THE CRANES OF NORTH CHINA
by Don Roberson
When Roger Wolfe loaned me Peter Matthiessen's The Bird of Heaven: Travels with Cranes last December, a visit to China was well down the list of places I hoped to visit around the world. After reading the book, I began searching the web for bird tours to eastern Asia that might net some of the scarcest and most remote species. Matthiessen's word pictures on searching out all the cranes in the world were vivid and compelling, and none more so than the northeast Asian species. There are five species that breed here: Red-crowned Grus japonensis, Black-necked G. nigricollis, Hooded G. monacha, White-naped G. vipio, and Siberian G. leucogeranus. I settled on a Sunbird tour of north China, led by Paul Holt, that promised reasonable shots at three of these species (not to mention a good selection of other Manchurian and Tibetan Plateau birds). Here is a quick look at the cranes we encountered. All photos are digiscoped images.
Our first site for cranes was Xianghai National Nature Reserve in Jilin Province, northeast China. This is the region often called Manchuria, although this Japanese term is not used by the Chinese. We reached the reserve via a 12-hour train trip from Beijing, and then a long drive. Distances in China are vast and the reserve rather remote. The reserve has suffered from a 6-7 year drought and many breeding marshes were now entirely dry. Long, multi-hour drives over deep sand and bitterly rutted roads in 4-wheel drive jeeps took us to the very remaining wet spots. At the first area a huge grassland no cranes were initially present. But eventually a pair of Red-crowned Cranes appeared in the distance, and one flew closer for this view (below). Red-crowned Crane is often called "Japanese Crane" because it is the species that breeds on Hokkaido, Japan, and is famous from the dancing cranes often seen in film. Birdlife International (2000) lists it as an Endangered species with three isolated populations: Japan (~600 birds), Korea (~400 birds), and northeast China (~1200 birds). Thus the world population is only ~2200 birds and declining.
The crane I most wanted to see, however, was White-naped Crane. I think it may be the most elegantly beautiful of all the cranes. We found only one pair late in the morning after hours and hours of searching at Xianghai and views were fairly distant (right). This crane prefers wetter habitats than the grasslands frequented by Red-crowned Crane, and thus seemed to be even more affected by the drought .

The species breeds patchily from eastern Mongolia to southern Siberia, and winters at specific sites in eastern China, in Korea (demilititarized zone), and in Japan. The world population is 5500 to 6500 birds, and declining; it is considered Vulnerable (Birdlife International 2000).

The final species was Black-necked Crane. This species is almost a China endemic. It breeds on high elevation lakes and wetlands on the Qinghair-Tibetan Plateau, its range barely reaching to Ladakh, India, and in winter to Bhutan. On our trip we encountered about 17 different birds, including a half-dozen or so pairs (and saw an adult on a nest) in wetlands adjacent to Qinghai Lake, a huge saltwater lake at 10,000' elevation. Birdlife International (2000) lists this species as Vulnerable with an estimated world population of 5600 to 6000 birds.

Paul Holt had told us in advance that all of our views of Black-necked Cranes would be very distant.... and this was true for all but one pair that we encountered on two different days. They foraged along the shoreline of a freshwater lake (Xiao Bei Hu) adjacent to Qinghai Lake, and on our last morning the light was great and the reflections were fabulous (left). These shots are early in the morning in crisp 40 degree cold temperatures.

I am particularly fond of a photo that illustrates well the critical features that separate Black-necked Crane from Snowy Plover (below). Take your time and write down as many differences as you can find.....

PHOTOS: All photos are © 2004 Don Roberson, all rights reserved.

Literature cited:

Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona & Cambridge, U.K., Lynx Edicions & Birdlife International.

Matthiessen, Peter. 2001. The Bird of Heaven: Travels with Cranes. North Point Press, New York.

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