It was in Kagbeni in 1980. High above in the deep blue Himalayan sky was a flock of graceful Demoiselle Cranes, flying north riding up-valley winds on their annual migration across the Himalaya. It was my lucky day.
The Kali Gandaki at this point is the deepest gorge in the world, located between two eight thousander peaks, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna I. It provides a passage for migratory birds from the Tibetan Plateau and Siberia to the Subcontinent and back.
Kagbeni is a vantage point to spot migratory birds, and I had visited it multiple times to provide expertise for filming by NHK and BBC. Till then, I had never seen the cranes, only watched them on Planet Earth Mountains on Discovery Channel.
Demoiselle Cranes are the third most common crane species after the Sandhill Crane in North America and Eurasian Crane in Europe and Asia. They number over 200,000, and demonstrate spectacular migratory flights.
They breed in the vast expanses of the steppe grasslands of Mongolia and Russia, and fly south across the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya to winter in western India.
Unlike other cranes that dwell on wetlands, these cranes prefer relatively dry habitats for survival. Their nests can be found on dry ground around 500m apart from each other.
Prior to migration, the birds flock with their fledglings. Birds from Mongolia and Russia overflying Nepal and Pakistan covering nearly 3,000km one way, and finally converge in western India, where they live in large flocks in their wintering grounds.
They can fly over extreme habitats of the world including the scorching Gobi Desert, the high and dry Tibetan Plateau, the Himalaya with its jet stream, the lush Gangetic Plains and the farms of Western India.
Satellite telemetry studies have recorded a cyclic migration pattern of Demoiselle Cranes, flying over Nepal during autumn and returning via Mongolia in spring. During their autumn migration, birders can see magnificent flocks of Demoiselle over Nepal’s high mountain passes, gorges and along the Tarai. Farmers in Nepal often witness flocks flying in V formation like a swaying garland pattern in the sky, and call it ‘karyang kurung’ for the sound the make.
In 1972, a flock of Demoiselle even alighted on Tundikhel at the centre of Kathmandu. More recently, I have observed them flying over my office in Baluwatar in 2015, and from my house in Chetrapati in 2016.
But for these migrating cranes, Kagbeni remains the flight path of choice since the Kali Gandaki serves as a funnel that cuts through the Himalaya. My highest count of the Demoiselle has ranged from 50,000 in 2004 to only 5,000 in 2009.