As shrill buzz of the engine of a motorboat belonging to the forest and wildlife department grew louder, a small flock of birds belonging to the Cormorant family, floating quietly on water raised their heads looking around anxiously. They buzz was enough to press the alarm button, and the birds took flight one after another creating flutter and were soon air borne.
Their flight was quite akin to a scene in a war movie in which fighter planes are shown taking off one after the other on their mission to attack an enemy's target. However, in this case, these harmless winged creatures were scampering into the air for safety, as they sensed an approaching danger.
However, a lone cormorant decided not to follow the flock and flew around the motorboat at a gentle pace, as if it wanted to get a clear view of its 'enemies' down below. As it flew around, it stretched its long white and grey coloured neck back and forth much like a snake. This prompted, Shinda Masih, an experienced forest guard, to say: “We call it snake bird. Every year, it is among the first to arrive at the wetland. We have quite a number of this species here.”
The forest guard, who has been here since 2000, knows every inch of the 86 square km Harike Wetland at the confluence of Sutlej and Beas rivers - spread over Tarn Taran, Kapurthala and Ferozepur districts. The wetland, which was declared a Ramsar Site in 1982, is home to a large species of migratory birds that travel thousands of kilometres every year all the way from the cold climatic zones of Siberia to reach Harike in November.
These winged visitors stay on here till mid March before flying back. Escorting an HT team, Masih along with four other members of his team, including a boatman, guided the motorboat towards the meeting spot of the two rivers. While the waters of Sutlej were blackish in colour, the Beas was quite clean, except for hyacinth floating here and there. This is because of the polluted water from industrial units upstream, more precisely near Ludhiana, enters the Sutlej.
A short distance from the confluence, a flock of around 70-80 pochards or diving ducks were resting quietly in the Sutlej waters. Though the motorboat's engines were tuned down, yet the low buzz was not to their liking and they gradually took flight.
“This is the reason why we cannot turn the bird sanctuary into a tourist spot. The birds do not like to be disturbed and if we have motorboats roaming around with tourists, not a single bird will come or stay here,” stated Masih, an argument that no one could challenge after witnessing the fright that any sort of noise could create to these birds.
Arrival of birds
As is the case every year, this year, too, the migratory birds started arriving Harike in the second week of November. According to Masih, around 40,000 have arrived so far while their numbers are growing with each passing day.
Last winter (2012-13), around 80,000 migratory birds had visited Harike after travelling across Siberia, Russia, Iran, Afghanistan and parts of the Kashmir valley. The bird count is taken every year in the month of February by special teams from Chandigarh. For the bird count, they go into the sanctuary in oar-driven boats so as not to disturb the winged visitors.
“We take a head count of a flock and then count the number of flocks. In this way we have a rough figure,” he added.
The number last year was less than in 2011-12. The number then was a record 1,20,000.
Asked about the reasons, the forest guard said: “It all depends on the weather in Siberia and along the route that these birds take. If the conditions are extremely cold in Siberia or Russia, we will receive more birds. As in freezing conditions, ice freezes the water bodies and also covers the feeding areas of these birds.”
Types of species
Around 74 species were sighted last year. This number often changes in a particular year, as some species fail to come while in another year a new species gets sighted.
The most common sighted varieties are those belonging to the cormorant family. The other species include Bar Headed Geese, Siberain Gull, Red Crescent Geese, Rudy Shell Duck, Purple Moor Hen, Spoon Bill Ibbes, White Shell Duck, Tufted Duck, Yellow Crowed Woodpecker, Yellow Eyed Pigeon, Black Headed Gull, Brown headed Gull, Grey Legged Geese, White winged Tern, Black Necked Grebe, White Browed Fantail, Cadwell, Brown Shrike, Horned Grebe, Pochard, Shovler, Common Coate, Pide Kingfisher, Sand Pepper, a small sized bird, which was seen sitting on sandy ground along the river soaking the sun. Because of its colour and size, it was not visible from far.
Last winter, the sanctuary had a very rare visitor - the pink coloured Flymingo. Eighty of these birds were sighted for the first time. However, it has not yet arrived so far this season.
Ideal feeding ground
This wetland with an abundance of flora and fauna is an ideal feeding ground for the migratory birds. The high elephantine grass on the numerous islands inside the protected area provides excellent cover for the birds from poachers. The hyacinth plant that covers large portion of the river near the Harike headwork also provides feed to the birds. However, the main feed to these birds comes from the river like small fish, which is in abundance.
Besides the winged visitors, the sanctuary also has wild boars, sambar, jackals and even monkeys.
With the forest guards and others always on their toes, incidents of poaching of birds are very rare. The poaching, if any, takes place on the periphery of the sanctuary.
Some species of birds love to feed in the wheat fields. These harmless creatures often become the targets of farmers, who are not aware that the excreta of the birds is an excellent natural manure.
With few firearms being available with the residents of villages around the sanctuary, guns are rarely used for shooting the birds. Moreover, ammunition is also expensive and the noise of a shot would alert the forest guards and the cops, who help them out in their duties.
Nets and even chemicals are used for killing the birds. The chemicals are sprayed at places, where the birds feed, which cause their death. But this is limited to areas not under the sanctuary.
Since 2000, around 80-85 cases under the Wildlife Protection Act have been registered at the Harike police station. Most of these cases involve illegal fishing. Cases related to poaching of migratory birds are around 20, which is very low. However, the process in courts is slow and so far conviction has taken place in only 10-15 such cases.
Cases of protected land having been encroached upon have also been registered. The wildlife officials pointed to a 40 acre area on an island inside the sanctuary, which was got vacated last year and a case was registered against those involved.
Constructive use of hyacinth
Presence of hyacinth plant or weed, which is 90% full of water can been seen in virtually every river of Punjab. The seeds of this plant had come to India along with the Mexican variety of wheat (import) at the start of the Green Revolution.
This plant has virtually choked parts of the wetland, particularly close to the Harike barrage. In the late eighties, an insect known as Wevel was brought from Argentina and left in the waters of the wetland. These insects would feed on the stem and lower portion for this plant that would result in its decay. However, as this was a slow process, the army was involved in the ninties to remove the hyacinth with the help of self-designed machines. But this also failed.
The major disadvantage of this weed is that it blocks the flow of water and also reduces the water surface for the birds.
Manual removal of the weed is an ongoing process. But now the forest department has decided to put this plant to some use. The department had sent a couple of residents of nearby Churia village (Ferozepur) to Kerala to receive training in handicrafts using this plant for making baskets, trays in the same fashion as coir is used for making such items.
The trained persons imparted training to a group of women of the village. Now these women have formed a Self Help Group, who are involved in making baskets, dustbins, trays, pen stands, 'chattais' and other items from the dried stem of the hyacinth.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) helps these women to sell their hand-woven products at exhibitions in Delhi and other places. The hyacinth is pulled out by male folk of the village and forest department officials. It is dried and then the dried stem is taken away by the group for weaving it into useful household items.
Migratory birds in 2011-12 around 1,20,000
Migratory birds in 2012-13 around 80,000
Species ighted last year around 74
Eighty pink coloured Flymingo were sighted for the first time last year. It has not yet arrived this season so far
This season around 40,000 birds have arrived at Harike so far
Cases related to poaching of migratory birds is around 20 since 2000, but conviction has taken place in only 10-15 such cases