At the foothills of the Himalayas lie the largest wetlands in North India, which have been declared a Ramsar heritage site — the Pong Dam Bird Sanctuary.
The Pong Dam Sanctuary is definitely the most spectacular and diverse wetland ecosystem I have seen anywhere in India. However, the Pong dam was built only in the 1970s, after which the area that was already rich with bird life, became an even hotter destination for migratory birds. This enormous, 307 sq km, manmade wetland nestles in the lap of the mighty Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas.
I was at Nagrota Suriya in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. We drove to Haripur Dhar, took paddleboats and rowed into the swamp to reach the feeding area of the water birds. The water was too shallow to proceed further, so we anchored. I set up my camera and looked through the telephoto lens. I could not believe my eyes. For miles as far as the eye could see, the backwaters were thickly carpeted with water birds. I started filming the thousands of poachards, pintails, coots, cormorants and waterfowl that were busy feeding in the marsh.
Suddenly, without warning, the water in front of us exploded with wings and feathers. The sky actually darkened as over 25,000 water birds took flight. The sound of beating wings and the cacophony of their calls filled the air and they all moved in unison in one swirling mass. Minutes later they returned to their feeding grounds, swooping gracefully, skimming weightlessly on the surface. It was one of the most spectacular sights I had seen in India.
The Pong Dam Bird Sanctuary’s crystal clear water, as well as the swamps, marshes and grasslands that cover its backwaters, make it a favourite destination for thousands of migratory birds.
This year the special census’ preliminary reports put the bird count at about 1.44 lakh birds. A total of 220 bird species have been spotted here. The bar-headed geese leave their frigid homes in Siberia every winter and use powerful wind streams to propel them over high Himalayan passes to head for the Pong Dam bird sanctuary.
On one cold morning in Nagrota Suriya, the mist finally lifted to reveal the snowy Dhauladhar range. The bar-headed geese were quite shy and far from my boat, so I decided to move closer. The water had receded, making it easy to walk on the marshy bed. The wet and spongy earth gave way as I moved forward. My shoes started sinking into the soft soil but there was no turning back now.
I was not prepared for the sticky marshland. I was so engrossed in filming that I did not realise that I was ankle deep in soft mud! But I somehow managed to wrest the camera and free myself.
A wetlands adventure needs some preparation. Weather changes quickly, so always carry warm, waterproof clothing, oilskins if possible. Gumboots are a must for marshy conditions. Carry large thick plastic bags to save dry clothes (don’t forget to pack an extra set!) and protect photographic equipment.
Dry fruits like dates are a valuable source of energy. Also remember to carry away all your plastic waste. Birds and animals can choke and die on plastic wrappers.
The Pong dam was created to benefit humans. But it also offers thousands of birds a suitable habitat and a winter home.
Mike Pandey is a wildlife filmmaker and conservationist