Dancing With The Birds of Happiness
By Mark Brazil | Nov 30, 2016
Cranes are quintessentially elegant and inspiring creatures that never fail to make me smile. Renowned as “Birds of Happiness” and believed to live for a thousand years (in folklore at least), cranes provide a study in exquisite beauty. How could one fail to smile on sighting such an avian charmer?
Japan’s gatherings of cranes, the Red-crowned Crane flocks in Hokkaido, and the Hooded and White-naped crane flock in Kyushu, are justifiably world famous, drawing watchers and photographers from far and wide. But for all that cranes are revered here in Japan, and depicted so widely in advertising on everything from aircraft to saké bottles and wedding kimono, where are the festivals to celebrate them and their role in Japan’s culture and in its history of conservation?
Photographers gather in their hundreds, crowding the venues that host winter feeding crane flocks around the periphery of Kushiro Marsh in east Hokkaido. They are out and about from dawn to dusk in the hope of “shooting” cranes in perfect light. Meanwhile in Kyushu, throughout the winter the Arasaki crane flock seems less appealing to photographers, but is on the regular tourist trail through Kagoshima Prefecture. The sight, and sound, of 10,000-15,000 cranes at the roost gathering there is truly mesmerising. Yet neither in Hokkaido, nor in Kyushu, is there a major festival to mark the arrival of the cranes, their significance in the local culture, or their economic contribution to the local region.
Japanese festivals are so impressive that no fewer than thirty-three of them have been proposed by UNESCO as worthy of listing as cultural heritage. But why doesn’t Japan have an internationally renowned crane festival? Across the Pacific in North America there are festivals for the Sandhill Crane and Whooping Crane in a range of states including Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Texas. In Europe, Extremadura in Spain celebrates the Common Cranes that winter there, but here in Japan it seems that we are missing a beat.
In fact, in Asia, one must travel all the way to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to witness such an event. But such a journey is well worth the effort. Bhutan, like Japan, is well known for its festivals, and to visit that beautiful country without witnessing one is to miss out on one of the great cultural experiences of the Himalayan region.
On festival days colourful crowds gather at the local dzong (fortified monastery), to make a daylong event of dancing, eating, socialising, and watching tournaments and performances. In this intensely Buddhist country, the festivals are essentially religious calendar events, but one in particular has taken on special significance and has earned itself an international reputation. I am talking about the impressive Annual Black-necked Crane Festival that is held each November in Gangtey Goempa.
Gangtey Goempa is in the heart of Bhutan, in the Wangdue Phodrang District in the centre of the country. To reach it one journeys along narrow and somewhat alarming mountain roads from the capital of Thimphu. The final approach to Gangtey Goempa is along a narrow, winding road that leads through the small village of Gangtey. Roadside houses here, as elsewhere in Bhutan, are distinctive with whitewashed stone walls and upper floors of wood with broad low-pitched roofs. They recall Austrian farmhouses, but without the window boxes of flowers. Hanging from the corners of the eaves, or decorated brightly on the walls, are the ubiquitous phallic symbols of fertility that so characterise Bhutan. Tiny fields flank the hill outside the village and tall coniferous trees dot the landscape.
The monastery sits dramatically atop a small hill that overlooks the broad Phobjika Valley. The monastery is a large imposing structure, yet in the expansive landscape of the Himalayan outliers it is dwarfed. Distant hills rise ever higher in ranks that reach out and around, sheltering the valley of Phobjika. This valley is a traditional haven, one to which a migratory flock of Black-necked Cranes has been drawn for generations.
Each summer the cranes breed north of the Himalayan mountain range on the high Tibetan plateau, and in the Chinese province of Qinghai. Each autumn, as temperatures fall and food becomes ever harder to find on their breeding grounds, the cranes and their families emigrate to avoid freezing weather. Some of them cross the great mountains and descend on quiet and secluded valleys such as that at Phobjika in central Bhutan. This broad, glaciated valley, at an elevation of approximately 3,000 m, provides a secure and sheltered home where crane pairs and their offspring can forage and roost in safety during the winter months, supported by people who value their presence.
Whereas Japan’s “Bird of Happiness,” the Red-crowned Crane, sports a jaunty red beret atop a head and neck that are banded in white and black, with dark brown eyes at the margin of the black and white, Bhutan’s “Bird of Happiness,” the Black-necked Crane, has a red forehead and a completely black hood that extends down its neck. The latter’s creamy white eyes stand out against its black face, giving it an alert and somewhat wide-eyed, startled look. The Bhutanese bird is shorter than the Japanese crane, yet it too can stretch itself erect in a beautifully elegant pose. Both share a large bustle of feathers that, in standing birds, seem to sprout from the tail, arching and falling in a cascade of raven black.
