Friday, January 23, 2009

I saw the tallest flying bird!

The Bharatpur narration begins here.

The Sarus Crane - a common resident of north India, a bird I had not seen so far, and one that I will always remember when I think of my first trip to Bharatpur.

For seasoned naturalists and bird watchers, these birds are really no big deal, found as they are in agricultural fields, something like a cattle egret or a pond heron, in the south, I think!  But for me, it was my first time, so indulge me as I take you through my first views.

It was mid-morning, and a bunch of us stood around because we had seen a lot of raptor activity to the left of the road. Two Marsh Harriers circled in the sky, and then we spied two vultures perched in the tall grass, right at the edge of our binocular vision. Just the top of their heads were seen. And among them, was also the reddish head of a king vulture, which suddenly took off and sat on a dead tree, further away. As we trained our binos on it, through the corner of my eye, I saw something large (I mean really large) go gliding through the air, flying rather low, across the road to vanish behind the trees on the right-side of the road/bund that we stood on.
"Wasn't that Sarus cranes?", I exclaimed, but since everyone else was concentrating on the raptors, they seemed to have missed it and looked at me rather dubiously. Anyway, in order to check it out, just-in-case, we went to a gap in the bushes on the other side, amd the pictures you see on the left, are what we saw. A pair, (they are usually in pairs) some distance away, feeding in the marshes!  The pictures on the left are the view we had with the naked eye.  Clicked with my little automatic Sony Cybershot, I even went around a tree further down the road, to see if I would get a better shot. One lives on ambition and hope!
I realise that birdwatching would be no fun absolutely, without a good pair of binos.
The camera is optional really, but without a good pair of binocs, I would not have seen these large birds in their full detail at all, and all the several kinds of ducks would have looked the same.Thanks to my husband, I have a grand pair - 8x42 - that serve me well, and I enjoyed the red head, with the little bald patch on the top of these Sarus cranes.
An inquisitive Nilgai poked her head out from the back, wondering what the fuss was all about.

And now that I have got that account off my chest, and showed you my efforts with the camera, let me also show you some lovely pictures from the cameras of Mr Ramanan and Sripad.  This series of pictures that follow are pieced together, from two or three different instances, and so the light differs.

But, they give you an idea of what I saw through my binocs.  These 5 ft + birds are famous for pairing for life, and participating in a courtship dance.   As I watched through the binocs, the pair were busy digging vigorously in the mud for insects, roots and other such food.

Photo by Mr Ramanan
Suddenly, the larger bird (the male) stalked up rather purposefully towards the female, who spread her wings.  While we along with Mr Ramanan saw this view, 
Photo by Mr Ramanan
Sripad was at another point, and this is what he saw!

Photo by SripadPhoto by Mr Ramanan
Photo by Sripad
Photo by Mr Ramanan
And as our racket increased, off they went, to quieter locations, away from us gawking tourists.  What a life for these stars, never a moment away from the flashbulbs and cameras!!
Photo by Mr Ramanan
So, it was that I did witness the courtship dance of the Sarus cranes, but I think it was the off-season abridged version, not the full show reserved for the breeding season!  I believe, when it is the season, both partners have an extended, elaborate circling and flapping wings option, and lots of bowing and scraping!  Must be some sight.

Below, the National Geographic short video on the Sarus Crane.  Its shot in Nepal, and talks about the crane conservation efforts there.  If you can tolerate the atrocious accent of the voice over (it annoyed me greatly), its quite a nice, short video, and you get to see the chicks, and the nesting habits, as well as some moving shots of these big birds.

I found the article, Working with the Sarus Crane, by K S Gopi Sunder fascinating and educative. Mr Gopi Sunder's efforts to follow the birds and pretend to be a crane make for amusing reading, while at the same time throwing light on their nesting behaviour.

I have one question, and its been nagging me ever since my return. These birds are monogamous and pair for life, so what happens when one of the pair dies?

This post is included in I and the Bird #93: The Compelling Nature of Birds hosted by Vickie Henderson.


