The majestic White-naped Crane is an iconic species of the threatened wetlands and grasslands of East Asia. Populations use two different flyways, linking breeding areas to stopover and wintering grounds. The Western population, many of which nest in Mongolia, southern Russia and northern China, migrate to wintering areas around Poyang Lake in Southeast China. This population has declined by up to two-thirds, numbering at most 1,500 birds. The Eastern population, nesting mainly in Russia, migrates to the Demilitarized Zone – DMZ area of Korea and down to Izumi in southern Japan. This population is stable at about 7,500 individuals.
Mongolian biologists have been tracking the migration of White-naped Cranes since 2013, in partnership with the International Crane Foundation. For birds such as White-naped Cranes with long migrations, their future depends on safe foraging and resting places all along the flyway. For this reason, we are studying the movement of this species to better understand the migratory routes and find key staging and wintering sites of this species in the western flyway. Individual birds almost never switch flyways. But there are exceptions! And this story relates to a much-loved individual who has done just that!
Her name is Borzya. She was captured and marked in the Daursky State Nature Reserve in Southeast Russia in August 2015 by Mongolian and Russian crane experts. She is named after the beautiful Borzya River where she was captured. Since then, we have followed the migration of this bird, and she has captivated the imagination of everybody. We are not actually sure Borzya is female, but recent photos show her with her presumed mate and size difference tends to indicate she is a female bird.
Borzya is the only White-naped Crane known to have changed its main wintering sites between western and eastern flyways. Thanks to satellite, or GPS tracking technology, the researchers were able to document the whole process.
The first year, Borzya went to Poyang Lake in China for the winter, along with all the other birds we were tracking. For me to follow the White-naped Cranes to and from Poyang Lake is most nerve-racking. Because they have to fly through some of the most heavily populated and industrialized landscapes on earth, there are so many challenges for the cranes on this journey. I was worried because just one year ago, one of the cranes we were tracking was poisoned along with five other cranes in Shandong province of eastern China. Thanks to the villagers and the State Forestry Bureau officers they were rescued, rehabilitated and later released back into the wild.
Poyang Lake is the most important wintering site for cranes from Mongolia. I visited this place several times following the cranes we are tracking. My first visit to Poyang Lake in January 2014 was the most memorable. I met Mr. Zhu Qi, Director of Poyang Lake National Nature Reserve, and his staff. They took me on a very special tour around the Nature Reserve. We exchanged information about the cranes in Mongolia and their migration all the way to Poyang Lake. Since then we have been in regular communication. Two staff from the Poyang Lake Nature Reserve visited Mongolia in 2015 and banded cranes with us in the Khurkh Valley. Now, every year, I receive emails and WhatsApp messages with photos of color-banded cranes from my colleagues at Poyang Lake.
Then, much to our surprise, Borzya did not return to Poyang Lake for the next winter. Instead, she was tracked to Izumi, in southern Japan, then the principal wintering ground for the eastern flyway population. As soon as the message was sent out to researchers and colleagues, everybody was surprised. Because if Borzya went to Japan, then it is possible she might not be alone. The good thing is there are crane experts in Korea and Japan that can help the team and watch over Borzya when cranes are in these places.
On the way to Japan, Borzya first arrived in Cheorwon, a very famous place for its wintering Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes just south of the DMZ area between the two Koreas. After staying about two weeks, Borzya moved to Paju, an area 60 km west of Cheorwon. I sent a message to my colleague Dr. Lee Kisup and he agreed to check the locations of Borzya.
In South Korea, migrating and wintering cranes, including White-naped Cranes, are regularly monitored by Dr. Lee Kisup. Every year, he counts wintering cranes at key sites in the DMZ, Han River and other places, and shares the information with other crane experts in the region. The work of Dr. Lee and his team is very important for crane conservation in this region. In July 2015, he traveled to Mongolia and participated in crane capture and color banding. He may have hoped that one of the birds he banded in Mongolia could be with Borzya now in South Korea.
After receiving the last coordinates of Borzya, Dr. Lee went to Paju to see Borzya. He reported that the Panmunjeom area in the DMZ in Paju is a kind of hidden place very close to the border with North Korea, and thus traveling is quite restricted and only people with permission can enter there. Another favorite place of Borzya is the Han River Wetland. Borzya is regularly observed with a group of 150 to 300 White-naped Cranes when in Korea.
On December 27, 2016, Borzya finally arrived in Japan after spending time in Korea. This time, I sent a message to my colleague Ms. Yuko Haraguchi, who works for the Izumi City Government and the Izumi Crane Park. The Izumi Crane Park is a very special and important wintering site for cranes in East Asia. Over 17,000 cranes of two species, Hooded and White-naped Cranes winter in Japan. Most of them are the Hooded Cranes.
