Photographs by Arif Ali, White Star
Photographs by Arif Ali, White Star

Throughout the year, Uchhali Lake gives the image of a peaceful, receptive mass of water nestled between wild vegetation in the midst of a salt range. But with a perceptible drop in temperatures, the monotone calm is transposed into a symphonic chorus that is a treat for the ears. With the arrival of the first flock of transient avian beauties, the lake turns into an oasis of waterfowls of different hues and colours.

This is the Uchhali Complex of Khushab district’s Soon Valley, a grouping of the Uchhali, Khabikki and Jahlar lakes. Its sub-tropical and hilly terrain, with a maximum height of over 5,000 feet above sea level, is typified by a less-pronounced monsoon influence, experiencing some winter showers with regular frost and a rather hot and dry summer, more akin to Mediterranean climate.

These lakes welcome migratory birds that arrive for their winter sojourn from distant lands. Covering as much as 4,500 kilometres via the International Migratory Bird Route Number 4, these animals escape the harsh winters of Siberia and Central Asian counties to seek refuge in the valley.

Skeins of geese and flamboyant flamingos with their brilliant pink feathers and gangly necks stand elegantly in the brackish waters; red-beaked, black-bodied coots splatter on the surface, spraying water into the air.

Any birdwatcher witnessing this sight can truly understand the following lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Birds of Passage:

They are the throngs

Of the poet’s songs,

Murmurs of pleasures, and pains, and wrongs,

The sound of winged words.

Around 50 species of migratory birds have flocked to the country this season. As they frolic in the water, one cannot help but think of their exhausting journey that sees them battle exhaustion and starvation, crossing hostile territories full of airborne predators. While these birds are hardwired to overcome these natural obstacles, they are helpless in front of anthropogenic challenges. According to a 2013 research conducted by Birdlife International, at least 45%, and up to 88%, of 370 species of migratory birds of Asia will have no place to go to in the coming years. The question then is: can we turn a deaf ear to their cries?

When it seems all has been lost, passionate individuals and organisations such as WWF-Pakistan are still working to contain the damage, if not reverse it. Authorities concerned should also evince interest in protecting these hardy birds and their habitat.

With the sun dipping behind the hills, calmness returns to Uchhali Lake. As the rays bounce off the brackish water, for a split second they transform it into gold. The avian beauties huddle together for a long winter night and with a sigh we leave the lake and its guests, promising to return next year, with words from Andrew Downing’s Winter Birds ringing in our heads:

Little you care for the riot and rattle–

Little you heed – let the mercury fall!

Brave little fighters, go on with your battle–

Here is a friend who will welcome you all!

Fly to my window – I'll feed every comer–

Hail to the comrades that constancy show

Loving and loyal, in winter and summer–

With us, alike, in the heat and the snow!

The writer is a freelance contributor.