Continuing my challenge on nature photography inspired journey of the seven continents, we spend another week in Asia moving from United Arab Emirates to India.
The sky was a deep shade of gray when we arrived at the Rajasthani town of Khichan, India. In the hushed tones typical of pre-dawn hours, a man ushered us down a dirt road and up to the top of a solid cement building on the edge of town. It was a low structure but with a view as vast as from any skyscraper, overlooking modest homes, buildings and hills that rolled endlessly into the distance. It was a bleak landscape made more so in the dim lighting, but this dusty, sparsely vegetated scene held promise of Demoiselle Cranes.
The smallest of the crane species, these 3-foot tall birds impressively migrate across the Himalayas from breeding grounds in Kazakhstan. What started in the 1970’s as a few cranes attracted to pigeon feed in the village has grown to an annually organized feeding of over 20,000 birds. A pattern of tan scattered across dark soil behind protective walls indicated that today’s seed offerings had already been spread; we need simply wait.
A man stoked his fire in the neighboring courtyard and an elderly woman swept her steps. A group of children smiled shyly from the street below. They beckoned me to join them. With no birds on the horizon, I accepted. Absorbed in children’s antics, I neglected my crane scan. I startled to hear my name, see my companions above pointing behind me and find a cluster of cranes mere feet away. I rushed back to my rooftop perch and watched the incoming invasion in amazement; a stream of black and white birds flooding down from the hills and pooling at the edge of town. They restlessly milled about outside the walls of the chugga ghar (bird-feeding home), their numbers continuing to grow.
First a couple, then a few, then a steady arch of cranes inked out the sky as they took to the air, cleared the walls, settled into the enclosure and claimed the seeds as their own. They clicked and clacked, jostled and pecked, thousands of birds unified in chaos and seemingly behaving as one. All heads up, then all heads down, the cranes moved around the clearing in amoebic formation.
A stray dog wandered past the enclosure. A man drank his chai on an opposite roof. A rickety camel-drawn cart bounced along an adjacent pathway. My children friends leaned against the enclosure, watching us watch the birds. To the villagers, we were more of a spectacle than this crane gathering. When the last of the seed had been eaten, the elegant birds departed just as they had arrived; a few birds ascending into the air and triggering an exodus. A swarm of cranes filed into the sky, following dusty contours to disappear beyond the hills. The people of Khichan knew they’d return the following morning, and maybe another group of birders too.