Influenza-hit Pong wetlands host 40,570 bar-headed geese

Shimla: Despite the 307-square km Pong wetlands in Himachal Pradesh being hit by avian influenza this winter that led to the death of nearly 4,500 bar-headed geese, the largest hit species, they continue to have a sizeable congregation in their preferred wintering ground, wildlife officials said on Monday.

An influx of 40,570 bar-headed geese, one of the world's highest-altitude fliers, was recorded in the Pong wetlands in the just concluded annual waterfowl estimation. Their numbers comprised 108,578 birds of 96 species, a slight fall from last year.

Out of those recorded this year, the water-dependent migratory birds were 1,01,431 of 51 species and the water-dependent resident birds were 6,433 of 29 species, said an official statement quoting state Forest Minister Rakesh Pathania.

It said 714 birds of 16 other species were also recorded.

During the estimation exercise, one Bar-headed geese and one Greylag geese with collars were also spotted at the Pong wetlands, nearly 250 km from state capital Shimla.

Forest Minister Pathania said the bird count was conducted this time under restrained conditions due to the prevailing avian influenza outbreak in the Pong Dam Lake Wildlife sanctuary as well as the Covid-19 pandemic.

The exercise was conducted by the wildlife wing by deploying 57 staff members in 26 sections of the sanctuary.

The Minister told IANS that the total population of birds and the number of species counted this year were marginally less compared to 2020, probably due to the impact of avian influenza that was first reported on December 28, 2020.

"Although the total population of water birds declined during the peak of the influenza outbreak, there is gradual increase in the total population of birds as a result of continuing containment measures being taken in the Pong Dam lake," he said.

Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife-North), Upasana Patial, who participated in the bird census conducted last week, told IANS that in February 2020, 49,496 bar-headed geese were recorded in Pong.

According to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the Pong wetlands is the one wintering ground in the globe to hold such a large congregation of bar-headed geese.

Most of the wetlands in India have been regularly getting bar-headed geese every winter. But Pong is the only habitat that sees the largest influx of bar-headed geese every winter, a BNHS ornithologist told IANS.

Even their breeding grounds spread over the Tibetan plateau do not support such a large number of the geese at one point in time.

In 2015, a staggering 71,800 bar-headed geese, nearly half their numbers globally, were recorded in the Pong wetlands, an all-time high till date.

The gregarious geese feeds at night in the grasslands on riverbanks and breeds in high-altitude lakes in Central Asia, including Tibet and Ladakh.

Crossing national and international boundaries, millions of migratory birds of several species descend on various water bodies and wetlands in the region. They start returning by the end of February or the beginning of March.

The Pong wetlands are also home to many native birds such as the Red Jungle Fowl, Large Indian Parakeet, Indian cuckoo, Bank mynah, Wood shrike, Yellow-eyed babbler, Black ibis, Paradise Flycatcher, Crested lark and the Crested bunting.

A total of 425 species of birds, both migratory and local, 18 of snake, 90 of butterfly, 24 of mammals and 27 of fish have been recorded so far in Pong.

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