In Japanese folk tradition, the crane is a symbol of fidelity, honesty, health and longevity. A crane will live a thousand years and if you fold a thousand paper cranes one will carry a wish to heaven for you. That wish may well be for a long and happy marriage.
At Arasaki in Kagoshima prefecture you have every chance of finding just the right crane to entrust your wish to. It is the wintering place for perhaps as many as 17,000 of them. The majority are Hooded Cranes, almost all the rest are White-naped Cranes. Both these species fly north via the Korean peninsula to nest in swamps in continental Asia.
At Arasaki there is a visitor centre with an outdoor observation deck. Grain and fish are put out for the cranes. They are quite a tourist attraction but the birds are assured of a little peace by fences that keep out the people. Some fields are kept flooded, the cranes always spend the night standing in water.
They start to arrive in mid October, start to leave in February and are gone by March. Numbers have risen over time from less than 300 in the late 1940’s to 17,005 (an unlikely degree of precision) in 2015. That is very likely good news for cranes although there are now fewer of them wintering in other locations.
The pair bond is maintained during the winter and last year’s young stay with their parents until it’s time to go north again, so as you watch what can seem like an amorphous mass of birds you soon start to pick out adult pairs that may have one or two youngsters with them.
At times they are a fairly noisy bunch and as spring approaches they start to dance and display.
Just occasionally you can find a Sandhill Crane or two. Their breeding ground is further north and most cross the Bering Strait to winter in North America but a few come south to Kyushu. I was also lucky enough to see a Common Crane that had wandered east from its normal range. It was keeping company with a Hooded Crane, the two species do occasionally hybridise.
The donation of free food attracts a few other birds as well. Black-eared Kites, Grey Herons, Eastern Rooks, Daurian Jackdaws and Common Starlings (not at all common in Japan) all drop in for a feed.
In the marshes not far away we encountered nine distant spoonbills. Seven were Eurasian Spoonbills, two were Black-faced. This was indeed a treat, the Black-faced Spoonbill is rare and endangered (and new to my list).
… only 999 to go.