After a hiatus of 113 years, rare Whooper Swans have been sighted at the Pong Dam Lake wildlife sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh — bringing cheers among ornithologists and bird watchers. It was in January 1900 that this bird was last sighted in India at Talwara by General Osborne.

The Whooper Swans also find mention in the notes of A.O. Hume’s book Swans of India in 1878.

“A pair of Whooper Swans was spotted in the Beas river basin after a gap of 113 years,” said Devinder Dadwal, an ornithologist working with the State Forest Department in Dharamsala. Mr. Dadwal has also photographed the pair.

The sighting happened during the recent annual waterfowl estimation exercise by experts from various institutes and organisations along with the officials of State Forest Department for monitoring the numerical size of visitor migratory birds’ population during 2012-13. Whooper Swan is the national bird of Finland and features on the Finnish one Euro coin. It is one of the heaviest flying birds with an average body weight of 9.8 to 11.4 kg for males and 8.2 to 9.2 kg for females. The birds stay in large water bodies as their legs are unable to support their weight for long periods. They spend much of their time swimming and feeding.

The reappearance of this swan in the Pong Dam Lake after such a long gap show that this man-made wetland, which is now an internationally declared wetland on river Beas, is fast growing as a favourite marshland among the migratory birds.

The Whooper Swan has now become the 418th bird species to be recorded at the Pong Lake so far, a significant number considering that the entire known bird diversity for the Indian sub-continent is around 1250 species, claimed an official. Earlier on January 20, experts from the Forest Department spotted another new visitor to the area — Ruddy Breasted Crake — in the periphery of the wetland.

Experts have recorded the arrival of 1.23 lakh waterfowls of 113 species at this 156 sq ft Ramsar site this year. Most of these birds migrate from trans-Himalayan regions in Tibet, Central Asia, Russia and Siberia. 

After the two-day long exercise, it was observed that species such as the Bar-Headed Goose (34,000), Northern Pintail (21,000), Common Coot (14,000), Common Pochard (12,000), Tuft Pochard (8,000), Little Cormorant (7,700), Common Teal (6,800) and the Common Shelduck (35) have visited the lake. Some other species like the Grey Legged Goose, Red Crested Pochard, White fronted Goose and the Sarus Crane have also been identified though in smaller numbers. 

The earthen Pong Dam was built across the Beas river in 1975; it created a 24,529 hectare reservoir with 15,662 hectares of wetland portions. The Renuka and Chandratal lakes are other two wetland Ramsar sites in Himachal Pradesh.

Rich in fish fauna, such as mahseer, catla, mirror carp, singhara and catfishes, the water body soon turned into a watering hole for migratory birds; the Himachal Pradesh government declared it as a wildlife sanctuary in 1986 before it got international recognition as one of the 25 international wetland sites by the Ramsar Convention.

Himachal Pradesh’s Pong Dam Lake became the winter sojourn for 113 species of migratory birds this year, including the rare Whooper Swan