Category Archives: Travel

The Red-crowned Cranes of Hokkaido

The Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis) is an endangered crane species that is found in northern Asia. One of the places where it can be more easily seen is in Hokkaido, Japan where they are a resident species, unlike the migratory ones elsewhere. In Japan, they are called tanchōzuru or shortened tanchō (red-head). They are considered sacred and seen as a symbol of fidelity, love and longevity. But they were on the brink of extinction due to hunting, mainly for their plumage.

Although hunting them is a thing of the past and conservation work is ongoing, currently there are only around 2,750 birds left in the wild, including about 1,000 birds in Hokkaido. In fact in 1926, there were only about 20 birds left in Hokkaido, but urgent conservation work increased their numbers substantially. One of the measures they did was to set up feeding grounds for the cranes during wintertime.

At the end of 2014, I brought my family to Hokkaido for a vacation. It was not a birding trip, but since my wife arranged for one where we had an opportunity to see the Red-crowned Cranes feeding, I brought along my long lens for the trip. Arriving on a cold and snowy day, I was delighted to see so many of these cranes at the feeding site next to Akan International Crane Centre at Kushiro.


Red-crowned Cranes together with other birds at the feeding centre

Although snowing and frankly having too long a lens, I managed to take some photos of the cranes and even a sequence of their famous courtship ritual.


Start of the courtship dance


First, a bow. The browned headed crane on the left of the frame is a juvenile


I must admit I don’t know which is the male and the female


Intertwining necks, close to the highlight of the dance


They are now considered ‘one’. This would have been a great shot, if only there were no other cranes in the frame. But it is a busy feeding lot and I did not have time for a re-do.


Coming apart. This was not the end of their courtship ritual, but the couple continued on. But it was hard to pick them apart in heavy snow and with the lack of contrast, so I lost track soon after.

As most of the tour group were not nature lovers, and coupled with the fact that it was cold and snowing heavily, we spent less than an hour at that place. I so dearly wished we had more time to see these enchanting cranes. Perhaps a return journey one day to see them, the Stellar Sea Eagles and Blakiston’s Fish Owls.

Satyr Tragopan in Bhutan

If the Himalayan Monals are the most dazzling member of the pheasant family in Bhutan, and the Blood Pheasants are the ones with the most character, the Satyr Tragopan must surely hold the title of the most elegant.

The Satyr Tragopan (Tragopan satyra) is also known as the Crimson Horned Pheasant. That describe the male bird perfectly. The crimson refers to the plumage and horn refers to the two fleshy blue horns that project above the eye during male displays. The female on the other hand is a drab brown bird.

We had the first opportunity to see the male bird on the way down from the monastery where we met the Himalayan Monals. It was late evening, and the light level was rather low when we saw a male by the roadside. Most encounters with the birds of the pheasant family are by the roadside. This time around the bird was actively foraging. The low light level coupled with a foraging bird meant we had a tough choice to make. Up the ISO and shutter speed and get a sharp but noisy picture, or lower the shutter speed and hope that there are times when the tragopan stop to pose. I chose the latter, and as such most of the pictures were unusable. Fortunately there are a few that are of reasonable quality. The thought was that tehre will be other encounters that will result in better photos.

Our next encounter was at another place in the morning by the roadside. This time around, although light level was fine, the background of the road made for a less interesting composition. So in the end, the first encounter was the best. If I were to return to Bhutan, the Satyr Tragopan will be high on the list of birds to photograph again.

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Yellow-billed Blue Magpie in Bhutan

I have written before about the Red-billed Blue Magpies at my workplace here. Their close relatives are the Yellow-billed Blue Magpies (Urocissa flavirostris). The most prominent difference is the colour of their bills. They are also a bit smaller, the blue plumage a little duller, and a smaller white nape patch. They both belong to the crow and jays family, whose members are generally considered the most intelligent birds, and among the most intelligent animals.

The Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, also called the Gold-billed Magpie is a species commonly found throughout the Himalayas, and in some places, co-exist with the Red-billed Blue Magpies. However in Bhutan, only the Yellow-billed Blue Magpie can be found.

