Every year, in October and November, the people who inhabit the high valleys of Bhutan scan the skies for the arrival of a special visitor from the Tibetan plateau.
The black-necked crane is revered in Bhutan as a symbol of longevity and the annual migration is a cause for great celebration, as residents mark the passing of another year against the arrival of these famously long-living birds. Blacked-necked cranes are highly territorial and some 10% of the world’s population gather every autumn in the Phobjikha Valley, where cranes have been spotted since medieval times. The birds are protected by Bhutanese law, with the threat of life imprisonment for anyone who harms a sacred crane, and legend dictates that the first cranes will circle the ancient monastery at Gangte three times before landing on the broad marshes that line the Phobjikha Valley.
This year, the first cranes swooped into Phobjikha on 22 October and eleven birds have now been recorded in the valley, with numbers set to grow to more than 360 individuals as winter creeps across the Tibetan Plateau. Although protected from humans, the cranes face ongoing threats from habitat loss in their summer breeding grounds in Tibet, and from man-made dangers such as overhead power cables and fishing lines. Leopards have also been known to pounce on cranes who roam too close to the edge of the marshlands.
Bird-watchers brave icy temperatures for close-up views from the walking trails that skirt the edge of the crane’s winter territory, starting from the mani walls – made from stones carved with Buddhist mantras – that surround the Gangte monastery. Sightings are almost guaranteed between November and February, and Bhutan’s Royal Society for the Protection of Nature celebrates the annual migration with the Black-Necked Crane Festival on 12 November, when villagers and monks in crane costumes perform swirling dances in the courtyard of Gangte monastery.