The once lush green paddy fields above Trashiyangtse town have now turned brown. Farmers have retired to their homes leaving the fields empty for their visitors, the black-necked cranes.

The endangered birds have returned to one of its winter roosting and feeding grounds in Bumdeling valley, Trashiyangtse. As of yesterday, 83 cranes have arrived in the dzongkhag with the first pair arriving on November 5.

At the feeding ground in Yangtse, a pack of dogs come barking from a house nearby alerting the cranes. The visitors stand still, occasionally making their trademark sound, a high-pitch alarming call.

Know as a symbol of marital fidelity, the black-necked cranes have a strong camaraderie among themselves. While the rest of the group feeds, there are few who keep a watchful eye on the surrounding. The birds take a turn to guard the group from possible danger.

Park manager with Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary (BWS), Karma Tempa, said that in 2015 an injured crane from Lhuntse was brought to Bumdeling by some of the staff.

The injured crane while recovering was left with other birds to interact. By the time the cranes started leaving for their summer home, the injured crane could not fly. “After a week, a group of cranes came back to take their friend along,” he said. “However, he still could not fly.”

A few days later, another group of cranes arrived, he said. On March 30, the injured bird finally flew back with the second group of cranes. “These birds have a strong feeling of attachment with their kinds, sometimes more than us.”

Over the years, the number of winged visitors in Bumdeling has been declining according to the park manager. In 1987, when BWS first started to record the crane arrival, there were more than 200 cranes flying in annually.

However, the numbers have been declining with 102 cranes arriving last year and 91 cranes in 2016. There were 108 in 2015.

Disturbance in the bird’s roosting area in Bumdeling by frequent floods and the decreasing feeding grounds (paddy fields) are some of the reasons for the declining visitors according to Karma Tempa.

“There are barren paddy fields which have been colonised by alnus species trees and covered by bushes limiting their feeding grounds,” said the park manager. “The trees affect the crane’s flight.”

Another reason for the decline in numbers could be from the increasing feral dog population, he said. “Although there have been no causalities reported so far from feral dogs, the number of the dog population in the area has increased.”

To reduce the growing dog population in the area, BWS carried out a sterilisation campaign recently for some 135 dogs.

Measures to address the issue are put in place with the formation of two support groups in Bumdeling and Yangtse gewogs. BWS with support from the group members clear the roosting area before the arrival of the birds annually.

Winter cropping has been discouraged to allow the cranes feed on the paddy fields.

Recently, with support from Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), BWS constructed some 25km of electric fencing around abandoned paddy fields that served as a feeding ground for the cranes.

Another five acres of paddy fields that were washed away by flood has been restored.

Karma Tempa said that the expansion of town in Yangtse has also indirectly contributed to the decreasing feeding grounds for the cranes. “Dzongkhang and local government have been supportive in crane conservation but still there is pressure from the growing concrete structures.”

He said that if all the abandoned paddy fields that have turned into the forest in Bumdeling and other areas like Womanang, Tshaling and Gangkhar could be restored, the number of visitors could increase in the future.

The manager added plans are being discussed to help farmers market the excess rice from the reclaimed lands under the brand ‘Thrung-thrung rice’ to promote black-necked crane conservation.

Meanwhile, during the crane festival on November 17, Karma Tempa said that the number of visitors has increased compared to last year around the same time.

BWS in consultation with RSPN and Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research (UWICER) would be conducting a study on the dietary composition of the black-necked crane next year.

Younten Tshedup | Bumdeling