This was one of the highlights of my road trip to Kyushu & certainly a day that held much anticipation. I read about the migratory birds in one of the webpages & thought what a cool idea it was to see them even though I am not much of a bird-watcher. Over 10,000 cranes make their annual southbound journey between mid Oct to Dec from Siberia & these amazing birds remain here till around Mar every year.
As we approached the padi-fields of Arasaki in Izumi City of Kagoshima Prefecture, things seemed kind of quiet in this sleepy farming town. The autumn crops have just been harvested so I was surprised to see the fields water-logged. Apparently this was done deliberately for the cranes, as they roost standing in shallow waters in the rice fields at night.
We parked at the large parking area right in front of the Crane Observation Center which was mostly empty & I figured it was a little inaccessible for most tourists unless you drive. On this notice board, the center has the actual figures of the different bird life spotted on that day. The total headcount was an astounding 15,360 with the majority of them Hooded Cranes standing at 14,907. How do they actually keep count of the flying birds, I wonder?
It was said that the cranes started to arrive on this site around 1700 after the reclamation project in Arasaki by the Satsuma Domain & Shimazu Domain; which were administrative units during the Edo Shogunate.
This area was registered as a natural monument & sanctuary in 1921 & is one of Japan’s largest wintering places for cranes. Subsquently in 1952 the Izumi migration grounds was designated a special natural monument.
I tried to get closer to the cranes to capture some shots but the warden kept a watchful eye & I was advised to keep off the fields which was out-of-bounds. The cranes are protected & given ‘space’ so as to keep them coming back to this safe wintering haven.
Bird watchers take delight in observing the cranes as they engage in activities such as pecking for food, grooming their feathers & even dancing. Cranes feed mostly on aquatic creatures which they quietly stalk through the shallows.
The total area of this migration grounds is 254 ha & most of the cranes here are the Hooded Cranes(Grus monacha) which are the smallest in species. They breed in south-central & south-eastern Siberia & over 80% of its population winters at Izumi, Japan. Some sightings of them have been made in South Korea & China.
These amazing Hooded Cranes are about 1m long, weight approximately 3.7kg & have a wing span of 1.87m. Soaring high, flying free! Herons & cranes do have a great semblance but Herons fly with the necks bent & head tucked in whilst the Cranes fly with necks outstretched like a goose & its long legs trailing behind as seen here. Cranes are monogamous & can live up to 30 years in the wild & 60 years in captivity.
This shot was taken from the 3rd floor of the Crane Observation Center which offers a 360° panoramic view of the site for a small token of ¥210. On the 2nd floor is a smallish museum with some photo exhibits & information on these migratory birds plus a telescope that would give you a close up magnification of the cranes.
The various species that can be observed here besides the Hooded Crane are White-necked Cranes, Common Cranes & sometimes Sandhill Cranes, Siberian Cranes & the rarer Demoiselle Cranes. They forage in the day for grain that has been scattered in the rice fields to feed them & may take off in smaller groups across Izumi but would return at night to the safety of the roosting ground near the Crane Observation Center.
(From Left to Right) The Aosagi (literally Blue Heron in Japanese) is the Grey Heron; Kosagi the Little Egret, a species of small Heron from the Ardeidae family. Magamo or Mallard a dabbling duck; Tageri (Vanellus vanellus) the Lapwing, a wading bird that can be seen on cultivated land, marshes, mud flats & estuaries. Nabe Zuru the Hooded Crane is endangered as it faces major threats like the loss of wetlands & degradation of wintering grounds in China & South Korea due to reclamation for development & dam building. The last one in line is the Manazuru or White-naped Crane which breeds mainly in Russia, Northeast China & Northeastern Mongolia.
The Orizuru or Paper Crane is the most classic of Japanese Origami. It is a representation of the Japanese Red-Crowned Crane (Tanchozuru) which the Japanese believe carried souls to paradise on their wings.
A thousand folded paper cranes strung together is called Senbazuru & here at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park you would see many fine examples of them. It is said that a thousand cranes need to be made for a wish to come true.
Orizuru is often associated with the story of Sadako Sasaki who lived in Hiroshima at the time of the atomic bombing. She was just 2 years old when the “Little Boy” was dropped on 6th Aug 1945. At the age of 12, it was discovered that she had developed leukaemia due to radiation exposure & was told that she would not have much time left. Her friend advised her to fold origami paper cranes in the hope that her wish to live would come true.
Sadly, Sadako passed away on 25th Oct 1955 & her friends & schoolmates published a collection of letters to raise funds for a memorial to her & all the children who died from the effects of the atomic bomb. So here is the Statue of Sadako unveiled in 1958, holding a golden crane’s wings at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (Genbaku Dome)
A Grey Heron(Ardea cinerea) Aosagi in flight. This long-legged predatory wading bird is native throughout temperate Europe, Asia & parts of Africa. Spotted this bird at Sakurajima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture.
Smooth landing! The Grey Heron belongs to the Heron family Ardeidae & it is a bird of wetland areas & can be seen around lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes & on the sea-coast. They feed on aquatic creatures & can be a metre tall & weigh in at between 1 to 2 kg.
Grey Heron perched on the pier railings of Sakurajima Island, attracted to the small bucket of bait that the anglers were using to fish.
This has been one happy adventure for me. I now better understand why the crane especially the Red-crowned Crane is referred to as the “Honourable Lord Crane” in Japan. This popular & beloved bird is featured in artworks & kimono motifs, used as a logo of Japan Airlines & ubiquitous in all things Japanese. Fabled to live for a thousand years, the white feathered, soaring & graceful crane is a national symbol of longevity & good fortune.
You do not have to look very hard nor crane your necks to see cranes here in Kagoshima Prefecture if you come to Arasaki between late Nov & Mar or catch the Tanchozuru up North in Hokkaido at The Kushiro Marshland (Kushiro Shitsugen), best seen in winter when they gather at the winter feeding sites.