The western population of Siberian Cranes is on its last legs. Every year one of them, Omid, flies 6,000 kms to the north of Iran, on the southern banks of the Caspian Sea. It’s the only Siberian Crane left that makes this particular journey (he has missed two years of the last 16). He winters in Iran for about a third of each year. He is carefully tracked. “Locals are very much fond of him,” says this Tehran Times article.
I’ve only followed news of him, courtesy of the International Crane Foundation, for the last couple of years. Omid means hope. Does he symbolize hope to me, in line with each year’s bubbly article? Not at all. I’ve dreamt of witnessing this critically endangered species. But I shudder at the thought of journeying to Iran, raising my binoculars, and gazing upon this beautiful bird, destined to arrive here each year, all alone, until it too dies.
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?
Nearly all of the world’s 4,000 Siberian Cranes, hanging grimly onto an Anthropocene survival ticket, escape northeastern Siberia to winter down on the huge Poyang Lakes, 700 kilometers southwest of Shanghai. Winter at Poyang Lakes is right now. When I last hypothesized a post-Covid timetable to travel and “witness” these magnificent birds, I gave up on seeing them breed in remote Russia (too onerous, plus we shouldn’t disturb them) and earmarked January 2023 or January 2024 for a China trip.
This morning, stuck inside waiting for an undoubtedly negative Coronavirus test result, I read a fascinating article (“Siberian Cranes face an uncertain winter after record floods in China“) by ICF’s head, Spike Millington. Apparently terrible floods hit the Poyang area in late summer this year (did I even hear about that?) and the usual tuber foods were awash and died. “The birds face an uncertain winter,” Millington writes. Fortunately, a local woman has spearheaded planting lotus ponds nearby. Already, 2,000 Siberian Cranes have flown in and are crammed into the ponds (I’ve used that image from the article), begging the question: will the remaining 2,000 or so be able to eat? I shudder.
More prosaically, do I need to check out water levels before I visit Poyang Lakes? Am I keen to get the “best” views, that is, when water levels are more normal? Or should I just take whatever is thrown my way? Surely the latter approach might get me thinking more widely.
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.
The Covid-19 lockdown has beached my efforts to “see” the fifteen Crane species (and here I highlight that exactly what the point of “seeing” a particular species might be, and “how” one might see such a species, are fodder for this writing project). Research and writing work has focused on other subjects.
But Cranes now lodge deep inside my subconscious. I’m not tapped into any strong network of Crane researchers/writers/activists, but I keep an eye out for inspiring stories. Here’s one. The EAAFP, more fully the East Asian – Australasian Flyway Partnership, which I’ve written about before, is a dynamic body focusing on exactly what it says, one of the world’s major migratory bird flyways. Well, I’d missed the start of EAAFP’s sequence of stories, within the context of 2020 being declared the Year of the Cranes. Nine of the fifteen global Crane species use the East Asia Flyway, hence the stories.
EAAFP’s Story #1, “First recorded wintering Siberian Cranes in Guangdong, China,” moves me in a way that illustrates just how solidly this 15 Cranes project has snared my heart. The critically endangered Siberian Crane, a majestic beauty on the edge of extinction, breeds way, way up northwest in Russia, in the Yakutia region. Wintering sites are hard to find and nearly all of them journey to Poyang Lake, part of the Yangtze wetlands in central China. Isolated birds and pairs have in past years wound up in Hong Kong or Taiwan, but late last year, a flock of nine (one juvenile and eight adults, I can’t tell from the article or picture how many well-established breeding pairs are within this flock) was spotted on a small island off the coast of southern Guangdong Province, the first recorded siting in that province.
I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize or view the Cranes’ worlds in human terms but nonetheless I picture them heading south from the remotes of Siberia and then over-shooting (consciously? due to weather?) the usual lakes by some 700 kilometers and ending up on a small rural island. The story is even more inspiring. Local farmers and authorities banded together to protect the flock from birders (a growing force in China). The flock was still there on February 18. Are they still there? I don’t know and wish I did. Is this a good story or a sad one? Again, I wish I knew.
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!
The Siberian Crane is the most precarious of the fifteen global species of Cranes, with under 4,000 left in the Anthropocene Era. And we’re talking of the eastern population that breeds way up in eastern Siberia and winters in China. The Siberian Crane’s western population breeds in west Siberia and one branch of it used to over-winter in Iran. Well, guess how many of them are left. Here’s one of the saddest articles I’ve ever read, “Last Siberian Crane appears in Azerbaijan” in the magazine Bird Guides:
The last remaining Siberian Crane from the western population has been seen in Azerbaijan for the first time in a decade. The male crane, which is fondly known as Omid – Persian for ‘Hope’ – has returned to spend each winter alone at Fereydoon Kenar, in northern Iran, since February 2009, when the last surviving female died during a winter storm.
Birders are now following Omid on his journey but the magazine notes that this is, of course, “an irreversible path to oblivion.” I attempt to picture oblivion. How to do that?