Yuko is a long-time friend of the International Crane Foundation. Her expert knowledge about the wintering cranes at Izumi Crane Park in southern Japan is always freely available. As soon as she receives the information about Borzya, she alerts people at the Izumi Crane Park of the incoming White-naped Crane with color bands and tracking device. Also, she goes out to check if there are other cranes with color bands along with Borzya. So far, no other color-banded crane from Mongolia has ever shown up. There is a color photograph, taken in Izumi, of a White-naped Crane with a green leg band that was banded in Mongolia back in mid-90s. That is the only pre-Borzya documentation that Izumi in Japan and Khurkh Valley in Mongolia are connected by White-naped Cranes.
On January 10, I received an email from Yuko saying, “I finally met Borzya on Jan 6. Borzya was at the roost in the east-reclaimed land around 3 p.m. Although you sent me the locations, it was difficult to see the ring.” There were several photos attached as well. Among them was the first photograph of Borzya since we captured and marked her. The bird looked healthy and strong.
On February 16, 2017, Borzya left Japan and started her northbound migration arriving at the same area in Paju, where she stopped just a few months ago. Here she stayed until early April and then continued her spring migration. She arrived back at the Borzya River in early May and spent the summer there. The signal was intermittent and it was a bit difficult to monitor her movement during the summer. Every time I receive a signal and location data, I relay them to Dr. Oleg Goroshko, a well-known crane expert in southern Russia. He was with us when we were banding cranes in the Dauria International Protected Area. Oleg works for the Daursky Nature Reserve and is one of the most knowledgeable persons about White-naped Cranes in the world.
Every summer, Borzya goes back to the Boryza River. Oleg and his team always check on her. Because the summering area is located in a shallow valley, the signal from Borzya’s transmitter does not upload on a regular basis. But once in a while when she comes to a nearby village area with enough cellular coverage, all the data that was stored on the transmitter is uploaded to the cellular network system enabling us to confirm her whereabouts. It is fascinating to see the extensive use of this river valley covered by tall grass by this special bird. It was clear that Borzya River is a very important sanctuary for this threatened species in southern Russia.
The journey of Borzya continues. As autumn season approaches every year, we always wonder where Borzya will spend the winter? The pattern of Borzya clearly shows she is quite a traveler. She spent the winter, from October 2017 to March 2018, in South Korea mostly in Cheorwon. For some reason, the bird did not go to Izumi or even spend much time in Paju, perhaps because the conditions in Cheorwon were more favorable with less snow cover. Borzya visited Paju only for three days in March 2018 at the start of her spring migration.
In the winter of 2018-2019, Borzya again visited Izumi for winter. Although a small outbreak of avian influenza in Izumi worried us all, Borzya survived the winter without incident. Then, in the last winter of 2019-2020, Borzya and her flock showed some interesting behavior.
On October 26, 2019, Borzya arrived in Paju and moved between Paju and Goyang in the Han Estuary Protected Area until the middle of January. She did not visit Cheorwon. Later, I received beautiful video footage from Dr. Han Donguk, or Danny, that shows Borzya with her family, including a young bird! It was a moment everybody celebrated. Seeing Borzya healthy and with her own family brought big smiles to everyone who has been following this special bird since 2015.
We thought she is not going to Izumi this time. But on January 9, 2020, with the assistance of a strong tailwind, she started flying toward Japan, almost two weeks later than her previous trip. Just before starting the cross-strait flight off the shore of Busan, South Korea, all of sudden she changed route and returned back and landed in a small section of the Nakdong River. It took a seven-and-a-half-hour non-stop flight between the Han River Wetland to the Nakdong River. I have no idea what caused her to stop the direct flight to Izumi. Perhaps, there was a very strong wind from the south making it very difficult for the cranes to cross the channel, or perhaps the cranes felt it was too warm in the south.
The next day, Borzya’s track showed that she flew to the west arriving in Keumho Lake in Haenam county in the southwestern corner of the Korean Peninsula. According to Dr. Lee Kisup, this is perhaps the first time White-naped Cranes have visited this place. Usually, this place is packed with geese and ducks, but not many cranes. Here Borzya and her family spent exactly one month, then moved to the north. I just checked their location this morning, they are now in the Janghang wetland in Goyang of Han estuary.
Animation of Borzya’s migrations beginning in fall 2015.
The journey of Borzya has been a fascinating travelogue. By following her migration along the flyway, we learned so much about her and the White-naped Cranes. Borzya connects all those key breeding, stopover and wintering sites and the people living within and around them. We need to secure the well-being and the connectivity of these special sites used by this beautiful but also threatened species.
Borzya exemplifies cooperation among crane researchers in Mongolia, Russia, China, Korea and Japan, and their dedication to crane conservation throughout the flyway. We hope to spread Borzya’s story more widely so more people can appreciate the wonder of her migration and that of her fellow cranes and the bonds that she inspires among crane conservationists and others following her story.
Story submitted by Dr. Nyambayar Batbayar, International Crane Foundation Research Associate. Click here to learn more about our work in East Asia.