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Poyang Lake

Avian adventure

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ON WATCH: The national reseve staff are meticulous about sightings and research

Poyang Lake in China is a unique world treasure. By playing host to dozens of rare bird species, it truly lives up to its billing as the 'kingdom of rare waterfowl'.

As another winter sets in across the plains of northern India, Bharatpur's famous Keoladeo-Ghana Park does not get its most famous migratory visitors, the Siberian Cranes. Famously referred to as the 'Lily of Birds' by A O Hume - after he saw them in the wetlands of western Uttar Pradesh - these cranes are renowned for undertaking the longest and most treacherous migration of any species of crane. Incredibly, they fly over the Himalayas to get here, and then fly back the same way.

Numbering nearly 200 in the '70s, the population that migrates from Russia to India has undergone a steady attrition. The last two 'Sibes', as the species is affectionately called, were last seen in Bharatpur in the winter of 2002-3. Hunting along the migration route is suspected to have also been responsible for the extinction of this population.

Another population of Sibes flew from their breeding grounds in Russia to Iran, flying around the Caspian Sea to reach their winter home on its southern shores. But this population, too, is now down to one bird. Driven by instinct to survive and undertake this onerous journey, the lone Sibe continues each year even though it's probably doomed.

The last remaining population of this singular species now breeds on the tundra of far-eastern Russia. The tundra melts for a few months each year and provides the birds a precious breeding habitat. As winter sets in, freezing everything across this, perhaps the coldest region on the planet, all of the 4, 000 remaining Sibes migrate to southern China. Nearly every one of them winters in one wetland region simply called Poyang Lake.

The lake, once the largest freshwater lake in China at over 3, 500 sq km, is now reduced to a 500 sq km complex of smaller lakes, in part due to the Three Gorges Dam project. Part of this complex is managed as a wetland reserve by the Chinese government - the Poyang Lake National Natural Reserve. In mid-December, I joined a group of international crane experts in Poyang hoping to glimpse the last population of cranes.

And Sibes are indeed prized here;so much so that the flock of thousands of Sibes is fondly referred to as the "Second Great Wall". The reserve staff sport smart navy-blue uniforms, with bird species embossed on their epaulette buttons to represent their respective rank. The Director of the Reserve sports buttons with Sibes. The guides who showed our group around in the field were lower down the order and sported Storks and Swans on theirs. All of them, however, had decals on each arm showing a flying Sibe - the proud symbol of the reserve.

With only three days at our disposal, Li Fengshan of the International Crane Foundation, decided on three locations in Poyang to visit. Each was chosen strategically, for the large numbers of waterbirds they usually have. And two for the high probability of seeing Sibes. Li picked well. At the first spot, thousands of geese grazed on the grassy meadows on the lake's shallows. Hundreds of Pied Avocets, one of the very few bird species in the world whose beak bends upwards, moved through the shallow waters beside the grass. Poyang had already lived up to its reputation as a global destination for waterbirds.

In the distance, through the fog, several hundred white birds moved in the haze. Our next stop brought us closer to them. Accompanied by enthusiastic reserve staff with knowing smiles, we walked over to the edge of a cliff to a vantage point looking over the lake. Four hundred Sibes - both adults and noisy young ones, distinct in their rufous plumage - foraged away on the protein-rich tubers below. About 10 per cent of the entire known population of one species stood below us.

Sibe young have the loudest calls of the young of any of the 15 species of cranes. The air was filled with their noise, amid honks of the Swan Geese that they were sharing the tubers with. The Swan Goose is another endangered species, and no more than 60, 000 exist today. Nearly all of them winter in and around Poyang Lake. From our vantage point, we could count thousands. At least 10 per cent of their entire population too!

The next day we stopped briefly to witness a family of Cormorant fishermen starting off on their day of work. This unusual and vanishing group of fishermen uses captive cormorants to catch fish. Cormorants are the very best fishermen of the bird world - even lacking oil on their feathers, which could slow their underwater chases for fish. So after each swim, the cormorant has to spread its wings to dry off. The Cormorant fishermen tie a snare at the base of the birds' throats, disallowing the birds from swallowing large fish. Successful cormorants are hauled out of water with a pole, and fish are taken from their mouths. The birds get to swallow smaller fish.

We drove past thousands of swans, Swan Geese, tens of thousands of other geese and other waterbird species basking in the lush waters and banks of Poyang Lake. But the prize we were here to see were the Oriental Storks, another endangered species that numbers less than 3, 000 in total. The reserve staff gave us a ride across a spur of water to a marshy spot, and there in front of us stood over 350 of these storks.

It is very uncommon to find locations like Poyang. It lives up to its billing as a "kingdom of rare waterfowl". This unique wetland is a global treasure, and is a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site. But there's also a sense of foreboding. Poyang is a literal case of the adage, all eggs in one basket. Several ambitious development plans threaten the well-being of Poyang. But our Chinese hosts believe that their government will continue safeguarding this treasure.

That day, as hundreds of birds took off against the setting sun, in a roar of wing-beats and collective honks and squeals, we felt privileged to be there. We also felt proud to be part of a global collaborative effort that works each day to secure treasures such as Poyang.

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