Aquatic Birds Winter in Lhunzhub County (II)
BY YU QIAN
Black-necked cranes wintering in fields around the village.Photo by Qin Jing
The water birds wintering in Lhunzhub are peculiar to the many wetlands subject to special protection in Tibet. With a view to preventing overspending and destroying the hilly areas and the grasslands, the State has been working hard to seek protection of the wetlands, and the Forestry Bureau of Lhunzhub County seeks to control soil erosion by planting trees and grass. The problem is that the local farmers are still ploughing the fields deeper and deeper so as to increase their grain output, which endangers the living conditions of those water birds that survive by hunting for leftover grain in the fields, and the black-necked cranes especially are now on the verge of extinction.
When the black-necked cranes are hunting for foods, special cranes will be responsible for guarding (parents guarding the family in turn). Generally speaking, the number of guards depends on the total number of cranes in a flock.
The cranes are afraid neither of livestock, vehicles or people. In the farmland, they play at ease only some ten meters from the farmers.
However, the cranes are afraid of outlanders, although it is hard to specify the range of outlanders.
Cangqu Zholma, a specialist in birds, said that the experts presumed that the cranes distinguish outlanders from locals by their garments and their body odor. The guards whisper in a low sound of ¡°Leee¡± as soon as they detect something abnormal and the other cranes will stop hunting for food to gather together, raising high their heads towards the safe direction, and ready to fly at any moment. If the guards turn towards other directions, whispering the same sound, which means the danger is passed, then the other cranes will disperse and go on hunting.
A flock of cranes is usually mingled with two or three grey cranes, or sometimes young cranes with feathers of the original color, which have the capacity of living independently though very young.
Black-necked cranes are an indicator for determining the quality of the environment of the plateau wetlands as they only appear in a place with outstandingly good conditions. This is why experts usually say: to protect the wetlands where the black-necked cranes live is preferable to merely protecting the birds.
In China, cranes are a kind of token for longevity and elegance in people¡¯s hearts since olden times, hence are always well protected.
To the Tibetan race, the black-necked cranes are the token of auspiciousness. The 6th Dalai wrote in his poem Lama Cangyang Gyamco, saying:
¡°Praying to the pure-white red-crowned cranes,
to lend me two wings soaring into the sky,
flying not that far,
just reaching Litang! ¡±
The Tibetans treasure these lovely creatures. There are two black-necked cranes in a zoo of the Norbu Lingka. They were found injured and sent to the zoo by the locals, and then they stayed after recovering.
Villagrs sowing in the field. Photo by Qin Jing
The Story of Men and Cranes
Purbo Wangdui, head of the Kaze Township, saved a black-necked crane when he was a vet in the Kaze Township. We interviewed him.
The government office courtyard of the Kaze Township is by the side of the Kaze Reservoir.
Purbo Wangdui is a little different from the common township leaders in appearance. He wore a jacket and a pair of blanched jeans, with typical bronze-colored skin, sturdy-lined facial features, and wearing a cowboy hat. He walked fast with large steps, and in only a few steps he stood in front of us.
He told us the following story.
¡°The day before the advent of the Tibetan New Year in 1999, two children carried an injured black-necked crane to me, saying it could not fly. I examined it and found its right wing was injured. I kept it in my own family, curing and feeding it. We generally eat zanba (roasted highland barley flour) dough, but I bought some rice for the crane to increase its nutrition. After some 20 days, it recovered and we set it free. ¡±
¡°As to the stories of men and cranes, each village has its own.¡± Purbo Wangdui finished his story in such words.
I was also told of a story about four cranes called Cering.
Generally, four cranes could not be given the same name. But these four, parents are two young, defy tradition.
Ten years ago, approaching Tibetan New Year¡¯s Day, Toinzhub, who was still a child, was asked by his parents to herd sheep out to the pasture carrying Zanba and qingke wine. In the hilly area near the modern Kaze Reservoir, he picked up a black-necked crane with injured wings and legs that seemed to have been beaten with a whip.
Toinzhub stopped the bleeding with mud, fixed its wings with sticks, stacked a hole with stones, and then put the crane into the hole with the Zanba and his cup. In the evening, he carried the crane back to his family and called it Cering.
Ten years later, though Toinzhub now had his own family, he was still shy of talking about the matter.
Toinzhub said he carried the crane to and fro when he herded the sheep out to pasture, bringing unroasted qingke barley and water for it. Over ten days, ¡°Cering¡± recovered, and Toinzhub set it free.
¡°In the first few days, Cering was revolving in the sky while I was herding the sheep, and it circled over my house when I was at home,¡± said Toinzhub.
The next year, Cering flew back to the village with his ¡°wife¡± and ¡°son¡±. No one except Toinzhub could identify the male and female so both were called ¡°Cering¡±.
The ¡°Cerings¡± flew back every year, now there is a new member born in the family. The villagers told us that the two young cranes were only three years old but they flew back here every year with their parents.
I had gone to see the Cerings twice. I found that the four Cerings stay in the fields near the village. At dusk, they would fly to the reservoir for the night. At dawn, they would fly to the field. I did not determine if they communicated with other cranes. Once, I went far too close to them, they were startled and flew away, but they were only circled in the sky for ten minutes or so and then returned to the field.
