Common Crane: First recorded sighting of this species in Thailand
Common crane sighting in Nong Bong Khai Non-hunting Area in Chiang Rai
Tremendous excitement prevailed when a common crane showed up for the first time in Thailand during November 2000. Experts had predicted the species would eventually be seen in the Kingdom (Lekagul & Round 1991) but the arrival of the crane was nonetheless big news for bird lovers. It was one of the greatest thrills in my life to be the first person to sight this solitary bird. Undoubtedly, local farmers saw the crane first but took no notice.
Common crane male in rice fields near Nong Bong Khai
While out scouting for photographic possibilities, I visited Nong Bong Khai Non-hunting Area situated at Chiang Saen Lake located in the northern province of Chiang Rai. The National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (DNP) is responsible for the area, which is a year round attraction for nature lovers. Although surrounded by paddy fields, a swamp to the west of the lake still hosts many resident bird species. The protected area also attracts migrant birds starting in October, when ducks, herons, grebes and other water birds arrive to spend the winter. Some rest for a while before carrying on to other areas in Thailand and Southeast Asia, even on down to Australia.
Arriving at the non-hunting area early in the morning, as always, I drove over the hill for a quick scout of the swamp. My casual visit turned into quite a surprise. Amidst the expected grey herons and little egrets, one bird seemed not quite right. It took some careful watching to isolate the anomaly but once found the crane was very striking indeed, towering over the herons. Its unfamiliar facial pattern and grey plumage stood out in the clear morning sun.
Chiang Saen Lake in Chiang Rai
I immediately called my good friend Philip Round, Thailand’s foremost bird expert, telling him of the sighting. Unfortunately, commitments at work forced me to leave shortly after but I vowed to come back as quickly as possible. Within two weeks, I was back this time with my friend David Murray from Chiang Mai, who came along as my assistant. The crane was extremely wary and maintained a healthy distance with anyone approaching it. The bird, a male, was limping and we assumed it had probably been wounded by a gunshot. Mature cranes usually pair up. The absence of a female was strange and perhaps the crane encountered hunters along the way, and that might have disrupted the bird’s migration.
The next day in early morning darkness we set up a photo-blind near where the bird was first sighted. I got a quick glimpse, but then the crane trumpeted loudly a few times and took off. A few quick shots were snapped as it flew away, but they were distant. The next morning was cool and foggy. About 9 a.m. the fog finally burned off and, as if on cue, the crane swooped down landing in front of the blind, although still a fair distance away. I quickly photographed it with my 600mm Minolta, doubled to 1,200mm by a converter. Once again the bird flew away within seconds, possibly spooked by the blind. The next morning the hide was moved even closer to the middle of the swamp but the crane did not show.
As we were packing up about 11 a.m. the bird flew across the paddy field, with its right leg dangling. We drove to where it landed, and managed to sneak within photographic range. I was finally able to get a few non-flying photographs even though the light was harsh. I left area but was still not satisfied, and again promised to return.
Sunset over Chiang Saen Lake
In early January of 2001 my determination to capture this crane on film continued to burn. After checking with the staff at Nong Bong Khai to confirm that the crane was still present, I decided to try one more time. After almost a thousand kilometer drive from Bangkok to Chiang Saen (including a swing through Chiang Mai to pick up David), we arrived in the late afternoon and to our relief soon spotted the crane in rice fields west of the swamp. I was pleased to see that its limp seemed to have disappeared and that it also appeared a bit more at ease. David and I camped out close-by in frigid cold winter conditions and planned the next morning’s shoot. At 4 a.m. we set the blind very near where the bird was reported to roost.
At about 8am the sun became hotter and the morning mist lifted. The crane suddenly flew in from the west but landed just a bit out of range. Then he walked closer to the blind and, as if in answer to my prayers, stopped 75 meters away pecking for food on the ground. I wasted no time and quickly shot several rolls of film. The final frames shot as he took off showed he still favored his right leg, as it dangled in flight. That was the last time I saw this magnificent bird, and the experience will always be etched in memory.
He left the area shortly after that and was never seen again. Nong Bong Khai had provided a haven for several months while he recuperated. During his stay, this crane delighted many nature lovers, bird watchers and photographers. It even appeared in the newspapers and on television. This single visit was considered an aberration and unlikely to happen again.
Common crane lifting off from the rice fields
But in January of 2004, my good friend John Parr visited the lake and in quite a surprise to the bird community, observed a pair of common cranes. I immediately rushed up to see them but these birds were extremely wary and I could not get any pictures. However, I did see the two birds at the opposite end of the swamp over two days. The pair left the next day.
It was reported that some local people wearing bright clothing were seen very close to the cranes before they flew off. While I was sitting in the blind, I also observed people walking close to the swamp. The birds had probably been pushed to the limit. When or if common cranes ever return again is an open question.
Cranes belong to the family Gruidae and there are 15 species worldwide. They are large birds with long necks and legs, and all have large straight pointed bills. Cranes nest on the ground or in shallow water. They build a bulky bed of sticks and vegetation. Their trumpet-like call reverberates over long distances. These birds fly in a V formation or a long line. Paired mature cranes perform a beautiful courtship display, much like a stately dance.
The sarus crane Grus antigone was once found in Thailand but that was more than 60 years ago. Before the year 2000, it was the only species of crane ever recorded here. A mature saris crane is one and half meters tall with a red head and light gray body plumage. Unfortunately, they are extinct in the Kingdom. The species still survives in the wild of Cambodia, Vietnam and India. But like everywhere else in the world, these cranes are under serious pressure from humans.
The Royal Forest Department (RFD) established a captive breeding program for the sarus crane many years ago but unfortunately, these birds do not breed well in captivity. Successful pairing is very rare under caged conditions, and so the chance of breeding cranes for reintroduction is next to impossible. Most zoos in the country have specimens. However, the Khorat Zoo in Nakhon Ratchasima province has successfully reared sarus crane chicks.
No one knows where this common crane actually came from. It was possibly blown off-course from a flock migrating east or west. The species’ world range includes Europe, North Africa and Asia. The common crane is an uncommon winter visitor to southern China, and the northern areas of Vietnam, Burma and India.
The chance to see and photograph a wild crane might not come for a long time. I feel blessed to have been there at the right place and at the right time. Mother nature works in strange ways and perhaps some future migratory season will bring a tall bird with a trumpeting call to stop by Nong Bong Khai. I will surely be there.