Observing the Black-necked Cranes in Phobjikha

crane_dance2015_TP22nd  February 2015. 
On 22nd February we woke up at 0430 hours and went to the bird hide after walking for 35 minutes. It was pitch dark with clear skies. Frost have blanketed the entire vegetation. It was complete dark and silent. We kept our noise and torches low not to cause any disturbance to the birds.  At about 0552 hours the sky was becoming brighter and we could hear a single call from the roost. Few minutes later there were many such calls.

In 2014, RSPN built a small eco-friendly bird hide on a slope facing the two major Black-necked Crane (BNC) roosting ponds in Phobjikha. The semi-circle bird hide have elongated narrow window providing panoramic view of the valley. It can accommodate about 15 people and watch the birds quite well without any binoculars or spotting scopes. It is about 100 meters away from the roost. From here BNCs can be easily observed without any disturbance. During winter when temperatures are below freezing point, such shelters keep the birders quite warm from the cold, frost and frequent winds.

We watched from the spotting scope and we could faintly see cranes in Roost No. 2 who were already awake and making slight movements. We could also hear faint calls from the Roost No. 4 located about 700 meters away southwards. By. 0557 hours the cranes started making loud calls. The Ruddy shelducks and Oriental skylarks too have woken by then adding music to the calm morning.

As the dawn broke we counted 110 BNCs at Roost No. 1, 87 BNCs at Roost No. 2, 53 BNCs at Roost No. 3, and 6 BNCs at a small roost near Roost No. 3. We also counted about 13 Ruddy shelducks [The total BNC count for Phobjikha this winter was 396 BNCs counted on 18th January 2015].

At 0641 hours the cranes started to fly away south wards for feeding. The sun has not yet shown up. We saw cranes walking slowly out of the shallow ponds which were covered with thin layer of ice which broke with the bird’s weight. The ponds seemed quite murky with mud and grasses. Many cranes were still in the post standing patiently on its one leg.  As the sun’s rays fell over the hill tops nearby the cranes started to disperse across the valley in groups ranging from 2 to 10.

Couples were seen performing the “courtship dance” while many others were feeding. A large group of BNCs were still in the roosting ponds preening their feathers. Some were still seen sleeping with their head tugged in the feathers of their body. As the sun’s rays slowly reached the valley floor, it melted away the frost that have engulfed the vegetation.  At this hour preening, feeding and couple dancing was the most seen behavior. Cranes then scattered all over the valley like tiny white mushrooms all over.

An alert call is heard from the distance and we saw three dogs approaching Roost No. 1 and No. 2, sniffing and trying to chase the cranes. The cranes quickly ran and flew off. The sun have now fully covered the valley and BNCs walk slowly in pairs, family and groups majestically. As we walked back we saw them in large groups as big as 34 at about 30 meters away without any peril.

It was a great morning to see the birds!

Story by Tshering Phuntsho.
Pictures: Gen Kato and T.Phuntsho.
Video: Gen Kato, edited by Pema Gyamtsho