer at Sukhna. Rajive Das)
According to Rajive Das, an birder and photographer whose outstanding image of an Indian pitta at Chandimandir found its way to the National Geographic:
“The migration, so far, has been less this season. The wetland at Mote Majra near Banur, which attracted a diverse number of migratory birds, has been rendered useless for birds because of disturbance posed by the fishing contractor. The lake at Dhanas does not have many birds, though last winter I observed a pair of Ferruginous pochards (a near-threatened species) there.”
Das was happy at clicking the enigmatic Oriental or Indian darter (also a near-threatened species) at Siswan dam and Sukhna Lake. Both these spots are also staging grounds for some rare birds in the reverse migration of spring. However, Siswan and Mirzapur dams, which lie in Punjab and to the north-west of Chandigarh, are host to much lesser number of migratory birds this winter.
“I agree that migratory birds have been confined to one end of the Sukhna and that rowers present a disturbance. But we have to share this lake with different stakeholders. We have written to the rowers’ association that migratory birds should not be disturbed,” UT chief wildlife warden Santosh Kumar told HT Chandigarh.