Harike Wetlands- Bird on a Wire

Harike Wetlands- Bird on a Wire

A pre-dawn serenity envelops the historic city of Amritsar as we slip through quiet streets Harike Pattan, where the Sikh army once pushed into British territory in the days of the Raj. Today this pretty enclave is home to one of the most important wetlands in North India, a huge shallow lake created by the confluence of the Sutlej and Beas rivers and, now the most important, a Ramsar site. The 285.1 km² ecosystem of the Harike wetland stretches across the districts of Amritsar, Ferozepur, Kapurthala and Jalandhar in Punjab.

It’s a bit late in the season as most of the migrant visitors have flown home with the arrival of the warm weather, but we still hope to catch some stragglers that haven’t flown away yet.

At Harike Bird Sanctuary (Photo by Duncan Wright)

At the exit to the DFO office along the Harike Police Station, we stop to pick up fuel for the powerboat and the Sumo (for the overland tour). A little way ahead, the stillness of the morning air is broken by the enthusiastic cries of a family of rose-bud parakeets swaying above the trees in the yard of the DFO’s office. At the Nanaksar Dham Gurudwara near the barrage, we park the car and drive to the grove of trees behind the temple, the traditional resting place for the migrating salara – the yellow-eyed pigeons. The sound of the car creates a fluttering movement among the inhabitants of the trees – and then they sit down to iron as the morning rays hit the tops of the trees.

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The Gurudwara site is an important bird area and one should spend time exploring the immediate surroundings. Also look here for tufted duck, black-tailed godwits, northern pintail and many species of warblers. You can walk through the swamps and follow a path to the left that takes you past the traditional habitat of species such as the Sindh sparrow and the white-crowned penduline tea. Be patient and you might get to see some of the other residents among the bulrushes along the dike nearby. Another good birding location is the dirt road that runs through the fields along the dikes in the marshes, towards Moga Highway, for sightings of moustached warblers and cinnamon and black bitterns.

From the branches of a tree on the makeshift jetty, a lone spotted owl watches me climb aboard the boat with the rest of the party – the tourist officer, the driver and the two boatmen (who will double as guides). Exploring the Harike Bird Sanctuary by boat for tourists is, unfortunately, a complete no-no. We had to get special permission.

In Harike Bird Sanctuary (Foto door Chicago Man)
In Harike Bird Sanctuary (Foto door Chicago Man)

The river is a shiny path, cutting a strip through the rushes along the deep dikes further downstream. Sudden cacophonous silence honks like a pair of bar-headed geese on the water in front of us. Large flocks of these shy pale grey-brown birds descend on Harike in thousands from their breeding grounds in Tibet in October. Their strong wings carry them over the Himalayas to winter in the warm plains. We also encounter a few noisy greylag geese, inhabitants of the cooler European regions.

The boy piloting the boat points to a group of teals, corridors and paddles, foraging for food in the rushes along the sandbanks. The older boatswain directs my attention to the lone snakebird on the other side, poised for the kill in his colorless brown, the image of restrained energy as he stares intently at the water. His patience is rewarded – his beak quickly stings the river, and a fish beams briefly in the sun, before swallowing it whole. The kingfisher kingfisher, perched on a wire above, glares at him, then hopefully averts his eyes to the rippling water. As the boat speeds past swamps, a group of ruddy shell ducks, some tufted ducks and a few common pochards struggle for the floating grains blown in the wind.

About 198.6 km2 of the wetland is under agriculture and much of the area is covered with grasses such as munj, kahi, bater, khabbal, dab and khas. Stands of shisham and acacia and other varieties of trees line the embankments. Dense floating beds of water hyacinth cover about 70 percent of the lake, devastating the ecosystem.

Harike Bird Sanctuary (Foto door David Cook Wildlife Photography)
Harike Bird Sanctuary (Foto door David Cook Wildlife Photography)

Officially, no fishing, farming, camping, shikar or grazing is allowed in the shrine area, but the adage ‘rules are meant to be broken’, rules. Or so it seems, as I see buffaloes in the grasslands along the Beas Channel on the left. As we approach the confluence of the Beas and Sutlej, the early morning sunlight slopes down on the merging of the clear blue of the Beas and the black and oily waters of the Sutlej, heavy with the remnants of industrial waste from Ludhiana and Jalandhar. It is a matter of growing concern that water pollution continues to drastically affect birds, fish and vegetation on Harike.

The boat rocks gently as the pace of the water changes slightly as we get closer to the junction of the two rivers. We left the Beas channel and drove to the marshes closer to the Kapurthala district along the Sutlej channel. The heavy salinization, another major problem that has turned this wetland into a shallow lake, catches the boat and the engine protests.

When we finally pull back to the jetty, the boatswain tells me to train the binoculars to the distant horizon where a lone Pallas’s gull, India’s largest gull, sporting a black head and black wingtips with white markings, rides across the river. Moments later, the boatswain’s trained eye scans the sky behind us again. Osprey (macchlimar), he points laconically.

Harike Wetland (photo by Kurt Stüber)
Harike Wetland (photo by Kurt Stüber)

The boat moves swiftly across the warm water, but now the birds all seem to have moved deeper into the swamps and cornfields. Time to go home. With a bump, the launch reaches the improvised jetty. We stack into the waiting car and drive onto the highway. Suddenly there’s a flutter and a small group of black-bellied terns come to the sky and call out their plaintive tar, tar before slipping behind a passing cloud and a bunch of shisham trees. Our spirit soars.

Quick Facts

State: Punjab

Location: At the barrage at the confluence of the Beas and Sutlej at Harike Pattan Distances 507 km NW of Delhi, 60 km SE of Amritsar Route from Delhi NH1 to Amritsar via Ambala, Ludhiana and Jalandhar Route from Amritsar NH15 to Harike via the Tarn Taran

When to go; October to March Best spots from November to March when birds fill the wetlands

Go there for wintering migratory birds

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