Black-necked cranes wintering in fields around the village. Photo by Qin Jing
In recent years, the locals¡¯ consciousness of protecting water birds has improved. Before, one could see children carrying injured yellow ducks and spot-headed wild geese for sale along the road, but that no longer happens. The locals will voluntarily report or chase away any outlanders who poach here. Kaze Chundui and some other townships are the hinterlands for the wintering water birds. After sowing winter wheat and barley, the farmers have a rule that the livestock cannot enter the field; it is not allowed to chase off or startle the water birds in any way when they are staying in the field.
During the period from late February to early March, the black-necked cranes and other water birds are ready to migrate north. The tender sprouts of barley and wheat that have just emerged from the ground are water birds¡¯ favorite foods. The locals said: ¡°We cannot chase the water birds away just because they damage the crops, so sow denser.¡±
The wetlands by the reservoir are wet and soft, and one¡¯s foot will be submerged if one is a little careless, but it was thickly dotted with the prints of all kinds of water birds. Some footprints are as big as an unfolded palm of an adult, and even the smallest is as big as the footprints of Tibetan pheasants.
The wetlands are only 100 meters from the village. Purbo Wangdui told me that when he had just began to work here, at first he was totally awake at night in the winter, for the chirping of all kinds water birds made his head reel. But now he has grown accustomed to the sound.
¡°My house is some 20 km away from here. When I go back at weekends, I always lay awake at night missing the birds chirping!¡± he said.
The water birds in Lhunzhub generally begin to migrate north in mid-March. After April 15th, the migratory birds have almost all flown away.
The black-necked cranes are not the only kind of bird to migrate, but their migration is the most conspicuous and always a major research subject for zoologists, for they are the only kind of cranes living at such high altitude in extremely cold and with oxygen deficiency. So, whenever the migratory birds migrate north, the field in Lhunzhub will be spotted with people carrying cameras and specialists with telescopes.
Migration is one of the annually indispensable activities of the black-necked cranes, but there was also some exceptions; Purbo Wangdui said there were two black-necked cranes that stayed in the Kaze Reservoir throughout last year, but they did not breed as well. Jing Yong, a specialist in forestry protection, presumed that the two cranes might be too old and weak to fly such a long distance, and also they passed the age for breeding.
Photographers Should Not ¡°Startle the Birds to Fly¡±
There is a dirt road five km outside the county seat; actually, it was rolled flat by tractors. Small puddles are scattered on the two sides of the road, in which sheep and cattle are always seen drinking, while sometimes yellow ducks are also swimming. Flocks of rock pigeons are hunting for food in the unplowed fields, which are called rock pigeons by Jing Yong for they favor building nests on rocks or high walls, and they usually appear on the walls of monasteries in Tibet.
In winter, the water of the Pengbo River without the addition of any rainwater seems clearer and cleaner; the riverbed seems much broader; the water is separated into numerous streams by bossed sands and stones; and the speed of flow slows down, creating a tranquil landscape. Swarms of water birds like green-headed ducks, pochards and goosanders etc are playing and chasing each other in the water.
Black-necked cranes. Photo by Cui Lijun
Last month, I accompanied two men from Shanghai who claimed to be members of a ¡°Bird-Cherishing Group¡± to take pictures of the water birds in Tibet, carrying all sizes of telescopes and all kinds of lenses.
Due to poor visibility, the telescopes were of little use. But the two visitors were extremely excited by what they had seen, and their cameras worked unceasingly working.
Their way of taking pictures of birds was different from ours. Upon seeing water birds, they would throw stones at them to startle them to fly, saying only the dynamic pictures have artistic value. On the way, all of the water birds captured by their camera lens were forced to scurry away in all directions in fear. I felt as if I had led people to harass my good friends. So, the next day, I excused myself.
Throwing stones to make birds fly can easily lead to them being injured. Besides, it is not easy for the birds to find a safe place. If they were chased away from a place they would not return even if the person who had harassed them had gone. If that kind of things happens in the breeding period, how many birds would be caused to desert their eggs and their young?
Herders live harmoniously with black-necked cranes. Photo by Cui lijun
A Sandpiper in the Pool
In winter, isolated pools will be left when the river water recedes, with dead water in them, in which fingerlings, shrimps and plankton live. Such pools are too small to attract flocks but individual water birds may come to hunt for food.
We happened to see a sandpiper in a small pool on the right. Its beak like a stick was searching in the water, its slender legs worked in coordination with its long beak, and its head nodded up and down rhythmically. The water behind it formed a big circle with a clear gradation in layers.
We were afraid of startling it, so we stopped the car and remained silent inside. Only when we knew that it did not mind our presence could we lower the window and begin to take pictures. The distance between us was no more than ten meters, so it was impossible for the bird to be unaware of our presence. But when the shutter clicked, it just shot a glance at us and went on working in the water obviously believing there was no danger.
Sandpipers come in numerous varieties. They are not a common kind of bird in Tibet. Jing Yong said that it was only while investigating ten years ago he had seen sandpipers in summer in Gyilong Gully in Xigaze. The environment of Gyilong Gully is similar to that of south Lhunzhub, with the type of mountain meadow with swamps forming its principal part. Whether sandpipers are residents or migratory birds has to be further studied by the specialists.
It is getting dark, and the birds are busy flying back to their night place, so the fields begin to quieten down.