15 Cranes was launched as a writing project in April 2018. During Covid, but not because of the pandemic, the project was shelved. Too big, too daunting, too time-consuming. By that time I had seen only two of the fifteen Crane species.
See that Red-crowned Crane flying so sublimely? They’re endangered, maybe only 3,000 strong. They’re welcomed and fed on the island of Hokkaido. This photo is from the Kuhiro reserve.
Japan has weathered the pandemic well. Travel there is possible now (I know, a friend is going). The best time is January. The snow! Those birds!
I guess we all have images in our heads of the barren steppes of Mongolia, squarish yurts in the distance, but I’ve never hankered to go there. When we did the long train trip from Moscow to Beijing, we opted for the route that swung into China before a Mongolian traverse. I enjoy seeing random photos of Mongolia but that’s the extent of my interest in it.
In particular, when I’ve mused over where I might travel to see the fifteen global Crane species, Mongolia hasn’t been on my radar. Well, now I’ve watched a recent five-minute video from the International Crane Foundation, part of their Magic Moments snippets. This one is titled Coexisting in Mongolia. Take a look—I’m sure you’ll be beguiled.
The video is interesting in terms of the work ICF is doing in Mongolia (I especially like that the voiceovers are by the Mongolian conservationists on the ground), trying to retain the easygoing relationships between nomadic people, grazing beasts, and the various species of Cranes. I hadn’t realized that Mongolia sees six of the world’s fifteen Crane species either fly through or reside. Perhaps, I hypothesize, it would be none too difficult to fly to Ulaanbaatar and hire a guide to take me to the newly protected wetlands described in the video. Initial Googling doesn’t really tell me where the Khurkh and Khuiten Rivers Valleys nature reserve is, but one of the places mentioned in a Mongolian government nature reserve decree in 2019 (see this) suggests a four- to five-hour drive might be involved.
The video’s brief graphic about the six Crane species found in Mongolia also tantalizes me from another angle. I’m no naturalist. Basic migration concepts don’t come easily to me but I’ve grown accustomed to the idea of Crane breeding grounds in one place, usually inhospitable and far from humans, and overwintering grounds elsewhere. But there’s another category in the photo, showing the Hooded Crane and Siberian Crane “summering” in Mongolia. Glancing at the ICF’s excellent compendium web page on the fifteen species, I see that the Siberian Crane winters southward into China, breeds in northeast China, but also “summers” in Mongolia. What have I missed?
How onerous it is to undo humanity’s damage to species. Read this stirring account (“The life and times of Arete and Bomnak – The Khingansky cranes grow up“) on the ICF website of a remote Russian couple’s 30-year reintroduction into the wild of 106 captive-reared Red-Crowneds and 62 White-napeds. Read about the triumphs of confirming (by drones and geo-tagging) of successful migrations to Korea of a handful. Hope-brimming but yes, also deeply troubling.
Arkadiusz Broniarek posted this heartwarming photo on the page Cranes in Europe: 264 cranes in Tarifa. I think they’re Eurasian Cranes but I’m no expert and now I might never be. That’s the thought that occurred to me when I marveled: what is the point?
Who can say what kills a project? The pandemic is a factor. I won’t travel until 2022 at the earliest. Carbon footprint is another. Thinking like a future ancestor (see Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor), we should all stop flying. An even more potent factor is the climate emergency: even with a close escape from Trump 2021-2024, just look at how little is being done. Who needs my small-time witnessing stunt? But the major reason for abandoning (at least for now) my 15 Cranes project, is simple. The reactor history book, my albatross, must see me obsessed, not distracted.
This afternoon I walked down to the library and returned, unread, The Japanese Crane: Bird of Happiness, a book I’ve had throughout lockdown but never managed to process into notes. It looks so fabulous but now … bye bye. I snapped a poor (and mirror reversed) shot of the cover before sliding it into the returns chute.
Before closing off this project, I skimmed the Japanese Crane book. One last image, a crappy photo of a double spread, a snowfield of hazy Siberian Cranes in Japan. I had planned to go see them there. No more. Nada. Done.
EAAFP’s Story #5, “Do you know all the crane species in East Asian – Australasian Flyway?” sends the imagination soaring. Quirky, pithy notes on the 9 species (besides these 9, 4 reside in Africa, one is solely in USA, and one lives in Australia) are a pleasure to read. I bask, doing my best to picture how I might see each of the nine on location. The glorious Siberian Crane (you only see its black wingtips in flight) – I think Poyang Lake is where I’d go, and I’ve seen photos of that sumptuous wetland reserve in China. I’m unsure where the Red-crowned Crane, “tall and elegant” with a black neck and tail feathers, and I will intersect. Bhutan is my best place to view the shorter Black-necked Crane with a white eye ring that gives it a glaring visage. The Hooded Crane with its mini frontal grey-and-red hood, and its brown-grey bustle – who knows where? The blue-and-grey White-naped Crane is drawn with splashes of shades of grey – again, where? The tallest flying bird on Earth, the Sarus Crane, with its red head and neck, has a subspecies way up north in Australia, where I’ll travel when Covid-19 is beaten or finally peters out. The voluminous Eurasian Crane (“has no beautiful features or cultural background but has the best adaptive capacity”) is, for me, best viewed in Estonia, my now-deceased parents’ homeland. I have a dream to see the Demoiselle Crane, the tiny one of the fifteen, soaring over the Himalayas. And Nebraska is the spot to witness tens of thousands of grey-brown Sandhill Cranes. Lockdown … sigh.