In flight the Red-crowned Crane reveals its true tail colour, which is white. Its wings too are largely white, with only the feathers of the inner wing being black. It is in fact these inner wing feathers that droop down over the tail, obscuring it, when the bird lands. The Black-necked Crane’s tail truly is black, though it too is hidden by the bird’s wing feathers when it is standing, and in flight it is an all-together darker bird than the Red-crowned Crane, with black wing feathers from tip to inner wing.
Cranes, like penguins and owls, are birds for non-birdwatchers. Large and striking in both their appearance and their behaviour, cranes capture the human imagination like few other groups of birds. There are people who travel the world with the sole aim of seeing all of the world’s cranes. After all, there are only fifteen species, so it is a manageable target, and a quest in search of them takes one to fascinating parts of the world.
North America has two species, the Sandhill and Whooping cranes. South America has none at all. Europe has just one, the original, archetypal crane, the Common or Eurasian Crane known as Grus grus, named by Linnaeus. Africa has four breeding species, the Black-crowned, Grey-crowned, Wattled, and Blue cranes, though Demoiselle and Eurasian also winter on this continent. Australia has one, the Brolga. With nine species, Asia, however, can lay claim to the lion’s share of global cranes, as more than half of the world total breed there. Demoiselle, Common, Hooded, Red-crowned, Sarus, Siberian, Sandhill, White-naped and Black-necked cranes can all be claimed by Asia. Five species (Red-crowned, Hooded, White-naped, Common and Sandhill) appear annually in Japan, with two more (Demoiselle and Siberian) occurring here on rare occasions.
A quest for cranes is not like a search for rare postage stamps for one’s collection, nor like an addictive hunt for a mere “lifer,” instead it is an emotional roller-coaster ride in search of inspiration and beauty, tinged with myth and fantasy. For many birdwatchers, travelling to see a “new” species of crane is akin to going on a crusade or a pilgrimage. The journey to a remote location becomes a goal in itself, and the fear of disappointment, the risk of missing out, adds a frisson of excitement that is hard to explain to a non-crusader. Sighting a crane is not like seeing any other kind of bird. Few other avian species compare in their combination of size and elegance, and fewer still come with such a luxurious cloak of cultural endowment.
The dream of visiting the range of the Black-necked Crane had lingered with me for decades. It was fuelled by conversations long ago with Tsuneo Hayashida, the great photographer of Japanese cranes. His realisation of his global quest to photograph all of the world’s cranes, and his tales of visiting Bhutan, had inspired me to dream, though there seemed little likelihood of me realising that dream. Then, by chance, a year ago in November my opportunity arose, not only to visit Bhutan, but also to visit in autumn just when the migrating cranes were due to arrive, and to be there at the time of the great festival in Phobjika.
The first birds begin to arrive at the end of October or in the first weeks of November, and with the festival held early in the season, it seemed touch and go whether birds would have already arrived in sufficient numbers to be found on the same day as the festival. I arrived in the valley as darkness fell on 10th November. I bumped and jolted along what I can only describe as the worst road in the world (it was more an animal track than a motorable road), and arrived at my destination only to find that the “new” traditional-style accommodation I had been promised, was actually unfinished. When I say unfinished, I mean just that, it seemed as if it was still being built and the builders had just knocked off for the day leaving the plumbing and wiring incomplete, and the floors sloping and noticeable angles! Thankfully the welcome of the staff was warm, the food hot, the rum strong, and the setting was wonderful, promising a commanding view down the valley when daylight returned.
Daylight the following morning brought immense excitement. The broad Phobjika Valley is immense, and not surprisingly the shy cranes favour the very middle of it, but there, off in the distance I could make out some specks! My first views were distant to say the least, but even at great range I could make out a scattered flock of tall, black and white birds elegantly foraging across the rough grassland and wetland edges of the valley floor.
Through my binoculars I could make out ten or so, and once I trained my telescope on the same area I realised there were at least two-dozen, perhaps more. Family parties, parents with single chicks, were scattered amongst the flock, the young birds distinctive, lacking the black hood of their parents, and instead having a broad brown panel across the closed wings. These were my first Black-necked Cranes, and the distance didn’t matter a jot! I drank in the sight, marvelled at their sounds and counted and re-counted the flock in the valley until my eyes ached.