  1. Wow, what majestic looking birds!
    I wonder if there are binoculars with cameras attached - or maybe a camera with telephoto lens serves the same purpose?

  2. Actually there are Kamini. The good bino cum cameras are horrendously expensive, I think. And the experts and professionals will scoff at it.

    The general wisdom is to go in for a camera with a massive telephoto that (in my opinion) weighs a ton and is a nuisance to lug around!!

  3. I love watching cranes, anywhere, any time! What a lovely account and so special that you witnessed their courtship. I would love to see the Sarus in its natural habitat.

  4. Thanks Vickie, I enjoy your delightful posts as well. Yes i guess it is special to see their courtship, but I'm always troubled as to whether in a sense we are intruding on their privacy??!!

    I mean, I dont think I would like it very much if I had people with binoculars gawking at me!

    So out of an idiotic sense of respect for these birds, I've actually "edited" the sequence!

  5. What unusual-looking birds. The red color on their heads looks as if it was painted on. Enjoyed learning about these big birds; lovely photos too!

  6. I know how you feel. My wife and I saw our first crane - the Sandhill Crane which looks similar to the Sarus - on New Year's Day at Salton Sea. what a lovely sight!

  7. Hi - I enjoyed your post and the pictures. I too see the similarity of these Sarus Cranes to the Sandhill Cranes. I have just returned from a trip where I was able to see a great number, and they are just lovely. I'd love to see Sarus Cranes in person some day!

  8. Great post Ambika! These beautiful birds remind me of the Whooping Crane in America with a similar story of coming back from the brink of extinction.

    You are so fortunate to be able to witness their mating rituals and their natural beauty. Most birds during mating are so focused on what they are doing, I don't think they mind being watched if they are not actually disturbed.

  9. Yes Diane, they are rather different looking aren't they?

    I should look up the Sandhill Cranes, Bob and Cynthia and ambercoakley.

    And Larry, thanks for easing my conscience!

  10. I am glad you enjoyed my article. The Sarus does invoke enormous respect and awe in people who are fortunate enough to witness its behaviour.

    Regarding your question on what happens when one birds dies, there are several things that I have seen happen during my studies in Uttar Pradesh. When a male dies, the female is forced out of the territory by neighbouring pairs. Rarely, newly paired birds looking for good areas to set up their home can oust such females. Once, I saw a female with two chicks hold out her own - she defended the territory until the chicks were ready to leave. One fine day, all three went missing from their home. It is impossible to say what happened to them. Males on the other hand are the more aggressive of the pair and usually take on the role of "protector" as it were. I have seen two different males whose mates died stay on in their territories calling out all year long hoping, I am guessing, to attract an interested female. One male secured a mate in about four months, while the other was without a mate for nearly two years. I visited his territory recently and found a pair with a chick. I can only hope that it was the same male who has found a partner.

    Tales from villagers would have you believe that a crane whose mate dies also dies in grief. This is truly romantic, but unlikely to be factual. However, it is this myth that has persuaded farmers to protect Sarus Cranes in many areas of northern India. I for one do not correct farmers - may the myth be forever perpetuated!

    Gopi Sundar
    (Research Associate, International Crane Foundation)

  11. Thank you for your detailed reply Gopi. Its exactly what I was looking for, and could not find an answer to!

    I am glad our farmers are so tolerant of them, and yes may the legend live on!

    I have forwarded your comment to my naturalist friends as well.

    Many thanks once again.

  12. Nice post Ambika! And the Sarus Crane always looks so majestic, you could keep looking at it forever!

    I particularly love the way they fly in perfect unison - they turned, descended and landed together - perfectly in sync!

  13. I enjoyed the Sarus story. Philosophy, science and joy of birding put togather. Gopi has already commented about monogamy of the Sarus Crane; even if the surviver when his/her mate dies finds another mate - it is still monogamy. Besides Sarus, there are many eagles which are supposed to be monogamous.

    Kind regards,
    Suresh C Sharma