Red-Crowned Cranes – Tancho

(Don’t forget to touch images you wish to look closer at)

As I approached my first Red-Crowned Crane viewing area I was initially disappointed.  There were no other cars in the parking lot and I couldn’t see where the birds might be.  I expected that the feeding time might have passed but I hoped to see some left over activity, like at Izumi. But then I walked around the corner and there they were.  Only about twenty but resplendent.  Tall, black neck, head and long skinny legs and most prominently the black bustle, almost unique in birds that I have seen.  But most importantly they are snow white.  The visage so in keeping with this wonderland of stark black leafless trees and deep snow that covers Hokkaido in winter.  The red crown on top of the head is not at all prominent but is the eponymous feature that I worked hard to capture.  While not as impressive as the mammoth number of birds in Izumi, the incredible beauty of the Red-Crowned Crane more than makes up for it.  It is no wonder that it has so captured the imagination of the Japanese people.  The black bustle comes from the black secondary wing feathers.  Most white birds, when they have black accents, choose to have them at the end of the wing on the primaries.  Look at the shots where the wings are extended, flying, dancing and squabbling and pay attention to the black secondaries.

I had arrived in Kushiro, on the Northeast coast of Hokkaido after two days of riding high speed trains, Shinkansen, from bottom to top of Japan.  I spoke with the Information Centre staff about using public transportation or tour buses to get to the viewing areas, but I decided that having a car would be best for my purposes.  My pickup time to get my car was 8:00 and it took 45 minutes to find my way to my first stop.   Hence the reason I thought I would be late for feeding. In Izumi it would be all be said and done by this time.  My first stop is called Tsurumidai Plain.

The situation with the Red-Crowned is quite different than on Kyushu with the Hooded and White-Naped.  One hundred years ago Red-Crowned, like our Whooping Cranes, were down to between 20 and 30 individuals.  They would migrate in winter down into Japan from the steppes of Russia and China to the fast disappearing wetlands.  A few people started feeding them to stave off extinction.  The wetlands around Kushiro are the largest remaining wetlands in Japan and they are now protected as part of Kushiro Shitsugen National Park.  Over time the feeding program spread around the park to a number of locations and the Tanchou, as they are called here, quit migrating.   About half of the world’s 3000 Red-Crowned still migrate from Siberia into China and North Korea and back for breeding.  So the numbers here, around 1500, are far less than in Izumi, and they are not concentrated in one area. 

As I was taking my first few shots at this first stop more Tanchou began arriving a few at a time.  This gives the opportunity to get flying shots (BIF –Birds in Flight).  BIF is not great at Tsurumidai because of trees and power lines, but it was fun trying.  After about half an hour; more cars and a bus had brought many more people; now as many as the cranes we were all here to wonder at.  And then a farmer came out from his barn and began throwing seed around by hand and the birds chased him around the field.  Again very different than Izumi where feeding of 15,000 birds necessitated a different approach, but similar in that the birds knew when the food was coming.

There is some safety in having different migration paths or living environments.  The other large white crane, the Siberian, also has about 3000 members left but because about 95% breed in Siberia and winter on Lake Poyang in China they are considered more at risk than the Red Crowned or even the Whooping Crane with less than 1000. Any environmental or climactic disaster could wipe them out.

I stayed at Tsurumidai until after most of the other birders had departed and I was able to get photos and video of the Tanchou squabbling and performing their courtship dance.  This courtship dance shows wonderfully their athleticism in a graceful ballet involving leaping, chasing and leg and neck contortion. 

I have inserted a video with some apprehension. Firstly I do a poor job of taking them and can’t edit them. They are also laborious to upload. The reason I have done so this time is that my efforts to describe the dance is pale with the video. I hope it works

Courting Dance

I drove down to the next site called Otawa Bridge, famous for getting atmospheric shots on a river.  My shots here were of a few birds swimming in the river and a Whooper Swan.  The next morning I was back earlier to get distant shots of birds on the river as the morning steam was still rising from the river.  It got to about -12C at night while I was here, never getting above 0C during the day. As the whole time I was here the days were bright sunlight the dreamy fog filled shots were not to be.

Early morning on the River

The next stop was another feeding site, Tsurui-Ito Sanctuary, in the village of Tsurui.  I also had lunch and stopped in at two potential places to stay.  Everything is booked. Kushiro is a city and I would much rather stay where the birds are, but it is less than an hour’s drive.  Keeping my itinerary open means that I am not always going to get ideal place to stay. The birds at Tsurui were less active so mostly I just enjoyed their beauty.

As afternoon progressed I went exploring in the always well-plowed back roads.  I did see one Red-Crowned family of three birds in a field, but never did stumble on where they went when they left the feeding areas.  My drive back to Kushiro took me on the gravel roads through the park.  I was hoping to see some of the little deer which I did and some foxes which did not surface for me.

The next day, earlier, I repeated much of my first day, but then I headed west to the Akan International Crane Centre.  This has more of a Nature Centre vibe to it with displays, videos and educational material.  There were also about fifty birds in a field centered by a small pond.  I enjoyed having my own vehicle to get me to these sites and just driving around the quiet country roads..

About kenmyhre

I am a retired educator, computer professional. Now I like to travel the world by bicycle, on foot and periodically on skis
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2 Responses to Red-Crowned Cranes – Tancho

  1. Bartnes Dorothy says:

    Another wonderful read with accompanying pictures. Video was stunning. I so admire your adventurous spirit but alas, I was not so gifted!!!!

  2. lmirtle says:

    Amazing photos. Thanks for the information.  Most of us know so little about these magnificent birds. I love them. Good for you for driving on the opposite side to us I  think.  Lilly Sent from my Galaxy

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