Later that morning I followed a trail, wandering through farmland and woodland as I descended the periphery of the valley. While the majority of birds settled in to feed it was clear that occasionally others were arriving to swell their numbers; migration was very much underway.
A few kilometres way, not cranes, but people were arriving. They were swelling in numbers too; the little street through the village below the goempa was now thronged with visitors. Bhutanese in their distinctive national costumes and foreigners in their colourful array of trekking and winter gear packed the roadway and the entrance to the monastery. As I joined the flow and inched inside it was to find the courtyard of the monastery ringed with an expectant audience. Buddhist festivals, Bhutanese-style, are as colourful and decorative as the monasteries themselves. The local audience is as fascinating as the subject of the festival, though in this case the combination of a religious festival, with a wildlife element and a conservation message, was compelling.
No Bhutanese festival would be complete without the beating of drums, blasts on tremendously long horns, and a tremendous display of masks during traditional masked dances, nor it seems without a couple of jesters admonishing the crowd with bawdy jokes and a large wooden phallus. In the case of the Phobjika Black-crowned Crane Festival, however, the more typical festival elements are interspersed with readings, with poetry and performances that celebrate the safe annual arrival of the cranes to the valley. Of those, the most charming was that performed by the local school children. Clad in simple white and black costumes, with black hoods decorated with pale eye-spots and long, carrot-like orange bills, the children sang and danced their way around the courtyard at times mimicking the calls, dances and feeding movements of the wild birds. Seeing that dance itself was worth the price of admission.
In the 1970s, His Majesty, the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the term Gross National Happiness. His concept was a simple, but powerful one that development should not only be sustainable, but also take a holistic approach towards progress and give equal importance to the non-economic aspects of wellbeing. Now doesn’t that sound civilized! In a country that epitomizes the Gross National Happiness approach to the future, how wonderful that there is a festival to commemorate an iconic bird, which itself represents happiness.
Can there be any other country on Earth where the monarchy is so beloved and where the monarchy represents peace, harmony and happiness? Images of the king abound throughout the country at every public venue and in private homes. Hanging on the façade of the monastery, overlooking the festival courtyard was a banner depicting the much-loved fourth king, and on one side was another depicting his son the fifth king, in favour of whom his father had abdicated. Extra celebrations were in order nationwide in 2015, and to commemorate the fourth king’s 60th birthday special stamps and covers had been issued. Suddenly, an announcement in English caught my attention. Anyone who shared the king’s celebration, that is anyone else who had turned 60 in 2015, was requested to present him or herself at the entrance of the monastery compound to receive a gift – and the gift was set of those superb stamps!
After the bustling festivities in the busy and crowded goempa the quiet valley below beckoned. So once more I walked the periphery. In the last two hours of a cool and pleasant autumnal afternoon, I drank in the spectacular view of the valley. It seemed that there were even more cranes than I had sighted that morning. So I settled on a knoll and scanned and scanned and counted. There were 61! As darkness fell, more and more of them took flight and headed for the final safety of the shallow pools in which they roost each night.
I clutched my birthday stamps, relished my views of the cranes and thanked my lucky stars that at long last I had made my pilgrimage to the Phobjika Valley.
If you have read this far, then you may enjoy my previous articles, including recent offerings such as: Duck anyone? Mallard or Muscovite? (October 2016); Damsels and Dragons: Aerial Dancers (September 2016); Halcyon Days (August 2016); Isolated in the Izu Islands (July 2016); Japan’s Ubiquitous Scavenger – The Black-eared Kite (June 2016); Oriental Stork Making a Comeback in Japan (May 2016); Daijugarami: Stepping Stone to the Arctic (April 2016); Whale Watching Japan-style: Zamami (March 2016), Snow Monkeys & Cranes of Japan: Spectacular Winter Wildlife (February 2016), and Amami Night Safari (January 2016).
These Wild Watch articles, and many more, can be found on this website, and on our Facebook page (please do visit and hit the “Like” button).
Author, naturalist, lecturer and guide, Dr Mark Brazil has written his Wild Watch column continuously since April 1982, first in The Japan Times for 33 years, and since 2015 here on this website. All Wild Watch articles dating back to 1999 are archived here for your reading pleasure.
A collection of Mark’s essays The Nature of Japan and two handy pocket guides The Common and Iconic Birds of Japan and The Common and Iconic Mammals of Japan have been published and are also available from www.japannatureguides.com