‘Heavenly Birds’ Which Do Not Forsake Their Own Kind, Bumdeling Hopes To Increase Black Necked Crane Arrivals
As of 21 December, 83 cranes have arrived in the in Bumdeling Valley.
By Younten Tshedup | Kuensel
The once lush green paddy fields above Trashiyangtse town have now turned brown. Farmers have retired to their homes, leaving the fields empty for their annual visitors, the much revered black-necked cranes.
The endangered birds have once again, returned to one of its winter roosting and feeding grounds in Bumdeling Valley, Trashiyangtse. As of 21 December, 83 cranes have arrived in the dzongkhag, with the first pair arriving on 5 November.
Learn more about the majestic black-necked cranes
Holding a special place in the hearts and folklore of the Bhutanese, the black-necked crane is also known as the ‘Thrung Thrung Karmo’ in Dzongkha. They are also called ‘Lhab-bjas’ or ‘heavenly birds’ by the locals.
The two major migratory sites for these birds in Bhutan are: Phobjikha Valley in Wangdue district and Bumdeling Valley in Trashiyangtse district.
Photo: India Environment Portal
For the Bhutanese, these endangered birds are deeply revered and some believe that they are the reincarnation of two deities who are the guardians of the Phobjikha Valley.
Upon their arrival and departure, these graceful birds will circle the Gangtey Goenpa three times. To the locals, this act represents the honouring of the three sacred jewels of Buddhism.
Characteristics of the black-necked cranes
At the feeding ground in Yangtse, a pack of dogs started barking from a house nearby, alerting the cranes. The birds stood still, occasionally making their trademark sounds, high-pitched calls of alarm.
Known also as a symbol of marital fidelity in Bhutanese culture, the black-necked cranes show strong camaraderie amongst themselves.
While the rest of the group feeds, there are few a vigilant ones who keep a watchful eye on the surroundings. The birds take turns to guard the group from possible danger.
The Park Manager with the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary (BWS), Karma Tempa said that in 2015, an injured crane from Lhuentse was brought to Bumdeling by some of the staff members.
The injured crane was left to interact with the other birds while recovering. By the time the cranes started leaving for their summer home, the injured crane could not fly.
“After a week, a group of cranes came back again to take their friend along,” he said. “However, he still could not fly.”
A few days later, another group of cranes arrived, he said. On 30 March, the injured bird finally flew back with the second group of cranes.
“These birds have a strong feeling of attachment to their own kind, sometimes more than us.”
Decline in the numbers of black-necked cranes in Bumdeling Valley
Over the years, the number of winged visitors in Bumdeling has been declining, according to the park manager.
In 1987, when the BWS first started to record the number of crane arrivals, there were more than 200 cranes flying in annually.
However, the numbers have been decreasing, with 102 cranes arriving last year, 91 in 2016 and 108 in 2015.
According to Karma Tempa, some of the factors which contribute to the decline in numbers are: disturbance to the birds’ roosting area in Bumdeling Valley by frequent floods and the reduction in size of the feeding grounds (paddy fields).
Photo: Bhutan Travel
“There are barren paddy fields which have been colonised by the alnus species of trees and these fields are also covered by bushes, thus limiting their feeding grounds,” said the park manager.
“The trees also affect the cranes’ flight.”
Another possible reason for the decline in the arrivals of black-necked cranes could be from the increasing population of feral dogs.
“Although there have been no causalities reported so far from feral dogs, the number of dogs in the area has actually increased.”
To reduce the growing dog population in the area, the BWS has carried out a sterilisation campaign for some 135 dogs recently.
Measures to address the issue have been put in place with the formation of two support groups in the Bumdeling and Yangtse gewogs.
The BWS with support from the group members, cleared the roosting area before the arrival of the birds annually. Winter cropping has also been discouraged to allow the cranes feed on the paddy fields.
Recently, with help from the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), the BWS constructed some 25km of electric fencing around abandoned paddy fields which will serve as a feeding ground for the cranes.
In addition, another five acres of paddy fields which were washed away by flood waters have been restored.
Karma Tempa said that the expansion of the town in Yangtse has also indirectly contributed to the decreasing size of the feeding grounds for the cranes.
“The Dzongkhang and the local government have been supportive in the conservation of the cranes but still, there is pressure coming from these growing concrete structures.”
Constructive steps taken to increase the arrivals of the black-necked cranes
He said that if all the abandoned paddy fields which have become forests in Bumdeling and other areas like Womanang, Tshaling and Gangkhar could be restored, then the number of visitors could increase in the future.
The manager also added that plans are being discussed to help farmers market the excess rice produced from these reclaimed lands. They will be sold under the brand name of ‘Thrung-thrung rice’, to promote the conservation of the black-necked cranes.
A more positive situation in the Phobjikha Valley
On a more positive note, during the black-necked crane festival which took place on 17 November in the Phobjikha Valley, Karma Tempa said that the number of crane arrivals has increased in the valley compared to the previous year. The valley is another popular winter roosting ground for the majestic black-necked cranes.
Black-necked cranes flying over the Phobjikha Valley.
Organised by Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN) and the Phobjikha Environment Management Committee (PEMC), the festival which started in 1998, aims to spread awareness about the cranes as well as the traditions and culture of the locals.
As winter approaches, the cranes will make their annual pilgrimage to the valley around October where they usually remain until the following April. The Phobjikha Valley is also the largest protected wetlands for these endangered birds.
The valley has been seeing an increase in the number of these endangered birds over the years. It hosted more than 500 cranes from October 2017 to February 2018. Since October, close to 270 cranes have already arrived this year.
Meanwhile, the BWS, in consultation with the RSPN and the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research (UWICER) will be conducting a study on the dietary composition of the black-necked cranes next year.
The Black-necked crane is listed as an endangered species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species and is legally protected in Bhutan.
This article first appeared in kuensel and has been edited for the Daily Bhutan.