On the first day of my trip, I managed to hear and then see 2-3 of them flying up the trees at the hotel where I was staying. Throughout the entire trip, I would see them quite often mostly in a group, but opportunities to photograph them well was rarer. These birds are really intelligent. Once we sighted them on a low branch somewhere and stop our car, they will very soon just fly a little downhill, out of sight. Remember than Bhutan is really mountainous and the roads all go through them, so there is always a slope downhill everywhere we go. So just like the Blue Whistling Thrush (where one is present in every few turns of a road), these common birds were not so easy to photograph after all.

But of course there were one or two encounters that were more productive so below are some photos of them.


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Green-tailed Sunbird of Bhutan

The Green-tailed Sunbird (Aethopyga nipalensis) is a commonly found sunbird species that ranges from the northern parts of South-east Asia to the Himalayan region of South Asia.

Like most of the sunbirds, the male and female are exhibit sexual dimorphism (male and female of the same species look different). The male is attractively coloured while the female is rather drab looking.

I had the opportunity to see a few of these sunbirds in Bhutan and the thing that struck me was the name of the bird and its actual colour. As the name implies, one should expect a sunbird with a green tail. Yet on closer examination, the colour of the tail as well as crown and throat is actually iridescent blue with only hints of green at certain angles. At first, I thought I had problem with my eyes and camera, but a casual check on other pictures in the Internet shows the same colouration.

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Blood Pheasants of Bhutan

The Blood Pheasant (Ithaginis cruentus) is a species of pheasant roughly the size of chickens and are quite commonly found inhabiting the Himalayan range from Nepal, Bhutan, India, Tibet and across Myanmar to south-central China. The male and female differs in their plumage with the female being drab brown, and the male a showy bird with ashy upperparts, and with streaks of reds on the breast, collectively resembling dashes of blood, hence their name.

I had the opportunity to photograph and observed them while on a trip to Bhutan in April and May 2013.

In Bhutan, there are two subspecies of Blood Pheasants. The subspecies cruentus is found at the northwestern part of the country, and I first saw a pair in Chelela Pass. There are some authorities that believe this should be the subspecies affinis, but no matter. I am following IOC range distribution. We will let the taxonomist sort this out later.

Subspecies tibetanus occurs in the eastern part of Bhutan and I managed to see a few of them at Thrumshingla Pass. The fact that these two places are passes give you a clue as to their habitat, mountainous region near the snowline. The difference between the two subspecies is mainly the amount of red streaking on their chest, with the tibetanus subspecies more striking visually. You can see these subspecies in the photo gallery below.

Birding in Bhutan is mainly done by the road. Since the roads there are seldom busy, we ride slowly and hope to hear or see the birds along the way. The pheasants will oftentimes come up to the roadside to feed, and we will very slowly get our of the car from a distance away to observe them.

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Vernal Hanging Parrot at Kaeng Krachan National Park

While in Thailand for a birding holiday in July 2013, I had a chance to photograph some Vernal Hanging Parrots (Loriculus vernalis) at Kaeng Krachan National Park. With a bit of free time left for the day, the guide brought me to a rambutan orchard that was fruiting at the moment.

In between snacking on rambutans, the guide and I surveyed the area for the parrots. He was surprised I could sense their presence. I told him the calls these parrots make are pretty similar to the Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots back in Singapore.

Every now and then, a group of 3-5 birds will buzz around and land on some bare branches. This afforded me the opportunity to take some pictures. Then a few will feast on the rambutans before flying off.

The Vernal Hanging Parrots like their cousins the Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots are small sized short-tailed, and primarily green-plumaged parrots. This species is found in Burma, southern and southeastern India and southeastern Thailand. Like the other hanging parrots, they have the ability to sleep upside down, from which their name is derived. Their diet is similar to the Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots as well.

Below are some of the pictures I took. Unlike the Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots, I am not familiar with their various characteristics. In general, they have red to orange bills unlike the Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots. The breeding adults have white eyes and the male have light blue throat area. The juveniles are lighter in colour, with darker eyes, duller legs and feet.

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