One evening, I went to the boat point at Kabini River Lodge to relax, and sat inside a boat. The moonlight was beautiful, and birds were flying back to their safe roosting spots. Amidst the sounds of many birds, I heard a unique call from the sky. As I looked above, a few large birds were flying in the sky, making these beautiful sounds. Out of curiosity, I wanted to know what this bird was; I realised that it was the Bar-headed Goose. It was so beautiful that I fell in love with it, and decided to write about it. With my camera in hand, I started roaming along the Kabini backwaters in search of these birds, and spent almost ten days photographing them.
The Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus) is one of the world’s highest-flying birds. These geese can fly at altitudes of 25,000 feet while migrating over the Himalaya, where oxygen and temperature levels are extremely low. The summer habitat of the Bar-headed Goose is high-altitude lakes where it grazes on short grass, whereas its winter habitat is cultivated fields, where it could potentially damage crops by feeding on barley, rice, and wheat. The species has been reported as migrating southwards from Tibet, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia, before crossing the Himalaya towards South Asia. They breed in Central Asia in colonies of thousands near mountains lakes, and in winters in South Asia (India, Bangladesh and Myanmar), and even as far south as peninsular India.
Bar-headed Geese have yellowish legs and black-tipped yellow bills. Adults have a white head with two black bands (bars) across the crown, and a white line down either side of a grey neck. Juveniles have a white face, and a dark crown and hind neck. This pale grey bird is distinct from other geese in its genus because of the black bars on its head, which also gives it its name.
It is a mid-sized goose, and measures 71-76 cms in length and weighs 1.8-3.2 kgs. They lay 3 to 8 eggs at a time, in a ground nest. The main physiological challenges of Bar-headed Geese is extracting oxygen from hypoxic air and transporting it to aerobic muscle fibres in order to sustain their flight at high altitudes. Their flight is very demanding on their metabolism because at these altitudes, they need to flap more since the air is thin, to generate the required lift.
The Bar-headed Goose has been suggested as being the bird ‘Hamsa’ from Indian mythology, though another interpretation is that the Bar-headed Goose is likely to be the ‘Kadamba’ (dove) in ancient Sanskrit literature, whereas swans were referred to as ‘Hamsa’.
Some Bar-headed Geese have green collars around their neck, with markings on the collar. This means that there is already a mechanism to track them and learn about their lifestyle. I would definitely be curious to know where they are coming from, and how they achieve the feat of flying over the Himalaya. They are beautiful and brave birds, and I am tempted to call them ‘flying flowers’.
My friends and I have been tracking them since the last few years, and have taken pictures. In 2012, there were around 300 to 400 Bar-headed Geese in Kabini’s backwaters, and in 2013-14, they were in good numbers of around 1200. In 2015-16, we saw almost 1400 of them!
In 2017, they were in fewer numbers at the Kabini backwaters: just 400-500. We found them in the month of November around the backwaters. It is summer now, and it has become hot. The geese have gone back to their summer home, and we will have to wait until they return.