You know, it’s hard to stand out in a crowd, especially if the crowd happens to be that of birds, since the species comes in an amazing array of colors, the plumage of one species outshining another’s. Well, the peacock is of course the undisputed leader among all birds in this field, and there are other like the Himalayan pheasants whose richly colored feather are a sight to behold. Among such finery of color, the color black might be somewhat of an infringement, but then one could say that it is due to this that the black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis)stands out in the colorful crowd.
The black-necked crane is a striking bird, that’s clear; it is also the only alpine crane in the whole world. Most of its body parts including the upper body and the head are totally black as are the legs, the tail, and the lower part of the wings. The foreboding look is somewhat rectified by a small white patch to the rear of the eye and a red bald patch between the bill and the eye and a grayish hue to the rest of the body. Young ones, on the other hand, have a dull yellowish colored head on a white and black neck. This unique looking crane mostly breeds in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau in China, and a small population has been reported in India as well. In winter, you’ll find them in the southern and eastern areas of the Qinghai-Tibetan and Yunnan-Guizhou plateaus as in neighboring Bhutan. Like mother big bird, they are hearty eater and feed on grasshoppers, beetles, flies, earthworms, and shrimps, and even on bigger prey like lizards and frogs. When something that moves isn’t there for the taking, they do just fine on roots and tubers as well. Oh yes, these black necked cranes are resourceful, and pretty important birds in the avian scheme of things.
So special are the magnificent birds, Bhutan has a whole festival to celebrate their presence in the country. It’s called the Annual Black-necked Crane Festival (what else?) and it’s celebrated on November 11 with pomp and ceremony in the courtyard of Gangtey Goenpa, in Phobjikha valley. First held in 1998 at the initiative of the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), the locals take great joy in the fact that these rare and endangered birds have found their valley good enough to honor them with their presence during the winter months. The festival is also a good reminder to all about the need for conservation which is essential for a better way of living. The locals, besides honoring the magnificent birds, also use the occasion as a showcase to exhibit their various skills. There are plenty of folk songs and dances, some of which have the black birds as the main theme, and theatrical performances are also held emphasizing nature conservation.
Now, a few words on Phobjikha. It’s at a height of some 3000 meters above sea level in the inner Himalayas. A sprawling wetland valley, it is regarded as the biggest wetland in Bhutan, as well as the most important. There’s a lot of cultural significance attached to the valley as well, aside from the fact that it is considered as an example of how man can live in harmony with nature with mutual benefit to all. Come winter, and the area prepares itself for a fantastic sight, the arrival of hundred of striking black-necked cranes from the plateaus of Tibet. It I estimated that out of the about 500 cranes which migrate to Bhutan each winter, about 300 make Phobjikha valley their temporary home. The birds are of course what makes the valley so important. However, there are other highlights as well, such as the revered Gangtey Monastery that looks down commandingly on the wetlands (and blesses the birds too, one can presuppose). The valley, in itself, is blessed with abundant natural beauty that alone makes it worth a visit, black-necked cranes or not.