Behind the scenes at a remarkable 30 year survival experiment in the Far East of Russia.
This is a key moment for the one year old chicks. Picture: Khingansky Nature Reserve
Five young cranes – Gar, Tulungin, Neya, Harga and Aldekson – are pictured here being released in the wild close to Lake Kleshinskoye.
This is a key moment for the one year old chicks, hatched and bred in captivity in a scheme to save two types of this majestic bird – the red-crowned or Japanese crane and white-naped crane.
They need to get familiar with the wild, and find appropriate company to fly south for wintering.
The next summer they will return, find couples and have their own chicks.
Khingansky Nature Reserve in Amur region has been running this programme for three decades .
Eggs are delivered here from zoos all over Russia and in the past from the US and France, too, before concerns over bird flu.
They are hatched from incubators.
Eggs are delivered here from zoos all over Russia and in the past from the US and France. Pictures: Khingansky Nature Reserve
Hundreds of birds have been successfully released into the wild in that time yet due to changing habitats the species remains at risk.
Nikolai Balan, called a zoo engineer at the reserve’s reintroduction station said: ‘We had successfully worked with Americans for 17 years.
‘It was done to strengthen blood of local cranes …. this way birds become stronger.
‘We managed to do that, the population at the reserve became bigger and there are now less family ties.
‘However, we are not working with America and France nowadays, due to the outbreak of bird flu.
‘I wouldn’t be able to provide you with the exact number that local crane population has grown by.
‘But when I arrived here it was very rare to see this bird in the wild, whereas now such encounters occur much more often.’
Red-crowned cranes are named after rivers in Amur region, white-naped (Daur) cranes after the heroes of Greek myths. Newborns are put in a brooder, a nursery for chicks, and 10 days later – tagged with a ring – they go outdoors.
During the first year, the little cranes are carefully observed by researchers, although the conditions they are kept at are as close to the wild as possible so that chicks don’t get used to having humans around.
They are weighed, and taken to the lake. Pictures: Khingansky Nature Reserve
Yet it’s certainly true that the people caring for them get enormously attached to ‘their’ birds.
Nadezhda Kuznetsova, senior zoo engineer, admitted: ‘At first we were upset when we were releasing them, sad and even crying.
‘But then, after giving it some thought, we realised this was a happy event for them.
‘They are free. So we started to be happy for them.’
The crane chicks spend their first spring at facilities around the reserve’s office building.
In summer they are released to Lake Kleshinskoye where their older peers live.
That’s where chicks learn to hunt for frogs, fish and clams, pick up roots of plants, fly and communicate.
At this time they are under 24-hour surveillance.
For winter, the young chicks are returned to spacious aviaries in the reserve.
The next spring they are finally released to the wild.
On the big day, the birds are wrapped in special transportation wraps designed and sewed by employees of the reserve. They are weighed, and taken to the lake where the most emotional moment occurs: birds are unwrapped, they stand up and unfold their wings.
Even very young birds are gracious and elegant.
All the cranes arrive without injuries and 30 minutes after they are released, they already walk around looking for food in the grass.
All the cranes arrive without injuries and 30 minutes after they are released, they already walk around looking for food in the grass. Pictures: Khingansky Nature Reserve
They already know the territory and observers, but in about one week they will shun the people who looked after them for a year.
Nadezhda Kuznetsova said: ‘We observe them carefully for about a week to make sure the chicks are adapt to the environment and can care for themselves.
‘Then observation will be loosened but won’t disappear – we need to know that our cranes successfully left for wintering.
‘We will take those who remain here. This normally happens if a bird gets injured.
‘Now there are about 19 red-crowned and white-naped cranes living at the premises.
‘These are birds who got injured and couldn’t adapt to the wild, as well as parent couples nesting.’
Those who leave will be met by ornithologists in Japan, Korea and China.
They notify Khingansky Nature Reserve of the numbers of birds that arrived.
Normally, ornithologists spot about 17% white-naped and 24% red crowned cranes from Amur region.
Khingansky Nature Reserve waits for the cranes to return in spring.
Last year ‘graduates’ Stilba and Ergel have already arrived to Lake Kleshinskoye, and live with with several couples of wild Japanese cranes.