Now GPS to monitor winged visitors to Himachal

By Vishal Gulati, IANS,

Shimla : The bar-headed goose, the ruddy shell duck and the mallard, all winter visitors to Himachal Pradesh’s Pong Dam wetlands, are about to find themselves tailed – with the global positioning system (GPS).

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After tracking a fully-grown female leopard on the outskirts of this city, the state’s wildlife wing is now going to monitor the movement of feathered guests through the GPS – and these three species are the first in line.

“For the first time, the department is going to track the migratory routes of the birds with the help of GPS. For this, the department will install radio tags on birds at the Pong wetlands in the first week of March,” Chief Wildlife Warden A.K. Gulati told IANS.

Crossing national and international boundaries, millions of migratory birds of several species descend on various water bodies and wetlands in the region to avoid the extreme winter chill in their native habitats.

Gulati said the department in association with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) would initially install satellite telemetry chips on two birds each of three regular visiting species – the bar-headed goose, the ruddy shell duck and the mallard.

The basic concept of satellite telemetry is to attach a radio transmitter to an animal or bird and track the signal to determine its movements.

The Pong Dam wetlands in the Kangra Valley, some 250 km from state capital Shimla, are among the prominent favourite winter grounds of migratory birds in northern India.

Currently, the Pong wetlands are home to over 120,000 migratory birds of more than 85 species. The largest influx is of bar-headed geese, coots, common pochards, pintails, cormorants and spotbill ducks.

BNHS assistant director S. Balachandran, who will install chips on the birds, said satellite telemetry would help identify specific migratory routes, stopover points and non-breeding areas of the birds.

“Each chip costing around Rs.250,000 will be installed under the wings of birds. It will send signals till four years and their batteries will be recharged through solar energy,” Balachandran told IANS over phone from Mumbai.

The BNHS has already installed such chips on various birds in Tamil Nadu, Orissa, West Bengal and Assam.

Earlier, bird banding and ringing was the popular method used by ornithologists worldwide to know the migratory routes of birds.

Balachandran, who did bird banding at Pong in 2004, said the BNHS would again install bands around the necks of birds in February.

“This time, more than 1,000 bands would be installed on the bar-headed geese, mallards, pintails and common teals,” he said.

During the past four decades, the BNHS has ringed more than 400,000 birds in various parts of the country. The wildlife authorities in 2009 found a great cormorant in Pong that was earlier ringed in Russia.

The Pong Dam reservoir is the only place in the country after the Bharatpur sanctuary in Rajasthan where the red-necked grebes descend every year.

Similarly, the bar-headed goose, the world’s highest-altitude migrant, is a regular visitor here.

In 2010, 40,000 geese were recorded during census and that was a record in itself.

According to a book written by scientists of the Zoological Survey of India, ‘Handbook on Indian Wetland Birds and their Conservation’, nearly 350 species of birds migrate to India every year.

The most abundant winter migrants are ducks and geese. They constitute about 85 percent of population of the migratory species.

The book says the birds go by celestial navigation. The birds possess sensory objects that can trace the waves generated by earth’s magnetic field. The migration starts when the winds are favourable, mostly at dusk.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at [email protected])