We decided on an early start because it was going to take about ninety minutes to get from Kitchu Resort to Phobjika. Bhutan is the wintering home to about 300 black-necked cranes. They travel down to the valley of Phobjika from Tibet starting in late October and remain here until mid-February. Since most of the nomadic tribes in the area move to warmer parts of the country, the birds have found a fairly deserted place to nest. Due to habitat encroachment, the cranes are considered highly endangered and are one of the rarest animals on the planet at one point numbering only 800 in existence. They are so reclusive that they were the last of the crane species to be discovered.
Morning and dusk tend to be the best times to see the nesting black-necked cranes. We arrived right on schedule but under a thick fog cover as winter continues to roll in. Not to be discourage we drove to the Information Center WWF Bhutan has established. Here we learned more about the cranes, spoke to the surveyors who maintain the individual counts and we were able to see some cranes feeding out in the marshes. The fog slowly began to lift and we walked down to a local hotel for a cup of tea and biscuits. On our way back we made one last stop at the Information Center and used their spotting scopes to see a little further out and catch a few more glimpses of the cranes.
Cranes are different from most birds in that they don't travel in flocks. They move in family groups ranging from three to ten and mate for life. Subash and I were disappointed we hadn't been able to get any good pictures of the birds, but just seeing them is an amazing experience. On our way out we passed more marshland and the road rose higher out of the valley. Pema spotted a family black-necked cranes among some grazing cattle. There were two adults and one juvenile, a young family.
As soon as the car stopped, Subash and I couldn't get out of the car fast enough. (He had mentioned his new found interest in photography and really wanted some great shots to take back to the US). We snapped away, but the birds were still distant and began moving being a small grove of conifers. He looked at me and said, "I want to get more pictures, but I don't think we can get down there". After confirming with Tshering and Pema it was okay to head down into the marsh I told Sbash we were heading down!
So down the hill we went, passed grazing cows, under thorny scrub brush, and ankle deep in marsh mud. I ended up much muddier than he did, but it was worth it. Around one bend and the birds were within 30 yards. We stood there, firing away, pausing to take a breath and realize what we were seeing. How funny it was to be up to my mid-calf in mud, being cold enough I could see my breath, and still feeling completely content capturing this rare sight.