EAAFP’s Story #3, “What do farmers do in winter in Korea? They help to count cranes!” is another welcome missive here in wet, miserable, locked-down Melbourne. Just south of the Civilian Control Zone in South Korea, itself abutting the slim Demilitarized Zone that has stood in war standing between the country and nuclear-armed North Korea, is Cheorwon. It’s one of the few places in the world you can see seven of the fifteen species of Cranes. Cheorwon farmers protect and feed cranes, a vital role since this is a rare safe migration stopover between Siberia and China/Japan. In winter this year, some thirty of them conducted monthly surveys, and the peak count was just under 7,000. It’s a heartwarming account and my post image is extracted from it, a lovely photo by Kisup Lee dramatizing White-naped and Red-crowned Cranes. Thank you, Cheorwon!
A wondrous bonus of the pandemic lockdown has been a weekly educational webinar series from the International Crane Foundation. You can catch them afterwards via YouTube but I recommend you experience them live (even if, as with me, that means a 2 AM alarm), because they’re given by real-world conservationists and ornithologists and you rarely glean such wisdom. As a small example of the bounties in store, here’s a visual put up by a Chinese field researcher. No doubt thousands of bird experts appreciate just how the migratory birds straddle the world, spreading out to every corner. No doubt coffee table books glorify such barely believable images. But to this amateur, glimpsing such a vista, slapped up on a screen in order to clarify why such-and-such a conservation tactic is needed … wow, feasting upon this revelatory picture was life-changing. I’ve known for a while that, of course, Earth’s birds were here long before the human race. What I hadn’t quite appreciated is how comprehensive their global coverage. There is nowhere on our planet a bird has not flown to!
Last November we hiked the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail near Osaka. On the day before leaving for Japan, I’d been reading about the species of Crane, amongst our planet’s fifteen such species, called the Red-Crowned Crane. Apparently this magnificent bird has been lauded, worshipped even, in Japan over the centuries. One afternoon on the trail, soaked in sweat, I walked around a new tourist information hall, an almost soporific stroll because I find such places boring. Lo and behold, three hanging traditional-style paintings, each featuring a family of Red-Crowned Cranes, drawn in that stylized traditional Japanese way. I don’t mind admitting that I took that occurrence as a sign … perhaps, after all, my Cranes writing project is imbued with some fateful magic!
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage walk in Japan, near Osaka, is beautiful on the eye but the pilgrimage narrative dished out is incomprehensible. It’s hard to pay attention to a shrine when its role in the pilgrimage or indeed in Japan’s general history is obscure. So I almost missed the side wall of an almost hidden little shrine on our third day, back in November.
Amazement! Next to a stylised bent tree, a Red-crowned Crane elegantly props, about to peck, its stately wings partly unfurled. What an evocative sight! I’ve kept reading that this crane is almost a holy bird in Japan, but it’s not easy to find evidence of it. Here is the kind of anecdotal proof that can convince me.
Towards the end of a week of redrafting in Amsterdam, I hunkered down under streaming light on a Sunday morning, across the road from the glass-windowed frontage of the city’s small ARTIS zoo. My pulse had quickened on the discovery that ARTIS houses a pair of Red-crowned Cranes. In spite of general qualms about zoos, I knew the opportunity to observe grus japonensis in the wild would need to await a couple of years, so I was keen to make the acquaintance of this significant species.
So my education began with a limited trawl of websites. I acquired a commercial photo from DepositPhoto to accompany this post, taking care not to buy a snowfields one, that being the standard Hokkaido vista of the Japanese Crane, as it is known. The International Crane Foundation site told me that grus japonensis stands about as tall (my chest height) as my country’s Brolga but is meatier, the heaviest crane according to ICF, a kilogram and a half heavier at 7.5 kgs. It is a stunningly beautiful crane: an almost crimson red patch atop the head, a silken black band under the bill down to the neck, pristine white feathers showing black underneath in flight. My image might not do the species justice but look! The wing sweep! The powerful body, the elegance of neck and head.
The Red-crowned Crane is in trouble. ICF offers a precise census for its global extent, 2,800 to 3,300 birds. Status? Endangered, which broadly means likely to go extinct within two decades (though that status was accorded in 1970, so conservation efforts have had some success). Roughly a thousand permanently reside at saturation point on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The rest migrate from dwindling breeding sites across wild east Asia to either an eastern China delta or Korea (including in the hot spot North-South DMZ).
As I worked, waiting for our zoo visit in the afternoon, how I longed to check what Peter Matthiessen wrote about these culturally resonant birds in Birds of Heaven, but, regrettably, there is no ebook version to carry when travelling. Still, this would be a special day.