Ladakh’s most revered bird – The elusive Black Necked Crane

Bright green moss layered on the riverbed surrounded by dry sand-like mountains, a black calf less than a week old galloping playfully around his mother, wild Kiangs cross the road in front of us camouflaging into the mountains and flocks of birds flying ahead of our bikes as if leading us on our journey over the roof of the world. I was trying hard to observe every detail in the landscape on the way to Hanle, the last leg of our road trip in Ladakh when I noticed what looked like a pair of birds. They were at a distance in a marsh and if on a moving bike I could figure out that they were birds, they must be HUGE!

Recovering from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) after crossing Chang La, one of the highest mountain passes in Ladakh to bumpy rides through broken mountain roads, sometimes just dirt tracks, my back had given up riding pillion for hours on the road from Tangste to Hanle. Cold, tired and hungry we were looking for a dhaba (teashop) but since we’d left Chushul the only structures we came across were either Changpa tents, the pastoral nomads who live in this area or the Army check posts, and even the glorious panoramic view of the Himalayas wasn’t distracting enough for my growling stomach, until I saw the birds!

A pair of tall mystical whitish-grey birds with a long slender neck & legs, they looked extraordinary amidst the barren mountains and I couldn’t take my eyes off them! I walked into the marsh to get a closer look but realized I couldn’t go further without getting sunk in the swamp, so I took as many shots of the birds as I could before they gracefully flew away into the brown mountains. ( Read about our adventures on the road getting to Hanle)

Hungry and tired we reached Hanle that evening and the first thing we did was to find a dhaba and much-needed chai & Maggi noodles! Later that night during dinner at our homestay we found out that the birds we saw earlier were a rare and endangered species of crane – the Black Necked Crane, and their sighting is considered auspicious! ( Read more on Wild Ladakh)

World’s only alpine crane species, the elusive Black-necked crane breeds on the high-altitude Tibetan plateau and winters at lower wetlands, alpine meadows, and river marshes in China, Bhutan, Eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh in India.

Classified as ‘vulnerable’, Black Necked Crane (scientific name Grus nigricollis and Cha Thung-thung in Ladakhi) is a tall bird with a height of about 1.35 m, a wingspan of about 2-2.5m and weighs about 6-8 kg with a bright red crown on the head. Usually seen in pairs, they are believed to bond for life and their exquisite courtship dance has inspired one of Ladakh’s famous folk dances – Chartses, or the migratory bird dance performed at festivals.

Considered sacred in many parts of the Himalayas, it was the state bird of Jammu & Kashmir in India and is revered in Bhutan as a symbol of longevity where in Phobjikha valley a Crane Festival is hosted every year in celebration of the bird. Monpa Buddhists from Tawang in Arunachal regard the Black Necked crane as a symbol of good fortune and reincarnation of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, who in the love of these birds is said to have composed poems on the cranes.

Adorning many Thanka paintings in monasteries depicting life in the Himalayas, the Black Necked Crane sacred to Buddhists is pictured alongside deities for centuries.

It was the last species of the crane to be discovered by ornithologists in 1876 due to the remoteness of their range, and it’s still the least known. Even though legally protected in China, Bhutan & India their population (88,00 – 11,000) is decreasing due to changes in their habitat, drying of lakes, feral dogs, and climate changes. Here’s a short film from PBS on the Black-necked Cranes shot in Bhutan – https://youtu.be/EUQ3zuc_yOQ

Now that Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh in India are not a part of the same state, each will have to crown their own UT bird and for Ladakh, no other bird could be more appropriate than the magnificent Black Necked Crane, the king of birds in the Himalayas.

Sighting of a Black Necked Crane is a sign of good luck and I couldn’t agree more. Riding over one of the highest mountain roads in the world through dreamy landscapes for more than 20 days and overcoming challenges like AMS & fixing motorbikes at 17,000 feet, witnessing the world’s only alpine crane species in the wild was a perfect culmination of our road trip to Ladakh! And the ride back from Hanle through the Nyoma-Loma road in Changthang till Mood which was like riding into a painting!

I’ve been to Ladakh twice (2013 & 2015) and the memories are still fresh in my mind. I wish I could go back and re-live those moments, so instead, I decided to write and paint what I saw. This is a part of my series on our road trip to Ladakh – Ride of a lifetime! Here’s the link to the entire series if you like to know more.

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